Tuesday, May 22, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Margaret Hermes


Where the hell has Margaret Hermes been all my life? Basically, we have a friend in common, writer Quinn Dalton, who told me Hermes might be up for the Q and A. I invited her. THIS below is what came to me.
Dear Lordy. I ADORE this brain, this spirit, this fantastically odd thinker and putter-of-things.

Below you'll find some quotes I now LOVE.

"Writers are magpies; scavenging is in the nature of the bird." 


"The gentleman in question apologized for years for things he had never done, even after I had acquitted him of all charges."

"I had four brothers, no sisters, and shared a tiny bedroom with my maiden aunt for the first seventeen years of my life.  I had no choice but to write."


"I was commissioned to create a book and lyrics for an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fable, The Birthday of the Infanta. I think of it as a musical tragedy for children."

What do all of these quotes have in common? Their birth in the brilliant head of Margaret Hermes.

I have no choice upon reading this interview but to immediately get a copy of RELATIVE STRANGERS into my greedy hands. 


Okay, here goes. Enjoy!


What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

I would say:  If your beloved is a writer of fiction, be prepared to stumble upon bits of yourself and pieces of your life set in New Times Roman.  Writers are magpies; scavenging is in the nature of the bird.


In “Second Lover,” my only story where the protagonist is a writer, Annie confides, “I set about doing what I often do when I feel helpless over something. I wrote about it. I take a kernel of the real thing and I slap fiction all around it and this way I gain some kind of control over whatever is eating at me.” Personally, I take kernels of the real thing whether or not I’m feeling helpless.  Snatches of conversations and moments of observation naturally force their way into a story but, in trying to make characters authentic, it’s the exploration of feeling that is most explicitly stolen from my life and the lives of others.

In our early days, my partner was reluctant to talk about his past, particularly his childhood, and I worked at drawing him out.  I wrote a short story based on memories I had wormed out of him -- and presented it to him as a gift.  Of course, I had changed everything, but not enough to make it unrecognizable to the one who had lived through it.  As he read the manuscript, I was vibrating with anticipation and, when he finished, he threw the pages across the room. “For the Home Team” has ripened into one of his favorite stories and is the final story in my collection, Relative Strangers.  And, in spite of or because of that experience, my partner became much more forthcoming.

It’s not that I typically set out to write about an actual occurrence, but more often that the real and the fictive become tangled, sometimes even mistaken for each other. When Annie is trying to explain how this can happen she brings up an incident involving her friend Colin who had wounded her feelings.  “So I made a character out of him and put him into a story and had him behave very much worse than he had that night. I had him say terrible things. Later I let Colin read the story. I was a wreck while he read it. I thought the story worked pretty well but I was afraid he’d be furious with me. Instead he apologized for all those terrible things he hadn’t said.”  I lifted that incident directly from life.  The gentleman in question apologized for years for things he had never done, even after I had acquitted him of all charges. That was a powerful experience and I think – I hope -- it made me more cautious.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Find a wealthy reader?

My life partner is neither. Oh, he’s a voracious reader of non-fiction – you know the type – but he does make an exception for my fiction. That is a particularly useful trait.  We are not each other’s dream mate; we are each other’s real mate – we are constantly making exceptions for each other.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I find research seductive. And suctive.  As in sucking away writing time.  I’m embarrassed to speculate as to how many years of research I’ve accumulated – I can research the bejeezus out of something that I anticipate will appear in a story only as a parenthetical phrase.  Sometimes research becomes procrastination, a way of avoiding committing to words while congratulating myself on my dedication and determination to get it right.

Saying that a character “takes over” and steers the story in a direction the writer hadn’t intended is a common conceit. But I find that sometimes it’s the research that sends the story off its projected course, changes its trajectory.  For “The Bee Queen” I had planned to write about a vivid incident involving wasps that had haunted me since childhood and decided to spend an afternoon at the library familiarizing myself a bit with stinging insects.  That research stretched not only over time but into my main character.  The facts that fascinated me gave rise to Bette who also found them fascinating, even if most of those facts didn’t make it into the story. And the childhood incident became, in that character’s view, her “pivotal experience” instead of the story.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I had four brothers, no sisters, and shared a tiny bedroom with my maiden aunt for the first seventeen years of my life.  I had no choice but to write.

When confronted with the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer, “A writer, a nun, or a spy” – all of which had similar attractive characteristics.  All three professions were shrouded in mystery (one taking it to the extreme of shrouding the body in flowing cloth).  All required the careful observation of others.  All kept you apart from the mainstream and seemed to demand a kind of purity. As time went by, my choice narrowed.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you. 

I hate the plays of Sam Shepard.  I’ve experienced them on the stage, not the page.  Does that count?

I’ve squirmed through performances of Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, True West, and Fool for Love.  The emotional violence in those plays undoes me.  It would be one thing if I emerged from the theatre galvanized by the caustic take on American family life but I just feel battered.  And then there’s the portrayal of women. Do they give a Tony for Best Misogynist Play?  I came of age at the peak of the feminist movement and have a hard time sitting through the objectifications of those women on the stage or, often, offstage.
Ironically, my only experience in writing for the stage involved a production whose primary female character is cruel and one-dimensional.  I was commissioned to create a book and lyrics for an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fable, The Birthday of the Infanta. I think of it as a musical tragedy for children.  

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life? 

I haven’t managed that. I find guilt often trumps writing.

Environmental causes in particular haul me out of my chair.  Phobic about what we’ve been doing to the planet since well before I started having nightmares about global warming, I’m marking my thirty-first year as a volunteer for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. I cotton to them because they’re not reluctant to sue when necessary.

I started out writing for the environment, serving as indentured slave to renowned anti-nuclear power activist Kay Drey.  I went on to edit the Coalition’s newsletter and a cookbook and to compose pamphlets and press releases, but a lot of my efforts call upon skills other than writing. 

When a piece of Saint Louis’s glorious Forest Park was sold off, I lost a year to working on changing our city charter so that no more parkland could be sold or given away without voter approval.  I somehow evolved into an event planner (whose only prior experience had been children’s birthday parties) for annual dinners and fundraisers and have been serving as the organizer of a triennial art show and auction that benefits the Coalition. That becomes a full-time job for several months every three years. eARThworks 2012 is coming up this November and I’ve already been at it part-time since February.

I guess I’m fortunate to have been blessed with insomnia.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

Growing up, our family would pile into the car and, if the ride were to last longer than fifteen minutes, our mother would pull a rosary out of her purse and lead us in prayer. This was in the days before seat belts, so the Blessed Virgin and St. Christopher were called upon to get us safely to our destination.  I suppose praying the rosary in cars ended with mandated seat belts and, since the dawn of the airbag, passengers can even afford to indulge in impure thoughts.

Some years back I settled on the label Catholic Atheist. Catholicism shaped me.  I attended Catholic schools K through U, kindergarten through university.  I am absolutely the product of a Catholic education and upbringing, though probably not a product the Church would claim.  One of my stories is titled “Transubstantiation,” which is the miracle that takes place during Holy Communion where bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, though retaining the appearance, taste, and texture of bread and wine.  While the story is not about religion, the religion I was raised in provided me with a way to give scope to my character’s transformation.

A considerable impact on my formation as a writer and as a woman resulted from being educated primarily by nuns.  Nuns take a lot of abuse now, supposedly for handing out a lot of abuse then.  There were some wackos/whackers, of course, but most of the nuns I experienced were smart, dedicated teachers.  Interestingly, they also served as role models of strong women who valued education for themselves and females in general and had found a way to live outside the confines of conventional marriage. 

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

Will Amazon still be operating in this future?



Margaret Hermes grew up in Chicago and lives in St. Louis.  Her collection of short fiction, Relative Strangers, was selected by Jill McCorkle as winner of the 2011 Doris Bakwin Award and has just been released by Carolina Wren Press. Her work includes a mystery novel, The Phoenix Nest, a stage adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fable, and assorted essays.  Her short stories have appeared in such journals as the Missouri Review, Sou'wester, New Millenium, Phoebe, River Styx, The Madison Review, The Laurel Review, and The Literary Review, and anthologized in the collections Under the Arch from Antares Press and 20 Over 40, the University Press of Mississippi. Equal parts writer and environmental activist, she has also written about the dangers of radioactive wastes and worked on behalf of a better built environment as well as for clean streams, the preservation of parkland, and the protection of wilderness areas.


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