After a rough patch of anxiety over the state of publishing, the reading public, and her own writing, Jane Hamilton has come up with a novel about heartland America that is being praised by a range of writers, including Karen Joy Fowler, Ann Patchett, and Tom Perrotta.
The idea for The Excellent Lombards (Grand Central, Apr.), about young Mary Frances “Frankie” Lombard’s life at an apple orchard, was triggered when Hamilton’s agent suggested she write a memoir about the apple orchard she herself lives on in Wisconsin. “I said I wasn’t interested in writing a memoir, but the farm proved to be a point of departure for a novel,” she says. The rest, as in her novels The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, is pure fiction.
“I had been thinking about the concept of succession, who stays on the farm, who doesn’t,” says Hamilton. “I didn’t want to write a three-generation saga. I wanted to condense all the history of the farm into the body and character of a girl who was coming-of-age. I wanted to write a poem rather than an epic.”
Distilling her material into streamlined form was a big challenge, as was getting rid of unneeded plot twists she had at first superimposed on the story—things like “a pair of lesbians who move in and adopt a nun who is later found dead.” It took her a while, she says, to cut that all away and see that the basic story could serve.
“Frankie is deeply in love with her primary family and doesn’t want anything to change. She can’t stand the idea of time passing. And she can’t bear to think of getting older. The book is about the simple problem of time passing. I was reading, coincidentally, Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, and the girl in that book, Frankie, is so deranged, she is such a great character, I feel as if I took a bit of her genetic material and put her into my character. They share a name. It was a fun little homage.”
The issue of succession is one that Hamilton is sure pertains to people other than farm owners. “In my career as a novelist I’ve watched bookstores—booksellers are friends—deal with issues of succession the way farm families have. There are deeper issues in farms, because you have this piece of property, but I think it’s the same with booksellers who want to pass it on. The questions I raise are not completely specific to a farm family.”
Hamilton will be signing copies of her book today, 1–2 p.m., at Table 4, in the Autographing Area.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.