As I might have mentioned once or twice, a few weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting down with Michelle Herman to talk about her work (including two recently released books). Michelle Herman teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at The Ohio State University and was the recipient of the University Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award, which is the university’s highest teaching honor. She is the author of Missing, A New and Glorious Life, and most recently Dog and The Middle of Everything). Having stumbled upon her work in the bookstore and realizing that she lived in the same city, and aspiring to the level of Robert Birnbaum, I asked if she would be willing to do an interview. She graciously agreed to do so.
So on a particularly lovely day for Columbus we met at a cafe. We talked about writing, living in the Midwest, dogs, inner dialog, the value of MFA’s, and more. Given its length, I decided to break the interview into two parts. Below is part one (I will post Part two tomorrow). Enjoy.
KH: What drew you to a career in writing? What were your inspirations growing up?
To tell you the truth I almost don’t remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as a writer. But probably the real answer to that is reading. I read and read and read. My guess is that I was already writing – I know I was already writing before I thought, “Oh, I could become an author.” Because I know for sure exactly when I began to see myself as a writer. I was seven and my second grade teacher had praised me for a assignment I had written about the Verrazano Bridge that had just been put up – we all had to write something about this Verrazano Bridge – but she carried on so much about it . . . And I think that is how it works for most people who end up pursuing something in art. You do something naturally that’s comfortable and that you loving doing but that’s not enough, someone has to say: “you’re good at that, I want to see more of that.” I know as early as my sixth grade autograph book for “career” I was writing, “author.” I was sure.
KH: The experience of moving from New York City to the Midwest seems to be a theme that runs through many of your stories. What brought you to Columbus?
The job at Ohio State. When you earn a living as an academic – which I didn’t realize I was going to do until my mid-thirties – once you make that decision, you go wherever there’s a job. So I didn’t choose Columbus. But I did have some choices. It’s not that Columbus was the best place, but that Ohio State was easily the best job.
KH: What kind of experience has it been?
I still haven’t made it – you can tell from the book – I still haven’t made the transition. I left New York for the Midwest in 1984 to go to graduate school in Iowa fully thinking I would go home after two years – I kept my apartment (it was a sub-let and I sub-sub-let it). I went to Iowa because I didn’t even know of anywhere else you could go. If you wanted to go to graduate school in writing you go the Iowa Writers Workshop.
But then the phone rang . . . and the guy was a Midwesterner so I stayed in the Midwest. But when I ran out of money I decided to try and get a teaching job (by then I had given up my apartment). I remember making a list of schools originally and I had all of the East Coast schools at the top of the list. But when I went on the interviews, it was just the luck of the draw, all of the East Coast schools ended up on the bottom of my list. I just didn’t like the people who had interviewed me, etc.
And you would think by now that I would have adjusted. In fact, when I first moved here it was from Omaha where I lived after graduate school and compared to Omaha Columbus is Paris. So for the first year I was so excited about Columbus: I could see a foreign film, you could get good Japanese food . . . but by the second year reality had set in.
I some ways it’s funny. I bitched and moaned about Columbus for years. And in the memoir I complain bitterly about Columbus, but when I finished the book suddenly Columbus didn’t seem so bad anymore. And I think – this is just a guess – I got it all out of my system once and for all. And now, honestly, I don’t hate it anymore. But it took living here for almost 16 years and writing a book in which I bitterly complained – I feel bad about it now. One of the ways the book got the title it has now – one of the early titles of the book was called “The Middle of Nowhere” which is what I keep referring to Columbus as. And my daughter, she was right, said that makes it sound like a depressing book and it’s not. And she said why don’t you call it “The Middle of Everywhere.” I said but that doesn’t mean anything (I have since learned that that is actually a title of a book, which is frightening), it’s a meaningless phrase. So she said how about “The Middle of Everything.”
KH: Talented daughter already . . .
She is that. Don’t get me started on my daughter. My daughter is amazing.
KH: The old saw goes something like: “everyone’s first novel is an autobiography.” Your first novel was about an elderly Jewish woman, but is it fair to say that all of your stories are part autobiography (touching on issues from your life and experiences)? Is that true of all writers?
Even that one . . . I think you can only write – at some level you can only write what you know. That doesn’t mean you can only write about places you have been or people you have been, but whatever you are writing about the core of it is something you know.
In that first book a lot of the physical details and a lot of the biography – the facts, where the character was born and so on – were based on my own grandmother. And the other physical details, like imaging what it would be to get up from the bathtub, were from observing her. But the emotional details came from my doing what writers do when they write fiction, which is “what if.” What if I had been born in the last century instead of this one, what if I had been born in Eastern Europe, what if I had never had an education, what if, what if, what if . . . The personality is not my grandma’s (bitter, angry, lonely . . .) but it was interesting imagining if I was 90 years old how would I feel; what if my husband were dead . . . So in that way there was a kind of emotional truth.
The other part of it, if you read enough of my fiction – this was pointed out to me a while ago – in almost everything I write there is a young women who is innocent, and artist of some kind – in Missing it’s the grand-daughter, in A New and Glorious Life it’s the poet, in Hope Among Men it’s Hope – and they all bear a suspicious resemblance to each other. In some ways it is an idealized hopeful version of myself in my youth.
In Dog – people keep asking me about Dog: how could I write plausibly about a middle aged women who lives completely alone when I am a middle aged women with a husband and seven year old daughter. But that’s my “there but for the grace of God story.” I could easily imagine my life going that way if I hadn’t met my husband. Obviously Jill’s history is not exactly like mine but it has enough in common with mine. I’ve created this sort of alternate universe and I gave her some distinctly autobiographical facts, like her love for shoes, which is incongruous for her. In some ways, it’s funny, the way she is different from me is more amazing to me than anything. Like I could never be a poet. It would be like saying could I be a mechanic? There is just no way.
KH: I meant to ask you about that. Your characters are often poets? Why?
Well, I have a lot of familiarity with poets. I know a lot of poets so they are within reach. The process is similar enough – just like the translator in Auslander, I have never been a translator but I can imagine what it is like to sit there day after day and do translation just like I can imagine what it must be like to write poetry. I love poetry. I mean I think of poetry as being – the bad people are never poets – I do think of poetry as being a more rarefied art than writing novels. If you have to rank these things I always put poetry up at the top with composing music and with painting.
The other art form that I am really interested in but have never done anything with, but I mean to, is acting. I was surrounded by actors in my youth, in my twenties in New York. That was always my alternate career path – although I don’t think I could have done something that is so dependent on other people – but I love it. Not surprisingly that’s my daughter’s first love.
KH: You mentioned Dog as a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” type work. Do you think those of us who have never lived alone – I had roommates in college, got married after college, have never really lived alone – have a hard time understanding what it means to live by yourself? Is there a communication gap there?
I don’t think there is a communication gap but I do think it means . . . Thousands of times in class with my students I say: “There are two kinds of people in this world” and then always come up with yet another two kinds. But you know in any area there are two kinds of people and when it comes to this there are two kinds of people: people who are meant to live alone and people who are meant to live with others. What’s funny – that’s probably the wrong word – what’s difficult is when someone who I think is made to live alone ends up living with other people. Like me, I am very comfortable alone. I was very happy – happy is the wrong word too – I was very comfortable living alone. I never had a roommate from the moment I moved out of my parent’s place when I was twenty until the moment my husband moved in with me and I was thirty-seven, thirty-eight, I lived alone without a moments unhappiness about it. On the other end when someone like you, or my character Rivke in Missing, ends up alone, after years of living with other people, it can be extremely difficult.
I have never actually thought about this before, but tackling the subject of going from one to the other side may be one of my subjects. Missing focuses on a character who is alone for the first time in her life and Dog the character is not alone for the first time her life – if you take the dog character seriously which most people do (Coetzee in his blurb seems to think the dog is the main character – which I love, I love his reading of the book). But I do think crossing over is difficult, sometimes for me it was almost unbearable, as I would think it would be for you if – God Forbid – you suddenly found yourself living alone.
KH: Speaking of that, is there something to the phrase “there are dog people and not dog people?”
Yeah, you know it is funny when I was interviewed for Columbus Alive – the reporter was terrific – and one of the first things she said to me was that she and her husband both read the book and her husband said to her: “You know Jill seems more like a cat person.” And if you had asked me I would have said I was more of a cat person, because I had cats when I lived alone. Again, I think there are dog people and there are cat people but there is a lot of cross over in the world. I think it is an adjustment for a cat person to become a dog person.
KH: We have two cats and two dogs . . .
And then there are people who swing both ways! You know my cats were more like dogs. They were very dependent on me they were not aloof.
KH: I have found that people that don’t have cats have a lot of stereotypes about what cats are really like; they haven’t actually experienced them.
KH: What led you to write a book with a dog as a central character? How did that strike you?
With any other book, or any other thing I have ever written, if you had asked me that question I couldn’t have answered it, but with this one I can answer it definitively. When my daughter was maybe nine, eight, she began begging for a dog, as kids will do. We went through the usual routine, get her a guinea pig see if she can take care of a guinea pig, which she did for a year. She proved she could take care of a guinea pig. What I didn’t know was: taking care of a guinea pig and taking care of a dog – no comparison. So I finally agreed to get her the dog and we searched for the perfect puppy; and we really did a massive search. After going to the human society week after week – because we knew we had to find that one dog – a friend of mine, a student of mine, suggested we look on the Internet at Columbus Dog Connection. So we did and we found the perfect dog and we went and got her. Within days it became clear who was going to take care of this dog.
So one night in the fall I was out walking the dog at midnight, freezing, a little bit drunk because I had too much wine with dinner, walking down the street with this dog slipping and sliding on the ice. And I thought to myself this dog . . . this dog is talking over my life. But as soon as I had the thought I realized how ridiculous this was because the dog hadn’t really taken over my life it was just an exaggeration. Like: my writing has taken over my life, my job has taken over my life; taking care of my husband has taken over my life. I have a child who every day I am chauffeuring somewhere . . . But I immediately started thinking I can so easily imagine that if I didn’t have writing, job, husband, house, child how a dog could take over my life. And I’ve never done this before, I went home with the dog and sat down and started writing that first line. And I gave Jill that final moment the way we found Molly, I gave her the website. The guy Bill who has the dog is not like the person we got our dog from in that the guy we got ours from was married and had kids, but the garage with the cages in it was the same as hers. And then I just had to ask myself how does this come about? And then, I mean once it gets to me – once I have a character and situation – I didn’t even have to consider. It sounds a little new age, but I didn’t even have to think about it I just plowed my way through it and I wrote the whole first draft in no time. Which was amazing.
KH: Your characters often seem isolated, as if they are trying to figure out the world from the inside out.
That’s a good way to put it.
KH: Have you always been interested in that sort of “inner dialog?”
I have always been that type of person. So it is not a literary choice. That’s how I see the world. The joke I used to make was that my characters don’t “do” anything all they do is sit around and think. But, me too! Now of course that’s no longer true – I do a lot of stuff. But still what I am most interested in is not what people do – it’s not their experiences I am interested in it’s the experiences of their spirit; what it feels like. Even motherhood, even in the memoir, when I am writing about being my daughter’s mother and my mother’s daughter it’s not about what happens that I spend a lot of time talking about but about what it feels like. And the books I am most interested in and writers that I read for my own pleasure – writers like Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick – that’s kind of what attracts them too; it’s not what people do so much.