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My Interview with Margaret Hermes
Margaret Hermes, author of the collection of short stories in the book Relative Strangers, agree to answer some questions for me. I found her answers to be entertaining and informative. I hope you find them the same.
All of these stories are about people who are strangers to the members of their own family. Why did you choose to write about people like this? Have you ever felt as though you are a stranger to your own family? Or maybe you have known people who were strangers to their own families?
You know the Tolstoy line that begins “All happy families are alike”? Maybe they are. Maybe. It seems more likely that there are no “happy families,” but rather families that are visited by mental and physical illness as well as mental and physical health, economic woes and successes, social inequity, intellectual prowess, grief as well as happiness. If you wait long enough, all happy families turn into unhappy ones from time to time and, with luck, the opposite. The only constant is change. I think the same is true, mostly, in relationships as well. Couples stay together not because they love each other eternally – sometimes they drop out of love and work to fall back in, or don’t recognize the person they once loved in their partner – they stay because they’ve made a commitment to do so. I think we’re all strangers from time to time to the people who should know us best. How we get through that – or run from it -- intrigues me.
Were any of the stories based on events that really happened?
Most of the stories in Relative Strangers contain slices of the real. The opening story, “The Bee Queen,” was inspired by an incident that has haunted me since childhood. But the main character – her makeup and history – was totally fabricated. I was delighted to find I had her in me.
“Transubstantiation” emerged from a horrific event that befell friends. Writing about that was difficult on so many levels. I wanted to examine the transformative effect of calamity on individuals and relationships, the notion that even if the victim returns to her former life she can’t resume it: she is forever altered. I didn’t want to turn the couple I knew into characters, so I was acutely conscious of choosing attributes that would distinguish the husband and wife in “Transubstantiation” from my friends. That complicated the telling of the story.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “Parings,” a fable which came directly from a dream.
Which of the stories out of this book is your favorite? Why?
Perhaps “Growing Season.” That’s a story enriched by fragments from other people’s pasts. Various men among my acquaintances shared details from their youth that lodged in my memory and gave heft to the boy who matures over the course of the story. I worked long and hard on the structure to achieve a flow – an undercurrent really – between two forms of bigotry, religious and racial. So the innocence lost in this coming of age story is more than just sexual.
Out of all of the different characters in these stories, which one is your favorite? Why?
I guess I’m smitten with the eternally inappropriate Sally Van Dillen. Maybe in the way a she-bear might favor the runt of her litter. Sally fascinates me. She is so unattractive and vituperative, yet her encrusted vulnerability appeals to me. Her story, “Dance of the Hours,” begins with our seeing her through the critical eyes of her daughter-in-law. Midway, the point of view shifts and we see her world through Sally’s eyes. A few editors told me that I couldn’t do that in a short story. Fortunately, I found one who thought otherwise.
Were there any other titles that you considered giving this book?
The title story was originally called “Family Matters” and that was the rubric I intended for the book. Then I became aware of Rohinton Mistry’s novel by that name and abandoned it. I tried “Family Business” and a couple other clunkers before I settled happily on Relative Strangers. I love that it suggests both people who are merely acquainted and relatives who are estranged from one another.
About how long does it take you to write a short story?
“Meet Me” took about two hours, plus subsequent airbrushing. I had asked my partner to just pick a title for a story out of the air. I wasn’t feeling inventive and apparently neither was he. In a hurry, he declined and began to lay out plans for the afternoon. "Meet me--" he said and I said, "That's it!"
On the other hand, “Growing Season” took two years.
Which do you prefer to write, short stories or novels?
No contest: stories. I become enchanted with characters I wouldn’t want to spend a novel with, like Sally. Short fiction lets me indulge that. But also I’m an ardent admirer of the form, the spareness and precision of it.
Content copyright © 2013 by Lisa Binion. All rights reserved.
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