In praise of ‘Disobedience’

“Out of tune with my time and with the splintered families around me, I knew when I was small that our worldly home was composed of the sun and the moon, the planets and the Shaws, the four of us holding together with a force that would not fail, would never cease. That knowledge was something so deep within myself it was usually unknown to me, doing its independent and vital work, much like the steady ticking of a heart.” That’s 17-year-old Henry Shaw, the protagonist of Jane Hamilton’s latest novel, Disobedience [Doubleday Books, 2000], revealing a heartbreakingly naive faith in constancy that’s bound to be shattered.

The crash comes soon enough, when Henry accidentally logs onto his mother’s e-mail account (the young computer whiz had insisted on setting it up for her under the jaunty code name Liza38, instead of her usual, more staid “Beth”). There, he finds a barrage of love missives between his mother, a gifted pianist, and Richard Pollocco, an eccentric violinmaker she met at a cousin’s wedding. Henry cannot reconcile the sexually charged “Liza 38″ — who is clearly in the midst of a torrid affair that’s gone way beyond cyberspace — with the sensible woman who has raised him: “To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind’s eye, hold her over my knee like a stick, burst her in two.”

As a masochist might compulsively tongue-prod a sore tooth, Henry cannot stop himself from continually revisiting his mother’s e-mail, monitoring the progress of the affair like a meteorologist tracking an ominous winter storm. But what to do with the information? In his head, Henry considers the full gamut of his choices: delete all e-mails from Pollocco, confront his mother about the affair, write the lover in the guise of Liza38 and end the romance, tell his father. Until a crucial scene late in the novel, however, Henry does nothing. Instead, the affair seethes in his young consciousness, coloring his own early sexual explorations.

The “disobedience” of the novel’s title echoes far beyond Beth’s affair. Henry repeatedly invades his mother’s privacy; later, he betrays the romance to his girlfriend, Lily, whose family attends the same yearly music camp as the Shaws, setting off a circle of rumors and innuendo. And Henry’s father, Kevin, teaches history with a socialist spin at a ritzy private school in Chicago — the same subversive behavior that got him fired from his previous teaching job in rural Vermont.

But by far the most “disobedient” of all the novel’s characters is Henry’s 13-year-old sister, Elvira — or Elvirnon, as the gender-bending adolescent styles herself. Elvira not only insists that she’s a boy, but a Civil War-era drummer boy. And to prove it, she dresses — always — in authentic, hand-sewed period uniforms. Obsessed with Civil War re-enactments, Elvirnon’s attention to accuracy is mind-boggling. “Elvira went to the re-enactments, not as a girl on the sidelines, not as a nurse taking a sack of amputated limbs into the woods to bury, and not as an ingenue in hoopskirts waiting for her beau to come home. It was Elvirnon who went to the campground with his drum, his fife and his 1853 Enfield rifle musket. It was Elvirnon who filled his haversack with a flabby carrot, a potato, a pair of dry hand-knitted socks, and a tinted photograph my father had made of my mother.” A harrowing, violent scene in which Elvira is exposed as a girl to her hard-core male buddies at the prestigious, much-anticipated Battle of Shiloh re-enactment is the climax that renders the novel’s quieter, graceful conclusion all the more unexpected.

Marked by cutting humor and mesmerizing, laid-bare psychological intrigue, Disobedience ranks with Hamilton’s award-winning Book of Ruth (it won the prestigious PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel) and A Map of the World (an international bestseller that was turned into a critically acclaimed movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore) as a stunning exploration of the human psyche in all its dark and funny gyrations.

After two ill-fated attempts at a telephone interview with Hamilton (one rescheduled due to sickness, one lost due to a technical glitch on our end), Xpress caught up with the gracious, Wisconsin-based author via her cell phone from a San Franciso street corner. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Mountain Xpress: How long had the seeds for this book been in your head? And what were the first ideas or inklings that set the story in motion?

Jane Hamilton: I wrote a story about Elvira a few years ago, so I was focusing on her to begin with. I became really interested in the whole [Civil War] re-enactment phenomenon, too, so I went to a couple of them and got her character down. Also, another thing was that my son went through the D.A.R.E. [drug-and-alcohol education] program in school, and he came home from a class one day just as I was lifting my glass of chardonnay to my lips, and he burst into tears and said I was going to die. … So I got to thinking about how, as you find yourself in that parental mode, you’re locked into that role with your kids. If they caught any of, say, that unbridled joy of the girl [inside you] they would either — depending on their age — be deeply disgusted or very frightened. And so I wanted to explore that idea –that as a parent you’re stuck in a certain role — and look at what happens when you’re taken out of that role.

MX: Why did you decide to write the book from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy instead of, say, from the mother’s or Elvira’s perspective? How tough was it to get into that mindset?

JH: I’m not sure about the “why.” [Henry] just came to me all of a piece — that wry, sometimes cruel, but quite funny boy. And, yes, there can be problems writing from the opposite gender if you try to present the character as, say, true to all men. Henry has many feminine characteristics. I just concentrated on being true to him. A boy as bonded to his mother as he is would have to have something of the feminine in him.

MX: Describe the ways in which Elvira began to take root in your consciousness. She, to me, was one of the few truly original characters I’ve encountered in fiction in a long time. And in some odd way, even though she wasn’t as central a figure as Henry or his mother, she kind of drove the book and was probably the most fully realized character. Is she based on anyone you’ve known?

JH: I know someone somewhat like her, but not entirely, so I kind of grafted that girl’s interests into an entirely different psyche. As I get older, I’m more and more interested in the ways people burst out of conventional roles and try to bend the rules.

MX: Tell me a little about the writing process for you. Do you wait until a plot, beginning to end, is formed in your head before you sit down to write, or do you write spontaneous kernels as they occur to you? Do your characters usually begin take life before a plot does?

JH: I take a lot of notes and I kind of get the voices down, and then I spend a lot of time on beginnings and endings. In fact, the beginnings and endings are usually quite clear. Middles are hard for me. I usually have the form in my head early on … and that’s a huge percent of the battle. If the form is there, the other elements tend to fall into place. Characters usually do take life first, although sometimes they change along the way. I wrote the story about Elvira in 1996. In that 14-page story, she sets fire to a pilgrim cottage at the Plymouth Plantation. It was sort of a silly story. But I was taking notes all along, and the novel was forming. Once I sat down to write, it took two-and-a-half years to finish the book.

MX: Disobedience, while intense, doesn’t seem to come from as dark a place as The Book of Ruth or A Map of the World. What was different this time?

JH: At a certain point in your life, you either slit your wrists or things become funnier. And I think that’s what happened. When I was younger, I was very earnest — very, very earnest. And I think that with time I’ve become less earnest, which is a relief.

MX: What was it like seeing A Map of the World turned into a movie? Did you have a lot of input into that process? Were you satisfied with the final product?

JH: I really wasn’t interested in having much involvement in the film. I’d already lived with those characters for many a year and I wasn’t interested in continuing to live with them. And I wouldn’t have gotten my way, I’m sure. I didn’t really want to spend time learning an altogether different form, either. I liked the people who worked on the film, though. I was satisfied with the final product. I thought the actors were great. And also the plot of the book really is a movie of the week, so it could have been really, really bad — really melodramatic. [Note: In a nutshell, the plot of A Map of the World involves the drowning of a child while in the care of her best friend’s mother; the mother, Alice, is played by Sigourney Weaver in the film.] But Alice is every bit as unlikable in the movie as she is in the book. You empathize with her, but it’s tempered. It’s not over the top. I think Sigourney did that role really well.

MX: Could you describe your beginnings as a writer? What was the first thing you ever published? How has work evolved over the years?

JH: I published a story in Harper’s magazine in 1982. That was a very lucky break. I had a wonderful editor there who took me under her wing and really encouraged me, so that was great. I’m not sure how it’s evolved, actually. When I wrote The Book of Ruth, I feel like I was in my “Alice Walker wannabe” phase. So I don’t know. I’ve just, so far, been able to write the books I want to write — which is my goal.

As we end the conversation, I apologize to Hamilton for the technical difficulties on Xpress‘ end that led to this second interview, noting that I felt “rather idiotic.” With a self-deprecating laugh, Hamilton reassured me: “Hey, I live my life in an idiotic mode. This wonderful guy who I just met here in San Franciso, I just assumed he was gay. It’s San Francisco, after all. Isn’t that ridiculous? He told me he’d just gotten married and I said, ‘Oh, what’s your husband’s name?’ And he said, ‘Actually, it’s a wife.’ And I still didn’t get it. I said to myself, ‘Oh, he calls him a wife.’ But it really was a wife, of course.” She laughs uproariously, proud to unleash that “less earnest” self.

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