Tag Archives: marriages

Spotlight on The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

Releasing July 16 from Scribner

the violet hourA pitch-perfect, emotionally riveting debut novel about the fracturing of a marriage and a family – from an award-winning young writer with superb storytelling instincts.  Life hasn’t always been perfect for Abe and Cassandra Green, but an afternoon on the San Francisco Bay might be as good as it gets. Abe is a rheumatologist, piloting his coveted new boat. Cassandra is a sculptor, finally gaining modest attention for her art. Their beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, is heading to Harvard in the fall. Somehow, they’ve made things work. But then, out of nowhere, they plunge into a terrible fight. Cassandra has been unfaithful. In a fit of fury, Abe throws himself off the boat.  A love story that begins with the end of a marriage, The Violet Hourfollows a modern family through past and present, from the funeral home in the Washington suburbs where Cassandra and her siblings grow up to the San Francisco public health clinic where Abe and Cassandra first meet. As the Greens navigate the passage of time—the expectations of youth, the concessions of middle age, the headiness of desire, the bitterness of loss—they must come to terms with the fragility of their intimacy, the strange legacies they inherit from their parents, and the kind of people they want to be. Exquisitely written, The Violet Hour is the deeply moving story of a family suddenly ripped apart, but then just possibly reborn.

Bookmagnet Says: Told from multiple and very distinctive viewpoints, The Violet Hour knocked me over with its intimate portrayal of a family’s past and present.  Hill knows how to keep readers turning pages.  Utterly beguiling.

O, The Oprah Magazine loved it, too.  They chose it as one of “Ten Titles To Pick Up Now” in the August issue:

A bittersweet tale of breakup and forgiveness, this debut novel begins at the end of a marriage and journeys back through time to explore why the relationship frayed.

I will be reviewing The Violet Hour next week, so stay tuned!

 

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Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller

Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller, Author of Brand New Human Being

Jaime Boler: Thanks, Emily, for letting me ask you these questions.  I really appreciate it.  You have worked in journalism and you have an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida.  What is your first love: environmental studies or writing?  When did you discover you wanted to be a writer?

Emily Jeanne Miller: I always wanted to write, but I didn’t know what. I think that deep down I always wanted to write fiction but I didn’t know how to begin, and moreover I was afraid to try. Growing up, I loved the outdoors and I loved books. I worked as a journalist for a while after college then went to grad school in Montana, where I took an elective class on James Joyce. When we read the short story, “The Dead,” something burst open for me. I had to write fiction. So I did. I started there, and have been at it ever since.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Brand New Human Being?

EJM: The original inspiration for the book was a father and son I saw late one night, when I was at hot springs resort in the middle of nowhere in Montana. Something about them struck me; I wondered what they were doing there, just the two of them, so late at night. I’m not sure I thought about them again until 2001, after I’d left Montana for Florida, where I went for my MFA. For a workshop, I wrote a story based on the father and son from at the hot springs. It wasn’t a great story, and I rewrote it a bunch of times over the next several years–well, nine years. I was still basically rewriting it when I sat down in the fall of 2009 and started what would become Brand New Human Being. The father and son from that night are now Logan and Owen. The hot springs scene is still in there, though now it plays a pretty minor role.

JB: In Brand New Human Being, Julie is working on a big asbestos case.  You covered a wide range of topics when you were a journalist.  Did you ever write about asbestos cases?

EJM: I did not write about asbestos cases, but a huge one was in the news all the time, so I was reading about it constantly. A friend of mine made great documentary about it called “Libby, Montana,” that really intrigued and amazed me, particularly on the human level–the impact environmental problems can have on the lives of individuals and families, and over generations. I also did work for the Clark Fork Coalition, a non-profit group devoted to cleaning up the Clark Fork and nearby rivers, mostly from mining-related contamination, so I was learning a lot about that.

JB: You set your story in Montana, a state in which you have lived.  As a writer, do you believe it’s easier or better to write what you know or is it more difficult because it’s familiar?

EJM: Both can be true. I didn’t write about the West until I’d moved East. I seem to have trouble writing about the place where I’m living, but then something about leaving a place brings it into sharper focus. I guess I tend to write about what I know, but from a distance.

JB: Logan is angry in this novel. He’s angry at his father for dying, his wife for being distant and overworked, his friend for wanting to sell the store, and at his son for sucking his thumb and wanting to “be a baby.”  Is Logan the real problem here?

EJM: Definitely–and that’s a big part of what the novel’s about: Logan getting out of his own way. He has to let go of a lot of the old anger he’s carrying around to be able to move forward in his life.

JB: Despite the distance with which Gus raised Logan, Logan desperately wants to be a good father.  In fact, one of my favorite things about Brand New Human Being is the father-son bond between Logan and Owen.  Sure, Logan’s not perfect, but readers can feel how fiercely protective Logan is of Owen and how much he loves him.  How difficult was it to write this father-son bond–something we women can never experience?

EJM: I didn’t find it very difficult, maybe because I just thought about people/animals/things I love fiercely, and went from there.

JB: I love the title.  Early on in the book, Logan talks about Owen’s birth and how he was this “brand new human being.”  In the end, though, Logan has become a brand new human being himself.  He’s come to terms with his father’s death and realizes he’s not the one that died.  What came first for you: the story or the title?

EJM: That’s so eloquently put! Actually, that line’s been in the story since almost the beginning, but the book went through several titles before landing on that one. My original title was “Gold,” which my agent nixed for its vagueness. Then we decided on “After Augustus,” but that didn’t work for a few different reasons. We considered about a hundred more, until finally my editor’s assistant came up with “Brand New Human Being,” which I think is really catchy, and works well for the story (for exactly reasons you describe).

JB: Do you have a favorite character in this story?  Is any character most like you?

EJM: I have a favorite character–I like them all for different reasons, which I think has to be the case if they’re going to feel multi-dimensional and sympathetic to readers. One character I would have liked to spend more time with, though, is Donna Zilinkas. She plays a peripheral role in the story, but she was surprisingly fun to write.

JB: Can you describe your road to publication?  When did you begin work on the novel?  Did you receive any rejection letters?

EJM: I started working on the novel in the fall of 2009. I worked every day, hard, for almost a year. Then I revised it a couple of times–major revisions–and then I sent it to a couple of writer friends to read. I did one more revision based on what they said, and when it was as strong as I believed I could make it, I contacted several agents in early February 2011. After that things happened quickly. My agent, Lisa Bankoff, took me on on Valentine’s Day; the next week she sent the manuscript out to a handful of houses. Two were immediately interested, so I spoke with those editors, and the next day I accepted a two-book deal from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Which is not to say I haven’t received rejection letters. Over the years, sending out short stories, I’ve received plenty of those.

JB: How do you deal with both good and bad reviews?  Does one bad review dampen all the good ones?

EJM: Since this is my first book, I’m learning as I go. It’s really gratifying when someone says the book resonated with them. So far, I haven’t been too upset by anything a reviewer has said. One thing that does irk me, I’ve found, is when a reviewer gets major factual thing wrong about the book, and in the next turn criticizes it.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Brand New Human Being and what was the most rewarding?

EJM: The most difficult part was the discipline to keep at it. Some days I really, really didn’t want to sit down at the computer. Like, at all. That’s hard—you just have to. There’s no way around that. The process of finishing, finding my agent, and selling it was thrilling—and I don’t mean financially. So much of writing is solitary, and it can fill you with self-doubt. Producing a book that even a few people like and take seriously feel very, very good.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this novel?

EJM: One thing I learned was that I could do it—I mean actually write a book. I had no idea whether or not that was the case.

JB: Please tell us what a typical day of writing is like for you.

EJM: While I was writing Brand New Human Being, I tried to stick to a 4-pages/4 miles daily quota, which meant I would try to be sitting at my desk by 8:30 a.m. If I had to do things (like pay bills, or do other work, or interact with a sentient being aside from my dog), I’d try to schedule those around lunchtime. After lunch I would go back to work, and around my dog’s dinner time (4 or 5p.m.) I’d get up and tend to him. Then I’d go for a run or walk, during which I’d think about the book, and then I’d sit down once more to jot down what I’d thought about, for the next morning. And then I’d leave it alone for the night. (Except when I would think about it, going to sleep.)

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

EJM: I love being outside (except this time of year in DC, when it’s scorching): walking, running, hiking, swimming. I love dogs. I read a lot. I love a good TV drama (Friday Night Lights and Deadwood are my all-time favorites), though I tend to get obsessed and gorge myself on them. I think I watched the entire Season One of Game of Thrones in a week.

JB: What are some of your favorite books and/or who are some of your favorite authors?

EJM: Writer-wise, I love William Trevor and Alice Munro and John Cheever; his story “Goodbye My Brother” astonishes me every time I read it. As for novels, I re-read The Great Gatsby regularly. I also adore Richard Russo. Two of my favorite novels I’ve read in recent years are “A Month in the Country” by JL Carr, “The Museum of Innocence” by Orhan Pamuk, and “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick DeWitt.

JB: Any chance of this getting made into a movie?  If so, who do you see in the lead roles?

EJM: No word yet from Hollywood, but I’ll keep you posted. I do love the “who-would-play-whom” game. I’m thinking Kirsten Dunst or Claire Danes could make a good Julie. And how about Jake Gyllenhal or even Seth Rogan as Logan?

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Brand New Human Being?

EJM: I hope they feel as if they’ve spent some time in the company of good, complex people who are doing their best, if not always doing very well. And I hope they enjoyed the experience!

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

EJM: Yes, I’m working on another novel. Too early to talk about specifics, but it’s safe to say this one will be about a complicated family, too. And chances are they’ll have a dog.

JB: Thanks, Emily, for a wonderful interview!
 

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Book Review: Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller

Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 272 pages; $25).

“My name is Logan Pyle.  My father is dead, my wife is indifferent, and my son is strange.  I’m thirty-six years old.  My life is nothing like I thought it would be.”  Thus begins Emily Jeanne Miller’s fast-paced and deeply heartfelt debut Brand New Human Being.

Miller has worn many hats in her life.  At Princeton University, from which she graduated, she studied comparative religions.  She holds an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida in Gainesville.  Formerly a journalist, Miller covered a wide range of environmental topics, such as Indian casinos, nuclear bomb testing, rock climbing, and grizzly bears.  We should be lucky she turned to fiction writing, as her first novel overflows with humor, tenderness, and humanity.

Initially, however, I did not like Logan.  I thought Logan’s biggest problem by far was Logan.  That is partially true, but he managed to win me over.  All the credit goes to Miller.

Logan’s father, Gus, died four months ago.  The son deeply mourns the loss of his father, perhaps more so because it was marked by a lot of distance.  By distance, I do not mean miles.  I refer to the distance of the heart.

Logan’s mother died when he was a child and Gus was a single-parent.  When Logan was in his late teens, Gus remarried a woman only five years older than his son.  Logan still has issues with Bennie, his father’s young widow.

When Miller’s story begins, Logan is husband to Julie, a lawyer, and stay-at-home dad to four-year-old son Owen.  Former grad student, Logan’s status is ABD (all but dissertation).  Home life is far from ideal.

An important case involving workers at a vermiculite mine preoccupies Julie.  When she is with Logan and Owen, her mind seems elsewhere; and it is.  Husband and wife once loved each other fiercely, but her time is short.  Both Logan and Owen miss her.

Owen cries out for attention.  He seems to know instinctively that things are not right in his household.  He just senses something is off.  As a consequence, Owen is “regressing,” sucking his thumb, and wanting to be a baby.  Logan is often short with him and with his wife.

Then, there is the outdoor-equipment store called The Gold Mine that Gus left Logan.  His friend, Bill, helps him run the business.  An unidentified buyer made an enormous offer on the store and the land it occupies.  Bill wants to take it and pushes Logan to accept.

If all those things are too much for one man to deal with, it only gets worse.  Julie’s boss wants to dig up Gus, who once worked in the mines himself.  His body may help their case.  Logan just cannot agree to exhume his father’s body, at least not right now.

For Logan, the final straw comes when he catches Julie kissing another man at a birthday party.  Something in him snaps.  He packs up Owen and his most prized possession, a 1920s Louisville Slugger, and gets into his truck and leaves Julie and his troubles behind.

Or so he thinks.  Bad luck follows Logan, and misadventures seem to follow.  After he gets revenge on the man he saw Julie with, he ends up at his father’s old cabin and finds something unexpected and welcome there, something or someone that could really jeopardize his marriage to Julie.  It is here that Logan discovers his choices–past, present, and future–matter.

By the end of the book, Logan is a different man.  Since his father died, Logan has been fixated on his own mortality and grief-stricken.  Like a lot of men, Logan does not know how to cope with his grief.  But that is no longer an issue for him.  “Somebody did die,” Logan says.  “I guess I just took a while to understand that it wasn’t me.”  When Owen was born, Logan marveled at his son, a “brand new human being.”  Now Logan is a “brand new human being” himself and everyone around him is better for it.

Miller’s story explores marriage, family, death, love, betrayal, and forgiveness.  What stands out most to me, though, is the bond between father and son.  Logan may be sharp with Owen at times and he may want him to act like a big kid, yet it is clear that Logan loves his son and would do anything in the world for him.  Written with humor and poignancy, Brand New Human Being shows us no one is perfect.  No one is without faults.  The secret to life is learning how to accept the deficiencies in others and, most importantly, the ones in ourselves.

Truth be told, if Miller had not chosen to write this novel in Logan’s first person perspective, I do not think he would have ever won me over.  I am thankful she decided to tell the story like she did.  Logan is not perfect, but none of us are.  This novel will compel you to do your best to be a better human being.  Who knows?  You just may be a “brand new human being” too.

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Book Review: Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 288 pages; $24).

 

            Novels are often strong in one or two elements and lacking in others.  Characters may stand out in one book while the plot suffers.  In other tales, the setting might drive the story because there is just no plot at all.  Rarely does one novel feature a triple play, as I call it, where the setting, the characterizations, and the plot are skillfully crafted and masterfully rendered.  Yet, in her fourth novel, and perhaps her best to date, Blue Asylum, Kathy Hepinstall manages to do just that and then some.

Hepinstall previously wrote The House of Gentle Men, which was a finalist for the Penn Faulkner Awards West and an LA Times bestseller.  Her other novels are The Absence of Nectar and Prince of Lost Places.  She has not published a book since 2003 and her storytelling has been deeply missed.

Blue Asylum is well worth the wait.  Hepinstall sets the story during the Civil War in an insane asylum on Sanibel Island.  The beauty of the island starkly contrasts with the horrors of the institution.  Blue water, lapping waves, white sand, and swaying palm trees almost suggest a vacation-like environment.  Yet Sanibel Island is also home to snakes, alligators, sharks, and stingrays.  However, the biggest threat on the island is not the wildlife.

Dr. Henry Cowell and his staff run the lunatic asylum.  Cowell specializes in the madness of women.  And he is certain he can cure his newest ward: Iris Dunleavy.  Cowell is fond of the “water treatment,” a “cure” so painful it might as well be called torture.  He knows all about Iris and feels she needs to be taken down a peg or two, and he is happy to do it.  Cowell promises Iris’s husband that he’s going to make her “well again.”  Iris and Cowell serve as each other’s antagonist.  A battle of wills breaks out between the two.

Iris is the protagonist of Blue Asylum and a worthy one.  Although not a mother, she is a maternal figure.  This maternal instinct gets her into trouble more than once throughout the course of the story.

In fact, that nature is partly to explain why Iris is at the asylum in the first place.  A judge declares her insane, despite her protests to the contrary.  No one will listen to Iris.  She swears adamantly that her only crime is defying her husband, a wealthy Virginia plantation owner: “I am not a lunatic.  I am the victim of a terrible campaign of outright slander by my own husband.”  Her disobedience lands her in the asylum.

Iris’s crime is revolutionary, or at least given the era in which Hepinstall sets the story.  Robert Dunleavy, Iris’s husband, is cruel both to his wife and to his slaves: “He is simply a terrible man, a brutal slave owner, a liar, and a killer.”  When his finances take a turn, he cuts back on what meager medicine and clothing he provides the slaves.  He has the overseer punish them for even the slightest offenses.  The punishment is so severe in one instance that Iris intervenes.  Dunleavy, livid, vows revenge and treats Iris as if she were property.  Iris hates her husband, especially when she catches him with a young slave girl.

Many plantation owners had sexual relations with their female slaves, but not all.  Hepinstall accurately portrays Dunleavy as a man who believed slaves were property, to be bought and sold and punished according to the master’s will and whim.  Hepinstall shows the resentment building and building in Dunleavy’s slaves, who ultimately decide to rebel against him.

The slaves plan to run away.  Flight was perhaps the best way to “stick it” to one’s master.  Since slave owners viewed slaves as property, when a slave ran away, he “stole himself.”  Great expense was involved in tracking down and acquiring escaped slaves.  When Hepinstall tells this part of the story, she gives us historical accuracy, and that is important, even if this is only fiction.  She makes the tale believable and plausible.

That plausibility somewhat lessens when Hepinstall has Iris run away with the slaves.  Her flight and her siding with the slaves to spite her husband is the crime that puts Iris in the asylum.  As I researched slave resistance for my dissertation, I never once came across anything like this.  Nowhere did I find a white plantation mistress running away with her husband’s slaves.  In Hepinstall’s story, Iris runs away because she sees herself as their mother-figure, just as many slave owners viewed themselves as “fathers” to their slaves.  Iris feels responsible, at least in part, for their plight at the hands of her husband.

Yet, who is to say this could not happen?  After all, whites would have covered up such a thing.  Whites would have buried the story of a mistress running away with her slaves so deeply that it would never have been written about.  The mere mention of the account, in the eyes of whites, would put ideas into their slaves’ heads.  Since slaves outnumbered whites in most towns, slave rebellion was a big fear.  If a white mistress ever ran away with her husband’s slaves, it would most likely not be in any historical record.  So while this may not be historically accurate, it is still entirely plausible.  Something like this could have happened.

Iris, then, is not at the asylum because she is crazy.  She is there because she defied her husband.  Other patients at Sanibel Asylum really are there for a reason.  One is Ambrose Weller, former Confederate soldier.  Ambrose fights very real demons as he relives painful memories of the death of his best friend.  Cowell treats Ambrose with laudanum and directs him to think of the color blue in times of distress.  “Blue.  Blue like a marble.  Like cobalt glass…Like ice in a beard…Like the stained glass windows of a church.”  Cowell feels he is making progress with Ambrose, or at least until Iris’s arrival.

Ambrose and Iris spend time together and fall in love.  Theirs is a doomed romance.  Ambrose really does need help; Ambrose really is mad.  Iris, though, does not belong in the asylum and plans to escape.

Hepinstall’s prose is quietly hypnotic as she tells the story from the points of view of Iris, Ambrose, Cowell, and Wendell, Cowell’s son.  Each character has a distinctive voice as he or she battles inner demons.  Hepinstall uses lots of flashbacks, both for effect and to keep the plot suspenseful.  She knows just when to pull back so we anticipate what happens next.

Blue Asylum‘s many characters stand out and benefit from being called crazy.  Lydia Helms Truman has impeccable manners but is fond of swallowing anything from rings to letters to checkers.  Keep your jewelry away from her.  There is also the elderly widow who believes her late husband is still next to her.  She talks to him, kisses him, and even dances with him.  Hepinstall creates a man whose feet feel so heavy they are sometimes frozen in place.

All these mad people even affect the doctor.  His patients and his family drive him crazy.  Wendell, his son, is convinced that he is as mad as the others in the asylum.  The boy gets too attached to patients and is convinced a tragedy that happens to him cleanses away his sins. Mrs. Cowell is addicted to laudanum and crazy-jealous of Iris.   Hepinstall’s characters linger long after the book is closed.

Picturesque setting, memorable characters, and a suspenseful plot characterize Blue Asylum.  If you’ve never read Hepinstall before, let this be your introduction.  She is an author worthy of your attention.

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