We're so excited to share an interview with Vermont author Maria Hummel. Maria writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in numerous publications including Pushcart Prizes, Narrative, and The Sun. She was a Stegner fellow and previously taught at Stanford for nine years. Currently, she works as an associate professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
Maria recently took some time to answer a few questions about her latest book, Still Lives, which Kirkus Reviews calls a "taut take on noir, misogyny, and the art of responsible storytelling." We think Still Lives just may be the perfect summer read: a smart, literary thriller set in the museum world that will keep you turning pages. We both flew through this novel! And did you know that Still Lives is a Book of the Month selection for May?
Maria's book launch for Still Lives is on Tuesday, June 5 at 7:00 pm at Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vermont.
Grateful thanks to Maria for her thoughtful replies to our questions, and to Megan at Counterpoint for sending us an advanced copy!
Literary North: Where did the initial spark for Still Lives come from? Did you know immediately that the story would take shape as a thriller?
Maria Hummel: I worked at The Museum of Contemporary in Los Angeles in my late twenties, and ever since I’d carried around the idea that a museum would make a great milieu for a suspense novel that could also be a cultural commentary. So I started plotting before I started writing, with the intentions of having twists and reveals, as well as some bigger thematic questions. The biggest surprise for me was Maggie’s [the protagonist's] voice, and how much her perspective shapes and complicates the story.
LN: You're written poetry, historical fiction, and now, a literary thriller. What is your writing process like? Do you find it changes depending on the type of genre you're working in?
MH: As a writer, I’m perennially interested in received forms—in all genres. It fascinates me that a block of fourteen lines with a prescribed rhyme scheme has somehow worked for generations of writers, on multiple continents. If you follow the sonnet’s directions well enough, a sonnet manifests, in some kind of creaturely way. A bad sonnet still feels like a sonnet. The DNA coding is there.
There are many such forms in poetry: the ghazal, haiku, villanelle, etc. Fewer exist in fiction, but the mystery novel is definitely one. Like a sonnet, it has rules about where to begin and end; it has its own craft elements and terminology. I learned so much from working in poetry forms in my collection, House and Fire, I thought I would conduct the same experiment in a novel. And, not surprisingly, Still Lives completely upended how I write narrative. I sketched out the plot in notebooks for months before composing a single sentence. The mystery form demanded that, and I love how it tested me.
LN: Your book's artist, Kim Lord, says that she sees her Still Lives exhibition "as a tribute to the victims, and as an indictment of our culture's obsession with sensationalized female murders." Some people might see her artwork as capitalizing on that same sensationalism. When you were writing Still Lives, did you grapple with including these scenes of violence in your own work and how it might be perceived by your readers?
MH: You are very smart to note that! In fact, I under-described many of Kim Lord’s artworks until the final drafts, because, I think, I was dodging this very hypocrisy. My editor pushed me to make those descriptions more detailed and vivid. I think he felt that the book would be more powerful if readers could “see” what Kim had made, that what she was doing wasn’t voyeuristic and shallow but actually an effort to inhabit the pain and significance of these women’s lost lives. Strangely, as soon as I really sank into the nightmarish details of the murders in order to write those passages, I started to change and deepen other parts of the book, to see further into the events and characterizations that unfold. I also had a lot of bad dreams, just like Kim. So it was a tough decision, but I know the book is better because of it.
LN: At one point, Maggie reflects that she and her friends, though worldly, accomplished, and can do anything they want, are "frozen...set on display until someone rearranges [them]... Still lives." Can you talk a bit about why she feels this way, what forces she's fighting against that make her feel that she has little or no agency in her own life?
MH: Another tricky moment in the story. Maggie is my character, and not me, so her thoughts are her own here, and explaining them is tough. But I think she feels a sense of confusion about her purpose and path. Unlike her mother’s generation (and many generations of women before hers), Maggie has been raised to believe she could be anything, go anywhere. This new shedding of dependency on men/imminent motherhood makes Maggie’s looming thirties potentially no different than her fleeing twenties. Hooray! She’s free. And yet. Her body will age. Eventually some choices, such as the choice to have children, will vanish. She’s glad to be in charge of her fate, of course, but now that she’s getting older she paradoxically feels the absence of the determinism of a patriarchal society, which dictated practically every story of love and family she’s ever read or known. And she’s lonely to be seen, to be loved. There’s still some way she is waiting for a man to complete her, and it troubles her that she feels this.
LN: As a creative writing professor at the University of Vermont, what advice do you give to beginning writers who don't know where to begin on a project?
MH: Begin with mixed feelings. A character you love and despise. A household that is both a cage and tender embrace. A state that does the wrong thing in the name of justice or mercy or safety. Find a situation where you can’t decide between two big emotions. There’s at least a poem there. Could be a whole novel.
LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the last month?
MH: Vermont-based writer Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale had me sneaking around with the paperback tucked under my arm at home or stowed in my purse when I went out, because I was so caught up in the story of Vasilia growing up magical in Christian medieval Russia. But I also keep rereading two poems this year from Poetry magazine. I can’t get enough of them: Danez Smith’s “how many of us have them?” and Forrest Gander’s “Stepping Out of the Light.” Though entirely different in subject and approach, they both are so intense, so deeply inhabited.