This Must Be the Place: An Interview with Katherine Hill
Katherine Hill is an accomplished writer, Barrelhouse Assistant Editor, AWP bookfair arm wrestler, and former collegiate a capella sing-off champion. We’re not sure sure about that last part, to be honest, because we heard it after a bunch of drinks, and there were differing opinions about exactly how rocking Katherine’s sing-off career had been. What we do know is her debut novel, THE VIOLET HOUR, is a tour de force that was called “a gripping debut” by People magazine and “A rewarding family saga reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s novels circa Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” by the Washington Post. On Saturday, Katherine will be participating in a panel at Conversations and Connections Philly called “This Must Be the Place: Establishing a Sense of Place in Your Writing.” Jennifer Acker will be leading the panel, and Andrew Ervin and Elliott Holt are participating as well. We sat down around the virtual table to talk with Katherine about place in fiction, her debut novel, sing-offs, boxed wine, and of course Patrick Swayze.
|You probably thought we were joking about the arm wrestling thing, right? We were not.|
Barrelhouse: Tell us a little about what this panel. We know you’ll be looking at place specifically. I love the idea of being transported. Without giving too much away, what kind of techniques will you be talking about on the 28th?
Katherine Hill: Place is one of those foundational elements of fiction that we learn about from a very young age and that we instinctively use to describe stories to others. It’s the setting, the “where,” the shape and structure of a story’s world. And yet, it can be so elusive. It’s possible to overwrite a place, including every single sight, sound, and smell we can think of, in an effort to pin it all down. And it’s possible to underwrite it, leaving the reader feeling a bit lost. This panel is a conversation among four fiction writers about the challenges of shaping a place on the page. We’ll each talk about a place in our current writing, and about the issues that have arisen in the process, including the relationship to character, plot, and time; the role of perception and perspective; and what counts as a place in the first, um, place.
Personally, I’m excited to pick the brains of my fellow panelists, Jennifer Acker, Andrew Ervin, and Elliott Holt. They are all so smart about this stuff.
BHOUSE: You actually gave me my next transition — tell us a little about your current novel, The Violet Hour (which will be available for purchase at the conference), and the role that place plays in the book. When you were writing it, did you consciously think of place as an important element in the story you were trying to tell and the way you were hoping to tell it?
KH: It was very conscious. The Violet Hour in set in several well-known, recognizable places, chiefly the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, and Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. It was important to me to render these places as physical locations with houses and roads and weather, but it was just as important to capture their myths: the forces they exert on the characters and story and the cultural ideals and dilemmas they embody. In fact, I’m so into cultural perceptions of place that a fourth American city, New Orleans, appears throughout the novel, but only via the news. I had fun with some other, more specific places, too: a sailboat, a DC Metro car, and the funeral home that is at the center of the action in Bethesda. It’s a physical space, the site of some rather unpleasant physical procedures we get to witness, but it’s also deeply metaphorical, a natural place for exploring questions of ambition, desire, love, and loss.
BHOUSE: What writers do you think do place really well? Any short stories or novels that come to mind as particularly good examples?
KH: There are so many! Jim Shepard goes deep, researching each far-flung short story with a historian’s attention to detail. Edward P. Jones seems to know every corner of Southeast Washington. Lorrie Moore is fantastic at the Midwest, which is instructive, because she moved there as an adult. Her Wisconsin in A Gate at the Stairs is not the Wisconsin of a person who was born and raised there but left, or born and raised there and stayed, or even necessarily the Wisconsin of another outsider — yet it is, in every way, Wisconsin. It’s a reminder of the great flexibility of place, and the infinite vantages we can take on it, that David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith — two writers who aren’t even radically different in style and tone — can write end-of-the-century novels of greater Boston that look and sound almost nothing alike.
BHOUSE: Let’s talk about me for a while. Just joking, but I was just working through a manuscript for my weird commercial fiction project and I was struck at how much of those stories took place in a kind of American anti-place. They’re in malls or mcmansions in nameless suburbs. We actually had to change all the references to Chili’s, because fully one quarter of the stories had something happening in/around a Chili’s (I really have no idea why). Do you think, as a good deal of our suburban landscape starts to look the same, the place is more or less important as a possible element? Is that anti-place a place in itself? Am I obsessed with Chili’s even though I never, ever eat there? Help, Katherine.
KH: Well, my fellow panelist Jennifer Acker, founding editor of The Common, would say that place is more important now than ever. Contemporary mass culture and technology may have annihilated space and certain distinctions, but place — however general or particular — will never stop informing our writing. Anti-place is totally a place. And Chili’s is every bit as rich a canvas as an Afghan village or a Hollywood set. Come on, Dave, remember Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster? That was a novel set entirely in a Red Lobster that was closing for good at the end of the day. And it was brilliant! We can’t all write war stories or travel porn. Nor should we. We should write what fascinates us. And if Chili’s fascinates you, you’re obviously in excellent shape. Especially if you order off the Lighter Choices menu. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)
BHOUSE: This interview series is called Dave Interviews People Who Are Way Smarter Than Him. Now I’m going to bring it down to the normal level of Barrelhouse discourse.
As we all know, the movie Pitch Perfect was based on your college career in cutthroat a capella sing-offs. What was your go-to a capella song?
KH: My primary solo was “Sweet Dreams” as sung by The Eurythmics, which my cleverly named group Out of the Blue performed in a style that suggested sadomasochism, with lots of percussive whipping sounds and wailing. Strangely, I don’t remember anything else about that time in my life at all.
BHOUSE: God it’s so great that you actually have an answer to that question.
We’ll be enjoying some boxed wine on Saturday, courtesy of our friends at Submittable. What’s your favorite kind of boxed wine, and why?
KH: I am a cheapskate, so I basically only drink boxed white wine. My favorite is La Petite Frog. Its label features a visibly intoxicated, beret-wearing frog surfing a darkened planet on a baguette. It is also, according to my sophisticated parents, “quite good.” Bota Box is a close second.
BHOUSE: What is your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
KH: Road House. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy that film is too stupid to have a good time.
Editor’s note: Two things about Katherine’s choice:
1. It is, in fact, the correct choice, in the opinion of this particular editor. One of the correct choices, at the very least, and with all due respect to Point Break and Red Dawn.
2. The title of this movie almost always requires copy editing: an easy matter of converting “Roadhouse” to “Road House.” I just want to note that Katherine Hill not only selected what is at the very least one of the most correct answers, but she also spelled it correctly. Rock on, Katherine Hill. You are much better than the rest of us.