Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Garage Band, April 13, 2006
The Night Journal by Elizabeth Crook is an unusual, compelling novel. Much of it is told in old journal entries that make history, particularly the history of the American southwest as seen through the eyes of an independent female pioneer, come alive. The story moves back and forth between the present life of Meg Mabry and that of her great-grandmother, Hannah, the journal keeper.
Meg’s grandmother, Bassie, took her in as a girl because Meg’s mother was too strung out on drugs to cope with a child. Bassie, who had lost her own mother at a young age, is not the nurturing type. She’s built a high-profile career around the publication of her mother’s journals, and she doesn’t do much but provide the basics for Meg.
Meg won't be sucked into Hannah's literary orbit. She refuses to read the journals and chooses a path as different from Bassie’s as possible. But when evidence that might put the Hannah's work in a wholly different light is uncovered, Meg feels compelled to read the journals and to discover the truths the diaries kept hidden.
When I read Crook’s novel -- with the layers of early feminist thought, pioneering lore, indigenous regional history, the impulse for journal keeping, the weight of ancestors, commentary on contemporary culture, I wondered about her process. How would one go about organizing such a complex story? It's said that Michaelangelo “saw” David in a chunk of marble and simply chipped away the excess to reveal what was already there. Did this artist employ a similar method? When I got the opportunity, I asked her that and a bunch of other burning questions.
Cindy: Did you, like Michaelangelo, see the whole before it was a made thing, or was your process somewhat different?
Elizabeth: Embarrassingly different. I had no vision at all. If I were Michelangelo I wouldn’t have known if that block of stone was going to reveal a young man, or a possum. I would have just hammered away until I saw something that slightly resembled something -- “This looks like a nose!” I might have said. “So I guess this is a person! So, I’ll put the feet down here; I’ll work on the feet for a while. But hmmm, I wonder if it’s a man or a woman; I can’t do the feet until I know. So, I’ll work on the face some more and see what happens.” And then I would have chiseled away, until “Whoa! That eye is way too big. I wonder if it’s possible to paste some of this stuff back in here. I’ll have to figure out how to do that. This definitely, I think, will be male. I think I’ll start on the penis.”
That’s how the process would go. When I started this book I intended to write a contemporary story, but it quickly became historical when I climbed down into a kiva at Pecos Pueblo and just instantly knew that this was a place I wanted to write about. I found Las Vegas, New Mexico by accident after I left Pecos Pueblo: there was a sign that said “Las Vegas, Sixty Miles,” or something to that effect, and I thought it was referring to Las Vegas Nevada. So I drove over there to see what was going on. The fact that there were no billboards on the outskirts of town was my first indication that I was not in Nevada.
Even by the time I started writing Hannah’s journal I had no clear sense of how I was going to fit the entries into my contemporary story, I just started writing it, day by day, until I realized I was writing it at the same rate that Hannah was living her life, and no underlying plot was developing. I showed the draft to my great friend Steve Harrigan, a novelist and always my first critic, and he could not believe the amount of material that went absolutely nowhere and did not in any way advance any discernable kind of story. It was at this point that I had to decide what the story would be about and who’s story it was -- whether it belonged mostly to my contemporary characters -- Bassie and Meg and Jim -- or to Hannah and the characters in the past.
So you can see that the way I found my way into the story was by going down many wrong roads and thereby encountering twists and turns and happening onto surprising discoveries that played out in unforeseen ways. It was similar to driving in a fog: when you drive in a fog you advance slowly and keep your eyes open for landmarks; you make wrong turns and circle back. This seems to be the only way I know how to write, though it’s not the way I would recommend. It’s time-consuming and inefficient. But it gives the story an unexpected quality that to me is rich and wonderful. It certainly makes the initial process interesting: more an act of discovery than deliberation. Astonishing curiosities can appear out of a fog.
This is not however to pretend that the refinement of the story depended on murky luck. That part -- after the basic story was set -- required, as it does for every writer, constant, clear-headed scrutiny of the material, as well as deliberate decisions about what in the story was working, and what was not. This was difficult in this book because I was piecing together the two different time frames and had to think strategically.
It was not until the book was nearly finished that I really saw the “theme” of legacy emerging, and began to understand what the book would be “about.”
C: How long did it take to write? What was the first impulse? Are you a history buff?
EC: I spent nearly eleven years writing this book, partly because of my inefficiency as a writer and partly because I got married and had two children and three miscarriages in the course of it. A lot of my emotional reservoir was pouring into my own life, rather than into my characters’. But there was never a time I thought I wouldn’t finish the book. I loved the characters, and the setting. I loved being in that world. The hard thing about taking so long to write a book, is that the world of that book becomes familiar and sustaining and you miss it when you’re finished. You feel disoriented not to have it to return to every day.
My first impulse was to STAY AWAY FROM HISTORY. My previous two novels were historical fiction and required so much research that I was tired of it. I’m a slow reader and research is chaotic and laborious -- it clutters your mind with a lot of detail. I actually love the research after I get started on it, but the idea of willfully heading back into it -- into a different time period and a new location from my last books -- was aversive. So, I determined to write a contemporary novel. But you see what eventually happened. The past crept in.
When I was growing up my mother read a lot of historical fiction to my brother and sister and me -- also books written so long ago that they seemed like historical fiction. She read us the books by Fred Gibson and Francis Hodgson Burnett, and Newberry winners like Caddie Woodlawn and The Bronze Bow. I’ve written about this on the Penguin’s Readers Guide for The Night Journal, and hate to repeat myself but I can’t resist naming some of these books, they were such a memorable part of my childhood. She read us Blue Willow, Colt from Moon Mountain. Books by Louisa May Alcott. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Roller Skates, and Thee Hannah!
My favorite television shows were westerns, probably because my brother was older and larger and therefore took charge of the television (the law of the west prevailing). I felt comfortable in the old west, having spent so much time watching Gunsmoke. In my teens I graduated to Dickens, the Brontes, Elizabeth Goodge and Daphne du Maurier, all writers who transported me into the past.
C: There was so much great arcane medical stuff, but blended right in as part of the story. How do you get the right mix?
EC: The trick with using historical research is knowing what to leave out. This is difficult for me and for most writers of historical fiction, as we are excitable about history and drawn to minutia. The process begins with a lot of reading: gathering books, finding obscure materials, underlining, transcribing, attempting to organize onto notecards and file in some reasonable way. Typically in the first drafts I use too much detail. I have to go back and take a lot of it out. This is painful but liberating; it’s like cleaning out the attic. You keep only the best. You’re happy with what you have in the end. You don’t miss what you’ve given up.
C: As a journal keeper, I was interested in Hannah as someone who recognized her unique story as being part of the bigger picture of the expansion of the West. That she sought to capture it for posterity. This seems an atypical journal experience. Or is it? Obviously, you won’t want to speak for all journal writers, but this part of Hannah’s story made me think about the impulse to journal. Might we all in some way feel we have a unique story to tell? Are you a journaler? Do you read published diaries?
EC: First of all, I come from a family of journal-keepers. My grandmother and my mother both kept journals and I find these invaluable and wonderful. My mother was, I believe, writing for her children; my grandmother was recording a social commentary and documenting the growth of the family business. I kept a journal myself from jr. high through college; it is made up of notebooks that stack to my waist. A few years ago I flipped through some of the pages and found them so filled with inanity and lack of honest understanding that I quickly packed them away with the intention of never looking at them again. I would be horrified, however, at the thought of losing them. While they are ridiculous and immature and show not even a glimmer of writing talent, they represent long hours of devoted and obsessive chronicling that for some interior and now unknowable reason I felt compelled to do. The effort itself is worth remembering. No one will read these journals -- I am pretty certain of that. They are no more than a keepsake. But their sheer bulk gives them a kind of weightiness and credibility that I appreciate.
Journal keeping is a problematic undertaking, haunted by the question of self-censorship. Do our omissions distort to the point where the record is untrue? How do we know what to leave out of the record? My own compromise is to write letters and emails to close friends and to save copies of these in folders as my “journal”. The result is a record that has what I feel is the right amount of self-censorship. The tone is one of speaking to a friend. My children or grandchildren can read this correspondence some day if they have any interest, and hopefully they will not be either horrified or bored.
As for writing Hannah’s journal, there were several conflicting considerations. The journal needed to sound like a real journal, but it also had to contain a lot of information about New Mexico in the 1890’s so the reader could have a sense of Hannah’s world. Too much description could make the journals seem inauthentic: we do not, for instance, if we are writing a journal today, say, “I had to buy a new microwave oven today. A microwave oven is usually called a microwave for short and is a square or rectangular cooking device that works on the scientific principal of . . .” No! We say, “I had to buy a new microwave today.” When writing Hannah’s entries I had to give the reader enough historical information without distorting the journal form.
A similar challenge came with writing the dialogue in Hannah’s journal. Most people do not record a lot of dialogue in their journals, but in order to make Hannah’s story compelling I had to include some. The trick was to do this while making the entries still seem like believable entries.
A third challenge with writing a fictional journal like Hannah’s is not to make the character seem too self-absorbed. This is why I gave her an urgent reason for writing: she wants to compose a record of her times and of what it is like for a woman to live in the west. She is, therefore, writing her observations about the place and the people who live there: she is outwardly observant instead of inwardly absorbed. This keeps her from seeming annoyingly full of herself.
It seems to me that most people who write journals are not writing solely for themselves. They are writing for a sense of connection with other people. The journals may be private, but I think there is usually the feeling that some day they will be read and serve to connect the writer with someone, perhaps of a future generation.
C: Meg is a capable woman. Her job working with dialysis patients illustrates that. Why did you pick this particular occupation? How important was it to find a career as far from Bassie’s as possible? That seems to be a theme of the book, that Meg wants to deny her heritage.
EC: That’s a great question. I wanted Meg to have an unusual job, and a real job, something readers wouldn’t necessarily know about but might find interesting. I think too many novels have characters who are academics or novelists or journalists -- professions the writer usually knows. I needed for Meg to be outside that loop, and also be different from Hannah and Bassie. I wanted her to be different from me. I happened to have a friend in the water purification business, so I just chose his job for Meg and followed him around for a few days to get a sense of what it involved.
C: Another thematic element that runs through this book is the orphan. Children are left without parents through death or, in Meg’s case, her mother’s substance abuse. Why orphans?
EC: Hmm . . . I’m not sure I know. There’s a great deal about loss and separation in all three of my books. Hopefully the books are also entertaining and amusing and in the end uplifting rather than depressing. I think there’s a difference between a book that makes you feel sad and nostalgic, and a book that leaves you hopeless or depressed. I would not want to write the latter.
C: Your characters, Bassie in particular, but also Meg and Hannah, are difficult people. Stubborn, bossy, and in Bassie and Meg’s case, not emotionally connected. How hard was it as a writer to give such difficult characters the humanity that glints through even Bassie’s tough exterior?
EC: That is a very astute question. Most readers I think are inclined to forgive Bassie for being unpleasant; she’s old, she’s had a difficult life. Also her caustic nature is coupled with admirable traits: she is strong and honest and fearless. Meg, on the other hand, was a difficult sell as a character from the beginning. My goal, from the first draft on, was not to make her entirely sympathetic, but to make her into a character that at least my mother could like. My mother was slow to warm up to Meg, even in subsequent drafts. Meg, it seems, is foreign to women who have never been single in their thirties and never wanted children they feared they wouldn’t have. She’s anxious and defensive and fears she is a paler version of her more interesting and stronger ancestors who have lived lives that she perceives as more textured and adventurous than hers will ever be. But in spite of her flaws -- or, rather, because of them -- she is real, and believable. She is credible as Bassie’s granddaughter: readers are not blind to the origins of her less loveable traits. And in the end, she triumphs over her flaws. Characters should change in the course of the novel, they should learn from their situation. If Meg were warm and sympathetic in the beginning there would be no point in telling her story; there would be no journey for her to make. In the end I think readers like her well enough to care what happens to her. That’s what matters: the reader has to be invested in a character’s fate.
C: The landscape of the Southwest is everywhere in this book: desert, mountains, canyon, mesa. Evocative to the point of becoming almost another character in the book. Was this a deliberate decision on your part as the writer?
EC: The landscape is essential to this story, as it was to my second novel. It’s not a coincidence that both of these books have landscapes on the jacket art. Making the land a prominent part of the book gives the reader a sense of where they are. It certainly grounds me as a writer. It also sets the mood. I have thought about writing a book set in the northeast just to escape from being “regional”. But that landscape doesn’t speak to me like this one does.
C: What are you working on now? Will you blend the historical and contemporary again or was that a one shot deal?
EC: I wish I had an answer, but I have no idea what I’ll write next. I’ll fish around for awhile. Eventually I’ll probably wander into some place like Pecos Pueblo that suddenly, and unexpectedly, draws me in.
C: This last question is not for readers who dislike spoilers, as it addresses the way you chose to end the book. Did you consciously choose a certain moral tone? I’m thinking about adultery, about how Meg seems determined not to make the mistakes of the past. But in doing so, she seems to give up any chance she has for happiness or a real emotional connection. And also, if those mistakes would not have been made, she would not exist. Would you comment on the way you ended the book?
EC: It’s funny, but the thing most consistently remarked on by people who read this book is Meg’s decision not to sleep with Jim. Most readers seem to be relieved by that decision: it reveals Meg’s strength and elevates her. However a few readers, (such as one of my former elementary school teachers!) have been disappointed in Meg’s decision. “You could have let them have just one night together,” my teacher called and told me. “It wouldn’t have hurt anybody. Nobody would have known.”
I suppose my instinct in imposing the restrictions on this relationship was not so much to make a moral statement, but rather to tell a story that leaves the reader experiencing some emotion other than easy gratification. I think stories, as well as real life, are richer and perhaps more poignant and meaningful if a deep love affair is left somewhat unrealized.
C: Thanks, Elizabeth, for a great conversation.