Arna Bontemps Hemenway thinks about story a lot—even for a fiction writer. His collection Elegy on Kinderklavier, published by Sarabande Books earlier this year, examines narrative in surprisingly self-aware ways. The characters in his collection are unafraid to explore the stories they tell themselves, and Hemenway is just as unafraid.
Many of the stories in Kinderklavier center on tragedy, grief, or war. One of my favorites, “The Half Moon Martyrs’ Brigade of New Jerusalem, Kansas,” focuses on a small town Army recruiter who also has to serve as the Casualty Affairs Officer. He also coaches baseball and often divulges impressive stories about team members’ fathers from when he was at war with them. His Casualty Affairs uniform alone tells the boys another kind of story they don’t want to hear. Another favorite, “The Territory of Grief,” doesn’t even take place on Earth, but its main character cannot escape the story of his past trauma. Gershon is the Government Administrator on a mourners’ colony with others who are haunted by their grief, but Gershon’s case is special—his ex-wife made a painful documentary exploring their mutually shared traumatic event.
The title story is exquisite. As a young boy’s health deteriorates due to brain cancer, his mother can’t handle the situation and leaves her husband to care for the boy at the hospital alone. The father proceeds to unravel the stories of their marriage and examine his own story in the process. Characters throughout the collection are preoccupied with elements of story, but this narrator is more so than any other—his story is all he has left: “I’ve reached now the age of narrative, and it’s important to remember that this structure is false, an imposed will, quirk of myself as a thirty-four-year-old man of an age (reached perhaps a decade or so prematurely) when I have begun to be concerned with the story of what’s happened to me.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Bontemps Hemenway last month at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference where he was the D. H. Lawrence Fellow (given each year to an emerging writer of poetry or prose with one book in print or at press). I planned to do a traditional interview with him, but something else happened. Arna told me a story and I mostly listened—he told me the story of his failure and how it changed his writing life.
Hemenway received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but the novel manuscript he originally intended to use as his dissertation was ultimately a disaster. “I’m glad that thesis failed because it makes you confront ‘Why am I doing this?’ and writing after that felt good. That kind of failure is freeing. It’s the worst that could happen to you [as a writer] to flame out at Iowa because you weren’t good enough,” Hemenway said.
This failure changed the way he looked at writing. Originally his dream to be a writer was motivated by publication and prizes, but as he got older and saw friends who were successful that were still not happy, something shifted. “Now it’s about reaching people and putting something out in the world that I can be proud of,” he said. For Hemenway it’s about “the purity of the act” and simply loving the process of writing every day because “nobody cares.” He insists that nobody cares about our publication credits, prizes, or MFA degrees, but ourselves, which is a good thing because the true test of being a writer is doing it every day when you know that nobody else cares what happens to your work.
Speaking with Hemenway was a great experience. He was self-deprecating, encouraging, and as willing to analyze his own story as any of the characters in his collection. Our conversation has given me a lot to ponder in terms of how I see my own writing life, and I imagine it will stick with me for a while, just as Elegy on Kinderklavier will.
Brenna Gomez is the Fiction Editor for Blue Mesa Review. She is currently a second-year MFA student in Fiction at the University of New Mexico.