The Rumpus Interview with Carolyn Parkhurst
Carolyn Parkhurst’s latest book, Harmony, takes the themes and ideas present in her previous books—the fickleness of memory of The Dogs of Babel, the changing perspectives of Lost and Found—and brings them all home—to her home, more exactly. Harmony centers on a family similar to Parkhurst’s own, and her writing about raising a child on the spectrum is drawn from personal experience. However, she combines the emotional core of the book with a plot that is pure page-turning thriller. The family leaves their comfortable life in the DC suburbs for a family camp for children with special needs, headed by Scott Bean, an all-too-charismatic leader.
I spoke to her about the processes and boundaries negotiated while writing Harmony, and the joys of the multiple-narrator format.
The Rumpus: I went into the book expecting the two voices that the copy mentions—which are that of Iris, the younger sister, and Alexandra, the mother. And that is what you get for most of the book—but then I got to the first Tilly chapter. It was extremely different from the rest of the book, but the things she was bringing up about public remembrance and memory also brought a whole different level to the book. Can you tell me about writing those, and the choice to include them?
Carolyn Parkhurst: Yeah, I wasn’t sure at first—I had written a few little strange pieces, and I wasn’t 100 percent sure they were Tilly’s voice, or how they were going to fit in, but I didn’t want the whole book to be talking about Tilly without Tilly getting a voice or getting a chance to say something. I have a son who’s fourteen who has Asperger’s, and one of the things that’s really interesting about him is that he has the most amazing imagination. As I was writing these short pieces that were a little bit out there, letting my mind go super free, I thought that it might make sense for some of these to be Tilly, writing at a future time. I had Tilly have an interest in big statues throughout the book, and it made sense to me that she would be thinking about ways to take something as big as memorialization and building a statue and making that personal. I love thinking about things like making historical recreations or what kind of museum exhibit would there be if you just took an ordinary family and tried to document their lives. I think we all lead interesting, weird complicated lives, but not everything is deemed worthy of writing down in history books, and Tilly seems like someone who would find that sort of unfair.
Rumpus: Another one of the themes these chapters emphasized is the idea of public vs. private. The Tilly chapters are about things that are allowed to be memorialized publicly in a big way, versus privately, and you also have Alexandra, struggling with what to share in public with other moms versus what she’s actually dealing with.
Parkhurst: One of the things I wanted to get across with Alexandra is that parenthood can be isolating, certainly. You have a baby and then you’re at home with the baby like twenty-four hours a day, but particularly when you have a child with special needs, it’s very easy to isolate yourself from everyone else. For example, if your family gets invited to a picnic or a school fair or something, and you’re not really sure if you can go, you’re not really sure if your kid with special needs will be up to it or if it will end in a meltdown. Eventually, you start to magnify how different your experience is from anyone else’s. All kids have their difficulties, their challenges, but with a kid with special needs, not only are there greater challenges, but I think the parents can then tend to turn inward and magnify that in their own minds.
The other thing about the public versus private, the other thing that was on my mind the whole time I was writing was, “Am I allowed to be writing about my family this directly?” The book is clearly fiction: I’ve never left my life to go join a family camp or anything, and the characters are not directly the people in my family, but so much of Alexandra’s experience is drawn directly from my innermost thoughts and experiences. And I really worried about how much are you allowed to write about your kids? The veneer of fiction lends a little bit of “it’s ok to be honest about things,” but is there such a thing as being too honest? I didn’t want to write anything that was going to upset my kids down the line.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you succeeded in finding that line?
Parkhurst: Over the time I was writing I didn’t always explain to the kids what it was about. My daughter’s younger, she’s ten, she hasn’t read it. But my son, he’s starting to think more about what it means for him to have Asperger’s, to be on the autism spectrum and how it’s going to affect his life. He was interested in reading the book, and I thought about it and I said ok, and I tried really hard to prepare him, I said “I just don’t want you to take anything the wrong way, I want you to understand that the foundation of all this is how much the parents love their kids.” And so he read it, and he was fine, he really liked it. The next morning, he said “I have to confess, I stayed up until one a.m. reading your book.” He was supposed to be in bed at like eleven or something, so I grounded him. No, I’m kidding. It was really positive! It led to some conversations—he said “It kind of gave me some insight into what it’s like to live with me.” I was really worried about it, but it ended up being kind of a non-event, and so that worked out really well.
Rumpus: I was reading other interviews with you, and I saw that alternating perspectives is something that you’ve done in a few of your previous books, and is something Harmony uses in a really complicated, interesting way. What about that structure makes it work so well for you?
Parkhurst: I love writing in the first person; I don’t write very much in the third person. First person is so immediate, and you’re right there in the person’s head, and the thing I love about multiple perspectives is that not everyone is experiencing the story the same way, so the reader can be in on things that the characters themselves are not. I try to challenge myself differently with each book, in terms of the stylistic and technical aspects of it—in my first book, there were two alternating stories, present and past, but with just one narrator. My second book had like, eight narrators—and that was difficult, but really interesting, and I really liked it. And my third book is about a novelist who rewrites the endings of all her previous books, and all those endings are included in the narrative. That was the hardest book I’ve written, probably. Harmony was very hard emotionally, but my last book, I finished a few chapters and was like “Oh, now I have to start a whole different novel and write the end of it.” In the end I was very happy that I’d done it, but I also regret having set such a huge challenge for myself.
One thing I really liked about Harmony is that I did the mother in the second person, and I started doing that without really thinking about it. I was trying to get in the mother’s head, which wasn’t hard, because it wasn’t so different from my own head. I wanted to capture our own internal voice—we are our own worst critics, there are things we say in our own heads that we wouldn’t really want anyone else to hear that are unflattering in any number of ways, and I thought that the second person was the best way to get at that. I guess when I’m talking to myself in my head, sometimes it’s first person, sometimes it’s second person, but second person has the effect on the reader of helping them to experience more fully what Alexandra’s state of mind is, so I really liked doing that.
Also, with the different perspectives in Harmony, I liked having one adult and one child, because children see different things than adults do. I liked seeing what things Iris would notice that her parents wouldn’t notice, and what things Iris would totally miss that her parents would pick up on. Certainly Scott being as creepy as he was maybe isn’t a thing kids would pick up on right away. Also, adults will act…when they’re with kids, they’ll behave differently than when they’re with other adults, so I think sometimes adults reveal themselves more around children, and I wanted to make use of that too.
Rumpus: I really liked that Alexandra’s chapters were in the second person—it made me think about the cultural pressures around motherhood and how much those were internalized—she was speaking to herself, but also kind of to the reader as well.
Parkhurst: Yeah. I don’t think things are easy for father’s necessarily, parenting is hard all around, but I don’t think there’s that kind of internal and external pressure of what it means to be a father the same way there is to be a mother. I mean, maybe there is, there’s cultural baggage for everything. But there’s so much attached to motherhood that little girls think about from the time they’re little with baby dolls and whatever. And then it’s almost like people have a “happily ever after” view of what it’s like to have kids—they know it’ll be hard, but it’s just like “well, there’s babyhood, but then you’re fine until they’re teenagers.” And it’s not really like that—for one thing, it’s like, daily life, and a lot of it is boring, and a lot of it is like “okay, now we’re doing your homework,” and stuff like that, but challenges pop up all the time, and you’re sort of off-balance, and I wanted to capture that for Alexandra.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask about how the idea of the book came about—the book has both elements of a thriller and also a lot of family dynamics. You’ve mentioned that the family aspect is really connected to your personal life, and I didn’t know which came first for you, or if they sort of both came up entwined.
Parkhurst: The very first piece I wrote is what is now the epilogue, about the child with wings, and I didn’t know what that was—if it was going to be part of the book or what. I just wrote it and I put it aside. I didn’t really want to write about being a parent—it sort of felt like this was my daily life, I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted to write about it. And it turned out that I was writing about it anyways. The emotional part of it and the family story came first. I’m going through something that a lot of families are going through, but I haven’t seen it written about too much, so I kind of feel compelled to write on it.
On the other hand, I don’t really know where the Camp Harmony stuff came from. One of the things that really interests me is cults, and I was reading about Jonestown, and I was thinking, “there were a lot of intelligent, educated, thoughtful people who joined this cult and ended up following this leader to mass suicide, what makes them take that step?” And at the same time, as things were getting harder in my own personal life, I reached this point where I was like, If you were desperate enough, I can totally see why you’re vulnerable to someone saying “I can help you, I can make things better. Just come with me, I know what I’m doing.” Especially someone acting as a parent figure or a good friend, someone who is going to just help you out with all your problems. If you’re in a bad enough place, it’s easy to see how people come to that decision. When I put those things together, the part that grabbed me to write about was more the camp and the parenting guru—that was what I thought I wanted to write about, but then I was writing this stuff because I needed to write about the autism. It wasn’t entirely clear for a while that they were going to be the same book.
Rumpus: Going back to the epilogue—it reminded me a lot of a Tilly chapter both in how different they were tonally from the rest of the book, but also how much light it shed on themes in the book. Can you talk a little more about that, and how you developed the metaphor of the child with wings?
Parkhurst: For a while, it was the prologue of the book, actually. I couldn’t figure out where its place was in the narrative, but I knew I wanted it to be in there. And I also couldn’t tell who was speaking—I thought about making it a Tilly chapter, but it’s so clearly from the mother’s point of view, and it’s written in the second person, and I thought, “I feel like this is Alexandra,” even though most of the time she’s not describing her experiences so lyrically and creatively, this is the best face she would put on her experiences with her daughter. It was a sort of oddball thing, and I knew it needed to be in there, but I wasn’t sure where it went.
The metaphor of the child with wings just seemed perfect to me. My first thought, everyone’s first thought, is “I wish I could fly.” But then, imagining what the day-to-day life is of having a kid that could fly, that sounds like a nightmare. So once I started thinking about it, it had a lot of really clear pros and cons. My son was really little before he was diagnosed, and he never had problems going to mainstream schools or anything like that, he’s just a smart, quirky kid. Everyone’s working theory was just “He’s a genius,” and “The other kids at his preschool don’t interest him because they’re not as smart.” He read before he was three, and he memorized states on the map. And so it didn’t occur to me that there was any way that could be negative. And it didn’t turn out that that was negative per se, but it was a sign of something more complicated going on, which is what I guess I wanted to get at with the child with wings metaphor.
Author photograph © Nina Subin.