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Lorian Hemingway writes like an old soul. Fiction or nonfiction, her voice is that of a woman who has known heart-wrenching pain and heart-filling joy -- and forged them both into books that burrow deep into readers' hearts and bones.
Granddaughter of the troubled literary icon Ernest Hemingway, Lorian wrote her first published piece when she was in third grade. She originally intended to become a doctor, but instead found herself filling her pre-med notebooks with stories and poems.
When she began her writing career, she did it her own way: she refused to use the Hemingway name so her work would be judged on its merit rather than on her ancestry.
Later, after her talent had been accepted in its own right, she adopted both the name and the self-destructive mantle. She fished hard, drank relentlessly, and wrote macho prose for the likes of The New York Times in eerie emulation of the grandfather she never knew. Eventually she hit bottom with life-threatening liver failure and somewhere found the courage to reach for a different kind of future.
Lorian's physical recovery and determined sobriety spawned a creative rebirth. Fighting to come to terms with herself and her heritage, she discovered a core of rueful acceptance -- and a voice that echoes with lyricism and resolute honesty.
Her first book, a novel titled Walking into the River, was a raw account of a woman's victory over heredity, addiction and madness. National Book Award winner Bob Shacochis called it "a book to rescue stranded hearts and silence bitter ghosts."
Her second book, Walk on Water, put aside the cloak of fiction. In unsparing detail, it depicted Lorian's battle with her heritage and her alcoholism, enfolding both in a rich tale of the people and places she encountered during fishing adventures. Alive with humor and grace, it earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
Not long after the memoir's release, Lorian immersed herself in writing the manuscript that would become A World Turned Over, perhaps her most powerful book to date. With compassion and unsettling vividness, she portrays her childhood home of Jackson, Mississippi, and the 1966 tornado that tore it apart. In the pages of A World Turned Over, the tornado's heroes and victims are remembered and honored, their sorrow given a voice strong enough to resonate down the years.
Lorian doesn't see herself as particularly strong, nor does she contend that the words she writes are particularly resonant. She's just a survivor, she says. The things that matter to her today are her writer/editor husband and house in Seattle, her brood of cats, her "second home" of Key West, Florida, and the 22-year-old short story competition she directs to support and encourage emerging writers.
Now internationally known, the Key West-based Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition draws between 750 and 1000 entries each year. Some of its former winners have gone on to publish novels, earn National Book Award nominations and receive NEA fellowships. Lorian is as proud of their success as if it were her own.
Lorian Hemingway speaks with a throaty, measured rhythm. She laughs freely and often and can't shake her dependence on an ancient IBM Selectric that still works only because she had it rebuilt by an elderly man in Ashland, Oregon.
One evening recently, when the Seattle sun was going down, she shared some old-soul memories, her feelings about her heritage and her new book; and the reasons she's sure she'll wind up an eccentric old woman with dozens of cats.
Carol Shaughnessy: What is it that made A World Turned Over a story you had to tell?
Lorian Hemingway: The fact that it wouldn't let me alone. I was haunted by it. I've been haunted by it all my life; I've been haunted by it in dreams. Each time I would go back to Mississippi -- and I did not go back until I was well into my adult life -- just by happenstance, just sitting around and hearing people talk, that tornado would come up. Not through any provocation of mine. I was amazed to see how much it had lived on and how much it had impacted people and become a part of their history. It was a great tragedy for the town.
It seems that the town of Jackson is very much a character in the book. Were you there when the tornado touched down?
We moved away a month before it struck. We moved up to Nashville, Tennessee. It's actually something that I talk about in the book -- the sort of random aspect of fate. It was a devastating tragedy that I always had some sort of sixth sense about. It may have come from my own fear of weather; I don't know. But I always had a sense that it was going to happen.
The tornado destroyed the Candlestick Shopping Center. Where had you lived in relation to the place where the greatest damage was?
Right across the street. Fifty yards. It didn't hit our house, amazingly. It took out houses two houses away. What my mother had said at the time, when we learned the news, was: You were always up there at the shopping center where it hit at that time every afternoon. And then, so of course were people who I knew who died.
Did you know them well?
Not like I would have had I been older. I was 13 years old, but I certainly knew who they were. And the place, Candlestick Shopping Center where most of the people died, was the Mecca of our rural neighborhood. It was the place that everybody had bonded with. It had been built new, and it was really something for the working-class people there, something that was a testimonial to the fact that they weren't country people any more. They had this -- by the standards of the time -- luxurious little strip mall with all the conveniences.
When you heard the news about the tornado, how did you feel? What did you think?
I felt guilt. Even being as relatively young as I was, I felt guilt. For not having been able to let people know and in a way, too, for not having the mark of the blood brotherhood on me. For not having been there and been witness to what I compared to war on a small scale -- because the damage is that immediate and that immense and that shocking, so it does mark people in that way it does when people go to battle.
You really did know the storm was going to come one day?
[Sighs] Yeah, I did. I would watch the sky from the direction it came all the time. I knew a lot about tornadoes. It was an obsession with me.
How did the telling of the story change you?
I was able to do what I always wanted to do, which was to have some part in having this not be forgotten, having the story told so that other communities around the United States who have gone through this same thing aren't just some 15-second news blip -- so they can say: OK, I relate to this. This is what we went through. I felt as if I had done something, finally, to give the sorrow of these people a voice.
If the story has a hero, it seems the young man Ronny Hannis is that hero.
I keep his picture by my typewriter. I felt honor-bound to him to tell the story right and to present him as he was -- and he was a remarkable young man.
He kept coming up again and again, too, when I would go back. When people talked about the tornado, they would say: Oh, the Hannis boy died, remember? Remember Ronny Hannis? He was just about to graduate from high school. And they would tell me how he helped to take people out of the wreckage though he was dying himself, and to carry them and to save their lives.
To me, something that remarkable can't go untold. He was truly a hero -- not only in his selflessness but in his centeredness.
He's had a big impact on you.
So much so that, when I went to meet his family, I was so nervous that I not tread on ground where I was not welcome I imagined or felt him there in the house -- and imagined that he would turn his back on me and walk away if I didn't treat his family right and didn't honor the things that had happened. It was a picture that I couldn't abide. It just killed me to think of disappointing him in any way.
What was the most powerful challenge that you felt with this book?
With the people. With talking to the people and getting the things down right. There are hundreds of personal stories that came out of this storm, because it went on through the state. There were almost 60 people dead that day. There were five more members of the Hannis family who died in another county -- one was a baby who was taken from her mother's arms as she opened the door.
The biggest challenge was being true to people's voices. I knew there was no way on this earth that I could include everybody, so I had to come to a central story of the key players.
That must have been difficult, because I'm sure you thought everybody's story was worthy.
Exactly. There was a point where I understood my story as it pertained to the people that I chose to have in it -- like my seventh-grade science teacher, who was taken up into a vortex 75 feet with her two-year-old son. She was pregnant and got away with literally a scratch, and her son was OK too. She watched it from above. These things are just remarkable. So I did have to choose, and I chose what was really central and representative to the neighborhood and to the people who were lost, and the impact it had on others.
What do you hope reading the book will elicit in your readers? What do you hope they will come away with?
That this is an American tragedy. That it's been a tragedy all over America where these storms kill people year after year, and that it is the story of one place, and from that can be extrapolated the grief and the sorrow and the rebuilding and the moving forward that people do again and again and again in these tragedies. And I would hope that a storm like this is looked upon not as some sort of freak occurrence that people can just pass by, but that they understand the impact it has on lives.
The subjects you take on are not easy ones -- not just in this book, but in your previous books. Family alienation, your alcoholism and recovery what drives you toward these subjects?
I don't know. I figure it's all one long path that has these sort of offroads that lead up to some -- one would hope -- life-experience culmination where, finally, one day I say: Oh, I get why I'm here. [Laughs ruefully.]
If I take a look at what I've written overall, there are probably two major themes. One is nature, and the other is people. When we're at odds with one or the other, it sets up some sort of conflict. I guess I'm probably looking for that center where everything ends up having its place and its meaning.
Have you ever wanted to take the easy way out and write a straightforward whodunit or something like that?
[Laughs] Yeah. Maybe not a whodunit, but crime also fascinates me. [Laughs again.] I don't know that it would be so easy for me. I admire people who can do that.
You describe people in a way that points up their extraordinary qualities -- even when, to anyone else, they would appear to be simply ordinary.
People fascinate me, and also elicit a great deal of compassion in me. I have been very fortunate in my life to have known some truly amazing and giving people who were there when, say, my family wasn't -- and who, through their courage and wisdom, made a mark on me that I won't forget. These people speak to something heroic in life, and it matters that they're out there.
Is it tough to reach into your own psyche and do the kind of writing you do?
I'm sure it's hard on anybody who's doing it. I haven't talked to any writers who ever said: Oh, this is just the easiest thing I could ever have chosen to do. It definitely takes a toll.
But perhaps it's all compensated for by those moments of ecstasy where you finally hit that chord and that rhythm, and you finally extract what you were after. When that happens, the memory of the pain is just not there any more. The subsequent joy and transcendence obliterate it.
Given your last name, was it difficult to decide that you wanted to be a writer?
I don't know that I thought about it that way. I had distanced myself so much from Ernest back when I was a teenager -- in fact, I had this working wrath against him for how he had dissed F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I was very conscious of it, I think, probably up until the point that I quit drinking 14 years ago. There was always some sort of plan in me to get beyond it and to make my own mark. But after I quit drinking and there was a world of new potential maturity out there for me, it wasn't so important to me any more.
Overall I think I can honestly say that it doesn't impact me psychologically or make me think I've got to live up to something, because I do respect what he did and I do respect his work -- but it is not at all like mine. We're two different voices entirely, and I'm comfortable with what I'm learning and the way my writing is progressing. It's an honor to have a name that means something in literature, but with what I've chosen to do, I want to have my own integrity within that sphere.
To make the name mean something because it's yours, not because it's Ernest's?
Exactly. And I have, at least in the past several years. There have been people who have been very complimentary to me -- people who might have read something that I've written, who have said: When they ask me who you are, I'm going to say, 'Ernest was related to her'.
You just mentioned becoming sober. What kind of effect did that have on you as a writer?
Oh my God, it was like night and day. I could think, and I could put things down the way I wanted to put them down. When you drink and write, or just drink all the time and try to write it interjects this false ego, this false perception of things. You think they are just magnificent and they turn out to be absolute crap.
When my mind cleared up, I was able to have some say in what came out of me, and to take a look at it and say: God, this doesn't work -- why did you ever think this kind of thing worked? With the first piece after I stopped drinking, there was this amazing sense of clarity when I wrote it. It was the first piece that I had written in my entire life that no one edited. And I thought: Man, this is cool. Of course that heyday didn't last [Laughs]
For 22 years now, you've directed a short story competition to encourage writers who haven't yet achieved success. What drives you to help other writers?
We all had our writing heroes when we were growing up, and they were there for us. Why not be there for somebody later on if you can help them?
But it comes first from my love of other people's work. People's talent just astounds and amazes me. There's nothing more exciting than finding something of brilliance, a shining thing, among the entries -- always a surprise, always renewing. I'm passionate about reading remarkable writing by people who are out there and haven't been heard.
And another part of it, though this is not the overriding part, is that it saddens me that there were so many things written about Ernest Hemingway where he was not supportive of other writers and went out of his way to sort of kick them. I hope to amend some of that if possible, too.
Although your writing is very different from Ernest's, maybe you feel a responsibility to carry on a legacy of sorts?
Certainly I have deep respect for what he did in the writing world, but there were aspects about it too that were unfortunate, and they saddened me. If I'm going to bear this name, then I want good things associated with it with writing.
I understand some of the past winners of the competition have gone on to achieve considerable success.
They sure have, and that's wonderful. Mark Richard placed in the top three in the competition one year, and to my knowledge that was the first recognition he had received. The story went on to be published in Esquire and he went on to write a collection and also a novel. I believe he was nominated for the National Book Award.
Last year's winner, Kate Small, won the NEA for fiction for a remarkable story. And another former winner went on to be a National Book Award finalist. It's exciting to be in on the ground level of somebody that good, and to think that maybe your encouragement helped just a little.
The writing competition is based in Key West -- where Ernest Hemingway lived for a decade -- and about as far as you can get from Seattle and still be in the United States. What ties you there?
It's like home to me in so many ways. I came there years ago, in the late 60s, just some barefoot hippie girl and homeless at the time. I went to my grandfather's house there and I thought: Oh, this will be interesting. But the tie was never really to that house or to him being there.
I've always been drawn by the ocean and the great ships and the moon and the water, and there's something magical there that goes somewhere very deep in me. I relate to so many people down there, and there is so much true goodness on that island. I feel like I'm home every time I come back.
When you were a young writer, who supported and encouraged you?
The state of Mississippi encouraged me. I started writing when I was in the third grade and really enjoyed it, and my schoolteachers in Mississippi were very, very supportive of writing. I won some school things, some first places and honorable mentions and stuff, for some of the little poems and stories that I did.
Eventually, when I was still a little girl, someone there took me to meet Eudora Welty. That had a great impact on me. I wasn't quite sure who she was [Laughs richly], but I knew that she was someone very important in literature. I'll never forget that sort of fearful but awestruck undertaking, when I was sitting there and my feet didn't touch the floor. She appeared to me ancient at the time, though she must have only been maybe in her 40s or 50s.
You write with an amazing amount of passion. What else are you passionate about?
Oh, gosh, just about everything. I'm passionate about rocks and meteors and space and the sky and animals and the natural world. I'm very, very passionate about reading as much of Carl Jung as I can in my lifetime, because he understood those things. When I read his memoir, it was like I finally found my brother or something.
I'm passionate about writing -- and about my husband, whom I love dearly. He's my soulmate for life.
And I'm passionate about my cats. I can't imagine life without cats. They're like people to me. They're a never-ending source of joy and humor and fun. It sounds screwy, but they're like equals to me -- my best friends. I'm sure I'm going to be one of these eccentric old ladies with dozens of cats.
Tell me about how you write. For example, what time of day do you write, what surroundings must you have, what things have to be nearby?
The older I get, the less I seem to adhere to that, but I like to have my artwork around, things that are important to me personally things from the dirt, rocks -- a lot of rocks. But it can be a handicap, because I remember when I was younger that I thought I couldn't write unless I had this typewriter and that thing here, and this thing there, and that's not true. But I still like to have those things around.
If I'm being good and disciplined, ideally I work early in the morning -- usually not for more than three hours at a time -- and sometimes late at night. I'm sharper earlier in the day, and then late at night there's that kind of gauze thing that happens between the conscious and the unconscious where you can get some interesting things going on.
You mentioned your typewriter. You're still writing on a typewriter?
Yeah, I am. I have an early IBM Selectric that was rebuilt by an old fellow in Ashland, Oregon. But I've been messing around with the computer lately, and finding the horrifying thing people always said was true: once you try it, you're really gonna like it. [Chuckles gently.] It's not so bad as I thought.
What do you do when you're not writing?
That hasn't happened lately but I love to fish. I love to be out looking around for rocks, or sitting in the woods, or being by the water or on the water -- anything outside. Or reading.
What's your everyday life like?
It's quiet. I like ritual -- I think that came from my Aunt Freda. It's always very important to me to have work every day that is physical, and that puts things into a certain order and achieves something. At a certain deep level for me, life is really all about work. But I'm also equally comfortable with just completely flaking off. As long as I'm earning my keep in the world, I don't have any sort of guilt about relaxing and doing exactly what I want. | July 2002
Like Lorian Hemingway, Carol Shaughnessy is a cat lover who began writing before her age could be measured in double digits. She's currently a writer and publicist in Key West, Florida.