Gina Ochsner, author of The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight and recipient of the Oregon Book Award, interviewed Portland author Robert Hill (whose first novel, When All Is Said and Done, was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction) about his second novel, The Remnants, published by Forest Avenue Press.
GO: How would you describe your aesthetic and/or artistic sensibility? Language seems to occupy a primary position in the telling of your story. Abundant playfulness in the syntax and diction of the your prose keep the narrative dancing along. When I read your work, it’s like listening to music and I have to remind myself that this is, in fact, fiction not an epic poem, not a symphony… Kevin Brockmeier writes of your work that your sentences “not only sing and dance,” but are “full of whisks and sways and sprightly little sidesteps of language… like pinwheels… like fireworks.” Could you comment upon your lyricism in this work?
RH: I love a good story told out loud. I grew up hearing my mother’s stories about her childhood, stories about her family and their eccentric doings, stories about her travels, about her early career years. She was a great raconteur with a lively, expressive voice, very witty, loved puns and good diction, and had just enough Brooklyn inflection to give every word she enunciated its own special texture. That set the bar for me, consciously or unconsciously, to such an extent that I have to have texture in what I read and write for it to command my attention. Having learned from spoken storytelling, I began to write out loud, reading and re-reading what I’m writing as I’m writing it, and listening for a certain indefinable something in the rhythms – the highs, the lows, the landings, places where certain words rub up against others to create a frisson of language and emotion. I want sentences that fill my mouth and contort it to the extremes of language. English is a very flexible and muscular tongue, and you can bend it to suit your will and still be within the laws of gravity and grammar. I whittle away at it from all angles the way a woodworker carves a log into a forest scene. It makes writing fun for me.
For The Remnants, my language set the tone. I write in a kind of heightened style already, a little formal, (lots of to whoms and from whences); some would say its overly wordy, while others bemoan my abundant use of commas and semicolons, and all I can say is: I do love my run-on sentences, they are so like life. I started with a single character, the centenarian True Bliss, and built her story word upon word, sentence upon sentence. My sentences, both in the writing for me and I guess in the reading for the reader, float on air until they come to a rest. I did not know where I was going with her, so as I built word upon word, I came to understand that she lived in a crumbling world (she herself is in full-on dementia), and that the sense of endings became the over-arching theme that I then pursued word by word, sentence by sentence, to their resting places. This opened up discovering that the other characters in her world were also coming to their ends, and from there, I realized how all those endings were connected not only to each other, but to all who came before them.
True’s world is old fashioned, apart from the real world in a fairy tale kind of way, stuck in time, at the end of its time, in what I call a permanent twilight. My formal, lyrical language suited it. In fact, this world brought out more of that language in me, the deeper and more complex the personal stories became, and the more the entire novel became about endings, the more exalting and eulogistic the writing became. Like one long obituary to a special world gone by, but an obituary with humor and oddity and sex thrown in to keep things grounded.
GO: A book or author that inspired you to try this structure or this kind of lyricism?
RH: I love a sentence that floats on air long before you even know what it’s about. You get carried along on its current like you’re the kite and the sentence is the string, and you trust that it will take you someplace wonderful, someplace unexpected. Proust did this, making the reader wait and wait and wait for the very end of the sentence where the gist of the sentence lies, or so it seems. German is that way. A million-syllable word followed by an endless string of nouns and adjectives and then, finally, the verb. Clunk. But I did not, and do not, consciously emulate any other writers. If I did, I’d write in a much more commercially appealing style so that I could actually make money!
Writers I admire for their style and emotional territory: John Cheever, because he was a poet who wrote about the suburbia I grew up in in language suitable for framing; Nelson Algren, because he writes with a velvet sledgehammer about losers who don’t know they’re losers; Willa Cather, who could be writing today about land and people and the effects of change on both and her novels would seem as fresh. A few others: Wallace Stegner (Angle of Repose), James Salter (Light Years), Alice McDermott (Charming Billy), plenty of others, really. I recently read Stoner by John Williams, which is like an epic eulogy to an honorable man, and I fell in love with Williams and his protagonist. If I think about this list long enough, it will go longer than any sentence I’ve ever written, and so far, my record sentence is four pages long.
GO: Set in the location of New Eden, your novel immediately suggests large mythic themes and tropes. Could you describe some of these themes and how they weave in and through the lives of your characters?
RH: As I say, I did not have a full idea of what the story was when I began the novel, but very quickly I stumbled upon the fact that this was a world coming to its end for biological reasons. Inbreeding for generations left the last generation sterile. As I thought about inbreeding, which happens either because of too much desire to “keep to one’s own” or too few options outside of one’s own, I thought about the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, and found myself back at the original conundrum, which is: Where did Cain’s wife come from? Hello! There was no one else around!
The genetic consequences of inbreeding can be physical and emotional, so there’s many a twisted spine and enlarged or diminished body parts, depression, you name it, in the characters. But these consequences were worth it. The people in this town want and wanted what everyone wants: love, connection, and understanding. In some extreme cases, they even resorted to what might be considered the unthinkable to get it.
I already had apples as a main prop, I was building in a spiritual awareness to the characters only because it seemed right, and one day while pursuing a sentence and just going along with it, it came to land someplace totally unplanned for. It ended on the name of the town (which I had yet to name): New Eden. Having the world begin (biblically) in Eden, it was perfect to me that it should “end” in New Eden. Maybe it was bubbling under the surface of my consciousness, a kind of biblical undercurrent, but I say it was accidental symmetry.
In terms of any other grand themes, I suppose you could say that every characters has a classic “hero’s quest” to their life and their longings, but where their great hope in life is to not be alone when they hear the terrifying screech in the night. Every one of the characters, and every one of their stories, is guided by this longing for connection.
GO: I’m curious about the multi-stranded narration of the novel and how story is carried on the backs of several characters, each of who have their unique point of view and voice. Could you talk a little about the structure of the book and why or how it is that the characters share the load, so to speak, in telling the story? I suppose a corollary question might be why this particular structure seemed the best? I imagine one character can’t know everything and do all the storytelling work by him or herself. Were there other reasons that presented themselves to you?
RH: As the novel is a series of endings, it is in its entirety a collective ending to a world. And like many a local story in a small town, over the years facts get added or omitted, and stories take on new shapes and even points of view, or join with other stories and evolve into something completely different than where they began. So I wanted to bleed my stories from one character to another. There was a point at which I started to think of characters not in terms of singular pronouns, him or her, but plurals, they, because the stories would beget moments in other people’s stories or overlap other stories and no longer belong to just one person or the other but both, or often, three or four or more. For instance: True Bliss mourns a thwarted love. Her intended, Mawz Engersol, lashes out at someone else for causing the thwarting. His best friend, Luddy Upland, covers up the act and carries the secret through his life. Carrying that secret casts an unshakeable pall over the rest of Luddy’s life. There’s a direct line from True’s thwarted romance to Luddy’s sadness. Their stories are forever linked, and in a way, forever one story.
GO: Did you encounter any challenges because of the structural choices you made (i.e. the use of multiple pov) the weaving strands of plot?
RH: In terms of plot, there isn’t a lot. Kennesaw Belvedere is to have his annual birthday tea with True Bliss, and Hunko Minton is determined to bring a stop to the event once and for all. On his long walk to True’s, Kennesaw reflects on his life (he’s turning 99), and that reflection begets not only his life story but the collective story of the town and its last generation of inhabitants, as well as a few stories from the beginning of time itself. That slender bit of plot is all the scaffolding there is. That meant that the weight of the novel had to be in the backstories, the meanwhiles, and all the other recollections. So it’s the collective stories that keep the roof up.
GO: I found your characters so unique and well, peculiar (in the best sense of the word). They surprised me in what they said and did, and yet nothing seemed inconsistent. Did you find anything about your characters surprising or have moments of discovery (either in content or structure) while writing the book?
RH: I was surprised by every single one of them. This all started as a kind of exalted fairy tale, and turned dark and complicated very quickly, funny and dark and complicated. Where I was most surprised, however, were moments of utter beauty in tragedy, and those moments elevate the characters they’re attached to to mythic heights. I’m thinking of one minor character in particular who starts out as a genetic cautionary tale – a joke, really – and ends up with a Viking’s send-off. I wasn’t aiming for that, but that’s where her arc wanted to go, and I was so surprised and delighted that it took me there.
GO: What inspired you to write this book?
RH: This answer always gets met with wide eyes and arched brows. I was standing on the deck of a house I used to own, looking down the hill at a small apple orchard on the property, when I heard a voice, literally a disembodied voice, say: “Don’t be afraid to buy the big bunny!” I knew immediately that the voice belonged to a very old, and probably senile woman, and soon came to realize that my apple orchard was her crumbling world. Early on, I knew her name was True Bliss, and very soon I knew that the name was ironic because her parents did not get along, and it was the eventual absence of her father before her birth that made her mother feel so much better to the point where she expressed her happiness with her new husbandlessness by dubbing her daughter with it.
GO: What are you reading right now?
RH: Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, and as soon as I can get my hands on an ARC copy, Gina Ochsner’s The Hidden Letters of Velta B. (Hint, hint…)
Books by these authors are available at your local independent bookstore.