Empathy is Essential: An Interview with Hanna Pylvainen
Hanna Pylvainen visited American University on March 20, 2013 as part of the MFA in Creative Writing Program’s, Visiting Writers Series. She hails from suburban Detroit, but currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is working on a follow-up to her debut novel, We Sinners. She’s also the recent recipient of The Whiting Award, an award presented to ten emerging writers annually. Pylvainen spoke with students during a Q & A session hosted by author and faculty member, Stephanie Grant. We Sinners tells the story of the Rovaniemis, a family belonging to a conservative Lutheran sect in modern day Michigan. After the Q & A, Pylvainen chatted with students where she offered writing advice, talked about her revision process, and quite humbly spoke about the trajectory of her career. Later in the evening, she read a new story, “Death Party” about the relationship of an Iranian woman, who was the caretaker to a woman with multiple sclerosis. Pylvainen’s poise is only matched by her ability to command the attention of a room full of people through her storytelling. Cafe Americain staff member, K. Tyler Christensen spoke with Pylvainen about the novel, We Sinners, and might have slipped in a question about a shared TV interest.
CA: You graduated from the MFA program at University of Michigan not very long ago. You’re also the recipient of The Whiting Award, and you’ve also been the recipient of residencies at Yaddo, and The MacDowell Colony – that is a wild career trajectory, and a clear reflection of your level of discipline as a writer. Could you talk a little bit about the timeline? What has this been like for you? What made this possible?
HP: What made it possible to write was the intervention of Helen Zell, whose fellowship gave me a year to throw away my MFA thesis and write the work again. Previous to this I had a tendency to want early drafts to just work on their own, and then felt disappointed when I despised them. That year I worked straight through the revulsion into revisions.
CA: The other night during the Q & A, Stephanie Grant asked you about the way you “see” We Sinners and you said that you had to admit to yourself that you were actually writing a novel. After the admission, how did your writing process change?
HP: Each chapter had to benefit from precisely the chapters before it. This is always true in a novel; this is less true in story collections. This was when I developed an obsession with excel spreadsheets, which would tell me how old each character was during which year, and thus, which chapter –– and it allowed me see how the chapters could build into something larger. So in the end, the glory of the alleged Muse is really a spreadsheet.
CA: You said that when you were writing the novel that you didn’t think you were writing anything that anyone would ever read. Was that something you told yourself to get the writing done, or did you really believe that?
HP: During my time at Michigan, I didn’t submit a single story anywhere. I had never published anything before, and didn’t particularly see why that would change. I never finished a revision of a story and wondered what magazine or journal might want it –– I was writing the book I had wanted to read. Everything else, as they say, was gravy.
CA: I grew up in a pretty large family, there were 7 of us, and we were often crammed into small places, and living on top of one another. You write about the chaos of growing up in a large family very well, for example, in “Pox” there’s a lot of unrest; you have this large family living in this tiny apartment, and out of their van (an oversized vehicle until you put a set of parents and 9 kids inside). Of all things, the family gets the chickenpox. As the first story in the novel, what is being foreshadowed by a story about an entire family getting the chickenpox?
CA: There are many contagious elements to the family life of the Rovaniemis, but specifically, I would point to the moment at the end of the chapter “Pox” when the daughter, Brita, overhears her parents forgiving each other in the ritual blessing of forgiveness. The real “pox” is the guilt and the forgiveness –– that is the epidemic no character can avoid, or entirely be free of, whether they stay or go.
CA: I love that in each of the stories we get to see the Rovaniemi family from a new perspective, like, in “Eyes of Man” Pirjo, the mother, finds out that her son, Simon is gay. There’s a beautiful moment that happens between Simon and Pirjo, when Pirjo catches Simon watching the TV that Pirjo had just, impulsively, purchased. He’s watching a movie about Lewis and Clark. She then catches him at the movies with another boy. You capture the fears of a mother very well in this story. What were the challenges of writing the novel from so many different perspectives? And what were some ways you worked through these challenges?
HP: I did not want anyone to be a caricature –– I wanted the chapters, despite their shifting POVs, to move seamlessly from one to the next — I wanted the characters to all seem different from each other, despite being related — I wanted, most of all, for the varying beliefs of each character to seem individual and authentic. From a craft perspective, it was a rather diabolical set of obstacles. I can’t say I overcame them all.
CA: The novel is quite clearly about the challenges faced by a family who adheres to a very conservative set of beliefs in a world that is brimming with the temptation to break all the rules. When you set out to write the novel, what kinds of stories did you want to tell about the Rovaniemis, or about families in general?
HP: All families can fall apart. For the Rovaniemis, the stakes are higher –– whenever you commandeer heaven or hell as a consequence the stakes are higher. I wanted We Sinners to be about the tension between a family which wishes to stay together but is continually forced to stare down the crevasses between themselves. I think this happens in non-religious families, but the Rovaniemis makes for, I think, an interesting case study, at least.
CA: I walked away from We Sinners with so much affection for this family. There’s clear evidence of your empathy for the Rovaniemis throughout. I guess my “writerly” question for you is: how important is it to have empathy for the characters that you write about?
HP: Unless you are writing parody, empathy is essential. And in the case of writing about religion (too often derided in fiction), it is still more essential. Anything else is easy, peasy irony.
CA: What were some of the challenges in writing about a religious sect that very few people in the United States know anything about?
HP: The risk of info-dumping (via new converts or outsiders or phone conversations) precisely what the terms of the religion are. The risk of losing readers because the religion seems too sensational, or not sensational enough. The risk no one cares, because no one has heard of it, and cannot see any connection between the lives of an obscure sect and their own. That said, I didn’t worry terribly about it. My goal was not to describe the world as an outsider would see it, but as an insider. And an insider never, ever explains her own world to herself.
CA: I hope you’ll indulge me, here. Last question, and an important one, you revealed to me that you watch the groundbreaking (my word), new television series, Girls, on HBO. First, where do you find the time—I mean, I know that for me it’s a priority (insert wink emoticon, here). Lastly, who is your favorite character, and why?
HP: Finding time for distraction is far too easy, especially as television goes. I grew up, like the Rovaniemis, without TV, and now I enjoy TV all too much. In particular, I watch Girls because other people watch Girls and I would like to have an opinion about it. My favorite character is the borough of Brooklyn, because everyone wants to live there, but it is so unforgiving.
K. Tyler Christensen
Photo courtesy of Hanna Pylvainen’s website