Alyson Hagy, author of Scribe and many others, is as talented as they come. In agreeing to this interview, she proves herself generous and thoughtful as well.
SBW: Your bio tells me you grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains; your writing tells me that as well. As you know, the power of place in the life and stories of an Appalachian writer can hardly be overestimated. How does life in Wyoming compare with your place of origin? What do you miss and what do you embrace in the west?
AH: Wyoming and Southwest Virginia share a few things: They are both dominated by their geographies. Their landscapes dwarf their human settlements. They are thinly populated and economically fragile. They have been settled by wary skeptics who consider themselves very independent. They are places where you must respect the weather and the land in order to survive, even in the 21st. century. I miss the clannish, ebullient oral storytelling of Appalachia. And the hearty homemade food (not to mention the homemade liquor). I miss the mild beauties of spring. And I sometimes miss the heart-on-the-sleeve, contradictory brands of Christianity practiced in rural Virginia. Westerners are quieter, and more stoic, even in their religions. They rarely cut loose. But I can’t get enough of the American mythmaking that’s so present in the West. Folks come out here to remake themselves time and again. That’s a gold mine for a writer.
SBW: As a critic, I’m always interested in the different ways readers respond to a work; in particular, I’m struck when a reviewer seems to get it “wrong,” even while giving a glowing review. Do you read reviews? Many writers, I know, do not. If you do, how do you feel when a critic likes the book but doesn’t seem to “get” it?
AH: I do read reviews. Writing fiction is an instinctive process for me, so I learn things about myself and my habits (good and bad) from thoughtful reviews. If a reviewer doesn’t “get” something, I figure it’s because I’ve been careless and unskilled or because I’ve created an imaginative vortex where multiple interpretations can rest comfortably side by side. The poor reviews I’ve received on some social media sites just remind me how different we are as readers, how wide-ranging our hopes can be.
SBW: Crossroads play an important role in Scribe. They are meeting places, points of transition, and even markers of trauma or death. A book, too, is a crossroad - a place where the story and the reader meet, exchange a few ideas, and move off again in their own directions. Crossroads are also about choice - which direction to take, etc… What role would you say the author plays in these exchanges? Map maker, sign post? Guide?
AH: I’d like to think of myself as a kind of guide in Scribe, if a somewhat perverse one. I want the narrative to lead a reader down certain paths, even if those paths aren’t straight or narrow...and even if it’s sometimes best to turn back without having gotten exactly where you thought you should go. I want a reader to trust the stories in the novel even if they don’t entirely trust me--because those stories are sources of wonder and mystery and social cohesion. But you’re right. I had maps in my head throughout the creation of Scribe--maps of the actual landscapes and maps of the mythical spaces tales occupy in a place that’s been inhabited long enough to earn its haunting. I wonder if I fell into being a map maker too.
SBW: Power is another important question in Scribe. Some point to the unnamed main character’s gift and seem to want the main takeaway of this book to be some version of “the power of storytelling!” My reading wants to push against the simplicity of that notion, arguing that power is never one thing - it is nuanced and flawed, just as we all are. What would you say about power, especially when you compare the power held by Billy Kingery and that held by the main character? What about the power of her sister?
AH: That is a wonderful complicated question. Everyone who attains power in Scribe is definitely flawed. For me, there are valences of power in the novel. Billy Kingery has harnessed political and economic power; with it comes inequity and cruelty. Hendricks has mastered the power of physical violence, and it makes him fearsome and incomplete all at once. The main character has cultivated her literacy as a kind of power because she needs a way to make a living, a way to protect herself since she can’t do that physically. Yet she’s barely hanging on, and the myths about her witchery make her appear stronger than she is. I think the sister, who is barely in the book, is a source of the most admirable kinds of power we can access--the powers of healing and the powers of the spirit. But, while her empathy is so, so admirable, it makes her vulnerable, terribly so.
SBW: I loved that moment when I realized the sections of the book were fashioned after the sections of a letter! However, I’ve stumbled a bit on the section titled “Alphabet.” I can’t find anything that would make that heading fit within the parts of a traditional letter. Because the pattern didn’t hold, I’ve started working with it a bit (alternative meanings of each word, symbolic usages, even wrestling with why the enclosure comes in the middle rather than after the signature). Would you be willing to discuss those section headings a bit and how you came to employ them and organize the whole book?
AH: The idea to name sections after the parts of a letter came along early, a remnant of my high school typing class. I saw the main character greeting Hendricks in my mind’s eye, and the word “Salutations” sprang forth from distant memory. I thought the structural model might work. When I realized the central narrative was going to fragment into many nonlinear pieces once the main character tasted the meal Billy Kingery made for her, I knew I was in trouble. How was I going to link that fragmentation to the parts of a letter? I thought maybe I could write 26 sections, one for each letter of the alphabet, and give a nod to how tale-tellers sometimes takes stories apart before they put them back together again. But I found I needed more than 26 sections. I stuck with the title “Alphabet” anyway, another perverse move. I just liked the idea of asking a reader to assemble those many small sections into something that made sense to them, that they can “read” as a whole. As for “Enclosure,” I’m definitely asking readers to take a leap with me there. I love stories within stories. And I’m the kind of letter reader who is weird enough to look at an “enclosure” before I finish reading the entire body of a letter like I’m supposed to. So I dropped that old, true family story into the novel late in the novel without comment, and crossed my fingers.
SBW: In the last handful of years, I’ve tried to return much more to handwritten letters. One of the fascinating things I've found is how impermanent your words can feel. In an email exchange, you can go back and reread what you have said and not said, you have permanent access to what you've written. But in letters, once you’ve got it down and in the mail, it’s gone. It's more permanent in one way and completely impermanent in another.
Scribe suggests the more permanent version of letters, more than once saying the words of the letter were “inscribed” on the scribe. That said, what she seems to be offering with the letters she writes is not mere literacy - those who come to her likely can read and write themselves (at least Hendricks can) - but her letters give them something else, something more like absolution. The words she writes release them. So, which is it? Are letters ephemeral or permanent? Do they release us or bind us to each other? Or maybe both?
AH: Oh, my. That is another mighty question. May I have it both ways? Because, like you, I find the permanence of non-digital correspondence both thrilling and horrifying. You have only one chance to get it down. This is also my experience with publishing over many years, right? I can’t take those books, those words, back. Yet I am endlessly fascinated by the malleability of stories, even the great ones we appear to agree upon, the stories of our prophets and heroes. Because they, too, are unstable. They shift and change over time. We shift them and change them--as we seek, I think, the absolutions we so desperately need. The dark side of this kind of shifting is that a demagogue like Billy Kingery can manipulate that malleability for his own purposes. And they sometimes do. As nations, as communities, we need to be very careful about how our stories are retold to us and about us.
SBW: Scribe is a weighty novel, most heavy to me because of its consideration of violence committed on women and their bodies. Perhaps this is a lens I’ve applied because of current cultural realities, but I can’t help but include this in a long list of books I’ve read in the last year that highlights, chronicles, and reveals the pain of women and girls. Despite its weight, there is a sense of hope in the end, but the lingering taste of this novel is dark. Where would you place this novel on a spectrum running between hope and despair?
AH: I may be fooling myself, but I put Scribe on the hope end of the spectrum. Hendricks, who is an unconscionable mercenary, finds a better self through unselfishness and love. And the main character finds a way to forgive herself for what she’s done to her sister; she’s finally able to tap into the joy and care exhibited by characters like Estefan and the members of the Uninvited who are trying to find ways to live communally without greed and fear. But the world of the novel is a dark one. I admit that. Why so? I think part of it is my own flawed heritage; the South of my childhood is home to bloody tales, whether from the Bible or the era of slavery or the aftermath of imperial cruelties in Ireland and Scotland, where most of my ancestors hailed from. I feel like I grew up with two kinds of stories: funny stories and tragic stories. I was always drawn to the tragic ones. Also, the world of Scribe is a world of deprivation, a world scarred by war. Everyone is vulnerable, the women and children most of all. I take no pleasure in trying to write about that fact because the vulnerability seems true to me, now as ever. But it is a dark truth for sure, dark and unsettling.
SBW: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d be willing to discuss?
AH: I am completely superstitious about works-in-progress, so my lips are sealed on that score. I can say that I’ve been working in a form that’s new to me in the last two years, very short stories, flash fictions. I’ve got a small manuscript of those on hand. It’s been illuminating to see just how much I can cut out, or not pile on in the first place, and--perhaps--still make the story work.
And now, the requisite SBW top ten:
Who are your heroes?
As I get older, my definition of hero seems to evolve. One the literary side of the ledger, I’m ever more in awe of writers like Toni Morrison or J.M. Coetzee, who can change the national, or even the international, conversation about justice. As a citizen in a small Western city, I am humbled by our nurses and public school teachers almost every day.
Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?
Must I choose? The two acts are barely separate for me.
Who/what are you reading these days?
Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and Casey Cep’s Furious Hours
What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?
A Change of Time by Ida Jessen. Also Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. There are others. It’s been a great year for books.
What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?
I find I have to limit my media diet if I want to leave room for my own mind to wander, but I have enjoyed the new “golden age of television,” I’ll admit that. What fiction writer wouldn’t? True Detective, Happy Valley, Big Little Lies. And all of those mournful European crime dramas….
What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?
Treat others as you wish to be treated. I try to take that one into the classroom with me every day.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A cowboy girl (the name I came up with), a wanderer on the English moors, a veterinarian
What constitutes a really good day for you?
A morning run, reading and writing for as long as I can stand it, fishing into the evening, a simple meal.
What is one thing you are afraid of?
Failing to recognize great need or pain in someone else when I should. Also, no lie, I worry about surprising a grizzly bear when I’m fishing or hiking up north.
What is one thing you hope for?
That I have time to write books that will say things that matter in this troubled world.
***editor's note: I would argue this is a hope realized, but I look forward to whatever else Alyson Hagy offers in the future. Thank you, Alyson!***