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“This is a Tour of My Brain and My Heart” — Meredith Hall on her Magnificent New Novel

by Brendan Dowling on September 10, 2020

In Meredith Hall’s Beneficence, readers are immersed in the lives of the Senter family, dairy farmers in the fictional town of Alstead, Maine, as their lives are upended by an unimaginable crisis. In the early 1930s, Tup and Doris are devoted parents to their three children: the charismatic Sonny, introspective Dodie, and fiercely loyal Beston. Over the next two decades, they pour their hearts into restoring the neglected farm and the family remains a compact, devoted unit. When tragedy befalls, each member is rocked in a different way. With lyrical precision, Hall dissects how grief reshapes each member and pushes them into newfound territory. The result is a profoundly moving family saga that provides an engrossing reading experience. Publishers Weekly praised Beneficence, stating, “Hall’s meticulous prose convincingly captures the daily realities—sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel—of agricultural life, and offers insight into the ways calamity fractures family bonds” and Foreword Reviews raved, “the novel’s magnificence sneaks up in the same unassuming way that autumn sunlight spills across harvested fields.” Hall spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on August 24th, 2020.

In some of the advance writing about the book, Richard Ford compared you to Willa Cather and Kim Barnes likened you to Marilynne Robinson. Who have been the authors who have been meaningful to you as a writer?

I will say that being compared to Marilynne Robinson is just an incredible honor. I think that her writing is beautiful. Kent Haruf has always been one of my favorite modern writers. I have to say that Faulkner is one of my heroes. I think that what he does on the page is just mysterious to me. I don’t know how he manages to do on the page what he does.

I was thinking about Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County when I read your book, because Alstead is also a fictional place. Can you talk about why you chose to set your book in a fictional setting?

You know, small Maine towns are very, very familiar to me. So although there is not an Alstead, Maine, and although I was careful not to name real Maine towns, the nature of those towns and the people in those towns is so familiar to me. I wanted to allow the reader not to come with preconceived ideas or images that would in some way color what they were reading. I really loved my ability to make this up out of thin air, for me to be the one constructing that world.

The farm is truly an Edenic place. I kept googling Alstead to find out where it is and how I could visit it.

(laughing) It is a complete world. I had a very extraordinary experience writing this book because the world seemed known to me right from the beginning. It was an inexplicable sense that I had lived this world, and I haven’t. I made it up. But it definitely took on a quality of a kind of universe that was separate from any real world, but had all of its own reality.

As a reader, the world felt so tangible, particularly because of all the tiny details that you bring to life, like rubbing the sled runners with paraffin wax or the siren that tells kids when there’s a snow day. What kind of research did you do into this world?

Those two examples are good examples, in that those actually were facts of my childhood. Rural New England was really a place out of time for decades, I think, at least a couple decades behind the more fast paced world. Those two particular details are actually very familiar to me. Every child waited in the morning to hear whether the fire siren would go off. It was a horn, not a siren, and it would tell you whether you got a snow day or not.

The book is told from the perspective of three characters: Tup, Doris, and Dodie. Was there a particular character who served as the entry point for you into this world?

There definitely was. When I first started writing this story, in a conversation with a friend, something came up about a family that lost a child and it really interested me. What happens to a family when they suffer that kind of blow? In the beginning, I imagined that the father in this family did not do well: that he responded selfishly, that he was self-oriented, that the quality of his love was very inadequate. That was my entry point. I thought that there was only going to be one narrator, and it would be this man. I thought that it would be a study of how this man navigated the distance between what he did—these selfish decisions that he was going to make—and how he was going to explain them to himself.

I started writing this book and quickly felt that I wanted his wife to have a voice and Dody appeared. It’s interesting, every character came to me already named. They all had names and they all just arrived. I wanted to allow Dody and also Doris to speak. Initially, the story came very freely. I suddenly sat back, not a long distance into this, and thought, “This is not going where I thought it was going to go at all.” Ultimately what happened was this man made decisions that had great effect on the family, but I myself came to understand that his grief and great longing for love from his wife drove him to those decisions. I came to feel enormous compassion for him and love him very much. He was always the one that I had my eye on most, he was the one sparking the whole story.

I wrote right from the beginning giving Doris and Dody a turn. First Doris speaks, then Dody, then Tup, in that cycle through the book. I did that right from the beginning. I think it was by allowing Dody and Doris to speak before I even got to Tup’s first section that I started to develop the story more fully and to understand that I loved Tup. I think he’s a very tender and profoundly loving person.

There are the two other members of the family, Sonny and Beston. Did you ever consider telling the story from their point of view?

It’s interesting, I did not. Right from the beginning, Dody was the child speaking in the family. I think my instinct was that three is a lot of voices. I’m asking a lot of the reader to follow three voices. With Beston, he is by nature such a quiet, interior, and compliant child. I think I replicated on the page that he really doesn’t speak much, he doesn’t say much, and he doesn’t express his thoughts.

Even though he doesn’t speak a lot, you get a sense of the enormity of his interior life.

You know I actually I find that I have a great longing to return to this world. I actually miss it. I long for it. I’ve given it a great deal of thought. I’m working on a different novel right now, but I have given a lot of thought to returning to that world and picking up that story somewhere. It’s Beston who most interests me. It would be Beston that I picked up with. He would of course lead us away from the farm. I have to say that I have never believed that I would have the ability to write a series in any way, but I am so reluctant to leave these people. I’ve come to really, really love them and love their world.

You’re perhaps best known for your memoir Without a Map. How did your experience writing memoir and creative nonfiction inform your work as a novelist?

Part of what informed that process is also my having taught writing. When I teach writing, I really focus on narrative, on telling the story. Memoir is, I think, inherently story-telling. We have these certain stories that we want to commit to the page. We wrestle with those stories, but they are given. When I first started writing about the Senters, I really didn’t know how to write fiction. The only thread that was familiar to me was storytelling. I didn’t know how to structure a book. I didn’t know what my stance would be on the page. I didn’t understand anything about character’s voices. I had to work all of that out.

The first two or three years of working on the book, I knew what my story was going to be, but I really, really had to mess around in my thinking. Very little came to the page, maybe fifty pages in three years. It was in my thinking as I struggled with great frustration to try to gather to myself what it felt like to write fiction. When I got it, I felt like all of the sudden a spring went up: “Ah! I get this. I know what I’m doing.” I went into it at that point with quite a lot of confidence.

What interests me coming out of these experiences is that I personally, as the writer, feel so much more exposed in this fiction than I ever did with my very intimate memoir. It’s so interesting. I feel as if this is a tour of my brain and my heart, written freely and without any reservation. My memoir feels as if it’s a life, and we can talk about that life. Even though it’s such an intimate memoir, the life itself doesn’t reveal me as my integration in the lives of the Senter family does. That has been a big surprise. I think about people I know and love [reading the book], and I feel as if I’ve split myself open and said, “Walk on in! This is who I am and how I think about the world.”

It cost me a great deal more. When the sad events in this family started taking place on the page, I had such profound emotional involvement with these people that I cried a lot. I would wake up at night thinking about them and I’d lie in my bed crying. I’d scold myself and say, “You know, you’re the one writing this book. Don’t be a fool, they don’t have to have this experience. Just write the book differently.” But the book already seemed to be the real book. For me, it was a very emotionally costly process to write about the lives of these people

Can you talk about how you chose the quotations that begin each chapter? I found it so striking that we begin with Psalms and end with a surrealist, Paul Éluard. What went into deciding what quote would introduce each section?

There was really no organization or process to finding those quotes. I read a great deal and I make lots and lots of notes on hundreds and hundreds of little pieces of paper. Somehow as I wrote those things, those words came into my life and I made a note of them, understanding that somehow they were important to me with this book. I of course didn’t use every bit of language that I came across, but in the end, those were phrases or sentences or poems that I came across as I was writing and I simply made use of them.

What role has the library played in your life?

When I was a child, I lived in a very small town in New Hampshire. My mother was not a reader; I was not introduced to books as a child. One day, a very strange van came down my street and it had a sign on it saying, “Bookmobile.” A very nice lady put the stairs down and invited me to walk up inside this large vehicle that was lined with shelves of books. I came away from that with a copy of Winnie the Pooh and Stuart Little. I think I was about six years old. I was astonished that books existed for me, that there was a literature for me. I was a studious and reading child and I started right away. [The bookmobile librarians] helped me understand that there was a building in town that did this. The librarian there was wonderful and welcomed me every day after school, welcomed me to come into this space, take out books, and read books right there. That was the beginning of it for me. I am a dedicated library user and feel that it’s the most primary of our democratic and cultural institutions.