Guest Author Patricia Weil
I know the world of this novel; I grew up in it–in
What writers do you especially admire? Why?
It’s odd that the question of who my favorite writers are has always created a sort of blank in my mind. There are just so many! But the following authors would be on any list I put together, each one especially loved for a specific work.
Wallace Stegner. In Angle of Repose he illustrates not just the feel and history of a region but the heart of an individual, with both her great strengths and her weaknesses. His fiction in general bears out the truth that no personality is less than complex.
John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath has been called sentimental. I don’t consider that a derogatory term. The power–and yes, feeling--of Steinbeck’s vision in this book may have provided for some their first understanding of lives that society wills not to see.
Wendell Berry. His writing and environmental activism are on a par. Works like The Memory of Old Jack and the poem “The Peace of Wild Things” are reverential.
Barbara Kingsolver. In The Poisonwood Bible the truths of the novel are just that: biblical in feeling. The drama of the setting is paralleled by the drama within the main characters’ family unit–the reader truly experiences the distress of these characters.
Elizabeth Strout. In Olive Kitteridge Strout has the daring to center her book around a character far too real to be entirely likable, in a place that some would find too ordinary for notice.
Elizabeth Gilbert. Her achievement in The Signature of All Things is near breathtaking, a tour de force that might not be expected from the author of the likable Eat, Pray, Love. I was nothing less than amazed at the depth and scope of her research in building this intricate piece of work.
I have wanted to write since I first began reading adult literature, which for me was in third grade. Even as a child I watched the world. It was a world of extremes: poverty and wealth, privilege and insult (there was strong class prejudice, as well as the prevalent race prejudice). All the niches between these extremes were filled with people--in this case white–trying to live their lives according to some vision. It was rich material for writing. And at age twenty-one I conceived the main idea for this book. My motivation, then and now, is the conviction that life should be taken full notice of. Everything matters. In the present we are told to follow our dreams, even our bliss. My parents were never told that–much less their own parents (the generation that this book largely focuses on). Even the opportunity to think in this way is a privilege that very few people enjoy. I’m very aware of the injustice of that.
For my graduate work I was caught between Literature and Psychology. I’ve always observed feeling, both my own and of the people I’ve come into contact with. I’ve done a good deal of journal type writing towards that end–it’s been important to me to get my understandings just right. Since I was so many years in the writing of Circle, I had the time to grow with my characters and “watch” them, so to speak. Their feelings and motivations became clearer and fuller to me as time passed. In addition, some of these characters are composites of different people in my family, as well as composites of myself.
I began A Circle of Earth eighteen years ago. There have been many revisions! I frankly didn’t know what I was doing when I began. I had to learn to structure and write by doing, and that required much trial and error. Over the course of the writing, my own writing voice eventually emerged. Then, what had been written had to be rewritten, to seem authentic to me!
The overall personal benefit of writing this novel has been the experience of true creative joy. This is such a rare thing, and I believe it expands the person who feels it. I had had glimpses of this sort of experience with my graphic art, but not of this scope. I felt very often like I was carrying around a secret golden egg. The whole world was enriched. I know I did a great deal more talking to people, especially the oldest people I knew. There were details that couldn’t be found in reading. I enjoyed the research I did for this book (there was a whole lot of it). At one point I honestly felt that I had lived during the Depression.
He came back, as abruptly as he left.
A little past midday on a Saturday, Emma sent the children off to the wood lot, to start on one of the trees they had managed to bring down over the summer. The children's job was to remove the smaller limbs and stack them into the wheelbarrow. As they moved across the back yard in an uproar of dissension, an inspiration came to her.
"Now, don't let Billy or Ned try to fool with the saw. They're too little."
The five children went abruptly silent. Buddy saw through the maneuver at once, but Ralph looked suddenly thoughtful. All at once the five of them moved again—again with a clamor of voices. Emma smiled at her success. They'd bicker and compete with each other, now, for the privilege of doing the sawing. It was a cold day, but bright with sun. And as she looked across the chilly, sun-flooded yard, she realized she would have liked to go with them. But her mending basket was full. It was always full.
The sound of a car on the drive struck her as odd—she wasn't expecting company. A traveling salesman, most likely. She’d offer a glass of water and send the man on his way. As she stepped toward the door, Emma saw Ralston walking across the yard, with his head down. He wore a business suit and a felt hat that concealed the upper part of his face. She moved back quickly. There was no time to think or prepare herself, although Ralston walked with no special hurry. It seemed a long time that he stood just outside the door. Then he knocked, as any stranger would have done. There was no way to avoid answering—no way to compose herself as she’d have liked to. When she opened the door, she was frowning. Emma looked at a place just below the knot of his tie, the color leaving and coming back to her face. Neither of them looked directly at the other.
"Come in." Emma heard her own voice—it wasn't quite right. But Ralston was already crossing into the room. He too was frowning. He removed his hat and walked over to a clear space in front of the windows. Then held the hat by the brim and turned it. Twirled it. Emma took a seat and waited, she didn't know for what. There was not a sound in the house or yard.
When he looked at her, it was not quite at her face but in her general direction. His voice was uncharacteristically quiet.
"I wouldn't have expected to find you here. Had some business to settle with Hendrix."
There was no reply for Emma to make. He cleared his throat and continued, "I was on my way home to Malvern. I thought to find you and the children there."
To find her. On his way to—. Still, there was nothing for Emma to say. And if there had been, she may not have said it. Emma's tongue was trapped—because her mind was trapped. A spot in her chest was burning.
He had come back, it was true, to seek her out. And although Ralston had gone over the prospect of this hoped-for reunion again and again in his mind, it hadn't occurred to him to prepare what to say. Nor had it occurred to him that there would be any special awkwardness—that when the moment came, he might not know what to do. Now the difficulty of it overcame him. He turned, let out a breath, moved a foot across the floor. He didn't know how he’d expected to manage the situation. So he said, simply, "Emma, I've come back."
Come back. He had come back. Still, there was nothing to say. Emma didn't move in her chair. But her feelings, now jarred loose, careened in opposing directions. The children. Safe. They would be safe again. They would no longer be hungry. But he had deserted them, left them to get by any old way that they could. His own blood—wife and family. There was also anger in the wild rush of feeling. And the shame of it. Bruising. She would never get over it. Emma's emotions were crazy, in their sudden release. For so long it had been there: the dread that tugged at her mind like a tiny, malicious bite. Fear of the hunger. The cold. The mortgage money. The crops. All of it. But it was over, now. He had come back. For a few moments the welter of relief and long overdue anger jammed inside Emma. Then she was overcome by it all. She raised her apron to her face and wept, just as she would have done if she had been alone, without a trace of self-consciousness. She was no longer thinking at all. She didn't know how long she wept; nor did she know that Ralston was watching her.
"I'm sorry, Emma."
It was such a quiet voice, Emma didn't know how she had heard it. And his voice brought a halt to the weeping. For all her confusion, Emma felt a sudden curiosity. Ralston's voice was different. There was something she had never heard in his voice. She looked at him directly then for the first time. And the sight of his face answered her curiosity. It was as if his face had been made out of clay that had gotten wet, softened, and slipped out of shape—Ralston's face had a crumpled look about it. He realized that Emma was studying him, and that he would have to endure her scrutiny. He swallowed—hard enough that the movement in his throat jerked his chin sideways just slightly. It was obvious to Emma, astounding to her, even, that he was miserable under her eyes. By all rights she should have made him suffer—she should exact that much from him. But an unexpected thought came to Emma then, as much a surprise as the sight of his face. He had hurt her and the children, it was true. Was it possible that he had also hurt himself? Emma didn't know if she watched Ralston's face for a long or a short time, didn't know that at the same time she was looking into herself. A shutter in her mind opened, startled her, closed again. She loved him. All along she had loved him.
= = =
The radio was not the first thing to disappear in this manner—just the first thing that the girls had missed. Lillian forgot not an item of what had been sold, not even the things that no longer counted. There were stacks of packed boxes along the walls of the bedroom. The Grays were doing no more than other families all over Clanton were doing, in the secrecy of their own homes—sorting through their possessions, deciding what could be sold off or pawned. That morning Lillian was sorting her own things. She pulled her drawers out one at a time, kneeling for a while in front of each one, her hands at first working slowly. There were plenty of things she could do away with. She considered herself composed—she didn't realize that her hands and mouth were angry. Certain items, now, she almost tore at. Lillian stood up, to work on the top drawer, which held her underthings, hosiery, and handkerchiefs, all carefully folded and laid in rows. Inside the rows Lillian had tucked an occasional bar of soap, Yardley's English Lavender. It was a thing her Aunt Nancy had taught her to do. She looked over the rows of delicate, lace-edged handkerchiefs—Lillian had been taught to never be without a "really good" handkerchief. The sight of the handkerchiefs irritated her now, for some reason. She removed them all. She fairly dumped them, her hands no longer methodical but fierce and impatient. But there was one thing. Lillian picked up a tiny red and black speckled box, with a gold snap and hinges, and a satin lining. In it lay a filigree pin, designed a little like a triangle that had been pulled out of shape. Over the filigree lay a sprig of leaves and a flower, these of platinum. In the heart of the flower was a good-sized, beautifully cut diamond. The pin had been given to Lillian by a great aunt, and looking at it, her hand went to her throat. She had the habit of absently touching her pearls. But Lillian's strand of pearls was one of the first things that had been pawned. Lillian removed the filigree pin from its box and fastened it inside the pocket of an old apron, which she then folded tightly and put away with her everyday things.
Now they followed each other in rapid succession, efforts such as these: the separate, fear-driven measures. Lillian already had the Leghorns that
and Howard had brought in from the
country. The hens lay prolifically, but
the family ate few of the eggs—the eggs were bought just about as quickly as
they were laid. The girls took to the
hens as they would have to a number of identical pets, naming all eighteen of
them—there was always dissension over who was who. The only certain identification was
Xanthippe, a brooder, a hen who would not willingly part with her eggs. Removing them required the use of a
stick. Xanthippe had to be pried. Myra
Lillian had grown used to the discrepant sound of the hens, clucking or flapping around in the yard. For a moment she thought that she heard something else. Something like a faint little knock at the back door. And it was a knock: Ralph, who had begged off school that day with a—possibly imaginary—toothache. The boy held a bag in his arms, so fully loaded that the tips of the sweet potatoes showed over the top. He looked at Lillian for a moment, frowning, trying to remember what to say—Ralph had been given his line before he walked over. And now he'd forgotten it.
"Mama said to tell you—." He looked puzzled. "Mama said—." He looked a second or two at Lillian, then gave up and shrugged his shoulders.
It was the closest to smiling that Lillian had come that morning. "How kind of your mother. Just put them down and wait a moment."
She went back to the scene of her struggle with the boxes and came out with one of the bars of Yardley soap, still wrapped. "Please give this to your mother for me. And tell her how much I appreciate the vegetables."
On his way down the steps, Ralph remembered his line and snapped a finger. "Oh. Mama says—they're more than she knows what to do with!" He looked pleased with himself.
Lillian laughed out loud.
At her kitchen worktable Emma sat looking at the bar of Yardley—it gave her much pleasure just to smell it, then set it down and look at it again. The soap that Ralston brought home with their household staples was a dark yellow, medicinal-smelling substance, cut into sharp, irregular bars. Emma didn't think she'd ever come across scented soap. And the package was as nice as the soap was—far too pretty to just tear up and throw away. Soft tissue paper, pleated like cloth. On the paper band that held the wrapping together was a picture of a woman and two children, dressed in old-fashioned clothes, somewhere on an old-fashioned street. No, she couldn't destroy the wrapping. And she couldn't think of an occasion important enough for using the soap—she frankly didn't know what to do with it. She put it away in the drawer with her underthings, having no idea that in doing so she was using it for the very purpose Lillian intended.
The farm woman came again—Lillian didn't yet think of her as Emma. And again. Exchanging warm bundles of corn muffins, once a bottle of milk, always substantial and nourishing things, for a handful of eggs that by now Lillian knew she didn't really need. Emma gave half of the eggs away to her friend, Bobbie Bell.
"Please do call me Lillian."
"Lillian." Emma blushed a little. "I'm Emma."
"Won't you come in, Emma?"
"Oh, I couldn't do that. I've got something on the stove."
She always said she had something on the stove.
So they stood out-of-doors. Stood together like two conspirators in something. Stood feeling the flow of confidentiality and goodwill pass between them, as palpable almost as something against the skin of their hands.
… Again there was a distance between Henry and Lillian, grown far past the point of anything he could tell himself he imagined. … Henry's worst suspicion was that now she merely tolerated him. He knew Lillian; and he knew that, by her own lights, she would have tried to do what was right and fair. And this he honored. But right and fair was not tenderness or laughter. There was a place, now, where he wasn't allowed. Because she would no longer allow him. He stood outside in the dark.
His sense of shame was like a poison turned loose in his belly. What was happening was the natural result of fault: his fault. He had been irresponsible. What he also knew somewhere else in his mind was that not a hammer was flying all over Clanton, at least not one that he could lay hands to. There was no work now, it seemed, that didn't go to a family friend or some distant cousin. …
It was no longer tolerable to Henry to be in the house with Lillian during the day. Herself without blame. Herself going about the innocent pattern of her days. His eyes strayed often to Lillian's mouth; it was blameless. There was the perfect sameness of it, the little arched upper lip. It was no one other person's mouth, anywhere in the world. Then, unaccountably, he was angry, when he'd never been more, at most, than occasionally annoyed at Lillian. It unsettled him. He had unsettling images. He had a fleeting picture, so fleeting that he didn't have to make himself own it, of the little mouth being struck—anything to destroy that perfect blamelessness of it.
… Henry darted a glance toward the Bluebird Cafe. But he couldn't be still. There was a plucking in his brain, in his legs and arms. His head was charged and buzzing. When he reached the shadows of the bank, he pulled out the pocket flask he had replaced. He thought at the same time of Lillian. What did she know? What could she understand, she who had been as carefully taken care of as a child? That, at least, he could blame—he could blame her for blaming him. Henry was at last realizing that he was up against something he had no power to change. There was nothing that he, Henry, could cause to happen, just by willing or wanting it to happen. It was no longer a question of error. Error he could have undone. He took his liquor in slow, deliberate sips. He stood by himself in the half-dark for some time, propped against a tree trunk. His mind wouldn't go quiet. The resentment wouldn't let go. So he coddled it.