Cynthia Reeser, for Prick of the Spindle
From The Knitting Circle:
As she walked outside from the warm house, the sidewalk was slippery and for a moment Mary considered turning around. But then she thought of all the days ahead, the lonely hours stretching before her in that house. She should be making sugar cookies, letting Stella cut them into stars and bells and sprinkling red and green sugar on top. She should be hiding presents in her office closet, bags of paints and bottles of sparkly nail polish and colorful hair ornaments and boxes of beads and all the things that would make Stella happy on Christmas morning. (101)
Ann Hood is the author most recently of Do Not Go Gentle: My Search for Miracles in a Cynical Time (1999), An Ornithologist’s Guide to Life (2004), and The Knitting Circle (2007). Ann Hood’s latest novel is a story of friendship, but also one of loss, grief, and what it means to abide such an earth-shattering tragedy as the loss of a child. Not only was she able to endure such a tragedy, but she also wove her experience into a story.
Cynthia Reeser: By sheer chance, I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking immediately following my reading of The Knitting Circle, and found it to be pertinent, perhaps as a nonfiction complement to The Knitting Circle, especially in defining some of the processes of grieving. I am interested in Mary Baxter’s process of grieving for her young daughter, as it is so central and ultimately transformative, as grief tends to be. So, many of the questions I have for you are centered around that process, and informing that are passages from The Year of Magical Thinking.
Joan Didion writes that The Year of Magical Thinking is her attempt to sever any remaining fixed ideas she had “…about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” (7) In her book she chronicles her own process of grief, much as The Knitting Circle is a record of a grieving process. But in contrast to Mary’s situation and partly because Didion’s is a work of nonfiction, she identifies so objectively at times her own mental processes; so it is this identification that shapes many of my questions.
In the prologue to The Knitting Circle, you write that the story we are about to read “…is not clever. It is simply true. It is my story, yet I do not have the words to tell it. Instead, I pick up my needles and I knit.” And this calls to mind the Esquire article where you refer to Mary as your alter ego, so I wonder how much of writing Mary’s story was a part of the process of grieving for you personally?
Ann Hood: After my own daughter Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep in 2002, I lost my two most steadfast and loyal forms of comfort: reading and writing. It was a year and a half before I wrote again, and I believe that learning to knit 6 months after Grace died somehow helped my mind and heart to heal. I could not write what really happened when I finally began to write again—it was too raw and too painful. Creating Mary and the different props around her loss and life allowed me to enter the process of writing about grief.
CR: In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes, “Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” (27) And it does seem that Mary’s grief comes to her in waves; sometimes just when she has summoned up the courage or strength to face daily life, someone says something, or there is a child or talk of a child which brings memories and fresh hurts flooding back, triggering that paralyzing grief again. And it does seem to be this process of either being able or not being able to cope. A book review from The Boston Globe refers to Mary’s grief as real due to its “uneven pace and stuttering quality” (Schlack). Mary’s process is not the clinical, objective point of view that appears so often in Joan Didion’s book, but rather at times, immediate, raw. Could you respond to this?
AH: Although I have never lost a husband, I have lost my father and my brother, and neither of those losses came close to what I felt losing Grace. I literally lost months and months of my life, due in part to shock and also in part to losing my daughter who was only five years old. Every loss feels different. My father’s death came after a six month battle with lung cancer. We were prepared for it from the start. My grief was huge, but I did not lose track of time. I think grief is like the ocean: it engulfs you. And when you think the tide has finally gone out, it returns even stronger. People tend to give grief a year. But that is nothing in the face of grief.
CR: Joan Didion writes about seeing others who have lost someone, and describes their appearance as “…naked because they think themselves invisible.” (75) She describes feeling, for a time, invisible as well. And I remember Mary, at one point or several, unable to move from the couch, even too exhausted to go about daily life, and it does seem that she is “fading,” in a way. One example is in the following passage:
Her life grew smaller still. She slept on the sofa under a fleece blanket that also smelled slightly sour, the television blared ads for unneeded kitchen appliances all night. She knit on the sofa too, and ventured downstairs only to make coffee. Or used to, until she broke the glass carafe. That sat in the sink, amid spilled grounds and broken shards, empty cartons of ice cream, the remnants of some pasta from several days ago. (244)
To me this passage demonstrates so acutely Mary’s frame of mind, perhaps even her own grieving process. Could you comment on this loss of identity, how it evolves?
AH: When Grace died, I lost the role of Grace’s mother. I no longer had to hurry her for school, help her put on her socks, comb her hair, or any of the daily things that made me Grace’s mother. Without her, who was I? Part of grief is re-defining yourself in the absence of the person you have lost. I have another child, Sam. But without Grace, how do I be Sam’s mother. A friend told me that after her young son died, she went to the local library and asked if she could shelve books every afternoon. It gave her a new identity. Eventually, she went back to school and became a school librarian. This is what happens when we seek to re-define ourselves after loss. I could say that now I—like Mary—am a knitter.
CR: This next question goes back, somewhat, to the question of losing one’s identity or sense of self. Joan Didion writes in her book that “…when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” (198) And in that seems to be a fear of forgetting, not just the person you once were, but also of course, those who have informed your life, who have made you who you are. In your book, Mary at first cannot enter her daughter’s room, but eventually takes to sleeping in her daughter’s bed, burying her nose in the pajamas she wore to inhale what is left of the little-girl scent in the fabric. To me, this indicates, beyond the obvious desire to remember or bring back a loved one, the attempt to reconnect with an earlier self, or an earlier life. It is an act that seems painful, and one that Mary has to work herself up to being able to do. What is there in this act that is a step in the process of grieving?
AH: I remember my grief counselor telling me that I didn’t have to put away Grace’s things until I was ready. She pointed out the shrines that emerge for celebrities like Princess Di and Jim Morrison. Why shouldn’t we allow the same for our loved ones? And so I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do until I was ready. But ready didn’t mean easy. I had to steel myself to pack away Grace’s things, for example. It was a long and mournful afternoon. But I did it when I could handle it. I have only recently been able to look at our family pictures without sobbing; I still cannot watch our home videos. It is all part of the grieving process, which takes a lifetime.
CR: There is something that Joan Didion, in her book, terms “the vortex effect,” where something triggers a thought, and this thought leads to another, and that leads to another, and eventually you find yourself sucked into a vacuum, as it were, of memories. She writes, “The way you got sideswiped was by going back” (112), and I see this happening with Mary throughout the book, though often the circumstances of others surrounding her seem cruel, and I think would send anyone into the ‘vortex’: Beth going on about her Stella in a tutu (before we realize what Beth herself is going through), seeing Ellen’s daughter in such a critical state… Do you think there is something to this idea of a vortex effect?
AH: Absolutely! I must say though that those events you mention were not cruel; those characters didn’t know what had happened yet to Mary. The griever is narcissistic, I think, and channels every comment and event through her grief. But about the vortex: for me, this was especially true at night, when my mind was set free. I would remember one small thing about Grace’s 36 hours in the hospital, and that would lead to another, and another, and then I was swept into the whole nightmare again.
CR: Joan Didion describes how a certain hotel she used to frequent has become, after her husband’s death, what she calls “an exempt zone,” or the only safe place for her where she is free from getting sideswiped by her memories. And then I’m reminded of how knitting is for Mary, and there is a quote that comes from Lulu, who says “You know rosary beads? […] Knitting is like that. One stitch is like a prayer, just like each bead is a prayer. It’s perfect for contemplation”, and then later, “We can’t escape, can we? But we can knit.” (97) Could you respond to how knitting becomes a safe ‘place’ for Mary, and through that possibly a time for healing or contemplative insight?
AH: Knitting does not have Stella’s fingerprints on it. And research shows that knitting really does have benefits like lowering blood pressure and slowing heart rates. In addition, one must both concentrate and have an empty mind when knitting. It is one of the few things that allow both states to coexist. So if Mary’s mind wanders back into her grief or the memories around it, she drops a stitch or forgets whether to knit or purl. Knitting makes long hours pass, and allows one to relax that overactive grieving mind.
CR: Alice says in The Knitting Circle that the listener finds solace in the act of listening. I am interested in how Mary is able to listen to the stories of others’ grief even as she is dealing with the immediacy of her own. Do you think that listening provides solace, or is it a way of forgetting?
AH: I think listening does both. When Mary hears about the other characters’ losses, she feels less alone in hers, part of a sisterhood. She also can forget, ever so briefly, her own story.
CR: In the same review from The Boston Globe mentioned earlier, the reviewer was critical of the decision to write each woman’s story into The Knitting Circle; but since the prologue refers to the story as one that is knit together (“Every stitch is a letter”), maybe each person’s story is like a row. So I found your choice of structure to be very apt, since each member of the knitting circle has dealt or is dealing with loss —past, present, or impending — and each story of grief is knit into Mary’s story. Could you comment somewhat on the structure of the book and how it worked out that way?
AH: That was the only review that didn’t like the structure. Everyone else appreciated how it mimicked knitting itself. There is a pattern that repeats until the novel is done. The structure was clear to me from the start, and I think it serves the story perfectly.
CR: Finally, there is a bittersweet improvement in Mary’s communication with her mother, who has until the end of the book seemed selfish, distant —almost an uncaring figure. But then Mary is forced, due to her mother’s ill health, to travel to Mexico to see her. And Mary, perhaps for the first time, begins to really understand her mother, to see her in a new light. (It might be universal that women rarely see their mothers as women who once were young and vibrant.) But it is bittersweet because you wonder, as a reader, Would this have happened under different circumstances? Could you comment on the mother-daughter relationship between Mamie and Mary, and how it has been informed, or transformed, by Mary’s loss of her daughter?
AH: Well, by her own admission, Mamie did not mother Mary well. Stella’s death did propel her toward revealing herself to Mary, but so did facing her own mortality. So would it have happened under different circumstances? I think her heart attack on its own might have at least started a connection in motion. Stella’s death made that connection happen because now these two women share loss too.
Ann Hood is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize, the Best American Spiritual Writing Award, and the Paul Bowles Prize for Short Fiction.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Hood, Ann. The Knitting Circle. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.
Hood, Ann. “Where Babies Come From.” Esquire online 4 September 2007. <http://www.esquire.com/the-side/last-line/lastline090407#story>
Schlack, Julie Wittes. “Learning to Live after Losing a Child.” Rev. of The Knitting Circle, by Ann Hood. The Boston Globe online 18 January 2007. <http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2007/01/18/learning_to_live_after_losing_a_child/>