Wednesday, June 16, 2010: Maximum Shelf: What Is Left the Daughter

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: What Is Left the Daughter

In this edition of Maximum Shelf, the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere, we present What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman. The review and interview are by Marilyn Dahl. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has helped support the issue.


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

Books & Authors

Howard Norman Talks About Literary Imagination

You were born in Michigan, you live in Vermont, yet most of your books are set in Nova Scotia. Why does it resonate with you?

I think that's something that I've started to ask myself. I'm 61--it seems you would come to such knowledge earlier. Let me try to basically address this, though. Nova Scotia, for all the frequent extended periods I've lived there, is obviously central to my literary imagination. Yet writing about it requires a displacement of imagination, because I generally write my novels in Vermont. And that geographical distance affords me the opportunity to calibrate the right narrative distance for my novels. Or at least I try for that. Once the basic research ends, I go to Vermont and begin to channel Nova Scotia. It's like a geographical séance, I suppose, to put it simply.

To me the Canadian Maritimes is a very compelling region; it's tragic, it's melancholy; it has a long history with the sea; it's elegiac. In the cemeteries, there are so many graves that are empty because the people were lost at sea. I'm comfortable with the disturbing paradoxes and haunting qualities of the area. I'd say I try to maintain a deep level of engagement with that region--always.

At my most hopeful, I'd say the answer to "Why Nova Scotia?" lies in the qualities of the novels themselves. That is, if you write well, the book is the answer to why you chose a certain setting. You develop a place the way you develop a character. I mean, I'm limited. I do understand that, so my hope is to do as much as I can with the two or three places I know about. My next novel is about a Jewish hotel bellman who has, to some extent, an obsession with the Hungarian character actor Peter Lorre (Graham Greene said Peter Lorre's accent was "without portfolio"--I love that) and also the bellman's own rather secret, complicated past, both erotic and criminal--and, no surprise I suppose, it's set in Halifax.

Were the U-boats more frightening to Nova Scotians because of their relationship with the sea?

Like the old dirge says, "The sea giveth, the sea taketh away." The incidents of U-boats sinking passenger and military ferries, such as I write about in this novel, were each more harrowing than the last. U-boats actually came into Halifax Harbor. I wanted the U-boats to be very menacing and very close. And, yes, they now are part of Nova Scotia's history with the sea.

The incident that is featured in the novel is the sinking of the ferry Caribou by the German U-boat Laughing Cow. The ferry had civilians and both Canadian and American military on board. The sinking was brought with terrible vivid immediacy to Canadians through radio broadcasts and, of course, newspapers and first-hand accounts of survivors. The crew of the Laughing Cow just watched as people drowned--no sense of humanity at all. The survivors held that to be unconscionable, and accounts of the sinking were delivered in heartbreaking and graphic terms.

I write about a German student being murdered in a fishing outport along the Bay of Fundy. I was influenced by the fact that "race" crimes--attacks on Germans living in Nova Scotia--on occasion resulted as a consequence of those sinkings. I don't want to force the issue, but when Somali men were stopped and beaten in Portland, Ore., after 9/11--under the sponsorship of some sort of pernicious general Muslim alert--well, you can see the corollary: people don't know what to do with their emotions. Things can turn violent with astonishing suddenness.

We have such little memory of World War II being so close to our shores. You have captured that time so clearly, with such perfect detail--radios, gramophones, living in hotels.

I know the area along the Bay of Fundy very well, so the book inherits 40 years of visits, travels, extended stays. I researched radio broadcasts, church bulletins, attitudes about the war. You research, then pick and choose what fits your story. I tried to pack as much as I could--about what was happening to the Jews, immigration, how people in small towns would discuss world events. On and on. Yes, it exists, and that plays into the ongoing conversation about fiction and nonfiction.

In your research, did you actually find a photograph of some German crew members in a Halifax pub?

Yes, it existed, such a photograph--there are in fact a number of rather uncanny photographs like this. Before the greatest escalation of the war, U-boats would anchor along the jigsaw coastline of Nova Scotia, and young sailors would on occasion make their way to Halifax, often saying they were Swedish or Norwegians or whatnot. There are many such accounts. There were even marriages! They were often just very young men. Finally, of course, that kind of activity stopped as a more effective vigilance entered daily life in Halifax. After some major sinkings, vigilance and paranoia took hold.

Radios play an important role in the book, starting with Katherine and her 58 radios and, of course, Donald's obsessive listening to his broadcasts.

Well, Donald works hard to tune in the radio, to locate a human voice in the sea of static, and he got the worse news he possibly could, that his beloved wife has been killed on the ferry. The power of radio information, bulletins. I believe it could cause a person's mind to go to places they couldn't imagine.

I like the tableau of people huddling around a radio, around a voice--it seems particularly nocturnal, it's a shared experience, almost primal. What did we do before cell phones, people ask. We didn't need to report with such frequency and monotony our every move. But it would be hard to say what we did before the radio, because it was such a formative part of my own life. I remember asking my mother what it was like to first see television. She said, "Jack Benny was more handsome on the radio."

The women in your novel are strong and loving and wise, especially Cornelia and Constance.

I don't think authors are allowed favorites, are they? But Cornelia is my favorite. She reinstated herself from a previous book, Devotion. I couldn't get enough of that character, a bakery owner. Being a denizen of bakeries and cafes, I couldn't return often enough.

I think one thing--I'm not sure if it worked--was to make people like Constance and Cornelia be the sort of incarnations of The Highland Book of Platitudes that one of my characters relies on, the way others might the Bible. But Constance and Cornelia come to their wisdom experientially--just from living life.

For instance, when in one scene Constance packs her wardrobe trunk, I wanted the packing to show that everything in her world was organized, so when the suitcase comes floating back days after the sinking, her life would have still seemed organized. Suitcases and trunks are important to this novel. Gaffing hooks people used to haul in the detritus of human tragedy, such as the sinking of a ferry. When Wyatt much later becomes a detritus gaffer in Halifax Harbor, he doesn't right away consciously make the connection. Rilke said, "The irony was so severe it was elusive.'

Your editor describes you as a storyteller. Is there a difference between a novelist and a storyteller?

One thing I wanted the book to do was give Wyatt an epistolary life. That was the narrative strategy, if you will--he is writing one long letter days and nights on end to his distant daughter, Marlais. I wanted him to tell his story. That is what the title refers to: "What Is Left the Daughter"--not things, not objects, not money, but details and truth of a life. That is what Wyatt wants to give Marlais.

To my mind, a good novelist is by definition a good storyteller. The two things are plaited together--hopefully in a seamless way. It's up to a reader to judge.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

Deanne Urmy: The Icing on the Editorial Cake

Executive editor Deanne Urmy talks about working with Howard Norman.

You usually edit nonfiction, but you made an exception for this book. How did that happen?

How could I not?!

Since I edit so much nonfiction, when I read for pleasure, it's often fiction. I knew and loved Howard's work, so when the chance to edit him came up, I was excited to do it. I have edited a number of literary memoirs, and now have the icing on my editorial cake: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish Howard's memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, in 2012.

What was it like to work with Howard? What did you have to do?

It was fantastic--scarily pleasurable. With nonfiction there are so many things other than the writing that have to be considered: market overlap, liability, etc. When you have a Howard Norman novel, you've already bought into that voice. With nonfiction, the voice is often negotiable, trying to bring the author to the right voice. With Howard, no problem with that. I could read the novel as much as a reader as an editor. All I really had to do was watch for a few things, which was a pleasurable puzzle. For instance, when the family is eating lobster stew, but a few pages later they have forks in their hands, we changed the meal to salmon. The world you are in, the intensity of it, the physical world--you are so aware of it, it was easy to spot a tiny incongruity.

Being trained as an editor of literary nonfiction, I am aware of the current brutality of the marketplace. When I am editing, I know that a book has to have its selling points written into it--it has to be obvious; a lot of that subtle packaging goes on in my mind. When you're working with a master novelist like Howard, you can fall into his world so it's a pleasure and a relief.

Book Brahmin: Howard Norman

Howard Norman is the author of the novels The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard, as well as a children's book, Between Heaven and Earth, and the memoir In Fond Remembrance of Me. He is the recipient of a Lannan Foundation Prize, a NEIBA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and three fellowships from the NEA. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Maryland.

On your nightstand now:

A biography of Somerset Maugham, Ann Beattie's Walks with Men and Collected Plays of Max Frisch.
Favorite book when you were a child:

An illustrated Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Your top five authors:

IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER: Thomas Pynchon, Max Frisch, George Eliot, W.S. Merwin and Keats.

Book you've faked reading:

What would be the purpose?

Book you're an evangelist for:

Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.

Book you've bought for the cover:


Book that changed your life:

The Carrier of Ladders by W.S. Merwin.

Favorite line from a book:

"How have I outlived my own mind?"--Nikolai Gogol, The Inspector-General.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.


Photo by Emma Norman


Book Review

Mandahla: What Is Left the Daughter

What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $25.00 Hardcover, 9780618735433, July 2010)

At five o'clock in the morning on April 11, 1967, Wyatt Hillyer is finishing a letter to his daughter, Marlais, a letter started a few weeks earlier, on her 21st birthday. "I'm writing because I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven't told you. I've waited until now to relate the terrible incident that I took part in on October 16, 1942, when I was nineteen." Wyatt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, working as a detritus gaffer, and has not seen Marlais since she was two. His decision to contact her, and what he wants to explain, form the core of Howard Norman's latest novel--a story of love and sorrow, written with a quiet intensity that stuns with its power and tenderness.

Wyatt begins with how he became a sled and toboggan crafter in the village of Middle Economy, Nova Scotia. When he was 17, his mother, Katherine, and his father, Joseph, leapt from separate Halifax bridges into rough waters under wild, dark skies. Both were in love with their next-door neighbor, a switchboard operator at the Lord Nelson Hotel, "as lovely and mysterious as any woman you'd see in an advertisement for perfume in the Saturday Evening Post." After the scandalous suicides, Wyatt's aunt and uncle, Constance and Donald, invite him to live with them, where Wyatt can apprentice in his uncle's sled business. Before he leaves, Wyatt asks an elderly neighbor, Mr. Lessard, to take care of the house; Mr. Lessard acquiesces with one provision--he wants to be able to turn on all 58 of Katherine's radios at the same time, to listen to Buffalo's Classical Hour, as it might be the closest he'll get to experiencing a full orchestra in person. "I'll only do this once... I won't stand for any godforsaken Vivaldi. You don't have to worry about that.... Vivaldi won't break in. Not on my watch." In the midst of tragedy, Norman inserts a strain of plainspoken humor that runs throughout the book, giving quirky voice even to cameo players.

Wyatt moves in with Constance and Donald and their adopted daughter, Tilda, with whom Wyatt falls in love--Tilda, with her unruly black hair and severely upright posture, tilted smile and tart tongue. When he sees her, he feels like "he just came in out of a cold rain into a warm kitchen."

He sets his habits quickly: breakfast in the kitchen at six, work until 10, then a drive in his DeSoto to the bakery owned by Mrs. Cornelia Tell for a cranberry scone and coffee, a comforting food ritual that will last his life, dispensed by a comforting, no-nonsense woman. Four days a week he comes home to Lenore Teachout--another memorable character--sitting in his aunt's kitchen, listening to the radio and practicing her stenography, which is her passion. While in Halifax for college, she wrote down over 1,000 pages of overheard conversation in her journal. When Cornelia asked her if that didn't annoy people, she replied. "Aren't you grateful someone took down all those actual conversations in the Bible?"

Meanwhile Donald obsessively listens to war news, staying up all night for radio bulletins, pasting news articles about U-boats on the shed walls, cursing the radio static. He says, "I have to keep up with the war. Some choose not to." Donald is becoming more and more agitated as the days go by; he knows things are getting worse by the hour, and he's worried about the submarines.

By the spring of 1942, Wyatt has some of his own customers, and Tilda is moving ahead with her chosen career: professional mourner; she is gravely serious about mourning, throwing herself on the ground and wailing. Her parents are concerned, but Donald says, "If Tilda chooses to publicly demonstrate she's got that much additional sadness to give away--plus there's the wages, however modest," then so be it. But they ask her to go to Halifax to be hypnotized first, to learn why mourning holds such an attraction. She agrees, and comes back on the bus with a surprise: Hans Mohring, a German philology student at Dalhousie University, who had moved to Denmark with his parents. Hans moves into an apartment above Cornelia's bakery and commences spending his days with Tilda.

One evening after dinner at the Hillyers', while playing a word game, Hans spells out "ravishing," saying, "Its definition is--well, basically, it's Tilda. Don't you agree?" Wyatt does agree, silently, and quits the game for a walk to the wharf, where he reflects on his illiteracy in matters of the heart. "I felt Tilda was ravishing, but I hadn't known how to use that perfect word."

As 1942 progresses, Wyatt feels a sense of disquiet, of life being off kilter. Uncle Donald loses his temper, and his closest connection seems to be with the radio; he's started missing dinner and he never listens to his gramophone records--no more Beethoven; in fact, all his records have disappeared. The radio is on all the time--in the shed, the kitchen, the bedroom--with bulletins, bleak news and static. Constance is packing for a trip to a christening, and Wyatt is thinking about joining the Royal Canadian Navy. She cautions him not to do it to prove he's brave, but "there's reasons to sign up. Those U-boats have gone to such a great effort, haven't they? Come all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to bring war to Canada. Let alone marauding around inside Donald's head of late, eh? Who's to make those U-boats regret their efforts if not our Navy?"

But Wyatt's plans to join the RCN go terribly awry. In mid-October the ferry Caribou is torpedoed; as news of deaths filters through and suitcases and trunks wash up on shore, Donald breaks completely, with terrible consequences for everyone. As Wyatt goes on to explain his life over the next 25 years, he recalls his uncle saying, "Never sully the sea, or someday it'll come back at you, tenfold." The sea off the coast has been sullied, by the war and by the consequences of grief and rage.

Howard Norman has captured the fear and suspicion that World War II brought to the East Coast perfectly, as news reports circulate and the silent and spooky threat of the U-boats is ever-present. It's an especial fear for the coast dwellers; for them, "lost at sea" has an immediate and haunting resonance. Norman says many of his books are about extremely difficult courtships with much unrequited love and unbalance. In What Is Left the Daughter, love and courtship are even more off-kilter because of the endless dread and worry and the inability to get facts. Donald talks about the day he heard about the ferry sinking: constant updates and bulletins, with "static static static--and then 'Axis U-boats plying their grim trade, no common humanity'--then more static. It can be like that with a radio, but that day it seemed like outright cruelty, [and that afternoon] there was just too much goddamned static, sir." The cacophony of static, news and violence becomes overwhelming.

Norman also captures the speech and texture of life in Nova Scotia with gentle humor and deft description ("streetlamps were like frozen pale explosions in the mist"). When Tilda leaves Wyatt and Hans for a moment, saying she'll be back in a jiffy, Wyatt says to the philology student, "Sit in the car with me, Hans, I'll explain 'jiffy' to you. I could tell you liked that word. See how I'm getting to know you?" For a self-professed unlearned man, Wyatt clearly has a way with words and an interest in them. In the village, he feels that a house with books has a concealed spirituality, because so few people left their books in plain sight--"reading was a private enterprise, when it occurred, especially of novels." Or, "True, no dictionary definition of love might apply to what happened between us that night, but my choice is not to consult a dictionary." The people of Nova Scotia are plain-speaking, with a laconic wit: "Let's listen to Bach's unaccompanied cello suites.... They make some people lose the will to live, but they cheer me right up." And Norman's women are purely remarkable--loving, forgiving, headstrong and wise. They hold the world together.

As Wyatt composes his letter to another important woman, his beloved daughter, Marlais, he thinks he has sometimes "raced over the years like an ice skater fleeing the devil on a frozen river." Still, during those years, he has savored every bit of knowledge he's received about her. Two Sundays ago, Wyatt had stopped in at Harbor United Methodist Church in Halifax, and heard an ancient parable that ended with an elderly woman asking her son about his daughter, whom he hasn't seen for years. She asks what is left the daughter and what has kept the man and his daughter apart? Wyatt realizes that all he has to give to Marlais is the story of his life; his experience as a detritus gaffer dovetails with his mission, as he dredges up memories, the flotsam and jetsam of life, making sense of what it has sent him, what he's saved, discarded, and what he can salvage. Cornelia, in a letter to Wyatt, says, "Don't forget: now and then, life can be improved on." That may be true of life; it's not true of What Is Left the Daughter. No improvement needed; it is perfect.--Marilyn Dahl


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