Let Go the Reins: Talking with H. S. Cross

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H. S. Cross’s Grievous—the stunning follow-up to her debut, Wilberforce—brings us back to St. Stephen’s Academy in 1931, an all-boys school governed by antique codes and filled with secrets. Told from multiple points of view, the novel follows the misadventures of student Gray Riding, a voracious reader and fledgling writer navigating grief and first love; and his beloved and beleaguered housemaster, John Grieves, who is grappling with his faith, his role as both mentor and enforcer, and his relationship with a married woman.

I had the pleasure of speaking recently with H. S. Cross about the many mythologies at the heart of Grievous, her complex depiction of faith, and the narrative choices that she made to create an absorbing story that feels at once epic and intimate. We were excited to find many points of connection between the ideas explored in Grievous and in my own novel, Florence in Ecstasy, which centers on an American woman who becomes immersed in the lore of the Italian Catholic mystical saints.

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The Rumpus: Mythology plays an important role in this novel. There’s the school’s mythology, the books and plays that influence Gray, and the blended mythology that Gray creates when he weaves those narratives into his own stories and life. Can you speak a bit about mythology in the book?

H. S. Cross: Mythology is a good word to describe the stories (factual and not) that a community tells itself to create or cement a shared history. All schools and institutions have mythologies, don’t they? They create a group identity, and they connect us to something bigger and older than the present.

In Grievous, we’re seeing the current generation’s iteration of the Hermes/poacher’s tunnel legend first encountered in Wilberforce, and we’re seeing this new generation stomping blithely around in places that were vitally important to boys who came before them. It’s a parallel to the way history works—people in the present oblivious to the way they’re treading on sacred ground—and these legends are just one way the novel tries to dramatize our relationship with the past.

Rumpus: Were there particular mythologies—literary or otherwise—that influenced you as you were writing Grievous?

Cross: Certainly, I was influenced by the great English public school novels and memoirs, all of which are full of their own mythologies. In the back of Gray’s imaginings are also books I was reading at his age, particularly Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t get to these hero-adventure stories until I was in high school, but I suppose they helped pave the way for my seduction by the male school story.

I’m curious about the history and legend that make up the fabric of your novel, Florence in Ecstasy. You make us feel at home in a foreign language, and you draw us into the visual world of the religious art that fills the city. Your protagonist, Hannah, has no religious background to speak of, so she comes to the thick, rich Catholic tradition without prejudice, but also without any frame of reference. Did you always plan to set Hannah’s struggle with anorexia there, or did the association evolve later?

Rumpus: Florence is a city that I love—for its art and its history and the way that the contemporary city is constantly meeting and sometimes at odds with its past—and it seemed the right setting for Hannah, who has a background in art history. And because beauty and food are omnipresent there, it is an interesting space for a woman at war with her body. Like Hannah, I don’t have a background in Catholicism, but as I was researching the art she encounters, I inevitably landed on images of the saints and I quickly became fascinated by these women who were so central to the lore of an otherwise male-dominated institution. Their feverish, ecstatic visions—through which they claimed a direct relationship with God—gave them power and autonomy. But the visions were also painful and the saints inflicted pain upon themselves through extreme behavior, including starvation. Hannah doesn’t find religion, but she does find, in the saints, a reflection of her own ecstatic experience with an eating disorder, which had come dangerously close to being a faith or philosophy in the meaning that it provided her.

In thinking about the relationship between visions or fantasies and reality: I was so impressed by your seamless blending of the real-world action of the book and the fantasy worlds of many of the characters, particularly Gray. This is something that comes naturally to children and teens, for whom imagination and fantasy naturally bleed into daily life, but it isn’t always as easy to access as an adult. How did you go about accessing that mentality, and then how did you go about realizing it on the page?

Cross: I think it comes naturally to writers, too, doesn’t it? My late husband used to accuse me going off to be with my “people” while we were having a conversation. We’d be sitting at the table eating dinner, and he’d get a stern expression on his face and say, “You’re with them again, aren’t you?” I wouldn’t even realize my mind had wandered, but somehow he could tell, and he’d act—jocularly—as though I were two-timing him.

As for getting this mindset onto the page, it happened when I learned how to let go the reins of the writing. I’d write quickly, a stream of consciousness to entertain myself, thinking I’d “fix” it later, close to that state in which you’re not yet asleep but have lost control of your train of thought. The weirder and more unruly I let the prose become, the more alive it seemed, and the more the various points of view were able to shape the style.

Rumpus: Gray is a writer/storyteller, and one of the novel’s central threads is his finding his voice. I loved this particular passage:

Everyone knew that books required planning; Dickens had sketched his enormous plots at the outset and never deviated. Were his own fits and starts the fault of his poor talent, or did they express, as Guildford had always claimed, the voice of the story itself, telling him what it was, rescuing him from error, drawing him nearer to it true heart?

As a writer, are you a planner like Dickens, or do you work in fits and starts like Gray? How do you locate the story’s true heart?

Cross: Only another writer would gravitate to this wildly autobiographical passage! Of course, I’m like Gray, as the sprawling nature of this novel testifies. The day I wrote that line, I was approaching the end of the novel, but I couldn’t see how to get there; it felt as though the more I wrote, the farther the ending receded into the distance.

I think you need to listen to find the story’s true heart. You have to be prepared to let the story have its way, contra your plans and timetable. You do this day after day, month after month, and then, when you reach a stopping point, you listen again. Finally, you take away everything that’s weighing it down. You take yourself out of it. You erase your footprints.

Rumpus: Voice and structure operate in really interesting ways in the novel. The novel shifts between close-third-person voices, sometimes in the form of a fleshed out scene in a particular character’s perspective and at other times as just a momentary flash—a paragraph, a few lines—of a character’s thoughts. Added to the various perspectives are the many letters that populate the book. Why did you choose to structure the book in this way, as a sort of chorus of voices?

Cross: “Chorus of voices” is a good term because like a chorus, they need to work together to tell the whole story. When I began, I had two or three points of view, but the others elbowed their way in. There are eleven of them, not including letters. I rolled my eyes when, towards the end, another one cut in. Seriously? Is it not too late for new PoVs? No! Never!

When I began to make conscious choices about the storytelling, I decided to stay with the multiple points of view, in part because there was so much drama and tension in the back-and-forth between the perspectives. Also, each point of view is so intense that if we had to stay in a single one for a long time, it could become claustrophobic. The biggest reason I went with the chorus of voices was that I wanted to eliminate the Dickensian omniscient narrator that had existed in early versions of the material. I’d got to the point where it felt controlling, deadening, arch, and false—I just detested it and burned with shame at the sound of it. My problem was that it’s impossible to tell such a complicated story with one or even three points of view. You need a community.

A benefit, I can see now, is that even though it takes a while for the reader to acclimatize to the world of the book and especially the school, once you do, you get to experience it without a guide. In some ways, you are like that new boy who has to sink or swim. Even when you know your way around, the events are not interpreted for you. It’s the closest thing I could get to immersion.

Rumpus: Though much of the book is contained within the world of St. Stephen’s, you also bring us to other parts of England and to Europe, through travel and through the newspapers that character scan throughout. We learn about conversations happening in medicine and psychology, the reverberations of the war, trends in theatrical productions, etc. How much research did you do to create the world outside of St. Stephen’s?

Cross: There wasn’t all that much research qua research once I came to write the book because I’d been investigating English public schools and the time period since college, both seriously and idly. The most important details are always the small ones, and these you find reading things written in the period. A tiny example: when reading Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, I realized I couldn’t use the term “cough syrup,” that it had to be a “mixture.” Macaulay has a hilarious section talking about her aunt’s medicine box and the various mysterious bottles labeled simply “the mixture” and “the tablets.”

The online Oxford English Dictionary is where I turned whenever I needed to know if a particular word or expression was in period. Sometimes I was forced to invent slang usages. At one point, I needed a synonym for “mouth off” which was American and out of period. There was the word “rind,” meaning gall/cheek/nerve, as in “to have the immortal rind” to do such and such (Wodehouse uses it). So, knowing how inventive school slang could be, I let the character “rind off.”

Your novel conjures present-day Florence so vividly, but the past feels tangible, too. What were the most crucial spaces for you as you were researching and developing the novel? How did you bring your library research into such a sensory relationship with real-life Florence and with your physically attuned narrator?

Rumpus: I’d spent a good amount of time in Florence by the time I began the novel, and with every visit my sense of the city deepened and also expanded as I found my way into less touristed locations—like the rowing club on the Arno that is located in the heart of the city but is an entirely Florentine community, or the still and silent spaces along the many roads that wind through the hills outside of Florence. And I kept notes—impressions of the light in the morning, the sounds at dusk, the smell after rain, the feel of the stones under my feet, all the things you think you might remember but which can quickly evaporate when you leave a place.

But what truly changed the city for me was researching the saints. I spent a year in Florence doing on-site research, visiting the places where the saints practiced or are depicted in works of art, for example, the church and convent where the Florentine mystic Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi lived and died. It is almost never open to the public, so I went to Mass several Sundays to see the images of her in the side chapels, to sit in a courtyard where a sculpture of her stands, and, once, to visit her room in the convent. Many of these women aren’t well known now, but they were celebrities in their time, and seeking out the spaces that were sacred to them revealed an important layer of the city—a history of holy women—that had been invisible to me before. Once I recognized it, I began seeing that history everywhere.

History and faith play an important role in Grievous, too, and because we both attended a Friends school in New York, I loved the fact that Quakerism was present in the book. How much did your own history of attending and then teaching at a Quaker school influence the book as a whole?

Cross: Initially Quakerism got into the book because of my positive experience spending twelfth grade at a Friends school. For a while in my twenties, I thought I might become a Quaker, though I’d been raised Episcopalian. The summer after high school, I biked around England and discovered several old Quaker enclaves, such as Saffron Walden, where my character Cordelia comes from.

Eventually, I began to return to the orthodox Episcopal/Anglican church in which I was raised, and as I learned again, really for the first time, what that tradition was, what its content was, why it was, the appeal of Quakerism faded for me. I still have an affection for it in its gentle form, but this book puts both Quakerism and pacifism to the test. I was interested, for example, in the clash between John’s Quaker pacifism and the school’s prevailing atmosphere of physical force. The novel itself is set against interwar Europe, where because of the trauma of the first World War, pacifist sentiments are more popular than ever. John is a historian, and he begins to sense the danger of adopting pacifist policies when faced with voracious totalitarianism.

Rumpus: St. Stephen’s Academy is a school for boys and is therefore a male-dominated space, but there are vital female characters, too—Grieves’s goddaughter Cordelia and her mother, Meg; Gray’s mother, Elsa; Sebastian’s wife, Marion. And while Cordelia feels that her godfather will never take her as seriously as he does the boys, Grieves acquires much of his philosophy and knowledge from women. How did you think about the role of women in this male-dominated space?

Cross: Well, none of them belong there, so their presence—whether in person or in letters—is a transgression from the get-go. Certainly, they bring fresh air, and they force the male characters to communicate in ways they’re not accustomed to. For John, those women become a target for emotions that can’t find expression at the school—his love, his need, and his deep desire to nurture, protect, and couple. But even as they draw the men into relationship, none of these women can understand what is happening within the male world. Vital, foundational things are going on between these men and the boys, and in a strange way, the un-comprehending presence of the women actually deepens these male bonds.

This question reminds me of an interesting dynamic in Florence in Ecstasy, in which your narrator, Hannah, joins a rowing club in Florence and so joins into physical activity with men, even as she’s becoming obsessed researching medieval holy women and contending with her own female body. How did you understand the male-female dynamic in your novel?

Rumpus: Just as Hannah encounters the way women from the past were heralded, or demonized if they became too powerful, she encounters women at the club and elsewhere in Florence who are ostracized for being too forthright, too sexual, too beautiful, too angry, too anything. On the flip side, Hannah also observes how some of the men are hurt by gender stereotypes—in particular, Luca, a rower she becomes involved with, who lacks the macho, super-masculine characteristics of his friends. Hannah is trying to rebuild herself in body and spirit, and so the complications around gender roles that she witnesses in history and the present beg the question: What will that new self look like?

One of the things I appreciated most about in Grievous was the way you withhold information. There are so many essential moments in the book that we are given only partial access to—often moments of violence and moments of intimacy, where it is as though we, like Gray in an important scene, are peering through a keyhole but missing pieces of the picture. As a writer, how do you decide what to reveal and what to withhold, and why?

Cross: Part of it is strategic, controlling plot and suspense by withholding information until the right dramatic moment. A lot, though, is intuition or taste. I tried to describe intimate moments with the amount of detail they could bear. You need to create space for the reader to enter the scene and imagine details for themselves. Too much information is not only controlling, but also off-putting, and it can pop the bubble of enchantment. There’s also a sense—and maybe I got this from being married to an understated Englishman—that even when characters say very little, they understand one another. To them, it’s gauche to overstate, and the ability to hint and have someone else get it—that itself is an intimacy.

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Photograph of H. S. Cross by Ira Lippke.


Jessie Chaffee is the author of the debut novel Florence in Ecstasy (Unnamed Press, 2017). She was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy to complete the novel and was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City, where she is an editor at Words Without Borders, an online magazine of international literature. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com and on Twitter and Facebook. More from this author →