5/20/15 INTERVIEW OF JENNIFER YACOVISSI, AUTHOR OF THE NEW HISTORICAL NOVEL UP THE HILL TO HOME
A month ago here I reviewed Up the Hill to Home, a pleasantly leisurely read scattered with gems of insight and historical interest that bring to life a Washington, DC that you don’t see in the news. Today I’m pleased to interview author Jennifer Yacovissi.
Question: Years ago I used the wonderful Washington Star archives at the Martin Luther King Public Library for some research on DC history. Did your research for Up the Hill to Home take you to the Star archives or to the Library of Congress or to other places of interest?
Answer: I spent lots of quality time in the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library, a treasure trove of everything to do with Washington, D.C. There is so much source material to investigate that I made sure to decide ahead of each visit which items I planned to work with that day; otherwise, I risked distracting myself. From the microfiche records of every issue of every major daily newspaper ever published in D.C., to the now-digitized building permit records (I found the permits for Charley and Emma’s house and barn in the old paper files), to the vast plat maps that document the ever-changing city, to those Washington Star photo archives, there is no single better place to research Washington, D.C.
My next favorite spot was just down the street at the National Archives, where I discovered family-specific records I had no idea existed. It’s very easy to obtain a researcher’s card for the Archives, and I highly recommend it for anyone researching American history. The people who work there are both knowledgeable and helpful.
The Library of Congress supplied the map that I used on the book’s cover, which shows the exact location of the house described in the book. I originally saw that map in a book that proved priceless to my research, Washington at Home, a collection of essays about different Washington neighborhoods, edited by the incomparable Kathryn Schneider Smith, a resolute champion of the revival of the Historical Society of Washington. Her book gets to the heart of what makes D.C. the town that it is—the real town, with real people, not the marble buildings and political wrangling that everyone else pictures when they think of D.C.
Q: On your website you say, “These are my ancestors, and Up the Hill to Home tells their story over most of a century…” To what extent is Up the Hill to Home fiction and to what extent history?
A: I’ve joked with my mother that I need to write a “Fact or Fiction?” primer for the family to clarify what’s true, what’s essentially true, and what’s complete fabrication. Virtually all of the book is the fictional embellishment of what amounted to having an outline of truth. So, for example, it’s true that Lillie went to Holy Cross, but her entire high school career as described in the book is fictional. With the exception of some small details, the specifics of the days chronicled between Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday are purely fictional. No one still alive knows the story of how Emma and Charley met, and apparently that was never one of the stories that Emma told her grandchildren, so that is entirely my own invention.
When I started, I told myself that if I knew the “true” story, I would use it. What I learned as I inhabited the story and came to know the characters was that I needed to choose between relating a family history and delivering a nuanced, fully realized novel. I quickly came down on the side of writing the better story. This was especially true of the ending, which my beta readers rebelled against as I had initially written it. They correctly pointed out that, true or not, it was unsatisfying and in fact undercut the story that had come before. I worked harder on the last few pages of the book than on any other part of the novel because I had to find the real ending, not necessarily the one I’d been carrying around with me for years.
Q: Some readers are comfortable with authors putting thoughts into the minds of historical figures, and other readers feel authors are creating history by ascribing to its players thoughts that the players may not have had. In Up the Hill to Home you relied upon family journals as sources to develop characters further. Were you ever concerned about ascribing thoughts to your ancestors?
A: Since my characters are not public figures, I wasn’t concerned about appearing to create history. One thing I did consider, though, was how I characterized people in my family who are still alive or whose children will be reading this book! It’s important for people writing about their ancestors to remember that their family belongs to a lot of people. My large family (nine children in the previous generation produced a legion of offspring!) was entirely supportive of this adventure, but I was always sensitive to how I portrayed the most recent generation.
If I were writing fiction about historical figures, I’d be willing to put words in their mouths or thoughts in their heads if it seemed in keeping with what the historical records indicate to be accurate. I would not be attempting something along the lines of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.
Q: One controversy in Up the Hill to Home concerns generations of a family living together, which was perhaps a common practice until the middle of the twentieth century? Today everyone—old and young—seems to want his or her own home. After “living with your characters” as an author does, do you have light to shed on us regarding what we’ve lost and, perhaps, what we’ve gained in the sociological shift away from multi-generational homes?
A: I considered this question quite a bit as I was writing the book. My belief is that it really does take a village to raise a child, and that there is real value in exposing children early to a wider worldview and opening their path into a larger community. Multigenerational households help to serve this role. Much has been written about what society has lost as we’ve spread farther apart and wrapped ourselves in more space with less and less overlap. I appreciate the need for privacy and that it’s often oppressive to feel that everyone knows your business, but I do feel that we’ve lost more than we have gained in that push for separateness. In the specific household I’m describing, there is no way that Lillie could have managed her tribe of nine children without the built-in help of Emma and Charley—though ironically she thought that she was there to help them. I’m also keenly aware of the sacrifice Ferd made for Lillie in agreeing to move in with his in-laws.
Q: What are among your favorite historical fiction novels?
A: Anything by Hilary Mantel is wonderful. I’m lucky to be a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society so I get to see a lot of new historical fiction. Three of my recent favorites that are either just out or soon to be released are Bryan Crockett’s Love’s Alchemy, which features poet John Donne as its protagonist (and which is also interesting to consider against Mantel’s Wolf Hall view of history), Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams, about a famous French voyage of discovery that never returns, and Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels, set in Coney Island and New York City in 1895 (I reviewed Parry’s book for Washington Independent Review of Books). I’m one of the few people who haven’t read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, but it’s beckoning to me from my To Be Read stack, just below Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, which I get to review for HNS. What’s great to note about Crockett, Williams, and Parry is that these are all their debut novels. What amazing writing!
Q: Who are among your all-time favorite novelists? Who are among your favorites writing today?
A: I seem to divide my sense of books and writers between those I discovered as an adolescent and those I’m reading now. The books that taught me about the joy of reading include The Once and Future King by T. H. White, How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and (of course) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. (I’m staying out of the controversy over Go Set a Watchman!) Of people writing today, my favorites are Anne Patchett, Annie Proulx, Alice McDermott—whose quiet stories of families I would most like to have mine compared to—and Anthony Marra, whose own 2013 debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was pretty close to perfect. Apparently, to be one of my favorite authors, your first name has to start with A.