The pleasure of writing: Area native and award-winning author shares insight into her world of words
Jennifer Haigh spends a great deal of time sitting alone in a room.
Don’t feel sorry for her, though. She likes it.
“It’s not everybody’s dream to spend most of your time sitting alone in a room,” the novelist and area native said. “I’m pretty good at being alone. I enjoy being alone. I think you have to in order to be happy as a writer.”
Haigh is the award-winning author of five novels, including her latest, “News From Heaven,” winner of the 2014 PEN/New England Award and the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award, and her debut novel, 2003’s “Mrs. Kimble,” winner of the 2004 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction.
Haigh, who also writes short stories and had her story, “Paramour,” selected for inclusion in “The Best American Short Stories” in 2012, is currently working on her sixth novel.
The 45-year-old who lives in Boston, grew up in Barnesboro, which consolidated with Spangler in 2000 to make Northern Cambria, where her mom, Elizabeth Wasilko, a retired high school librarian, still lives.
Her father, the late Jay Wasilko, was a high school English teacher. Her brother, Jim, lives in Washington D.C.
“She’s wanted to be a writer and she was always, even as a young person, she always kept a journal or a log,” her mom said. “She was always reading or writing. She was a voracious reader always.”
Haigh said she “grew up in a family of great readers and was surrounded by books my whole childhood, and I think that more than anything else set my path.”
Reading has helped Haigh with her writing.
“My greatest help always is what I’m reading, and I feel all the great teachers of writing are dead; they’re writers whose work is an education in itself, so a lot of it is just reading,” she said. “It’s hard for me to point to mentors because writing is really a very solitary thing for me, and I think for most novelists; you’re really living in a world of your own creation, and, for better or for worse, it’s the sort of thing that you have to do alone.”
Haigh passes along this advice for hopeful writers: “I think the best advice I’ve ever been given is to read with serious intent, to read like a writer. … By that, I mean trying to deconstruct the books that you admire, and try to figure out how they work, what they’re made of. In order to know how to build it, you have to take it apart and see how the parts fit together, so I think reading is always the answer.”
Haigh writes about places she knows first hand, setting her stories in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
“After I’ve been writing about Boston, I’m eager to write about back home, and after I finish writing a book set in Pennsylvania, I’m eager to write about this place, so it keeps me fresh in a way.”
In 2013’s “News From Heaven,” a collection of 10 short stories set in a Pennsylvania coal town inspired by Cambria County locations, Haigh drops in on several old friends from her second novel, 2005’s “Baker Towers,” according to Wasilko.
“It’s a great pleasure to me to revisit these characters that I haven’t seen in quite a few years and see what they’ve been up to,” Haigh said.
In a 2013 New York Times article, Janet Maslin called “News From Heaven” an “uplifting and radiant book.”
“As she has shown in her novels ‘The Condition’ and ‘Faith,’ Ms. Haigh is one of the most subtle, incisive fiction writers currently exploring the dynamics of big, secretive families, the kinds whose members are much more apt to betray private thoughts than speak them out loud. Throughout ‘News From Heaven,’ her combined gifts for piercing acuity and discreet understatement make a powerful mix,” she wrote, later concluding: “It is Ms. Haigh’s great gift to make all of these people come alive and to make readers really care how their destinies unfold.”
Haigh possesses “an uncommonly good temperament for writing … and work ethic, and has always taken herself extremely seriously as a working artist – she is ambitious and she believes in herself – while remaining humble before the demands of the craft and her own sky-high standards: showing up to write day after day, working through ‘dry patches’ instead of waiting for a miracle to rescue her, reading other writers broadly and deeply, revising tirelessly, setting new challenges for herself with each book or story,” Dorian Karchmar, Haigh’s literary agent at William Morris Endeavor, wrote in an email.
“Foremost, Jennifer understands – has always understood – that it’s all about the work, and that frequently the work will be difficult. Instead of taking that difficulty as a sign to quit, she takes it as an opportunity to improve, to show what she can do,” she said.
Haigh “is charming, gracious, articulate, thoughtful and very alive in front of an audience – big assets when publishing time comes,” she said.
Haigh recalled what it was like when her first novel came out.
“Oh, it was very exciting. You know, publishing the first time, there’s nothing quite like it,” she said. “The longer you do it, sort of the less glamorous it seems, but initially it was very exciting to me to think that these characters I had created would become real to readers; it’s like somebody else is eavesdropping on your dreams in a certain way, they’re meeting your imaginary friends.”
Between writing her first and her latest, Haigh has found an enjoyable pace when writing.
“Writing a first book is like running a first marathon: you have no illusion that you’re going to win, you’re just hoping the experience won’t kill you. Writing ‘Mrs. Kimble,’ I remember feeling a real eagerness to finish and tremendous impatience to publish,” she wrote in an email. “Six books in, I no longer feel that urgency to finish. It sounds cliche, but I’ve learned that the pleasure of writing is the real reward.
“My favorite part of writing a novel is the long boring middle, when everybody has forgotten I’m alive. At that stage, my life is like that old movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ in which the Bill Murray character keeps living the same day over and over. Novelists, too, live the same day over and over. Fortunately, it’s a day I really like.”
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030. Follow Amanda Gabeletto on Twitter (@AmandaGabeletto) or on Facebook (Amanda Gabeletto Altoona Mirror).