SCRIBE by Alyson Hagy
- IndieNext #1 Pick for November
- Belletrist Book of the Month for October
- Finalist for the Southern Book Prize
Alyson Hagy is a contemporary master novelist. I’m not talking about her adept and fierce attention to words or the long excellence which has won her many awards—a Pushcart Prize, the Nelson Algren Prize, the High Plains Book Award, the Devil’s Kitchen Award, the Syndicated Fiction Award, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories. I’m talking about her intuition, something akin to a sense of national intuition. Through her own unique, hardy, and irrepressible lens, reading her work fosters uncommon clarity. Because of this, and because she’s written such a damn fine novel I’m begging you to read Scribe, her most recent transcendent work of art, right now.
Most of the writing life is solitary, but in a recent conversation with her she mentioned how graceful it is to encounter meditative time in the presence of others. Namely, she and her husband value time spent in open spaces, along rivers, under open skies, near mountains. She loves dogs, labs especially, and horses. Big animals bring her great peace. She speaks of witnessing the alertness and happiness in her husband, the line of his body as he encounters wilderness, the connection they share with water and light, what she called “a way of swimming with the world.”
We also spoke of the big divisions in the present American landscape along lines of race, culture, gender, and class. I was struck by how much work of mending and repair Scribe accomplishes. She subverts codified conceptions of the feminine and the masculine, and succeeds in showing “acts of healing” that affirm and transcend our rootedness in the often calcified cultures from which we rise. Foundational to the subtle work of this novel is a hard-won gracefulness, an unforeseen and robust love central to our individual and collective understanding of maturity, vulnerability, beauty, and the appropriate use of power. Alyson bridges the too-binary gendered environments of America with something deliciously revolutionary, revealing a refreshing sense of oneness that exists below all, like a hidden sustenance that keeps us alive. She understands violence. She understands remorse. Each page leads us inevitably deeper into of the mystery of ourselves and the beloved other.
Let me get a little more overjoyed here! Am I too effusive? Maybe. Does her novel ring gravely true? Yes. Scribe is among the great novels that burn themselves into the sky of the inner life like an unforeseen constellation, a stellar masterpiece that places it’s fire in you by generating in our shared humanity greater humility, greater desire to ask forgiveness and make atonement, greater discernment over the ills of Empire, greater mercy, and finally the kind of multivalent and transcendent wisdom that performs its miraculous healing before we are even aware of its presence among us. Hagy’s is a rare gift, and with Scribe she’s written a novel that is not only a miracle in prose but a miracle of courage for the human heart. Her talent blesses the nation. Her quietly attuned and big-hearted art is capable of changing us forever.
Readers if you want a novel that will leave you speechless with gratitude, challenge the fearsome landscape of the soul, and call you toward uncommon dignity, Scribe is the novel for you. Haunting. Containing inviolable truths. Harmonious in its seamless understanding of grace in the midst of cold fate. Ultimate in its profound sense of mercy.
On your way to your favorite independent bookstore, let’s pause for a moment to hear Alyson’s thoughts on some of the inner workings of art, novels, and wilderness.
SR: Who has most inspired your writing life?
AH: Flannery O’Connor gave me permission for voice. William Faulkner, George Eliot, Willa Cather, and Virginia Woolf unhinged my imagination. Joy Williams and Michael Ondaatje generate constant awe. George Garrett set the high bar as teacher, mentor, and working writer. I try to keep his generosity front of mind every day.
SR: You’ve led universities [Alyson was Associate Vice President at the University of Wyoming], you grew up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and since moving to Wyoming you’ve lived in a different wild place for more than 20 years now, a state that is landscaped with barren country as well as stunning mountain ranges. You’ve written novels and story collections recognized as partly or mostly wild… I wouldn’t doubt if you’ve wrestled steers or branded cattle! Is it true? Are you a secret steer wrestler, and if not, what’s one of your most cherished elements of living in wild landscapes?
AH: I like steers. I like all large animals very much, and I find a deep calm in their presence. But there is no wrestling! Wild places do me the favor of reminding me how small, how insignificant and ephemeral, I am. I cannot control or change the stormy weather. I cannot alter the erosions of wind or water. But I can walk across a valley or ramble next to a river and listen and learn. When I remember I am one tiny fleck in the weave of an ecosystem, the stories begin to come to me.
SR: Scribe gets under the skin. The novel is gorgeous, compressed, volatile, and ultimately so merciful the reader is transported into a sort of inviolable reality that I would call love. I don’t know that I’ve read a novel so compellingly integrated with both the shadow and light of the American historical and present fracture, our incendiary capacity, and our capacity for peace. What informs your work on the inner lives of characters, and how does the hope of forgiveness (and atonement) play into your own life and the heart of this novel?
AH: You bring a mercy to me with your response to the book, Shann. Thank you for your open-hearted reading. Like many writers, I didn’t know what I was up to, what I was truly seeking with Scribe, until I was finished with it. I knew the main character needed forgiveness, but I didn’t know for what. As I worked my way forward, atonement began to blend with the act of writing—for the main character and, probably, for me. I was trying to find a way to lead her back toward her capacity for love. She has committed a great act of betrayal and determined, in the wake of that act, just what her suffering should be. She has cut herself off from so much. I come from a family of healers, a group of people who ease pain and do good acts every day of their lives. Scribe may be my attempt to suggest to readers, to all of us, that healing is something even those of us who are scarred and ill-prepared can still participate in.
SR: What are two of your simple pleasures? For me it’s a great meal overlooking water with a friend, holding my daughters’ hands, and listening to my wife sing. (Okay, two or three simple pleasures).
AH: Watching my young dog run free on the prairie. She radiates joy with every stride. And the shape of my husband’s body when he’s fishing, the alert way he holds himself between the light and the water.
SR: What specific Wyoming landscape, town, or place speaks to you the most?
AH: The Sunlight Basin west of Cody, WY is a powerful vortex for me. I’m drawn into it again and again, its huge beauties and layered histories. The strange granite hills of Vedauwoo have been holy to humans for a very long time. I love their shadows and crannies. They make me want to pray.
SR: The main character in Scribe goes unnamed. She is an elemental force. She contains subtlety, simplicity, remorse, and grandeur. Where did she come from? She has intellectual, physical, emotional, sexual, and moral power. Tell us about her name, or her nameless quality, and what inspired you to create a character so unforgettable.
AH: She came to me in a flash, nameless. And every time I tried to give her a name, I failed. The names wouldn’t and didn’t fit. I could see her inside this ruin of a house surrounded by paper and pens, aged before her time, writing a letter of some kind. That’s all I knew. I also knew she was somehow a figure beyond the boundaries of history, that she was a participant in a tale of some kind. She had a power—I just didn’t quite know what it was at first. And she was hungry, in great need of some kind of sustenance. It wasn’t very long—a few thinking moments—before I understood she was surrounded by a strange pack of dogs and that a stranger had arrived on her property, at her house, to ask her for something of great value. From there, I just tried to let my sense of wonder roll. I tried to imagine how such a haunted life might take shape, a life cut asunder by betrayal yet still useful, still capable of compassion and maybe even grace. I’ll admit that, at times, it was fun to write about such a tough nut.
SR: Your novels and stories are critically acclaimed and have achieved what a very loyal base of readers. Early, you had novels with the likes of Simon and Schuster, but it’s been at least a couple of decades now that you’ve been with Graywolf. When you started with them, Graywolf was largely unknown, and through the years they’ve risen to be perhaps the most renowned independent publisher in the world. Tell us of your experience at Graywolf and with Fiona McCrae and Katie Dublinski, your editors there.
AH: I am so fortunate. A lucky, lucky writer. I met Fiona in Ann Arbor when she was relatively new to Graywolf. She was looking for story collections, among other things, and I almost had one ready. Katie worked with me on Graveyard of the Atlantic, helped me improve it immensely, then acquired it. We have been together ever since—for five books. I have watched with incredible admiration as Graywolf has grown and evolved into the highest quality literary press around. The staff, like its leaders, is gifted and wise and all too humble. Katie and Fiona are brilliantly astute readers. And each and every book on the Graywolf list gets the full boost from Fiona and the sales/marketing team. Each book is developed and cherished and allowed to be its own self. Scribe is a novel that would have flummoxed a commercial publisher. It didn’t flummox Graywolf. They know bookstores and readers still crave distinctive work, writing that surprises. I’m honored to be connected to a publisher that brings so many innovative voices into print. Claudia Rankine. Daisy Johnson. Maggie Nelson. Jamel Brinkley. Carmen Maria Machado. Danez Smith. Dorthe Nors. I could go on and on. Graywolf’s success has also spread to other non-profit publishers. That’s good news for all writers.
SR: Being from Virginia and Wyoming, place is vital in your work, how does place and context inside place, inform your characters in Scribe? What I’m getting at is how the people in Scribe walk the ground of a previous apocalypse, similar to how on the Northern Cheyenne reservation (where I spent part of my childhood) Cheyenne people walk the ground of American genocide. Outside Prague, in Lidice, my own Czech and German relatives walk the ground of the German genocide of the Czechs. The American context is rife in Scribe, filled with former bloodletting and present catastrophe. Tell us your thoughts on how this context informs you as a person and a writer.
AH: Setting definitely informs Scribe. The novel is set on the farm where I grew up, a place that’s literally layered with the leftovers of human settlement, a whole lot of striving and a whole lot of sin. You lay it out much more eloquently than I, but it’s true: the blood of past catastrophe is on that ground. Genocide of the natives. African slavery. The migrations of the Carolina Road. The economic privations of the Civil War and the Depression. I grew up hearing stories that celebrated some traditions and wholly erased others. And in this new century I’m trying to pry the scales from my eyes. We do terrible things to one another when we are motivated by fear. I really don’t want my nation, my community, to lift that sword again. I try to convey my worry about that in the novel.
SR: In closing, thank you Alyson. I love your work so much. Before you go back to steer wrestling, tell us how you go back to the page. What helps draw you into the process of forming a new book? What strikes the soul and makes fire?
AH: Ah, Shann. That is the hard question, isn’t it? Scribe came to me as a spark, a struck match, that I didn’t expect. And it burned hard and bright in the months I struggled to weld language to scene. It was not a book that was going to wait for me. It was also a story that was going to resist most of my attempts to tame it. So what do you do when the flame flickers out? Reading is the source and the salve, I guess. I read until the language begins to come to me again—and I allow myself to read for sheer pleasure, to read widely, to settle in with the esoteric and the trashy. I also write short stories. They seem to always be with me (thank goodness), those kernels of character and consequence. Maybe one of those will become unruly and demand more time and attention. I can’t be sure. You know what this is like with your own powerfully musical work—how we need to stay ready via our good habits like reading and walking outside and visiting museums, yet how we must also wrestle with our patience and wait. Be ready, and wait. That’s my mantra right now.
Shann Ray is the author of American Copper, American Masculine, and Balefire. He lives in Montana.