author of Whisper Hollow
Other Press: The differences in the relationships that Myrthen, Alta, and Lidia have with the men in their lives is striking, but what remains central in Whisper Hollow is how these three women relate to each other, and how their lives intersect and comment on one another. What was it that drew you to these characters and made you want to write about them?
Chris Cander: Each of these women is burdened and informed by her secrets: Myrthen, because of something she did; Alta, because of something she desired; and Lidia, because of something that happened. Those secrets dictate the courses of their lives, which intertwine at various points, affording them the opportunity to help or hurt one another, which each of them does, according to her own needs. What drew me to these characters was their varying tolerance for truth, and the lengths they would go to hide their private shames. By writing about them, I was able to examine those unexposed parts of myself.
OP: In your novel, Myrthen Bergmann, who so craves salvation, is unable to find it in the solitary religious life she devotes herself to. Rather, it’s Alta who is able to find a kind of salvation in Lidia and Gabriel. Why did you choose to explore the limits of what religion can offer through an illustration of the fecundity of human interaction?
CC: Religion has played an important role in the shaping of American minds, especially in small communities. It brings people together, but by its nature, is also restrictive. I wanted to explore the ways that these characters would respond to their social and moral confines as they tried to keep their secrets hidden and still satisfy their deepest longings. In the case of Myrthen, she cleaves to the Church in order to hide from her own truth and tries to impute her actions to God in order to justify them. As a consequence of her mortal sins and her abuse of free will, she eventually succumbs to the wretchedness inside her. Alta and Lidia, on the other hand, are somewhat alienated from the Church, but find sanctity and grace in the love they have for each other and for Gabriel.
OP: Whisper Hollow is almost as much the story of Myrthen, Alta, and Lidia as it is the story of Verra, the town in which the three women live. It’s fascinating to witness how the town shapes its residents and how the residents shape their town. Did you do a lot of research to so accurately depict Verra, or is it based on a place you already know? Was it important for you to locate the story in such a specific setting?
CC: The setting is a fiction inspired by the towns in the southern counties of West Virginia. My mother’s side of the family is in the northern part of the state, and I visited there often when I was growing up. It is haunting with its natural beauty that almost balances the proletarian poverty suffered by too many of its citizens. The stories my mother used to tell me about her home state had a wholesome quality, an honesty exemplified by a hard-working middle class trying to do right by their families. So I made up a town and called it “Verra,” which shares roots with the Latin verus, meaning “true.”
Adjacent to the town, literally across the tracks, is Whisper Hollow. Readers familiar with Appalachian dialect will know that Hollow is pronounced “holler,” and so the name speaks to that dichotomous place within us where we keep the things we are willing to speak aloud, as well as the things that we are not. In the novel, the Hollow side is where the coal is mined, where Alta and John shared a cabin as secret lovers, and where Myrthen spends her dark days inside St. Michael’s. I think of the place not just as the novel’s setting, but as a metaphor for the map of the human soul.
OP: There’s been a lot of discussion about “likable characters,” especially likable women characters, in fiction lately. Do you see Myrthen as an “unlikable” character? Was it difficult to write about such a woman without making her a villain?
CC: It seems a dangerous and silly endeavor to polarize characters, whether male or female, toward the extremes of likability and unlikability in fiction. Doing so can limit their full expression and restrict them to mere caricatures. Truly interesting characters intersect the page in the more complicated and nuanced center of the likability spectrum. I agree with Claire Messud’s assertion that when evaluating characters, “the relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’” Myrthen is probably not someone readers would like to have as a regular dinner guest, but I hope they will be compelled by her complexity, and from the safe distance that fiction provides, can voyeuristically experience the darker forces within her—and possibly, within all of us.
OP: The novel covers more than six decades. Did you have any writing tricks or quirks to help you wrangle all that time?
From a storytelling perspective, I had to consider which moments comprising those sixty years were essential to the story. So in each chapter, I tried to re-enter the characters’ lives at those points when they encountered some interesting trouble that would inexorably dictate the course of events: when they either braced against or yielded to forces beyond their control, when they made choices with cataclysmic consequences, when they buried their shame and secrets, or when they followed their desires. Also, there’s a kind of stillness to the setting that I wanted to offset by chunking the passage of time into intervals of several years and chapters with alternating points of view. For example, the story opens with the triggering situation of Myrthen and her twin engaged in a fatal quarrel a few days before their sixth birthday; then introduces Alta eight years later, when she is twelve years old, on the cusp of longing, and about to meet the aunt who would symbolize the glamorous life she would never lead; and next John, two years after, as he embraces and then jettisons the dream of doing something other than mining coal; and so on.
From a mechanical perspective, I kept track of everything with meticulous timelines and lists. If I changed a date, for example, I would go back and make sure that everything affected by it was also changed: the characters’ ages, the phase of the moon, the temperature, the day of the week.
OP: Alta and John are both artists, and their work serves as a way for them to exist beyond the confines of their lives in Verra. What role does art play in your own life?
My devotion to writing is modeled on my parents’ creative expression. My father was an airline pilot whose photography hobby became his second career, and my mother taught high school English and business administration, and also sewed and played piano. They had careers and family and social lives, but they also encouraged often-solitary artistic pursuits. For me, it was creative writing, in which I found solace and refuge even before I hit double digits. I consider myself exceedingly fortunate that I am able to write as much as I do, but my main job right now is taking care of my young children. That, too, is a privilege, but it comes with its own set of constraints. Like Alta, I’m able to travel beyond my own boundaries through my art, and when I return (mentally) to hearth and home, I feel satisfied and enriched in ways I otherwise wouldn’t.