The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: At the end of your story, “A Cold, Lonely Place,” your narrator says, “It’s so desolate here, and I deserve it. I deserve every stinging bit of it.” If you could say one thing to your narrator, what would it be?
Barbara Harrouns: I would tell her it’s simply not true. I would tell her that she’s entirely deserving of love and community. I’m not sure she’d be convinced, but I do love this narrator. And while this story is grim, I feel it is also entirely hopeful. She gives what she can–in the form of soup, bread, socks and scarves– and most especially to the young man she finds on her couch.
RR: Your main character starts off with the special routine of making bread. Do you have any special routines when you’re writing?
BH: It depends on the time of year, really. In spring and summer, my morning routine includes my dog, Banjo, and a cup of coffee, and I write longhand in my Fillion (a gorgeous, refillable journal made by Little Mountain Bindery, which my beloved friend Lesha Shaver owns and operates) on my back porch. I keep this routine as far into autumn as is possible. Fall and winter find me indoors, in my tiny study, Banjo warming my feet, writing on the desk my parents gave me when I graduated from high school. I often draft longhand and then move to the computer for revision. My big writing is usually a morning activity, but as a mother, I am adept at finding pockets of time to return to the work.
Running used to also be part of my thinking process, and running with my friend and colleague, Rebekah, often helped me work out or rethink and re-envision a story. Both running and writing require such endurance, such struggle, and such pleasure too. I got away from running, but have started in again, and just this morning pounded the pavement with Rebekah. It was simultaneously hard and glorious.
RR: We noted the connection of the name Atticus to the character Atticus Finch in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird and also how the name alludes to a patron of the arts who was famous for never taking sides, Titus Pomponius Atticus, in Greek history. Why did you decide to use the character name in your story?
BH: I am thrilled you referenced both allusions to the name. At the time of drafting this story, Go Set A Watchman was just being released and there was a great deal of talk regarding how reading the book was changing how some felt about Atticus, or reframing how they saw him. My friend Rebekah blogged beautifully about the importance of this book, which I’ll read over autumn break for a variety of reasons, really, but for me Atticus was the first fictional character I discussed at length with my own father, and as a character Atticus was a door that opened a means of communicating for me and my dad while I was in high school. We could always discuss literature and that would take us into one another’s lives and perspectives on current issues, and I will always be so entirely grateful to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird for the story it tells, the beauty of the language, the characters, but more so because it also gave me the first opportunity (as a belligerent. angsty teen) to have a truly extended dialogue with my father about something I cared deeply about. He spoke to me with great respect and considered what I had to say fully, and he was also able to bring a wise/wide lens to the book for me. I remember walking out of his basement workroom feeling intensely connected to the book and my life, and so thrilled because my dad was super smart and we were alike–we both loved the written word!
I was 37 when I got my dog, Banjo. He’s transformed me, and my family too because he just loves so hard all of the time. And I wanted to make clear that this couple read, and loved the arts, and hadn’t always been in such sorry shape, all by the name they’d given their dog. The dog loved them both. He did not choose sides. He loved them wholly, even at their worst. Yet, it is so hard, as a human being, to love as unconditionally as a dog and this is what makes Atticus’ absence so terrible. The dog could do what the characters themselves can’t do for one another or themselves.
RR: Your characters’ approaches to reforming and bettering themselves differ greatly. What were the reasons for the juxtaposition of these characters?
BH: I think it comes from within me actually. I love people, and am very social, but as I age I find that I need great swathes of silence and I love being alone as much as I love being in community. And really, there has to be balance, at least for me, and neither character has found that balance yet. They haven’t really found one another yet either, or who they are currently, nor reconciled who’ve they’ve been. Atticus is always between them. They are alone, together, but in their own way they are laboring toward one another. And in terms of healing or “reforming” or facing addiction–it’s just such hard work on every level. Love is such brutally hard work. It requires so much of us.
Often, as humans, we think that if we could just have “a fresh start” everything will miraculously change. But, the narrator knows what I know–we carry ourselves with us. I live in a small town, the town I was raised in and never planned on returning to, and I have to keep relearning what that clichéd phrase “Wherever you go, there you are” really means to me. The external geography matters, but my internal landscape is most important. I can seek contentment or be absolutely miserable anywhere. It’s a choice. I have to also remind myself that I have an opportunity that is increasingly rare–to know a place intimately, and to be known intimately by the community who inhabits this space.
RR: The clash between place, descriptions, and how they inform and shape the characters, particularly Amanda’s identity, is clear. Why is so much of her identity tied to the house she inhabits?
BH: It is the house of a dead woman, and she is slowly claiming it. As she comes to know the house, she comes to know herself. So there’s that idea of resurrecting self. She sees herself as isolated and unknown, and the house is the place that contains her. She’s chosen it as her prison. But the world has a way of finding us, and she meets the world in the form of this visitor, Jimmy, and she truly extends herself to him in the only way that she can. I have such hope for Amanda, that spring and summer will show her a landscape that leads her out into it, that calls to her to throw wide the windows of the house, to go out to meet the people that her soup feeds and socks warm. We are all called to endure our own winters–literal and metaphorical. We have to carry the burden of our own lives. Amanda has the kneading of bread, the buttering of a warm slice, the routine of building a fire, the rhythm of knitting–small pockets where she can put her own life down momentarily and just be. In the writing of this, I suppose this is the space that writing has always provided me, and I am so grateful for the process that brings me such pleasure. I am also extremely grateful that Rappahannock Review found a home for this story.
Barbara Harroun’s work in Issue 3.1: