Novelist Jane Hamilton has lived on an apple farm for decades, so the source material for her latest book surrounds her daily. “The Excellent Lombards,” Hamilton’s seventh novel, is set on a sprawling family apple orchard in Wisconsin.
In her book, out from Grand Central Publishing on Tuesday, Hamilton tells the story of the Lombard family from the point of view of young Mary Frances, or Frankie, as her family calls her. The book is a coming-of-age story in which Hamilton, the author of the acclaimed novels “The Book of Ruth” and “A Map of the World,” explores the fraught territory of succession on a family farm with characteristic grace.
Hamilton, 58, was reached by phone at her farmhouse in Racine County to talk about her latest book and the existential crisis that preceded it.
Q: What inspired “The Excellent Lombards”?
A: I live on a farm in Wisconsin, and I’ve lived here for most of my adult life. It’s a very rich setting. I was writing really badly for many years around 2008 and even before that. I felt so anxiety-stricken by the fact that it seemed to me that publishing was over, and books were over, and reading was over. I felt this desperation to write one more book before it was really all over. I kept handing in things that were rejected by my editor. That was very painful. I felt so over in every way.
Years ago I was in New York and I ran into my agent. She asked me what I was working on, and I told her the plot of whatever I had been thinking about. She stopped me in the street and said, “That is the worst idea ever.”
Then she said, “I don’t know why you don’t write a memoir about that farm you live on, it’s so interesting.” I said, “I have no interest in writing a memoir. I’m never going to write a memoir.” She said, “Why don’t you write a novel about it?” I said, “I have to wait until the relatives are dead.” She said, “You’ll be dead, too.” That made a certain impression upon me.
In fact, for many years, I had been thinking about the issue of succession, in particular in a farm, a family business, and how vexed it is. The questions of who gets to stay, who can’t stay, who stays but doesn’t really want to stay, and how the mechanism happens from generation to generation for that succession. I used my farm as a point of departure to talk about those things that were really uppermost in my mind.
Q: Are there some autobiographical blushes in Frankie?
A: Frankie is pretty much a made-up character. Probably no one reads it anymore, but in “The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers, there’s a character called Frankie, and she’s this really fierce pre-teen. I feel like Frankie has some of the genetic material of Carson McCullers’ Frankie. That sounds pretentious to say, but I was so struck by the fierceness of that girl.
Q: Why set it in the ’90s?
A: One of the great things about setting a book with children in the ’90s is that they don’t have cell phones yet. They have a beautiful freedom. They’re untethered from their parents in a way that we don’t even remember anymore, really. I guess that wasn’t really my reason for doing it, but it was a delightful byproduct. I wanted Frankie to be an adult looking back on this time, so I guess that’s the real answer.
Q: You write about a library cart drill competition. Is that a real thing?
A: Yes. I could not have invented that. You can YouTube it.
Q: So it’s librarians pushing carts in a sort of dance team fashion? Does that happen here in Wisconsin?
A: I don’t know if the Madison Public Library has a cart team but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. There’s an annual competition at the American Library Association convention. For the event at A Room of One’s Own, I wanted to have a cart drill team perform, but there’s not enough space in that place. I’m doing some library events and I’m hoping that can be a feature of it.
Q: That’s a great image of you directing a cart drill team.
A: I did make up the various moves. I’m not sure that they run and hook their feet over the rungs and then glide. I’m not sure that’s an actual move but it could be and it should be.
Q: Do you think Frankie will pop back up in your literature?
A: There are other pieces of the story, certainly. In thinking about this project, I could have written an intergenerational, three-volume epic, but I really didn’t want to do that because the idea of that bored me to tears. I wanted to take a very specific period of time and write a little poem rather than an epic. I wanted to distill all of the farm issues into the body of that girl. I think about her still and her family and other members of the family. I kind of do want to know how it all turns out, ultimately. So, all that to say, maybe.
Q: Now that this book is greeting the world, do you still feel like you’re over?
A: I feel over in a certain way just by virtue of my age. I feel like also there’s a renaissance that’s happening now. The bookstores that have survived are doing really well. I went to the Midwest Booksellers convention a couple of weeks ago, and in 20 years, I have not experienced booksellers as happy as they were this year. They’ve had some good years. That’s not to say it isn’t a struggle and they have to really be on their toes, but they’ve survived. I feel more hopeful than I have. I feel very lucky that I got to do this book. I loved writing it. I loved the people. I feel a little burst that will help me go forward.