An Interview with Ingrid HillAuthor Ingrid Hill speaks in a thoughtful, graceful way that manages to be cerebral yet refreshingly open. One has only to read a few pages of her splendidly complex book, Ursula, Under, to see those qualities at work. The book, about culture, bloodlines, and sometimes surprising connections, is also about poetically precise writing. It was included on the longlist for the Orange Prize, a finalist for Virginia Commonwealth University’s First Novel Prize, a winner of the Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction, on a Washington Post list of Best Books, and is a Christian Century pick, along with Ha Jin’s War Trash and Philip Roth’s Plot Against America.
The book’s focal point is Ursula Wong, a toddler of Finnish and Chinese-American descent, whose devoted parents have brought her to the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to explore their heritage -- in this case the death of her mom’s great-grandfather in a copper-mining accident. History lurches when Ursula herself, exploring a field of flowers on a sunny day meant for a picnic, drops into an abandoned mine shaft. As rescue efforts commence and hearts wrench, Ursula’s tale takes a side trip -- several, in fact -- back and forth in time. We meet a third-century-B.C. alchemist in China, a foundling at the 17th century Swedish court, a lovely deaf woman and the hag who curses her in 8th century Finland, a French Jesuit priest in China in the 1600s and later in wild America. Ancestors rise and fall as we carry on with all the characters who people Ursula’s life and Hill demonstrates the importance of connections.
In the beginning
Getting started was not easy. Literary journals of some renown were just recognizing her talents and she was mothering 11 children (now 12) when her first husband left. Of the breakup, she says, “I knew a line was being drawn in the sand; it was not about the money (the most she made then was $375 for a story, she said); it was about who he saw me as.” She felt she was being asked to choose between that marriage or her writing. “While I could not imagine choosing to single-parent my kids, I could not give up my writing. It was no contest. And there’s been an enormous amount of hardship -- it’s been hell -- but it made me a stronger person.”
She believes that all her “breaking” was necessary. “Writing is such a healing thing. You simply rearrange reality. A rich interior life is a great place to go on vacation.”
She took many such jaunts. Hill had begun the writing process the only way she could: in her head.
“We had a huge, long table we got from the University of Michigan surplus, taken from an old library. It was 12 feet long, and every night we sat down to that table for dinner. I made dinner, everything. I baked bread twice a week, I made my own yogurt; it was Little House on the Prairie. And I wasn’t thinking about the celery I was chopping or the pajamas I was washing; I was writing stories in my head, and I was doing the writing and revisions in my head.”
That skill -- to carefully form stories before putting them to paper -- has been a boon. She does little revision, and she doesn’t understand how anyone can write with a “broad brush.”
Hill, who grew up in New Orleans, gives her Swedish father partial credit for her curiosity and imagination. He was an artist and a ship’s navigator before he became captain. He traveled the world, he knew the stars, and he had lots of stories. From her more traditional, French Cajun mother, whom she describes “as a kind of '40s starlet, pretty and petite,” she may have learned what she did not want. “If you see old black and white '40s movies, the woman is always like a sidecar, and I never quite knew how to do that.” Her mother was shocked to learn Hill wanted to go to college. But Hill knew early on she envisioned something more.
Not that she was always practical. “I had spent my whole high school career resisting taking typing. I didn’t want to become a typist, because that’s what learning to type was supposed to be for; women were supposed to become secretaries.” She pauses. “So I wind up spending my life typing.” She laughs.
She has not laughed about all her reviews, but she seems grounded, even mildly amused, about the few negative ones. One reviewer lambasted her for a “violent dichotomy between good and evil,” evil particularly embodied in a character named Jinx—also connected to Ursula, without knowing it. A slice of Jinx: While watching rescue efforts unfold on TV, she hisses, "Why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn halfbreed trailer-trash kid?” Hill maintains that she was fond of Jinx despite the woman’s demons. “I needed to care enough about her to keep rooting for her redemption and to mourn when she refused it.”
What Hill finds fascinating is some reviewers’ fixation with Jinx’s abortions. “Nobody has ever objected to anything else Jinx does [and Jinx does some terrible things] but abortion; that’s a political subject. Jinx had abortions because she’s not the kind of person who wants kids. But people are really tender on the subject. And they say, ‘How dare you have Jinx have abortions? Obviously you think that’s evil.’ And I kind of think, ‘Well, what nerve did I touch?’ ”
A special bond
Her nerves were touched in a way that led Hill and some of her children on a genealogical quest of their own, when she discovered that five of her kids had McArdle’s disease, a metabolic muscle disorder related to Muscular Dystrophy. Both parents carry the gene but may not have the symptoms. Sufferers experience severe muscle pain and fatigue, and even muscle spasms, when they exercise.
“We discovered it when my first and third sons were in high school -- my oldest son, when he’d go out for football drills, would just crumple up.” A son subsequently researching the illness connected it to folks with Cajun blood -- “one way you think about what we inherit,” Hill quips. About this time her son made another connection, learning that deep in the family was a French general who defeated George Washington. But that held little interest for Hill. “My point in the book is that the ones who are famous don’t interest me. To find out that an ancestor happened to be in a place at a certain time when something political related to a battle occurred, is far less interesting to me than what happened to Marjatta.”
Ah, Marjatta. Hill uses a gorgeous, heartbreaking chapter to tell the story of the Finnish Marjatta Palomaki, who arrives as a girl in America with her family, only to be torn from them at Ellis Island and sent back. She endures and finds happiness with a handsome, educated Finnish man who adores her but leaves her impoverished when he unexpectedly dies. When she returns to America later, she is a changed woman, married to a gruff, uneducated man headed for the copper mines of the U.P.
Inspiring Hill was the real-life story of the death in a U.P. mine shaft of Hill’s Finnish husband’s grandfather. “My husband gave me a diagram of the mine shaft, which is E-shaped: a vertical shaft with three legs, called drifts, at a 90-degree angle to that. I was looking at the diagram and thinking, ‘Well, yes, This story has already been written -- so what is MY story here?’ At the top of the mine shaft, in my mind’s eye, appeared two little toddler faces; my daughter, blonde, blue-eyed, and Finnish, and my godchild, totally Chinese. The faces merged, and the image slipped down the hole. I gasped. That was my story.”
The scope and slowed-down sense of time in Ursula sprang from two things. One was the Bible, which Hill taught as literature when she was a graduate student. “I was taken by the sense of time, of going way, way back into the ages and these various books being related one to another, each proceeding out of the next,” she says.
Another was time spent living in China. “Everything was such a big deal [to accomplish] that you woke up each day and thought, ‘What will I do today? Well, I’ll write that letter.’ And then the next day: ‘Well, I’ll post that letter.’ I’m by nature a patient person, and my children have made me pathologically so, but the experiences of China and of reading the Bible as an adult gave me a sense of time you see in the book.”
Hill describes her research methods simply: “I can’t even remember where the image came from, but it’s cartoonish, of a junkyard dog who has swallowed a magnet and is walking through the junkyard and things stick to him. That’s the scientific way I do my research.” She gives as an example the creation of Violeta, a Finnish foundling imagined left at the court of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden -- a real-life heroic and well-loved figure, whom Hill had studied. But what most fascinated Hill was the king’s selfish, prickly daughter, Christina. “I thought, ‘Oooooh, what an icky person; I think I want her.’ I wanted to have her in the book as a foil: Here is royalty, but royalty is no guarantee that you’ll be a nice person; in fact it tends to be the opposite because it makes you an egomaniac.” So Violeta comes to learn when she becomes Christina’s confidante.
Stories then and now
Sometimes a connection takes you by the arm and leads you. When Hill researched her husband’s grandfather’s death in a mine, “The guy at the Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee, Michigan, said to me, ‘William Hill who died in the mine crash? Oh, you must know Emil then.’ I said, ‘Actually no.’ [Emil was her father-in-law’s brother.]’ And he said, ‘Well, you gotta talk to Emil.’" She tracked him to a veterans hospital, where “a whole bunch of elderly disabled veterans came pouring out like puppies, in their wheelchairs, when I opened the door." The attendant pointed out Emil “who looked just like my husband 40 years older.” She and her husband got to know him well, and he told many stories, developing a strong bond with Hill’s daughter Maria before he died.
Clearly family means a lot to Hill -- connection again -- and she merrily recalls an incident that happened with her daughter Maria, who’s 13. “We were at a bookstore and a woman came in with her daughter, who was about ten. She saw that I had my daughter, and she went over to Maria while I was signing books. She said, ‘What are you reading ‘cause I want to get something for my daughter.' It was this sort of writer-olotry: Let me rub up against you and something will rub off. And Maria said, ‘I’m reading David Sedaris.’ The woman had no idea who he was. And my daughter said -- Maria, so deadpan -- ‘he’s a humorist.’ So the woman sent the clerk off to find a Sedaris book.”
Says Hill, “I don’t know the end of that story, but I love the beginning.”