I had the great honor tonight of hearing Jennifer Haigh read from her excellent book, The Condition, at Politics & Prose in DC. The Condition was my favorite book in 2008, and I was very excited to hear her talk about the book and her writing process. Here is what she had to say in the Q&A following the reading.
First, she said that Politics & Prose is "one of those stores writers talk about". That made me happy – it's the closest bookstore to my house. (Actually, it's practically the closest store to my house – I am so lucky).
Q: You said that The Condition couldn't have taken place anywhere other than Boston. Why is that?
JH: I have been very influenced by place in all of my work. In The Condition, three locations play a major role – Cape Cod, Cambridge and Concord. Each of these gave a different flavor of the Boston experience.
Q: How did you find out about Turner's Syndrome? What made you decide to write about it?
JH: Turner's Syndrome is rare – about 100,000 women in the U.S. suffer from it. A friend in high school had the condition, though I didn't realize at the time what she had. I came across it many years later in an article, and it struck me as a great premise for a novel. I couldn't believe that no one had written about Turner's Syndrome before.
I believe that novels are good for one thing – telling how people's lives turn out. For Gwen, Turner's affected her whole life, every aspect of it. Using it in the book was irresistible – I couldn't walk away from it.
Q: Did you start out wanting to be an author?
JH: I have always been a writer, always a reader. I never trained to do anything else (I went to liberal arts school!). I always loved writing. I started out doing some play writing, and while I wasn't good at it, it was helpful in training me how to sustain a story over 400 pages, how to structure and pace it out. I also wrote some short stories, which are a totally different animal – more like poetry.
Q: How long does it take you to write a novel?
JH: It usually takes me about three years. There are about 6-8 months in the beginning when I am casting about, feeling like I have no ideas. Then, when I am finished with a book, I feel like I am tapped, that I have no ideas left, that all my thoughts have been used up. When I am done, I have no novel left in me. It's hard to get up in the morning, demoralizing, feeling like I have no ideas left.
Q: Did you do a lot of research about Turner's?
JH: I did a lot of remedial biology research to understand Turner's, which was humbling – I asked a lot of dumb questions of a lot of smart people. I also interviewed a number of girls and women with Turner's, as well as parents and husbands of women with Turner's.
Q. Location is an important part of all of your books. How do you research location, and how do you decide where to set your novels?
JH: Mrs. Kimble mostly takes place in kitchens. That book was the least dependent on landscape of my three novels. Baker Towers took place in a coal town in Pennsylvania, close to where I grew up. In that book, the setting was a main character in the story. Even though I grew up there, I did a lot of research because the book was set in the 1940s. The town was depressed when I grew up there – and I wanted to set it when it was more alive. I've always had a fantasy of time travel – I wanted to go back to see my town before I was born. Baker Towers was my way of doing that. My research involved sitting back and asking a lot of questions. My dad knew a lot of detail about the past, in that town, and he was a great source of information. Sadly, he died halfway during the writing of the book, but I already had gotten the details and texture from him.
Q: What are you working on now?
JH: I am working on a new novel. It's in the ugly first draft stage, so I have 2 1/2 years to go. I have realized that I hate the first draft phase. I only like rewriting. I love the last three months of putting in commas and taking them out. I am a great punctuator – I love playing with the music of sentences.
Thank you to Jennifer Haigh and Politics & Prose for an excellent reading!