Authors / Features / Fiction / Interviews

Transformation as Action: Q & A with Caitlin Hamilton Summie

by Evelyn Somers

It’s an unfortunate fact for literature lovers that some very good books take a long time to see print; and some never do. About ten years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a Bloomer hopeful who was attempting to publish a debut collection. The stories were moving, realistic first-person narratives that evoked the struggles of the characters to get through life. Last year I reread the collection, which the author still hasn’t been able to publish. After so many years, I still recalled the stories in intimate detail; they had cast an unshakeable spell.

This same kind of story—the kind that sticks fast in memory—comprises Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s long-in-the-making debut story collection To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, which did find its way into the world this past June, via Fomite Press.

Hamilton Summie’s stories are written mostly in first-person, though the voices are remarkably diverse, ranging from the young daughter of an American soldier in World War II, in the opening story, “Tags,” to a dying eighty-two year-old man in “Fish Eyes in Moonlight.” In the latter, the narrator has come to live out his final months with his granddaughter and her husband in Boston, after doctors determined he’s not a candidate for heart surgery. Hamilton Summie’s ability to articulate his sense of loss is marvelous:

I am an old man, a thin, frail old man who is passionate about gardens, Auden, Pavarotti, and the sea. I am not ready to leave. I try to explain to Elsa and John that I am not dying as a system, all sinking fast at once. I am going in pieces. My capabilities diminish in increments. The tragedy is that once I planted the garden with daisies, roses, portulaca, rhododendron bushes. I attended concerts at Tanglewood, frequented the bookstores, joined their dinner parties. The tragedy is in the contrast.

Hamilton Summie’s territory is family, but these aren’t families united in love and purpose; they’re fractured by deaths and long estrangements, whether the death of a father at war and the gradual losses of a dying man in the two stories already mentioned, or the estrangements of siblings in “Growing Up Cold” and “Brothers”—one family broken because of a son’s alcoholism, the other after a young man’s paralyzing accident. In one of my favorite stories, “Points of Exchange,” the narrator moves to New York City from Minnesota to work in publishing, only to flee after six months, unable to handle the stress and threat of the city. A counterpoint to her fearfulness is a tough neighborhood girl she often sees on the street, playing hopscotch and singing made-up songs. It takes a close call with violence and the girl’s indifference to the danger to make the narrator realize that, while the child belongs here in the city, she belongs back home with family.

Hamilton Summie began writing the stories while working on her MFA at Colorado State University; some of them, notably the closing story, “Taking Root,” took years to write. It was after finishing her degree that Hamilton Summie was offered a publicist position with the small press MacMurry & Beck. She already knew she wasn’t cut out for editing, but she’d never considered a career as a book publicist. After some thought, she said yes and plunged herself into learning how to promote books. She turned out to have a passion for “getting the writer a place in the marketplace” and now works as an independent publicist, operating Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity with her husband, Rick Summie.

There are a number of loosely linked stories in To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, three of which have laid the groundwork for a novel-in-progress. But these days, parenthood has made Hamilton Summie interested in writing picture books and books for middle-grade children, too. There’s a lack of picture books for sensitive boys, she says, and she would like to see middle grade books with more breadth.

I had the pleasure of talking with Hamilton Summie about her collection, as well as her work as a publicist and her hopes for her books in progress:

Evelyn Somers: Your collection has an unusual publication history, in that you didn’t plan to publish these stories as a book. Can you talk a little about the “accident” of publishing it?

Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Marc Estrin at Fomite Press asked me in 2015 if I had a collection. I was touched to be asked but quickly replied no. I didn’t think I had anything at all. Then, about a year later, I started sending stories out. As I looked through them, I realized I had ten that could put together into a book. I asked Marc if he was still interested in seeing something, and he said yes. So I put the stories in an order, chose a title, and sent the manuscript in. A week later, he told me he had read the book and thought it would be great for Fomite to publish it. I still remember reading that line. At that time, I had started writing the stories in the collection twenty-four years earlier.

ES: You’ve said of these stories that in many of them, the action is a change of heart. Tell me how you get to the place where you’re able to evoke these changes convincingly.

CHS: My stories aren’t filled with plot, but they are filled with transformation, which I consider a kind of action. A change of heart, a revisiting of old wounds, a tentative reach for reconciliation—these are, to me anyway, huge actions or developments in people’s lives. Returning home to face a funeral you dread and a brother from whom you are alienated is a brave step. I want to know what took my character there, and I care very much how he fares after he pulls in the drive. I’m not certain how one gets to these places as a writer specifically, except to say that these are the moments in characters’ lives that interest me. Perhaps these moments are where I live as a person.

ES: Is there a risk to the fiction writer in placing your primary emphasis on emotion and connection rather than events?

CHS: Oh, yes, there is a risk. Some people want more plot. And that’s fine, but they aren’t my readers. I think if you sat down and really analyzed my stories, one would say that in many of them, a fair amount happens. But what drives the stories is always internal. It’s grief, or hope that a situation will change. It’s people’s emotions and beliefs.

ES: There are two groups of connected stories in the collection that feature some of the same characters. I found it interesting that the stories span quite a few years: you were able to imagine the characters’ lives at radically different life stages. This made me think about how time is a force in your stories and is, perhaps, connected to that idea of the “change of heart.” Can you talk a little about that?

CHS: For me, stories aren’t about one conflict at one time. Whole worlds come into play, and even more so, whole histories. Sometimes my view IS long because when you write about people’s emotional lives, and when hearts can carry wounds for years, it can take years to face those or to admit mistakes. In some of my stories, if a family history wasn’t in play, there would be no story at all. One of my professors once said (I think it was Steven Schwartz) that each story has a defining event without which the story could not take place. In some of my stories, the defining events happened years ago but remain powerful, palpable presences in my characters’ lives. Sometimes these things ripple out over lifetimes and generations.

ES: I’m also interested in how you’re able to inhabit characters of different ages and genders quite effortlessly. Do you think that’s related to your frequent use of the first-person perspective in these stories?

CHS: I suppose first person helps, but I also think these characters are simply very real to me. Nancy Willard said that writers don’t write what we know but what we understand. I understand these characters and their worlds, and I can imagine how it would feel to be where they each are.

ES: You’ve worked as a book publicist for many years. How did your education (MFA) prepare you for that?

CHS: My MFA included a TA position, which required that I set up and promote events, direct training for work in book publicity and marketing. It also taught me how to manage people, as my position was within the administration, not a teaching position. Also, there was some wonderful support during the MFA that introduced me to the best of what a community focused on words and art and craft can be. I didn’t go to my MFA expecting any kind of training, only wanting to write. I am grateful for the opportunities I had.

ES: Your publicist career, like the publication of To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, was to some degree accidental. As both a person and a writer, do you see yourself as someone who is open to what one might call the “fortuitous invitation”—since both book and career seem to have come from such invitations?

CHS: I hadn’t thought of myself as being open to the “fortuitous invitation,” but I guess it’s true! Fred Ramey [now co-publisher at Unbridled Books] reached out to me about being his Marketing Director at MacMurray & Beck, and Marc reached out about my short-story collection. In both cases, my initial reaction was to decline, but in the end I moved forward. I had no marketing experience when Fred called. I said I didn’t want to waste his time. So funny to remember now. That job took me out of editing, which is not a natural fit for me, and into publicity and marketing, which is. I love telling people why a story matters. Clearly I have had key moments in my life, with that job and this book, in which I saw a chance and leaped.

ES: What do you think a writer can learn from the publicist?

CHS: Oh, I believe a writer can learn a ton from a publicist: how to position a book, how to market, and how to sell. How to survive a bad review. How to be a good literary citizen. These are valuable skills in today’s marketplace.

ES: And what can a book publicist learn from writers?

CHS: We learn the value of the work itself. A good book elevates. It isn’t simply a product. In a way, it comes with a pulse. We learn to appreciate, and it’s that appreciation that drives what we do to promote. Hopefully we also are reminded to be compassionate people—because this is an industry driven by very subjective responses. Writers sharpen my game, asking great questions or offering wise edits to copy. A good publicist–author team is a partnership, and I think we can all learn in those kinds of working roles.

ES: You’ve commented on the fact that your stories are in ways out of step with current publishing trends. As a publicist, do you find it worrying when you’re hired to publicize a book that is an awkward fit in the current market?

CHS: You know, we are pretty frank about what we can and can’t do, so if the book is out of trend, and we have properly communicated that fact, then no, I’m not worried about representing a book that isn’t part of a trend. We represent books we can get behind. Trends fade, fashions change. If we believe in a book, there will be others who will also. We just have to find them. People don’t all like the same things.

ES: Fomite Press is a small press with a substantial list of titles. From your perspective as a career publicist, what are the benefits of publishing with a small press?

CHS: Wherever one publishes, you want to be with a team that is committed to your work and vision. In my opinion, small presses afford more opportunities now to work closely, perhaps at length, on projects of merit. Small presses are often more open to a greater diversity of work and to more inventive marketing—which is sometimes a function of necessity, given that they don’t have the staff or budgets to compete with corporate publishing, which continues in so many ways to dominate. I didn’t consider taking my collection to any other house. I really like Fomite and Marc. It has been educational, and fun, to be on the other side of the desk and yet to still be helping with the publicity, too.

ES: You’ve done some writing for children because you found gaps in the kinds of books available to your own children. What are some of the differences between writing for an elementary or preschool audience and writing for adults?

CHS: I read some good advice after I began writing for kids, which was this: what can a kid at each age know? I thought about that limited awareness when writing. I also think it can be really easy to talk down to kids or to underestimate kids, and I try not to do that as a writer. For all they might not know, there is a lot kids can understand or intuit. As a mom, I wish there were more stories about surviving as a kid today without magical escapes. I was looking for stories about resilience without wands. When I didn’t find exactly what I wanted, I wrote it instead.

ES: You’re also working on a novel in stories that is developing out of the stories about the characters Sarah and Al in your collection. What are your hopes for that book, and beyond?

CHS: I began linking the stories during my MFA. The novel was drafted in 2010 and has sat since. In fact, I forgot I had it until I began sorting files. For years now, I’ve been working on picture books, the middle grade novel, the collection. But I’d like to finish the novel in this next twelve months. It took me a while to realize that the novel is more Al’s than Sarah’s or that at least it needs to be as much his as hers. Fomite has expressed interest in it, which is encouraging! But I remind myself, story first. Tell it right. Do your characters justice. Then think about business.

Bloom Post End

Evelyn Somers is the long-time associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals. She has two novels under submission and is at work on a novel-in-stories about a pair of dueling female ghosts who battle over the residents of a small Midwest town.

Author photo by Colin Summie

One thought on “Transformation as Action: Q & A with Caitlin Hamilton Summie

  1. Pingback: Book Notes - Caitlin Hamilton Summie "To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts" - Festival Gear

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