Interview: Robin MacArthur

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Robin MacArthur's new novel, Heart Spring Mountain, will be released on January 9. Robin was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the process of writing this beautiful book, how she kept track of so many distinct voices, and a few other nosy questions. Thank you, Robin!

p.s. We'll be celebrating Heart Spring Mountain at Robin's reading at the Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday, January 10 at 7:00 pm and we hope you'll join us. Please contact the Norwich Bookstore to reserve your seat.

Literary North: Your book has at least seven distinct voices who speak in separate chapters. Is there one particular voice/character that you feel most connected to, or is your own voice distributed among many or all of them?

Robin MacArthur: One of the reasons I write is that living one life, in one body, is difficult for me. I am a hungry ghost of sorts—perpetually craving new opportunities, new rooms, new roads diverging in a wood. Like Whitman, “I contain multitudes,” and when I write fiction I get to transcend the boundaries and limitations of this one lived experience, and become (or put to form) those multitudes. Which is to say: there is a part of each of those characters that is very much me. If I couldn’t empathize with my characters, I don’t believe they would ring true on the page, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing them. I am Stephen with his desire for solitude. I am Lena’s romanticism and lyricism. I am Hazel’s regrets and Vale’s hunger. I am Bonnie’s heart as a mother. But if I had to choose one that is most me, I think it would be Deb. She’s twenty years older than me, and her biography is nothing like mine, but her fears for the world, her meditations on aging, and her ruminations on motherhood are straight from my gut to hers.

LN: The story in Heart Spring Mountain ranges through many times, voices, perspectives, even locations. How did you keep track of all of this? Did you use a spreadsheet, a timeline on your wall, or some other method?

RM: Oh, gray strands appeared in my hair trying to keep track of all this! I drew multiple family trees that I had to reference regularly.  I was constantly calculating characters’ ages in different scenes. I didn’t outline this book ahead of time, so the trickiest part was that things kept changing as I wrote. Once I discovered a part of the story, all the years would shift, and suddenly I’d have to go back and rewrite everything that had come before. A timeline on the wall would have helped. Also: my copy editor, Margaret Wimberger, who happens to live close by, is brilliant and saved my butt in this regard. I bow down to copy editors.

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LN: We love that you mention Grace Paley a few times. Is she a favorite author of yours? What does Grace's writing mean to you and to this story and these characters?

RM: I do love Grace Paley’s writing. I also love her biography, and verve, and the ways she interwove a life of writing with mothering and activism. I’m always seeking role models who dedicate themselves to those three projects; who recognize that words are powerful medicine, but that taking to the streets to serve the betterment of humankind is essential, too. As is baking cookies with your children. To me, Paley is a touchstone for how to live a life that serves and reveres both beauty and resistance; the life of the spirit and the hard necessities of human need, and that honors and recognizes how those things are connected (which is a theme in my book as well).

LN: When you look back to writing Heart Spring Mountain, what was going on in your life at the time? What was inspiring you as you wrote?

RM: One thing I love about the novel is how it can evolve and stretch as your life evolves during the era of its writing. I wrote the first fragments of this book nine years ago when I was first becoming a mother. The concerns then were motherhood—how to love, and give of oneself, and do so well. I picked the book up six years later and my concerns were different: tropical storm Irene had torn through southern Vermont, and climate-induced environmental disasters were ruthless and everywhere. My hometown had become wracked by the opioid epidemic. All I could think about were the ailments of the world, and how they were linked: how the machinations of capitalization had led to a loss of connection to one another, and to the natural landscape, to the wisdom of our ancestors. At that point the question of the book became: we are so broken. Everywhere. How do we heal?

LN: What was the most memorable thing you've read in the past month?

RM: I just began reading The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whitely, and it is divine. I’m trying to pull back from social media and the news these days (without giving up on resistance), and reading books that were written one hundred years ago or more is proving to be a great salve. I also just re-read Thoreau’s Walking, and am looking forward to re-reading Anna Karenina. As for the characters in my book, sometimes the past is just the thing I need to illuminate the future.