Clare Beams’s fiction makes worlds richly imagined, creating an embodied, familiar, and immersive landscape across which tense and deeply felt narratives unspool. Often, too, that which is familiar is unmade—remade—until story and reader alike are perched on a strange and thrilling precipice. Beams’s debut novel, The Illness Lesson, enacts this process of making and unmaking deftly and stealthily in the establishment of Trilling Heart, a New England school for girls. Set in 1871, the novel grapples with the tensions between idealism and implementation, between belief and agency, and is infused with both curiosity and horror.
In 2012, I read Issue 166 of One Story, the one featuring Beams’s “World’s End,” which appears in her 2016 collection We Show What We Have Learned. In 2012, I didn’t know her writing or her, but I fell in love with that story, with the exactingness of the world and the way the sentences themselves shaped that world. In 2018, I found myself at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where Clare Beams was the Fellow in our fiction workshop, and the clarity and strength of her craft was brought to the fore.
Though the school at the heart of The Illness Lesson is grounded in transcendentalist thought, I cannot help but be reminded also of that other mid-nineteenth century American literary movement, Romanticism, when reading Beams’s work. One is encouraged, I think, while walking with protagonist Caroline Hood, to consider the sublime and its knife’s edge between beauty and fear, as the story unfolds.
I spoke with Clare Beams recently about strangeness, research, and this beautiful new novel.
The Rumpus: At the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2018, you led a craft session on inviting strangeness into one’s own fiction, and your collection, We Show What We Have Learned, is full of instances in which something truly inexplicable—magical, surreal—is utterly integral to the stories themselves. In The Illness Lesson, the trilling hearts, as Caroline thinks of them, carry a certain unsettling agency, but the other adult characters in the book—for various reasons—don’t think of the birds in the same way. For them, birds are birds. I don’t want to give away anything here that a reader really ought discover for themselves, but could you talk a bit about the way you approach the continuum between realistic fiction and the more speculative elements that appear in your work? When or how do you know what kind of story you have in your hands?
Clare Beams: Strangeness is important to me as a writer, and it took me some time to discover it as a possibility for myself, which is what made me want to teach that craft class. My work ranges pretty widely in terms of how surreal it is, but there’s always some element that—to me, anyway—feels at least a little stretched or heightened. As for just how strange things will become in a given piece of fiction, I actually try very hard not to consciously know what kind of story I have on my hands for at least part of the first-draft writing process. I have a deep-seated constitutional impulse to control things, but I’ve found that when I try to control my fiction too tightly and too consciously early on, I end up with work that avoids the missteps that scare me but also isn’t quite brave enough to really live.
That being said, the initial spark of a story often arrives, for me, as an image—a mental picture, either something I’ve really seen or something I’ve imagined or some combination of the two—that just sort of itches at me and demands further attention, and that image does often give me suspicions about just how strange a piece of fiction will become. In the case of The Illness Lesson, the image was the trilling hearts. When I started this novel, I was living in Massachusetts and had recently been to Fruitlands (where the transcendentalist philosopher/writer Bronson Alcott established a short-lived commune during his daughter Louisa May Alcott’s childhood)—and I was doing lots of thinking about the Transcendentalists’ beautiful ideas and all the contradictions inherent in them. But the story really began to find its momentum when I began to play with the image of a bright red bird descending on this particular New England landscape—something just a little too bright to belong.
Rumpus: The appearance of the trilling hearts really is arresting, and there’s so much richness in the unsettled territory between beauty and horror. One of the many strengths of The Illness Lesson is, as you say, the tension and contradiction between the idea and the execution. The birds feel fundamental in that: here are these stunning, startling creatures, which cannot be reduced to some generic paean to Nature. Caroline will not settle into any romanticized view of them. Similarly, in your story “The Drop,” a wedding dress made from the groom’s deployed war-time parachute—a lovely and terrifying thing to imagine—provides both a catalyst to action and a visual core. Are there other favorite images from your writing (this novel or otherwise) or from other writers that have proven to be particularly formative to you and your work?
Beams: I think there’s probably a formative image of this kind for me in almost every book I’ve ever loved, so I could list them for pages and pages. But one in particular that I return to often when I’m trying to remind myself just how much work one image can do, how many layers it can hold, is the tableau vivant scene in The House of Mirth—where Lily Bart is embodying the figure in Joshua Reynolds’s painting “Mrs. Lloyd” as part of a party game that isn’t really a game at all. We watch her presenting herself, we watch the partygoers (and her admirer Selden) watching her, we feel the suspension they all feel in attending to that spotlighted vision, and we become aware of all the stakes and consequences of seeing and being seen, framing and self-framing.
In We Show What We Have Learned, most of the individual stories began with sparking images: the parachute dress in “The Drop” (as you guessed!), the plague doctor costume in “Ailments,” the corset in “Hourglass,” the disintegrating teacher in the title story, the smell and feel of the tidal river mud in “The Saltwater Cure,” a corner-of-the-eye glimpse of a scurrying mink in “Granna,” and the landscape of a real place called World’s End in Hingham, MA in “World’s End,” for instance. In The Illness Lesson I found the interior of the classroom space in the barn to be especially vivid and important for me, and the nests the trilling hearts build are another bright spot.
Rumpus: Among the many things that create an entirely immersive world for and of the novel is its intertextuality and concrete anchoring to 1871. That Samuel is also a writer and a philosopher, that Caroline is teaching Shakespeare, that Daniel and others are engaged in the historical conversations surrounding their disciplines—all of this creates a clear sense of place and time into which the reader can readily sink. You’ve created a fascinating, erudite, and, at times, productively prickly and tense intellectual landscape to match the physical setting. What drew you to this particular moment in history?
Beams: I grew up in New England in a house that was built in the 1730s, and inside it I always felt like I was entering little pockets of earlier time—on floorboards and stairs that creaked in ways suggestive of all the feet that had stepped there before, in the dirt-floored basement, behind the barn, where deposits of old bottles were buried, etc. I have always adored books from past eras, too, and between the ages of ten and twelve I must have read Little Women about twenty times (I was the kind of kid who was more comfortable in books than in my actual life). All this to say that I think there are ways in which the past has never felt all that distant to me.
As for the prickliness, it started to occur to me at some point that while there was truth and loveliness and morality in so much of the Transcendentalists’ language and thinking—they were early and firm arrivals on the just side of many issues, including slavery and the value of the minds of all people, including women—there was sometimes a discrepancy between what they thought and how they lived. (Which is probably true of most of us.) In particular, I began to notice that a lot of these men were surrounded by women who were facilitating their abundant and beautiful thinking by making their practical lives work—and to notice that most of these men didn’t seem especially aware of these women’s contribution or what it might be costing. When I’m drawn to write about a historical moment, it’s often because of some light it sheds on an aspect of our present time, and I think that’s certainly the case here: the contradiction between what we tell women about their lives and the reality of those lives is, I believe, still more alive and well than we might hope. I wanted to explore the ramifications of telling women one thing about their possibilities and offering them something quite different.
Rumpus: Yes! A bit ago, Bruce Holsinger began a #ThanksForTyping Twitter thread of excerpts from prominent male scholars’ acknowledgements pages in which they thanked—but did not name—their wives for everything from manuscript preparation to foundational research, plus managing all of the needs of home and family. This difficult and extensive labor is reduced to a phrase, and it’s very easy to wonder what these unnamed women might have accomplished if they’d had the same kinds of assistance and unfettered time—Shakespeare’s sister and so on. All this is to say that research is work, and writing out of a historical moment can be an adventure of multiple kinds. What was your research process like for this novel?
Beams: In terms of research, while I love it, I’m not one of those writers who spend ten years reading about a particular moment before they put pen to paper. Partly this is practical—I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old, and I live in terror of losing momentum. Partly, too, I think it has to do with my approach to historical fiction. Regardless of whether I’m writing about a contemporary moment or a historical one, I don’t tend to find the engine of my stories in the particular cut of meat my characters are eating or the particular material of their clothes, in that these aren’t things my characters tend to be worrying much about (though of course I don’t want to get these details wrong when they do come up). I’m a lot likelier to find my engine in, say, inventing a species of bird, as I’ve done in The Illness Lesson. So my usual approach is to force myself forward in the writing until I hit something I need to know more about, and then go and learn it. With The Illness Lesson this involved a lot of fascinating reading about Victorian medicine and its approach to women’s bodies, and about mass hysteria, and also about the Transcendentalists and their intellectual world.
Rumpus: As someone very much drawn to historical material, I find your answer here incredibly freeing. The frightening stasis imposed by the need for research—one can’t begin until one knows enough, wherein it’s easy to feel as though one will never know enough—also becomes perpetual tool of procrastination, which is to say a buffer between the idea of the project and the actual work of writing. It’s easier to read another book or study another map than to actually write a central scene, and it’s very tempting to think the former more necessary (at the moment) than the latter. But the idea of researching based on need feels both productive and practical. What else do you find you need, as a writer, to push forward?
Beams: Exactly! The actual writing is hard enough that the research can become one more thing I do instead of facing that work.
To answer your question about what else I need—I’ve found the necessary thing I can’t move forward without is the right sound. The actual sentences I’m producing need to feel right in their rhythm; when I’m writing a story set in a given historical period, I need to be able to catch a feel of the time without sounding like I’m trying to parrot that time, if that makes sense. In my collection, the story “Ailments” is set in the seventeenth century, and it took me years and years to get the sound right enough to be able to get to the end. I had the setting and the sparking image and the situation and the characters, and yet I kept producing versions of the opening that either sounded like I was pretending I was actually writing during the seventeenth century, or like all this might have been happening another just last week. The balance eluded me for a very long time, and then one day—drafts and drafts and so much research in—the sound finally hit my ear in the right way and I could, at last, finish.
Rumpus: That idea—of the right sound—feels very much captured in a book you invented for the novel—Miles Pearson’s The Darkening Glass—that hangs like a specter over the world of The Illness Lesson. How do the two texts coexist in your imagination? What prompted you to include text from the work you imagined from Pearson—such a source of conflict between Caroline and Samuel—in this way?
Beams: There was originally much more of The Darkening Glass in the novel than there is now, in terms of word count—I had passages that were quite a bit longer at the start of each chapter so that the reader could follow the details of the plot, etc. But what I came to understand is that even a deliberately bad book is still a bad book, and a bad reading experience, and no one really needed to follow Pearson’s plot. I realized I’d serve my larger story better by distilling those passages to their very most gothic over-the-top gestures in order to give just the flavor of The Darkening Glass, which is really all we need. I think my original impulse to include the book within the book just came from the fact that as a reader I adore them, the playfulness of piecing together a whole fictional world of texts, and I wanted to play in that way myself and give my readers the chance to do that kind of playing. As it turned out, though, the over-the-top-ness of Pearson’s book also ended up connecting in interesting thematic ways to Samuel’s school, and Caroline’s life, and the students’ situation. Pearson’s book is full of a kind of feeling that hasn’t been accounted for or allowed space at the school, and including passages from it let me explore from one more angle what can happen when that feeling asserts itself.
Rumpus: At the heart of the novel is that school, and several of your stories are set in a variety of educational environments that reveal themselves on a whole brilliant continuum from utopia to dystopia. I found myself thrilling and cringing along with Caroline through each of the initial experiences with the pupils at Trilling Heart. You yourself have also done a fair amount of teaching; in what ways have your experiences on both sides of the desk, so to speak, impacted the crafting of Trilling Heart?
Beams: I have a longstanding and abiding love of schools as settings for fiction. There’s something about the self-contained nature of a classroom, and the extremity and nakedness of the power dynamics inside it, that concentrates drama in a way I find irresistible. I have so many vivid, visceral memories of being a student—of what it feels like to be part of a larger organism, the class, over which you as an individual have only so much power. When I began teaching and became part of a community of teachers, I found the work gave me all kinds of new ideas about ways of controlling a room—controlling people, really, both in groups and individually—and what the effects of these various kinds of control might be. All of that certainly came into play as I crafted the school that is the backdrop of this novel. A school seemed the perfect setting for containing and magnifying the kinds of contradictions that most interested me.
Rumpus: The interplay of control and the inevitable failure to control certain circumstances feels central to teaching, writing, and The Illness Lesson—to living in the world, surely. How do you navigate these tensions in your own writing life?
Beams: I think I’ll spend the rest of my days trying to figure out how to navigate these tensions—on every front you mentioned. Everything I’ve ever wanted most to do in my life has to some extent thwarted my desire to control it. What I’m slowly learning, though, is that sometimes I get to better places in the end when I try not to steer too hard toward where I think I should be going.
Photograph of Clare Beams by Kristi Jan Hoover.