No MFA, No Problem


Wisconsin author, Jane Hamilton was never accepted into an MFA program after college, yet she is an award-winning, bestselling author, with two of her novels having been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. I sat down with Hamilton this past spring at the Fox Cities Book Festival and chatted about her writing, her novels, and her life.


Mindi Vanderhoof (MV): When looking at various reviews about your novels, everyone else describes your writing style. How would you describe your writing style?


Jane Hamilton (JH): People think that I write dark books – that I write bummer literature. I think there are a lot of funny bits in my books. I’m certainly careful when I’m writing; and I read my work out loud, and I read it a zillion times. I feel very conscious about trying to make each sentence as clear and taught and meaningful and beautiful as I can. I’m concerned about the sentence down to the punctuation level.


I’m not really answering your question because style is such a broad term. I can’t really define my own style because I’m too close to it.


This last book I wrote is a comedy and that seems to have thrown some people. It is like, how could you, who writes such depressing books, why would you try to be funny? That has been an interesting aspect of that experience.


I’m somewhere between the minimalism of Raymond Carver and the incredibly flowery prose of Henry James. I’m somewhere in the middle.


MV: What writers or books have influenced you, if any?


JH: So many. Probably Howards End is my most favorite book in the world [by E. M. Forster]. When I was in high school and college, I read the Victorians and Edwardians – George Eliot, the Brontës. I grew up in the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, which is Oak Park, Illinois but I never really got into Hemingway…Currently, I am again in the whole Jane Austen spasm. She is someone I go back to when I’m thinking about plot as well as all the glittery stuff that hangs onto plot. Alice Monroe, William Trevor, Lorrie Moore, who lives in our fair state – she’s a genius.


MV: What is your favorite book of all time?


JH: Of all time? Well when thinking about the whole desert island issue, I would take Middlemarch because there is so much in it, and it would last a while. It is so rich.


MV: How much does your geographical location play a part in being a writer and also in your stories?


JH: Well that isn’t something I can really tease out because I’ve always lived in the Midwest. So when people say, “What does it mean to be a Midwesterner to you?” I don’t know, because I’ve never lived anywhere else. It is so woven into my being.


MV: So you grew up in Illinois and went to college in Minnesota. How did you end up in Wisconsin?


JH: I was visiting a friend who had an apple orchard, and I came to help pick apples. I never left.


MV: What kind of jobs did you have before your first novel was published?


JH: I picked apples and helped run an apple orchard. I also taught in a private school for a year, but I barely have had a real job. I waitressed in college and worked at the Post Office. But really, I had no idea what I was going to do with an English major – didn’t really want to be an editor, didn’t really want to be a teacher. Now I teach college, and that’s fine; but [English] is a great major because you can do everything. I’m lucky though because I can dip in and out of academia. I don’t have to teach full time, which is great, because I strongly believe that teaching and writing take the exact same things – your complete devotion. And I couldn’t do both at the same time. Most writers who teach, do [teach and write] at the same time – but it has been my experience that I can’t do both well at the same time.


When I was coming up in the world, the wave of feminism I was in, the creed was “You can do everything girls,” which is truly a lie. You can do everything if you live a long time and you have certain material support, but to try to do it all at the same time can be devastating and very shattering I think.


MV: Your novels were chosen not once, but twice as Oprah’s Book Club selections. What did being chosen mean to you and your writing career?


JH: She gave me a million readers for both of those novels. That is pretty extraordinary. I can’t really get my head around that. I can’t conceptualize one million readers. It was really fun and for a lot of people chosen to be in the club, several of them wrote first novels and then she chose them. Their career was just starting, and they got this extraordinary attention right away. I think for some of those people, the fact that their next novel didn’t get that much attention…you know, Oprah’s followers read the books she tells them to, but they do not follow the career of the writer. So that has been hard for some people. I had been going along in my little career; I was fine. I was tooling along; The Book of Ruth was still in print after eight years – I thought that was pretty great. Then she chose it, and I didn’t have any expectations that my life would change in any way except that for a month there would be a lot of glare, and I would have this little ride. And that was wonderful, and I am totally grateful to her. That meant I didn’t have to be an adjunct professor, but did it change the way I write or did I get a house in Boca? No. I’m grateful to her just because those two gifts of readership have allowed me to continue.


MV: Do you feel any sort of pressure when you write?


JH: Oh sure, there’s always pressure. I mean for me there is an internal pressure – I hear a reviewer, or I hear a reader, or I see the Amazon reviews. I try not to think of readers, because you can’t please all the readers. It is a very murky thing to contemplate. But I still feel pressure when I want to write a book.


MV: Have any of your books never seen the light, like you finished writing and decided, I don’t like this?


JH: Absolutely, I’ve had several duds. I never know until the end if it’s really going to work out. I don’t know if people who write more plot driven books have that same insecurity, but because my books are character driven, when I get into them I don’t really know what’s going to happen. There’s a certain keen tension whether things are going to work themselves out.


MV: So how does this work if you need to have a book to your publisher?


JH: Thanks to Miss Oprah, I haven’t worked under contract since. Some people need that deadline.


(At this point Ted Kooser interrupts to say Hello to Jane. Subsequently, I meet Ted Kooser)


MV: So the Book of Ruth and Map of the World, since they were selected by Oprah, some people may think those are your best books. If you were doing the selections for a book club, would you have chosen those two or would you have chosen a different novel?


JH: That is a very tough question. I think it is often true in a writer’s career that readers love the first ones, because those are the books that are written in an un-self-conscious way, and there is a kind of raw energy there. As you move on and write more novels, they appear to be more of an artifice and a construct rather than this urgent need for expression with the first novel. So, I see those first two novels in the range of a writer with an urgent need to express. I haven’t read them in years – so I can’t really evaluate them now – and nothing in me wants to go and re-read them. I feel like the later novels have more elegance, and they are from a deep place in me, but they are probably not as raw. I would say I have a really fond spot in my heart for Walter McCloud, who is the hero of third novel and a really soft spot for Henry Shaw, who is the hero of the fourth novel. I love those adolescent, depressed, melancholy, confused boys. I love them.


MV: Where do you pull from that? Obviously you were never an adolescent boy.


JH: Boys and girls aren’t that different maybe, after all. I think the reason I chose boy bodies for those characters is because I am completely uninterested in writing about myself, so putting the conflicts I wanted to write about in the opposite gender gave me a certain remove which is useful. Whenever you’re making a character, you draw from here, there, and yonder – whether it is a man or a woman. There is a little piece of yourself, and a little piece of Aunt Betty, and a little piece of another person to make somebody who feels completely himself.


MV: If you could have only published one of you books, which would it be?


JH: Oh my gosh Mindi Vanderhoof! You’re asking such difficult questions! That is like saying which of your children would you assassinate. (Laughter). I think that is an impossible question because each book feels urgent, each book has led to the next one – I couldn’t have gotten to that one without doing this one. It feels like such a continuum to me, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to write each one. In a certain sense, I would have wanted to have written all of them.


MV: Some authors claim that their characters are like family to them and they have a hard time leaving them behind when they are finished writing the novel. Does this hold true for you and do you have a favorite character?


JH: I said before that I have a soft spot for Walter McCloud and Henry Shaw. My characters become a deep part of me – that is absolutely true. After I wrote Disobedience, I had a hard time moving on. I loved Henry Shaw so much, and he amused me so much, that I really stalled. I couldn’t get started again until I chose a character that was a direct continuation of Shaw. It is hard to leave characters behind.


MV: How many hours would you say you spend writing and developing characters?


JH: I write a book every three to five years, so how many hours are in five years? A long time.


MV: What is your writing process like?


JH: For me it is best to get up as early as I possibly can. I have this iron clad rule that I don’t look at email before noon, and if I can stick to that, then my brain is completely free for the thing at hand. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m running or swimming.


MV: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received about being a writer or your writing?


JH: I didn’t take many classes, and I didn’t get accepted into any MFA program. I basically took two writing classes in college; and they were both taught by a poet, and for me, it was wonderful to think about writing in poetic terms.


MV: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?


JH: One of the most important things is to really enjoy your own work. One of the ways to do that is to read your work out loud to yourself – I don’t mean in a whisper. I think it is important to take your time and really enjoy the sentences you made. To take time to enjoy your work is key.