In The Obituary Writer, you alternate between two heroines, Claire, in 1960-61, and Vivien, in 1906/1919. Were there some days when you wanted to be in one woman’s world rather than another? Did the two compete with each other for your attention?
I confess I fell in love with both Vivien and Claire. So they didn’t compete for my attention. If I felt like inhabiting the early 60s, I stayed with Claire a bit longer. But then I would soon be itching to go back to Vivien!
What sort of historical research did you do for the novel?
So much! I read everything I could about the 1906 earthquake, and about San Francisco during that time. Then I read a terrific book called NAPA, which is about the early winemakers in Napa Valley. I got great information from the Napa Valley Historical Society too. Admittedly, I remembered quite a lot about 1961, but I did check my childhood memories for accuracy. And I watched tapes of the inauguration and read the newspaper accounts about it too.
Where did Emily Post come into it? At what point did you see her etiquette pronouncements as fitting in the narrative?
This was what Alfred Hitchcock called “a happy accident”. I happened upon that book at the Providence Athenaeum one day when I was researching the earthquake. I couldn’t help but read it, and was struck by what good advice Emily Post gave us! I copied a lot of it in my notebook, not thinking when or even if I might use it. I often do that: tear something from a newspaper or jot down details without knowing why. When I was searching for something to knit together Claire and Vivien’s chapters, I remembered the Emily Post advice and returned to it.
The idea of an obituary writer has an almost contemporary feel. With families often writing their own, and newspapers simply printing what the funeral home sends them, did you think, ‘Gee, there ought to be a job …’?
Well, I am a fan of obituaries that tell a story, like the ones written by the late New York Times obit writer Robert McGee Thomas. Several years ago, when I was asked to write the obituary of someone I didn’t know very well, I took inspiration from Thomas’ book, 52McG’s—his 52 best obituaries. Since writing an obituary this way did feel contemporary, I decided that Vivien would be from a time when this was an unusual talent.
Grief is a thread that runs through your recent novels, from The Knitting Circle to The Red Thread to The Obituary Writer, and for obvious reasons. What is interesting is you seem to approach the theme from very different approaches each time, and it’s one you have written about in nonfiction, too. Is the writing of these books a process of discovery for you?
Actually, my first novel Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, which came out in 1987, was written in the aftermath of the sudden death of my only sibling, my brother Skip. So to me, grief has been my theme from the start. I don’t think that when I begin a book. Rather, I have characters in mind who are working through life’s obstacles. Writing is always a discovery—about yourself, your characters, and the world both real and imagined.
For the writers in our audience, could you describe your process – work habits, where and when you write, etc.?
It takes me about nine months to get the first 50-75 pages of a novel written. I write about two hours a day, but think about it for many more hours (like constantly!). Once I get those pages absolutely right, my writing time increases to four or five or six hours a day. Thankfully I have the ability to write anywhere—on trains and planes, in bed or outside. If I’m not traveling, I tend to write from 10-2, on my sofa or yes, in my bed. I’m a firm believer that if you write just one page a day, you’d have a novel in a year. Of course, then you need to revise it!
What is the next Ann Hood work we can look forward to?
On Nov. 11, Knitting Yarns, an anthology I’ve edited of 25 writers writing about knitting, will be published by WW Norton. I am so excited about this! Contributors include Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Anita Shreve, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth Berg, and just about every writer you love!
And next fall my collection of interconnected stories, An Italian Wife, will be published. It follows 100 years in the life of an Italian-American family.
Ann Hood will appear at the Authors on Main program on Sunday, Oct. 20, at Contemporary Theater, 327 Main St., Wakefield. The event starts at 6 p.m., and admission is free. Books will be available for purchase and signing, courtesy Wakefield Books. Her appearance is sponsored by the South County Writers Group.