Author Interview - Heather Harpham
Author I draw inspiration from: Margaret Atwood and John Berger. Both wrote (in Atwood’s case, is still writing) with a vitality on the page that gathers force over time. And both have a way of lifting the skirt of culture to peer at the humans underneath, at our best and our worst. Both possess a heroic empathy for the fitful, erratic and non-linear ways in which our species (hopefully) evolves. Berger wrote lyrically of a fading way of life in the French countryside, in his tryptic, Into Their Labors, which is infused more with clarity than nostalgia. As a Marxist and a painter, he believed in looking past surfaces, to the workings underneath, and his writing does exactly that. Atwood is a writer who leaps nimbly around time, looking in the darkest corners but with a cheerful spirit, which I so appreciate. Her prescient description of a dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale borrowed from history, but also pointed towards a virulent anti-feminist future that seemed impossible at the time of her writing, but is scarily visible now. Both Berger and Atwood have a sharp sense of beauty and a wicked sense of humor, which strikes me as the best way to get through any era.
Favorite place to read a book: Bed. Or beside any body of water, including my mate.
Book character I’d like to be stuck in an elevator with: Maya Angelou from her memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry like Christmas, which I read as a teenager and which brought me to tears and laughter alone in my room, over and over. In that book, as in the others from her seven-volume autobiography, Angelou conjures herself as a wounded child with the power to heal into an adult woman of her own design. Her true nature is non-negotiable, and untouchable. On the page, even in the wake of brutality, she is alive with a joy de vivre. She literally sings and dances herself into a happy adult life, enormous professional success and financial independence. And, as much as she’s in awe of the divine, she’s an open-minded and committed believer who is entirely undogmatic. I’ve been in awe of her for almost 40 years and my students fall instantly into silence when I share clips of her speaking. That voice!
The moment I knew I wanted to become an author: I don’t know if I ever decided to become an author; since that implies publication and publication is always uncertain. But, I knew from early childhood that I was in love with stories, and storytelling. My father told me stories, and I acted out stories with and for friends. Storytelling was the best way I knew to make the world fall a little more firmly into place. Or to ask it to make more sense, even if that “sense” was irrational, of the imagination.
Hardback, paperback, ebook or audiobook: Hardback all the way. The heft of a physical object is, in itself, a little dignity. A little, ‘hey, take me seriously, love me enough to lug me around’ attitude. And you can interact with a hardback -- it can withstand the act of reading like passionate page turning, or marking up passages or the spilling of tea and toast. At the end of reading a great book, it shows the marks of readership!
The last book I read: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. It is so beautiful, unprecedented, weirdly funny, profoundly archetypal and finally unapologetically heartbreaking that it made me want to dance and cry and eat and kiss and sleep, and do it all over again. A great book, even when it’s about death (or maybe especially when it’s about death?), makes you feel more alive.
Pen & paper or computer: Both. I can’t handwrite fast enough to keep up with my thoughts, and so I need the speed of typing. And, I’m so grateful for cut and paste, as re-ordering material is half the battle, half the craft. Order and timing are everything! At the same time, the computer can take me only half the way there. I always edit by hand, with physical pages. Somehow the writing doesn’t feel real until its printed and tangible. Seeing your writing on the page helps you put yourself in the reader’s place, and to suddenly know what is extraneous or not yet right. Holding first draft pages is like holding a map, or a guide to get you someplace you want to be, but have no idea how to reach.
Book character I think I’d be best friends with: I’m not sure he’d reciprocate the wish, but I’d love to hang out for hours or days or years with Jesus. Whatever or whoever else, he may be, Jesus is also the main character of the world’s second most popular book (the Koran being first). And what a wonderful character he is – so full of conflicting impulses and desires and needs. So totally devoted to the ones he loves. Very forgiving. Very democratic. Very, in his way, revolutionary. I would love to hear him talk. I’d love to hear him list what matters most. Kindness, I’m guessing. Kindness, first and last and always. To hear him talk would be shattering, in the best way.
If I wasn’t an author, I’d be a: The many other things I already am – a performer, a teacher, a mom, an aspirational guitar player. Though in all honesty, I love to re-write ads in my head, to “punch up” tag lines. I might, despite my ideological opposition to late stage capitalism, be very happy as an advertising copy writer. Great ads are tiny, potent stories that make us want to do something!
Favorite decade in fashion history: 1920’s, the flapper, that first glimpse of, and gesture toward, female independence. Women were literally liberating themselves -- getting out from under acres of heavy cloth and constraining undergarments. The flappers, in their sassy, shorter dresses, had room to move and think and act up!
Place I’d most like to travel: In terms of my own curiosity -- Greece. My maternal grandparents came from two small Greek towns, in the early part of the last century, and I’d love to go back and see what those towns are like now. In terms of responding to the needs of world – Syria or Yemen. I’m too cowardly to go into a war zone, but if I were more courageous and capable, I’d find a way to support civilians who’ve been deprived of safety and food in those two places in particular, so painfully hit by civil war. And lastly, America. This country is so big, and so diverse culturally, historically and geographically. You could spend a lifetime investigating America and still have lots to see.
My signature drink: Coffee from my local café, run by greatest French baker ever to immigrate, and her coffee-roasting genius son.
Favorite artist: Jean-Michel Basquiat. I took my teenage son to the Whitney a while ago, and he was blown away by Basquiat’s work. He stared and stared, and read the snippets of text embedded in the work. I hadn’t talked up Basquiat’s work ahead of time – he just organically responded to the complexity, the intelligence and the dynamism, the social commentary and the bursting life of color on the canvas. And this is, we know, the ultimate magic trick of great art– it allows an individual to speak through time to waves of new viewers or readers. It’s so beautiful to watch.
Number one on my bucket list: To go to Africa and see where civilization started, and also, to the extent that this is possible 2018, see what the world might have looked like before people mucked things up. To see animals in a landscape so vast and open and unpeople that they still rule. Even if that’s an illusion, I’d like to see it.
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Facebook: Heather Harpham https://www.facebook.com/hharpham
Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After is now out in paperback.