Hannah Gersen is the author of Home Field and a staff writer for The Millions. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Granta online, and The Southern Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
This is a deeply felt novel that both moved and entertained me, and I didn’t want to stop reading it. An auspicious debut by a talented and wise writer.
[An] elegant first novel...Gersen’s writing walks a lyrical tightrope...[and] uncovers the unflinching truths in families that wound us and somehow, miraculously, save us.
This is Friday Night Lights on the mid-Atlantic but one degree deeper...A tender, touching, unfogettable read...You won’t put this book down until everyone in Home Field has made it safely home.
The first I read of Hannah Gersen’s writing was her non-fiction for The Millions, an online books and culture magazine where Gersen is a staff writer. Her elegant prose and unique critical insights made me a fan instantly. I was also drawn to Gersen’s work because, well, her sensibility was so similar to mine. She seemed to have a special appreciation for fiction that takes its characters seriously, no matter how small or ordinary their lives may be—Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Stephanie Vaughn. I wasn’t surprised, then, to discover that Gersen’s short fiction is marked by a deep sincerity that reminded me of those writers. Several of her short stories—which appear in publications like Granta, The Carolina Review, and The Chattahoochee Review—are linked, focusing on a family in small-town Maryland. In one story, nineteen-year-old Louisa, home from college for the summer, plots to sneak off and visit her boyfriend in Martha’s Vineyard. In another, told from the point of view of Louisa’s adolescent sister, Annabel, the family visits the girls’ grandparents in North Carolina, and while tension builds between Louisa and her mother, Annabel wonders where she fits into her family, and what kind of independent identity she can claim. These are deeply felt stories that astonished me with their ability to capture the indelibility of certain life moments. And there was a cleverness about them: how was Gersen able to make everyday small-town life seem so high-stakes? And what made these seemingly quiet stories resonate so powerfully?
But if Gersen’s stories are quiet, Home Field (William Morrow 2016), her debut novel due out on July 26th, begins loudly, with the unexpected death of Nicole Renner, wife to high school football coach Dean and mother to soon-to-be Swarthmore freshman Stephanie. We spend much of the novel watching Dean and Stephanie try to regain control over their lives in the wake of loss: Dean struggles to handle the demands of his job and battles loneliness while trying to help his increasingly aloof son, eleven-year-old Robbie; Stephanie, meanwhile, tries to adjust to college while balancing her new independent life with family obligations. Gersen writes Dean’s and Stephanie’s perspectives equally convincingly, letting us experience their complex, messy inner lives as they find their way in a suddenly very different-seeming world.
Gersen and I spent a few weeks e-mailing back and forth. We talked about Home Field, her short stories, writing small-town life, and the relationship between her fiction and non-fiction.
Steven Williams: Did you have specific goals for Home Field when you began working on it, e.g., certain subjects or ideas you knew you wanted to wrestle with?
Hannah Gersen: I wanted to tell a story about small town life, and a family coming together after tragedy, though I guess those are somewhat vague goals. The most specific goal I had was to show girls playing sports and to have it be a part of their emerging identities rather than a point of conflict. That's not a very literary goal or especially dramatic, but thinking back on books I've read and TV shows and movies I've watched, I realized how rare it is for female characters to participate in sports in a casual way, as part of their daily lives, whereas it's fairly common for male characters. So I just wanted to show that aspect of girls' lives.
SW: Can you talk about your decision to have the novel's point of view alternate (for most of the novel, anyway) between Dean and Stephanie? Specifically, I’m interested in your decision to switch between their perspectives within chapters, rather than alternating chapters or dividing the book into sections. Something about that narrative style made me feel like I was watching a TV show. Was that effect intentional?
HG: Originally the novel was going to be from Dean's perspective, but after a few chapters, I felt it was unfair to Stephanie because when I was in Dean's point of view, I could only show her sullen teenage actions and couldn't give a sense of how she was really feeling. Once I brought in Stephanie's voice, I realized that she had knowledge of the family, and of the community, that Dean didn't have and that could help fill in some of the holes in the story. It was also an easy way to pick up the pace of the novel because I could just jump ahead in time when I was in Stephanie's point of view. Early in the book, I stayed in either Dean or Stephanie's voices for a relatively long periods of time, but I knew that once the reader got to know them I would have more license to switch between them.
This dramatic structure was probably influenced by television, because TV scenes, especially dramas, are often written and shot from the perspective of one particular character. In a show like Mad Men, for example, you'll have a scene with Don Draper, then you'll check in with Joan, and then maybe Peggy and one or two other characters, depending on the plot lines. Time passes as you switch points of view. Only occasionally do you get an ensemble scene with the entire cast that gives a more objective view of the characters and setting. I can't really claim that I borrowed this structure intentionally, but I was watching a lot of TV when I wrote this book! I also like to write in close third person and that's the perspective that a good actor can give you.
SW: Why did you decide to make Dean Stephanie’s stepfather, rather than have them be blood relatives?
HG: That idea was in place from the start, and much of the backstory grew from it. I'm not sure why I made the choice, except that I thought it would be an interesting dynamic to have a father and daughter who, in a way, chose each other.
SW: How did you come to title the novel “Home Field”? Does titling your work come naturally for you or is it a struggle?
HG: Funny you should ask this because I'm in the middle of an essay on this topic. The original title of this book was actually “Count It All Joy”, not “Home Field”, and coming up with a new name was an interesting process. In general I don't have a strong feeling about what my titles should be, so I just try to pick something that arises naturally. “Count It All Joy” comes from the Bible, James 1:2: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds." Once upon a time, there was a scene in church where the minister quotes this verse, but I cut that scene because it wasn't working. I liked the verse, though, and decided it would be a good epigraph. And then I eventually thought it could make a good title, too. My editor liked the title and other people seemed to like it, too, but I noticed that people had difficulty remembering it. Even worse, a lot of people could not get it upon first or second hearing, which was really awkward. My editor noticed the same thing. We decided we had to go back to the drawing board because book titles are often passed by word of mouth.
What followed were several weeks when my editor, my agent, and I were all brainstorming titles. I remember my editor asked me what the working title was because sometimes the working title—i.e. the file name—is great. But my working title was "Sports Novel". (In general, my working titles are incredibly generic.) My editor ended up making a list of football words and “Home Field” was on that list. I was uncertain about it, at first, because it reminded me of baseball and I thought it sounded too much like a movie title. But then it grew on me. I like that it is simple, but has multiple meanings, and I also think it gives the reader a good sense of the setting and themes. One thing I learned from the process is that titling a book is completely different from titling a short story. People don't need to remember short story titles, so they can be pretty fanciful and/or obscure. They can even be a part of the story, or a part of the puzzle of the story. But a book needs a title that is solid and can be attached to something outside of the world of the book. Now I understand why there are so many one word titles!
SW: Before publishing Home Field, your debut novel, you published several short stories, and a lot of these stories are linked, featuring the same characters at different points in their lives, which gives them something of a novel’s feel. I’m wondering if you feel more at home writing in the longer form. Is it your preference spend a lot of time and space with a given character or world, rather than writing stand-alone stories?
HG: Yes, I prefer the form of the novel because you can write a little each day and slowly build a world and create characters in a more detailed way, showing them in different situations and moods. Once I've done the imaginative work of creating a setting and a character, or a family of characters, I want to stick with the material for a while and see where it takes me. That said, some of my most formative reading experiences were short stories. I love fairy tales, the stories of Roald Dahl, and above all, John Cheever's short stories.
SW: I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned this to you before, but the thing that made me want to find your fiction was that essay you wrote for The Millions about Friday Night Lights (a show I’m a huge fan of) and its influence on your writing. You write about the show:
I always find myself thinking, these people live such big lives in such a small place! But then when I think about what feels “big” about their lives I realize that the plot points […] are quite ordinary. No one on Friday Night Lights has a secret identity. No one is working for the mafia. […] Instead, they’re drinking too much. They’re sleeping around. They’re saying stupid things and trying to make extra money in stupid ways. They’re founding Christian rock bands.
Now, when I read your stories and your novel, I think to myself that one could say the same thing about your work. In your stories, your characters do mostly everyday things, and while I’d have a hard time pointing to what makes it feel like the stakes are so high, the outcome always feels important. I also found that in your novel, though it begins with an extraordinary tragedy, your characters again are doing mostly things like coaching high school track, trying to find their crowd at school, etc. Can you talk about how you’re able to sustain drama through a 400-page novel while writing about everyday small town life?
HG: First, I'm so glad that my essay had that effect! And I'm beyond flattered that you tracked down my short stories, since they aren't especially easy to find.
In my short stories, I am often thinking about memory and identity and trying to home in on moments in characters' lives when something fundamentally changed for them or maybe tilted them in a slightly different direction—but it's not a moment they are necessarily aware of as being important. When I look back on my own life, it's like that: the experiences etched in my memory aren't the big milestones. The Richard Linklater movie, Boyhood, does a really good job of showing that. The plot of that film (and most Linklater films) is quite mellow, but by the end of it you see how the boy's life has been profoundly shaped by relatively simple experiences: his relationship with his parents and sister, obviously, but also exposure to certain ideas, landscapes, cultural events, and the people outside of his family who come in and out of his life.
I think for the characters in Home Field, the stakes are high because of what they've lost. They're in a lot of pain and trying not to fall into despair. Their identities are at stake, especially Dean and Stephanie, because they've defined themselves so much in terms of their relationship to Nicole. Still, when I was writing the book I worried that these concerns were too internal. I did what I could to ground their struggles in specific actions even if those actions seemed laughably minor—like, for example, Stephanie dropping a class. Big deal, she dropped a class! But for her it's a big deal because she's never really given herself a break. That's the beginning of her being able to make some space for herself in the world. Another small moment like that is when Dean gets back from his first cross country meet and decides to go to his office to check his files for track workouts. It's a big gesture because it shows that he's thinking about investing himself in this new team, and a new version of his life. He's found his lifeline even if he's not totally conscious of it.
SW: You’re a writer I associate very strongly with a place—small town Maryland. Did you know right away when you started writing fiction that this was what you wanted to write about, or did it take you time to find your subject matter?
HG: I actually did know right away that I wanted to write about small town Maryland and some of my first short stories took place in that setting. But I was so disappointed with my first efforts that I shied away from the material for a long time. I finally came back to it in my late twenties, after one of the women in my writing group observed that whenever I wrote descriptions of Maryland or Pennsylvania, my writing came to life. Around the same time, I edited a column, Dispatches, for the literary magazine, The Common, which has a particular focus on place. Editing those pieces—which ran the gamut from reported essays to personal essays to poetry—got me thinking about place again, and how to write about it.
SW: You say that editing this particular column helped you think through ideas about place. Does writing non-fiction—such as the reviews, criticism, and personal essays you write as a staff writer for The Millions—also help you explore or work out some of the ideas that you then go on to write about in your fiction?
HG: Yes, though when I'm really deep in a draft and making up a lot of stuff on a daily basis it's a bit hard to switch back to nonfiction mode, where I have to be analytical. But when I get stuck, it helps to do come critical reading and writing. I read almost all of Andrew Solomon's nonfiction while I was writing Home Field, because he writes so well about illness, depression, and parent-child relationships, subjects that all come up in my novel. When Solomon's first (and only) novel, A Stone Boat, was reissued, I used it as a springboard to write about the relationship between his nonfiction and his fiction. I ended up doing a lot more research than I expected for that particular essay but I think it probably helped me think about my book. I was also drawn to some books that deal with trauma and/or mental illness and wrote about them for the site: Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimar McBride, and Loitering, by Charles D'Ambrosio. But The Millions is also a place where I can take a break and write about books that I find interesting for other reasons.
SW: Have you been working on any new fiction? Would you care to describe your current project(s)?
HG: Yes, I'm working on another novel. It's set in contemporary times and follows three women over several years as they navigate issues of friendship, work, love, marriage, money, motherhood, etc. I also have a couple of short stories on the back burner that I'd like to return to one day.
SW: Can you describe Home Field’s path to publication?
HG: Before I wrote Home Field, I put together a collection of short stories—the linked stories you mentioned earlier. Those stories are what led me to my agent, Emma Patterson. We tried to sell those stories and came close at a couple of places. Several editors said they might be interested if there was a novel attached. At that point I was already working on Home Field. I was also feeling really discouraged because it seemed like such a long shot to write a whole book in the hopes of selling a short story collection. When I finished Home Field, we sent it out to a small group of editors, mostly ones who were waiting on the novel or had asked to see more of my work. I got several rejections within a week or two. I was surprised by how quick those responses were, because as you probably know, when you send short stories to magazines, you wait for months for an answer. The early rejections hit me hard and I started to panic. But my agent remained calm and soon we had interest from Margaux Weisman at William Morrow, who really seemed to get the story. She suggested that I add some new scenes, and some of the scenes she suggested were ones I had written but left on the cutting room floor for fear of writing a book that was too long. Margaux was not among the editors who had previously read my stories—and I wonder if that worked in my favor because she didn't come to my novel with any particular expectation—but it felt good to be in Margaux’s hands.
In retrospect, it was actually a pretty quick sale, but during those few weeks of waiting and early rejection, I was unbelievably anxious. It felt like my career was in the balance and I wasn't sure how I would keep going after two book rejections. I've seen writers deal with this at all stages of their careers so I know it's just part of the experience but it's still tough. There is just no way to predict how editors will respond to a book and how you will feel about it.
SW: Can you describe your process and habits as a writer? Do aim for a certain number of words each day?
HG: For writing nonfiction, my process is pretty straightforward because it's dictated by other people's deadlines and expectations. Once I get an assignment, I will schedule time to work on it and sometimes, if I'm procrastinating, force myself to write a certain number of words. (Or I'll procrastinate by working on a different nonfiction project.) I need a certain amount of outside pressure for nonfiction because otherwise I wouldn't do it. Fiction is different. I would do it no matter what and don't really need deadlines—which is not to say I don't drag my feet! I do. But for fiction, deadlines and word counts don't motivate me. Over the years I've found that I just need to make space for writing fiction and the stories will arrive. The first step is turning down nonfiction assignments or at least spacing them properly. The second is turning off the internet! Ideally I turn on Freedom and don't go online until the afternoon, maybe an hour before I have to pick up my son from school. That gives me a chance to check in with email, blogs, news, etc. But when I'm really working hard on a draft, I try to schedule my time so that I go for a day or two without the internet or email. In general, I don't do social media because it's way too addictive for me. Even Instagram is a problem and lately I've been deleting it off my phone until the weekend.
The other thing that helps to make space for writing fiction is reading fiction. Recently, I've been scheduling an hour or two first thing in the morning, or after lunch. It felt decadent when I first started doing it but I've noticed that it calms my mind to an extraordinary degree, almost like meditation or taking a walk. The internet becomes less alluring because I get into a mellower headspace and it's easier for me to shrug my shoulders and not give into temptation.
SW: What have you been reading lately?
HG: If you've been following my Proust Book Club on The Millions, you'll know I've been working my way through In Search of Lost Time. Right now I'm just finishing up volume III, The Guermantes Way. I'm also reading Oliver Sacks's memoir, On The Move. In addition, I've been hoarding books for an upcoming vacation: Barbarian Days by William Finnegan, Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, and Light in August by William Faulkner. I'll probably end up reading at least one title before vacation, because I can never wait, and then when I get to the beach I inevitably read something someone left behind in the beach house.