by Ericka Taylor
Early in her debut novel, Summer Cannibals, Melanie Hobson introduces readers to David and Margaret Blackford, parents of three adult daughters who are soon to converge on the family home in order to shepherd the youngest through the final weeks of a difficult pregnancy. We learn that David and Margaret are “a couple whom people referred to as ‘handsome’ and it suited them because they resonated good breeding and all that went with it: high birth, property, education, bloodlines you could trace back to royalty.” At the same time, the family’s wealth engenders another response among their less well-off neighbors, who “would stop at the house and look around contemptuously…trawling for every shred of evidence to justify their position that here, without question, was the rot underpinning the nation’s decay.”
This tension between admiration and envy forecasts various tensions that will emerge over the course of the novel. There are the tensions that often arise when adult siblings find themselves in their childhood homes. There is the tension between David and Margaret, the former looking at marriage as a “sour deal,” and the latter seeing her husband as someone “[t]aking bites out of [her] for years.” There is sexual tension.
With masterful prose, Hobson guides the reader through four tension-filled days, during which pregnant Pippa, the sexually frustrated middle child Jax, and professionally frustrated elder daughter Georgina, are forced to look beneath the veneer of dignified reserve to see themselves and their family members as they truly are.
Hobson earned her MFA at the University of Miami, where she was a Michener Fellow. She was also a Kingsbury Fellow in the PhD program at Florida State University. A current resident of Florida, where she lives with her husband and two children, Hobson was gracious enough to talk with Bloom about her novel, her writing process, and the inspiration for the striking mansion where much of the novel takes place.
Ericka Taylor: The family home in Summer Cannibals makes its appearance in the first line of the novel, and its prominence continues to the extent that it could almost be thought of as an additional character. How did you think about the house’s role during the writing process, and at what point did you realize how central you wanted it to be?
Melanie Hobson: The Blackfords’ house is (with a few embellishments) the house I grew up in, and its influence on me—I realize now that I’m grown and have a family and house of my own—was monumental. It was like living in Professor Kirke’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because it went on forever, and there were entire worlds contained within it. That was a gift for a writer—and especially someone like me, one of six girls in a loud family. It was space to think. It also had that extraordinary setting on the edge of a cliff, and when I set out to write Summer Cannibals it seemed the obvious place to put this family whose own existence was so tenuous. I didn’t consciously set out to make the Blackford home a character, but I realized fairly quickly that was what was happening. The house provides an almost mythic contrast to the travails of this family: it will outlast them, and it pre-dates them by millennia. Not really, of course, but it’s how I thought of it—as an utter overarching stability with the fragile human lives inside. When one of the tour guests exits out the front door, he becomes a giant crossing an “ancient bluestone threshold.” The house and gardens are also vital to how this family defines itself, and I’m always fascinated by the question of how place works on us. My childhood was peripatetic—14 houses in three countries in 12 cities before the age of 14, so maybe I have an acute sensitivity to this idea of place, and what it means to lose or replace it. Which aspects of it do you carry with you forever? How does place imprint itself on you? The homes we live in are more than shelter, having their own distinct personalities which are as varied, and as changeable, as we are.
ET: The characters in your book wrestle with secret desires, ambitions, and jealousies during their time together. Was examining secrecy a driving force for the novel or something that emerged as the work developed?
MH: I never begin a piece of writing with an idea; I always begin with a character or a place. And for me, character and place are very very close to being the same thing. So the idea of secrecy actually came out of these characters, and of this place, and I think it has more to do with a sort of grabby self-protection than it does with actively “keeping secrets.” It’s not so much that they are trying to keep secrets, it’s more that this is just how they are. They don’t share. What I found interesting, in writing this book, was my growing awareness that these damaged people are nevertheless united by a strong sense of duty to one another, and that even within their difficult and often hurtful relationships, there is, at bottom, a real love for one another, something inviolable about family bonds.
ET: You write with a close-third point of view, allowing the reader access to each of the five main characters at various points. How did you decide which scenes would be narrated by which characters? Were you concerned, either with the first draft or during the revision process, about the various family members being given “equal time”?
MH: I think that there was only one scene in the novel that I ended up revising to alter the point of view. And in that particular case, I had originally written it from the point of view of both characters—which seemed to dilute or diffuse the scene’s impact—so I chose one character to stick with instead. In my early drafts, the narrative follows the characters, and the scenes or events they choose to unload on me. It’s like an extended conversation, where I’m the listener, and I sort of turn my attention from one to the other—and I think I instinctively stray to a character if they’ve been silent for a while. The balancing of the voices, however, is a different matter. That comes in later drafts and is like adjusting the flavors in a dish you’re cooking up—a little of this, less of that, more over here, oops! Now I need to adjust that flavor since I put more of the other in. It’s a kind of alchemy, getting the balance right. At that stage, I’ll sometimes need a reader who’s coming to it for the first time, because they can often see gaps that I don’t. But I wait as long as possible to give it to anyone because I want those gaps, if they’re there, to stand out and not be lost in everything else that’s wrong with the manuscript.
ET: During the writing process, did your level of attachment to different family members change? Were any of them easier or more difficult to write than the others?
MH: Writing David’s character was, occasionally, hard on my marriage! I would sometimes find myself glaring at my innocent husband across the dinner table, as though he embodied the worst of that character. It’s difficult to leave the fictional world behind—and Summer Cannibals is such an intense novel that it made the transition even more challenging.
The two characters who surprised me the most were David and Margaret. They each did something which I hadn’t expected, and their actions completely threw me. I had to take some time and try to understand their motivations, and it was a little spooky because in each case I was no longer in control—the character was.
ET: Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, has compared your work to Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, and Joyce Carol Oates. Do you feel a kinship with these writers? What other writers do you admire or draw from?
MH: It’s very humbling to be mentioned in the company of those writers. As a Canadian university student, Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, was a revelation to me. I remember it being strangely fantastical—almost magical realist toward the end—while at the same time being solidly grounded in a landscape I was intimately familiar with. It blurred, in a really exciting way, my notion of what fiction was. I remember a story of Joyce Carol Oates’s that had a big impact on me. It dealt with a young girl in a risky, highly charged, sexual situation—but it was set in a commonplace environment, and she was a commonplace girl, and there was something about that heightened danger in a very mundane domestic setting that also opened up possibilities. I recall the language being very ordinary, which was another effective tool to emphasize the disquieting notion that the surface reality isn’t real at all. At the time, it struck me as a rebellious mixing of genres. Iris Murdoch is, for any female writer, an inspiration. Her fierce intellect and her unrelenting pursuit of truth in fiction, and her commitment to the significance of the art form, remind me that fiction should be more than entertainment.
Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering blew my writing apart. Truly. There was something about the way she combined high and low diction in that novel, and her gorgeous gorgeous language, that opened a door for me in my own work. I read it at a time when my confidence was low, and it was like an explosion. It was permission to do exactly, and whatever the hell, I wanted to. Ian McEwan’s work—its creeping unease; the precision and care he uses on unsavory subjects, the psychological nuance of his characters.… I go back to him again and again and again. Early on, Keri Hulme’s novel The Bone People was important because it showed me you could lose yourself in language and imagery—that you could privilege that over plot—and still produce a novel that not only works, but works well. Janet Frame was an influence for the same reason. Other writers I go back to for reassurance and inspiration are Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, Tim Winton, Jim Crace, David Malouf…and then there’s an entire library of novels, too many to name, which have altered me in one way or another. As long ago as Don Quixote, and as recently as The Shepherd’s Hut.
MH: I started out training to be a classical archaeologist before I jumped off that track in grad school, and so the whole idea of “being a writer” was strange to me. I could read a text (in Ancient Greek!) and analyze it backwards and forwards, but I didn’t have a clue how to go about making one myself. I checked out books, followed their writing exercises, but none of it seemed particularly helpful because I could already write pretty sentences—what I lacked was a bigger understanding of the mechanics of the thing. How it all went together. I didn’t know any writers, and the local writer’s group I joined in Texas was, unfortunately, not much more than a social group with sign-ups for the next week’s snack. I was also living in a new country (the U.S.) and figuring out life with my new American husband, waiting tables to pay our bills, and a university campus seemed familiar and comforting. But what the MFA ended up giving me was something even more valuable—it gave me a community of writers. A place in the world. A sense of legitimacy. And that was important to me. It’s hard to keep believing in yourself when you’re still unmade, and when society tends to roll its eyes at art as a productive occupation.
In pragmatic terms, the MFA gave me contacts. Insider knowledge about the mysterious publishing world. After the MFA, I started a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University because I knew that I needed more time in that bubble. More time to write. More line edits, more long-ranging conversations about points of view and dialogue and pacing…more examples of works-in-progress to measure myself against, and to pull apart the inner workings of the fiction engine to try all the various fixes. It was an apprenticeship. At Florida State I worked with Bob Shacochis, who has had the biggest impact on my work of any other person. He was the first reader who really seemed to understand my work, and he was a merciless and brilliant critic. And his writing. There’s a scene in his first novel, Swimming in the Volcano, where Cassius Collymore is turtle hunting with his father, and I still go back to that scene because it’s one of the most perfectly written scenes in all of fiction. Years later, it was Bob who passed an early draft of Summer Cannibals along to Elisabeth Schmitz at Grove Atlantic. And she bought it.
ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers who’ve accomplished what you just have—publication after the age of 40. What benefits do you think come with publishing later in life?
MH: Well, I’m 50 this year. I have a husband and two teenage children, a house and garden and pets—a busy life outside my writing life—and so I don’t have time to worry about “my process” or who else is publishing, or if they’re better than me, or even to spend ungodly amounts of time on a single sentence. I just need to sit down and get to work. It’s definitely stripped away any pretensions I might have had as a younger writer. And I think it’s important to mention that I didn’t decide to write a novel at 40 or 45, and ta-da here it is. I did come to writing later—in my late 20s—but I’ve been working seriously ever since. There were times I came close to giving up, certainly, but I always had that community of writer friends to fall back on—to read my work, offer encouragement, take me seriously—and so I just kept going. There was always just enough of a reason to keep trying.
I’m aware that, for female writers, there’s sometimes a reflex to bristle at questions about work-family balance. I understand that. There remains, as in all fields of work, an inexcusable gender bias and inequality—and no one’s asking the men that question. I know your question doesn’t ask that explicitly—but, in my case, it’s a factor. I have always put my children before my work, and I always will. It’s just the way I’m wired. And that doesn’t mean I can’t do the work, it just means I’ll do it differently. It may take a little longer, but so what? Why do we give ourselves made-up timelines? And if anyone needs tangible evidence of that, just look at the Author List of this site: name after name after name of writers whose trajectories were their own. And I think it does women a disservice not to talk about this issue, because the reality is that women carry and birth the babies. Even in that most basic sense, we are on the front line of family life in a way men can never be. And if fiction can encapsulate all the variations of a life, why can’t we—the writers—do the same, in our own lives? As a fiction writer, and as a fiction writer past 40, my work is steeped in all the living I’ve done. My work’s better now than when I was 20, and it will be even better when I’m 70. It’s a wonderful thing about this job, actually, that your work improves with age.
ET: What writing advice, if any, has been most meaningful you? What advice would you give our readers?
MH: The best advice I’ve been given—over and over, by many different writers and editors—can be distilled into one word: work. Work work work. Work to make the sentence better, work to complete the chapter, work to find the time to write. Work to overcome the misconception that “real work” is a 9-5 job with a retirement plan. Just work.
ET: What are you working on now? Do you see another novel in your future?
MH: I have at least three other novels in my mind—but the one I’m actually writing now is called Hell’s Half Acre. It’s set in Florida—the “old” Florida that still thrives and exists if you know where to look. The book opens with the main character in a boat, heading to an island off the Gulf Coast where she’s holing up in an effort to balance the accounts of her life. Something has gone very wrong. She was raised in a family of muck farmers on the edge of Lake Apopka, but left that in her teens for the circus train—hired because she passes as a man. Later, there was a period as an ornamental hermit in a lush tropical estate…. But now she finds herself here, offshore, alone. As I joked with my editor—like Summer Cannibals, it’s another few hundred pages of sunshine and light.
Ericka Taylor has served as the Assistant Fiction Editor and Assistant Managing Editor for the literary journal, Willow Springs, and is currently working on a novel.