By David Daniel
“As a writer, I was drawn to a subject I can’t make sense of any other way. So the questions swirling around abortion are so close to my heart I just had to write about it.”
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the short-story collection News from Heaven and six bestselling and critically acclaimed novels, including Faith and Heat and Light, which was named a Best Book for 2016 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and NPR. She lives in Boston.
According to the critique in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, her latest novel, Mercy Street (Ecco, 352 pp., $27.99), “takes on that most polarizing of topics — abortion” and boasts “a large, varied cast of vividly drawn characters whose company readers will find deeply rewarding, in no small part because lurking in their shadows is the devastatingly wry humor of their creator.” Also, given the recent revelation that The Supreme Court has voted to strike down Roe v. Wade, according to an initial draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito and obtained by POLITICO, the book takes on additional relevance and resonance. David Daniel asked Haigh some questions about the book via Zoom before Alito’s words — “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled” — were made public.
The Arts Fuse: All of your books — the novels and your story collection — have met with critical and reader acclaim. But this one feels different somehow, more buzz. What has the experience with Mercy Street been so far?
Jennifer Haigh: I backed into writing a very timely novel. It takes me a long time to write a book, and there’s simply no way I could have predicted this novel would be as timely as it has turned out to be. I started writing it in early 2016 — before Trump was elected. There was no way I could have guessed we’d be in the situation we’re in now, where Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned. I had no clue of that. So, it’s really just an accident that this book happens to be so of the moment.
Unlike most of my other books, this one grew directly out of personal experience. That never happens to me. I have no autobiographical instinct at all. But at the time I started writing Mercy Street, I was volunteering at a clinic that performed abortions. That’s not why I volunteered there — I never had any intention of writing about this. It’s such a fraught topic. It’s the last thing I ever wanted to do. But I had been volunteering because I believed in the work they were doing. At a certain point it became clear to me this was a thing I was going to have to write about.
I wasn’t pleased about that. I know what a divisive topic this is. It’s likely the book will turn off as many readers as it appeals to. It’s a very polarizing subject. But as a writer, I was drawn to a subject I can’t make sense of any other way. So the questions swirling around abortion are so close to my heart I just had to write about it.
AF: Once the story was clear and you’d given it time to gestate, did you know the way it would end?
Haigh: I never know the ending of a book when I start writing. Sometimes I think I do but I’m usually wrong because what happens, when I first conceive of a book, I have this very rudimentary understanding of who the characters are. And if I think I know how the story ends, what typically happens is that I write to about the middle of the story and I think, well, she would never do that. Whatever I had in mind for the characters to do no longer seems true to them, because in the process of writing for a year or two, I’ve gotten to know them much better. So, the ending always comes as a surprise to me as much as it does for the reader. And that was true of Mercy Street. All I knew at the beginning was I wanted to write about the experience of working in a clinic like this.
AF: Despite its being fraught?
Haigh: It’s really a singular kind of experience to show up to work every day and have to fight your way through a gauntlet of protestors. I was only a volunteer at this clinic but I had to do that each time I showed up for a shift. The people who work there day in and day out … I have to think it works on them psychically after a while, to have people shouting at you — sometimes angry, abusive people. It’s a pressure cooker environment, and my main character, Claudia, a counselor at a clinic like this, is really affected by this — the daily pushback she gets from protestors. So, when I started writing the book, I knew this was where I was going to start: with that experience of coming to work and dealing with the protestors. So, the first chapter is in fact the first chapter I wrote. That never happened to me before. But in this case, it did. I knew it began with Claudia showing up to work. We see her looking out the window on Ash Wednesday, counting the protestors.
AF: The narrative voice is so intimate at times, so true, it’s easy to conflate Claudia Birch with you. And I’m wondering, in the way an actor absorbs a character she’s portraying — think, for example, Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown — do you ever find characters taking over your life?
Haigh: They all did. Not just Claudia. In a way, she was the easiest because she’s the person who most closely shares my world. The other three characters in the book — and in particular, Claudia’s antagonist, Victor Prine . . . he was a hard character to get inside. This was someone with whom I share nothing in common. I say that proudly. If I met him, I would probably disagree about the color of the sky. And yet, when I was writing Victor Prine, I felt a responsibility to be even-handed, and this is really the magic of point-of-view. You do approach this as a writer somewhat the way an actor approaches playing characters. You don’t judge the characters, you become the character, and so with Victor Prine I had to see the world through his eyes and share his views, however repugnant I might find them personally. I had to write him more or less the way he would narrate his own life.
You know, none of us is a villain in our own eyes. We all think we have good reasons for thinking what we think and doing what we do, and Victor is no exception. So, when I was writing him, I explained his world view the way he would explain it were he asked why he opposes abortion. And I did this same thing with Anthony and Timmy, who are also pretty different than me. You do that as a writer even if you don’t like these people. And a funny thing happens. Even with a character as repulsive as Victor Prine, I found myself amused by him. And appreciating him in ways that surprised me. He’s a person who’s still capable of insight, of humor, of sharp observations, and I find this with all of the characters, even the ones I probably wouldn’t like very much in person.
Victor does share one thing with me. He’s from the same part of the world. I grew up in northern Appalachia — a little coal mining town in Western Pennsylvania — and it was a common sight to see handmade signs planted in someone’s pasture. These were no mass-produced signs. Someone had gone to the lumber yard, bought the lumber, cut the lumber, painted the sign — the anti-abortion slogan “It’s a child, not a choice.” And all through my childhood I saw these signs along the roadway. They’re still up there. If I go back to visit my mother in Pennsylvania . . . I’ll see them. I have no idea who put them there.
When I started thinking about an antagonist for Claudia, I thought — well, who does that? Who’s the person who makes a sign like that, puts it out there? And this is how I developed Victor Prine. I’ve never known a person like that, from the inside — some of his dark thoughts, his twisted racial views of the world. That’s not anybody I know. But from the outside I feel like I’ve known the guy my whole life. Like I’ve seen him around town. Victor’s an older guy, a retired long-distance trucker and throughout his career he was planting these signs all over the country. That’s how Victor came about.
AF: And rounding out the main cast, how about Timmy Flynn? And Anthony Blanchard?
Haigh: Timmy functions as a kind of first responder in Claudia’s life. She works in this pressure cooker environment — at the end of the day she needs something to get her through. So, she’s a pot smoker and she has this odd kind of relationship with Timmy. She’s been buying weed from him for a couple years. When she runs out and has to re-up her supply, she swings by his apartment and they smoke and watch television, and these scenes of them watching TV are some of my favorites in the book. The most fun to write. It was, for me, a chance to give Claudia a rest. It’s a moment where she lets down her guard. Every day at work she’s on high alert. The clinic has been threatened — there have been bomb threats, shooter threats, menacing phone calls — and every day she’s got this adrenaline surge, and at the end of the day, at Timmy’s, she finally . . . relaxes. Timmy’s a great story teller. A lot of what they do together is every time she makes a buy, she gets a story. Those were great chapters to write.
Timmy is a connector in the story. He’s a weed dealer to both Claudia and Anthony. Anthony is a guy who was injured on the Big Dig. He’s 40, living in his mother’s basement, on disability, never fully recovered from his workplace injury. He’s a pretty isolated guy. His main source of community is going to daily Mass, a habit he fell into just to have somewhere to go, to have a sense of routine. His closest friends are Timmy, who he buys weed from, and the old women who go to Mass. He also does some freelancing for a Catholic website, and it’s through this he meets Victor Prine in a chat room and ends up becoming a kind of “lieutenant” of Victor’s. Victor dispatches him to go snap photos of women going into the abortion clinic.
So that’s how he fits into the larger story. But his reasons for opposing abortion are very different. He’s not even aware of Victor’s twisted ideas. He just wants to please Victor, who he knows only online as Excelsior11. And when he’s asked to take photos, he doesn’t ask any questions, just goes and does it and sends the pictures and waits to be praised. He’s really a guy who’s looking for a father figure, looking for approval, and he gets that from Victor Prine.
AF: Anthony is the only young person attending Mass, and the point is made in the book that, not so long ago, Catholic churches in Boston were crowded. Now, a generation later, many are closing and most of the attendees are old. You’ve written about the church in other works . . .
Haigh: I have. I grew up in a Catholic family in Pennsylvania. I went to twelve years of Catholic school. We often had a priest at dinner, a really observant man. So I heard about the evils of abortion even before I understood how you got pregnant. I was seven or eight years old, in Catholic elementary school, hearing about how bad abortion was. So, this was very much a part of my childhood, and the childhood of anybody who grew up as an observant Catholic. And, as you say, I have written about the church in Boston before. I did a deep dive into it in my novel, Faith. It’s not an accident that Mercy Street is set in Boston, which until recently was the most Catholic city in America. Now I think of Boston as post-Catholic. There are lots of people here like me who have a Catholic background who are no longer observant. In fact, church attendance in Boston has plummeted since 2002 and it’s never come back. And I don’t think it ever will.
I find it particularly striking that in this city that has really been walloped by the clergy sex abuse scandal, the protestors outside the Mercy Street clinic are led by Catholic priests and Franciscan friars — and you’re right, there is a comment embedded there. It’s notable to me that presumably celibate Catholic men are the ones casting judgment on women who come to the clinic for they know not what reasons. Because, I mean, women come to the clinic to get annual exams, to get birth control pills, or to have a bladder infection treated. So, it’s absolutely not true that all the women coming to the clinic are having abortions. Some are, but tellingly all the people outside the clinic in that first scene, they’re almost all men. And the leaders of the protest are Catholics. It seems obvious to me that the church has lost all credibility, particularly in sexual matters, because of the sex abuse scandal.
In fact, there’s a character in that first scene, a co-worker of Claudia, Mary Fahey, who is still an observant Catholic and also an intake nurse at the clinic. In the first scene you see Mary with the ashes on her forehead on Ash Wednesday morning, having been to church. She’s looking out at the protests led by the priests and she is outraged. She says they’re trying to change to subject and the subject is, in her mind, unchangeable. The subject is the abuse of children by Catholic clergy.
AF: I have to ask about the title — drawn from a poem by Anne Sexton — which you sample as an epigraph. When I reread Sexton’s poem, I thought that it was perfect. It fits your book.
Haigh: You know, I never come up with a title until I finish the book, so whatever title I might’ve assigned for the first draft wouldn’t have been right for the final draft because it changes so much in the revision process. So, I found the title quite late as I was on the final draft. I read poetry all the time. I think all good prose writers read poetry. I was reading Anne Sexton, dipping in once again, and I came across this poem [“45 Mercy Street”] and I had the same thought you did. But it came late in the process.
AF: In Mercy Street the question arises several times, someone asking Claudia: “How can you do this work?” — a question that might well be asked of any number of people doing their jobs these days: teachers, medical professionals, police, airline employees. I’d like to ask you that question. And, given the present we live in, are you optimistic?
Haigh: I do this work because it’s the thing I always wanted to do. It’s my way of understanding the world. I’ve often thought I can’t solve problems without a pen in my hand. So I find myself writing about things that trouble me and that defy easy answers.
To go back to my novel Faith, about a priest accused of molesting a child . . . I grew up in the church. I had a sort of magical childhood experience. So, when this clergy sex abuse story broke in 2002, it was really hard for me to square that with my personal experience of Catholic priests. I knew it was all true. I didn’t doubt it. Amazing reporting by the Boston Globe. And yet, it was so different from the Catholic reality I had lived as a child. That disconnect was what ultimately led me to write that novel. To try to make sense of how these things can both be true.
And I think that is the case with everything I’ve written. It’s a way of problem-solving. How can this be? I try to deconstruct situations that mystify me. So, it’s something I would do regardless of whether anyone publishes it or reads it. In large part, I’m writing for myself. That said, I do want the books to be read. And, of course, that process can be complicated. What continues to make it worthwhile for me is being in touch with readers, hearing from readers who found the books meaningful. It’s good when somebody cares about things I care about. I don’t think I’m a particularly exotic person, so if something is of interest to me, it’s probably of interest to other people. It’s always gratifying to have that confirmed, that the stories I’ve considered worth writing about have been worthwhile to read.
David Daniel is author of many books, including White Rabbit, a novel of the Sixties and Inflections & Innuendos, a collection of flash fiction. He teaches part-time at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and blogs regularly at richardhowe.com.