By Leslie Lindsay
Gorgeously and sparsely told tale of one woman’s life from her hardscrabble days on an Indiana farm and everything in-between.
~Writers Interiewing Writers|Always with a Book~
March Spotlight: Historical Fiction
O Magazine’s Most Anticipated Historical Fiction Novels of 2021
This stunning and luminously told story is so affecting, and transformative, too. Set against the harsh, quintessential Midwestern landscape, ZORRIE (Bloomsbury, Feb 9, 2021) is at once a historical fiction of a one woman’s life, but also a study in Americana, grit, and the transformative events of the 20th century.
Zorrie is an orphaned child who goes to live with her aunt on a farm in Indiana. She’s twenty-one when she decides to set off on her own, and it just so happens to be in the midst of the Great Depression. She ends up in Illinois working odd jobs and then at the radium plant, sleeping in abandoned barns and under the stars. At the end of the day, the girls from the factory glowed from the radioactive material. Here she meets several young women who become friends–those she comes in and out of contact with over the course of her life.
But Indiana calls Zorrie back home, because as with any connection to the land, this is where we bloom, where we’re from. Here, she finds love and settles into a community of friendship and marriage. And yet…Zorrie’s life is rife with heartache and loss, still, she is tenacious and continues forth.
Written in sparse, but impeccable prose, Hunt beautifully and skillfully renders an entire life in just one-hundred-and-sixty pages, allowing the reader to fill in much of the depth and precision that sort of wavers in the white space. It’s a meditation on land, home, memory, and grief.
ZORRIE is a sweeping, lyrical, somber, and profound portrait of one life painted with the tiniest brush imaginable, in that sense, it’s a vignette, but also a quiet explosion.
Please join me in welcoming the talented Laird Hunt back to the author interview series:
Laird, we last spoke about your twisty, haunting tale, IN THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS (Little, Brown 2018), which was darkly disturbing and so very different than ZORRIE. Here’s what I think that speaks to: your versatility as an author, but also a ‘body of work.’ I love that, actually. Without really comparing the two, I am curious about your impetus for ZORRIE?
Zorrie’s journey started a little over 30 (!) years ago when I wrote a short story about an Indiana farm woman who was peeling potatoes for dinner. The character is referred to throughout the story as Old Woman, as in “Old Woman is peeling potatoes for dinner…” and indeed that was the title I gave to what became my first published fiction. In 2003, when my second novel, INDIANA, INDIANA, was published, I wanted to explore the life of an important but minor character in that work: Zorrie Underwood. For a long time as I drafted the tale that became the book we are discussing, she was known as Old Woman, just as in the short story, and only recently did I substitute her name and retitle the manuscript: the original gesture had outlived its usefulness. By referring to the character by her first name, I was able to see her more fully as an individual and less as an archetype. Some very important changes were made at this juncture and the whole thing fell into better focus.
“It was Indiana, it was the dirt she had bloomed up out of, it was who she was, what she felt, how she thought, what she knew.”
ZORRIE is so multifaceted. In fact, there’s a blurb on the cover by Hernan Diaz, that speaks to this, “This is not just a book, in your hands; it’s a life.” And that’s exactly what it is. But told with brevity. Was the character of Zorrie inspired by someone you knew?
There is no question that the original “Old Woman” peeling those potatoes and accomplishing other tasks in the kitchen was inspired by my paternal grandmother, a native of central Indiana, whom I often watched working a knife or filling a measuring cup as she made the evening meal. She had studied Home Economics in what now feels like a distant age (she grew up during the Great Depression) and was very proud of her well-rounded meals, and I certainly benefited from her diligence and expertise during the years that I lived with her. But ZORRIE draws equally on other women in that community, women then moving into their silver years, whom I saw most Sundays at the United Methodist Church in the small railroad town of Hillisburg. All of them gave the sense even to my callow eyes of having lived lives of depth and meaning, and more than a few of them were happy to let slip details I tucked away, half-forgot and reforged years later when I was trying to better understand Zorrie Underwood.
Shifting to themes and motifs. I am so taken with this cover, the green color, all of it. Here’s what I think that speaks to: the fecundity of the land, Depression-era glass, the glow from the radioactive radium, the evergreen aspects of an unsung story, but also a bit of coming-of-age, ‘being green,’ as in new. Am I wrong? Can you expand?
I love having a green book and I think all of what you evoke speaks to the aptness of using this color for the cover. There is also mention, deep within the story, of a “green mark”, one that is linked to death and mystery, to sadness and beauty, despair and hope. Zorrie’s neighbor, Noah Summers, tells her about it and stresses its importance to him and to his late father. In a landscape so dominated, during the warm months at least, by the variegated greens of woods and lawns and fields, there is something particularly compelling to me about doubling down on that color as a mark of special significance — the green within the green as it were — and I’m glad the cover of the book, in a sense, offers its own green mark.
One piece that really struck me was toward the end, about memory, which is something that intrigues me in my own work.
“[…] she wondered about this omission, wondered how so much, even things you desperately wanted to hold on to, faded from memory, while other thing burned their traces so deeply they never left you.”
We tend to hold on—ruminate—on negative things. What more can you add to that?
There is an important sequence in the novel where Zorrie, hammered by grief, afraid that her recently departed husband is fading too quickly from mind and is being swallowed up by the black hole of his absence, works so hard to bring him back to vividness — really makes a nightly project of detailed remembering — that she very nearly literally conjures up his ghost. She is not, lets say, charmed by this, and sets her mind as quickly to making him go away again, at least in this frightening form. That she increasingly turns her attention following this experience to someone who is himself haunted to distraction by what life has dealt him makes a lot of sense to me. The cloth of Zorrie’s life is woven from threads of remembering and of forgetting and if, Penelope-like, during the the night she tries to unweave one aspect of it in favor of the other, she is not always successful. And that’s alright. Because she is also attuned to beauty. And has an unquenchable aptitude for hope.
“Quietly effective. [Hunt’s] often lyrical prose traces Zorrie’s hopes, griefs, loneliness, and resolve with remarkable economy…A touching, tightly woven story from an always impressive author.”
—Kirkus, starred review
You are also a professor in the Literary Arts program at Brown University. Can you tell us a little about your work there?
I lead graduate and undergraduate fiction workshops, run seminars on the form and theory of 20th and 21st century fiction, and teach classes on the ways in which history and fiction might most productively/interestingly/usefully be combined. There is also a good deal of mentoring students on what the life of the writer might or can look like. Hosting visiting writers is an important part of it, and far from the least pleasurable.
What three things are keeping you up at night? It doesn’t have to be literary.
The pandemic, the pandemic and the pandemic. Also climate change and socio-economic and racial injustice. I think that’s four things in total but some of it overlaps and it’s hard to keep count.
Laird, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Or, maybe something you’d like to ask me?
I talk a lot about literary citizenship with my students — about the importance of tithing time and energy to this thing we all love and value if we want it not just to survive but also to thrive. What you have done with your many interviews and reviews is a terrific example of what I’m talking about: deep, meaningful engagement with literature that runs alongside your own practice as a writer, thinker and photographer: especially love your “What Remains” shots and am honored to see ZORRIE in a few of the recent book pics too! I’m wondering how you got started with this interviewing, reviewing and book-shooting endeavor and what doing it all means to you.
Oh, wow. Thank you for that, Laird. We absolutely must to be literary stewards of the art and craft we love so much. Reading and writing and creating is a reciprocal process. For example, as a reader, I must ‘see’ myself (or an ancestor) depicted in the work to connect; there’s a partnership there, a story that brews in the white space. Writers cannot read without readers and readers cannot write without writers, simple as that. This practice started years ago, as a novice writer. I wanted to learn more about the process of writing, the ups and downs, insights, and inspirations. I figured if I did, others probably did, too. “Booktography,” as my 14-year old puts it, is simply an extension of me: I love books and art and creation. For me, this is wildly entertaining and no two book covers have the exact same vibe, thus each one, like the work itself, it entirely unique.
Artistic image of ZORRIE designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this #bookstagrammer #alwayswithsabook
For more information, to connect with Laird Hunt via social media, or to purchase a copy of ZORRIE, please visit:
What to Read Next:
I was reminded of Meredith Hall’s BENEFICIENCE in terms of prose, style, and place-setting and feel this would be be a good follow-up read. For those interested in exploring the Great Depression in more detail, look to Kristin Hannah’s THE FOUR WINDS.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Laird Hunt is the author of eight novels, a collection of stories, and two book-length translations from the French. He has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Fiction, the Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine, and Italy’s Bridge prize. His reviews and essays have been published in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. He teaches in the Literary Arts program at Brown University and lives in Providence.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Bloomsbury and used with permission. Artistic image of ZORRIE designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this #bookstagrammer #alwayswithsabook]