Interview with Sands Hall
Conducted by KAREN JOY FOWLER, author of Sarah Canary and The Jane Austen Book Club
One of the characters in your novel, Maud, is an actor. I understand that this is part of your own background as well.
Yes, theatre's been a big part of my life. Still is. It provides me with a lot of material, although-as I think may often happen with a novel-I didn't expect those experiences to push me in the thematic directions that they did.
Well, theatre is this art-form that disappears. It provides a profound resonance for every other activity in life. Life itself. Except for the script, nothing tangible remains of a play once it's over. The set is stored as pieces of wood; the lights are pulled down, or refocused for the next show; the costumes go on racks, sometimes dismantled and re-used for other costumes; the actors walk away with lines in their heads, and with memories. Even the members of the audience-while they may retain a fragment of what they saw all their lives, they carry away nothing but an idea.
But isn't all art like that? I mean, ultimately? You don't carry the Mona Lisa around with you either.
All life is. I suppose that was what I finally realized I was writing about. That and community. And the odd forms family can take in this day and age.
How about Maud's experience with Shakespeare?
I was fortunate to have a wonderful highschool English teacher, Wells Kerr. He made three of us get up and act out the witches in Macbeth. There's nothing like being fourteen, stirring an imaginary kettle and saying in a creaky voice, "When shall we three meet again?" to get you hooked for life. Shakespeare's words got in my mouth, his ideas got in my head, and he's been a preoccupation, a study, a love of mine ever since. He rewards in-depth study, but he's also a joy to act, and I've been lucky enough to work in various theatres whose focus that is, including the Ashland and Colorado Shakespeare Festivals, and more recently, the Lake Tahoe and Sierra Shakespeare Festivals. I just finished directing one of his plays, a production of "Love's Labour's Lost." A most exciting and illuminating project. Anyway, obviously, a lot of this got translated and utilized as I created Maud's "background" and character.
Other characters in the novel are also artists. Lizzie, Maud's sister, is a painter. Jake is a singer/songwriter.
Well, partly I wanted to talk about art, and its place in our lives. Also, part of Maud's grief is that she has no children, and of course here she is involved in this transient art form- acting, like dance, like any live performance, is gone the moment it's created. She feels that all she will leave behind are memories- nothing tangible. But Lizzie not only has children carrying her very blood on into the world, she has her paintings: objects one can touch, hang on a wall. Maud is aware that those children, those paintings, represent Lizzie's passage through this life. Unlike Maudís own (as she sees it) unrecorded existence, there will traces of Lizzie left in the world. But Lizzie concentrates on the fact she's selling her paintings as greeting cards, which makes them in her eyes less valuable, less meaningful, than Maud's more high-brow Shakespeare affiliation. These differences form part of the tension between the two sisters.
He too is a performer; his art disappears the moment it's spun into the air, so to speak. But music can be recorded in a way that a live stage play can't really be caught, and of course his lyrics, written down on paper, form a tangible "something" he can carry with him. He bridges the gap between the sisters. Literally, figuratively.
"Catching Heaven" is an intriguing title. Is there a story behind it?
There's a fellow named Jonesy in the small town where I live-
Nevada City, California?
Yes. An old mining town, located in the Sierra Nevada. It's not much of a mining town anymore-in fact it's a little "Ye Old Shoppe," really, but charming, with theatre, stores, music, a fabulous river, The Yuba, nearby. Anyway, Jonesy-he's a local and mostly beloved "character"who is sometimes found singing or praising God in public places. He doesnít seem to have a particular agenda or obvious religious affiliation. He dresses in "motley," as one of Shakespeare's fools-who of course are never fools-might have dressed: a red sweatpant on one leg, a white on another, and over this a pair of colorful boxers and a plaid vest. Everyone in town knows who Jonesy is.
About four years ago I was having a cappuccino with an acquaintance. We were outside, our conversation running, as it happened, to topics of a spiritual nature. I was aware that Jonesy was some distance across the patio, and we'd been keeping our voices quite low, but suddenly he was beside us. He couldnít have heard what we were talking about, but he took my wrist in an astonishingly intimate and urgent gesture, and said, "You've got to catch heaven on the fly."
That was the genesis of the title?
Well, I certainly heard a bell go off and saw a lightbulb flash. But I avoided it for a long time. I wanted the name of my book to be phrase from Shakespeare. Because of Maud (and my own interests) that just made sense to me. But what can I say? "The Sound and the Fury" was already taken.
Ah, I see. How could Faulkner do such a thing to you? And Anthony Burgess had already used "Nothing Like the Sun. "
You see my problem. Actually, I pored over Shakespeare's plays and sonnets and I came up with a lot of great phrases, but not one of them had a thing to do with my novel. The one exception, which I entertained briefly, was "This Great Stage," from Lear's line, "When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." But it just seemed way too ponderous and self-important. And "Catching Heaven on the Fly" had a lot to do with the concerns of the book. In a rewrite I gave the phrase to one of the characters, Sam. Then, just before I sent it off to my agent, I typed up a new title page. My editor at Ballantine, Leona Nevler, suggested I shorten it to "Catching Heaven," which felt exactly right.
Much of the novel takes place in the Southwest. Did you live there?
No. But my sister Tracy did, and several good friends. When I lived in Los Angeles, I used to take these annual pilgrimages to the Four Corners region. I was fascinated by the various theories regarding the culture and especially the disappearance of the Anasazi. I spent a lot of time camping out and clambering in and out of ruins and kivas. All that was actually an early inspiration for the novel.
That research shows up in fascinating ways.
It doesn't sound like you had much use for L.A.
No. It wasn't very good for me. It sucked the marrow from my bones.
You were working as an actor?
As a waitress, mostly. And dozens of other odd jobs to get by. I lived there for ten years, trying to land the big job, or the series of big jobs. I enjoyed some success as an actor, but nothing huge. And way too often I felt I was doing the wrong thing. That the emphasis was wrong. Several beloved friends live there, and have wonderful, fulfilling lives. But it's a city devoted to appearances. I was frustrated, unhappy, much of the time.
So you turned to writing?
I guess you could say that. I'd always put pen to paper. I'd been around writers much of my life, and it seemed a natural outgrowth of my interests. But I'd always thought my father was the actual writer-
Your father is the novelist Oakley Hall.
Yes, and a great friend and mentor. But he was the "writer in the family." It took some nerve to actually start to think that was a path for me. But it was my parents who suggested I apply to a writing program, go back to school and get a Master of Fine Arts degree.
You already had a Bachelor's Degree in Theatre?
Yes. And when the envelope came replying to my application to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I sat down on the couch, my heart thudding, to open it. That single sheet of paper saying, "You're accepted" changed my life.
Well some of it is obvious. I pulled up all my roots in LA, and moved to Iowa City, that green green place-
And that cold cold place!
True! Your shoulders go up around your ears in November and don't begin to come down again until March. I didn't know much about writing. I didn't even know what to look for in the writing of others. But for those two years I devoted myself to writing. And reading. It was a retreat, a long retreat. And as an acquaintance in the Workshop said, "You either get bored or you get better." At a certain point I knew I was getting better (although actually that was years later). I suppose my life really changed when I'd graduated from the Workshop and wondered what on earth I was to do with a Masters degree in an art form in which I knew I was nowhere near being a "master." I didn't have any teaching experience. I hadn't published a thing. So I wandered over to the Drama Department (by this time I was addicted to school) thinking that if I could earn an MFA in Theatre, I could teach acting in a college somewhere, and keep writing.
But you teach writing, don't you?
Yes, things turned out exactly the opposite of that original plan. I teach writing (and write) and my life also contains a lot of acting and directing. The University of Iowa's Drama Department was so supportive! Because of all my acting experience they agreed to give me an MFA in one year instead of the usual three. I burrowed into a lot of academic courses that year, wrote dozens of papers, acted in brand new plays, worked with fabulous new directors-it all rekindled the almost extinguished fire of why I'd ever loved theatre in the first place. What a blessing that year was, and those teachers!
Do you work with a particular theatre?
These days, yes. I'm lucky enough to be closely affiliated with a company, The Foothill Theatre Company. I act, direct, and write for them. And because of FTC's affiliation with the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, I act and direct for that group, as well as for the Sierra Shakespeare Festival.
It seems like these interests-acting, directing, writing-would dovetail into playwriting.
I avoided that for a long time, although I knew it was somewhere on the horizon. I just trusted (I'm rarely this sanguine!) that I'd know when it was the right thing to do And it did, I did. Last year I was asked by The Foothill Theatre Company to write an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," which I also directed. It was a most rewarding experience. I'm working on another play as well.
And another novel?
Things are brewing. I have some ideas.