interviewer, Rob Neufeld
See feature article.
R: When and how did you realize you had writing talent?
H: One of the strangest
things that happened to me in the writing of Mudbound was—I woke up
in the middle of the night, at 2 in the morning, and wrote that
whole flood scene. It was about seven pages, and usually I never
get more than a couple of pages a day—and then I fell back asleep,
and I woke up the next morning and had no recollection at all of
having written it until I turned on the computer and saw the pages
there. It’s like I was channeling Jamie.
R: That’s incredible.
H: I wish that would happen more often, that kind of stuff.
R: Do you try to make it happen?
R: How much did the flood scene change from that first draft to the final draft?
H: You know what? It did not really change that much. There were a few scenes like that. The ending—Ronsel’s last chapter—hardly changed at all. And that’s the only part of the book I wrote in long hand as opposed to on the computer.
R: Why did you do that?
H: I had a fire going and I didn’t want to go upstairs. I was sitting with my dog in front of the fire, and got a legal yellow pad and wrote it out. It just really came to me, though. And I’d been struggling. I had a whole different ending for Mudbound at one point. But I was never happy with it. I was struggling and struggling to think of something, and then that came to me. All the hairs on my arms stood up, and I just knew that it was right.
R: I read that Ronsel was the last character to come to you.
H: He was.
R: What ending did you have without Ronsel?
H: I never had an ending without Ronsel. I invented Ronsel when I had about two hundred pages of the book. I saw this documentary on the African-American experience, where they were talking about the Negro army in World War II, and part of it was about this battalion, the Black Panthers. Of course I knew that we had a segregated army in World War II, but I don’t think I had ever really thought through what that meant, and how that must have been for those men. This show that I saw was so shocking, and it galvanized me. Also, in thinking about the book, everyone has a parallel. You have Laura and Florence. You have Hap and Henry. I had Jamie just floating around there, and I thought it would be interesting to portray what it was like for two soldiers, one black, one white, coming back to the delta. The night I saw that show, I said, okay, that’s it. Hap and Florence have a son and he’s in that battalion. Then once he came into the book, the whole book changed. It became much more of a novel about social justice, much less of a family drama than what I had originally conceived. I had originally conceived it as a family drama centered around Laura and Henry and Jamie, with some interactions with the black characters. The book really changed as the black characters started to speak, and when Ronsel came in, he upheaved the whole thing.
R: Let’s talk about the research some, for instance for Ronsel’s Dachau experience. You have this horrifying scene in which this woman latches onto him. Thanks Hillary! You really know how to…
H: (laughs) I know how to creep people out.
R: That’s right! You do know how to creep people out.
H: I read a lot of first person accounts by the guys in that unit, and the way they spoke when they liberated Dachau. It was very moving to me because, of course, these were black troops and they had experienced discrimination at home, and here they were at Dachau seeing another face of this ugliness. They were these warriors, but they were weeping, weeping, openly weeping. The scene with the bodies being burned, and some people trying to crawl out, that was actually something they saw. The woman I made up. But they did say that they killed some people accidentally by giving them too much food. That’s what gave me that idea. Throughout the book, first person accounts of people who lived during that era were enormously helpful to me, especially in creating Hap. There’s a book that I relied on a lot, called All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. [Shaw] was an Alabama farmer who started out dirt poor in a sharecropping family; and he grew up to have his own land. He was part of the movement to have a sharecroppers’ union. He got thrown in jail. He was married a couple of times. He was just this incredible character. He was completely illiterate. And this journalist, Theodore Rosengarten, went to Alabama and listened to his life story. So, it’s Nate talking. That helped me so much in getting the voice right, and a lot of the farming details, and the way he’d talk about things. You know, expressions like, “Might as well ‘d been singin’ songs to a dead hawg.” That was Nate.
R: I approve of Pappy not being give a voice. It’s one of the major themes of the book, I think.. Ronsel got his voice taken away from him by Pappy. Pappy doesn’t deserve a voice.
H: Pappy did have a voice. Ultimately, I decided to silence him…As you say, one of the main themes, if not the main theme, is voice—who gets to speak, who is silenced, who remains silent out of fear. Of course, black people had no voice. They couldn’t speak out. If you want to oppress somebody, not allowing them to speak is a really good place to start. And the last thing that Jamie says to his father is, “Shut up.” And he says, “What we can’t speak, we say in silence. There’s a lot of stuff about voice. In fact, for a long time I knew something was going to happen to Ronsel. I knew there was going to be a lynching scene, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. And then it came to me. My book is about voice, and then I just knew, and I called my best friend, James, and I said, “Oh my God, I just figured out what’s going to happen to Ronsel.” A book just comes together over time and with revision. Maybe with some writers, it just springs into their heads fully formed, but that’s definitely not my process.
R: Sometimes I read a first book by an author and get one impression of who he or she is; and then I read a second and get a totally different impression.
H: My second book is totally different.
R: You can’t be judged by one book.
H: It’s really interesting. I had this e-mail exchange with Barbara Kingsolver, who’s been a real mentor to me. I wrote her and I said, “Red is so different. Are all these people who liked Mudbound going to like it?” She wrote me back the greatest response. She said, “Any writer who’s a great writer is going to do something different every time.” She said, “I’ve thought at times maybe my fans wouldn’t follow me, but somehow they do.” I think we all think about that stuff, but you have to write the book that’s in you. I think my third novel is going to be magical realism. The second novel is set in the future. I expect different things for me.