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An Interview with Rachel Hall

rachelhallcolorA version of this Q&A initially appeared in The Practicing Writer, October 2016.

I’m always pleased to share author Q&A articles with you, but this time, I’m exceptionally happy. In part that’s because I love the book that you’ll be hearing about: HEIRLOOMS, Rachel Hall’s collection of linked stories. And in part, it’s because Rachel herself is such a dear friend.

I was lucky to meet Rachel almost 15 years ago, at the 2002 meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Our paths crossed at a session we both attended on historical fiction. We connected quickly over that shared interest, and another common bond: writing fiction inspired by our families’ World War II experiences. I first read the manuscript that became HEIRLOOMS some time ago, and I knew instantly how important and exceptional it was. I truly couldn’t wait until other people had the opportunity to discover that for themselves.

And now that time is here. HEIRLOOMS has just been published by BkMk Press, having been selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Book Prize. In Piercy’s words, “HEIRLOOMS is a fascinating series of interconnected stories about members of an extended family of Jews before, during, and long after the Holocaust, in France, in Israel, in the United States. Different women and men define themselves in resistance, denial, and ignorance of history through four generations . . . In some ways the entire book is a meditation on the meaning of family and history.” Stories in the collection were initially published in journals including BELLINGHAM REVIEW, GETTYSBURG REVIEW, MIDWESTERN GOTHIC, NEW LETTERS, WATER-STONE, COSMONAUTS AVENUE, and LILITH, which awarded “La Poussette” its 2016 fiction prize.

Rachel Hall teaches creative writing and literature at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds two Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence–one for teaching and one for her creative work. She lives in Rochester, New York, with her family.

Please welcome Rachel Hall!

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Rachel, which of the stories in HEIRLOOMS is the “oldest”–which is the one you began writing earliest? What initially motivated you to write it? Where does it fall now in the manuscript?

RACHEL HALL (RH): “Saint-Malo, 1940” was the first story I wrote, and it’s the first story in the book. This makes it seem as if I worked in an organized and orderly way when, in fact, I didn’t. I think the experience of becoming a mother and having a young child made the material of that story, a story based on a family story I’d heard numerous times, both urgent and accessible to me. I could imagine the anguish of leaving behind a small child, as well as the way the child’s loss would ripple out into the rest of her life.

ED: And which is the “newest”–which is the one you began writing most recently? What prompted that? Where does *it* fall in the manuscript?

RH: The most recent story is “Jews of the Middle West,” which I wrote at the suggestion of an editor who was interested in the manuscript, but wanted to see more about the character of [American-born] Sophie. I wasn’t sure initially that this was a good idea, but I’m glad now for this encouragement even though that editor ended up passing on the manuscript. I think this story adds an important aspect to the collection by exploring how family history gets shared. And it was really fun to write about the donut shop, which is much like a place I worked in high school. “Jews of the Middle West” is fourth from the end of the collection. The following story, “After All,” was also added about the same time, and Sophie is also important in that story.

ED: As you sought publication for this manuscript, you worked with an agent AND entered literary contests. Please tell us, first, one thing you learned via the process of working with an agent.

RH: As a writing student and instructor, I was accustomed to giving and receiving feedback of a certain kind–focused on craft and technique, logical rather than emotional. I assumed that this would be the case with the publishing industry, too. My agent sent my manuscripts to a number of editors, and we got really complimentary and kind rejections. Many of the editors said they admired the writing, but they weren’t “in love.” I was surprised by this comment, which isn’t useful in any way for the writer. But of course, editors aren’t, like writing professors, required to educate. Still, I was surprised by how subjective and emotional the responses were. It was hard not to think in terms of dating and relationships: “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” Who wants to hear that?

ED: And one thing you learned via the contest process?

RH: I entered a number of contests with this manuscript. It was a finalist for two other contests before BkMk and Marge Piercy selected it for the G.S. Sharat Chandra award. I was pretty discouraged by these close calls, but I see now that I should have been more encouraged. I have another collection that was a finalist several times and I gave up on it. Now, I realize that being a finalist means that the collection will eventually find a home.

heirloomsED: Please tell us a bit about your experience working with BkMk Press in the months since you were notified that HEIRLOOMS won the contest and would be published by the press.

RH: I’ve enjoyed working with Ben Furnish and the others at BkMk. Ben has been open to all my ideas for the book design, including my request for the cover art, a gouache by Charlotte Salomon (1917-43). Ben and I have had these lovely phone conversations all year. I was really happy to meet him at [the 2016 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs]. I was struck by his devotion to his writers. And this devotion is reciprocated: A number of writers have reached out to me because of our mutual connection with Ben and BkMk. There’s a BkMk community, it turns out, and I’m lucky to be a part of it now.

ED: Anything else you’d like us to know?

RH: There’s a steep learning curve for the debut author. There’s a new vocabulary to learn, new terms and acronyms: galleys, media, ARC, etc. It can be a bit overwhelming. After learning that BkMk would be publishing HEIRLOOMS, I reached out to the previous winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra award, Lenore Myka. I’d read her collection KING OF THE GYPSIES and loved it. I wanted to let her know, and I also was eager to hear about her experience with BkMk. Lenore was incredibly helpful and had wonderful things to say about her experience. I ended up working with Lenore’s independent publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, and that’s been an excellent experience. I hope this year’s winner will contact me, so I can pass on what I’ve learned too.

ED: That winner will have an excellent advisor! Thank you so much, Rachel. As you know, I cannot wait for readers to discover HEIRLOOMS.

Readers, please check out Rachel’s website, www.rachelhall.org, and follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rach_h_writer.

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