A conversation with Joan
A conversation with Joan
“It was an interesting time – the late sixties – an exhilarating time for me… By that time, I’d jumped beyond the confines of my own wealthy, conservative, very intelligent family, whom I adored.”
Joan Hawkins, whose first novel, Underwater, was set in the late sixties and published in the early seventies, went on to write four more novels, each one quirky and passionate, delivering a humorous and satirical collection of books that cast an endearing, yet critical view of the blue stocking world their characters inhabit.
Helena Mulkerns: Joan, you’ve written five novels over the past twenty years. That’s pretty prolific. When did you begin to write?
Joan Hawkins: I suppose I really began to write after I got ill once at the age of nine. The doctor, fearing rheumatic fever, I think, ordered me to bed, and I ended up staying in my room for a year. It was a small house, and with my bedroom door open, I could hear snippets of conversation and I wrote down what I heard. I was quite dyslexic at the time, so the pages looked like my own personal hieroglyphics, but that’s they were the first things I wrote. Then, two years later I wrote a story about a trip to New York City to visit my grandparents and it got published in the school magazine. When I saw it all compact and neat on the page, no spelling mistakes and perfect grammar – I was thrilled. For the first time the intimacy of content looked respectable.
“Sometimes when I look at the way the action of my books transpires, they seem to me very visual, there’s a lot of dialogue. I think I picked up that structure from the movies.”
HM: As an adult, developing a writing practice, who would have influenced you in terms of craft?
Joan Hawkins: I would have loved – still do – Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Willa Cather, Walt Whitman – I read a lot. A lot of the English novelists, Dickens especially. Then, of course, another thing that really interested me was the movies. Until the 8th grade, before I began reading prolifically, I went to the cinema a lot. I’d often see two films a day. Sometimes when I look at the way the action of my books transpires, they seem to me very visual, there’s a lot of dialogue. I think I picked up that structure from the movies.
HM: Another aspect to your work is the strong presence of New York City, and the leafy environs of Massachusetts or Connecticut.
Joan Hawkins: Yes, New England and New York would definitely be a part of the feel of the work. My mother grew up in New York, and my grandparents always had an apartment in New York. We used to go down there every vacation. I always thought of New York as a place where I felt more comfortable than in Boston or Cambridge.
HM: You lived at home with your family, your two sisters and household help. It sounds a bit like the environment in the novels …
Joan Hawkins: Yes, my own background would have been to a large degree the same as that of the characters I write about. My novels burrow into the lives of some of my more ebullient, lustful family members – they often recreate the events of their triumph or undoing.
HM: In their exposition of that strata of society, they raise a lot of social questions. When would you first have been aware that yours was a quite a privileged background, and to question it?
Joan Hawkins: Well, I guess when we began to be social. I liked my childhood enough when it was playful, but then I became somewhat estranged from my social class when things began to get serious, when we were required to go to dances and meet boys … By that I mean when we had become female figures as opposed to just kids! Then I definitely felt I was somehow outside of that world. For example, I was forced to go to dancing school and to “come out.”
HM: In the old-fashioned sense, of a “Coming Out Ball?”
Joan Hawkins: (laughs): Yes, that’s right. In fact, I had two – the first one I refused to go to! Then they wound up organizing a second one, and I went along to please my parents.
HM: That must have gone down like a lead balloon.
Joan Hawkins: They didn’t like it much …
HM: But you did marry, when you were quite young.
Joan Hawkins: Yes, I married a compelling man when I was twenty-one and adored the warmth and excitement of our entwined lives. I always thought it was sort of a miracle. John was the first young man I had met that actually was interested in me! He didn’t require deference or role playing, he was actually interested in what I had to say.
HM: How auto-biographical, if it’s not a cliché, would Underwater, your first novel, have been?
Joan Hawkins: It was the most concretely biographical of all my novels, I think. It was an interesting time – the late sixties – an exhilarating time for me. I was writing on the heels of living! There I was, “Kate Stevens,” the married heroine of the novel, crumbling with admiration and sexual desire for a woman painter! By that time, I’d jumped beyond the confines of my own wealthy, conservative, very intelligent family, whom I adored.
The clarity of this stance didn’t last, because the facts of my life didn’t match the labels. There was turmoil with women, yet the camaraderie with my husband grew. Under his interest and protection I spent half my day transposing him into a score of characters that, along with the personalities and antics of my tenacious family, inspired my novels!
HM: Underwater, which has become a sort of cult title, encompassed a number of key social issues not only of the day, but which are increasingly relevant, in the light of current events.
Joan Hawkins: I guess Underwater explored a number of social issues that challenged American Society in the late sixties and early seventies; particularly the attack on traditional gender roles. In fact, my publisher had high hopes of a good seller.
HM: Would you agree with readers who describe it as being ahead of its time?
Joan Hawkins: Maybe.
HM: Also, I believe for that reason, you were not able to promote the book as forcefully as you could have. In fact, you had to publish it under a pen name?
Joan Hawkins: Well, due to the same reasons that my publisher thought it would be a big success, really. For example, my father demanded that the book not be identified with the family, and so I had to publish it under the name of Joan Winthrop, which was in fact the name of another family member, only some generations back. And then my own immediate family, who were the bedrock of the book, received its publication in silence. Ironically, my one congratulatory letter was from my father, who told me that the subject matter wasn’t his cup of tea, but that I was “a fine writer.”
HM: Bailey, your second novel, is possibly even more pointed in its criticism of snobbery.
Joan Hawkins: Yes. And Bailey is really based on my subjective experience of real people. The snobbery especially. It was so awful, quite shameful, really. Kids were kept down by being made to feel so ashamed about being vulgar or whatever. The class “structure” was really class hatred. Growing up years ago, there really was a great divide between the “cream” of Boston society and the Irish Catholics. And it was really true, so vivid. That’s where I got that theme.
HM: Bailey is a fascinating novel, and quite wild and unusual in its broad canvas of snobbery, adolescent loneliness and dysfunctional family life. Why do you think it wasn’t published when you originally wrote it?
Joan Hawkins: I’m not sure, in the end. Putnam said they couldn’t see a market. My agent sent it around, and I got a lot of interesting responses, but there always seemed to be this question of, “we don’t really know how we would market it.” I took heart from the “good “ rejection slips and ignored the “bad.” One editor in a well-known publishing house wrote my agent that: ‘the peculiarity of Bailey’s family was well balanced by a sense of real enjoyment of each other. It is this ability to combine the grotesque with the mundane and familiar that causes the story to be so compelling and sad.’
HM: Did not getting your second novel published discourage you?
Joan Hawkins: No. I just kept on writing. I kept my agent, because he really liked my work. I wrote Bailey after Underwater, then I wrote another two, and I got feedback describing them along the lines of “unique” or “fascinating,” but they were still quite outside all of the boxes that a traditional publishing house can define in terms of readership.
HM: So, fast forward to 2012, when you decided to work with a publishing consultant to create your own imprint, Landon Books, and publish Bailey – and then three of the others – yourself. What prompted you to do this?
Joan Hawkins: Well, times have changed and I think that the new publishing possibilities are just great. I mean, this new technology certainly has been an inspiration to me bringing them out now, with Landon Books. But it’s a very foreign world. I couldn’t possibly have done this by myself, because that whole world of technology is so foreign to me. I wouldn’t even have thought of it if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of a friend, and finding an editor willing to take my work as it stands and help me shape the technology around it. That has been crucial.
HM: Tell me a little about the second book from Landon Books, which is your third novel, “Trespass.” It’s a very quirky slice of life – the style is, again, very much your own, and this time, the themes of greed and family are counteracted by quite a philosophical approach to life and the scourge of Cancer.
Joan Hawkins: There are a lot of themes in there. One thing that interests me is how people interpret the ending in different ways.
HM: It’s a dark ending.
Joan Hawkins: Yeah, it’s pretty grim. But I honestly think it’s true. If there is an eternity, it’s in our memories. We even draw back people from the dead by remembering them. That’s all you can do, and once you’re dead, you can’t do that! They’re deader! When I’m dead, my sister’s going to be more dead, because I’m not going to be able to remember her! It is kind of grim, but it’s also kind of beautiful. The best character trait of the young man in “Trespass” is his emphasis is on being so alert to life – to being in the present, so that Helen can be in this theatre of the now and all the dead and gone and everything that’s happening, that’s the deal. In one way, that’s pretty good! But it may not be enough … Who knows!
New York, 2012
Since this conversation, Joan went on to publish two more novels. “Rematch”, brought out in the dark lockdown days of 2021, is a precursor of the recently-dubbed #MeToo issue, set in the eighties in the higher echelons of New York’s legal profession. “Family Money”, published this Spring by 451 Editions in Europe, is a stunning set piece depicting an old world family drowning in a wave of new corporate greed, with its unlikely wayward daughter, Janet Sproule, seeking redemption in lifestyle alternatives.
Joan, as she notes herself, often writes “outside all of the boxes”, which is part of the extraordinary charm of her books. Wild and on occasions outlandish – certainly not for the faint-hearted – the power of her unusual prose and heartbreakingly flawed characters is precisely that very “outside” quality.
Helena Mulkerns, editor to author Joan Hawkins