The book of Jane

Jane Hamilton, author of "The Book of Ruth," talks about her new novel, Civil War reenactors and how e-mail has facilitated Midwestern adultery.

By David Bowman

Published October 16, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

I am the last guy who'd ever knowingly read an Oprah author, so perhaps my take on Jane Hamilton's wonderful new novel, "Disobedience," is suspect. (Winfrey, as you may recall, put Hamilton on the bestseller lists by touting the Wisconsin writer's first novel, "The Book of Ruth.") Nevertheless, and to my surprise, I loved it. The dust jacket implies that "Disobedience" concerns an adulterous relationship between Beth, a Chicago-area wife, and a Wisconsin violin maker as narrated by the woman's 27-year-old son, Henry, 10 years after the illicit romance has ended. Henry learned about the affair when he was 17 and stumbled upon his mother's illicit e-mail to her lover.

But what hooked me was Hamilton's back story about Henry's kid sister, Elvira, a 13-year-old who, "much to [her] mother's sorrow [is] a hardcore Civil War reenactor." "Hardcores" act out major Civil War battles wearing and using only materials contemporary to Robert E. Lee's time. They're in opposition to "farbs" -- "far be it from authentic" suburbanites -- who don't mind reenacting with the artifacts of shopping mall culture. In "Disobedience," Elvira symbolizes everything authentic in contrast to the tawdry middle-class aspects of her mom's adultery. Both ways of life converge beautifully at the novel's climax, when Elvira's mother is called upon to rescue her daughter when the other hardcores discover that the girl has unwittingly betrayed their calling. I spoke with Hamilton on the phone recently to tell her she'd won me over to "girl books."

This New Yorker has an ancestral right to speak to you. I was born in Racine, Wis. [the nearest town to the apple orchard where Hamilton lives], and grew up there.

I grew up in Oak Park, Ill.

Are you sick of the shadow of Ernest Hemingway?

I always thought he was sort of an icky man. [Laughs] In high school it was very fashionable to be disdainful of the bourgeois suburbs, but I secretly liked them. I think Hemingway said, "Oak Park was a place of narrow minds and wide lawns." That was really wrong. Oak Park was really liberal. It was a good place.

I don't mean to give you a backhanded compliment, but I don't usually read books like "Disobedience," and I loved it.

You mean, you read Stephen King?

No, I read weird books. Don DeLillo kind of books.

You mean you don't read "girl books"?

I don't read "girl books."

Well, I'm glad. Perhaps you'll read more "girl books" now.

I hope the fact that I love "Disobedience" doesn't mean that it's really a weird book. I've never told another writer what I thought their book was really about, but I think "Disobedience" is really Elvira's story.

That's interesting. [Pause] I did write a story about her in 1996, long before I started the book. And so she really was the kernel. So your comment is very perceptive.

Are there really Civil War reenactments, or did you make that up?

No, I did not make that up. There's a great book called "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz about the phenomenon. It's a really wonderful book.

It was great that you had Henry narrate the story from a 10-year distance.

I had to give him some perspective. Otherwise, he couldn't have had some of the thoughts that he had.

Also, no woman could do a 17-year-old's hormonal voice.

[Laughs] I think a woman can understand hormones.

I disagree, because all you'd be writing about would be his hormones. Hasn't anyone ever told you that about teenage boys?

Not as explicitly as you've just stated it. Yeah, I suppose it would be rather tedious to just read about hormones.

Did you suffer for this book?

I would say that it came more easily than some of the others, and that it amused me greatly. I worked at it, but I don't think I suffered much.

Did you suffer over the drowning-child book ["A Map of the World"]?


What does it mean to suffer out in Wisconsin?

[Laughs] Well, I suffered not because I had such empathy for the characters but because I didn't know how the book ended. I actually wrote four distinct novels trying to arrive at the one that was inevitable. I had anguish in the fact that I really didn't know what happened to the people or how I was supposed to take care of them.

When you're going through that in Wisconsin, are there other writers you can talk to? Or do you keep it to yourself?

I don't think that talking to anybody can help you -- a writer or a nonwriter. So what do I do in Wisconsin? I don't know. I just slug through it.

It takes more self-confidence to be a writer in the Midwest, doesn't it? It's not like you run into Don DeLillo at the Piggly Wiggly.

But that is a good thing. I don't mean it to sound egomaniacal, but in a way for me it was very useful to imagine that I was the only one who was taking pen in hand. I'd always been told that it was impossible to be published, so I was writing only for myself. If I had been surrounded by other writers, I would have thought, Oh, there's nothing that I need to add to this stack of papers.

So, ballpark, when were you born?


And what were your parents like politically?

Good bleeding-heart liberals. They were against Vietnam. I think they were too old to be pro-hippie. I'm sure that they were a little alarmed at their children heading off into the sunset on motorcycles and sleeping with boyfriends and stuff like that.

I've never discussed this with anyone my age -- my parents were true-blue suburban Republicans, but as a kid I always knew that it was the hippies who were really cool. They were anti-suburban, anti-everything that surrounded me.

Well, let's see ... I was taking ballet. I was back in the romantic age, listening to Tchaikovsky. I remember going to college and returning to Oak Park in 1978. And there was one hippie left. I thought, Oh, God, this is dreadful. They're all gone. The next era is upon us, and it's not going to be half as interesting.

Everybody who interviews you has to mention the big "O," right?


Are you friends with Oprah? Can you call her up and chat?

No, I wouldn't feel that I could do that. I think her gift is making you feel that you are soul mates when you're in her presence. She somehow manages to do that with her 3 million viewers. In the times that I've met her, I've really enjoyed the conversations because she reads broadly and widely and deeply.

Does she define the Midwest psyche?

I don't have perspective on it because I've always lived here. A lot of the people of the Midwest came from the Northeast. We're of the same stock. Yet something must have happened when we crossed the Ohio River Valley because I have sensed that there's more of an openness and flexibility of spirit out West. Maybe it's just that everything was so big and wide that you had to really reach out to others.

Oprah has symbolically taken away some literary clout from New York.

I suppose you could see it that way. I think she's so much bigger than the Midwest now. She's the world. She is ... Woman.

Do you feel oppressed by the New York Times Book Review as the voice of the literary world?

It's sort of unjust that if you get great reviews but not in the New York Times Book Review, well, that's just too bad and you're sort of done.

How did your last book, "The Short History of a Prince," do?

That was my commercial dud.

I mean in the Times?

It didn't get reviewed there. Binky [Urban, her agent] sent me flowers with a note that said, "Fuck 'em." What else did she say? Something about how the book had been assigned to somebody who trashed it, and so the powers that be removed the review, and just put a little "In Brief" thing in. But my editor [at Doubleday] didn't think that actually happened, so I don't really know.

The first story sounds realistic to me.

It sounded reasonable, although who knows?

It's funny, I've lived in New York for 20 years, and up until a little while ago I imagined that I was, at heart, a Midwesterner. Then I was in Madison for the first time, and realized that it was here that I had been conceived. That was the moment I realized I was in no way a Midwesterner.

I feel in Madison that you should just sort of spontaneously sprout a beard in sympathy for all the hippies who are actually still left. But what about Madison affected you that way?

Just a genetic thing. I'm no Wisconsinite.

I see. Well, when you're walking down the street in New York City, do you make eye contact with people?

If it's appropriate. Why?

My observation is that people don't, and when I'm in New York I find myself looking at everybody, and no one is looking back.

Do you look everyone in the eye in Wisconsin?


If you didn't look at them, would it seem strange?

It would.

Wow. In New York you only look someone in the eye if you want to mug them, flirt with them or invite some old lady to tell you how to run your life.

In New York there's this current that binds people together -- you're all in that same mess. There's no getting off the island. You're stuck with each other.

What about Los Angeles? Were you involved much in the movie of "A Map of the World"?

No. They were very nice and kept me in the loop, but I didn't want to really participate because I knew I wouldn't get my way.

Any nibbles for "Disobedience" from Hollywood?

No, nobody wants this one, which I found surprising. It seems to me that it's the most cinematic of my books. But the director of "A Map of the World" said, "No, no, no. You have to understand that this book really isn't about the narrator -- it's about the mother. It would be very hard to have a focus to it." Which really did not make much sense to me, but --

So somebody in Hollywood is telling you it's the mother's story, while this New Yorker is telling you it's the daughter's story?

Well, actually, Scott Eliot, the director, is a New Yorker. But frankly, I just don't care. I'd be so happy if it did not become a movie. I mean, have you seen a successful adaptation of a literary novel? Besides "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"?

But you can't let "You've Got Mail" be the last word on e-mail romance! Practically speaking, adultery has become easier in rural areas with e-mail, hasn't it?

[Laughs] I think that e-mail speeds up the course of a relationship whether it's illicit or not. There's not that lovely leisure that you had when it was just the U.S. postal system.

Do you write more letters now with e-mail?

Yes, but I really truly love real letters. Do you do e-mail?

Just the other day I realized that I've kept a copy of every letter I've written since I was 18 because I thought, This is what a man of letters does. Now I have all this stuff I don't want around anymore. Last week, I erased all my saved e-mail. One click. I didn't feel anything. Do you save the letters you write?

Not usually.

Do you think saving letters is a male thing? I mean as in M-A-L-E?

[Laughs] No, I think it's an M-A-I-L thing. I don't know. I should point out that my friends save my letters. So someday we'll have an exchange.

Before you became a writer of e-mail and novels, you were a dancer.

I wanted to be, but I wrecked up my feet by the time I was 15. It was my dream and my passion, but I also knew deep down it was never going to happen. My grandmother once asked me how I could be a dancer, since my thighs were so big.

So now you dance for Doubleday.

Doubleday is good. It's lucky for me to be there. When I went to Random House, there were many, many "Jane Hamilton types." At Doubleday, I'm a little bit more of an anomaly.

What's a "Jane Hamilton type"?

Well, women who write literary fiction. Amy Bloom. [Pause] I'm going to draw a blank now.

I don't want to put you on the spot.

Yeah, I just feel like the Doubleday sales force cherishes me a little bit because there's not a lot of that kind of thing.

Well, they should cherish you. Page by page, I enjoyed reading "Disobedience." It made me feel good. I mean, the hell with Don DeLillo and his sentences. Your sentences are fine as well.

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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