Patricia Henley joins us to talk about
keeping a writer's hours,
getting to Henry James' "felt life,"
and her new collection of stories
by smart, hip upstart press
Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.
I’ve been incredibly lucky. In my darkest hours, some magical validation occurs. Most recently, I have been on the bench, mostly, since my second novel was published in 2002. I’ve been writing stories and a play. Some of the stories found homes, some hadn’t yet, when Victoria Barrett decided to publish books. Engine Books put out the call for manuscripts and I sent her a batch of stories I called Rocky Gap. She rearranged them and edited them and told me that the book was really called Other Heartbreaks. This book coming out now, a small press book about the size of my first book of short stories (Friday Night at Silver Star, Graywolf, 1986), completes a circle. I am where I began, in a sense.
I always tell young writers that they need to be prepared to sacrifice certain things. I rarely stay up late with friends because it seems to ruin my writing morning. I rarely drink for the same reason. So I strike a balance by deciding what I can do without. With teaching, I am usually able to keep writing for the first six weeks or so of the semester. And then the workload just takes over and I have a few weeks when I am all schoolwork all the time. I have accepted that as the price I pay for having a steady paycheck. With family, my grandkids are all that can compete seriously with writing. As for romance, forget it. I'm single again, but I always think, "How would I find time for that?" Although if the right person came along who understood my need for alone-time, perhaps I'd give it a whirl . . .
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
I have waited tables, picked apples, pruned apple trees, sold Christmas trees, taught high school, done retail, been a daycare worker at a bowling alley, counseled women for the Department of Labor, clerked in libraries. All of these jobs allowed me to work shoulder to shoulder with people I might not have met otherwise. And those experiences funnel into my stories, yes. At the time I did those jobs I was probably as desperate as anyone else working those jobs. I was always looking for something to support my writing habit that I could bear doing. Although I did some of them well, I never lasted long in any of these jobs.
Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?
I have taken many spiritual journeys, from being saved as young girl to eating a goodly share of LSD in the 70's. I have done a 10-day silent retreat at a Benedictine Center. I have read many books on Buddhism and traveled to Buddhist temples in Vietnam. I made my Catholic First Communion and was confirmed when my mother converted to Catholicism. I stayed with the Catholic Church until I was eighteen. There ensued the years of trying many paths. I went back to Church in the 90's to have a ready-made venue in which to do Peace and Justice work. In all of that, I think I was seeking the mystical heart of spiritual experience. I finally stopped going to Church around 2003 because I felt the Catholic Church was taking an ultra-conservative turn and I was tired of wading through the dogma to find the mystical heart. I find that now if I think about religion, I think about the Buddhist principles of Right Livelihood and Loving Kindness. As for my work, both of my novels are spiritual explorations. Hummingbird House raises questions about what our responsibilities are to people in need. In the River Sweet is partly about the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue. And some of the stories in Other Heartbreaks come out of the culture of Catholicism. Jenny in “Red Lily” longs to go to confession; Joe in “Skylark” believes his Uncle has “too much Vatican II in his veins” and that’s why he’s in trouble for an act of civil disobedience. If someone asks me on a form to name my religion, I write Buddhist-Catholic. I guess that’s a big change from my early twenties when I used to write Sun-Worshipper.
Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?
Yes. For me, place often comes first. Stories are so easily unearthed in specific places. The details, the characters, the tensions -- it's all laid out there before you, if you have eyes to see. I love traveling and much of my travel in the last twenty-five years has been to do the down-in-the-street research necessary to write about a place. To get to the "felt life" Henry James wrote about.
What's your worst writerly habit?
On the micro-level, perhaps, repeating myself, a phase, a thought. Overall, I have so many ideas that it's sometimes hard to choose among them. I can daydream a project for a long time and then let it go. That can feel like time lost.
Patricia Henley's Hummingbird House was a finalist for the National Book Award and the New Yorker Fiction Prize. Her first collection of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star, was the winner of the Montana First Book Award in 1986. Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Last Best Place, Love Stories for the Rest of Us, and The Art of the Short Story. Her published works include two novels, four collections of stories, two chapbooks of poetry, and numerous essays.