Christian Kiefer’s most recent novel, Phantoms, reveals the sorrows and lingering guilt of wartime through the stories of Ray Takahashi, returning home to the U.S. after World War II, and John Frazier, a Vietnam veteran. (I so treasured the beauty of that novel that I selected it as a BBC Culture “best book of 2019.”)
Kiefer’s new novel, The Heart of It All, is a stunning next step. He details how life changes for an ensemble of characters in a failing Ohio industrial town struggling with heartbreak, betrayal and tragedy during the year after of Trump’s election. “Death brought casseroles,” Keifer begins, “and Tom took them, every one,…many warm from the oven, others cold so their foiled tops wept with moisture.” The novel unfolds through multiple points of view. There’s Tom Bailey, a factory foreman, his wife Sarah and teenage children Charlie and Janey; Khalid Marwat, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan, bought the transformer factory, and considers the town “a kind of earthly paradise,” his wife Rafia, teenage children and parents; factory workers Mary Lou, who lives with her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Sam, whose racist jokes and growing interest in conspiracy theories unsettle his community; Paula, the “only Black woman in town,” who works at Kroger’s, and her nephew Anthony from East Cleveland. In powerful, lyrical prose, Kiefer offers a sympathetic portrait of a community in search of solace. Reading The Heart of it All creates a sense of possibility, that we might at some point engage in healing dialogue despite multifaceted divisions.
This email conversation spanned many days on West Coast time.
Jane Ciabattari: What inspired The Heart of it All? I couldn’t help but think of Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s long-ago portrait of small-town Ohio. But The Heart of It All incorporates most of the troubling aspects of the past decade. How difficult was it to weave political, racial and class conflicts into fiction?
Christian Kiefer: The country inspired, as it always does, in all its terrible beauty and ugliness. I’m not certain what brought me along the path that it took other than some absurd notion of hope that I harbor in my heart—hope that folks will understand that we’re all struggling and that, in the end, we don’t have much to lean on but ourselves. This is, I think, a lesson we find in much great literature both in and outside the canon.
I wanted to tell the story of the whole place, the whole town, in this particular historical moment.
You’ve asked about the weaving of politics and race and class and all the rest. I was speaking with writer-friend Kendra Atleework recently. We both live in conservative-leaning parts of California and it’s easy for the more liberal centers to throw stones from their bubbles. What I’ve found—and what Kendra and I spoke about—is the goodness inherent in people and how that looks unreconcilable at a remove. It’s fairly easy to find white people in our communities who might use derogatory language—based on race or sexual orientation or what have you—but who might also have a friend or coworker who matches that language, and whom they might consider a friend or even family member. “I don’t mean you, Bill, I mean those other %$#%$%s.”
So I was trying to push toward some essential humanity. At least that was what I held in my heart while I was writing. Everyone is just trying to get by and a lot of it is scary. Human beings tend to look for enemies and if we can’t find one, we’ll blame someone “other” than us. This is particular true of white Americans, of course, as our long history of racism and the incarceral state upholds. As Peter Hedges has noted, war is a force that gives us meaning.
JC: You begin with a tragic moment—the funeral reception after the burial of James, a six-month-old who died from a hole in his heart. Was this always your opening scene? How were you able to pare it down into such a lean but heartbreaking chapter?
CK: My youngest child, my only daughter, had exactly the heart defect that the baby in the book has. She had open-heart surgery at three months and survived. Much of the whole book was just imagining what my life would have been had the worst happened. That was always the opening scene but I had no clear idea what would happen next or how things would unfold. I generally outline and have a sense of the shape of the thing, especially where it’s going to land, but not this time.
JC: Your setting is a small town in Ohio: “In the best of times it is, truth be told, a haggard place, once a center of modest industry but that time is a century gone and what remains struggles for simple continuance, its citizens surviving paycheck to paycheck, on loan, on credit, on faith, a small town growing smaller as the years pass and the hard winters continue.” What draws you to tell this story in this Ohio town? Did you model it on a real Ohio town? What sort of research was involved?
CK: I run the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program in Ashland, Ohio, which is to say that I direct the program from my home in California, flying back and forth as necessary for meetings and such. I was born and raised in California so I find the whole of the Midwest to be a fairly exotic place. Ohio, in particular, has been interesting to get to know. We have some downtrodden areas in California—most often areas of cities—but in Ohio a traveler might encounter an entire town that looks as if it is just barely holding on.
Ashland is not such a town, but it was easy to remove two big employers—the hospital and the university—and to imagine it more like some of the rougher towns I’ve explored. That was something of the blueprint. These are small towns based on some industry that is long since gone. Seems every town has an empty factory at its center, or a sense of some industry from which the world has moved on.
JC: You tell your story through an ensemble of voices. What led you to choose multiple narrators?
CK: I can probably blame two great, great writers for this: Kent Haruf and Richard Russo. Both are so good at this kind of ensemble narrative. I wanted to tell the story of the whole place, the whole town, in this particular historical moment, and the only way I could do that was the quilt it all together in such a way that, I hope, readers will see that it’s a quilt and not just a bunch of fabric scraps.
JC: What sort of challenges were involved in telling your story from the points of view of multiple generations? The teenagers, the middle agers, the elders?
CK: The biggest challenges were cultural. I’m a straight white cis-gendered middle-aged male writer and there’s a great deal of unearned privilege there. I feel quite comfortable imagining myself into most straight white characters but moving away from that—as I’ve done in this book and in the previous book—brings to the fore certain responsibilities and questions. Matthew Salesses has us asking why a writer like me (or any writer, perhaps) wants to write about people of color. It’s a good question and a worthwhile one, and one I hope I’ve answered in the book itself.
One of the choices I made early on was not to try to write in any alternative Englishes. So there’s no AAVE, for example, in the book. I don’t think anyone needs a middle-aged white writer trying to approximate any of that. Frankly, I don’t think anyone needs a middle-aged white male writer saying much of anything right now, but this is the only think I know how to do so I keep doing it.
JC: You write with great detail about the factory setting, how Tom and his co-workers socialize at lunch outside (and on smoke breaks) and Tuesday nights at the Bowl-O-Rama, Mary Lou’s interaction with Mr. Marwat (and later Mrs. Marwat). What sort of research was involved in this aspect of the novel? (Are you a bowler?)
CK: I worked in a very similar factory in Iowa, where I also took up bowling for lack of anything else to do. That stuff was mostly from memory. I worked in a very similar factory in Iowa, where I also took up bowling for lack of anything else to do. That stuff was mostly from memory.
People do fall through the cracks all the time and some of that is via the same social systems that hold us together.
JC: What were you doing in Iowa?
CK: Iowa was meant to be the start of my academic graduate work—not the writing program but American Studies—but I got a graduate degree in divorce instead, which really put things in perspective pretty quickly. For a time I was working a bunch of jobs all at once to make ends meet, in addition to doing grad work full time: delivering newspapers, being a farm laborer, working in an industrial printing office, and of course doing the factory gig. It was a mess but so it goes. This would have been twenty-five years ago or so.
JC: Among the aspects of the small-town you capture beautifully is the way people look out for each other. Paula keeps an eye on Charlie, when he comes to visit his friend Kent, whose father is a vicious man, and she also shows great empathy toward Janey. Tom helps Mary Lou process the changes in her life during this year, and drops by to visit Sam after he’s lost his job. Charlie helps out Mary Lou’s mom when he encounters her on the streets on a frigid night. And so forth. Does this come from your own experience? Research?
CK: I guess this is how I wish it was. Maybe it is this way in some places. Maybe it is this way in Ohio. But also, the ways in which the white characters take care of each other also separates the characters of color from the heart of the town. Paula is identified as perhaps the only Black woman in town and she looks after some of the white kids but who looks after her? No one, really. I mean that’s the division of emotional labor there. I hope that the reader falls in love with how much everyone cares for each other while also understanding that there’s real isolation happening at the same time. People do fall through the cracks all the time and some of that is via the same social systems that hold us together. Race, economics, chronic illness, country of origin: all of this plays into who has agency, what kind, and so on.
JC: Sarah, the grieving mother in the first scene, experiences months of depression and physical pain, which doctors seem unable to solve (they give her Oxycontin and other pain killers, antidepressants). Her dilemma gives a human face to the national Oxycontin epidemic. Was that a complicated element to include in this novel?
CK: Sarah feels very real to me. We have chronic illness in my family and I also know many fellow writers who suffer from ongoing illnesses—some diagnosed, some mysterious, and all of whom are women. We have a long history of tagging women as “hysterical” (Lauren Groff has commented on this), a gaslighting so painful that it comes to feel nefarious. And it’s not just the medical community but the insurance companies that make even getting a proper diagnosis difficult, not to mention any real treatment. It’s maddening. And it’s also totally fucked.
JC: What are you working on now/next?
CK: Gosh I wish I knew! I’m struggling to get the next thing together and to get some aspects of my life in order. Maybe when I get the second thing worked out I’ll have a better sense of the first thing.
The Heart of It All by Christian Kiefer is available from Melville House.