Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

From Aspiring Nun to Fiction Writer

From Aspiring Nun to Fiction Writer

Photograph via Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour

Patricia Henley was born the eldest of eight in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1947, to parents who grew up there. The family was working class, and there was never enough money to go around. Her father was an installer of telephone equipment who traveled for work and was absent for days or weeks at a time. Her mother was a strong and independent woman, a role model. Religion was a source of conflict, as Henley’s father was Catholic and her mother and extended family were Protestant. To keep the peace, Virginia Cowgill converted to Catholicism in 1957, and Patricia made her first communion the same year. She then attended St. Patrick’s and St. Leonard’s Catholic school in Vigo County, for grades four through eight.

The family moved to Rising Sun, Maryland, for her father’s work. Henley did well in high school, where she enjoyed Spanish and theater.  In the 1960s, she attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she got into trouble. She left and worked at a series of jobs. Then, without an undergraduate degree, she entered Johns Hopkins University and earned a Master of Arts in writing in 1974. She lit out for the West, and from 1975-1978 lived on Tolstoy Farm, a back-to-the-land community in Davenport, Washington. A period of wandering ensued, from Mexico to British Columbia, where she taught English in public school from 1982 to 1984. Living in Bozeman, Montana, Henley won a statewide prize from the Montana Arts Council for a book of stories, which was then published by Graywolf Press in 1986. Friday Night at Silver Star proved to be decisive. On the strength of that book, she was hired by Purdue University in 1987 to teach in its writing program. She has been at Purdue ever since.  She published three more books of stories and two novels, winning praise for her work from Andre Dubus, Margot Livesey, and Robert Olen Butler. Her first novel, Hummingbird House, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the New Yorker Fiction Prize.

Henley and I met at the first Chesapeake Writers’ Conference in July 2012, held at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We met again at Lewes, Delaware, in August, where she attended a family reunion.

Construction: What is your relationship with reading?

Patricia Henley: I learned to read at age four. My paternal grandmother took me to the public library, which I remember fondly. Reading provided some stability in a childhood filled with uncertainty and disruption. For several years, we lived in the country, and the bookmobile was my lifeline. In summer, I often read a novel a day. Some favorites were Little Women, The Secret Garden, Marjorie Morningstar, Jane Eyre, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Secret Garden introduces other cultures—India and England—and the heroine Mary becomes one with the natural world. These two ideas stayed with me and probably influence my own work. Female protagonists who are empowered and grow strong helped me deal with the circumstances of my own life.

Construction: You wrote poetry at Johns Hopkins, and you published two chapbooks. What made you switch to writing fiction?

Patricia Henley: I kept a diary when I was about twelve, and I wrote stories in high school, on my own and in secret. I didn’t show them to anyone. I simply enjoyed the process of writing. I don’t have any of those childhood efforts now.

My first husband was a professor of English and fiction writer. He taught in South Carolina, where I worked in the Poets-in-the-Schools program. I wanted to differentiate my writing from my husband’s and I lacked what the mystery writer Elizabeth George calls “bum glue,” the ability to sit still long enough to write fiction. I craved adventure, and I was always on the go.

At the time, I had no innate understanding of structure and suspense. Writing poetry taught me to look closely at everything. Eventually, I wanted a larger canvas. The people I met out west were different. I was entranced by them and I wanted to portray them and the landscape.

After I left Tolstoy Farm, in the winter of 1979, I was struck by a serious illness that kept me in bed for two months. I was living in Desert Hot Springs, California, where the public library was my salvation. I started to write a novel about life at Tolstoy Farm, abandoned it to start another, and then settled on the short story as more suited to my ability. From age twenty, I read stories by Ernest Hemingway, Bernard Malamud, I. B. Singer, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver, among others. To teach myself to write, I used Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness, by Leon Z. Surmelian, a practical guide with examples.

In Montana, I stopped trying to serve too many masters. I thought I could teach high school with devotion, I thought I could gain mastery over various outdoor pursuits—kayaking and wilderness living. I always had to earn a living and I worked, from selling hams at a roadside stand in Virginia, to waiting tables in Baltimore, to counseling unemployed women in Bozeman. It was necessary to keep working to support my writing habit, but I decided in Bozeman that I’d concentrate on writing stories and sacrifice whatever necessary to make my dream come true.  The publication of my first book by Graywolf Press was just that.

[pullquote_right]Purdue provided financial stability, which I had never had, and that changed my life.[/pullquote_right]

Andre Dubus wrote a brief review—a few lines, really—for the New York Times, and it was noticed. It led the English department at Purdue to take a chance on an unknown writer. They hired me for a one-year appointment, which was renewed.  The third year, it became permanent. It provided financial stability, which I had never had, and that changed my life.

Construction: The stories “Labrador,” “The Secret of Cartwheels” and others parallel events in your own life, both from childhood and from the years you spent wandering in the West, when you were in your twenties and thirties. “Labrador” and “Cartwheels” in particular seem to closely follow the facts of your existence—a mentally ill mother, an absent father, family conflict, an orphanage episode, a girl emerging as an adult. How do you transform autobiography into fiction?

Patricia Henley: It’s true that at age thirteen I was sent to an orphanage for five months, along with four of my siblings. Others were farmed out to relatives. When I was seventeen, my mother had another bout of illness and was hospitalized. I pleaded with social services to keep the family together. Their solution was for my father’s mother to come to live with us until my mother could return.

Even with those two stories, details are changed and much is invented. Location, the number of siblings, bits of dialogue, names. To make that transformation—from real life to fiction—I had to cast a clinical eye on the experiences informing the stories. I stepped outside the events and viewed them the way a director of a film would view them, from a distance, as if they happened to someone else. We’re not always ready to do this with our own life experience.

A good editor or teacher may help. Mike Curtis at The Atlantic, where “The Secret of Cartwheels” was originally published, helped me enormously by pointing out that in the draft he saw first it seemed that the mother didn’t really love her children. He suggested that she must have and that I should remedy that aspect of the story. Which I did.

As for other stories, what else do we have to work with but our own observations and experience? I love inventing characters and situations and weaving in a thread of insight or detail or dialogue from the life around me.

Construction: Your comment on viewing events like a film director is intriguing, as much of your fiction reads like a screenplay, an unfolding of scenes and matter-of-fact narrative. Can you expand on this?

Patricia Henley: Well, I think there’s plenty of description and felt life in there, too! But I do tend to view a story or novel as a series of building blocks—the scenes.

[pullquote_left]I write about the worlds I’m privy to. We write what we must.[/pullquote_left]

Construction: For decades, there has been a vogue in American fiction for low-income settings and characters. Your characters are sometimes poor, sometimes down on their luck, but they behave responsibly. They make ends meet, and they hold middle-class values of thrift and self-improvement. What is your attitude toward economics and class?

Patricia Henley: I write about the worlds I’m privy to. Perhaps other writers give voice to subcultures that might otherwise have been ignored. I’m not sure that short story writers think in terms of what might be in vogue. We write what we must.

Construction: Your fiction is loaded with sensual details, far beyond noting the weather. You make a point of describing the place, the temperature, the sound of rain, the smell of cooking, the taste of food, the flowers in the courtyard, and the touch of a hand, all related to the mood of a character. How does this sensory richness inform the fiction?

Patricia Henley: Through the accretion of “concrete, significant detail,” as John Gardner suggests in The Art of Fiction, the reader’s emotions are engaged. Gardner says “vivid detail is the life blood of fiction” and that the author’s job is “to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel.” And I want that—for the fiction to be an emotional experience for the reader.

Construction: You are frank about sex without being prurient, and always from a woman’s point of view. In your novel Hummingbird House, the affair between Kate Banner and Dixie Ryan is a kind of romance. Both characters are described as attractive, and each is drawn to the other, but consummation is delayed. Kate is still in the grip of an eight-year affair with another man, and preoccupied with her friends Maggie and Vidaluz, while Dixie is a Catholic priest who is serious about his vow of celibacy. In Other Heartbreaks, the characters Jenny, Ellen, Barbara, and Sophie experience sex at different ages and in vastly different ways, from bitter repression to joyous satisfaction. What role does sex play in the context of a story?

Patricia Henley: Sex is always with us. We think about it, do it, long for it, try not to think about it, regret it, and so on. And much of the trouble in our lives stems from that undercurrent. Isn’t it Janet Burroway who stresses that in fiction “only trouble is interesting”? So of course, I’m going to write about it.

Construction: You present same-sex attraction on equal terms with male-female pairs. There are scenes of intimacy among women, as in “Sicilian Kisses,” and there is a self-defined lesbian couple in the novel In the River Sweet. Do you think most individuals have a range of sexual expression?

[pullquote_right] In the sixth grade, I wanted to be a nun.  Later, in the climate of the 1960s, I misbehaved.[/pullquote_right]

Patricia Henley: This is a question for psychologists! I like to think we do. And yet when we’re right there having sex we often revert to our childhood fantasies and our range of expression is a sliver of what it might be. In the River Sweet shows the effect of hate and homophobia in America. The young couple of Laurel and Oceana are a given, a fact of contemporary life. Maybe there is an implicit contrast with the fumbling of Michelle and Ruth Anne in the French convent in Saigon.  They belong to the previous generation.

Boucheron: Sisters crop up frequently in your fiction, along with mothers, aunts, and other female relatives. In “Worship of the Common Heart,” Stephanie and Grace are twins, defined as opposite personalities, like two halves of a whole person. Stephanie is a nun, a timid woman who used to paint. Grace is “an emergency room nurse, skinny in a red leather bomber jacket, sex on her mind.” Given your focus on a character’s inner life, are sisters, aunts and such an extension of the self?

Patricia Henley: Are you asking if they are an extension of me? Maybe I can respond to the particulars of that story. Grace and Stephanie are figments of my imagination. Stephanie came into being when I was spending time with Benedictine nuns. They are so amazingly varied in their decisions to enter the convent, their histories, their doubts and convictions. I met a young novice who still wore one earring. Stephanie was born of that conversation with the novice about her vocation. Grace is like every bad girl I’ve ever known—myself included. Together they represent something about my psyche, the good girl/bad girl. In the sixth grade, I wanted to be a nun. Later, in the climate of the 1960s, I misbehaved.

Construction: Though the term sounds out of place in your work, which weaves together motives and outcomes, women’s issues frequently come into play. In particular, female characters look for and achieve independence. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Does your fiction advocate a social position?

Patricia Henley: Yes, I am a feminist. I’m not an academic feminist, but an over-the-back-fence feminist. I have lived my life breaking free over and over again of our culture’s expectations of me as a woman. As for the fiction, I will let readers decide whether I am advocating a social position.

Construction: How do you view humor in your work?

[pullquote_left]I can poke fun at those old hippies because I was one in the 1970s.[/pullquote_left]

Patricia Henley: I have only recently discovered that the voice in my head has a sense of humor. I gave a reading at Florida State University last winter and the audience laughed in all the right places when I read the story “Kaput.” This delighted me. I can poke fun at those old hippies because I was one in the 1970s. I understand the paradox and self-deception involved in certain anarchistic attitudes, and how hard it is to truly escape your upbringing. I am poking fun at myself.

Construction: Music, the names of popular songs, lyrics from songs, and sounds of the natural world that approach music are prominent in your fiction, almost as if you are providing a soundtrack. The popular songs set a mood and pin down a moment in history, but they seem to have a deeper purpose. Is that true?

Henley: Our musical tastes and obsessions define character. In In the River Sweet, when Johnny Bond keeps going back to Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You,” it says something about him, his sentimental (in the best sense of that word), loving attitude toward his wife. When I was writing his sections of the narrative, I listened to that song over and over, to get me in the mood to be Johnny.

Construction: The Catholic Church, prayer and spirituality of all kinds loom large in your work. You describe yourself now as a lapsed Catholic. Yet one of the most memorable characters in Hummingbird House is a priest, Dixie Ryan. His sister Jude is a nun, and nuns are prominent in In the River Sweet and in the stories. The villain Father Carroll is also a priest. Is religion for you and your characters more personal than institutional?

Patricia Henley: Some of my characters are nuns and priests because I was hanging out with nuns and priests for about ten years in the 1990s. When I was a girl, going to Catholic school, I did not have the ability to go beneath the surface to the personalities of the nuns and priests I knew. As an adult, I did get to know them. I didn’t put them on pedestals or expect them to be any more pure-hearted than I was. I enjoyed giving voice to them. What is true for me might not be true for my characters.

[pullquote_right]Catholicism in all its guises, nuns, priests, a Catholic girlhood—these are all right there in my beggar’s bowl.[/pullquote_right]

About how it advances a story, I write about submerged populations and groups I am acquainted with, as Frank O’Connor suggested we ought to. One of my colleagues says of writers, “You take what’s in your beggar’s bowl.” Catholicism in all its guises, nuns, priests, a Catholic girlhood—these are all right there in my beggar’s bowl and I am grateful for them.

Construction: Does your fiction have a moral purpose?

Patricia Henley: If my fiction has a moral purpose, it’s to demonstrate what the Kripalu yoga teacher Stephen Cope calls the Reality Project, examining what is. I hope that’s what I’m doing.

Construction: You give a remarkable description of the experience of meditation in In the River Sweet. The heroine Ruth Anne visits a monastery in Michigan, where she practices silent meditation and stays for several weeks. She flirts with the idea of becoming a nun, has her hair chopped off, reflects on a youthful affair in Saigon, where she was exposed to Buddhism, and reconsiders her marriage to Johnny. What is the importance of the religious retreat in your books? Does it derive from personal experience?

Patricia Henley: Over the years, I’ve done plenty of reading in eastern religions and mysticism, and I’ve been active in groups for meditation. In 1996, I was invited to write an essay on religion in Indiana. That led me to visit Our Lady of Grace monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana. Sister Meg walked me down a hallway where color photos of the Dalai Lama hung. The photos had been taken at a gathering at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the home of the American mystic Thomas Merton. Monks and nuns from both traditions, Buddhist and Catholic, had gathered there to meditate together. I found these photos deeply moving, a kind of breakdown of false boundaries, and I went for a ten-day silent retreat. Thus began my journey into centering prayer, the Christian meditative practice.

Six years ago, I met a Tibetan monk in Mexico. I told him that I struggled to maintain a meditation practice. He said to stop worrying.  Writing is my practice. As for religion, I’ve tried different practices, and now I just live my life. As best I can, I practice loving kindness and nonattachment.

Construction: You use a wide range of settings—Guatemala, Saigon, California, southern France, New Mexico, and Indiana, which was your childhood home and home again since 1987. The Wabash River and rural Indiana are vividly depicted. The first two places required extensive travel and research, resulting in the two novels. How do you choose where to locate your stories?

[pullquote_left]I feel I am a conservationist when I write a particular place, its weather, its flora and fauna, its geography, into a story.[/pullquote_left]

Patricia Henley: With the novels, the plots and characters are intrinsically bound up with the places, primarily Guatemala and Vietnam. With the stories, I write about places I have an affinity for, places I have traveled and love for one reason or another. Or places I have lived for so long that I know them well enough to write about them, such as Indiana. I wrote an essay about the city of Lafayette for Smithsonian magazine, the February 2010 issue.

When I traveled to Guatemala in 1989, I had no idea what the result would be. I met a British doctor there who told me the true story of an American priest killed in the civil war. The characters came from the place, Guatemala during the civil war: Kate Banner, the midwife protagonist, her comrade Vidaluz, and Sunny and Ben, the American activists.

When I started In the River Sweet, I wanted to set it somewhere other than the Midwest, because I resisted being labeled a Midwestern writer. In the end, it seemed the story belonged here. I saw Ruth Anne growing up on Lake Michigan in Michigan. I am fond of “the big lake” as the locals call it, and I wanted to honor all that I love about it by depicting it in fiction.

Construction: Hummingbird House evokes the danger and arbitrary violence of Central America in the 1980s. Characters are murdered and tortured, and the heroine is abducted, apparently by mistake, in a frightening passage. You also describe the Tet Offensive of 1968 in Saigon from a street-level point of view. Did you ever feel threatened as you traveled?

Patricia Henley: For the events set in Vietnam, I read memoirs written by Vietnamese who lived through them and interviewed informants during a trip to Ho Chi Minh City in 2000. I never felt threatened in Mexico or Central America, although abductions were common. I did feel nervous. You can’t help but feel a little nervous when you have a secret mission—gathering material for a novel—and there are men with machine guns everywhere you go. Once, I was taking pictures in the highlands of Guatemala when a military officer told me to stop. Once, I heard gunfire at night in the highlands. That was the extent of it.

Construction: What is the role of place in your fiction?

Henley: In some small way I feel I am a conservationist when I write a particular place, its weather, its flora and fauna, its geography, into a story or novel. The role of place is to anchor the reader in particularities. I think it was Barry Lopez who wrote that “landscape shapes mindscape.” So character, too, is shaped by place. When Johnny and Ruth Anne have their picnic in the field of rye in River County, among the round barns built by the Shakers, this experience establishes something about who they are.

Construction: A girl coming of age, a young woman maturing, a first sexual encounter, and the end of a love affair—these are frequent themes in your work. Now in your sixties, has your sense of the possibilities and limits in a woman’s life changed? In the River Sweet explores themes of reunion with a lost child, the power of family secrets, and a marriage in middle age. Will your fiction move into another area of a woman’s emotional life?

Patricia Henley: Contrary to what people assume, many women in their sixties are still interested in love, love affairs, and sex. I am writing about this in the new book titled South Duffy Chronicles: A Year in the Life of a 21st Century Crone. It’s an experiment in nonfiction, a memoir, a daily journal of the year 2012.

 It deals with some of these concerns, but it transcends them, too.  As I grow into cronehood, my passions are enlarged, not diminished. My passions are dogs, travel, friendships, family, and my home, as well as the possibility of new love. Rilke tells us to “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”

South Duffy asks three questions. What will it mean to retire from teaching? Do I want another geographic adventure—do I want to move? And do I want romance in my life again?