BN Review

Almost Anything Can Grow Lighter: Heather Harpham in Conversation with Bret Anthony Johnston

A charming courtship between hopelessly attracted opposites turns into an unexpected family in Happiness, Heather Harpham’s beautiful memoir about her “crooked little road to semi-ever after.” Bursting with grace and humor, this is an unforgettable story of parenthood and unconditional love that the booksellers who sit on the Discover Great New Writers selection committee are still talking about.

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally bestselling novel Remember Me Like This, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and the winner of the 2015 McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns Prize. After directing the creative writing program at Harvard University for eleven years, Bret is now the director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin.   The following is an edited transcript of Johnston and Harpham’s recent conversation about Happiness.–Miwa Messer

Bret Anthony Johnson: Why is the book called Happiness?

Heather Harpham: I hoped the title would be received as a charged particle — a word that has the power to carry both its positive face value and its implied opposite. I have this line in the book, from Virginia Woolf — “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.” This is a book with veins of unhappiness running through it in the form of a child’s suffering, the loss of innocence, and, on a much less profound scale, a series of upended romantic expectations — and at the same time there is happiness embedded into the small spaces even when we’re in rotten shape. I hope the title contains the tension that always exists when we feel happy — that sense that all could unravel in a heartbeat, as Woolf knew so well. And conversely, when we’re unhappy, that we might, at any moment, find some way to laugh at the absurd or at ourselves. There are wounds beyond humor or happiness, there are — we know this. But surprisingly few. Given enough time and distance, almost anything can grow lighter. Humans are ultimately very emotionally agile, and that’s a great thing.
BAJ: Did you always know that you would write about this period of your life?
HH: No, not really. Like most writers, I have a love-hate relationship with autobiographical material, which carries a unique set of potential pitfalls. When Gracie was sick, my hope was just to get through that time, to see her healthy. The writing I did was primarily to keep our people updated and to help myself cope, to have an arena where I could pour out some of the difficulties or tough questions pouring in. After the dust of living that experience settled, about five years post-transplant, I felt compelled to look at the writing and see if it added up to anything like a story. It didn’t. But I decided to start at the beginning and see if I could draw a portrait of what had been such a wild-and-wooly time, beginning with how Brian and I responded to: a surprise pregnancy; a surprisingly sick kid; a surprise second kid; and a surprising offer from kid number two to cure kid number one. It felt like snippets of despair and joy jumbled together in one basket; I wanted pull these out, piece by piece, and try to lay out a coherent design. Basically, I wanted to re-see, or see more deeply, what we’d been through together, and there’s no better way that I know of than to sit and write. Writing invites you to find sense, or to make sense, out of experiences in which no sense seemed to live.
BAJ: Your husband, the terrific novelist Brian Morton, wrote a novel inspired by this story. Can you tell me a little about the differences and similarities in how you approached the subject?
HH: Brian has the ability to look at life’s hardest things with wide-open eyes, to take the reader into true heartbreak, but without a wisp of sentimentality or of exploitation of the material. What I mean by that is that he works incredibly hard to be faithful to what feels and is true, rather than giving readers what they might like to hear. More than one person told Brian that they threw his novel Breakable You (which you referred to) across the room after reading the scene in which a beloved character dies. I’m not sure there’s higher praise than having your book physically acted on by a reader so invested in the world you’ve made.
Like Brian, I hoped to avoid the easy lob of sentimentality. But, and this might be a function of stereotypical male/female socialization, I’m perhaps more protective of the reader, more worried for them. Or worse, worried what they’ll think of me. Brian gives his readers full credit, he doesn’t pull punches as a writer because he’s fretting over their reactions. For better or worse, I’m a fretter. I am often worried about overwhelming people, or saying too much. At the same time, writing material that inherently invokes pathos (such as children in peril) carries a special set of responsibilities; you’ve got to commit to tell the truth without relying on the expediency of the material to stand in for craft or for honesty.
BAJ: To that end, earlier in your life you studied fiction, and yet you’ve chosen to write this as a memoir. Was that an easy choice? What did nonfiction offer that fiction didn’t?
HH: I wouldn’t have known how to approach this story through a fictional lens. It was simply too close to the surface. I think fiction works best when you’re taking dictation, as has often been said, from the unconscious. Which is why it’s so damn hard. The unconscious keeps its own hours. You have to show up for such huge stretches at the desk with your net out, hoping it will fly by. That’s true for people writing memoir, too, it’s a ton of time at the desk — you can’t just jot down what happened and call it a day. But you’re not searching for the heat, the heart, of your story; you have that within you already. The memoirist’s job is more about applying craft, coherence and, if we’re lucky, meaning to a miasma of undifferentiated experience.
On the other hand, the writer Geoff Dyer rocked the Bennington writers’ community, as we both know, by saying of fiction and nonfiction, “What’s the diff?” I like to think he’s right in the largest sense; good writing demands imagination, there’s no way around it. The imaginative impulse can take many forms — from a sci-fi plot twist to a new metaphor for the oldest game in town, love and heartbreak — but somewhere along the line if you’re writing, you’re imagining. And I love that. What a great job description: imagine.
BAJ: Your daughter, Amelia, is now a happy, healthy sixteen-year-old. How does she feel about the book?
HH: She has a complex set of feelings, and I’m not sure I’m the right person to convey any of them. Writing about her as an infant or as a four-year-old was much easier, and less ethically fraught, than writing about her as a sixteen-year-old. That said, I will share what she’s given me leave to share — that reading the book has widened her empathy for her brother, who, as a very small child, had to contend with his parents’ intense worries and distraction. As she put it, “I feel for the little guy.” And I think, or maybe only hope, that it has widened her empathy for her younger self, and the tremendous hardships she met with humor and spirit.
BAJ: We’ve both written about children in peril. In my novel, even with made-up characters, I felt intensely protective of them. Did you find writing this kind of story especially harrowing? Did you feel any kind of unusual responsibility to the characters, not least Amelia? Did you feel any kind of unusual responsibility toward the readers?
HH: I absolutely share your belief that material harrowing on this level demands special responsibilities: to readers, as I’ve discussed and also to the subjects you’re writing about. I find it touching that you felt this toward your fictional characters — that must be a mark of how real they became for you. I know your characters in Remember Me Like This were entirely real for me, and I followed their fates with my heart in my throat.
With Happiness I was writing with full knowledge, of course, of how it ends. I knew, as I sat to write, who would survive — whom I could protect and whom, excruciatingly, I could not. Writing about Amelia (called Gracie in the book) was hard, in that capturing a child’s idiosyncratic expressions and “vibe” on paper is like running after a wind going, come on, get in this jar! But I had notes and Brian’s formidable memory to help me.
As for the other children, I only wrote about children whose families I’m still in touch with. I wanted parents’ express permission to record, publicly, the most painful experience in their lives. Even with permission, it’s a slippery slope. My intention was to honor the children I wrote about. I hope that is how the writing is received, but I can’t know. Most of all, I wanted to record my own grief, to say I was there, I knew you. I saw you. I remember you.                                                                             
BAJ: When I was doing research for Remember Me Like This, and as I tried to empathize with the married couple, the parents, in my novel, I found that such extraordinary trauma to the child often does irreparable harm to the adults. It’s a kind of collateral damage that isn’t often considered. How did you approach that in your writing process?
HH: When we witness an innocent being suffer, especially our own child, we naturally cast around for someone to blame: Who the hell has allowed this to happen? Why? These questions feel personal, and enragingly unanswered. It is easy, even if totally illogical, to blame your mate. They are right there, handy! And that’s so tragic because in reality no one on earth is more of an ally than your child’s other parent. No one on earth cares more — it’s you two. Or in our evolving world, you three or four. Parents are the front line. In the book, I wrote about how alienated I allowed myself to become from Brian, under the stress and anxieties of transplant, and how inspired I was to rethink that “approach,” by the loving example of another couple we came to know, Ramya and Deepak Bhaskaram.
Loving each other through fear, through terror, through those unanswered questions is incredibly hard. It’s easier, for some of us to isolate and try to gut it out alone. I was afraid of seeing my own fears mirrored in Brian, and so I turned inward. But if you do that, you’re cut off from your lifeline. And ultimately I think both parents, if they can bear to stay sentient, stay connected and deeply feeling, can give much more to their child by nurturing one another.
BAJ: I’ve long believed that the very telling of a story is a kind of victory, a kind of hope, no matter how dark or unsettling the material. How did you negotiate that delicate line between hope and melancholy, between light and dark, as you worked on the book?
HH: The act of telling a story is a kind of victory, I totally agree. It is an act of survivorship; it means you lived to tell. Or more than lived: lived and noticed, lived and stood ready to describe. To tell, you’ve got to have the power to wedge space between the events and the self — whether those events are actual or imagined, you have to have perspective, breathing room, a view. And so, in a sense, to tell a story is to transcended it. Or maybe to surrender to it. I don’t know really how to describe that phenomenon, but I do agree that telling feels like victory, even when what you’re describing is the most knee-bending defeat or loss. Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina springs to mind; it’s a description of a the most decimated childhood, and yet we know the teller is intact enough to convey that experience, and so there’s hope.
As we’ve said, telling carries responsibilities, but it also carries great privilege. It is an honor to be a storyteller, to have the time and energy to recast experience into a form that can be shared, or passed along. Telling stories is an innately human act; those first stories were probably mechanisms of actual survival, of evolution: Hey, listen to how Jed escaped the big gray tiger (or how he didn’t!). Our lives aren’t on the line in the same way, but I do still believe in the power of storytelling — in the hands of masters — to evolve us, to grow us; to make us understand ourselves, or one another, better. Our world has some terrifyingly narrow-minded streams running through it at the moment, and the ability of story tellers to grow empathy and mutual curiosity has never been more necessary. Collectively, we have this impossible, essential job: to face what’s dark, full on, unblinking, but with an open heart.
Author photo of Heather Harpham (c) David Kumin.