MAYHEM Three Lives of a Woman by Elizabeth Harris
Genre: Historical Literary Fiction
Date of Publication: October 5, 2015
Publisher: Gival Press
# of pages: 130
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Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman is a literary novel with a historical setting that engages issues of gender, vigilantism, recovery from trauma, and nostalgia for the rural and small-town past.
Two stock-farmers in 1936 Texas are accused of castrating a neighbor. Mayhem is the story of their crime and its consequences–the violent past and standard gender relations that enable it, and its economic displacement of the modest, well-connected woman who occasions it.
Around the edges of the story, an authorial narrator admits why she fictionalizes this past and shapes the novel as she does.
PRAISE FOR MAYHEM: THREE LIVES OF A WOMAN
“Mayhem is a wonder of a novel. A careful evocation of time and place, community and character, pitched in a voice rich with the lyric poetry of everyday speech, the novel seems not so much narrated as blown up by a breeze. It’s not enough to claim that I believed every word of it; I felt every syllable. This archetypal tale of crime and punishment, so filled with tragedy and sympathy, is one of the most wildly alive novels I have ever read. Every sentence teems with truths both literal and metaphorical, and yet, for all its wisdom and profundity, it reaches us in the manner of a folk ballad, high and sweet and clear.” -- Michael Parker, author of All I Have in This World and The Watery Part of the World
“. . .what to read, watch, and listen to this. . .month in order to achieve maximum Texas cultural literacy. . .Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, Elizabeth Harris. . .” -- Jeff Salamon, Texas Monthly
“In the tradition of Wendell Berry’s elegiac fiction, Elizabeth Harris’ Mayhem. . . a novel that shows reverence to the American South and the people who labored there, but, unlike Berry’s Port William, Kentucky, Harris’ Prince Carl County is unmistakably Central Texas, complete with cattle, cotton, pink granite courthouses and tight-knit German communities.” – Amy Ritthaler Gilmour, San Antonio Express News
“. . . expresses solidarity with marginalized white women from small rural towns, performs a sophisticated act of sisterhood.. . .the quietly insightful and beautifully written Mayhem intrigues and enlightens.” -- Judith Newton, Huffington Post
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Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?
I love novels. I’ve loved novels since I was a child, first for their creation of an alternate reality you can disappear into. (I was often unhappy as a child, but I had a great capacity for joy.) I love the escape that fiction—and to an extent any reading—provides. But later I came to appreciate fiction as an art in the medium of language. I have the temperament of a maker and a tinkerer, I wanted to make art, and language was the medium I had.
Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
Full-time now. I’m living the life I’ve always wanted to.
What did you enjoy most about writing this Mayhem?
Discovering the right perspective to tell it from. Writing outdoor scenes with birds and trees and a river in them. Writing scenes of kitchen work, such as home canning, that I’ve observed but never done.
Are there under-represented groups or ideas featured in your book?
A lot has been said elsewhere about big ways that women’s traditional subordination limited their lives: lack of education, for instance. Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, set in a rural Central Texas of 1936, dramatizes a woman’s difficulty at small things that add up: getting heard, getting believed, giving herself the benefit of the doubt, asserting innocence when presumed guilty, having an identity apart from family, earning a livelihood, living down a false story.
What cultural value do you see in writing, reading, and storytelling?
Stories are one of the ways we make sense of our experience. Katherine Anne Porter says you should practice an art for the great happiness of your lifetime. And of course writing and reading are keys to education and to many professions.
What do you like to read in your free time?
I belong to a book club, and I read books they choose that I might not have discovered otherwise. Recently I read Donna M. Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl.
I often read books my husband is interested in, so we can talk about them. Last winter we both read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water, and I’m about to read Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking.
Some novels I read because they’ve won a prize. Recently I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer winner The Sympathizer.
I read books I buy at readings, often by writers I know. Books in that category that I’ve read during the past year include Steve Harrigan’s A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, Thomas McNeely’s Ghost Horse, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s Barefoot Dogs, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, and Edward Carey’s YA novels, Heap House, Foulsham, and Lungdon. I’m still reading Jose Skinner’s The Tombstone Race, and I look forward to reading Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
Sometimes I read an older book just because I’ve wanted to for a long time or I’ve loved other books by the writer. Last spring I read Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost.
What book do you wish you could have written?
I never have that reaction. There are books I envy for how well they do what they do, but I can’t even imagine having written another writer’s book.
What do your plans for future projects include?
I wouldn’t call it a plan, but I might write another short novel like Mayhem incorporating both historical and approximately contemporary settings.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
My relationship with my husband because I promised him I wouldn’t.
Harris grew up as Betsy Hall on the east side of Ft. Worth, where she became an avid reader. Her father was a journalist, a former editor of The Daily Texan in 1930-31 who worked for the now-defunct Ft. Worth Press and Pittsburgh Press, and she recalls former newswomen—who had become reporters during World War II—as personal inspirations and role models. She went to high school in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, and to Carnegie-Mellon and Stanford Universities. She taught fiction-writing at the University of Texas at Austin and counts many friends and writers among her former students. She and her husband are birders and football fans. Visit Elizabeth Harris at www.elizabethharriswriter.com
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