The end of 2019 seemed like the right time to reencounter Margaret Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale. One obvious reason was the release of the follow-up, The Testaments, but the timbre and tone of the day also had their say in my return to Gilead. Perhaps because it had been so long since I'd first read it, or perhaps because of the way it feels to be a woman in today's society, but this reading of The Handmaid's Tale often left me slack-jawed with admiration at the vision and skill of Atwood. It also reminded me of the dangers of fear: our collective fear as well as my own daily lived fear.
The Testaments is not a story to assuage the daily fear, but it does provide an answer to the fear: hope. Those familiar with The Handmaid's Tale know that it, too, leaves us with an uncertain hope, but the strength of The Testaments is its certainty -- certainty that regardless of the evil and the corruption and the endless wrestling for power, human goodness and justice can still endure.
"Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity. I have had ample experience with both" (238).
Atwood has the consistent gift of being able to capture a most terrifying and realistic future, tinged with an almost comic tone. It's something like the burble that gathers in your gut when you aren't sure if you're going to burst out laughing or soil yourself. Or, as Atwood seems to get, maybe both.
In The Testaments, we find ourselves in Gilead many years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale. This time, the story unfolds through multiple documents that have survived the fall of Gilead and have recently been unearthed: two witness transcripts and something called The Ardua Hall Holograph. Those familiar with The Handmaid's Tale will likely have an easy time pulling the threads together, but have no fear if you never read the original: this book stands well on its own. Those documents take the reader back even further than did Handmaid, revealing in more detail the ways Gilead came to be; they also give us a future that extends beyond the original tale.
There are atrocities. There are moments that drive that fear deeper into my belly and make long to place a protective arm around all our daughters. But because Gilead has fallen, and because there is a truth to be examined on the other side of that time and place, there is also hope. A dark hope, perhaps. But a necessary one.
To list all of Beth Kephart's accomplishments would be unwieldy and tedious - there are so many, and across so many fields! Visit her website, and you'll see they had to divide her work into four columns, each with its own "Continue Reading" link. The highlights include her status as a National Book Awards finalist and a recipient of both a Pew Fellowship grant and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. The other reason to avoid unwieldy and tedious here at the start of this interview is that Beth is so full of warmth and generosity, and her writing is so lovely that to associate her even remotely with those words would be a great wrong. I am thankful to Beth for her work and for taking the time to participate in this interview.
SBW; In the notes for The Great Upending, you explain how you first learned of the connective tissue disorder Marfan syndrome (which your main character, Sara, has) from a real patient, Becca Weust. You met her as part of your job writing stories about patient care and health access. Besides the obvious connection, how does/did your “day job” influence and overlap with your “creative” writing and vice versa?
BK: Oh, I love this question. Now I’m trying to figure out how to answer it. Well, perhaps with this: I didn’t study English or creative writing as an undergraduate; I studied the History and Sociology of Science—the impact of technologies, the rise of institutions, Russian medicine, city growth, that sort of thing.
By the time I was 25 years old, I had my own consulting practice, writing for various architectural and design organizations. A few years later, after my own health issue had set me back a bit, I began consulting with pharmaceutical companies, writing all kinds of stories having to do with patient health and medical science. I don’t know how many patients I have interviewed throughout the years, but I do know how meaningful those conversations have been—what I have learned about grace, perseverance, ingenuity, life.
I also know—I believe this wholeheartedly—that a writer’s life is amplified immeasurably by the work that takes her outside herself and toward the worlds of others. It is important to be something other than, or addition to, a writer. It keeps us whole. It yields perspective.
For most of my life, the corporate work has taken precedence. Client work, and over the past many years, teaching, have always had to come first; there was a house to pay for, after all, a son to put through college. I’ve fit the writing in between the cracks, writing at the 4 a.m. hour, often writing nothing “literary” at all for months at a time. When I do sit down to write I often find that my thoughts turn to the people I’ve met—a young man with Hunter’s syndrome (whom I wrote into This Is the Story of You); a beloved student who suffered a stroke (whom I honored in One Thing Stolen); my husband’s Salvadoran family, friends, and stories (who inspired many pages of Wild Blues).
Becca is an exquisite young woman whom I am so lucky, now, to call a friend. She is brilliant, funny, tender, and has fought so hard to find the medical care she needs for symptoms that go far beyond what my Sara experiences in The Great Upending.
SBW: How is Becca doing these days?
BK: On this very day, Becca is recovering from yet another procedure; she often spends months at a time in bed or confined to her home in agonizing, dizzying pain. I want the world to know Becca, and so I am doing all I can to find places for her own voice to rise—for her to speak directly about her condition, about the battle she has waged to get proper care, about her concerns regarding health care politics, and the rest of it.
SBW: Any reader will be able to tell that while story and character undoubtedly matter, words are your first love. How do descriptions like “The air freckles up with fireflies” or “I’m a body built out of stretch” come to you - all at once in a flash, or worked out of you with persistent application, or maybe both sometimes?
BK: Oh, my gosh. Yes. You have revealed me for who I am. Words were always my passion, even as the nine-year-old kid I long ago was, writing terribly purple poems.
So, two things on that. First, as a competitive figure skater, I was acutely influenced by rhythms, pause, musicality; I felt the lyric in my bones; I couldn’t and still can’t escape it. Second, I have to work hard to stop making constructions like “the air freckles up with fireflies”—it’s precisely how I see things, it’s how words work in my head. My biggest challenge, by far (ask my dear editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy), is pulling back, axing away, finding more ordinary beats and images so that the words don’t get in the way.
SBW: There are so many beautiful lines in this book, many of which circle themes of faith or hope (without being expressly religious.) I’m thinking of “Maybe believing and bravery are the same thing” or “He looks like Christmas Eve when we sing “Silent Night” and pass each other hope, wick to wick” or “The story of a seed is the story of tomorrow.” How important is hope in the life of a child (your young readers)? How do you wrestle with hope yourself?
BK: This is such a profoundly interesting question, Sara Beth, for just this past Sunday, I was talking about hope with a handful of high school students at my church. I was asking where we find it, how we nurture it, how we share it, why and if it matters. “Hope is just a word,” said one of the students, as the conversation began, and I felt this enormous sadness, this resistance. We are living through dark days, dangerous ones, even. It is so easy to give up, to think of our one voice as being just one voice. But when we allow ourselves to be defeated, we will in fact be defeated.
Writing stories and talking to young people and looking for (and teaching) stories of real-world selflessness and generosity—this is what keeps me grounded, this is what gives me purpose.
In The Great Upending, my characters are facing terrifying challenges—drought on the farm, debt at the bank, a medical crisis. And yet my Sara and her brother, Hawk, choose to focus on what can be done for another. That, to me, is the definition of hope. And, by the way, the young man who began the hour seeing hope as just a word, ended the hour with a different perspective. We can lift each other up.
SBW: Though I didn’t grow up there, my parents have lived on a farm for the last 20 years or so. You capture some of the unique joys and difficulties of living and working on a farm, explaining that “no farm can ever be a lonesome thing” and then later “Farms are full of losing.” What is it about a farm that made the perfect setting for this story?
BK: The setting of The Great Upending is inspired by a farm where my husband and I launched Juncture, our intensive memoir workshop. The landscape is quite similar, as are the pigs, the cows, the hill, the drought, the diner, the roads, the clop of horse shoes, the quiet heroics that fueled every dusty working day. I loved that land and I loved the dozen women we spent those days with. The atmosphere of the place became the atmosphere of the book, its mood. Just as I want, with this novel, to give something to Becca, I want, with this novel, to acknowledge that farm and its farmers as well as those women writers with whom I spent days engaged in deep and meaningful conversation. A book is plot and characters and words, of course, but it is also atmosphere. I write fiction out of the stuff of truth.
SBW: One of my favorite lines is when Sara’s mom explains that “we are defined by the choices we make and the goodness we are and our grace in the face of beautiful things.” This last takes an unexpected turn because we usually think of defining moments coming from how we respond to difficult things, but here we see that clarity coming from how we face beautiful things. Why is this an important distinction to make?
BK: Sara Beth, your questions are surreally gorgeous. They throw me back in this chair at what is now 5:46 a.m., an hour I mention only because I have the perfect quiet within which to think this through. Sara’s mom is talking to Sara at this point in the book about Marfan syndrome and how Sara will not be defined by the term or the condition. She is telling her daughter what I think is true—that who we are in the face of beauty says just as much about us as who we are in the face of difficulty. Sara is a girl with a great gift for loving the life she has—her brother, her parents, her farm, her fireflies. That gift for loving life, for recognizing the world beyond herself, for caring about the world beyond herself will, in fact, help save her. She just doesn’t know it yet.
SBW: There are several events in the book that could be The Great Upending of the title. How did you decide on this title, and what do you think is the great upending?
BK: This title has a history! The book had several titles before we settled on this one. Toward the very end, Caitlyn, my editor, suggested a title that featured the word “Upending,” which I liked quite a lot, and then thought, well, what about … The Great Upending? Because a major sub-plot in this story relates to the stories an old picture-book artist hopes to tell, it seemed to us important that the title reflect the novel’s focus on creating—and claiming—stories. I don’t want to give away the end of The Great Upending, but to answer your question, the greatest great upending of The Great Upending happens, for me, in the very final pages, when the old man tells the children he befriends an utterly unexpected story.
SBW: It is my conviction that authors writing MG and YA are often leading the way in our collective work to change the world for the better. Do you think writers for young readers have an obligation to “teach” through their stories, or is it something else entirely?
BK: I think you are so right, Sara Beth, that this category of storytelling is ripe with potential and often can and does engage younger readers with stories that make them think, reassess, define their own values, pursue valuable courses of action, be kinder, be more true. I don’t know if we writers hope to “teach” so much as we hope to crack open stereotypes, deepen compassion, leave our readers with emotional relationships to stories that are not their own.
And now the requisite SBW top ten:
Who are your heroes?
Well, there are so many. My son tops that list, for all that he daily teaches me about good will, good acts, optimism. The young people I teach and often write into my stories are heroes and heroines, too. And who doesn’t love Greta Thunberg, for speaking truth, for not backing down? Look, I’m naming all young people here, though, of course, there are many heroes in my estimation and in my life. I’m naming young people here because this is their world to defend and protect, and they know it.
Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?
My brother and I have this current conversation going about what makes a writer a Writer. I’m still not entirely comfortable using that word as it pertains to myself. I write, but does that make me a Writer? I will claim, absolutely, to be a reader. My gosh, you should see my house right now. My house is built of books.
Who/what are you reading these days?
I’m currently teaching two classes at Penn—a class called The Art of the Moment, and an honors thesis workshop on the novel. I’m also working with a student on a research project concerning Virginia Woolf. So I am endlessly rereading the books I’ve assigned (just yesterday my fifteen Art of the Moment students and I were discussing Will Dowd’s Areas of Fog), my own students’ work, Virginia, Virginia, Virginia, and books that I’m reading to review like the upcoming memoirs by Mark Doty and Paul. I’m also currently reading Emily St. John Mandel, for I’ll be interviewing her on the Free Library of Philadelphia stage in late March, when her The Glass Hotel debuts. A few days ago I finished Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. I’ve got Natasha Trethewey’s new memoir half read, as well as a history of typefaces, and—okay, you get my point.
What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?
In a few weeks, my Art of the Moment class will be reading Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, a memoir in essays I loved so much when I first read it and interviewed her for The Rumpus last year. Margaret will be Skyping in with us. I just can’t wait for that.
What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?
Since I start work most days at 4 a.m. and try, most nights, to make a really fine dinner, I’m often completely exhausted by day’s end, too tired to read (sadly). So my husband and I do indulge in various series like Chef’s Table or Next in Fashion or Cheer, not to mention the very fabulous Schitt’s Creek or some great mystery series or The Crown or … this is getting embarrassing. I’m also, for better or worse, a terrible newshound. I read and watch a lot of news.
What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?
My mother knew how to make a home beautiful and how to cook incredible meals; I try, in our very small house, with my very small budget, with all that I can’t do that she could, to somehow emulate that—to keep the house clean but decoratively interesting (all the books notwithstanding), to put flowers on the sideboard, to bake the cookies, to light a candle during meals. My father worked extremely hard his entire life—rising early, staying focused. I learned from his discipline.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I never named a profession for myself. I just knew I loved to write and that I loved architecture (my great uncle designed the Waldorf Astoria and the Pierre and I was obsessed with him). It’s strange that I didn’t have a plan, given my plan-ful personality. Gosh, those were the glory days.
What constitutes a really good day for you?
A day when those I love are happy and well, and when a good news story breaks through, and holds.
What is one thing you are afraid of?
Writing my last book.
What is one thing you hope for?