Of Loneliness, Motherhood, Hauntings, and Cults
Darcey Steinke in Conversation with Samantha Hunt
Ever since I heard Samantha Hunt read from her first novel The Seas, I have been an ardent fan of her vibrant, mysterious, and philosophically engaged novels. In her newest Mr. Splitfoot, orphans speak to the dead, and two women—aunt and niece, one mute the other pregnant—walk across the geographical and spiritual landscape of upstate New York. Hunt traces the historical remnants of the Burnt Over District, a time in the 1800s when upstate was frothing with new religions like the Mormons and the Millerites, and occult happenings, like the Fox Sisters “knocking,” were weekly occurrences. Her new novel is honest about the poverty of the area—it’s industrial, dark and gritty— but her characters’ inchoate longing lights up every single page. This interview took place over email from my home in Brooklyn to Sam’s house in Red Hook, New York.
Darcey Steinke: I heard a rumor that you wrote some of this book while sitting in your parked car. Can you elaborate on this, and also how you first got the idea for the book—what was the thing that got you started?
Samantha Hunt: I wrote nearly the entirety of Mr. Splitfoot in my car parked down by the river, not necessarily a scenic spot—beside the railroad tracks and a catch-all dirt lot—but it is one of the few places in my town where there is no Internet available. Ahh. That is a real freedom, to be disconnected! I suppose I don’t have much willpower when it comes to resisting the allure of the web. I enjoy writing but I also enjoy finding ways to not write. My car makes a great office, small enough to feel alone and away from the responsibilities at home, but the windows allow me to look out on this world. It is an escape pod. I watch a lot of barge traffic. Indeed most of the names in the book come from tankers on the Hudson. I sit in the driver’s seat, laptop in my lap, a snack on the passenger side. It has become a real place of peace and inspiration. My family calls it the mobile office and that is correct. Sometimes I move it over to the soccer fields, sometimes down to Tivoli Bays.
There were three things that got me started writing Mr. Splitfoot, and I couldn’t say which one came first. At the time I began, I was eight months pregnant with twins. This is really sixteen months pregnant. I was more or less immobile. I could climb up one flight of stairs perhaps but not without a lot of trouble. Being so large in only one area of my body, I thought I would fall over or explode. So the idea of a pregnant woman walking across the entire state of New York was a dream of movement and ease for me at that time. I wanted to understand what walking and mothering had to do with each other. What do walking and mothering have to do with writing?
I was also thinking a lot about women who lose their voices. I am a great fan of Linda Thompson and had always collected different versions of her breakup with husband and bandmate Richard Thompson. It seems legendary at this point. They’d been in a cult once, and this interested me. What does it mean for a woman to lose her voice, particularly a singer? What is the relation between voice, religion and women? I set myself the challenge of creating a silent character. How would she exist in the book? That seemed fun to try.
The third thing that entered my original thinking were thoughts of the dead and ghost stories. They always will be present in any work I make.
DS: I want to get to the cult and the whole idea of upstate New York and that period known as the Burnt Over District, but first I want to talk about orphans. Your book is about, among many other things, the two orphans Nat and Ruth. The relationship between novels and orphans is so long and complicated. Being an orphan is like going to sea; it’s a singular journey and one the reader never seems to tire of. What impressed me in your book is how you combined the world of hard knock upstate New York with that of the orphanage. The tone of your book is interesting to me; it has a gothic feel, but it’s also very immediate. Can you comment?
SH: Writing’s a lonely job, a loneliness I enjoy. There’s something twinned in the narrative journey of developing an orphan’s life alone and developing a novel. Writers as orphans. Even readers as orphans, because it’s a new river each time we read a book, each book a singular journey. It is hard for me to shape characters with too many supports interfering. I’m a chainsaw artist, I suppose. So get rid of the parents. It’s also my curiosity about the other and trying to write the other. I grew up the youngest in a huge family. I am someone who would not know myself without my siblings, would maybe even cease to exist. So wanting to know the other is there.
Mixing the gothic with the immediate is what children do. In childhood the terrifying is always lurking right behind. It is hiding under your bed ready to grab you because death is a huge unknown. That wrestling with death that a child does—How can it be possible? What is it? Where do the dead go?—I never grew out of that even though many people have died. I see my daughters ask the same questions I want answered. “Where did your dad go?” I don’t know. I hear them try to explain it. “Your father smoked a cigarette and caught the germs so he’s a bird now.” Yup, pretty much. Death remains the mystery I ask questions about but am none too eager to solve for sure! The original ghost story for me and the one so important to this book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, was on a cardboard record that I cut from the back of a box of Honeycombs as a small child. I still have the record. In fact, I now have two copies because when ebay started up I realized I could own more than one. Why do I need more than one? Cause I’m nuts! Not really, but it speaks to how important those early ghost stories have remained to my imagination.
DS: Your book seems to tap into the spookier parts of upstate NY. Both the struggling post-industrial cities and the poverty in the country side, as well as the tradition of alternative religions. Upstate New York, as a character explains in your novel, was, in the last century, a hotbed of New Age activity. It was sort of like what California is now with the Shakers, the Mormons, John Noyes’s Oneidea community, the Millerites, the Fox sisters, and on and on. I wonder, as you live upstate, if you have felt historical hauntings or tremors.
SH: A town with a little decay is my favorite kind of town; a house with history. I was speaking of the Gothic before, and I left out the idea of a house, an essential element of the genre. The house I grew up in New York was built in 1765. My mom still lives there. It is a storied place even if some of the stories are imagined. I spent a lot of my childhood considering the other families who had lived there before mine, as intimately, had as many small moments. I would think about the other little girls who had slept in my room. When we were older one of my brothers bought a house down the road from hers that had sat abandoned for 20 years. The first time we went into the house we found embroidered linens and French soaps still in the medicine chest. A whole life full of items had been sitting and waiting for so many years. China in the cupboards. It seemed like the people had just disappeared after breakfast one day—the Rapture, right? There was a chest full of letters, the most tender details abandoned. Where had the people gone?
Upstate is littered with abandoned hospitals, crumbling hotels, girls’ colleges, and Adirondack lodges. Petri dishes for the imagination. It isn’t that I believe in ghosts necessarily, but I believe the dead continue to affect the lives of the living in a way that can feel like a haunting.
My research for Mr. Splitfoot involved visiting some of these forgotten spots, like the ghost town Tahawus, up in the Adirondacks, where my book ends. The Erie Canal is also irresistible to me. Here is one the greatest engineering feats ever accomplished, a channel that changed the meaning of America, and after years and years of existing in a position of power and usefulness, it just ended. Though the water still flows, it’s dead now. I love the Erie Canal. First the name, then it passing through all these ancient, reimagined towns: Palmyra, Syracuse, Utica, Rome, Amsterdam, and Troy. The classical world on a dead waterway. I could not help but turn it into a River Styx.
At Lily Dale, the Spiritualist summer camp, people gather twice daily at Inspiration Stump. Mediums help people contact their dead. I enjoy this. Whether I believe in this or not makes no difference. Do I believe in fiction? I do. Do I believe fiction has affected my life? Yes. Are mediums con artists? Perhaps. Am I? As a writer of fiction, of course. I’ll claim the title of con artist!
The LDS pageant held each summer at Hill Cumorah (where Joseph Smith found his golden tablets) is truly a spectacle of religion. Thousands of Mormons convene there and dress in costumes to act out the entirety of the Book of Mormon on a ten story stage with lots of explosions and battles fought. Just outside the gates, the Baptists scream that the Mormons are nuts. A real spectacle. Patriotically, I love the idea of American religions, so in Mr. Splitfoot I set myself the task of inventing one.
DS: I want to talk about mothering and motherhood some. I know you have three girls, and I wonder how mothering has affected you as a person, a writer, and a thinker. But your book is very much about motherlessness. Ruth is abandoned by her cruel mother, and Ruth’s sister (Cora’s mother) struggles to be a good mother. Cora herself is pregnant and worries about being a good mother. In a way the whole book is a reparative tale; there is a drive to get to a place of cosmic and positive motherly love.
SH: Oh, yes! If we could get there, we could solve it all. But a good place to start is, what does positive motherly love even entail?
When I had one two-year-old child, I learned I was four months pregnant with twins, a very joyful message to receive but—I mean to say—motherhood came down on me in a BIG, BIG heavy way. Three children under the age of three in a brand new town with a full-time job and a novel to write. Nothing I had ever heard about mothering before had prepared me for the intensity of this experience and how hard it is to do well. By well, I think all I really mean is calmly, with love. I have trouble with the calm part. I’ve got a head full of awful images that plague me. I don’t know where they come from. I make them up myself, a liability of my job, your job. When I was a new mom it was very hard for me to stop imaging the horrors that could befall my children, and this made it difficult to be confident and kind and calm.
As a girl I’d so often heard mothers dismissed as nags or clichés, cookies, chicken tenders, and mini vans. Even though my own mother is none of these things, I’d heard the world think crazy and really lazy thoughts about moms my whole life. No one spoke of mystery, of the real supernatural experience of raising another human being. One really important message I’d failed to receive was this: mothers are the dealers of life and death. Wo-ah. There’s a truth if you want it. And it is a truth I arrived at suddenly because my dip into mothering was so intense. I had to remove myself from the world that was telling me otherwise, a world that might make me doubt my authority and agency. Mr. Splitfoot is a process of trying to think through this, maybe even offer a corrective. A good way to plot the shape of a mother is to have her be missing. Like Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I think a lot about the connection between mothering and walking. There’s a narrative drive to both as well as some sense of leading without controlling. So in Mr. Splitfooot there’s pregnant Cora having to find her own way to mothering well. She’s got to pass through a lot of bad mother territory first. Learning by the anti-example. There’s one moment when Cora devises a plan for mothering. It’s extremely simple: Look out for wolves and tell the baby how lucky it is to be alive. Maybe that’s all we really need to do.
DS: When I had my daughter I also had a lot of images of her suffering and often hurt. Even bleeding. I was so troubled by them that I actually went to a counselor, and she told me this amazing thing. She said, If you will admit more honestly how hard it is to be a mother, how exhausted you are, and also how much of your old life you have lost, how much loss there is in mothering, this might help. So I did this everyday. I tried to be really honest about motherhood—the joy but also the pain. And the images went away! That was the most amazing thing. Admitting the hardship in the front of my brain made the images go away!
I also agree that the culture at large is just stupid about motherhood. It really bothers me. After my mother died I read all these books on parenting, most of which were just terrible. I was going to try to write an essay about my mother and parenting technique. My idea was that it does not matter what rules you follow in parenting; if you haven’t dealt with your own shit, you are going to be in shaky territory. No strategy is going to help you, only a deep dive into your own self.
So on to religion. My father, my grandfather, and all my uncles are ministers—even my aunts married ministers. All of them have their problems and hang ups, but none are evil. It always bothers me in American letters how ministers are mostly always bad. Not just bad but psychopathically horrible. It’s so easy and simplistic to make them like that. In your book, The Father of the Love of Christ! Church sort of fits in with the general American idea of what a minster is. He is also in his own way, original and compelling, but I wondered if you could speak to this.
SH: I am very glad you bring this up. I was raised Christian—or I was raised half-Christian (the splitfoot!). My mom loved the traditions and brought us to church. My dad came with us because he loved her, but he didn’t believe any of it. His little brother had died when he was eight. What kind of God kills eight-year-olds? Good question. Like Ruth in the novel, I love Jesus as I love Martin Luther King or anyone who fights for justice. I sporadically attend church now and find peace there, but I don’t call myself a Christian. I always had trouble with “God the Father.” All of the fathers I knew were alcoholics. I also have a violent allergy to sexism and did even as a small girl. Luckily my grandmother told me early on, “If you have a problem with how the word God is being used, just replace the word God with the word love.”
I have known many kind ministers. Four out of the five ministers in my childhood congregations were great. One was totally creepy. Father Arthur in my book is no great minister. He’s not even a minister. He’s a power hungry, drunken pretender. My purpose with him is to think about power and people who use religion to dwell easily in their own hypocrisy: shutting out the stranger, the other. Through him, I could explore how people fail in properly taking care of children. It is easy to blame churches for not doing enough, and yes, exposing Christian hypocrisy is shooting fish in a barrel, but I had hoped to achieve something less 2-D with the character of Father Arthur. Perhaps I failed. I’ll argue my case by invoking a moment in the book when Mr. Bell first appears at Love of Christ! He is snickering about religion and acting like someone who knows that faith equals idiocy. In that moment, Father Arthur asks him, How many orphaned children have you sheltered? And there’s the sad truth of a lot of liberalism. Mr. Bell must admit that he has done virtually nothing to help his fellow human.
It is a bad position to stand in judgment of anyone. That was never my intention for this book. I just enjoy dwelling in the in-between, having Father Arthur (and my other characters) be both a good man and a bad man.
I also want to get back to what you said above about the fear of mothering, if only just to say that the writing of this book turned out to be a place to put a lot of the fear and the questions I had about my own power as a mom. Writing is my best solution when faced with fear. So for me, it was not about admitting that mothering was hard or that I had lost something. I always knew it was hard and admitted the challenges. It would have been impossible for me not to admit the difficulty—I had three children under the age of three! I also didn’t feel like I had lost anything in having them as I was late to the game. I wanted them very, very much. I had been waiting for them to come. For me, it was a problem of new vulnerabilities, having my heart placed inside three bodies external to mine, and just having to surrender into knowing that they would do whatever they wanted with my heart, for better or worse.
DS: Three kids under three. My God! I remember once when you were at my house and you had your daughter Rosa with you. I remember we were talking about teaching, and you said, “Teaching is like a spa compared to my life at home.” And I really understood better what your life must have been like in those years.
I wanted to ask you about plotting. I feel that you are one of the better writers I know line for line who can also plot really well. Mr. Splitfoot moves forward like a race car, in part because of your ability to keep so many story lines alive. In a lot of literary fiction, plot is almost a dirty word. Could you talk a bit about plot and story, what these things mean to you?
SH: Plot was a slow dawning. I grew up in and around a group of avant-garde writers. A lot of our writing processes focused on language alone. Oddly this tended to obscure meaning. I was interested in broken things and my work reflected that: grief as a project, sorrow as a way of knowing the self, psychology as manuscript. I too thought plot was a dirty word, though secretly I enjoyed it immensely. First cuts being the deepest, the literature of my childhood never left me.
Then came the work of growing up into the writer I wanted to be and walking away from the impulse to pander to any person or ideology. I thought, “I want to entertain people.” It’s exceptionally important to me. This will sound like utter heresy to some, but I tell my students to remember that writers, like musicians or actors, are entertainers, and that entertainment is an act of generosity. Because of my name, two friends call me Sammy Davis, Jr. I’ve taken him on as my spirit guide. A song and dance man. Just like me.
That doesn’t mean plot comes easily to me now. It is hard! I think it worked in Mr. Splitfoot because it took me so long to write this book. With the three babies, I would steal five minutes here, ten minutes there. That spread the writing out over years and years, and so I had plenty of moments of not-writing to consider how best to plot this out. I drew maps in my bedroom. I also had the pleasure of working with editor Jenna Johnson. She helped me think about plot a lot.
And story? Paule Marshall talks about the kitchen table poets—the process of listening well, listening secretly as a child to adults speaking with each other. This was very true to my upbringing. I’m the youngest of six kids. I was surrounded by storytellers at the table. And none of them ever sacrificed beautiful language at the behest of plot. And no one ever spoke unless the story was a good one. Why would they even bother?
DS: I guess because my great-great (five greats) grandfather was Prophet Miller, founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and I grew up hearing stories about him, I have always thought a lot about cults and what they mean to America. I covered David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco for Spin magazine. I am of many minds about them. One theory is that some people join them because they are exhausted and want someone else to take over and lead their lives; another is that we started in tribes and some people, particularly those who have not been successful in the nuclear family, want to live in bigger communal groups. Others really hope for a sort of utopian place, like Hawthorne at Brookfield farm, the Transcendentalist commune.
In your book you have, to my mind, three cults: the Orphanage, the one run by Mardellion, and the final one, which is a little bit like heaven. Do you think of cults as a particularly American institution and obsession? Have you thought about them a lot?
SH: Two friends of mine disappeared into cults. One has returned; one has not and probably won’t ever. So I do think about cults a lot. For a number of years I lived beside a Twelve Tribes Community. I felt equal parts attraction and repulsion. The attraction was my curiosity, wanting to understand how each member came to live there, what their experience of religion was, what a day looked like. There’s so much titillation wrapped up in cults—the idea of keeping secrets, the idea of controlled chores, children, sex, etc. This makes it hard to not be curious. Most of the people were open to conversation, but the total positivity and ever sunny responses made me doubt that I’d have the same assessment. Surrendering to un-won answers is my trouble with any religion. Like the gesture of swallowing a pill. Cults ostensibly offer ease, a balm for the troubled mind. But I don’t trust what’s easy. It feels good when you first turn on the TV but after ten hours, ten months, of watching the tube, the mind goes rotten.
I don’t think of cults as an American institution. That vulnerability, that urge to surrender to someone more dominant, controlling, and “wise” is universal. The entire process of human growth comes with finding your own authority. Even if eventually your authority really wants to surrender to another. One needs to find it first.
Haruki Murakami’s book Underground is about the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. This book has shaped a lot of my thinking about cults. In it, he speaks about the inability to not look away when he first saw an Aum Shinrikyo campaign parade moving through the streets of his neighborhood. The bright colors, the people all singing in unison, like the Hare Krishnas in NYC. Like vertigo—not as the fear of heights but the fear that one can’t stop herself from jumping—Murakami stared because he felt the part of himself that wanted to be a joiner, that wanted the ease. The other Murakami insists on in Underground is that we must examine our responses that treat people on the fringes of our cultures as the Other. In a very Eastern, holistic way, Murakami says there is no Us and Them. If cult members cannot find an undamaged and undamaging place to be, that is on all of us, that is a flaw in all of us, and it will come back to haunt us. I like that way of thinking.
DS: I agree with you and Murakami. Loneliness is a huge problem, I think. Maybe the biggest we have. People say no one dies from it, but I think some people do. And again I feel the nuclear family is part of the problem somehow—or maybe not the family itself, but the huge press machine that throws the family up in our faces constantly. I know I felt that as a single mother. I remember how hard it was for me to find films and books for my daughter that represented the way we were living.
I was lucky enough to see you read at Greenlight in Brooklyn last week. One of the things you talked about was the idea of haunting. And the different things that haunt you. I would love to hear more about that!
SH: Hauntings are residues, things that are left behind. Or, they are things that hide themselves well. Until they don’t. Then, Boo!
Sebald has a line from The Emigrants: “Often I tried to imagine what went on inside the heads of people who led their lives knowing that, behind the walls of the rooms they were in, the shadows of the servants were perpetually flitting past. I fancied they ought to have been afraid of those ghostly creatures who, for scant wages, dealt with the tedious tasks that had to be performed daily.”
I feel like that a lot. There are things inside me that are not me. Things that haunt me just like Sebald’s servants creeping up and down the hidden staircases of my skeleton. When I think about being haunted, I don’t mean just by dead people. I’m working on a collection of hauntings now, essays. The topics covered so far are: books that don’t exist, people who don’t exist, authors who don’t exist, lying, hoarding, hormones, high school, crossroads, old letters, movie stars, booze, stalkers, compost piles, donated organs, and of course dead people. It’s a partial list. I’m still working on it because like ringworms, haunted things generally only come out night.