Hamilton supplies psychological depth, no hidden meanings

November 21, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

"I always knew I would have writing in my life," says author Jane Hamilton. "I come from a long line of women writers and I learned early on that girl children are supposed to write."

The fact that she received little academic encouragement didn't deter her and that's a good thing. For now Hamilton is a best-selling author, but still unpretentious and refreshing to talk to.

She says there are no hidden meanings in her novel "A Map of the World."

"I just wrote it for fun," she protested good-naturedly in a phone interview from her Wisconsin home earlier this fall.

"I'm not a sophisticated reader, I just read for pleasure. And I hope anyone else who reads my books will be engaged enough in them to leave this world, too," she added. "I wrote it to absorb myself in another world."

Her books may not have hidden meanings, but they do have psychological depth.

"A Map of the World" was published in hardback in 1994 followed by a paperback edition (Anchor Books, 1995, $12).

The plot involves a couple living in Wisconsin, Alice and Howard Goodwin and their little girls, Emma and Claire. The Goodwins live on a small dairy farm surrounded by suburban housing. They are a relatively new family to the area, and one of the few remaining farm families. They have few friends. One day Alice's best friend, Theresa Collins, brings her daughters to play at the farm while she goes to work. In the few minutes that Alice spends looking for a bathing suit, Lizzy Collins, 2, runs to the pond and drowns. This could be the subject of a book in itself, but it's not enough for Hamilton.

The next thing the reader knows, Alice, who has a part-time job as a school nurse, is accused of sexual child abuse and is arrested. The rest of the book traces Alice's time in the Racine jail, her family's efforts to cope while she is gone, and her trial.

Hamilton, who has never served any time in jail, inevitably has one or two minor things in common with the fictional Alice. Hamilton lives on a small apple farm in Wisconsin, Hamilton has two children, and Hamilton is married to a man named Bob who doesn't like the suggestion that he's anything like the fictional husband Howard.

"Bob doesn't like Howard very much," Hamilton said. "He didn't like the fact that Howard mistrusted Alice, at least initially."

But she does ask readers who know that the story involves the death of a child by drowning not to use that little bit of knowledge to avoid reading the book.

"Don't be afraid to read it just because you know what it's about," she said.

Hamilton says her chief protagonist, Alice Goodwin, has many funny moments.

"She's not always likable but I hope people have sympathy for her. She's quite a judgmental woman and is sort of like an anthropologist in a strange culture. I loved her, but I didn't always like her."

Hamilton said she had to research her local jail in order to faithfully describe Alice's experiences.

"I resisted writing the whole legal thing but then I realized I had to," she said. "So I called my county supervisor and got a tour of the jail in order to visualize it accurately. And then the characters fell into the setting."

Hamilton attended Carleton College in Minnesota, graduating in 1979. She majored in English, but failed to be accepted by any graduate level writing program. That didn't stop her.

"I always knew I would have writing in my life," she said.

So Hamilton spent several years after college writing and sending out short stories. In 1982 a summer intern at Harper's magazine saw one of her stories and passed it along to a senior editor who accepted the piece.

"They helped me make it a much better story and that was a great start," said Hamilton. "With that, I was able to find an agent for 'The Book of Ruth.' "

Then came "A Map of the World" and last year's "The Short History of a Prince." Now she is working on a novel called "Disobedience," another domestic drama.

"I think we are getting hungrier for novels with psychological depth," she said. "TV shows and movies are so slick and stupid and unimaginably banal."

After three successful novels, Hamilton says her life hasn't changed very much. She's still living quietly in a small town and is completely grateful that she is able to write on a daily basis.

"I hope I never have to get a real job," she said.

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