What Can’t Be Cast Off: An Interview with Fiction Writer Rachel Hall

Sejal Shah
July 28, 2016
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In many of my columns for the Kenyon Review blog, I’ve been exploring what we hold onto and what holds onto us. What do we try to discard? What haunts us? What do we keep and cherish; what do we lose despite our best efforts? I’ve meditated on everything from the books we keep, the friendships we cut loose; the trauma of a loved one’s sudden death; the postcards fluttering at the corners of our desks.

In this final post, I interview fiction writer Rachel Hall, whose first book, Heirlooms, grapples with the enormity of what it means to lose your home and the people and places by which you know yourself. Heirlooms considers the losses incurred by refugees and immigrants during the Second World War. Hall writes about the effects of the war on four generations of a Jewish family, beginning in France and ending in the American Midwest in the 1980s.

Rachel Hall (photo credit Pamela Frame)

Rachel Hall (photo credit Pamela Frame)

Heirlooms, forthcoming from BkMk Press this September, is the winner of the 2016 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. Hall is a professor of English in the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Her family’s wartime papers and photographs, the inspiration for these stories, were recently donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Our conversation occurred over email this July.

What images, ideas, or questions inspired or drove the writing of Heirlooms?

Heirlooms coverI grew up looking at family photo albums and listening to family stories. I’m lucky that my mother is an excellent storyteller, as were her adoptive parents, my grandparents. I loved their stories about the war in France, loved hearing them repeated, and in particular the way a new detail might emerge.

At some point I began wondering what was left out or smoothed over or forgotten altogether. I also had questions that couldn’t be answered. We knew so little about my mother’s biological mother, for instance, because she died at twenty-seven, just as the Germans were invading France. In each photo we have of her, she looks very different. My grandmother didn’t talk about her much and when nudged would only say the same few things: she was an excellent seamstress; she was jealous; she could be very fierce. In Heirlooms, I was interested in exploring memory, erasure, and loss.

These stories are based in part on family stories. How did you decide to write the book as stories and not creative nonfiction essays? And having chosen fiction, what differentiates linked stories from a novel?

Heirlooms is inspired by my family stories and many of the events in the book happened in real life. For instance, the situation in “La Poussette,” in which the neighbor woman refuses to share her bounty, is something that really happened. I don’t know if that woman denounced my family, but someone did and my mother and grandparents had to flee the farm in haste. In my research, I learned that there were two and half million letters of denunciation sent to French prefectures during the Occupation. Many were motivated by jealousy and possessiveness, rather than an affinity with the Vichy racial laws.

Fiction allows me to wed what happened with my research and try to understand why someone might act as they did. I can’t know what the neighbor woman thought or felt, but fiction allows me to step into the shoes of these characters, to invent and imagine and suppose. I think fiction brings the reader closer to the events than CNF can. I guess, too, I wanted to stay out of the stories in a way I didn’t think CNF would allow. And of course, there are stories in the collection, which are more invented than others, which wouldn’t have been possible with CNF. In “A Handbook of American Idiom,” for instance, I allow the Latours to get rich from the shampoo Jean brews in his basement. The real life situation made for less compelling—and believable!—fiction.

As far as stories versus novel, there are several answers. I love that linked stories allow me to slip into a number of different character’s perspectives and points-of-view. I also appreciate that with stories, I can make leaps in time between events. Remember, too, that I was inspired by family photo albums, and I think the story form is true to that inspiration, providing glimpses into lives from different angles and at different times. But also, honestly, it was less daunting for me to think in terms of stories rather than a novel. As soon as I wrote the second story, I thought of this project as a linked story collection—but my agent called it a novel. It does move chronologically, too, like a novel.

How did you come to “Heirlooms” as a title?

“Heirlooms” was first the title of the story by that name, a story that is about all the things that get abandoned or sold or lost during war and immigration. It’s about the lack of tangible heirlooms, really. I’ve always been interested in old things: antiques and vintage clothing, old houses. I’ve often been envious of things my friends have inherited—pearls, furniture, candlesticks—not just because these are lovely things, but also because they act as memorials and markers, calling to mind those relatives who first used them. I’m also interested in what can’t be cast off—anxiety, fears, hopes and dreams. Some of these get inherited too, we now know.

How important was research in the writing of this book and how did you research what you needed to know or learn?

My grandmother was a painter, and the stories she told me were like her art—impressionistic, vivid, colorful. From her, I got a sense of how she felt during the war but I didn’t always get information about how things worked. For instance, she always told us that as soon as she heard that Jews were to register with the City Hall, she took my mother—a toddler at the time—and fled for the Unoccupied Zone. I needed to research to find out what sorts of papers were necessary for her to do this. I had to consult maps a lot, too. I’m fortunate that my mother, who was a child at the time of the war, has since studied France during the Occupation and could recommend books and supply information too. She’s also fluent in French and helped translate letters and papers.

I found journals from the war years to be especially helpful. Two in particular that were critical for this project were The Journal of Hélène Berr and Agnès Humbert’s Résistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France, in which Humbert writes that she began her Resistance work after Paris fell to the Germans out of a need to speak with like-minded people. This was an explanation for risking one’s life, as she and others did, that I found utterly convincing. I’m not a big risk-taker, but I’d have a hard time not being able to speak my mind. Imagine if we couldn’t commiserate with friends about Trump, for instance.

What is something you figured out in the process of writing this book that you think you will carry into your next project?

I was surprised when I finished writing all the stories, a process that spanned many years, that they held together. I didn’t work methodically from beginning to end; I wrote out of order, following my interests. I’m not an outliner or particularly good at big-picture stuff, so I worried that I might have lost sight of things or dropped balls. I learned to trust my process. I hope I’ll carry that with me into my next project, but I suspect this is one of those things I’ll need to learn over and over.

What is something you are currently reading or paying attention to that feeds your writing?

I remain interested in history as a source for my fiction. Mark Twain has said that history doesn’t repeat, “it rhymes”; and that is, for me, what makes history such rich material. We feel some familiarity with the events because they remind us of current events, but we also feel a strangeness. People might have held different notions, but human nature is essentially the same: Velcro wasn’t invented, nor minivans, but the desire to fasten and transport was there.

I’m reading Luke Mogelson’s stunning story collection These Heroic, Happy Dead, which looks at those damaged by recent wars—both soldiers and their families. I’ve got Emma Cline’s The Girls set aside to read next. I’m also intrigued by the way technology is changing our lives and relationships, so I’ve got Nancy Jo Sales’s American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Life of Teenagers set aside, too.

One thought on “What Can’t Be Cast Off: An Interview with Fiction Writer Rachel Hall

  1. I will buy this book. your grandmother was my first art teacher and your mother was my good friend in high school. you ROCK!

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