Elizabeth Harris's novel "Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman" won the Gival Press Novel Award and will be published by Gival Press on October 5, 2015.
"Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman" is a literary novel with a historical setting that engages issues of gender, vigilantism, recovery from trauma, and nostalgia for the rural and small-town past. Two stock farmers in 1936 Texas are accused of castrating a neighbor. "Mayhem" is the story of their crime and its consequences. Around the edges of the story, an authorial narrator admits why she fictionalizes this past and shapes the telling of the story as she does.
Harris's collection of short stories, "The Ant Generator" (University of Iowa Press), won the John Simmons Prize and was praised by Pulitzer Prize Winner Marilynne Robinson for its "bemused awareness of the uncertain frontiers between the quotidian and the dreamlike."
Elizabeth Harris taught fiction writing and modern literature for a number of years at the University of Texas at Austin. I spoke with her about "Mayhem."
Mary Pauline Lowry (MPL): After publishing an award winning collection of short stories, I'm curious what motivated you to write a novel.
Elizabeth Harris (EH): I think most fictionists start out with short stories, and for me to win an award for "The Ant Generator" was enormously encouraging, but I've always loved novels for the opportunity to lose yourself in a world that you, as reader, collaborate in imagining. A friend told me some of the stories in the collection were "almost novelistic," which I thought meant, in their implications of a past or future for characters. Although "Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman" is the first novel I've published, it's the third I wrote--or the fourth, if you count the one when I was thirteen. For a long time I was headed towards writing novels.
MPL: What prompted you to include an authorial narrator in the story who comments on what she is doing? That's such an interesting and effective device.
EH: After I'd written a first draft dramatizing this violent crime set in 1936 Texas--two stock farmers try to castrate a neighbor--I wanted to balance the extreme action with reflection and to give the novel a more contemporary feel, because causes and effects of the crime raise gender issues still relevant today. So, partly because the novel originated in childhood observations of certain women, I began adding bits of a female author's memoir about writing the novel. I was also inspired by Michael Ondaatje's "The Cat's Table," which combines fictional memoir with crime story. And for me, having an author present as a character in the fiction led to places I hadn't expected.
MPL: How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Did you begin with research and then write, or did you write and then research as needed?
EH: Both, I can say looking back. But I did the first research with no use in mind for it, just because I got interested in historical stories of Central Texas. Afterwards, I thought, "I ought to write something about that," but I didn't know what. Much later, when I remembered my childhood curiosity about women who worked as home nurses at the bedsides of elderly relatives in other parts of the state, I thought I might imagine the story of one of those women into a fictitious Central Texas setting. And then as I began to imagine what had brought this character to that work, I discovered all sorts of things I needed to know about, which led to more directed research.
MPL: The level of detail in your writing stands out. Can you say anything about the literary reasons for that?
EH: Like all imaginative writers, I try to detail sensory images that invite the reader into an illusion of experience. I also hope some of those images, like pebbles tossed into a pool, will set up resonances that spread farther and contact each other or ideas a reader derives from other aspects of the novel. In that way reader and writer become partners in creating the reader's experience of it.
MPL: What projects are you working on next and how can readers stay tuned for the release of the novel and other work?
EH: I'd like to sell a completed novel,"The Look Thief," which features an author character who has discovered she can't write the semi-autobiographical novel she tried to and instead, for reasons that emerge, writes the tense story of a woman character stalked and harassed by a man in a burgeoning Austin of the 1980's-2000. My current writing project is a novel about a former research librarian who discovers, from a nineteenth-century Texas archive she travels to read, that an oppressive family story about her great-great grandfather the Senator is not only false but the intentional construction of his wife and one of their daughters. Readers can find any news about these projects, along with more about "Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman" on my website.,