Barbara Dimmick on writing HEART-SIDE UP
For seven or eight years, I lived alone in a small, snug, unfinished house in the Vermont woods. I cut, split, lugged, stacked, and burned my own firewood, carried water from a free-running artesian well at the village stone school house, put a new roof on the house, tore off the deck and built a new one, did finish carpentry. I read by kerosene lamps, but unlike Zoe, I had a telephone and a generator I fired up occasionally in order to run the power saw and, admittedly, mix the occasional batch of frozen margaritas in the blender.
In such a life, one has good neighbors, indifferent neighbors, and miserable neighbors. I had all three, all fascinating. The first bad storm I was alone in the house, my phone rang all evening with local and distant friends, worried about my well-being. Outside, the temperatures were in the single numbers, the snow was thick, the wind was stiff. My phone rang and rang, with people worried about my well-being. But I’d put too much oak in my woodstove, and I was roasting to death, wandering around the house in bare feet and shorts, while my nearby friends were shivering in cold houses because the power was out.
Ever since, I’ve been taken with the ironic security and risk of such a life. I left the woods nine years ago, and ever since I’ve been painfully aware that I’m at the mercy of storms, power companies, propane companies, the man who brings me firewood, the man who plows my driveway in a way I never was out in the deep woods. It’s a hard life, of endless rounds of chores, too little free time, but there’s a calm that comes from it, a peace I sometimes miss.
I write many years behind myself, and I’ve always known I would some day write about this life, especially its textures and rhythms, the paradoxes of hiding and exposure, isolation and neighbors. Somehow these were heightened by Zoe’s flight and pursuit, by the paradox of cutting that wounds and cutting that nurtures.
The greatest surprise in writing HSU was that one of the main characters was an elusive monk. I remember when he first appeared, a distinct presence in my office, standing somewhere behind me and to the left. “A monk. You can’t be a monk. I don’t know a thing about monks.” But Zeke was indeed a monk, annoying, fascinating, mysterious, and he led me to visit monasteries and befriend some monastics, and to pose more questions about faith than I can answer. (Actually I can’t answer any questions about faith, though, like Zeke I suspect that articulation of creeds has caused more harm than good across the ages.)
In my work, I try to tell a story, but with some sense of beauty or texture. And not just of language, but of place. One of my great sorrows is the increasing loss of places on this earth which are utterly themselves and nowhere else. Soon we’ll have so many Walmarts and Borders Bookstores and Chilis restaurants in this country, there will be no need to travel. So it was wonderful to write about Reillys, the Shroveton store, the Shroveton meeting house, as if rendering them is also somehow a desperate effort to preserve them.
My standard line about this novel has been that it’s about “God, sex, love, and chainsaws.”
I’m not sure my influences are. I love John Donne, Virginia Woolf, Yeats, but also a wide and strange variety of other writers: John Fowles and Fay Weldon, Andrew Crumey, Paolo Maurensig, Graham Greene and Graham Swift, Penelope Lively and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And on and on. And I read huge amounts of non-fiction and history, tracking down anything that interests me or catches my eye…. And I’m quite fascinated by the 17th century mystic writer Jean-Pierre De Caussade, whose book Abandonment to Divine Providence lies on a lectern in this novel, as well as in the famous and simple pamphlet of letters by Brother Lawrence, who worked so clumsily in the kitchen of a monastery back in 17th century France. Their ideas are paraphrased by the man Zoe meets in the storm. Reverence for each moment—De Caussade says that every moment is a sacrament—seems somehow both part of writing and of spiritual practice.
From Library Journal (starred review)
…this second novel from Dimmick (following In the Presence of Horses) describes the aftermath of a horrendous physical attack at a Rhode Island school. In this particular incident, a knife-wielding student has disfigured teacher Zoe Muir. Unable to return to business-as-usual, she moves to northern Vermont, buys an unfinished house in the woods, and attempts to reconstruct her life. She develops a comforting routine by chopping firewood, hiking, tending her dog, cleaning the outhouse, and building walls. Yet something is amiss in Zoe's remote paradise. Local residents, she discovers, are resentful of financially stable outsiders like her who are changing the tenor of their New England community. What's more, the emotional security Zoe imagined finding in her new environs is fleeting. Heart-Side Up looks at the nature of friendship and explores questions of religious faith, piety, identity, sexuality, and trust. Wonderfully engrossing and haunting, it is a timely look at violence, pathology, and the intersection of survival and redemption. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.
--Eleanor J. Bader
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Dimmick's prose is straightforward, evasive of melodrama and sentimentality, sometimes witty, and sometimes profound. Zoe's struggle to overcome her fears reflects a process virtually all of us go through, regardless of what problems we encounter, and her stubborn tenacity in the face of overwhelming circumstances is inspiring.
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