Interview by Amy Denham
Q: Music seems integral to the very soul of The From-Aways. We have Guns N’ Roses in the epigraph, a singer-waitress, a folk songwriter, and the inception of the Band with the Best Band Name Ever, Cassandra Galápagos and the Aged Tortoise. But for me, the town itself felt like a song. (That song would probably be “Passamaquoddy” from Pete’s Dragon, my first and forever-impression of small New England fishing towns.) What musical differences would you posit between the northeast Atlantic and the waters of the Gulf Coast?
A: Passamaquoddy! I think the good and grumpy people of Menamon would approve.
Music is something I worked into the novel specifically to solve a character-building problem I was having with Quinn and her estranged father, Carter Marks. Quinn is so furious and hurt that Carter left her mother, Marta, that this one thing they had in common was impossible for them to talk about—and without talking it was impossible for them to start a new relationship. So I gave them music. I had conceived of Carter Marks as a folk singer, and when I started considering the idea that Quinn might play too, that she might, in fact, really love her father’s music even though she hates him as a man, that was the crack in the door that opened Quinn up for me. Suddenly I saw ways she could think about Carter, beyond her anger.
I grew up on folk and bluegrass music—stealing my parents’ CDs, hearing people in my hometown play at the town gazebo, and going to friends’ Barn Shows. Now that I’m here on the Gulf Coast I’m remembering how much I love the blues too. The Bradfordville Blues Club is a magic kind of place to see acts play. But honestly, the thing I love about folk or bluegrass or the blues is that the feeling of community that comes when people get together to play, and that’s the same wherever you go. I miss the friends I played music with up north, but I’ve found a new Hootenanny Crew, and perhaps nothing has made me feel more at home here in Florida than that.
Leah in particular seems especially drawn to the way in which old habits and ways are held sacred in Menamon, though it proves to have its own problems, just as any other place. What, in your experience, is the relationship between idealization and reality when it comes to small towns?
So many of the qualities I love about old New England towns, and small-town life in general—the closeness and the family-like familiarity and the traditions—are double-edged swords. Once you move away, as I did, it’s easy to start singing the Cheers theme song in your head and think wasn’t life sweeter back home? I started writing The From-Aways with the delusional attitude that this sort of life was straight-up great…and the novel was failing. Because of course it was more complicated than that. When you actually live in a place, day-to-day, the closeness can feel claustrophobic and the friendliness can feel intrusive and the traditions, well…I’d never speak ill of Redding, Connecticut’s annual Mark Twain Frog Frolic, but let us just say that once you’ve seen one frog frolic you have seen them all. Once I opened the book up to these dualities and ironies Menamon, at last, started feeling like a real place. The moment a town becomes only the idealized thing we want it to be—a series of charming tourist shops along the harbor, say—is the moment it stops being a real, functional place where people actually live. There’s a reason touristy towns are called traps, and I don’t think that just has to do with visitors.
Leah does a great deal of theorizing on, reflecting on, and evolving in her views toward love and the proper way to love another person. There are instances of ebb and flow, give and take, in both of the major relationships in this book. Toward the end, Leah reflects, “You cannot always know with love. If we knew how things would turn out for certain, knew a person completely, that would be far too easy.” How would you characterize the role and function of this uncertainty in the book’s relationships?
Leah and Henry struggle with the same interplay of reality and idealization that the town does. They want, in different ways, for their marriage to be some idealized thing. Part of their work in the book is to blow up their ideals in order to reveal who they really are and all the messiness that it actually takes for two people to be partners. In fact, Leah and Henry actually have to re-meet each other, once they’ve shed those ideas of who the other person wanted them to be, in order for them to have any chance of staying in love at all. I think it’s about being able to sit with the uncertainty of a person, acknowledging that you can’t know someone completely and that people change, and that maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. In a lot of ways that’s also the process I went through writing the book: being comfortable in the chaos of composition.
Loss is another haunting occurrence in this novel. Several characters are dealing with the remembrance of parents or loved ones, questioning things left unsaid or wishes left unspoken. Have you found of catharsis in reading any other particular works dealing with loss?
You know, it’s a classic, but C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed is one of the most evisceratingly true and sad accounts of loss I’ve ever read. The way he documents oscillating between raw animal pain, and philosophical searching, and also just numbness, is incredible. I also think that the way that Vladimir Nabokov writes about his father in Speak Memory is incredible. He would never call it writing about loss (he’d hate that!) but he “levitates” his dead father…suspends him totally still in this snapshot of a moment from the past and when he does this you can feel him wishing to keep his father alive, in that moment, forever. Also, the fold-out box-casket of a book that is Ann Carson’s Nox. It is a tangibly and literarily moving epitaph for her brother.
There is a gripping interplay in this novel of good intentions gone awry. There are very few instances of outright malice in this novel, only of characters misunderstanding, averting, or evolving. I found this to ring very true-to-life. Do you see the world in this way to some extent?
I think that, for me, this is the way most bad deeds happen. It’s seldom that we meet real villains in life… instead we find people who are struggling to be less selfish, more compassionate, more responsible…and sometimes those people are failing to see beyond their own needs. A lot of the time? We ourselves are failing. At least, I am. And I really wanted these distinctly un-heroic women to be characters that readers, if they loved them, would love as they do their own families: inclusive of their faults and not in spite of them.
Leah and Quinn are both deeply longing to feel “at home” in a certain place or with a certain person. Are there any specific virtues or dangers you find inherent in this desire?
Oh, I think that I could easily spend my whole life searching for a place that felt like home, driving away if it didn’t feel immediately right, and that this would turn me into a lifelong nomad. I think that both Leah and Quinn are searching for people and places that would immediately give them this kind of feeling or connection—but that’s not how it works, with love or geography. It takes time to feel at home somewhere—it takes staying still, which is something neither of these women want to do.
What are you working on right now?
A novel adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It with a sci-fi twist…
Which character in The From-Aways is your favorite? What do you think would be the best piece of advice they would give?
I feel like these characters’ parent…I had visions for what they would be like and then they disobeyed me and became the characters they wanted to be instead. Stupid coming-of-age characters. I love them all but they drive me crazy too.
As for advice, I think the people of Menamon would tell you not to forget traditions, but not to cling too fiercely the past either. They would tell you to sit with chaos. They would tell you to watch out for riptides and to leave no part of the lobster uneaten. They would tell you to mind your own business but they would ask you if you’d heard the gossip too.
Oh, and they’d tell you that it’s dollar whiskey night at The Monkey’s Uncle bar, and you should come by, but don’t hog the jukebox all night, for crissake.
CJ Hauser’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, TriQuarterly, Third Coast, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Review, The Laurel Review, SLICE, The Kenyon Review, and Esquire.
She is the 2010 recipient of McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, the winner of the 2012 Jaimy Gordon Prize in Fiction and the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize for Sudden Fiction. She was also a finalist in Esquire’s Short Short Fiction Competition and shortlisted for the UK’s Bridport Prize.
Her debut novel, THE FROM-AWAYS, a story of family, friendship, love & lobsters set in small-town Maine.
Though ever and always a New-Englander in her heart, CJ currently lives in a little white house, beneath a very mossy oak, in Tallahassee, Florida.