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Decatur Book Festival: Jennifer Haigh finds “laboratory for human nature” in small-town life

Jennifer Haigh color (1 of 1)Jennifer Haigh, author of four novels and a collection of short stories, is perhaps best known for her 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers (Harper Perennial). A penetrating portrait of a Pennsylvania coal-mining town, it is also the story of the Novaks, an intelligent, passionate family that wrestles a better life from the few opportunities available to it.

Haigh’s most recent work, News From Heaven: The Bakerton Stories (Harper), returns readers to Bakerton, the fictional setting of Baker Towers, to explore the next steps in the lives of several of its characters. Her gimlet eye for character detail is on full display in this collection. All sorts of characters fill the pages: spinsters, dreamers, widows, children and, of course, miners. Together they make a portrait of small-town life.

Haigh will appear at the Decatur Book Festival on August 31. ArtsATL spoke with her by telephone from her home in Boston. 

ArtsATL: Why did you decide to re-engage with the setting of Baker Towers when you wrote News From Heaven?

Jennilfer Haigh: It was sort of an accident. I finished writing Baker Towers in 2004, and for a long time I thought I was finished with that town, finished with those people. Over the next couple of years, though, a funny thing happened. I found myself wondering what became of those characters, sort of in the way you think about childhood friends or people you’ve lost track of. Initially, I just wrote a story here and a story there. I had never intended to write a whole book of stories about Bakerton. I just sort of backed into it.

Baker Towers was very much about the life cycle of a company town, with the rise and fall of this coal-mining community. But there were a few characters whose stories were only tangentially part of that town, such as Sandy Novak, the brother who disappears at age 18 and isn’t seen for many years. He has a whole trajectory, a whole life, that does not involve Bakerton after he turns 18. And yet Sandy is one of those characters that readers have been asking me about for years. It seems that every time I do a reading somewhere, somebody who is a fan of Baker Towers asks me, “What ever happened to Sandy?” In a way, News From Heaven was kind of a gift for readers who were fond of Baker Towers.

ArtsATL: Most Americans live in urban areas, but novels set in small towns continue to be popular. Why do you think readers are fascinated by these places?

FINAL News from Heaven cover imageHaigh: They are a wonderful little laboratory for looking at human nature. I can’t think of a better training for a novelist than to grow up in a small town. You have this kind of intimacy with people around you. It’s impossible to keep a secret. Even if you didn’t grow up in a small town, there’s something about that that is very compelling. It’s like watching people through a keyhole.

ArtsATL: You have been praised for your vibrant characters. What is your process for creating characters?

Haigh: It happens very gradually. I’m not sure how it comes about myself. In a day of writing, I might make one very small discovery about a character, maybe a childhood experience that was important for her. This information may be the only thing I discover from a whole day of writing. Writing a novel is a series of small discoveries. Over a period of years, these discoveries build and the characters come to have lives of their own.

ArtsATL: How do you get the ideas for your stories?

Haigh: It’s different every time. I wish I could nail it down, because then I would be less anxious when I’m between books. A project like Baker Towers starts with place. That’s a story that is very much driven by a place, by a geography. In other cases, it might be a fact or a question.

My third novel, The Condition, deals with the family of a young girl who has a condition called Turner syndrome. Essentially, this means that she’ll never mature physically. She’ll never go through puberty. I got very interested in this idea: what would your life look like if you had Turner syndrome? If you are physically different, what does this mean for your life as a woman?

It was this factual information and these questions that formed the basis for that novel, but that doesn’t happen every time either. It’s very hard to generalize. When I first start to write a novel, I have to sort of cast about and reject several ideas before something sticks.