Jane Hamilton will be presenting her new novel, “The Excellent Lombards,” at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison on Monday, April 25th, at 7:00 p.m. This event is free; registration is preferred and can be completed online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959. Copies of the book will be available for purchase/signing. Location: 768 Boston Post Rd.
Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Jane Hamilton.
Ms. Hamilton is the author of the newly released novel, “The Excellent Lombards” (Grand Central Publishing). She previously wrote “The Book of Ruth,” winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, and “A Map of the World,” a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also named one of the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, the Miami Herald, and People. Both “The Book of Ruth” and “A Map of the World” have been selections of Oprah’s Book Club. Ms. Hamilton’s following work, “The Short History of a Prince,” was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998. Her last novel, “When Madeline Was Young,” was a Washington Post Best Book of 2006. Ms. Hamilton lives and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin.
Advance praise for “The Excellent Lombards” has been enthusiastic. Both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly awarded the title starred reviews, with the former noting: “Tender and rueful…Richly characterized, beautifully written, and heartbreakingly poignant-another winner from this talented and popular author.” Further, Ann Patchett praised: “This is the book Jane Hamilton was born to write, and it is a book that thrilled me to read. THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS is, in fact, excellent.”
From the publisher:
Mary Frances “Frankie” Lombard is fiercely in love with her family’s sprawling apple orchard and the tangled web of family members who inhabit it. Content to spend her days planning capers with her brother William, competing with her brainy cousin Amanda, and expertly tending the orchard with her father, Frankie desires nothing more than for the rhythm of life to continue undisturbed. But she cannot help being haunted by the historical fact that some family members end up staying on the farm and others must leave. Change is inevitable, and threats of urbanization, disinheritance, and college applications shake the foundation of Frankie’s roots. As Frankie is forced to shed her childhood fantasies and face the possibility of losing the idyllic future she had envisioned for her family, she must decide whether loving something means clinging tightly or letting go.
Now, Jane Hamilton reveals the roots of “The Excellent Lombards” …
John Valeri: Tell us about the origins of “The Excellent Lombards.” Also, how do you view this book in comparison to your earlier works?
Jane Hamilton: I’d been thinking for some time about the vexed matter of succession, particularly in relation to a farm family. In the novel “Buddenbrooks” the family business goes to hell in the third generation. The family farm I’m a part of, in Wisconsin, currently is in its third generation so Thomas Mann’s model is one that has a fearful resonance. How do you keep the thing running, who gets to stay, who is not equipped to stay and either does or doesn’t, who is kicked out, who actually has the brains and mettle, and who in the generation who is presently in power is the one who decides. (Often, it seems, the women in farm families, who are not property owners but the wives of the farmers, perform backroom gymnastics to make the thing go the way they want it to.)
I did not want to write a generational saga, an epic, and so decided to try to put all of those issues in the body and mind of a girl who is deranged by love for her family.
Comparison to earlier work: “The Book of Ruth,” my first book, was also narrated by a girl who is passionate and fierce, and, although a very different character, Ruth and Mary Frances are related by virtue of their intense feelings for their primary families, their sensitivity, and, they both lose a grade school competition that wrecks them! (This just occurred to me.) I have written a satire, a courtroom drama (sort of), a coming of age novel, and this one is my pastoral. They are related by a sensibility and a style but I’d leave others to make a more lucid comparison.
JV: Your protagonist, Frankie, is forced to reckon with the inevitability of change. Why does this concept make for good storytelling – and how were you able to draw on the emotions of your own youth to capture hers so vividly?
JH: “Never change,” is the thing that probably high school students have written in each other’s yearbooks for time immemorial. They think that command is possible! There is so much inherent drama in the matter of change. Disappointment in yourself and others, coping with the fact that life is essentially shipwreck, becoming a person you yourself could not imagine yourself to be, for good and for bad, and then ultimately there is the basic matter of loss. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”—Ha!
It would have been harder to draw on my own emotions to capture a girl living in 2016. I like to think that children are ever the same but Frankie and I share the privilege of coming of age before cell phones and social media. That bond was helpful.
JV: In your opinion, how does setting enhance story – and in what ways was the backdrop of this story inspired by your own experiences living in an orchard farmhouse?
JH: Setting determines everything. When I’m teaching I like to do an exercise where I ask the students—(I think I stole this exercise from someone, so I apologize to that person for spilling the beans.) (It’s a great exercise, so thank you.) I ask the students to write the same scene, the same set up, the same characters and predicament, in three or four different locations. Some of them have to write the scene in a church, some in a kitchen, some in a bar, and so forth. The pressure setting puts on the scene is always very interesting.
I would not have written this book if I hadn’t lived the life I’ve lived.
JV: You are able to offset heartbreak with humor. Why are these seemingly disparate notions so intimately related – and what’s the benefit to balancing them throughout a narrative?
JH: As a species we would not have survived without humor. (There’s a PH.D in that.) I don’t think, as I’m writing, Oh, got to stick a joke in here. But writing a young girl who is fierce and wrong-headed, who wants what she wants so intensely, who is sensitive and observant, who lives with a great gang of characters—the humor simply is there.
JV: There are perils that come with the passage of time. How do you see Frankie’s plight as being representative of the world that exists beyond hers – and in what ways can viewing real life issues through the lens of fiction resonate more strongly with readers than through the lens of non-fiction?
JH: In part this book is about what it means to be part of a tribe, to have intense tribal feelings, the virtues of belonging, the perils of belonging. In the larger world tribalism is an enormous problem, as it ever has been, both strength and idiocy borne from belonging.
Fiction resonates because we can more deeply understand a situation if we are attached to the characters. Also, there is the matter of joy; fiction is a drug of choice for joy. We can best understand facts, figures, movements, ideas if at the same time we have sympathy for the people involved. This is why the trend to have schoolchildren focus on nonfiction rather than fiction is so terribly wrongheaded. This is why teachers must close their doors, tiptoe to their bookshelf, pull out books like “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” and begin to read.
With thanks to Jane Hamilton for her generosity of time and thought and to Matthew Ballast, VP/Executive Director of Publicity at Grand Central Publishing, for facilitating this interview.
Don’t forget: The author will appear at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison on Monday, April 25th, at 7:00 p.m.