Mama and The Hungry Hole
By Johanna DeBiase
Wordcraft of Oregon, 2015
Mama and The Hungry Hole by Johanna DeBiase is at once fabulist and realist, socio-political and pure story, cautionary and comforting. The story takes place in northern New Mexico in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos Mountains, in a multicultural farming community, which, like many others, is on the verge of extinction. DeBiase gets at these issues with the use of elements of a speculative nature, including an empathetic tree and an impossibly deep sinkhole that later closes itself up.
DeBiase tackles several heavy issues: environmental destruction, depression, loss of rural traditions; and yet the reader never feels preached at. The novella remains, despite the fact that it carries a mandate, an excellent piece of storytelling.
Linda Michel-Cassidy: Were you imagining a particular reader as you wrote this story?
Johanna DeBiase: A literary fiction audience who also loves fabulism, surrealism, fairy tales, and readers who are interested in the cultures of the Southwest. The book is dedicated to moms, as I wanted to address some of the specific issues of early motherhood.
LMC: You’ve lived in some rather interesting places, most recently settling in northern New Mexico.
JD: I spent the first 22 years of my life growing up in the Lower Hudson Valley region of New York. I moved to Seattle for 2 years and worked in indie bookstores. Seattle ended up being a gateway to Alaska. I lived on the road system in Talkeetna, AK for three winters and six summers and in a fly-in Athabascan village on the Yukon for two long winters. That’s where I met my husband. He is originally from Denver and wanted to move back to the Mountain West for a couple of years. We’ve been in Taos County, New Mexico for 10 years now.
LMC: You write around several weighty topics: ecology, the loss of the rural, mental illness, and family responsibilit
y, to name a few. You manage to get all this in without being polemic. Could you tell us a bit about writing a story that has a conscience but, first and foremost, must engage?
JD: I did not set out to write a book about heavy issues. I think I was just in a heavy place in my life at the time. I was living remotely in the mountains, I had a 3 year old—my first and only child—and a lot of emotions and questions were coming up for me. I wondered if every new mom felt this way or was I the only person terrified of reliving their childhood? Writing this book was my way of processing what I was going through. So issues of depression, post-traumatic stress, the connection between the way our culture treats women an
d nature, and the whole spectrum naturally became a part of the story.
LMC: Let’s talk about the location of your story. Assuming it’s New Mexico (and I’ll go so far as to guess Peñasco) how does one write a place that has a certain amount of weirdness but also a beauty like no other? Did the setting encourage you to include fabulist threads? Does it matter that you and I both live in a place where one can turn around and there are acrobats right there (as in the story), but most of the reading public does not live in such a place?
JD: I lived in Peñasco for six years in the mountains of northern New Mexico, a village thirty miles over mountain passes to the nearest town. It’s one of the most beautiful, lush places I’ve ever seen, right on the border of th
e Pecos Wilderness area. We lived on a river, under the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Yet, I soon learned that one of the reasons this area stayed so beautifully underdeveloped (despite its relative closeness to Taos) was the unique community of people devoted to preserving their way of life, including hardy transplants of artists, hippies, and organic farmers. The place itself already supported its own strangeness and complexities. I merely did what speculative writers do—I asked, “What if?” I think most people in the United States have no idea what a unique culture we have in New Mexico. We’re pleasantly under the radar here and we like it that way.
LMC: I’m interested in how you go about writing the fabulist and surreal into truth. The issues you are driving at are very real and imminent, yet in your book they are encased in extra-worldly features, namely, the massive hole and the empathetic tree. So, this mix you do, of both urgency and speculation, feels precarious, yet it works.
JD: Adding surrealist elements requires a subtle hand. I never wanted it to feel contrived, and in order to do that I needed to not think of any elements of the story as symbols. I hope no one ever asks me what the hole represents and, if they do, I hope I have the restraint to tell them that I don’t know, that it needs to mean something different for every person. That’s for my readers to determine for themselves. I worked naturally from the place of a storyteller, which is really a nonsensical realm of being. I incorporated memories, dreams, and fairy tales into the novella to further accentuate this idea. When we dream, we assume it means something. When we read fairy tales, we assume that the glass slipper represented this or that, but
ultimately, just as in dreams, these images come from a place in our collective consciousness much deeper than we can easily understand. This is why we read fiction, after all: to explore our cultural and personal mysteries.
LMC: Lets talk about that tree for a bit. I can’t help but think it has a curious, limited omniscience (a term I totally stole from the Free State Review’s tee shirt). It senses when things are going awry in the environment and describes how it is becoming sick. This isn’t exactly personification, at least not in the “oh, look, there’s an angry cat driving a convertible,” way, nor is it magical realism in that “now the seashell is talking” manner, either. I wonder if maybe the leap of logic is not that large—and that the magic is tha
t we can imagine what extinction might feel like.
JD: For a long time, I had mulled over this idea of writing a story from the perspective of a tree. What would a tree think of if given sentience? There is the obvious restraint of a character that can’t move. I solved this by assuming trees communicate with wind. It didn’t feel like a stretch as we hear the wind in trees and we hear the leaves rustling in the wind. They give voice to each other. In this way, Tree could learn about things going on in other nearby areas. The less restraining element of the tree character was the wonderful fact that they live so long, over generations of humans, giving them an element of wisdom and, perhaps, omniscience. Because the tree was a domestic apple tree, it relied on humans to take care of it. This inspired the empathetic nature of the tree. An aspen grove would have a very different personality than an a
pple tree or even a willow. Additionally, I am a proud tree hugger. I don’t know if embracing an ancient lodgepole pine is going to align my chakras but it feels good. I think of trees as healers. So, I developed the character organically (pun intended) and it became not only a voice for nature and place, but a maternal substitute.
LMC: We see Julia, the four-year-old lead character, discovering the rural landscape as well as her mother’s sadness, which, manifests as severe depression. I’m interested in this strategy, wherein the child’s viewpoint is narrated in close third so that the reader is presented with fragments of comprehension and has to puzzle together the situation.
JD: Writing from the perspective of the child was probably a practical decision at the time to distance myself from the mother’s character. I didn’t have anything as serious as postpartum depression but I struggled with my own feelings of isolation and fear and having to learn how to cope with these feelings—while taking care of a child. I think every mother feels this on some level. We lose our happy pregnancy hormones and suddenly realize we are responsible for this fragile creature we love impossibly much. It’s difficult to ta
lk about, not just because it’s so personal, but it’s literally difficult to put into words, and is is something that we often try to hide.
LMC: What are you reading right now?
JD: I’m headed to Iceland so I’m reading Under the Glacier by Haldor Laxness and McSweeney’s #15, which features Icelandic authors. We’re also listening to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth in the car with our seven-year-old daughter.