On Community, Cults, and “Harmony” with Carolyn Parkhurst
About a month ago, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting New York Times bestselling author Carolyn Parkhurst for coffee. In the span of only half an hour, we talked about everything from accountability in the writing life to rejection to cults, and finally to perspective, tone, and ambiguity in Parkhurst’s latest novel, Harmony.
EM: I first want to talk about your version of the writing life. What does that mean to you?
CP: Well, here’s what my current schedule is. I have two kids. One is almost eleven and one is fourteen, so my writing life kind of revolves around their school schedules. My husband has some flexibility in his job, but if there’s a snow day, or if someone’s sick, it’s more likely that I have the flexibility to stay home with them. But when I write, I go to Writers Room DC. It’s a shared writing space. You pay a little bit of money every month and you can go whenever you want, twenty-four hours a day, and sit down in a cubicle in a quiet space. And I think the best thing about that has been meeting other writers.
That’s something I loved about being an AU student—being around other writers, talking to people who are involved in the same kinds of pursuits you are—and that’s something you lose. It can be very isolating to sit there in your own head all the time. To me, that’s what the writing life is: doing your own work and also making contact with other writers. And there’s a really vibrant writing community in DC. I think people outside of DC think it’s all politics and government. There’s actually a lot of creative work going on in the city.
I think the most important extra things for a writer, besides carving out time to write—that’s obviously the biggest one—is setting deadlines and getting feedback. Those are the things that help you to get your work to the next stage. If you’re trying to write on your own without setting deadlines, everything else ends up taking precedence.
EM: Right. I am definitely guilty of that.
CP: And without feedback, you get lost in your own head and you lose all sight of what you’re trying to do, what’s good and what’s not. So having friends who you trust to read your work and give you comments. The most important structure that I’ve built up around myself in regard to writing is having a community who I can turn to.
EM: So, do you give yourself deadlines?
CP: I try, but I’m not good at it. I’m too smart for myself. I’m like, well, that’s not a real deadline. For a long time I was in a writer’s group that met once a month. It was actually really good because you knew that every other month you had to submit something, and it had to go out in the mail or through email on such-and-such date. Having anyone else expecting to see your work was really useful.
Nowadays, with my last few books, I’ve had publishers expecting to see things on certain days. But, if I don’t have that, I try to set up artificial things, like with my agent or with friends. Like, I’ll promise to email something on Friday, whether they read it or not. Or, I’ll promise a word count. It’s helpful because I don’t have great work habits, and I’ve gotten myself into trouble in the past by procrastinating. I think that there’s a role that that can play in writing. You can’t always be expected to sit down and write several thousand words every day. Sometimes you need to fill the well. I find it helpful to have external accountability.
EM: I agree with you. I think accountability is so important to find. The writing community I am building is full of people I am also friends with, which creates an interesting dynamic sometimes. Usually, though, it’s good. Two of my friends and I have a text chain that we keep going where, if we’ve sent an essay or a short story out and it gets rejected, we send “Ding, ding, ding!” And the two of them are working really hard, submitting all the time, and are sending “Ding, ding, ding!” all the time. Which is amazing. Then I’m over here, not submitting much, so they’re able to see that and say, “Hey, what’s up. I know you’re writing. Try submitting.” And, because we are sharing these disappointments together, I feel all the more empowered, by seeing them bust their asses, to submit my own work. So we’ve built this space where it’s okay—even celebrated—to not hit our goals every time. A community where it’s about trying, and working hard.
CP: Right, it’s important to understand that rejection is a big part of the game. To get published. You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re not out there sending your work out. It’s really important.
EM: So, as far as generating your work goes, tell me about where you get your ideas.
CP: Usually it’s a couple of ideas coming together in a sort of juxtaposition that intrigues me. For my most recent book, Harmony, the first piece I wrote is the piece that ended up being the epilogue. It’s about a child born with wings, and it’s sort of an extended metaphor. I wrote that not necessarily thinking it would end up being part of a book, but trying to write about my son, who is on the autism spectrum, trying to make sense of him and the particular challenges and the particular rewards of raising him. He’s very creative and smart and things that are all pluses, but there are a lot of ways in which he has trouble with daily life that a lot of kids don’t. So I was thinking about the wing metaphor because it’s something that, on the surface, sounds great, but how are you going to find baby clothes for your baby with wings?
So there was that, and I was also thinking about cults. The camp in the book is a gray area—it may or may not be a cult—but I was thinking what makes an intelligent, educated person follow someone else. Decide to give up their independence and individuality to follow a charismatic leader. It’s something that you see happen. It does happen. So it was the coming together of those two things, what it came down to was desperation and isolation. I started thinking about the mother in the book, Alexandra, who has a child with autism, and she’s just really struggling to figure out what this child needs, and she comes to a point where she would respond to anyone who said I could help you.
EM: I read Harmony this summer, and I was very compelled by the different ways in which you chose to explore point of view, and also the choices you made as far as who shows what. So, it makes sense, right, narratively, that the mother is the one who holds and presents the past, who shows the backstory. But, after reading, I was surprised that Iris turned out to be the keeper of the present. Can you talk about that decision?
CP: You know, the parts I felt closest to, in a way, are the mother’s parts because a lot of it is personal. I’ve written three previous novels and they all have personal elements, but this is the most based on my real life. The way I wrote about the mother—and it happened organically—was in the second person. The reason for that was kind of that I wanted the reader to be right inside her head, feeling exactly what she’s feeling in the moment. But also it kind of mimics the internal voice that we all have, that is very self-critical.
Another perspective I was interested in was the sibling, the quote-unquote normal sibling, of a child with special needs. I have one kid who has special needs and on who does not, and I think a lot about that. What does it mean for her life that she has this sibling that, for better or for worse, gets a lot of attention, both positive and negative. And the reason I wanted her to tell the present of the story, the unfolding of the events as they happen, is because I guess I’m interested in the way that children see things differently from adults. She is eleven years old, so I wanted there to be things that the reader picks up on that she doesn’t necessarily. And details that she does see that her parents might not.
Also, for kids, everything is very matter-of-fact. You don’t question. This is just your reality. We now live in this camp in the woods. And she sort of resents it, but she has no control over it. This is just what her parents have decided. So everything that she sees unfolding is described in a matter-of-fact kind of way, and things that might seem creepy to adults about this charismatic leader Scott Bean are filtered through her. So I think it throws the reader off balance a little bit; she doesn’t seem to think anything is strange, but it seems off to me. So I thought using Iris as the narrator would be an interesting way to filter these off-kilter elements of this life at the camp.
EM: I am so glad that was your intention, because in my reading experience there were many times when I had to stop and check myself. Like, I was constantly asking myself whether I was projecting onto Iris. But then, I guess, that’s sort of a question for any sort of cultish behavior. I mean, “cult” is such a loaded term, and I appreciate that you’re freely living in the space of ambiguity where this could be and this couldn’t be and, regardless, the cult isn’t the point. The point is this vulnerability of the family.
CP: Right. Another thing I wanted to not be black and white was that this camp they go to, and the leader they’re following, is not all bad. It’s a camp for families with special needs kids, and the kids are starting to improve in some ways. A lot of the things that Scott says make sense. It had to be believable that these parents are desperate and vulnerable, but they also wouldn’t follow just anyone. He still had to be saying things that a lot of parents think. Like, maybe if our kids weren’t on devices all the time…Or, maybe if we grew our own food and there were fewer pesticides or artificial colors…So that’s something that I was playing with when I was playing with with the character of Scott.
When I started researching cults, something that struck me is that not all cults are bad. So, Alcoholics Anonymous is considered a cult, but it’s a voluntary cult. It’s not brainwashing, it’s making the decision to live according to this set of rules, and be accountable to this group. So there are certain cult checkmarks that AA checks off, but it’s not destructive at all. That helped me think about what does a cult mean. We all have our groups that we affiliate ourselves with, to varying degrees.
EM: Well, when you describe it that way, one might say having a writing life and participating in a writing community is a sort of cult.
CP: You know, you might be right.
Carolyn Parkhurst holds an MFA in fiction from American University. She is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels, The Dogs of Babel, Lost and Found and The Nobodies Album, as well as a children’s book, Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly. She lives in Washington, D. C., with her husband and their two children.
Emily Moses is the editor in chief of Café Américain and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.