As a fiction writer, Rachel Hall brings her characters to life. But to what extent does she really control them?
One would think that deep respect and preservation of history are mutually exclusive to fabricating the past. Not for Heirlooms author Rachel Hall, who delicately balances the factual experience of her WWII-era ancestors with fictional characters who, to Hall, have proper lives of their own.
I meet Hall for our 12:30 interview at the new Glen Edith off Atlantic Avenue. She’s told me that she meets with a group of writers there every Thursday, and they’re packing up their laptops and notebooks from the coarse-grained hardwood tables as I arrive. After ordering my latte I sit down with her, the private room echoing with tones of the acoustic playlist seeping through the door. I tell Hall about myself and my studies, but she need not preface herself. Through research, I’ve learned of her quiet success, and although Heirlooms is her first book, her published short stories have won her a series of awards and honors.
I was excited to find that she teaches English at SUNY Geneseo, so I read Heirlooms through the lens of an eager English student, hungry for literary marrow. I learned that the inspiration for her stories comes from her own family’s survival of the war and their immigration to the United States. Although Heirlooms’ protagonists are de jure based on people from Hall’s life, she saw her ancestral research as a springboard to create from rather than a structure to work within. “I use real characters as a jumping-off point, and then I let them do what they want to do,” she tells me. “And that sounds really, like, groovy, but that’s how it happens.”
Some of Hall’s embellishments are for the benefit of her characters: for example, Jean’s financial success upon coming to the United States. Part of that is rooted in Hall’s own grandfather’s attempt to begin a shampoo company, which never took off. “I like to imagine, though, what if he had been the Prell king?” she says. “What would that have been like? As a fiction writer, I get to play God. And I let them get rich.”
Not all of Hall’s embroideries of her family’s history are positive, though. “Both that rape in the second story and Eugenie going off with that strange man were totally made up,” she explains. “And I fought it with some of those. Like, I felt really funny about having this character who’s sort of based on my mother walk off with this strange man.” Her characters have lives of their own, though. Destinies they must fulfill. “It has to happen for that story,” she says. “So, there you go.”
For Hall, characterization is the most important aspect of writing. She likes to work with real events “and then embroider around it, or embellish.” With the plot already rooted in history, “I can give my characters something to do…. I think that’s a hard thing for fiction writers, like me, who are interested more in character than plot.” I ask her which character was the easiest for her to animate. “The hardest character to write, if I can answer it that way,” she says, “is the one who, generationally, would have been based on me. I just was not interested in writing the Sophie character.” Hall found more excitement writing the perspectives of Eugenie and Lise, the characters based on her mother and grandmother, respectively. She also savored writing some noncentral characters like Henri DuVal, an elderly Frenchman coping with the emasculation that comes with old age. Despite spending only seven pages with Mr. DuVal.“He was really compelling for me to write about,” she says. “I just loved him.”
Knowing she is a professor, I expect all of Hall’s symbols and recurring language to be carefully planned and strategically placed. I’m surprised when she tells me: “I never think of what I’m having the characters do as representing something else. When I’m crafting, I’m not thinking in those terms.” One theme I mention to her is the repetition of words that end sections focused on the character Lise. “You,” says Hall with a smile, “are a close reader!” She tells me she didn’t intend for Lise to use such repetition, but that “that’s just her voice. It’s just who she is.” I am struck with the beauty of that notion; Hall’s characters have their own language. She doesn’t plan it that way, but that’s just how well she knows her own creations. Suddenly it makes sense, her focus on characterization and the decision to let them live their own lives.
“I grew up hearing all kinds of stories,” Hall explains, “and I’m grateful for that, but there’s a burden, too. And I remember thinking sometimes, ‘I wish I didn’t know all of this.’” One thread woven through the stories in Heirlooms is the idea of a “white lie,” non-truths Hall’s characters tell in order to protect themselves—or others— from the past. “People think that they can push things away and not experience that trauma,” she says. “Not think about it by not speaking of it. But I actually think it gets bigger.” Hall tells me that after the war, many Jews denied their heritage and were ashamed of what happened to them. “For some people it’s just too painful, and they don’t want to talk about it,” she says. But healing comes with time. “Lots of second and third generation, children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors, are urging their grandparents to tell those stories.”
I leave the interview thinking about Heirlooms as a story about generations coping together and healing from trauma. A week later, I see Hall again for a book reading as part of St. John Fisher’s Cavanaugh Reading Series. As she reads, each word is given the most soft and beautiful lack of emphasis. She treats her characters with the same patience and steadiness as time itself beats on them in their imagined world. Almost unnoticeably, though, Hall lingers, like time, pausing occasionally after a word, phrase, or image particularly beautiful. As intimate as her stories feel reading them myself, listening to Hall slowly, steadily, and quietly telling her creation’s story adds an entire new dimension to the book’s immersion.
John Ernst is editorial intern at (585).