As careful readers of this blog will know, I have been fortunate to get advanced copies from the good folks at Harper Collins via their First Look Books program. The very first book I received was Janis Hallowell’s debut novel The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn. It was a propitious start. I found it to be an interesting and beautiful exploration of the role of faith and doubt in people’s lives. After the book hit the stores I thought it would be illuminating to ask this former potter and graphic designer a few questions and she graciously agreed to submit to my email queries. The results are below. Enjoy.
1) What motivated you to transition from being a potter and a graphic designer to being a writer/novelist?
It was 1990 and design was making the transition from â€œby handâ€ to computers. I was pretty burnt out on it all anyway. Plus Iâ€™d just had my baby and wanted to be home more, not out competing for graphic design jobs. So I phased out of the design business and turned my attention to writing fiction. Somewhere along the line I had the opportunity to work in clay again (I had been out of it and focusing on design for almost 20 years) so I did that as a nice balance to the writing. I shared this funky studio with 5 other women. It was wonderful.
2) I noticed that the book was promoted at a local bookstore as part of a â€œWomenâ€™s Writingâ€ section. Do you see it that way? Did you envision the book as having particular resonance with women?
Thatâ€™s the first Iâ€™ve heard of it being categorized that way, but Iâ€™m not surprised. At least they didnâ€™t categorize it as â€œWomenâ€™s Fictionâ€ which seems to be synonymous with â€œLightweight.â€ You donâ€™t go into a bookstore and find a table labeled â€œMenâ€™s Writing.â€ Women writers still have some gender bias to overcome. Many of my characters are women and I am a women but that doesnâ€™t mean that I wrote it for women only. Iâ€™m glad when the book resonates with anyone, of either sex and of any age.
3) A homeless man, paleo-biologist single mother, and a teenager that may or may not be another Virgin Mary â€“ that is quite a plot. What sparked a story like this? Did you start with the basic story arc or with individual characters or a mix?
I knew I wanted to write about belief, the folly of belief, the consequences of believing, and I wanted it set in contemporary America. So, since the Judeo-Christian influence is most powerful here I knew the story had to relate to the Christian myth in some way. The annunciation of the virgin seems to be at the root of the Christian myth so I went from that and started working the story. The other characters arose out of the story development.
4) What made you decide to tell the story from the perspective of individual characters in alternating chapters? What challenges does this present?
I had a story about the projections of people onto a young and impressionable girl. I wanted to explore their different beliefs, attitudes, frames of reference. So to get right into their heads, first person was called for. Also, Francesca, being young and impressionable and the â€œobjectâ€ in the book, needed to stand out from the other voices, and her chapters sounded best in a close third person. For me the close third feels like the soul voice â€“ the ageless, non-judgmental observer.
5) The story seems to straddle the line between the mystical or fantastic and the mundane â€œreal world.â€ Were you trying to use one to illuminate the other, or both?
I was trying to stay on that line and not sway into one camp or the other, but let the events unfold for the reader without inflicting my overt judgment on them.
6) Is there a tension between the world of faith and mystery and the world of science or the visible? Is that line always clear?
I suspect that if you honestly explore either one, you find the other. The key word there isâ€ honestly.â€
7) What role does faith play in the various charactersâ€™ lives? Is it different for Gervais than for Anne? What about Rae or Chester?
Oh my. Itâ€™s all about their various relationships to faith and faithâ€™s conjoined twin, doubt. Anne is skeptical of any faith other than faith in science. Gervais is a Jesuit priest, so his faith has been publicly declared to be in line with the Catholic Church though he seems to have his own private doubts. Rae is the most clinging of followers and the one who cares least about Francescaâ€™s well being. Chester is the opposite, he cares for Francesca so much that he lets go of her when he realizes that the scene around her is doing her harm.
8) Chesterâ€™s unique abilities and perspectives seem like both a blessing and curse in the beginning. Does he give something up by cleaning up, cutting his beard, taking medication, etc.?
Absolutely. He gives up the â€œGodâ€ in his own blood in order to be able to function better and therefore take better care of Francesca and himself.
9) What about Francesca? She seems to embrace the â€œgiftâ€ at first only to find it gone when she most needs it. Is puberty both a blessing and a curse in this sense?
Well, I think this begs another question: Did she ever have the â€œgift?â€ Or did she get pulled into the projections of her devotees?
10) The book in many ways deals with the impact social breakdown has on children (Single motherhood, drug abuse, mental illness). Do you think it is uniquely difficult to be a young person today? That they face unique challenges?
Iâ€™m not sure that teenagers today face more difficult challenges than teenagers of past generations; itâ€™s impossible to compare. But, having said that, it sure seems like they have a rough time of it. I think itâ€™s plenty hard to be a kid today. The stresses they have are huge: An overpopulated world, diminishing resources, a senseless war, AIDS, terrorism. Tuition is comparatively much higher than ever before so kids graduate with a load of debt which pressures them to seek high paying jobs like investment banking instead of arts jobs or education jobs. Almost no one can buy a first house today unless they come from affluence. On top of that, our kids will have to take care of the largest, longest living generation (their parents) in the history of mankind.
11) Many of the adults in the novel seem to use Francesca or project things onto her. What does this say about them, particularly a character like Rae?
Everyone in the book is looking for their own particular brand of salvation whether itâ€™s to be able to buy a car and groceries for a drunken mom (Sid) or to be the protector of the Holy Virgin (Chester.) Rae is particularly distasteful because sheâ€™s going for personal profit and the status position of caretaker to the holy person. But they arenâ€™t so different from everybody else, are they? Weâ€™re all looking for a way, preferably easy, out of whatever impasse weâ€™re facing. And I guess thatâ€™s the point: people will do almost anything if they think theyâ€™re going to get a free pass to salvation.
12) What kinds of expectations do/did you have for your first novel?
Seeing it in print, in bookstores, fulfilled my wildest dreams. Everything else is icing on the cake.
13) What has been the reaction so far? Do you read reviews and feedback or ignore it?
The reactions to the book have been really wonderful for the most part. It seems to be a jumping off place for interesting conversations and thought and that makes me feel great. Like all writers, I tend to think that the reviewers who like my book are brilliant and the ones who donâ€™t are missing the boat.
14) What is next? Another book along the same lines or something different?
Iâ€™m about a year into the next book, another novel. Itâ€™s not a sequel. There is a similar element having to do with the influence the group has on the individual, but other than that I think it will be quite different.