New Times / Art
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 32
Former Arroyo Grande resident Rachael Herron reads from her new novel 'Pack Up The Moon' in the SLO Barnes & Noble
By GLEN STARKEY
How does someone recover from the loss of a child? That’s at the heart of Pack Up the Moon, a new novel from Rachael Herron.
“I've lived in Oakland for the last 17 years, but before that, I was a full-blooded Central Coast girl,” Herron explained in a recent email interview. “I went to Arroyo Grande High School, and not only did I do my undergrad work at Cal Poly, but I did my pre-Cal Poly work (which looked a lot like goofing off to my parents) at Cuesta College.”
I had some grad school classes with Herron at Cal Poly, so when she wrote to ask me to read her new novel, I jumped at the chance. Her book starts with a powerhouse opening. It’s a gut check, really beautifully rendered, dense with information about her protagonist Kate, but not cluttered with ham-fisted exposition—instead she creates a scene with tons of emotion and all the background flows out organically. It’s great writing! Who taught her to be so deft? Who was her inspiration?
“Thank you so much! Actually, my first real writing teacher was Al Landwehr, a now-retired Cal Poly professor and a friend of mine. I remember clearly being in his office, my barely-disguised autobiographical story in his hands. He said, ‘Boy, are you talented, Rachael. You've got the goods, all right. You don't have the life experience yet, though, and I'm not sure you have the determination needed to make it as a writer.’ “I resolved at that moment that I would go out and get the life experience I needed (it came to me naturally as years passed; go figure), and almost 20 years later, I've published six books, one more waiting in the chute (releasing in August) and one more contracted, being written now. I dedicated Pack Up the Moon to Al, with sincere admiration and thanks. If he hadn't challenged me so directly I’m not sure I would have kept writing. The best way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't do it.”
Her new novel features a shifting point of view from chapter to chapter, moving from Kate, to Kate’s estranged daughter Pree, to Kate’s ex-husband Nolan, and back. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, anyone? Was it difficult to shift voices? What process did she go through to get into the heads of her main characters?
“I love Faulkner. Thank you. It was difficult to shift those voices, so thanks for noticing. Nolan's came clearest to me. I barely had to edit him. Pree, the daughter, was harder, especially since I wrote her in first person first, as a 16-year-old, not the third-person 22-year-old her voice became. The main character Kate's voice was the hardest. I always think writing the character closest to yourself is the most difficult. We're too close to our own personas, too protective of them, and writing a late-30s woman preoccupied with grief was a little too close to home in some ways,” Herron said.
I also really enjoyed how the main story happens in a week’s time, but the inserted flashbacks give us the background going back to Kate’s son Robin’s death and Kate and Nolan’s romance. What amazes me is that it doesn’t feel like there’s anything contrived about this device.
“Oh, it was contrived, all right! I have an Excel spreadsheet that maps out day-by-day, hour-by-hour, where each character was. The working title for the book was Wednesday's Child, and I liked the idea of following the old children's rhyme throughout a week. I'd written half the book before I realized the poem wouldn't suit, but the structure still worked nicely.”
There’s even something for Harry Potter nerds. Nolan has a dog named Fred Weasely. Is Herron a Harry Potter fan or is that strictly Nolan and Kate? “I'm a big Harry Potter fan (though not as big a fan as my sister, who was in a WizardRock band), and I especially love the Weasleys. In my other life I'm a knitter, and if I could be anyone in the books, it would be the magical Mrs. Weasley. Shaggy red Fred was a nod to both her and to my sister.”
This novel represents the changing concepts of family in America. Pree has two moms, for instance. Herron is in a same-sex marriage. Is it important for her to render the types of relationships that are only just beginning to receive the sort of acceptance they deserve?
“It's incredibly important to me. In my Cypress Hollow romance series (very different, obviously, from Pack Up the Moon), I write about straight couples, because—honestly—that's what publishers want to buy. That's what sells in bookstores. But I try to fit non-traditional relationships in wherever I can, and I've managed to make Cypress Hollow rather rainbow-hued. In Pack Up the Moon, I was able to write a strong, safe, loving, lesbian relationship, hopefully depicting what my actual love life resembles. It was very satisfying.”
Pree hears colors? Where does this idea stem from? I knew a blind girl once who told me she could hear people’s vibrations in musical notes. She had perfect pitch herself, and she told me I was a B-sharp.
“Synesthesia has always been fascinating to me, and I have a bit of it myself. Even as a kid, I knew both the gender and color of numbers. Eleven, for example, is male and ivory. Three is male and dark blue. Five is female and bright red. When I hear the number, I see the color. I don't hear color in voices, as Kate and Pree do, but interestingly, when I describe voices, I'm always drawn to color adjectives, even though I know they don't make sense. In this book, I allowed the idea to make sense.”
I wanted to know more about her romance series and about in what way this novel was a departure, as well as her memoir.
“My romance series is warm and safe. Cypress Hollow is a cross between Avila Beach and Pescadero, and everyone knows everyone else. The cowboys look great in their jeans, and the women are all smart and sassy, knitting needles at the ready. I'm proud of the books—they're humorous feminist romance, and sexy, to boot. My memoir, A Life in Stitches, is another book I'm proud of. I looked at the sweaters I'd knit over the years, and where I was with each one. It's the story of my life in yarn, and I was as honest as I could be with those essays. But I'm grateful I got to tackle something heavier, a tangled family drama.”
How did Herron’s work as a 911 dispatcher inform this new novel?
“I've answered the phone too many times over the years to talk to parents who have found their children not breathing. The parents’ voices, as I talk them through CPR, are the only things that haunt me from my 911 career. You never forget that sound. I talk to so many people at the beginning of the worst hour of their whole life, and usually I can't do very much to help beyond giving them medical instruction and getting them the right help as fast as I can. In this book, it was important for me to fix a fictional person, three years after she made that phone call and talked to one of my fictional coworkers.”
Finally, I’ve got to say, I loved the hopeful ending. The book is an emotional rollercoaster, and I’m a big sap, so … well, I loved the book and Herron’s writing style. Could the book have ended any other way, or was it important to the message of the novel to end on a hopeful note?
“I love that you said that. The ending was the hardest part for me to write, and it ended three different ways before the one that stuck. The one thing they all had in common was hope—I don't think one can or should write a book that tears apart a reader without a valiant attempt at fixing him/her. Why else would we keep reading?”
Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pack Up the Moon is the story of Kate Nolan, who gives up her daughter to adoption and then loses her terminally ill son to euthanasia performed by her husband. When the daughter Kate gave away finds her and wants answers, both Kate and her daughter must make difficult decisions about what the word “family” means.
When she’s not writing, Rachael Herron is still a full-time 911 dispatcher.
“I've given CPR instructions thousands of times, and I wanted to move past that very worst moment and provide a fictional mother with the hopeful ending I wish for all my callers.”
Meet the author at 11 a.m. this Saturday, March 8, at Barnes & Noble.
D. Foy, formerly of SLO Town but now of NYC, will also return to town to read from his new novel Made to Break on March 12 at 7 p.m. at Kreuzberg.
Glen Starkey takes a beating and keeps on bleating. Keep up with him via twitter at twitter.com/glenstarkey, friend him at facebook.com/glenstarkey or myspace.com/glenstarkey, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.