The 2008 North Country Reads Selection:
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Also by Diana Abu-Jaber
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of Crescent, which was awarded the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction and the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award and was named one of the twenty best novels of 2003 by The Christian Science Monitor, and Arabian Jazz, which won the 1994 Oregon Book Award and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She teaches at Portland State University and divides her time between Portland and Miami.
Mother Teresa referred to Jesus as "the Absent One," and wrote intense, piercing letters about her sense of doubt, her despairing inability to perceive the divine presence. While pundits like Christopher Hitchens have seen this inability as evidence damning religion itself, I believe our country has hardened to such an extent that we've become increasingly intolerant not only of racial or cultural diversity, but of diversity of thought and feeling.
The patriotic fervor that descended on this country following the attacks of September 11th had a kind of irresistible energy. What could feel truer than proclaiming love of one's country? The problem is that these passions incinerated everything else in their path. There seemed to be no room for questioning anything, especially the government--even in its most nightmarishly questionable moments: the bombing of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the manipulation of our national elections.
As a child in a multicultural family, I grew up in an atmosphere of uncertainty. We lived in America, but my father, a Jordanian immigrant, asserted that we were "really" Jordanian. My various identities tugged at me: I felt multiple allegiances--to heritage and home--but I was never really uncomfortable with this multiplicity until others insisted I had to choose. It sometimes felt as if it wasn't permissible to live among different identities, to have a flux and fluidity within one's personality.
When I was in high school, a well-meaning social studies instructor announced that we would be doing an exercise on "race relations." She asked the people in class who thought of themselves as "white" to move to the left side of the room. Students who considered themselves "people of color" were asked to move to the right side of the room.
People scrambled to their sides almost instantly.
I have green eyes, brown hair, fair skin. There's nothing about my appearance that says person of color. But my father and most of the relatives I grew up with would certainly have fallen into that category. I had no idea which side of the room I belonged on--both sides struck me as fake. The exercise began to seem like something more than a statement on appearances: it seemed like a test of loyalty. Whose side you on, anyway?
I sat there, alone in the center of the room, with children on either side of me, laughing at my confusion. And the longer I sat there, the more I felt that the divisions themselves were phony. We'd all been conditioned to choose; it was too frightening to sit alone with uncertainty.
I've come to believe that there is in fact, a grace in uncertainty. As the poet Ranier Maria Rilke said, "Try to love the questions themselves do not now look for the answers." The openness to discovery, the curiosity of the quest, seems the only "truth" available to our limited perceptions. I wish my high school teacher had felt this way. She'd eventually shaken her head at me and said, "Diana Abu-Jaber, go to the right side of the room." I obeyed, but I knew that, as certain she seemed, she was wrong. Either way.
Mother Teresa's own uncertainty was apparently the source of great pain for her. Yet she was able to achieve extraordinary things for the sick and the dying--almost as if all the things she wasn't sure of helped bring into sharper focus the things she did know. It can be frightening-even horrifying--not to live in pure certainty. But it seems that, eventually, the more we can love our questions, the better we can come to love ourselves.
My childhood was made up of stories-the memories and recollections of my father's history and the storybook myths and legends that my mother brought me to read. The stories were often in some way about food, and the food always turned out to be in some way about something much larger: grace, difference, faith, love. This book is a compilation of some of those family stories as it traces the ways we grew into ourselves. I believe the immigrant's story is compelling to us because it is so consciously undertaken. The immigrant compresses time and space-starting out in one country and then very deliberately starting again, a little later, in another. It's a sort of fantasy-to have the chance to re-create yourself, but it's also a nightmare, because so much is lost.
To me, the truth of stories lies not in their factual precision but in their emotional core. Most of the events in this book are honed and altered in some fashion, to give them the curve of stories. Lives don't usually correspond to narrative arcs, but all of these stories spring out of real people, memories, and joyously gathered and prepared meals.
I offer my deepest gratitude to the friends and family I write about in these pages and give thanks to everyone who knows we each have a right to tell our stories, to be truthful to our own memories, no matter how flawed, private, embellished, idiosyncratic, or improved they may be. I also offer apologies to all the dear ones whose experiences I may have shared and recorded here without asking permission. I offer up these memories in hopes that others will feel invited or inspired to conjure up and share their own. Memories give our lives their fullest shape, and eating together helps us to remember.
Praise for The Ha-Ha
"Subtlety and grace."
"His novel is unflaggingly believable. Neither showy or histrionic, The Ha-Ha is full of emotional truth and establishes King as a writer of consequence."
"Ambitious and original .King's painstaking story tugs at the heart. Howard is an exasperating creation who gives the impression that even if he were able to speak, he would still have trouble communicating." Ian Schwartz, Bookpage
"King's prodigious gift is to open up that wall and reveal Howard's rich inner life, and in the process he spins a luminous meditation on war, family, and all the ways we can converse." Caroline Leavitt, Boston Globe
"King's book is alternately heartbreaking and redemptive. The character of Howard Kapostash is comparable to Yann Martel's Pi Patel (Life of Pi) or Goto Dengo in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon as a character with no literary forebears." Regis Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
"In the poetic voice of a silent man, King has created a strangely lovable hero whose chance for happiness will matter to you deeply." Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
"A fine debut novel that fits the definition of a true war story."
"King does a convincing job of bringing readers into the melancholy sadness and joyful triumphs of Howard's small, silent world." S. Kirk Walsh, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Imagine suddenly losing your ability to speak, read, and write, and from then on, feeling that all your thoughts and emotions are locked inside. Dave King's debut novel, THE HA-HA places narrator Howard Kapostash in just such circumstances. Howie, a Vietnam veteran left mute by a head injury, now rounds out his days as groundskeeper for a convent and custodian of his ex-girlfriend's recalcitrant nine-year-old son. This novel is about the costs of war, the hope and heartbreak of the disabled experience, and the value of human connections.
Dave King holds a BFA in painting and film from Cooper Union and an MFA in writing from Columbia University.
He has served as Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College, City University of New York, and is currently a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome 2006-2007. He has been published in The Paris Review and Big City Lit, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Ha-Ha is his first novel. You can find out more about the author and his work at his website: http://www.davekingwriter.com.
Dave King has done it all. Hes been an artist, a florist, a New York City cabdriver, a bartender, a small business owner, and even an editor. Now hes taken a successful leap into writing fiction with his debut novel, The Ha-Ha, and Warner Brothers Pictures will turn his book into a movie. FictionAddiction.NET talks with King about his creative past, his novel, and his take on the writing craft.
Youve had such a successful painting career and now it appears your writing is going to be equally flourishing. What made you finally decide to delve into the world of novel writing?
To be honest, my painting career was a mixed bag. My undergraduate degree was in painting and film, and I was a serious painter for almost ten years without too much success. During the end of that time a partner and I founded Dynaflow Studios, Inc. (now called Franklin Tartaglione, LLC) to create decorative painting and murals for high-end residences.
I enjoyed the decor world very much, and its true we did well, but its a different kind of creativity when youre pursuing a craft and delivering a commissioned product; I missed the freedom Id enjoyed in the studio. Since I was already painting all day, I enrolled in a writing class as a creative outlet, and one of my first teachers, the wonderful novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet, encouraged me to consider graduate school.
After several years of writing on nights and weekends, I relinquished my portion of the decorative painting business and entered the MFA program at Columbia. The Ha-Ha (in quite a different form) was my masters thesis.
The character of Howard Kapostash in The Ha-Ha is three-dimensional in his role as protagonist. He has such a convincing mixture of flaws and feelings, and you did an amazing job bringing him to life. What inspired you to choose him as the basis of your novel?
My interest in disability is a consequence of having a profoundly autistic brother, but its important to note that while my brother Hank (who died in 1993) certainly helped spark the character of Howard Kapostash, Howard is not an attempt to give voice to Hanks experience.
The two lives are substantively quite different, and one of the books primary dynamics is the exploration of Howards loss; since Howard, unlike Hank, has known the full range of a normally abled life, his rebirth as a disabled person encompasses the narrowing of every expectation for what we loosely term the American dream. With this knowledge of what might have been, Howard bears an extra burden of sadness I hope my brother never experienced.
Child rearing is one of lifes greatest challenges. With the difficulties that Howie already faced, why toss that into the mix?
There are a number of reasons I included Ryan in the story, the first being that I enjoy writing about kids. Though we dont have children ourselves, The Ha-Ha was written during a happy period when my life was rich with children, especially my young nieces and nephew. They and many children of friends contributed immeasurably to the portrait of Ryan.
A second reason to build the story around Howards time with Ryan was to raise the level of challenge for myself. The story of a damaged child and damaged adult who bond and find reconciliation is pretty classic and has already been told in a variety of ways (the foremost example in our American literature probably being Huckleberry Finn). I wanted to see if I could add something to this literature without allowing my book to become cheesy, predictable, or clichéd. Treading this line was one of the harder tasks I addressed in writing The Ha-Ha, and in fact the book follows fairly foreseeable lines for its first half before ultimately veering off in a direction that I hope will surprise most readers.
Howard has been compared to some impressive characters of literature. How does it feel to have crafted someone who has touched the hearts and souls of so many?
Its wonderful, and I never tire of hearing from readers. Among the most satisfying responses Ive received have been many notes and e-mails from Vietnam vets and from those in the health care professions: employees of long-term care facilities, nurses, surgeons, even shrinks. An unexpected number of readers have had some experience of traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, and its been thrilling to earn the validation of those who have gone through challenges like the ones Howard faces in the novel.
The Ha-Ha has received such high accolades and is already slated for film production. Did you ever imagine it would gain popularity so quickly?
Frankly, I did not. During my graduate school days some professors and fellow students were intrigued by what I was up to, but there was certainly no consensus that this was a special project. Thats primarily because it took me a long time to get it right.
Over the six years it took me to complete the novel, I wrote approximately five full drafts and rewrote problem scenes perhaps as many as twenty times, and while I was struggling with Howards voice or the books pacing or some other difficult aspects of The Ha- Ha, it wasnt at all clear Id ever get it right. Only when the book began to be read by publishing professionals did I have an inkling of its wider appeal.
Is there any one author who motivated your writing more than any other?
E. M. Forsters influence is all over this book: so much of The Ha- Ha is about making the human connection, and Forsters own vision of writing as a moral activity is enormously important to me. But in working out how to capture Howards consciousness, I also considered some of the twentieth-century modernists, particularly Faulkner and Woolf.
Despite the fact that The Ha-Ha is a mostly conventional narrative comprised of conventional sentences, the formal innovation of the voice the sheer contradiction implied by the fact that the story is told by a mute nevertheless owes a debt to others who have written from inside the human head. Among many other writers whose impact may be less evident in this novel but who matter greatly to me are Wharton, Cather, Beckett, Chekhov, and Whitman.
You have such a diverse background in both your education and your career. Where do you see yourself going from here?
Im continuing to write. My novel-in-progress is tonally different from The Ha-Ha (among other shifts, the new books narrative voice is more worldly and skeptical than Howards), but the story will continue my investigation of themes that are important to me, including friendship and family, loyalty and betrayal, and the duties of the individual within a community.
Im also continuing to write and publish my poetry.
One of the more popular pieces of advice for aspiring authors is write what you know. Do you agree with the importance placed on that?
Write what you know is especially useful for new writers, who may feel that even beginning to write is a pretty big step. Its good for ones confidence to be sure of a subject, even if how to capture that subject in words remains elusive.
Ultimately, though, my method is to rely on my imagination, so the dictum write what you know becomes more elastic, more abstract. I feel I write what I know about life, about love, about human relationships and emotions and joy and sorrow, but in The Ha-Ha I made up the details of the town, the characters, and the plot. It was in the attempt to bring those two worlds together that my book took flight.
What words of wisdom would you like to share with fledgling writers?
Try taking a good cop/bad cop approach to your manuscript. In the first draft, be endlessly loving and supportive of yourself. Toss in anything you can think of; be optimistic, positive, and forgiving, and embrace digression. In the second draft, bring out your harsh and punitive side: look for flaws in the logic and force yourself to do plenty of heavy pruning. Take the long view: think fiercely about structure, pacing, story arc, theme, and other big issues. Your final draft, of course, will be some combination of the two.
The complete text of Danielle DeFrains interview with Dave King originally appeared at FictionAddiction.NET. Reprinted with permission.
Howard Kapostash has not spoken in thirty years. Ever since a severe blow to the head during his days in the Army, words unravel in his mouth and letters on the page make no sense at all.
Because of his extremely limited communication abilitiesa small repertory of gestures and simple soundsmost people see him as disturbed. No one understands that Howard is still the same man he was before enlisting, still awed by the beauty of a landscape, still pining for his high school sweetheart, Sylvia.
Now Sylvia is a single mom with troubles of her own, and she needs Howards help. She is being hauled into a drug rehab program and she asks Howard to care for her 9 year-old son, Ryan. The presence of this nervous, resourceful boy in Howards life transforms him utterly.
With a childs happiness at stake, communication takes on a fresh urgency, and the routine that Howard has evolved over the yearsdesigned specifically to minimize the agony of human contactsuddenly feels restrictive and even dangerous. Forced out of his groove, Howard finds unexpected delights (in baseball, in work, in meals with his housemates). His home comes alive with the joy, sorrows, and love of a real family. But these changes also open Howard to the risks of lossand to the rage he has spent a lifetime suppressing.
Written with a luminous simplicity and grace, The Ha-Ha follows Howard down his difficult path to a new life. It is a deeply moving story about the cost of war and the infinite worth of human connection.
Back Bay Books, publisher of The Ha-Ha, the 2007 North Country Reads selection, has generously provided a reader's guide to the book. The guide contains information about the book and author, further suggested reading, discussion questions and an interview with the author. This guide is recommended as an aid to book groups and teachers. Some of the information, especially the discussion questions, reveal major details of the plot, and so should not be read in advance the book.
* PDF-format: requires the free Adobe Acrobat Reader
Critical Acclaim for A Northern Light
School Library Journal
The New York Times Book Review
A coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the scenic Adirondacks and a true-life 1906 murder that shocked the nation, A Northern Light is narrated by 16-year-old Mattie Gokey, a precocious young woman who longs for more opportunities than tiny Eagle Bay can give her.
Jennifer Donnelly grew up in Port Leydon, Lewis County. Before embarking on her career as a novelist, she was a staff writer at the Watertown Daily Times. Not having forgotten her north country roots, A Northern Light includes references to Boonville, Castorland and Watertown. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter and two greyhounds. You can find out more about the author and her work at her website: http://www.jenniferdonnelly.com.
Have you always wanted to write?
Yes, ever since I was a small child, I spent much of my elementary and high school career inflicting terrible poems and overwrought stories on my family and friends. I didn't write any fiction in college, but I did write for my college newspaper. Mainly on local restaurants, bakeries, and ice-cream stands, as I had hopes of becoming a food writer. I was to discover; how ever, that publications like Gourmet magazine require better qualifications than mere gluttony, and so I didn't end up pursuing that line of work.
What inspired you to write this story?
First and foremost, Grace Brown's story. The one told about her by friends, family, and eyewitnesses, and the one she told in her own letters. When I read those letters, I was upset--grief stricken, actually--that such a kind, funny, perceptive, decent girl had been trapped by her circumstances and then murdered because there was no way out of them. Mattie was born, in part, because I wanted to change the past. I wanted Grace's death to have meaning. And I wanted her death to allow someone else to escape her confining circumstances and live her life, even though Grace herself didn't get that chance.
Your portrayal of everyday life in the early 1900s is so real and vividly detailed, What kind of research did you do for this book? How long did it take you to write the story?
I consulted oral histories, histories of the area written local residents, tax records, photographs, newspaper clippings, a Cranberry Lake farmwife's diary, court transcripts ot Chester Gillette's trial, old camp menus, old postcards and autograph books--most of which were made available to me the Town of Webb Historical Society and the Adirondack Museum. I also used stories told to me by my great-grandmother, my grandmother, her brother and sister, my father and my uncle. These stories were accounts of how my upstate relatives--all Irish immigrants or their children--lived, worked, and played in and around the western Adirondacks. Some were sober descriptions of the hard, everyday lives of poor farmers, hotel workers and woodsmen, and some were out-and-out whoppers. I knew one from the other and I didn't care, I just loved the telling.
A Northern Light is your third published work, Your first two, The Tea Rose and Humble Pie, are for completely different audiences--adults (for The Tea Rose) and kids ages four to eight (Humble Pie), How do you manage to write for these vastly different types of readers?
I'm not sure how to answer this because it doesn't take any effort for me to switch between audiences. Each story might be for vastly different readers but they're not vastly different stories. They're all about lacing challenges, confronting hard things, being afraid, being confused, changing, and ultimately triumphing.
In both The Tea Rose and A Northern Light, you write about compelling women who fight against sexist stereotyping; they also struggle to find meaningful work in eras when women had few opportunities. Are there any parallels in your life--have you found avenues that are closed to women?
I honestly haven't. I had parents who told me that I could do and be whatever I wanted, as long as I worked hard. But I deeply feel for previous generations of women--and men--who did not have my opportunities. My great-grandmother received an eighth-grade education, and then was sent off the farm and into hotel service to help feed her family. My great-grandfather received only a fifth-grade education. At the age of twelve, he was put on the Erie Canal to drive mules. He was terrified of lightning storms and tried to crawl onto a boat for shelter whenever one came, but was once whipped down off the boat by the captain. He endured a lifetime of backbreaking physical labor--farming, logging, running a hotel--and died young from a weak heart. My grandmother, his daughter, told me that in the last months of his life, when he was laid up in bed, he discovered books and devoured one after another. That breaks my heart. I wonder what his life would have been like if he'd been able to finish school and go to college.
What was your favorite book as a teen?
Boy, is that hard. There are so many. I read both mass and class, and liked the mass more than the class, The Shining a huge favorite. Anything by Stephen King was. I felt like I knew the people he wrote about. My aunt Grace had stacks and stacks of what's now called women's fiction, and I frequently dipped into her stash. Some of my favorites were A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, and Scruples by Judith Kranz. At the age of thirteen, I probably shouldn't have been reading any of them. They all had racy bits. On the more literary side I loved Lord of the Flies, The Scarlet Letter, and Animal Farm. To be perfectly honest, though, I didn't fall hard for literature until I went to college and was fortunate enough to be taught by some seriously gifted professors. They opened my eyes to the beauty and majesty and power of writers like Shakespeare, Joyce, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dickinson, and Eliot.
Do you have any advice for would-be writers?
Read as much as you can and write as much as you can. Listen hard to what's inside of you, and try--it's hard when fourteen or fifteen and everyone's telling you how to think and feel and be--but try hard to hear your own voice and to believe in it.
Scene from An American Tragedy (Source: Metropolitan Opera)
Broadcast Premier of the opera, An American Tragedy
Saturday, December 24, 1:00 pm
Aired live on North Country Public Radio from the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, with specially produced regional content from Brian Mann preceding the premier. More at NCPR.
In 1906, the murder trial of Chester Gillette, a prep school graduate accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend, Grace Brown, created an international sensation.
Hear author Jennifer Donnelly reading Grace Brown's last love letter.
The trial attracted media from across the country and Herkimer County Courthouse was filled to capacity every day of the trial.
Americans of the Victorian Era were particularly scandalized by the personal drama involving Gillettes social climbing and his cool demeanor throughout the trial.
The Hotel Glennmore on Moose Lake
Learn more about the murder, the trial and the historical background of A Northern Light at these websites:
Harcourt Books, publisher of A Northern Light, has generously provided a reader's guide to the book. The guide contains information about the book and author, further suggested reading, discussion questions and an interview with the author. This guide is recommended as an aid to book groups and teachers. Some of the information, especially the discussion questions, reveal major details of the plot, and so should not be read in advance the book.
* PDF-format: requires the free Adobe Acrobat Reader