Amanda Uhle spoke with Leland De La Durantaye on the WCBN podcast Living Writers about his first work of fiction, Hannah Versus the Tree. We’re excited to share the transcript of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
AMANDA UHLE: Leland, you are the author of a novel, Hannah Versus the Tree, published by McSweeney’s this year. This is your first novel. I would love for you to introduce the book for us.
LELAND DE LA DURANTAYE: The first thing I could say about it is that it’s short. I don’t say so that people will think about picking it up because it won’t represent such a gigantic time investment for them. It’s relevant in that it’s a single voice speaking, trying to compel the reader, trying not to lose their attention in a continuous session of thought. It doesn’t need to be imagined as being composed in a single session but rather in a relatively condensed period of time in a highly emotional state.
The Hannah of the title is its heroine and she’s a heroine in a strong sense of the word, which to say she is somebody who is really incredible in a number of regards. Even for those people who are closest to her, she’s very surprising in what she can do. She is a genius, and her genius manifests in a number of ways that make her very unpredictable. So in a very topological sense she would be like Odysseus or Achilles, someone with a very unusual nature and very unusual capacities.
The next thing that the book is about is the tree, and the tree is a family tree. Hannah is resisting a very powerful part of her own family, and the book describes a great act of vengeance. What’s perhaps not immediately obvious is that it’s about love. It’s written in the voice of love. The narrator loves Hannah and has since he was a child, and so while it has one side which involves a lot of conflict, there is another side which involves a lot of concord. For me, therefore, it’s to a significant extent about love, about feeling and about the description of love.
AU: That sense of love came through very strongly for me as a reader. I found all of the action plot points fascinating but almost secondary to what I felt was a real adoration that the narrator had for Hannah.
LDLD: That makes me happy to hear because it corresponds to how the book grew. I wrote it in a relatively brief period of time, about a year. I’m a professor of comparative literature and I was on sabbatical in Rome, meant to be translating Italian philosophy and instead writing Hannah. As I was writing, I didn’t know what I was writing. I didn’t know the story or the plot points so much as I knew the tone, a voice that was going to be writing about Hannah. I really only learned the plot relatively late in the process of writing the book.
It is intuitive and natural to me that it would be first experienced as a statement of love, though for someone who’ll view the architecture of its plot, it wouldn’t necessarily seem that way.
AU: I think the book has a very unusual and beautiful structure.
LDLD: The narrator is addressing someone in the book and initially you don’t know exactly whom or exactly why, and as the book progresses, it becomes clear why the speaker is addressing this person who is Hannah’s grandmother. That structure seemed the best and that too came relatively late. I’ll take a step back and say something larger about the composition of the book. I’m 46 and I have been trying to write this book since I was 4 or 5. I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I’ve always wanted to write a book like this.
AU: Wow, 42 years in the making.
LDLD: I remember in East Lansing, Michigan, when I was 4 years old, getting a notebook for Christmas and I had just learned to write. I was filling it up initially with my name, my parents’ names, the name of the dog, some cats, a rabbit and the things of my world, but I didn’t really have much of a story to tell. I hadn’t been alive that long and I couldn’t really write, so I remember filling it however I could, even at the end with a kind of script. Just to have there be ink on every line and feeling that I was done, that I’d written a book. It felt really good.
In my adolescence I was studying philosophy and languages, living in Germany and France and Italy. But in my heart, what I really thinking about doing when I was there was to write a novel. During that time, I tried many times. What was different about this experience — of Hannah — is that I completed it. I don’t really know how. To come back to the structure of the novel, in the past I had been able to string together passages of prose which I liked or found interesting, but they didn’t cohere. It wasn’t a story. It wasn’t really a book. Somehow with Hannah, I was able to find a structure with a sort of mythic outline to it and a certain set of recurrences.
It’s a little bit like in a musical piece; there are movements in it, a rhythmic return, there’s a word and a kind of emotion that recurs at points. Those allowed me to have a structure for it and allowed me to see a way that I could complete it. The book is much shorter than I imagined it being. I had a lot of material and I suddenly saw a way that it could coalesce. Completing it itself was like when I completed this notebook when I was 4, it was a really unusual intense feeling. I’ve translated three books and written three books of philosophy and criticism and it didn’t feel at all like those things.
AU: I want to hear more about that feeling and the difference between completing a nonfiction book or completing a translation compared to completing a novel. That’s such a fascinating difference.
LDLD: The first book I wrote is called Style is Matter and it’s about Nabokov. Then I wrote a book about a great Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, the greatest living philosopher, and finally a book about Samuel Beckett called Beckett’s Art of Mismaking. In each case, I was intensely emotionally engaged with the material, but it wasn’t about my emotion. My emotion was in the background. I was trying to make his intellectual world intelligible to a reader and highlight what was so particularly brilliant about his work. It was really about curating someone else’s creation and serving it, furthering it.
To write something purely of myself from myself is completely different. It’s daunting in many ways because I wouldn’t be able to say, “Well, I wrote that because someone else wrote something,” or, “That chapter is the way it is because Beckett’s late work is the way it is.” Anything that was in the book, it was to me to justify it, to understand it and to be its author. I was very much an author in writing this book, and as I said it’s very of me the things that happened in it. They’re not from my life at all, but sometimes it appears to be like a mosaic and every little stone in it is a bit of my experience. It might be experience reading. It might be experience firsthand, but it’s full of little live cells of emotion and so my relationship to it was really highly charged, which leads to a strange dichotomy. I am uncomplicatedly proud of it and happy and excited.
AU: Tell us about your writing process, sentence by sentence.
LDLD: I do think that I have a somewhat unusual process for a fiction writer. When I sit down to write, I don’t know what I’m doing in any given session of writing, including the sessions of writing that led to Hannah, which were basically every day in Rome for a year. I would sit down and just free associate and write whatever came into my head for a certain amount of time, maybe an hour. Sometimes with a particularly good wind, I would write for two.
The story itself grew from those bits of actual writing — a beginning of a sentence or an image or a relationship between images — which I think would be counter-intuitive for some novelists, who would first envisage the whole society in which it takes place, know exactly the historical moment, plan it like a battle and then write it. That seems to be really dramatic and fun, but I’m incapable of it. It’s really foreign to my writing nature.
AU: You’re not the plan it out on index cards in advance type?
LDLD: No, I even have a little difficulty sometimes with my students because it’s really a temperamental question. Some of my students plan in advance Both modes are equally valid and there’s a lot of people between the poles. I’m pretty close to one of the poles, so when I have students who really love to plan, I have to work hard mentally to get into their planning space because even my own academic work didn’t proceed in that manner.
My girlfriend often thinks that I basically know what I’m doing but I’m keeping it a secret for myself for the excitement of it, that I am dimly aware of everything but I can’t let myself in on it.
AU: I like that theory. That’s a wonderful approach for those of us who like to fall into writing the way that you’re talking about.
LDLD: It is very reassuring that I’m not just stumbling around in the dark of myself. I just don’t have crystalline consciousness of it the whole time.
AU: And so how does excellent writing emerge from that?
LDLD: Right, I guess that’s the entire question. It’s basically the question that presents itself in lots of domains: is there discovery or invention? Like in mathematics, the solution to some theorem, did it always exist and it was hidden did someone have to invent it? For the structure of a story, is it the story that everyone has deep inside of themselves that they just have to discover it? Or does it not exist yet, only has a potential existence and you have to make it exist? I suppose the most energizing thing is that I would have to materialize it out of nothing and the most tranquilizing thing basically proves this idea that you have to translate it out of yourself or out of your soul. It’s in there. It has always been there. You just have to learn to translate.
AU: Can you talk about how you chose to begin that book the way you did?
LDLD: I had been aware for some time that the book was in the second person, but I didn’t know who was addressed. What ultimately made the most sense was for the narrator to be addressing Hannah’s grandmother, the matriarch of this really powerful family. She is like the opposing general, because it is a phase of conflict which is strategic and involving large scale decision making, all of it irreversible, like an ancient military conflict.
Hannah is behaving quite like Hannibal of Carthage; she is an utter genius even when outnumbered. What’s technically difficult is the addressee, the grandmother, was a participant. She knows everything and so I had to communicate to the reader everything that both sides know. They know who Hannah is, they know what Hannah did, but the grandmother doesn’t know exactly how Hannah defeated her.
The voice is of course outraged and aggressive in a way that not even Hannah would be because the narrator adores Hannah. He has known her since they were children, has a deep level of solidarity and allegiance as well as a passionate love for her. He was close enough to see how she won the battle, how she was able to resist in the tradition of the disadvantaged and reverse the huge advantage that members of her family had against her.
He really wants to speak of it because it was so amazing. He wants to understand it himself, just as someone who feels as if they witnessed an act of genius, so as to clarify in their own minds how something so brilliant could happen. How someone could either be so lucky or so lucid that they were able to do something utterly extraordinary and with no wavering of confidence.
AU: In the beginning section while the voice is strident and a little bit harsh at moments, that power comes from the fidelity and the love that the narrator has for Hannah. You’ve made a comment about the book’s length, but my experience was that its short length was part of its power.
LDLD: I would love for that to be a fair characterization. It does feel to me like a novel and not a novella. It’s not a story that goes on a little longer; it is a complete novel, a complete tale. My practice at the end was to shave away everything that wasn’t load-bearing, everything that wasn’t serving the whole. It feels to me very close to the bone now.
AU: I would argue that the book’s intensity means it’s perhaps a much longer time commitment than the novel’s length would indicate. I found myself reading and rereading a little bit.
LDLD: It is a very concentrated novel.
AU: It’s probably twice as long as it first appears — whether you read it front to back and then again or whether you are returning to certain passages.
LDLD: There’s a thing that the Nabokov used to tell his students. He would begin each lecture on literature by telling the students, “There’s no reading, only rereading.” I do think that if I were so lucky as to have rereaders, I think there are certain things that might not have been so clear in the first reading that would become more clear with a subsequent read. The narrator doesn’t especially emphasize certain elements that are key to the unfolding of things simply because it would be totally implausible given the structure of the novel.
AU: You referenced Michigan in so many beautiful ways in the book.
LDLD: I was born into it. I’m a real Michigander and I’m from East Lansing. My parents are from the Greater Detroit Area. My father’s father was very interested in genealogy and had traced our family’s presence in what is today Michigan to before the country existed when it was New France. My parents were hippies and had me when they were very young and they would travel around a lot. A lot of my youth was spent in the northern parts of Michigan, Upper and Lower Peninsula and so that really has always fired my imagination. It’s where I first began to think about the natural world and its power and danger and fascination. My mother is Ottawa, so when I was a child I had a sort of really mystical, magical attachment to Michigan as well as a conflicted attachment because my father’s side were these colonial people from France.
My parents represented different modes of knowing the forest, of knowing the lakes, of knowing the rivers. They represent different attitudes on what one is doing there. The French were trading fur and maintaining alliances with different tribes as to counter the force of the English with some kind of grand game, and of course, the Ottawa had a very different experience of nature and felt the responsibility to preserve it. All my ideas about the world and about nature grew in Michigan listening to my parents and other people talk about it and above all just having a lot of physical experiences in different parts of Michigan.
As I was giving my protagonist a childhood, I had to give in some part mine and the most natural and intuitive way to do that was to put them in Michigan. That is the most anchored place in the book. After that, the places in the book are much less bound up with their place and often they are not even really named.
AU: There’s a grand tradition of family novels where the author relies on our collective understanding of what families are and what they do, and I think what you’ve done with this novel is so very different than that.
LDLD: I wanted there to be a grand conflict. There had to be a huge amount of energy for a really intense conflict and a natural place to think about that is of course in families. That’s where the highest intensity of emotion is, where first emotion comes from and every family has a different understanding of what a family is. Large aristocratic families like Hannah’s are enterprises surviving different regimes, surviving a monarchial world into a world where their power comes from political influence and money as opposed to the possession of land and spiritual authority. The Syrls have been very adaptable. There’s a mythic level, where you can have a situation that arises where one owes one thing to a family and one owes another thing to society.
One level of allegiance that people have is to family, and in many cases that trumps all other surrounding allegiances. There are certainly a number of figures in the book whose most important relationship is to the family. The laws of the place or larger scale questions of equality and fairness disappear before the imperatives of the family. It’s this animal love of what’s a part of you, and there can always be difficult situations where someone is caught between the two.
A really famous example is in the Oedipus cycle of plays. Antigone is in this difficult situation in which the laws of family obliged her to bury her dead brother, but the laws of city forbid her to give burial to an enemy of the city. She’s in this impossible double-blinded situation where she has to accommodate imperatives from totally different domains and it’s very difficult to know how to relate one’s responsibility to family with one’s responsibility to larger concerns.
One side of the drama is about how much injustice you will turn a blind eye to because it’s your family. There’s something that feels morally good about complete allegiance to family, to say the rest of the world can be as chaotic or as incomprehensible as it is but the one thing that I hold to is family. Hannah certainly doesn’t lack this. She has a very powerful feeling of family. In a way, you owe your family life. Nothing you could ever do can repay family for what they gave you and certainly a lot of conflict arises from people doing what is best for their family and not what is best for the collective.
AU: It’s a supreme sort of allegiance that many people have to families. In the case of your novel, we see people very courageously breaking that allegiance, which is primally difficult. Earlier you talked about your childhood, about a notebook you received as a four-year-old and wanting to be a writer and eventually becoming one and calling yourself one. What advice do you have for others who know writing is part of them, but who have yet to actualize that idea in their lives?
LDLD: I can only and very humbly counsel patience. I’m really a happy creative person at this moment in life and I’ve been a happy person at many moments in my life, but I think that previously I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically mature enough to write a book. This time, I was relaxed.