What an amazing journey this book (Esther: A Novel in Verse) takes you on! So tell me, how did this book come to you?
It’s so odd to think back and try to cobble together how this one came to me. There’s no straight line anywhere. My good poet friends in Boston, where we lived before moving to New Hampshire, suggested that I write a memoir, since I was bringing to our workshop snippets of experiences as a kid in a toxic family. I’d published two collections of poems and seemed ready to try something new. I tried for about a year to think as a memoirist—okay, this happened, but how did that change your life?—but something just didn’t feel right. So I began to go back to when the trouble might have started in my family, well before I was born. And because most of what happened to my parents as young people before they met is lost, along with the facts of their marriage and nine children born, I was in uncharted territory. It was this condition that inspired me, perhaps—to imagine the people I thought I knew in a story about their early lives—but to have no qualms about that story relying on invention, since it was in fact mostly fiction. I think I liked that power.
What inspired you to write a novel in verse?
It’s been a process from which I continue to learn. I had never considered myself a storyteller, so to be writing a story was itself strange. But as the book emerged as an idea and began to evolve, the compressed line seemed right for the telling of it—that nuance and constraint. And the interludes where the narrator steps back to a more omniscient role, where imagery and detail are more intense, seemed ripe for such shaping. Originally I had just those passages in poetic line, but found overall it seemed too precious, too proscribed. I tried all prose, and went back every time to poetry.
I’ve come to understand that embedded in the poetic line is an emotional resonance that interweaves with the story’s surface texture. The measure of the line accrues meaning just as any element of a piece of writing builds in complexity. The linguistic constraint helps reveal and define characters and their motives, particularly when little dialogue is used.
Exploring more deeply, I found that a hybrid point of view was useful, where the narrator acts at times more like the speaker of a poem, and in that way comes closer to the reader. Generally the way I map the line in a poem is to honor human speech, human breath. Because there is so little speech given to the characters in Esther, our knowledge and experience of the characters comes largely from the narrator’s perspective, including that tone and distance. It is the narrator we hear In Esther, the narrator who becomes a character of sorts and speaks as the embodiment of the land upon which the characters travel and suffer, and some survive—providing witness to their struggle. I believe this use of the narrator is what finally identified Esther as a novel in verse as I began early on to understand what was emerging.
How long did it take you to complete?
Give or take ten years. I wrote Blood Garden: An Elegy for Raymond simultaneously for some years, published it in 2010, then focused entirely on Esther. I was blessed not to have to wait to find a publisher, because CavenKerry was the very first place I sent the manuscript. I still find that astonishing.
Did you know the story of Esther before you wrote it, or did you discover it as you went along?
Esther began to come forward as a character as I progressed, and as that happened, I felt more and more comfortable imagining moments and outcomes, less and less inclined to care if something might be strictly factual. Emotional truth was key, however, and that emotional truth was always bound to my own truth, my own stake in this spectacularly failed family. That I was working out my own story was not clear to me until the very end.
However, some of the story is in fact true, or as true as one can imagine so many years hence. For example, early sexual abuse is likely to be among the things the real Esther suffered at the hands of her father, and he did in fact die by train, probably suicide. She was born in Montgomery County Kansas, and met my father as I’ve described in a logging camp in the Colorado Rockies, under those conditions. And he was just home from WWI and suffering what all of those young boys suffered as they tried to re-enter their lives, while so utterly and irrevocably altered by experience.
Were there aspects of Esther’s life story that surprised you, or that you didn’t expect to describe?
My sisters sent me their memories and stories of the family, but I soon realized how little I had to go on. I’m not sure what I thought I ought to be doing at that point, but the project morphed into story at some juncture, and that’s where it stayed. As I deepened Esther’s character, I was surprised by her courage. I had not expected that she would take form as she did, and certainly did not expect to be surprised by any of it. That she grows into a woman who is transformed by what was meant to kill her was both hard-won, and deeply satisfying to me.
This is both an American epic and a story of sexual abuse. I love how you move so gracefully between the inner and outer experience. Was it difficult to manage these two themes? To balance them?
Difficult, always. And thank you for appreciating that difficulty, and finding the movement between those worlds successful. But that balance is a natural condition for me. One way I work it in the story is though point of view—coming close to each character as he or she appears, through diction, for example, and then also stepping farther back in the interstices. So, that movement, that shifting narrative distance creates a balance as well. And provides texture. I’m always careful to provide texture.
The book is very visual, painterly. And you are an artist as well?
I’ve been a painter as long as I’ve been a writer, in fact a bit longer. But both seemed to have emerged from the same need: to explore the human predicament.
The Esther you describe is someone who never really talks much or tells her story, it seems. And she probably never would. And yet you tell it. It’s as if you want to give her the voice she never had. Is that how you see women of her time?
Not so much women of her time, but girls and women everywhere. What Esther must endure is heartbreaking, but tragically, not uncommon. Yet these stories go untold, unrecognized. Because this is the truth, I wasn’t sure until I worked all the way toward the end that she would survive it. Or that I could write it.
Did you grow up in any of the landscapes you describe so vividly in the book?
Some but not most. I did a tremendous amount of research, and would have made trips to various locations to study them, but I just did not have the time with my teaching schedule. The mountains especially were not familiar to me, nor was the desert. I’ve been to Arizona but never to the sort of deserts that Esther and Raymond traverse. I brought my mother to her ancestral home in Kansas many years ago to attend a family reunion and found it rich in material for poems. Some of that language found its way into this book.
What were the biggest challenges in writing Esther?
Making sure the characters were real to the touch, that Esther’s father, for example, was not drawn as pure villain, but rather the complex person he surely was. I needed to fully imagine these characters in order to have them flesh out convincingly on the page. For example, I had to think through her father’s terrifying abusive behavior, Raymond’s PTSD, her mother’s disavowal of what was happening right in front of her. And finally, I had to explore the reason why an older girl would not try to escape such abuse when the opportunity arose.
Also, being true to the time period was a continued challenge. After all, Esther is historical fiction as well, so I had to be accurate with regard to details. If Esther and Raymond were to travel a certain route, I had to make sure a road actually existed along that route in that particular year. So much was changing in the country back then, with regard to new infrastructure, due primarily to the automobile. In fact everything was changing. For example, in early 1920’s, electric lights were common, but most people in the country still lived on farms, without that convenience.
What writers have influenced and/or guided you?
I read all manner of writers, from non-fiction to science to poetry. I think it’s the writer’s voice that I crave, that utterly unique experience of hearing another person open and reveal honestly. My favorites are Italo Calvino, Gaston Bachelard, Deborah Digges, Russell Banks, Louise Bogan, Oliver Sacks, Sylvia Plath, Gretel Ehrlich, Hart Crane, Nabokov, Marguerite Yourcenar, Lewis Thomas, and many others.
I’d love to close with an excerpt of your choice.
Sure. This passage takes place on a train, as Esther and her father Aaron are headed west to the Colorado mountains, where at fourteen, her father demanded she will cook for all the loggers. He has taken her to be “good company,” but in reality has made his final claim for her body and soul, with no intention of returning to the farm. The first part is one of the interstices, where the narration is pulled way back.
The land brooded with sad farms, barley
just taking hold that would not survive
the drought or the merciless wind,
and beyond the barley grew sorghum,
as far as the eye could see, and what land
did not support a crop suffered buffalo grass,
and prairie dogs the farmers called fury
weeds, busy with their miserable lives.
Esther could not have known while
she dozed—just one of many on this train
traveling in regimental discomfort, folks
who would die working the land
and be buried there—that beneath them,
the great continent of Pangaea was once
split by a vast inland sea, where
winged lizards and giant sharks
and turtles twice the size of an ox
held sway, and long-necked plesiosaurs
with great oar-like paddles prowled
alongside graceful, serpentine
predators forty-five feet, twenty tons—
where she now stirred and nearly
wakened from her dream of mountains,
trillions of miniscule organisms sunk
to sea bottom, their delicate carcasses
forming the chalk hills and limestone
quarries and shale beds that shaped
this prairie—what this girl understood
as flat, unchanging, was in fact the slow
rumination of what had always been,
shifting without notice, the forcemeat
of time on all things.
Aaron had unfolded the map
and struggled to set it flat enough to read,
but the best he could do left two hills
where his knees bent under it.
Esther sat very still as she always did
if it fell to her to be nearest him
when he was vexed.
Here! We must be here! Aaron blurted
to no one in particular. Startled
out of her stillness, Esther followed
her father’s gaze to one of the hills
where his finger jabbed at a black dot
beside a thin blue line.
She had seen maps in the encyclopedia,
maps of Africa, of mountains in South America,
the whole British Empire. Never
had she seen a map of Kansas.
Where did we start, Father? Esther asked.
But Aaron was at it again, trying
to smooth the paper and paid no attention.
So she leaned in and saw that he had circled
Montgomery County, where the farm sat
heavy on the land, where Bessie’s brooding
countenance brightened as she worked
in the kitchen garden, its precise rows
of potatoes, sugar beets to feed the hens.
Esther conjured the snap peas and kale
near the tidy bed of verbena, her mother
bending to harvest thyme and marjoram,
their lingering fragrance.
Then the girl looked up toward her attic room
and saw herself there at the window,
gazing out beyond the barn.
She was thinner than she’d imagined
herself to be, in that life, just days ago, but
she’d thought her mouth to be a grim slash
across her face.
And it was.
The smell of fried chicken brought her back
to the train, to the family across the aisle
noisily opening their box lunches,
and to Aaron, still fingering the map.
Disquiet settled in her stomach.
Everywhere she had ever been in her life
was within the distance of the width
of her father’s hand.