By Leslie Lindsay
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS
A deep, ravishing, quiet tale of a family upended by grief, a timely and topical exploration of what it means to be a family, and yet divided.
Years ago, I read and loved Meredith Hall’s sweeping memoir, WITHOUT A MAP, and knew I had to get my hands on her first fiction, which is every bit as luminous and perceptive.
When they met in the 1930s, Doris and Tup’s love was deep and visceral and immediate. Doris leaves behind her mercantile-minded family, where a life running her father’s shop was in the works, for Tup’s family farm, where his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents worked the land and are buried underneath the pines on farm cemetery. Their lives follow the calming–predictable–cycles of the seasons, the land. Cows are milked, calves are birthed, hay is rolled. There’s the garden and the canning, the laundry, the children–all three of them. Each day, they are grateful.
But then the unthinkable happens. Faith is shattered. Grief permeates the walls, the land. The tidy farm starts to crumble; Doris is no longer able to hold it together. Tup struggles, too. Here, the family is eclipsed by grief and guilt and more.
Under Hall’s expert hand, we are guided through these seasons, these cycles of love and grief, and farm work. We traverse decades and raw, unimaginable pain. Still, she writes with a full heart, with great, palpable compassion casting a light on the darker, but authentic sides of life.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Meredith Hall to the author interview series.
Meredith! Welcome. It is so good to chat with you. Years ago, I loved WITHOUT A MAP and then I ached for you to write something else. And you did. I am so thrilled. I always like to start with inspiration. So why this story, why now?
After I wrote WITHOUT A MAP, I travelled around the country for a long time giving readings, speeches, workshops. My life became very public! When I was ready to start my next book, I decided that I would switch to fiction to allow myself a little cover. But finding the story was a long process. I roamed around my mind, and through old snippets of writings. I tried to enter many different stories over several years, and knew each time that I wasn’t discovering an idea that I could stay interested in for an entire book. That search took a very long time. Then one day, in a casual conversation with a friend, he said something that really caught my imagination. I instantly knew that I had my idea: how do we contend with great loss? I believe that we are pretty heroic in our ability to absorb grief and find our way to the other side of it. And while I believe that process is costly to us, leaving us deeply changed, I believe that we are able to make something positive and larger of those changes—the beneficence which is at the heart of this story.
And why now? I certainly would not plan on having my debut novel come out during an historic pandemic! But I think we are all feeling a deep sense of loss. BENEFICIENCE seems to bring reassurance and calm to readers, a sense of the light and goodness we will return to.
A family’s only hope to heal their broken lives is the belief that love is stronger than grief.
BENEFICENCE reads like it could be a memoir, it is written from multiple POVs, in first person, which could potentially be confusing to a reader who perhaps read WITHOUT A MAP. There were times I had to pause and remind myself, “No, this is fiction; it is not a memoir.” Also, I think there are some similarities between WITHOUT A MAP and BENEFICIENCE…of course there are. No one writer can’t not have an overlap in theme and overall voice. Can you talk about that, please?
I love that you had to remind yourself this is not memoir! That means these people are very real to you. I recently had a reader say to me that he wanted to ask questions of the Senters and had to remind himself they aren’t real. An author’s dream!
Writing in first person creates an intimacy between the characters and the reader, a sense that we are listening to the story being told directly to us. For each strategy a writer uses, however, there is a cost. In this case, we give up the larger understanding an omniscient narrator can bring. But I felt moving between three voices accommodated that potential problem. By speaking their own perspectives and understandings, by telling us stories we don’t hear from the other characters, we slowly build a full sense of this family, their home, the farm that defines and grounds them, their individual experience surrounding this terrible loss and their struggle back to love and grace.
I was not aware in any way of similarities between my memoir—my life—and this story. I made up the characters and the place and the events from pure imagination, a very joyful and rich experience for me after writing nonfiction. I am certain that our subconscious mind is always involved in making any sort of art, and that subconscious interweaves our work. But I never saw my own life in the lives of these people. Of course, I have known loss, as all of us have, and my understanding of loss is expressed fully on these pages.
[Quick note from Leslie: These stories differ on many levels: memoir vs fiction, structural differences, plot, character, etc. but the overall atmosphere strikes a chord. Also, both books–at times–share a similar setting: a farmhouse, and the under arching theme of grief, loss, fear, and seeking, at least from this reader’s perspective].
I am currently at work on a collection of linked (fictionalized) family stories. They aren’t exactly memoir because they didn’t happen to or with me—but they shaped me. This is what I think of when I inhabit the world of BENEFICIENCE. These stories formed in your characters just as they did the land of the dairy farm. Do you feel as though home and land are inexplicably linked? Or, maybe not?
Yes, for each member of the Senter family, home and the land they work on every day shape them and their sense of themselves in the world. Doris, the wife and mother, tells us in the first pages, as she looks out over the familiar land, that she and Tup know they are blessed people. She knows that they receive and love the beauty of the land, Maine’s fields and woods, the creek running through their pastures to the sea, the orchard, the great elms at the front of the house. All three people notice and are moved by the light, and shadow, that is part of their days as they work and rest together. And all three people speak of the sounds, the cows greeting Tup in the morning, owls calling back and forth across the land in the night, the wind sweeping through their summer fields of hay. Home is a rich and generous place. It requires their constant work and attention, and brings to each of them, in turn, a powerful sense of belonging and security. The Senters know a deep and trusting love for each other, and a deep and grateful love for home and the land.
“Hauntingly beautiful, emotionally devastating, and infused with great compassion.”
My daughter and I recently explored an old, abandoned farmhouse. As I read BENEFICIENCE, I ‘saw’ that home, the large barn in my mind’s eye. And we visited a pumpkin patch this past fall, too. On it, an old graveyard. My mind cobbled these pieces together and spun the world of the Senters. Does this family farm exist? Is it purely fiction? And isn’t it sad to see these farms being obliterated?
This place is entirely imagined. But how I wish I could have lived there! I carry a strange sort of nostalgia for a life I have never lived, this life close to the land, the house that has protected generations of Senters. I didn’t go into this story with an idea to write a life I longed for, but it slowly shaped itself into a world that feels oddly familiar and beautiful. I grew up with sheep, and raised sheep and hens and big organic gardens while my children were growing up. That homesteading life was, I think, my expression of that old longing. But the Senter farm is entirely a fiction, drawn from imagination.
Any drive on our back roads takes you by barns that are collapsing, fields that have grown to young woods, and farm houses that have been lost to decay or have been renovated into suburban showplaces, beyond any recognition of their early, humble origins. But rural Maine is seeing a very welcome, small increase in the number of family farms, many of these young farmers finding niche markets with organic stores and farm to table restaurants. This reverses decades of decline, with farms abandoned and the displaced people moving into towns and cities to find work. I am hopeful because so many young families are making the decision to make a life on the land in Maine’s small towns.
Do you think about your characters after the last page, after THE END? Do they have lives beyond?
Oh, this is a great question. Yes! Emphatically, yes.
I felt a great sadness when I completed this book. I love Doris and Tup and Sonny and Dodie and Beston. I felt, as I wrote, their full range of experience and emotion, and I did not want to leave them. It seems I haven’t! They are, yes, fully alive for me.
I am circling the stories that Beston, and maybe Grace, have not yet shared with us. So maybe my next book will explore and share their stories.
Meredith, this has been fabulous. I’ve so enjoyed. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Or, perhaps a question you’d like to ask me?
I do have a question for you, about the linked stories you are currently working on. You said, “They aren’t exactly memoir because they didn’t happen to or with me—but they shaped me.” It sounds as if you are experimenting in the boundary area between fiction and memoir. This is intriguing territory. Is that freeing for you as a writer?
It’s always a little challenging for me to talk about new projects, before I’ve really pinned them down myself, but yes–I think you are exactly right when you say maybe I am experimenting with the luminal space between memoir and fiction. It’s also very lyrical, so prose poetry, maybe? And circling back to what we touched on earlier, that some of these stories are interwoven into our subconscious–I see them as being fused within our DNA. I think that maybe, quite possibly, these stories are part of the mDNA that is shared from mother to daughter to daughter and so forth. And because of that, I believe these stories are sort of ‘trapped’ within, begging to be liberated. But perhaps they weren’t quite ready, because the world wasn’t ready. Maybe that ancestor couldn’t possibly speak of her worries, infidelity, scandal, whatever. And now, that’s my job.
This has been a pleasure, Leslie. Thank you so much for the invitation to share my thoughts with your readers, for your great questions, and for your interest in Beneficence.
Artistic image of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading
FOR MORE INFORMATION, TO CONNECT WITH MEREDITH HALL VIA SOCIAL MEDIA, OR TO PURCHASE A COPY OF BENEFICICENCE, PLEASE VISIT:
I was reminded, in part, of the work of Kent Haruf, but also William Kent Krueger (ORDINARY GRACE) meets the classical writing of Willa Cather and a touch of Ursula Hegi (THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
MEREDITH HALL is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Without a Map, which was named Best Book of the Year by Kirkus and BookSense, and was Elle’s “Readers’ Pick of the Year.” The recipient of the 2004 Gift of Freedom Award from A Room of Her Own Foundation, Ms. Hall’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and many other publications. She divides her time between Maine and California.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine and The Family Narrative Project; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this fall. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Lissa Warren PR and used with permission. Artistic image of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading]