In 2001, Judi Hendricks published her debut novel, BREAD ALONE, which went on to be a bestseller. Now she’s out with her fourth book, THE LAWS OF HARMONY, about a woman trying to flee from grief and betrayal. We’ll talk about this new book, the persistence of memory, and the lessons she learned from the community of writers at Squaw Valley. I hope you’ll join the conversation.
Kids are playing on a rooftop during a party when one little girl falls to her death. Your book begins long after this tragedy, but this death is always stirring beneath the surface. Can you talk to me about weaving the past and present together in your narrative and whether you were tempted to set your novel back at that original incident?
For me, the past and present are inextricably woven together, which is why I always write many more pages than the eventual length of the book—because I have to know the history, and I can’t know it until I write it. Having said that, however, there’s a point where you have to sort of pull the two layers apart so you can look at each of them alone before putting them back together in a different way, a way that makes sense for the telling of the story.
THE LAWS OF HARMONY is a story that really hinges on the past—and I love the way you put it… that the death is always stirring beneath the surface. That was exactly my intent as I was writing, and it’s exactly how the main character (Sunny) perceives it. Loss is the great common denominator here—we’ve all known the loss of a person, of a home, a job, of love, of a dream. For Sunny, the loss of her sister becomes the prism through which she views the world forever after. But I never thought of setting the book in that time because, while Mari’s death is the inciting incident, the story isn’t about the death; it’s about the effect of that death on Sunny’s life. It’s about how we all experience loss and somehow find ways—no matter how flawed—to keep moving.
Years ago she told me she wished she would get Alzheimer’s, that her memories were unbearable. (p. 118)
In the scene where Nana buys Sunny a chocolate-colored dress, Sunny is shown another world, another way of living; and you see how this delivers both a crushing blow to her feelings about her current life and opens a window to how she might dream differently about her future. Talk to me about this scene. And do you remember a moment like this in your own life?
This is one of my favorite chapters because writing it clarified so many important relationships in the book. It helped me understand where Gwen came from and why she rebelled against her parents and their lifestyle. At the same time I saw that there was still a lot of love mixed in with the misunderstanding and pain. These are people who want to be close to each other, but they just can’t figure out how… sort of like Gwen and Sunny later on. I discovered the tension between Gwen and Rob, their different backgrounds and his dependence on alcohol and drugs to get him through intense situations. This chapter also revealed the mirror image parent/child relationship between Sunny and her father, the way she tries to look out for him, keep him from getting in trouble. Then there’s the bonding of Sunny with her grandmother, which seems to sustain her in different ways over the years, even though they never see each other again. And finally Sunny’s connection with Mari, who at this point is just a toddler, but seems to have a preternatural understanding of her world. The scene where she cries because she doesn’t recognize Sunny all dressed up for the wedding foreshadows that Mari will never know her sister as an adult.
My own experience with a glimpse into a different world came when I was about ten years old. My mother was the oldest of four children, and the only one who had kept to “the straight and narrow path.” On the rare occasions when her sisters and brother were mentioned in my presence, it was with much tsk, tsking and knowing looks between her and my grandmother. I was never privy to details, but I got the message that my aunts and uncle were not examples that I should emulate.
It had been years since I’d seen any of them and I wasn’t old enough to remember what they even looked like. Then one day my Aunt Barbara showed up unexpectedly at my grandmother’s house when we were there… bleached blonde hair and dark red lipstick, top down on her convertible, loud, funny, and with a wallet full of cash. She scooped up my little brother and me, put us in the back seat and drove to the nearest toy store, where she told us to pick out anything we wanted. I still have the doll I got that day. Then she took us out for ice cream and told us all about her job—she was working as a blackjack dealer at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. My brother and I had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded pretty darned exciting. Next we drove to the bus station to pick up her boyfriend, who’d just come down from San Francisco to meet her and then they were off to Mexico for a week. When we got back to my grandmother’s house, things were very quiet. I could tell my mother was angry, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was never discussed… my family’s usual method of dealing with anything outside our comfort zone.
Interestingly when my aunt died of lung cancer ten years ago, my mother professed not to remember that day. Maybe she didn’t. I’ve never forgotten it. I wasn’t quite ready to run off to Tahoe and learn to deal blackjack, but I now knew there were other possibilities than the “straight and narrow.”
So here’s an honest answer: I grew up on a commune in New Mexico. I spent my first eighteen years surrounded by an ever-changing cast of characters. Group work, group play, group meals… group sex, on occasion. Even our outhouse was a five-seater. It made my brother the kind of person who’d strike up a conversation with a guy who’s mugging him at gunpoint. It made me into somebody who thinks three people is a mob. (p. 218)
In many ways, you’re writing about contrasting worlds; and yet, when Sunny runs from one to the another—hoping to flee broken relationships, financial struggles, loneliness, disappointment—the hurts and problems run right along beside her. I’d love to hear you talk about this battle—the weight of the past versus the force of what a person dreams for herself.
French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote, “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
Nobody understands that better than Sunny Cooper, my protagonist in THE LAWS OF HARMONY. At the age of 8, living on a hippie commune, she witnesses the death of her younger sister and the subsequent fracturing of her family. This is the memory that she can never outrun.
When I was twelve years old, I saw a painting by Salvador Dali … the one with the melting clocks. The title meant nothing to me then, but I was fascinated by the painting. Now it’s the title that I find most compelling. The Persistence of Memory.
The past—and how we deal with it—shapes our lives. Some of us get stuck there, repeating our mistakes, sometimes our parents’ mistakes, too—as if by reliving them we could change what happened and finally make things right. As Sunny finally learns, real freedom comes only when we acknowledge what is possible and what is not.
It rained in the night – the kind the Navajos call a female rain – slow and steady, soaking into the earth. As opposed to a male rain, which is hard, fast, and runs off immediately. (p. 300)
What did you learn about reconciliation while writing this book?
Actually, nothing. To me, true reconciliation is like the Aurora Borealis—I know it’s out there, but I’ve never seen it. Many people claim to have achieved it, but once the tears and embracing are out of the way, I’ve noticed that people tend to go right back to the attitudes and behaviors that caused the problem in the first place.
While reconciliation is the often longed-for resolution in a story, it’s not always realistic. As I got closer to the ending of THE LAWS OF HARMONY, I kept trying out different scenarios between Sunny and Gwen, none of which were successful or satisfying. Then it dawned on me that I was trying to force a resolution between these two women that was impossible… at least at the point where the book ends. You can know in your gut what you should do, and it may even be what you want to do, but you can’t make yourself feel something that you don’t feel. If Sunny and her mother are going to be reconciled it’s got to happen later, farther down the road. About the best they can do by the end of the book is a hopeful truce.
I love the way food is so much a part of this novel. You can feel the emotional lift the characters get as they eat brownies with blackberry ganache. And when Sunny has the blues, the perfect remedy is a chicken soup called avgolemono. I’m curious if you can describe this passion for food to someone who’s a lazy cook and disconnected from this type of joy, right down to the canned spaghetti sauce and instant coffee. And would you mind sharing a recipe?
I’ve always thought of food as more than sustenance. For me, it’s like music, the way it serves as a touchstone for life events. What we were eating the night Geoff proposed… Which Thanksgiving was it when Aunt Helen dropped the turkey on the floor? We were all eating my gram’s lemon meringue pie when my best friend whispered to me that she was pregnant.
The first novel where I noticed food being incorporated in a realistic and interesting way was Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER. There’s a wonderful scene where one of the Mafiosi is making spaghetti sauce and he’s explaining how he adds a little sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. In the mid 80’s my brother-in-law turned me on to Robert Parker’s SPENSER novels; the main character, a literate tough guy, does a lot of cooking and eating.
Now, some twenty-five years later, I sense that cooking and writing run on parallel tracks. Both can be very solitary pursuits, but the object of both is to touch other people, to offer them something, to communicate. My career as a novelist seems to have had its roots at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, and I think that’s appropriate. Because a book, just like a loaf of bread, is a process, not a product—slow, arduous, messy, and utterly unpredictable.
Recipe? Certainly. The only difficulty is choosing just one. This is one of my favorites:
ROSEMARY PINE NUT SHORTBREAD
8 oz butter
2 C flour
¾ t salt
½ C powdered sugar
1 t vanilla
½ C toasted pine nuts
2 T finely chopped fresh rosemary
Melt butter in microwave or in saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients to make a stiff dough. Pat evenly into a 10 x 14” baking pan. Chill for 20-30 minutes then bake at 350° F till firm & golden brown (15-20 min.) Cool in pan 2 minutes, then use a knife to cut into bars. Let cool at least ten more minute before removing with small spatula. Great with fruit and/or goat cheese.
“She’s like a cat,” I say. “Always attaching herself to the one person in a room who’s least likely to want her around. (p. 467)
What have you learned about yourself and this business after publishing four novels? And what’s the best lesson you could you share with writers who are at the beginning of their careers?
One thing never seems to change: every time I begin a new book, it’s like the very first time, and I have to learn all over again how to write. But the experience of writing has been completely different for each book. I think maybe this is because of the organic relationship between writer and book, the way they affect each other, the invisible push and pull of the story.
What it comes down to is that each book is a unique adventure for all concerned. The writer—just like her characters—is not the same person at the end that she was at the beginning. The book that you finish is not the book that you started. That’s what’s so amazing and engrossing and frustrating and exhilarating about the process of writing. And that is why, so long as I can see the computer screen and prop myself upright in my chair, I’ll probably never stop.
I recently saw a film called EVERY LITTLE STEP. It’s a documentary about the 2006 revival of the musical A CHORUS LINE. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world that I’ll never know—the world of young performers trying to make it on Broadway. And yet, certain aspects of it were all too familiar. You’ve got a line of people stretching for blocks; I think 3,000 people auditioned for 18 roles. Every one of them has a story. Every one of them is talented. Every one is driven. The thing I loved about the film was that it follows not only the ones whose dream came true, but also it looks long and lovingly at some who were eliminated, some in the early rounds, and a few at the very end when it was down to two people for a role and the reason one was chosen over the other was often incomprehensible to me.
One of these was an actress named Rachelle and she was a heartbeat away from one of the plum roles—as Cassie. The part went to another young woman instead. I felt so let down. Had I been her, I would have fallen on the floor and kicked and screamed and cried. Instead, she packed up her stuff, patted the shoulder of the guy who’d just given her the bad news and walked to the door. To add insult to injury, the people making this documentary have got the cameras on her, the microphone in her face and they’re asking her how she feels. The one thing she said that resonated big-time with me was, “It’s a hard business. You really have to like yourself.”
So the best lesson I can share with writers at the beginning of their careers—and one that we all need reminding of occasionally—is sort of that: Be gentle with yourself.
I hear myself laughing inside the helmet, like a little kid with the training wheels off for the first time. (p. 271)
I know you were a participant in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Can you tell me about that experience? I’d love to know who you studied with and how that shaped your writing or your dedication to the craft.
I was encouraged to attend Squaw Valley Community of Writers by Andrew Tonkovich, who was my writing instructor at UCI extension. Some of the things I remember most clearly had nothing to do with writing… it was blisteringly hot. The resort was being renovated, so workshop meeting times and places were somewhat fluid. There were construction noises and great clouds of dust during the day… and yet, I have nothing but happy memories of my time in the valley. I got lucky, ending up in a house with two guys who both had cars, and one of whom was an excellent cook. The three of us spent several long evenings drinking wine and discussing writing until someone would finally jump up and say, “I’ve got to go read my workshop papers for tomorrow.”
That summer I was working mostly on “creative non-fiction.” I did have the first chapter of a novel which would later become BREAD ALONE, but I’d never written fiction before and didn’t quite know what to do with it. I loved the workshop system they used, where you had a different instructor at every meeting, so I was privileged to learn from Mary Morris, Louis B. Jones, Lynn Freed, Bharati Mukherjee and others. In the afternoons I got to listen to Diane Johnson talk about dialogue (this alone was worth the cost of the program) and James N. Frey (No, not the James Frey of the fake memoirs) talk about plotting the damn good novel. In the evenings the instructors would read from their own works and authors like Amy Tan and Max Byrd regaled us with tales of the writing life. It was the first time I’d ever had a true sense of a writing community. I was thrilled to return in 2001 to read from my just-published novel.
While I learned at least one thing from every single writer (published or not) that I met there, the one who had the most influence on my work was Andrew Tonkovich. The year I attended, they had not yet started a nonfiction program, but in his classes at UCI Andrew had showed us how to use fiction techniques—setting, point of view, dialogue, etc—to write compelling non-fiction. It was in his class that I came to the realization that it was all one. All writing. Andrew gave us the tools and the freedom to use them for anything we wanted to write.
EllenMeisterSeptember 9, 2009
Wonderful interview. I especially loved this:
“One thing never seems to change: every time I begin a new book, it’s like the very first time, and I have to learn all over again how to write. But the experience of writing has been completely different for each book. I think maybe this is because of the organic relationship between writer and book, the way they affect each other, the invisible push and pull of the story.”
Thanks Judith and Sue!
Carolyn_Burns_BassSeptember 9, 2009
Judith said: For Sunny, the loss of her sister becomes the prism through which she views the world forever after. But I never thought of setting the book in that time because, while Mari’s death is the inciting incident, the story isn’t about the death; it’s about the effect of that death on Sunny’s life.
Death stirring below the surface is a mixed metaphor that works. Death is stillness, a lack of life. To have it stirring below the surface indicates whatever is stirring isn’t dead. It’s as Judith says in the quote above, “the effect of that death.”
Most people don’t understand how the effect of that death becomes a prism until they lose someone very close to them. For some people that prism throws rainbows, for others it distorts and confuses.
I read and enjoyed BREAD ALONE shortly after it was released. Has so much time gone by that Judith has written three more books? Looks like I have some catch-up reading to do.
1jasantafe1September 9, 2009
Great interview! I appreciated hearing such a frank discussion of ending a book. Not everything has to have a ribbon on it. I like stories where I can wonder about the future of the characters. This was a wonderful book.
SusanHendersonSeptember 9, 2009
Sorry to be popping in so late. I had a writing goal I wanted to meet before I could come here or read my mail.
Ellen, I heard this from Amy Tan, too. You may be a better writer after each book, but the process of writing still has all the same hurdles. (I’m SOOOO excited for your book to come out. Do you have a date yet?)
SusanHendersonSeptember 9, 2009
Love what you’re both saying about this prism. I’m just enthralled.
SusanHendersonSeptember 9, 2009
Yeah, I just loved her answer about reconciliation. Those characters were not going to be forced into anything. Lovely!
farmgirlsusanSeptember 10, 2009
What a terrific interview! Of course I’m slightly biased, since Judi is one of my favorite authors. Her novels are always filled with so many wonderful little moments, insights, sayings, and images that you simply cannot read them only once. And of course there’s all the food woven throughout them. She said of food, “For me, it’s like music, the way it serves as a touchstone for life events.” Exactly! Things like her best friend’s whispering that she’s pregnant while they’re eating gram’s lemon meringue meringue pie – those are the kind of details that, for me, make Judi’s books extra special. (And I’m always wishing they’d eat more often in the SPENSER novels, LOL.)
I just read Bread Alone for the fourth time and enjoyed it as much – if not more – than the first. As soon as I finished it I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do first – start the sequel, The Baker’s Apprentice, or try her Pain de Campagne recipe. (I did both.)
The Laws of Harmony was one of those books I finished and was tempted to turn right back to page one and start again, so reading this interview was such a treat. And great photos, too. Love the one of Judi on the motorcycle!
Farmgirl SusanSeptember 10, 2009
P.S. Interestingly when my aunt died of lung cancer ten years ago, my mother professed not to remember that day. Maybe she didn’t. I’ve never forgotten it.
I’m always fascinated by how much certain moments and memories deeply affect some of us – especially during childhood – while others have no recollection of them.
Judi HendricksSeptember 10, 2009
Getting sick reminds me of those runaway truck ramps you see in the mountains. Theoretically if a truck loses its brakes, the driver turns off into a big ramp full of sand which stops everything pretty quickly. I was thinking about that yesterday with my temperature hovering at about 100 degrees, the guy banging the drum in my head, coughing like a sea lion. Now, instead of going to a reunion with college friends, writing on one book, researching another, preparing a presentation for a library event and the New Mexico Women Authors’ Book Festival, doing some new baking experiments…bam! I’m up to the axles in sand and my forward momentum is gone. I’m lying in bed with a thermometer handy, taking antibiotics, can’t taste food, have no energy…can’t even read for very long.
It’s soooo frustrating.
But I did want to log on and thank Susan for this wonderful interview…great questions. I felt like I was taking an essay exam in college…they really made me think. And thanks to everyone for the insightful comments.
SusanHendersonSeptember 10, 2009
Hey, everyone, thanks so much for the comments. I know I’m behind in both threads, and I’ll be responding later tonight. I’ve got a tight deadline on my book edits, and in a little bit, my 8th grader will be trying out for the School of Rock All-Stars. Wish us luck!
See you tonight during halftime of the Steelers game!
SusanHendersonSeptember 10, 2009
MY 8TH GRADER MADE ALL-STARS!!!!! HOORAY!!!!! 😀
Here’s the wikipedia entry for The School of Rock All-Stars:
The School of Rock All-Stars is a group of the best students from the entirety of the program, all across the country, handpicked from schools in the program through auditions with Paul Green. They go on tour to play such venues as BB Kings in Times Square, The Knitting Factory in LA and NYC, The Roxy and Crash Mansion in LA, Stubbs in Austin, Hard Rock Cafes, House of Blues, and many of the biggest festivals in the country such as Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, along with many others. They often tour and play with famous musicians from rock’s past and present, such as The Butthole Surfers, Slash, Les Paul, Brendon Small, Leann Rhymes, CJ Tywoniak, Perry Farrell, Jon Anderson, Peter Frampton, Eddie Vedder, Alice Cooper, Adrian Belew, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Stewart Copeland, John Wetton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Ike Willis, and Ann Wilson. Tryouts are held once a year, usually in September. The audition requirements include one Led Zeppelin song with a backing band, and one solo song of their choice. The All-Stars consist of five nationally touring groups.
SusanHendersonSeptember 10, 2009
Judi, I hope you feel better soon. It’s been so wonderful reading your work and hearing your stories.
SusanHendersonSeptember 10, 2009
I find this so fascinating, too. You see it so much with siblings, how differently they see the same events, or how something is life-changing for one and a non-event for the other.
SusanHendersonSeptember 10, 2009
This note makes me so happy. Thanks for this!
Judi HendricksSeptember 11, 2009
Thanks again, Susan. And congratulations on being a rock star mom! (Maybe Frances McDormand will play you in the movie version;^)
I loved reading the post on Squaw Valley. It’s a special place and almost a mystical experience for writers. The part that really spoke to me was Ron Carlson’s comment about writers spreading themselves too thin. I’ve been struggling with that lately…probably one of the reasons I got sick. How do you write and do events and twitter and blog and facebook and try to maintain some semblance of family life and not forget your friends and…everything else that comprises daily life? And I don’t even have kids! It often hurts to say no and you can spend sleepless hours worrying about all the shoulds and coulds..but that way lies madness. I applaud your decision to cut back on blogging, even though it’s something you do so well and where your presence will be missed.
SusanHendersonSeptember 11, 2009
Wow! Frances McDormand? I love her!
Have you ever read the Squaw Valley collection of essays? There’s one in there by Amy Tan about how her life changed with the success of The Joy Luck Club, and how she was doing all these events and readings and panels and everyone was asking her for blurbs and talking about the old book and not the one she was trying to write. This was even before Twitter and FaceBook and all the current distractions. It sounded absolutely maddening, and then I realized, Hey, wait a minute, that also sounds very familiar. I mean, not the bestseller and movie deal, but just how all of us can quickly find ourselves saying yes to too many things. If I could only remember how she finished the essay and whether there was an easy fix to it all!
The book is here, by the way: http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Workshop-Book-Community-Fiction/dp/0811858219
I do know that many times in my life, getting sick was the only thing that ever made me slow down. May you have a blissful recovery filled with slow mornings and chicken soup and that cute dog close by.
Farmgirl SusanSeptember 11, 2009
This is so funny because I’m really enjoying all these comments and each time a new one arrived in my inbox today I want to immediately come over here and jump into the conversation, but all day long I’ve been in the middle of about six different things because I, too, am constantly spreading myself too thin. Or is that just how life is these days? What’s ironic is that the only reason I was able to indulge in re-reading Bread Alone this past weekend was because I’d run myself so ragged I was forced to STOP.
Judi, I know exactly what you mean about being able to spend sleepless hours worrying about all the shoulds and coulds. Susan, if you remember Amy’s easy fix, please let me know! So far I’ve avoided Twitter and Facebook, because it already sometimes feels as if blogging has taken over my life (it’s definitely put a damper on eating hot meals since I usually have to stop and photograph dinner before eating it, LOL). Speaking of which, I’d better get back to it – blogging that is, not my life. Oh, and I, too, love Frances McDormand!
Farmgirl SusanSeptember 11, 2009
That is so cool! Congratulations to you both!!
SusanHendersonSeptember 13, 2009
It’s such a balancing act, isn’t it? I find if I cut myself off too much, I miss all the joys of being a part of an artistic community. And if I’m out and about too much, I end up saying yes to this and that and pretty soon, my writing and family time has disappeared.
JulietSeptember 29, 2009
She’s like a cat,” I say. “Always attaching herself to the one person in a room who’s least likely to want her around.”
Tremendous. That one line will probably take me days to digest. Judi, your statement about reconciliation makes me someone sorrowful and brings to mind many situations in life I had hoped I’d mended but, as you say, never really happened. You’ve inspired me to try to make right some wrongs, and to forgive some (really this time) that no amount of untangling could fix.
I can’t wait to read The Laws of Harmony.
Thank you again.
And, as always, Susan, you are amazing.
SusanHendersonSeptember 30, 2009
Isn’t that so true? I don’t know that I would have noticed if she hadn’t written it.