"I was a child psychologist's wet dream."

Talking with Johanna Lane and Mike Harvkey

On April 15, Mike Harvkey’s first novel, In the Course of Human Events, will be published by Soft Skull Press. Five weeks later, on May 20, Johanna Lane’s first novel, Black Lake, will be published by Little, Brown. Mike and Johanna are married. To each other. They met in the fall of 2001, on the first day of the Columbia MFA program, two weeks before September 11. Last summer they left New York to travel for a year, starting in Indonesia, finishing in Portugal, with long stays in six other countries. For this interview, conducted while the couple were housesitting in Berlin, they tried to ask each other questions that they’d never asked before—no easy task given how long they’ve been together—and agreed not to discuss the answers outside of the interview.

I. ANXIETY

MIKE HARVKEY: How many times would you say we’ve read each other’s books?  

JOHANNA LANE: It’s funny, because we were talking about this the other day with friends and I heard you say that I’d read yours twenty times or something and I thought, What? No, more like five. In my head it’s five. I don’t remember the first read, but the last was in December to check the copy edit; I feel almost as much responsibility as I do for my own book.

You worked on your novel for about six years, but you said the other day that its profanity still shocked you and if you were to write it again, you might ease up on that. Why the shift in perspective, other than the fact that your parents are going to read it now? 

MH: It’s just the parents. Specifically, it was what my mom said when I told her I’d sold a book. Neither of my parents knew that I was still writing fiction, so it was a surprise. My mom can’t see anymore, but she listens to audio books all day long. And she told me that my dad had promised to read my book to her. So when I was going over those proofs, I kept hearing my dad reading the most aggressively profane, offensive lines. I kept hearing him say these things out loud—or more likely not say them. I imagined him beginning to read these things and then clearing his throat and making those “skipping ahead” sounds. Then I imagined my mother, not too far into the book, shaking her head and saying, “No more.” 

Last year, when we were in Bali, it took you a month to write the same number of words that, in the past, had taken three or four times longer. How are you a different writer now than when you started your novel? 

JL: There were a lot of factors that allowed me to write so much when we were in Indonesia. First, fear. I knew the book wasn’t quite right yet and that we were approaching the deadline. Second, it was the beginning of our trip around Southeast Asia and I felt really hopeful (once I got over the fear); thanks to Eat, Pray, Love it’s a cliché that there’s something magical about Bali, but there really is. So between the magic and the fact that we knew we were leaving our New York lives behind, I just felt invigorated—and that got into the prose; the work I did there is some of the work I’m happiest with in the book. And third, I know the characters so well now; to me the book is a tiny sliver of their lives and, though I’m not the first writer to say this, and I know it sounds pretentious or perhaps just silly, in my mind the family in my book, the Campbells, do live somewhere up on the northwest coast of Ireland and are living out the rest of their lives after I’ve told the story about their hardest year. I know that makes me sound like an idiot, but it’s true.

II. CONFLICT

JL: We’re both trying to get back to writing other things now, and we’re both finding it tough for various reasons, but you said recently that your book really took it out of you. Do you mean physically, because you had to finish the book around a fulltime job, or spiritually (if that’s the right word), because of your subject matter?

MH: Having been made in the mold of the laconic Midwestern male, I don’t have easy access to my feelings. Or “muh feeweens,” as the men in my novel might say before punching me in the face and digging me a shallow grave. This might sound strange, but it’s pretty hard for me to actually feel—or even think—unless I’m writing. Loads of writers say they write to work something out about themselves, which sounds like a more active process than what I know. I do think “spiritual” is the right word. Mentally, I spent the last six or seven years rubbing shoulders with wife beaters and white supremacists. My research put me in the dark mindset of American extremists both real, like Timothy McVeigh, and made up, like Jay Smalls, the driving force of my book. In the blurb he wrote, Aaron Gwyn called Jay Smalls “a villain that would haunt Tyler Durden’s dreams.” I actually had a dream about Jay. And of course he was incredibly aggressive, getting right up in my face with a violent challenge. He’s not an easy guy to shake off. I haven’t figured out how to get rid of him yet. You mentioned autobiographical elements. How did your family’s history make its way into your novel? 

JL: My mother’s family had a house in County Wicklow, just south of Dublin, which was built in the 1700s. It was sold when I was twelve. We used to go there every Sunday for afternoon tea, which is an absurd concept these days of course, but that’s what we did. We lived there too sometimes, with my grandmother and my great aunt; it was a labor-intensive place for two old ladies who didn’t have the money for much paid help anymore. When the house was sold, no one in the family was prepared for how far-reaching the effects would be. In some ways, my novel is an elegy for that house—and for the time I used to spend there with my grandmother and my great aunt. When I was about ten my aunt allowed me to use her typewriter. Seeing the words I’d written planted the seed that I would love nothing more than to be a writer.

But the house in my book is also based on a place in County Donegal called Glenveagh, an estate built in the mid-1800s by Scottish landowner John George Adaire, who evicted his Irish tenants and had their cottages demolished with a battering ram. Under any circumstances, this would have been cruel. Just after the Famine, it’s hard to imagine anything more horrific. After he died the estate changed hands and changed hands again before being left to the Irish people in the 1980s. I’ve always felt indignant about the way Adaire treated his Irish tenants, but of course on one side of my family I’m descended from English invaders, who treated the native population appallingly. So I began to think about what it was to feel completely Irish, completely indignant and horrified at the way the British treated the Irish, but also to try to come to terms with the fairly large percentage of English blood in my veins. It’s still a thorny question in Ireland whether you’re truly Irish if you’re Protestant (I’m talking about the Republic here, the North is a whole other beast). Many Irish people would say that it’s absurd to still think in those terms, but I felt separated growing up, partly because of this totally wrong system in Ireland that separates people of different religions into different schools. Thankfully, with all the immigration recently, there are more schools in which kids are mixed.

I didn’t study much Anglo-Irish literature much in high school. When I went to college in Scotland and studied it for the first time, I encountered books like Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, and I thought, “Oh, I recognize this world.” And I’d be lying if I said that that wasn’t something of a relief. The Last September is a “big house” novel, a centuries-old genre, and I decided to write my own modern big house novel as a way of confronting everything I’ve been talking about here.

Could you elaborate on your last answer, that it’s hard for you to think unless you’re writing? 

MH: I only realized this sometime in my thirties, one day when I was working on a short story. I was sitting there without a pen or paper trying to think it through and it was just impossible, as if I had no control of my thoughts whatsoever. My brain would start on the story or characters and leap almost immediately to burritos, karate, television, the future, the past, friends, furniture. It’s possible that something is terribly wrong with me. But I remember getting frustrated that day with the ridiculous mental swirl and grabbing a pad and pencil. It made all the difference! Through writing, I was able to corral my thoughts into a single subject and shut everything else out. It has to be by hand; typing doesn’t work. Maybe it’s the pace, or the fact that typing isn’t as clearly linear a process as writing by hand, where each letter connects to the next.

As far as the same thing being true of feeling, I don’t know. It probably comes down to the fact that I grew up writing and drawing instead of, you know, talking. I was a child psychologist’s wet dream. As a kid I wrote short stories where my family and friends were ripped apart by monsters. I drew pictures of my parents and our dog standing in the yard in front of a grave with my name on it. I had nightmares that completely paralyzed me with fear, I saw severed heads at the foot of the bed, I had nosebleeds in my sleep so I’d wake up covered in blood. I was not a relaxed kid. There’s no one to blame; I wasn’t mistreated in any way. I had an ideal childhood in many ways, with lots of space and freedom to roam and be creative. The problem is that I was just incredibly sensitive, and Midwestern families don’t talk—at all—so whatever minor or major conflict might be unfolding behind closed doors, when those doors open, everyone’s suddenly like Leave it to Beaver after the commercial break.

III: INFLUENCE

MH: Would you say you have a creative agenda? 

JL: I don’t think I’d call it anything so organized as an agenda. Much of the beginning of writing this book felt like groping about in the dark; it took years for it to take shape. But what I did know from the beginning was that there were writers I really admired, whose work I wanted to emulate, which meant that early on parts of my book aped Virginia Woolf, Michael Ondaatje’s earlier stuff, Amit Chaudhuri’s novellas. They’re the three most obvious influences that come to mind. As the book progressed, it became more and more my own, thankfully. I have a theory now that you have to accept the writer you are (I think George Saunders said something along these lines, much more wittily than I’m putting it now, of course). What I mean is, we may admire Dostoevsky or George Saunders or whomever, but part of becoming a good writer is accepting the combination of ingredients that go into making you you and allowing them to shape your work. Because the worst thing I think I could say about a piece of writing is that it could have been written by anyone. And one of the best things is that it could only have been written by the person who wrote it. For me, that’s the alchemy that goes a long way to making something special. Though I got an awful lot out of the Columbia MFA and I’m so glad I did it, this is where creative writing courses can be dangerous; people start copying each other and a certain style becomes the prevailing one, the most accepted one. Which is okay, just as it’s okay to ape the style of writers you love early on, but you’ve got to throw that off as quickly as possible.

What, above anything else, would you like people to take away from your book?

MH: “Style is just what you do to keep from sucking” is how Saunders put it—a simple lesson that took me years to learn. All through Columbia I thought I was a southern writer. I came into the program reading Flannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah, Padget Powell, Tom Franklin, Faulkner, and mimicking that amazing tradition in my stories. I had a gnawing feeling when I was writing those stories… deep down I knew I was acting. It took the writing and discarding of an entire collection, and at least two drafts of this novel, for me to realize what kind of writer I am—or, to use your words, to write something that could only been written by me. But to answer your question, I would be pleased if my book made people think about judgment.

At any point in the process of us both trying, failing, trying again, and finally succeeding in selling these books, have you felt competitive? I only ask you this question because I’ve been asked it more than once since you sold your novel, which happened a year before I sold mine.

JL: No, I’ve never felt competitive with you because we’ve been together so long that I feel your success as my success and I think the feeling’s mutual. That said, I think it would be incredibly hard if one of our books hadn’t sold and that person was now watching the other one have their hard work rewarded. 

Mike Harvkey was born and raised in rural Missouri. He is a graduate fellow of Columbia University’s Creative Writing MFA Program, a winner of Zoetrope All-Story Magazine’s short fiction contest. His short stories have been published in Mississippi Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Zoetrope All-Story Magazine, and other publications. 

Johanna Lane was born in Ireland, studied English Literature in Scotland, and earned her MFA at Columbia University. She teaches composition and creative writing in New York City.

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