The Testament of Harold's Wife: The Story Behind the Story
"The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." Henry Miller
People ask me Where do you get your ideas? all the time. The truth is that ideas crawl up into my lap like babies begging for attention. It’s choosing among them that’s difficult
I find my stories hidden in nuances of emotion and motivation. Human life and interaction are, in Henry Miller’s words, “ …mysterious, awesome (and) indescribably magnificent” in their woven tapestry of pain, joy, envy, avarice, adoration, lust
and will, just to name a few of the forces that drive my characters. Stories that go to the marrow are, for me, found through close attention.
There were two completely different experiences that planted the seeds for The TESTAMENT OF HAROLD’S WIFE. The first had
to do with what I interpreted as an expression of overwhelming, unbearable grief and anger, something I saw deep on a slushy, dreary December twilight on my way to the grocery store. At a traffic light, I caught up to a black monster SUV on oversize wheels. The windows were tinted dark, and the SUV loomed huge, my little silver Honda’s windshield seeming like the target of its exhaust pipe. There was just enough time to skim the white lettering that stretched across the SUV back window: a date, two sets of curvy lines (angel wings?) with the name Nicholas in between them, and then another date. Underneath was written A Grandfather Never Forgives. I was moved, saddened, intrigued. A bit horrified. What could the grandson have done to arouse such rage? I began thinking about what understanding I could dig for that might apply in the novel I was researching at the time—in which there was, indeed, much unforgiven by a son who perceives himself to have been abandoned.
The traffic light changed too quickly, and the SUV made a left turn. Impulsively I made the turn too, hoping to glean more. I imagined a possible scenario: maybe Nicholas had been a teenager, repeatedly warned against drinking or smoking pot, say,
but he’d done so, and killed himself and other people in a car. The grandfather was taking refuge in anger, unable to manage
his grief. Grief compounded by guilt: he’d let the boy drink beer with him over the boy’s parents' prohibitions because he hadn’t been close with his son, the boy’s father, and was trying to redo the relationship. Still, he was the only one who knew they’d done this. Or, then I thought—wait! Who exactly is the unforgiven? There’s another story in it, perhaps. Maybe someone else killed the grandson? What can I extrapolate about how people express grief? What else is this grandfather doing? A novel started in an
SUV I saw on the way to the store, but I saved the idea and set it aside to keep working on the other project.
I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a picture of that SUV. At the time, of course, I didn’t know that it would fit with other experiences that would start later, in the spring, and give the THE TESTAMENT OF HAROLD’S WIFE some of its most memorable characters. The chickens.
Given my love for the natural world, I hit the jackpot that year when my dear friend Diana lost her mind and brought home four
baby chicks in early April. I gleefully recognized that I could use chicken-raising in a novel based on the fun of this effortless research. My husband and I went over to see the brood box lined with pine shavings in their garage. It was masterfully done, complete with heat lamp, two large thermometers, feed and water systems. A small roost completed this chick world, the entirety
of which measured about two by three feet with eighteen inch walls. It had to be maintained at ninety degrees; I hear chicks are picky about that. Apparently there’d been one screw up on an especially warm day and all the chicks' eggs had nearly been
fried before they’d ever been laid, but the overzealous heat lamp had been corrected in time. Weeks passed and the ordered-in-advance coop didn’t come and didn’t come. It seems that baby chicks grow faster than dandelions in April. The brood box
was expanded, but finally Diana had to let them loose in the garage during the day so they didn’t peck each other to death or whatever chicks do when the brood box gets too small. While the couple was at work, the growing chickens ran around pooping
on a garage floor that’s normally kept more pristine than my kitchen. At night they’d go back in the brood box to sleep while Diana scrubbed the garage floor to relax.
Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy they were named, three of them Americaunas and one, Jo, a Rhode Island Red of the probably variety. Diana said Jo’s the sweet one, introducing me to the notion that chickens have personalities. Better and better fodder for fiction,
I said. I had practically begged her to name them after the Dixie Chicks, with the biggest and yellowest called Dixie, and the
others to be Martie, Emily and Natalie, but my brilliant and creative nomination lost out to her husband’s staid suggestion. Maybe
I should have been thrilled they went such a literary route, but Dixie and The Chicks appealed to my unmuzzled political side. Anyway, now I'm happy Diana didn't use the really good names because they're all mine for another novel.
The big, heavy coop finally arrived in a large truck delivery, and was uncrated, assembled and connected to a newly-constructed chicken run in record time, all the while Diana eyed the birds especially closely. Oops. The chick she’d named Amy was starting
to look alarmingly like an Amos. We tried to reassure Diana that the thing emerging on top of Amy's head was probably a wart,
not a comb, even if she did have those unfeminine, thick legs. The worry was that chickens are perfectly legal within the city
limits, but roosters are a giant no-no. And for a while, it was looking like there could be more bad news—Meg had started to raise
a bit of suspicion, too. Was she briefly cross-dressing, or was she really Mark? You can imagine the fun I was having with all this, can’t you? This stuff was so compelling I had to set aside what I was working on and start to get down some ideas for a different novel, one that started with that grandfather somehow and involved these chickens. Diana wasn’t the only one who had lost her mind. Meanwhile, the chicks finally got big enough and it got warm enough weather that they could all be out in the coop, Diana having become a reluctant expert on sexing chickens.
I ended up moving the setting of the novel from my hilly, wooded university town in which I’d had these experiences to the ironed-flat southeastern Indiana farmland that’s close enough that I’d traveled it once a week for years on the way to taking child to
flute lessons. I was ever-aware of the land as I drove through it, watching earth open under the plow in the spring. Planting.
Waiting for rain, needing that rain. The rising corn, how it silvered in the July and August sun. Waiting for it to tassel, waiting for
the full dent of September. Harvest. Combines crawling across the acres like slow ships on an inland sea. The winter fields, the brown stubble looking like the shaved chin of God.
The novel needed a rural sheriff willing, in his way, to both take and not take the law into his own hands. It needed deer, and it needed men who lived to farm, men who lived to hunt. It needed one careless man, easy with lies. I moved Jo, Beth, and Amy (Louisa’s Meg, like the real Meg, had died) along with Marvelle, a haughty tuxedo cat, to a family farm on the kind of land I know
so well. The grandfather I conjured from that SUV became Harold, a Vietnam vet and farmer. He needed someone to take up his cause, so I gave him Louisa, a grieving, angry, but still sassy widow, a retired teacher whose adult son routinely drives her nuts. Louisa seemed entirely natural on that farm. As does her devotion to her land and the creatures that live on it. To find out what she does, her genius Plan with a capital P, you’ll have to let her tell it in her own kick-ass way. Louisa speaks for herself.