It’s been 19 years since I first interviewed Rick Harsch in my early days as a book reviewer. Back then, I found his work engaging and puzzling and his personality outsized. It’s been interesting to return to his work this year, first “Skulls of Istria” and now “Voices After Evelyn.”
These days, I find his work equally engaging and slightly less puzzling. His personality, as revealed in this interview (conducted via email because he lives in Slovenia), is as big as ever.
“Voices After Evelyn” is the first book to be published by Maintenance Ends Press, a Midwest-centric imprint of Iowa’s Ice Cube Press. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Harsch, who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1995. The book is a fictional, multivoiced investigation into the real life murder of Evelyn Hartley in La Crosse, Wis.
Q: “Voices After Evelyn” is based on an actual unsolved murder. What drew you to that story? How would you describe your approach to fictionalizing it?
A: The Evelyn Hartley murder was THE crime of La Crosse’s life as a city, a turning point — much of what went on after the murder was truly crazy, but crazy with a theme: a city trying to prove its innocence. But what really drew me to the story as a subject for a novel was a conversation or two with people who were adults at the time the crime occurred, were involved in searches, went to gas stations to have flunkies check their back seats and trunks for bodies so they could get a ‘My Car is OK’ sticker on their windshield. And then once I began investigating earlier 1950s La Crosse, I became increasingly fascinated with the city and was lucky enough to find that friends who were a generation older than me were roiling with tales of the city during the 1950s.
Q: In a long-ago interview, you told me, “To my mind, the plot is never the most important thing.” Do you still feel that way and, if so, what is the most important thing when you’re writing?
A: The most important thing is the language and its human resonance. Plots are infinite in life. Humor matters as well since laughter is probably the finest expression of our species’ capacities.
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Q: The book reminds me of your previous work, but it seems a bit more transparent in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. I felt as if you were more concerned with helping the reader find their way than you have been in other texts. Does that seem right to you? Or have I just gotten used to your style?
A: The main difference is that this book does not have me as a narrator. The characters tell their story, and so I am left without my philosophical interludes to some degree, my digressions, some of my linguistic high jinks. Of course I manage to get some in, but not nearly to the degree I would otherwise. Another factor was the nature of the stories, most of which were true, including that of Maggie Hopkins (not her real name), who slept with whoever showed up first after her husband left for work, and one of which — involving the wacky and corrupt drunken judge — worked perfectly as a strand of plot; so this combination probably makes all but some of the eerier sub-terrain more transparent.
Q: Why did you decide to include characters — including the chorus and Peter Kurten — who stand apart from the central story in various ways?
A: A chorus is always present in fiction, whether we are provided their voices or not. Peter Kurten was the most notorious serial murderer in Germany at the time the movie “M” was made and there are references to “M” deeply embedded in the novel. Also this novel cannot help present the theme of the predatory male, which is what the city is, what our civilization is.
Q: This isn’t your only novel to feature a sexually voracious underage girl who’s sleeping with an older man as a key character. Why do such characters interest you? What’s important about that dynamic in this novel?
A: All characters interest me. In the other novel the reason had to do with the most bizarre aspect of the plot, which was based on a horrendous true event involving a kiddie pool.
This book is on one level a paean to freedom, hence a protagonist or two who are clearly positive figures oblivious to rules. Freedom often involves what is popularly referred to these days as transgressive, and that’s how I would view the young woman/girl you refer to — to me her triumph is what would conventionally be called cheating on her boyfriend but is when she is at her most eloquent and free and the same person she was before her night with Lewis Lomba. Her worst moment comes when she behaves in a normative way that is understandable. I think, in fact, she compares best to The Sneering Brunette, if you were to compare her to another of my characters, a much older person.
Q: Tell me about your experiences in the Workshop and how (or whether) they shaped you as a writer.
A: Nothing in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop shaped me as a writer. I had some very good moments with James Alan McPherson, and though he helped me once with a novel by suggesting correctly that it needed a new beginning, I didn’t learn anything about writing from him; probably a few things about life. Marilynne Robinson taught me to be a bit more diligent, but anyone anywhere could have done that.
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So what I mean to say is not that it wasn’t important for me to experience McPherson and Robinson (she gave some terrific lectures), but overall I believe that I could have experienced the same, more or less, at any other program. I doubt the selection process at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a true cut above that of most other schools. But more importantly, I think that the less you need from a workshop program the more you will gain.
l What: Rick Harsch will read from his new novel, “Voices After Evelyn”
l When: 1 p.m. Saturday
l Where: Poindexter Coffee at Graduate Hotel, 210 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
l Cost: Free