1. The desire for love is a nearly universal human experience, and Marie seeks love throughout the book. But in THE END OF ALWAYS, power and violence seem to thwart her every step of the way. How you do balance these big ideas while telling a tale like this?
I didn’t start by thinking that I was going to write a novel about power and violence, that’s for sure. I started with Marie. Marie Reehs was my mother’s grandmother, which makes her my great-grandmother. She was born in America but her father, mother, and several older siblings were born in Germany, on the island of Rugen. This is where the family came from when they immigrated to Waukesha, Wisconsin. The only thing I knew about Marie when I started was that her name was connected to a deep family mystery. I set out to solve this. When I did, I discovered the events that inspired THE END OF ALWAYS. And those events eventually led me to the issues of power and violence you mention. But I couldn’t start with those, just as I couldn’t write a novel that was just a literal transcription of my great-grandmother’s life. Either choice would have taken me on a fool’s errand.
It’s important to remember that the novel is a story, first and foremost. It’s about one young woman whose life, I suspect, will feel achingly familiar to many readers. If I’ve done my job, Marie’s experiences cannot help but tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that’s where the things you call “big ideas” come into play. But I didn’t write the novel trying to nail those concepts. I wanted to get at the heart of Marie’s life. The “big ideas” about power and violence are inescapably central to her world. As they are to women everywhere.
2. Tell us about the origin of the stories from Rügen that Marie’s mother tells her.
The tales are specific to Rugen, an island with a long history of changing political affiliations. The island’s original Germanic inhabitants were dispossessed by Slavic people, who were in turn dispossessed by the Danes. In 1648, the island fell under Swedish rule and did not become part of Pomerania, in Prussia, until 1815. Because of the island’s remote location, its diverse past, its long history of paganism, and its relative late-coming to Christianity, the island retained its fairy-tales of giants and goddesses and mysterious dwarves well into the time that Herman and Elise Reehs lived there in the nineteenth-century. Even Hattie’s real-life grand-daughter, who was born in Wisconsin and lives just outside of Philadelphia today, remembers Hattie scaring her with tales about dwarves and the terrible calamities that would befall children who stepped out of line.
Ernst Moritz Arndt collected the stories in 1819 and I discovered them as I was researching the island. Arndt gathered the tales from the people he knew on Rugen, transcribing the stories he was told and then creating the volume as a gift for a young friend. The tales are quite different from the (now sanitized and profoundly revised) tales we know from the brothers Grimm. For one thing, the fairy-tales from Rugen are transparently prescriptive (although perhaps this is Arndt’s hand at work) and lead to resolute lessons about good citizenship. As soon as I found them, I knew I had to use them. I thought they might give me a way to say some things aslant.
3. What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
Writing this book was the most difficult part of writing this book! I made a number of false starts. I kept re-writing. My agent was endlessly patient with me. I was still revising right up to the day the page proofs were due. I had a hard time letting the book go. I think everyone at Twelve could still see my fingernail marks on the pages when they arrived at their office.
4. Talk a little about the title THE END OF ALWAYS. What does this phrase mean to you?
In the most obvious sense, the title refers to Marie’s fight to escape the brutality that the women in her family have always endured. For her, at least as far as the world of the novel is concerned, always comes to an end. But the end is hard won. It may not last. We don’t know.
More broadly, the title refers to the always that women in America experience. Even women who insist that they have never experienced violence and perhaps believe that it’s not all that pervasive know what a risk they take when they walk in a parking garage alone at night or on an empty street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. They know what it might mean if they run out of gas on a country road or fail to check the back seat in their car when they get into it at the mall. They have seen the things that men they know do. Deep down inside, we all know where we live, even if we say otherwise.
The title is less hopeful on this score. Could there be an end to that always? I’m forever optimistic, but I’m a realist, too.
5. James Pulliam’s house seems almost fantastical in nature and in its cast of characters. Is it based in reality or a creation of your imagination?
With the exceptions of Edwin and of James Pulliam himself, all of the characters we meet in that boarding house are historical individuals. I found them in Michael Lesy’s extraordinary book, Wisconsin Death Trip. My mother gave me this book when I was sixteen. It had just come out and it mesmerized me. I mean that in the most profound way. I read it again and again, as if I thought I would catch glimpses of my Wisconsin ancestors in its pages. I always intended to write something that drew on the material that Lesy had collected. In THE END OF ALWAYS. I used one of the Van Schaick photographs to give myself a portrait of August Bethke. I used others to picture street scenes. But the stories of the individuals we meet at James Pulliam’s house—the legless dancing man, the boy with a coat of hair like a dog—were drawn from the newspaper accounts and asylum records that Lesy included in his book.
The boarding house itself is entirely made up.
6. Socialist ideas pervade the Wisconsin community of immigrants that populate THE END OF ALWAYS, but the novel makes clear that true equality does not extend to women. Do you consider this a political novel?
THE END OF ALWAYS is a novel. It’s a not a polemic. It is, above all else, a story about a girl and the choices she makes or the choices that are thrust upon her, and her discovery of her place in the world. When I started writing, I actually was thinking of Hardy’s TESS OF THE D’URBEVILLES, which is a story of a girl’s journey in an inhospitable land.
But to the extent that THE END OF ALWAYS shines a light on the hard and absolute fact that some Americans are beaten or killed or abused or otherwise damaged when they try to walk this land free and equal—well. I can understand why readers might find the political in that. And of course, the novel focuses on a girl’s story as a way to talk about America, to give us insight into ourselves. That literary terrain is nearly invariably reserved for male characters so I suppose this book is a bit disruptive in that way as well.
7. Do you consider THE END OF ALWAYS a feminist novel? What does the word feminist mean to you?
Ah. See my answer to number 7.
8. Despite the dark issues tackled in the novel, the prose of the book is lush and beautiful. Tell us about the stylistic choices you made in telling this story.
First, a story set in 1907 is by definition historical. But I did not want Marie’s story to feel historical. That is, I wanted the story to be alive and dynamic, rather than static and distant. Imagine the difference between watching a film and looking at a single black-and-white still photograph. The latter feels like something preserved and lifeless. The former—if the movie is any good—feels like a life you are living with the characters. I hope readers experience Marie’s story that way. I didn’t want any reader to feel that s/he was looking at an exhibit in a museum case, which is to say, something boxed up, contained, over. So I paid a great deal of attention to the complexity of Marie’s interior life—she is so conflicted much of the time, which is challenging to write and even more challenging if we’re relying on the conflicted individual to tell us her story. A certain amount of detail emerged from that. But I wanted her to live in a world that was fully realized as well and that meant being attentive to the world in 1907. More detail arose from that.
Second, I wanted to give Marie a place of wildness and freedom (the woods around Waukesha) and set that against the confining world of the town itself. There was a time when feminist literary critics decried the association of women with the natural world. They had their reasons, which I won’t go into here. But in this case, Marie had to have a piece of America—a wild land yet untamed—that provided a contrast to the land her father sought to bring under his hand and reminded the reader of the possibilities the country claims to offer.
9. Marie is called a whore multiple times in the book—by her father in name and implicated as such by William Oliver and August. Do you believe this term still holds the weight it once did?
It’s very easy and tempting to say that the word is now diluted or part of a landscape that includes a wide acceptance of sex outside of marriage. It’s even possible to imagine young women using the word (or its sister, “slut”) without meaning it in a mean-spirited or containing way. Some might even say that the word has been appropriated by such women and therefore only means what they choose it to mean. These are all seductive arguments.
If you think the weight of this word has diminished, try this. Assuming that you are not an actual sex worker, imagine that you are known as a whore. Where ever you go. Day in and day out. Your parents have said you are a whore, as have your siblings, teachers, employers, friends, husbands, lovers, neighbors—in short, everyone knows you as a whore. Try to imagine if that word, in its association with you, might now change the trajectory of your life. If it might change your self-concept. If it can be used to define you to others so that doors close. If it can be said in order to punish you for one of your actions. If the word can hurt you in any way.
Let the reality of that experience sink in for a minute.
I think you’ll see that even if the word may appear to carry less weight than it did in 1907, it has not been made harmless. The word is still used to shame, intimidate, and discipline. A great deal of damage can flow from your employer if he has decided you are a whore, for example, and uses that word to describe you.
10. At the end of Chapter 23, you address the reader directly, writing: “And yet they must be repeated because every day the papers are filled with the stories of women who have been thrown from windows or shot with guns or lost in the night, a long, terrible story that is as familiar as the air we breathe. We have not seen the last girl. She has not yet walked among us.” Why did you choose to break the spell of the book this way?
Through-out the novel, Marie speaks in little asides to the reader. These moments are often subtle but taken together, they suggest that Marie is narrating the story from a place in her adult life—that is, she tells her story retrospectively even if there is no formal device (a set up involving a letter written to a grand-child, for instance) to signal this.
In terms of the psychological integrity of the character, it made sense to let Marie speak directly to us. To give her a chance to sum up why her story matters. To let us hear her voice from a time well beyond the afternoon when she and Edwin set out together in the falling snow. To have her remind us that we still have a very long way to go.