Many of your stories and novels have dealt with the theme of relationships between the generations and how these relationships evolve, what we do or do not inherit from our ancestors, how timing and circumstances affect our generational relationships. In the course of exploring this theme, have your own ideas about generational relationships evolved?
—Martha Douglas, St. Paul, Minnesota
I’ve been circling this question for a while, Martha, deciding where to land. I think the answer is to start with Time Stamp. You’re right that the matter of generations is important in much of my work, but there’s something about Time Stamp that makes the presence of generational relationships seem significant in a way that’s more telling and has a particular poignancy since the Wheelocks end with Maddie. I’m actually going to get a little technical here, using that book as an example, and hope that’s OK. Limiting the idea of generations to just two, those of the parent and child, we are still dealing with quite a continuum. Time Stamp starts in 1911 with Will Wheelock at eleven stranded with a horse and wagon and encountering a caravan of cars en route to a lynching. The book’s chronological end is 1997 when Will’s daughter, Maddie, has a retrospective show of her photography in London. That’s a huge swath of time and psychological space, but it still just covers the years when Will is approaching adolescence and Maddie is older (sixty, turning sixty-one) but not yet old. If we step back and imagine Will’s birth at the hands of a country doctor and Maddie living, say, another twenty-three years, we have these two lives covering a hundred and twenty years.
Since Maddie was born when Will was about thirty-five, she doesn’t exist for him until then. He, on the other hand, dies near the beginning of her photo career. When we picture her fading with her final illness—I’m guessing the last thing she focuses on in 2021 is the top branches of a tree outside her window—her father will have been dead nearly a half a century. Also, as a woman who went to college and never really lived at home from that period on, the time she resided in her father’s house was a rather typical eighteen years. That leaves a hundred years of their lives when they either did not live in close proximity to each other or didn’t share the same time period of being alive. So we’re basically talking a fraction of their lives when Will might have heard Maddie crying in the nursery or bumping her way up the stairs with her school bag, or when he might have brought home the trunk he’d purchased for her to pack the things she was taking to college. That overlap of time is really quite small, almost poignantly so.
Yet when Maddie leaves her retrospective, riding through the London night with Carter, her nephew from her first marriage, it is the story of Will and that South Carolina lynching she mentions to Carter. It is not even a story she heard directly from Will himself, yet she recognizes it not only as a foundational part of her parents’ lives together and crucial to the ultimate shape of both her father’s career and final emotional collapse, but as a key to her own life and the person she has become. If her father had acted differently . . . if that signal event had shaped him in a different way . . .
In general, I think we credit ourselves with free will. Certainly a lot of the dynamics in a family revolve around the way children often reject many of their parents’ views and habits of mind—sometimes in a state of full-out rebellion–and are deeply influenced by peers and friends and those they fall in love with. Yet the original shape of a family and the stories that make its members who they are can have such an important and long-lasting ripple effect. I haven’t really even reached the nub of what I’m trying to say here, which involves the separation of those stories. We hear anecdotes about our parents’ childhoods. Our parents may see us in parts of our adult roles. We probably have the sense we know each other very well, parents and children. Extremely well. Yet we are set in a different generational space for all of our important lived experience and often in a different physical space. There’s a corollary here. In spite of that persistent generational space, the parts of our lives we do live together—parent and child, child and parent—stand out in relief as both vivid and exceptional. They can shape us with the power of immediacy and the emotion that comes from actual shared experience. Yet, ultimately, they may not have a greater power than the stories we don’t experience firsthand, the ones that are only reported to us. Here is another example of just this kind. It’s Janice musing in “Mother Tongue” in Watching Oksana when she finally knows the importance pieces of her mother’s young life: “Her mother had gone to New York looking for her mother and had received this dismissal that had twisted its way through her life until it had wounded them all.” There it is again. The significance of what went before. As a writer of stories, much of what I do is sorting pieces into these different elements: front and back story. And though their weight is felt differently, I feel it’s crucial to recognize the heavy importance of both.
All of this is me thinking about this whole notion of generations in relationship to each other and in terms of characters I’ve created, so I think it’s clear that in writing stories about parents and children, and sometimes extending the relationships to more generations, I’ve become more aware of the importance of these bonds and how much we’re enmeshed in them. Here’s a different look. I think of Clare, Loving as being two different stories. One is the story of how the focus of the most intense love changes at different times of life. But the other story is very much a story of just mothers and daughters and, as I’ve put it at times in conjunction with this story, whose love is the one that wounds first. In the broadest sense, the whole drama of mother and child—mother and daughter in this instance—has to do with the times when one or the other finds that love either too elusive or too strangling. It’s one of the recurrent stories of lives and of literature. (Think poor Hamlet and his mum.)
Of my work, certainly Suite Harmonic has given me both the broadest look at generations and the most personal one. John’s Grandfather Given is a presence in the book as an important person in his boyhood, which, from the book’s point of view, is in John’s memory. By the book’s last page, there’s an oblique reference to one of John’s great-granddaughters (me) and, of course, the book’s dedication is to my grandchildren. I just scratched the names down on a note, and that’s a total of eight generations. In the most fundamental sense, none of the people of the seven generations that follow John’s grandfather would even exist without the happenstances of his life, and the twists and turns of their own. It’s so unlikely that any of us is actually even here. So many cards, lucky and unlucky, had to fall a certain way for that to happen. People had to re-produce with the particular juncture of one egg and one sperm. They had to navigate life’s dangers and opportunities in such a way that the result was us. How improbable. Yet there are now seven billion of us on earth.
Certainly in writing Suite Harmonic I was aware that John’s decisions in love and war and the risks he took and the responsibilities he accepted over a lifetime meant I could be at my desk writing about him, as well as thinking about my children and their children. It’s a profound sort of interdependence and yet still so theoretical. For all John’s importance to me, and for as much as I worked to try to put him back on the stage of the living, he is still deeply just a product of my imagination in the same way Will hearing the sound of the approaching cars exists only in Maddie’s imagination. She wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for either the valentines or the bullet at Fort Donelson. Yet they’re part of who I am and why I am. It’s stunning really.