Saturday, August 24, 2013

Lamar Herrin Discusses His Latest Novel, Fractures

Lamar Herrin, author 
In this interview Lamar Herrin discusses his book Fractures, a novel in which he explores the conflicts that develop between the members of the family of a landowner when a natural gas company plans to do some hydrofracking in their fields.

Lamar Herrin is a distinguished author and educator. He has published five novels, most recently, House of the Deaf, and one memoir, Romancing Spain.  Stories of his have appeared in Harper's, Epoch, The New Yorker, and in The Paris Review, which awarded him its Aga Kahn fiction prize.  From 1977 until 2006 he taught literature and creative writing at Cornell University, for ten of those years serving as director of the Creative Writing Program. Students of his have included Lorrie Moore, Stewart O'Nan, Susan Choi, Junot Diaz, Melissa Bank, Phil Gourevitch, and Philipp Meyer.

OE: Your last two books, House of the Deaf and Romancing Spain, were set in Spain. Fractures takes place in the northeastern United States. What was it that brought your literary interests back to America?

LH:  The story did.  Looking back, I think it's fair to say that Fractures came into being when I walked into the Susquehanna court house in Montrose, PA and saw desks lined up the length of the main hall.  The policeman on duty there told me they'd had to put out those desks to accommodate the many landowners coming in to check on the titles of their parcels of land once the gas drilling boom had hit there.  He also told me that family members were vying with other family members to see which parcel of land belonged to whom.  It's that line of desks I see and it's those family members I imagine seated there trying to decide whether to drill or not when I think of the beginning of Fractures.  And it's Pennsylvania and New York State.  But it's true—I almost never write about the place I happen to be writing in.  "Place" is important in my fiction (and very much in my life).  If I can be writing in Ithaca, New York and living through my fiction in Spain or the American Midwest or South, it's as though I'm keeping those distant parts of the world alive, preserving them, really living in two or three places at once since, as most writers of fiction know, you live just as intensely (or more) in the world of your imagination as the world you happen to be writing in.

OE: I have been to Montrose, Pa. several times. It is a nice little town, a bit out of the way, and not exactly on the route to anywhere. Did you go there specifically looking for a story about the natural gas drilling? If yes, what caused you to become interested in the topic?

LH:  No, I didn't go to Montrose (or to the Susquehanna County Court House) "looking for a story" about the gas drilling, but I did go because there was so much talk about the drilling (much of it wildly exaggerated, I suspected) and what harm it could do to our community if it came north that I wanted to see for myself.  Dimock, seven or eight miles from Montrose, was in the news then for its contaminated wells, so I thought I would drive through there and then nose around a bit in Montrose, the county seat.  Like any concerned citizen, I was worried about the environmental price we were willing to pay for "energy independence," but I was also fascinated, almost metaphorically, by the little that I knew about the process.  Drill down a mile, say, and then out, horizontally, for perhaps another mile.  Down and out.  Plumb your depths and then swing wide.  And anybody you swung wide under was "compulsorily integrated" into your scheme of things, or you into theirs.  And that very narrow bed of shale you had to drill along through.  All of this spoke to my poetic imagination before I began to be alarmed and to draw the potentially dangerous conclusions.  But it wasn't long before I began to see it all as the context for a family drama.  So maybe the best way to put it is that I was playing an as yet unformulated hunch by driving down to Montrose and Dimock, PA.

OE: The concept of "family" is quite strong in House of the Deaf. and in several of your other novels. What made you conceive of Fractures as a family novel, rather than say an "environmental conflict," novel?

LH:  From my point of view it's fairly simple.  Drama is all about conflict, and conflict at the closest of quarters and in its richest vein can most often be found in families.  The emotions get compacted: love-hate, attraction-repulsion, allegiance-revolt, and so on.  The to-drill-or-not-to-drill question is complicated in its own right, and when studied in the context of family loyalties and disloyalties it can become very intense.  Fractures  is not a muckraking book.  I have my personal feelings about the folly or wisdom of hydrofracking, but what I was trying to do in this novel was "use" the controversy to reveal character in the context of a family, where a powerful emotion can double back on its opposite very quickly.  It's hard for me to understand how you could write a novel that wasn't about family. When I'm reading a novel and a character is introduced, I immediately wonder, yes, but who is his mother, who is his father?  Are there brothers and sisters and so on?  For a character to stand family-free a huge drama must have taken place some time before, and I want to know all about that.

OE: Can you give the readers a brief summary, without giving too much away, of the plot of Fractures? Also when will it be available in book stores.

LH:  I've never known a novelist who can "briefly summarize" his novel for the simple reason that as soon as he enters that field of fiction again, again he wants to flesh it out.  I can say that Fractures will be published by St. Martin's Press on November 12 and that it is about 320 pages long.  It is told in the past tense in the third person from eight, but principally from five, points of view.  These points of view correspond to the members of the Joyner family, chief among them Frank Joyner, a sixty year old retired architect on whose shoulders (and conscience) rests the decision of whether to permit drilling (to "frack") the family field or not. This field is located in a region in an unnamed northeastern state, but which will quickly be identifiable as New York State and the region as the Finger Lakes. There are two other point of view characters, both of them outside the family but who in some ways aspire to be in. There's a bullying ex-brother-in-law of Frank Joyner, a criminal lawyer from New York City, and there's a Texas roughneck become gas company landman, who falls in love with Frank Joyner's daughter.  And I could go on—and on.  All of these characters have a voice, and not one of them is free of doubts as to what the final decision should be.  The only constant is the land.  The novel goes down and the novel goes out, following the trajectory of the drilling itself.  In many ways it illustrates the drilling refrain: Plumb deep and then swing wide.  Compulsory integration.

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Fractures was published by St. Martin.s Press in November of 2013, and can be ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through Independent Book Stores.  ($19.35 hardcover; $11.04 Kindle.)  On Lamar’s website Under the heading "New Work" he makes some additional comments about the book and then includes boxes you can click on to order.  Under "Contact" you can find Lamar’s email address.  Please feel free to email him with any comments you might have about the book or the subject matter.  Lamar Herrin would like very much to hear from you. 

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