Unearthing a Family Mystery, Writing about Gender & Violence: Interview with Author Randi Davenport
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Randi Davenport while she was a colleague at UNC-Chapel Hill. She served as the Executive Director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and taught Honors students for Carolina’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. After a couple of meetings, we soon recognized each other as kindred spirits with similar backgrounds in the liberal arts, a deep passion for teaching, and an interest in women’s studies. It was also thrilling to find another academic who was pursuing a creative writing life. Randi has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature, both from Syracuse University. Over the years, I have been inspired by Randi’s dedication to writing.
Randi’s first book, a memoir The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes: A Mother’s Story is about her developmentally disabled son Chase’s psychotic breakdown at age 15. She chronicled being a single parent and the challenges of dealing with the medical industry. This blurb by Alice Hoffman is indicative of the high praise the book received: “A heartbreaking, disturbing, and truly courageous story of one mother’s fight to save her son.”
Randi Davenport is the author of the novel The End of Always (Hachette/Twelve, 2014) and of The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010). In 2011, she received the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer’s Award for Creative Non-fiction, and was a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award and nominated for a Ragan Old North State Cup Award for Non-fiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Salon, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Ontario Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Women’s History Review, Literature/Film Quarterly, Victorian Literature and Culture, among others.
I have been looking forward to speaking with Randi about her new novel The End of Always that is partly based on her family’s history. And, I am thrilled to announce that the novel has just been nominated for a National Book Award! I am delighted to welcome Randi Davenport to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.
The desire for love is a nearly universal human experience, and Marie seeks love throughout the book. But in The End of Always, power and violence seem to thwart her every step of the way. How you do balance these big ideas while telling a tale like this?
I didn’t start by thinking that I was going to write a novel about power and violence, that’s for sure. I started with Marie. Marie Reehs was my mother’s grandmother, which makes her my great-grandmother. She was born in America but her father, mother, and several older siblings were born in Germany, on the island of Rugen. This is where the family came from when they immigrated to Waukesha, Wisconsin. The only thing I knew about Marie when I started was that her name was connected to a deep family mystery. I set out to solve this. When I did, I discovered the events that inspired The End of Always. And those events eventually led me to the issues of power and violence you mention. But I couldn’t start with those, just as I couldn’t write a novel that was just a literal transcription of my great-grandmother’s life. Either choice would have taken me on a fool’s errand.
It’s important to remember that the novel is a story, first and foremost. It’s about one young woman whose life, I suspect, will feel achingly familiar to many readers. If I’ve done my job, Marie’s experiences cannot help but tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that’s where the things you call “big ideas” come into play. But I didn’t write the novel trying to nail those concepts. I wanted to get at the heart of Marie’s life. The “big ideas” about power and violence are inescapably central to her world. As they are to women everywhere.
Talk a little about the title The End of Always. What does this phrase mean to you?
In the most obvious sense, the title refers to Marie’s fight to escape the brutality that the women in her family have always endured. For her, at least as far as the world of the novel is concerned, always comes to an end. But the end is hard won. It may not last. We don’t know.
More broadly, the title refers to the always that women in America experience. Even women who insist that they have never experienced violence and perhaps believe that it’s not all that pervasive know what a risk they take when they walk in a parking garage alone at night or on an empty street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. They know what it might mean if they run out of gas on a country road or fail to check the back seat in their car when they get into it at the mall. They have seen the things that men they know do. Deep down inside, we all know where we live, even if we say otherwise.
The title is less hopeful on this score. Could there be an end to that always? I’m forever optimistic, but I’m a realist, too.
What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
Writing this book was the most difficult part of writing this book! I made a number of false starts. I kept re-writing. My agent was endlessly patient with me. I was still revising right up to the day the page proofs were due. I had a hard time letting the book go. I think everyone at Hachette/Twelve could still see my fingernail marks on the pages when they arrived at their office.
Socialist ideas pervade the Wisconsin community of immigrants that populate The End of Always, but the novel makes clear that true equality does not extend to women. Do you consider this a political novel?
The End of Always is a novel. It’s not a polemic. It is, above all else, a story about a girl and the choices she makes or the choices that are thrust upon her, and her discovery of her place in the world. When I started writing, I actually was thinking of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles, which is a story of a girl’s journey in an inhospitable land.
But to the extent that The End of Always shines a light on the hard and absolute fact that some Americans are beaten or killed or abused or otherwise damaged when they try to walk this land free and equal—well. I can understand why readers might find the political in that. And of course, the novel focuses on a girl’s story as a way to talk about America, to give us insight into ourselves. That literary terrain is nearly invariably reserved for male characters so I suppose this book is disruptive in that way as well.
What does your writing practice look like?
I’m a writer so I write. If you come across me during work hours, it might not look like I’m writing. It might look like I’m staring into space. Or like I’m pulling my hair out. When I was more able, I’d go for long walks. I do lots of thinking before I begin but I don’t do outlines of any sort. I often talk to myself. Depending where I am in the process, I might be sobbing. No. Just kidding. It rarely comes to that. I also write every day. In the morning, before I do anything else. I’ve always done it this way. When my kids were little I’d get up two hours before they did to write. Now that they’re grown, the habit of writing first thing in the day stays with me.
What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?
Let’s see. There are lots of people out there giving advice to writers. Very little of that advice is any good. The best of it is mostly just okay. A good deal of it is truly terrible. Potentially damaging, even. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. However, I’ve been writing my whole life and by this point I do know something about the process. So here’s my advice: If you want to write, write. Forget prompts and tricks and gimmicks. Roll your sleeves up, plant your butt in your chair, and tell your story. Write. And if this isn’t something you can bring yourself to do or if you can imagine any other way to spend your time (Face Book? Twitter? Vacuuming?), it could be that writing is not the thing for you. That’s a hard fact but it’s true. Writers write. And my advice is to get to it.
To find out more about Randi Davenport, visit her website.