Ellen Meeropol is the author of two previous novels, House Arrest and On Hurricane Island. Her new novel, Kinship of Clover, puts a human face on some big topics, like the environment and mental illness.
Ellen recently answered questions for Rose City Reader:
How did you come to write Kinship of Clover?
I wrote this novel because two of the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. Jeremy and Zoe, who were children in my first novel, House Arrest, kept whispering to me, “Don’t you want to know what happened to us?” Of course, I did want to know. In House Arrest, Jeremy was nine and Zoe was five; their families were intertwined in complicated ways. I’m fascinated by the way children are affected by the big events in their families and the world. Imagining the Jeremy and Zoe eleven years after the end of the first novel, as they grow into adulthood, gave me the opportunity to further explore how individuals are inspired to change things in the world, things they simply can’t accept.
What is your background? How did it lead you to writing novels?
I worked as a registered nurse and then a pediatric nurse practitioner for almost 30 years. Throughout my life, I’ve been a voracious reader, primarily of literary fiction. I always wanted to write, and always dabbled a bit, but never took that desire seriously until the year 2000. As I arranged a two-month min-sabbatical so that my husband could write a nonfiction book, I saw my opportunity. On an island off the coast of Maine, I started writing stories. Those two months changed my life. Three years later I started a low-residency MFA program, five years later I left my day job, and eleven years later my first novel was published.
You use unforgettable imagery in your story, including vines burrowing into nine-year-old Jeremy’s skin and plants whispering in his ear. What are some of the themes these images are meant to invoke?Did you know how Kinship of Clover would end?
I’m not a very cerebral writer. I don’t use an outline and rarely know where a story is going when I begin. I follow the Kurt Vonnegut school of writing fiction; he said that, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” So no, I had no idea of how Kinship of Clover would end. Honestly, I wasn’t sure for a long time whether the imagery of the vines burrowing under Jeremy’s skin made sense. But by the time the first draft was completed, I understood that breaching the barrier between plants and humans, like bridging the gaps between the generations and the races and disabled/able-bodied people, is a big part of what this novel is about.
What did you learn from writing Kinship of Clover – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
Two things surprised me writing this novel. First of all, early in the writing, elements of magical realism snuck in – primarily those burrowing vines you mentioned. While I’ve loved reading novels in which elements of fantasy show up in a primarily realistic setting, I never planned to write that way. But one thing I’ve learned is to simply trust the process. So I wrote, not knowing if the vines were “real” or not, but hoping that by the end of the writing and revision process, I would understand why it happens. The second surprise was the use of omniscient point of view. I had been interested in trying that, but was intimidated. The surprising part was that I loved being able to both delve deep into several characters’ perspectives and to step way back, and look at the big picture from time to time. Again, it meant trusting that the process – just writing the manuscript and not worrying too much about the final product – would get me someplace new and worth going.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the books you read?
I read a lot of contemporary fiction, and am always finding new favorite authors, like Yaa Gyasi and Mohsin Hamid recently. Some of my long-time beloved authors are Rosellen Brown and Andrea Barrett and Ann Pancake and Paule Marshall and Octavia Butler. And yes, these writers have definitely influenced me. I love how each of them write fiction that balances on the tightrope between big issues and authentic characters. I love how their books are both provocative and tender, never letting the big issues addressed in the book overpower their characters and the story. Ann Pancake taught me never to rant. Andrea Barrett modeled creating a universe of characters who populate novels and stories over the years, like old friends who you never forget.
What are you reading now?
I work part-time at an independent bookstore where one of my jobs is to read fiction four or five months before publication, to help select titles for the bookstore’s First Edition Club. Right now I’m reading Elizabeth Strout’s new linked story collection, Anything is Possible and I recently finished Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. All three are amazing reads.
What do you do to promote your books? Do you use social networking sites or other internet resources? Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
I love doing events – readings in bookstores and libraries – and book groups, as well as my Facebook page, twitter, and my website. Lots of events are being planned. Check them out on my website events page.
I’m close to finished with my fourth novel, tentatively titled Her Sister’s Tattoo. This was actually the first novel manuscript I wrote but it was too complicated, encompassing 50 years in the lives of two sisters, activists who were estranged over a major political disagreement. So I put it away, started an MFA program, and wrote three other novels. After each book, I’d revisit the sisters and do another draft or four, but still couldn’t get it right. Finally, after about 17 years, I think it’s close to ready and I’m very excited to bring Esther and Rosa into the world.
KINSHIP OF CLOVER IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER TO ORDER IT!