Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Guest Author Patricia Weil
Part Two
 

Synopsis of “A Circle of Earth”
 
A Circle of Earth tells the story of people whose lives were shaped by the limitations of circumstance.  Both main characters come of age during the years of the Great Depression.  Their story lines cross first circumstantially, when Emma witnesses the loss of Henry’s home.  Later, the story lines intersect again through the marriage of the characters’ two best loved children.
 
Emma is an innocent, the product of a simple piety that no longer exists in the world that most of us know.  Her marriage is not a love match.  She has been singled out and chosen, much in the manner of a necessary life commodity.  Her husband, Ralston, a small farmer, is a man who has been emotionally limited, even damaged.  Ralston’s idea of marriage precludes intimacy.  A determined and driven worker in his occupation as farmer, in his own time he pursues a petty rural debauchery.  Emma's close relationships with other women, her gratification as a mother, form her world.
 
Henry is an ardent character.  We first see him as a young adult in love with the world and its possibilities, which for him will be cruelly limited.  Henry has a deep love for the natural world, for his wife Lillian, his brother Drefus, as well as a strong but thwarted love for learning. The relationship between Henry and his genteel wife, Lillian, is as companionable and tender as Emma's marriage is stark.  Unlike Ralston, Henry is a loving and playful father.  Lillian becomes aware very gradually, as we do as readers, that Henry is an alcoholic.  Victim of this common disease, he is also victim to forces beyond his control--the worst years of the Great Depression.  His family life cannot withstand the circumstances into which it is forced:  that of being moved into a flimsy shotgun house at the farther edges of the town’s white slums.  He and Drefus resort to "riding the rails" for much of the Depression.  It is several decades later, during his stay in the state mental hospital, that he forms a deep attachment to a young psychiatrist who, without being aware of it, acts as a catalyst for Henry's self-reclamation.
 
 

Questions and Answers
 
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.
 
Carson McCullers.  In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter she depicts in a way unequaled (for this reader) the experience of loneliness and isolation.  Her love for her characters is close to palpable.
 
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. 
 
What caused you to want to write A Circle of Earth?
 
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.
 
I was especially impressed with your word selection and clarity of expression.  I know from experience that portraying skillfully a character’s complex emotions and thoughts is difficult to accomplish.  Please explain how you were able to do so.
 
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.
 
How long did it take you to write your novel?  Explain why.  Readers who are not authors need to understand better the writing process.
 
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!
 
In what ways has writing your novel benefitted you?
 
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.
 
 Excerpts
 
            The mill whistle sounded, a long, monotonous blast.  Noontime.  The noise of machinery was quickly replaced by a blur of voices and the movement of feet.  Henry shuffled down the back stairs with more noise than was necessary, excessive energy, and on this particular Thursday, especially good humor.  The stairs stopped at the wall where coats hung and pails were stacked.  Henry passed a youngster bending over to pick up a lunch pail.
            "Something in your pocket, son."
            A couple of feet away a tall girl was lifting a coat off a peg.  "Spider, miss!"  Henry smacked the wall with his palm, then pushed something into her hand.  The girl smiled.  She knew the one about the spider.  What Henry had given her and the boy were pieces of hard candy, cheap candies from the general store, lingering tastes of sugar and flavoring delectable to the mill children.
            "Hey there, June bug!"  This greeting to a little girl named Eloise, who was also taking her coat from a peg.  Eloise would get the peppermint, a favored piece.  The little girl's color was wrong.  It disturbed Henry. 
            Now he ducked inside the door to his father's office, to collect his own things. "That little skinny one out there, with the pigtails,” he spoke of Eloise, “she ought not to be here at all."
            Mr. Gray was used to these opinions of Henry’s.  It had occurred to him that his boy was a dreamer.  They’d never had one like that in the family—it was frankly a curiosity.  But he would get over it, Mr. Gray told himself.  In this same son there was something that plumbed true and right, in a way that was absent in the others.  And as for Henry and his running opinions, if he'd realized Mr. Taylor was also present, he would have withheld his launching comment.  The two older men had grown up together, had the habit of meeting during the day between business hours.  Mr. Taylor was a drawling, self-satisfied man of some leisure.  The family owned land; he ventured one business experiment after another with the capital.  And Henry, who by habit observed all the rules of good manners, was embarrassed to be caught in his unguarded, at-home behavior.  He snatched up his coat and cap in a rush, while the older men watched him, then looked back at each other.  Mr. Taylor had a high opinion of Henry, and the behavior amused him.  He often remarked to his friend Joe that Henry had, as he put it, fine prospects.
            The truth was that Henry’s loathing of the mill had increased to the point that he had to allow it these little exits.  He hated being shut up, any place.  But this place he hated just walking into—the smell of it by itself annoyed him, stinking and stale, the air itchy with lint dust.  He grew irritable, a thing not in his nature.  He broke out at times in a very fever of restlessness.  Once, after closing time, he struck off in the direction opposite to home.  And in the cover of first dark took off his shoes, tucking both under his arm like a football, and ran—he didn't stop to think why.  Had run down a little dribbly sand road between cornfields, run to the point of punishing himself, run until exhaustion brought him the relief of mental and physical calm.  He didn't remember what he'd told Lillian about the sand in his clothes.  He and Lillian had been married since that summer, and she was several months pregnant. 
 
=  =  =
 
"Is this it?"  Emma's tone had changed.  It was no longer a question, just a collection of words.  Emma made a noise and handed the can to Ralston.  In her enthusiasm, she lost all sense of the strain she had been under.  They were here.  And the house was her own.  It was bigger than she would have expected, solid and well built.  Tall and squarish, sitting high up on its cellar.  It was a handsome house in a sturdy kind of way.  A porch ran along the front, with three columns.  The sight of it delighted Emma, its neglect a detail too trivial for notice.  They continued around to the back, where Emma spotted the pump, built right into the back porch.  The Swann children had always had to run back and forth to get to the pump.  Emma remembered having to run in the rain.
            In her eagerness, the inclination to chatter returned to Emma.  The house, empty except for the kitchen range and an ornate, fussy-looking stove in the parlor, had that strange feeling of vacancy about it.  Across the back porch lay drifts of rain-pocked pollen, withered oak silk, and leaves.  The prints of a pair of man's shoes led back and forth from the porch steps to the back door.  But there was no trace of ownership left in those dim, hollow rooms.  The house was theirs.
           
            When Ralston walked outside in the late light, Emma trotted after him.  They stood together for a little, at the west fence, looking out over what had been the cornfields.  Where Emma saw acres, Ralston saw neglect, even ruin.  It was the best of soils, one hundred sixty-six rich Black Belt acres.  A soil almost black, heavy in the hand and fragrant, not like the pale Wiregrass soil that fell through the fingers.  Over the course of a single, sun-stricken summer, the acres of crops had reverted, were by this time thick masses of half wild vegetation.  Emma knew a ruined field when she saw one—she could see that the state of things troubled him. 
            "Well," Ralston let his head fall between his shoulders and shook it, with something like a chuckle.  "Looks like it's mine, now."
            "I know you're proud of it."  It was in Emma's nature to comfort.  She gave a little stroke to his arm, and her hesitancy in touching him puzzled her.  She felt a strong sympathy for him, then–she felt it often.  She could have lavished him with affection at such times, if he had let her.  Perhaps if she could have for once dropped that restraint, have been herself freely and convincingly with this man she had married, it may have made some small difference.
            Ralston looked down at her curiously.  He felt no need to reply, simply because a remark had been made.
            Emma would have liked most to ask if he were happy.
           
            She and Ralston worked together, that first week, then the second, another—Emma lost count.  First, the ruined cornfields had to be dealt with.  Ralston moved inside the rows, muttering profanities where the masses of weeds had already gone to seed.  In places it was difficult for the two of them to spot the stunted ears, and a good number of the corn plants were barren.  With the mules and wagon behind them, they pushed through the tangles, twisting and snapping the small ears where they found them.  The tall grass tickled and tormented Emma.  Her face splotched and broke out.  It didn't take long for the continuous twisting of the hard, stringy ears to make blisters in the palms of their hands.  The blisters would rise, break, and make sore places.  Emma had to force her hands to work again—but she didn't try to beg off. 
            After the corn came the cotton.  The bolls were small, undersized like the corn, not easy to spot through the Jimsonweed and Johnson grass.  The tiny bolls affected Emma like something deliberately vicious.  The hard, sharp hulls stabbed her fingers.  Emma's cuts swelled and bled—and she knew she'd be stabbed again, in the same places.  She wrapped her own fingers in strips of cloth, but Ralston wouldn't let her wrap his.  The picking seemed to go on forever.  Ralston swore.  Emma wept.  Salt water ran through her eyes.  Perspiration or tears, she couldn't say—it didn't much matter.  The plants caught and tugged at the bag that she pulled.  The strong equinox sun hammered.  With each other Ralston and Emma grew silent, bruised by their weariness.  There were times during the picking when Emma cooked, served, ate beside Ralston without a word passing between them.  Just to be still and be quiet—they needed that—though Emma less so than Ralston.  After the corn and the cotton, the digging of the sweet potatoes, the lifting, cutting, and bundling of pea plants were gentle harvests, in comparison.
             
  Emma's longing for her family was like a physical illness.  No one had told her it could be this way.  Always, before, there had been company, the three other sets of hands, her mother's and sisters'—she had lived with the closeness of bodily contact.  Now  there was only Ralston’s brief, nightly gratification of that need of men—there were no caresses, no fond touches—unlike her own family, Ralston was not fond of being touched.  And with her own family there was always the jostling, the blandishments, as well as the kisses and pinches.  The stroking.  There was a thing that she wanted—Emma couldn’t have attached a word to this feeling.  She was nonetheless driven by it that night when she had come up to find Ralston sleeping.  He lay curled on his side, facing away from the doorway.  Emma sat down to unpin and re-braid her hair; and as her fingers worked, she watched him, not aware that her mind was also working.  She was lonely—there had never been reason to give the feeling a name.  The house was quiet.  It was empty.  The fields lying around it were empty.  Silence—that mean, unaccustomed thing—filled the rooms of the night-swallowed house.  Emma blew out the lamp and lay down behind Ralston.  If only, if just—she didn't know what.  Tentatively she touched his back, then withdrew her hand like she had touched something hot.  It was not the sex act that she craved—Emma’s body was not yet awakened.  She knew nothing of sensual pleasure.  In his sleep, Ralston twitched a shoulder, as he would have done to toss off an insect.
 
=  =  =
 
At not quite 6:30 on a Sunday morning, the sound of the telephone woke Henry.  The ringing was strange to his ears, and he lay for some time resisting it, sleep-soaked and perspiring.  Night had brought no relief from the early heat spell that had lasted for more than a week.  He and Lillian had tangled themselves in the bed sheets, which felt damp to the touch.
            "Henry?"
            By now Henry was sitting up in the bed.  The ringing was shrill.
            "It's got to be something important, at this hour of the morning." Lillian’s voice was already apprehensive.
            She stood next to Henry in the kitchen, her head below his shoulder, listening to the conversation.  Which wasn't difficult to do.  Mr. Taylor shouted into the receiver—it was a habit.  Why this call should have taken place at that particular hour or why Henry should be asked to go out right away was not clear.  But no one asked for an explanation.  People nearby had got word to the Taylors.  The sawmill had burned to the ground.  It had happened some time during the night.
            "I'll be on out, soon's I can get dressed," Henry hung up, and he and Lillian stood for a moment, exchanging looks, then looking past each another.  They were stunned.  To the ground.  That meant gone.  All of it.
           
  His mind was quiet now.  Blank.  The morning was quiet.  From the pasture across the road, the single sound of a meadowlark flew over the air—it was a sound Henry particularly loved, a clean, sweet sound that fell like an arc.  It caught his attention.  He looked up that way.  When he glanced down again, he gave a push with his foot, and the stair steps collapsed into pieces.  It was at that stray moment that it came to Henry that he wasn't sorry—he wasn't sorry that the sawmill had burned.  The admission of it, once it was out, oddly enough didn't amaze him.  Now he stepped across the road and walked a little.  He stood before a line of sagging barbed wire that ran along the stretch of pasture.  The old pasture hummed with sun motes and the heat waves that stood in the distance.  At the far end of the field was a single, moss-hung oak, smoky green against the line of woods.  Henry's eyes fastened on the shape of the tree, taking in something he needed from it—there was a kind of knowingness about old trees.  He heard the sound of the bird again, somewhere off where he couldn't see it.  Now Henry knew for a fact that he wasn't sorry.  And once past that point, it was difficult all of a sudden not to be glad.  He hadn't let himself actually think of the place as a trap; or if he had, he'd grown too used to the weight of it to take much notice.  Now the whole of it dropped away from him, like a sheer pane of water.  Already he began to lose touch with the feel of its having happened at all.
  Myra filled both their cups with fresh coffee, added cream and sugar to her own, tasted it for the first time that night with real enjoyment, before looking up again at Lillian, whose cup wasn't touched.  Lillian sat with her palms pushed against her eyes, and the sight of it was unbearable to Myra.  She moved quickly to the other side of the table and pulled Lillian over, stroking her sister's head with her cheek.
            "Now, everything will work out all right, Lillian.  He had a shock.  That's all."
            "That's not all."
            "Why, baby, you've got to look on the bright side.  It was awful about the sawmill.  But Drefus already has a job lined up for Henry.  Things will work out."
            Now Lillian jerked her head away.  "He drinks, Myra."
            Myra laughed and rubbed her sister's shoulder.  "They all do."
            "This is different.  He drinks all the time."
            Now Myra reacted to something in Lillian's voice.  "I don't think I know what you mean."
            Lillian sighed, uncrossed and recrossed her legs, which trickled with perspiration.  "It's just that he's always drinking.  That's what I mean.  All the time.  Even out with the children and me.  He carries a flask."
            "A flask."  Myra crossed back over to the other side again and sat down.  Among the sisters she was the mild one, a gentle presence on this earth—as simple of heart as any well-behaved child.  The complexities of what Lillian was telling her were frankly beyond her capacities of reason or experience.   "But does he drink to get drunk?"  She had heard that question asked.
            "That's just what I don't know."  And here Lillian's face went crooked.  "It's so hard to tell with Henry.  It’s never much.  Just a little all along.  But all the time.  All of the time."  Her voice rose and collapsed on the words.
            Myra understood—it was hard to say with Henry.  Whether he was cheerful when he drank due to his own good nature—or cheerful because of the drink.  Herself, she would have said almost anything at that moment to comfort Lillian.  "Henry does have a cheerful nature."
            "Cheerful.  I know.  Oh, I know."  There was a pause.  "I'm scared."  Lillian had never said that to anyone.
            "Scared," Myra echoed.  "Have you decided what to do about it?"
            "I don't know what I can do about it!"  Anger edged into Lillian's voice.
            "Have you talked to him?"
            "I don't think he realizes it, himself."
            "What about Drefus?"
            "I think it all started with Drefus."
            Myra considered.  "You’re tired."  The weak comment dropped off into the silence of the house, a murk of syrupy darkness.  Now waves of alarm passed back and forth between the two sisters, these small, round-eyed women who were almost extensions of each another.  Even Myra understood that liquor poisoned a man.  Poisoned his family.  Their very lives.