Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Guest Post: MAYHEM by Elizabeth Harris *LSLL BLOG TOUR* [giveaway]

Three Lives of a Woman 
by Elizabeth Harris
Genre: Historical Literary Fiction
Date of Publication: October 5, 2015
Publisher: Gival Press
# of pages: 130
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Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman is a literary novel with a historical setting that engages issues of gender, vigilantism, recovery from trauma, and nostalgia for the rural and small-town past.
Two stock-farmers in 1936 Texas are accused of castrating a neighbor. Mayhem is the story of their crime and its consequences–the violent past and standard gender relations that enable it, and its economic displacement of the modest, well-connected woman who occasions it.
Around the edges of the story, an authorial narrator admits why she fictionalizes this past and shapes the novel as she does.


“Mayhem is a wonder of a novel.  A careful evocation of time and place, community and character, pitched in a voice rich with the lyric poetry of everyday speech, the novel seems not so much narrated as blown up by a breeze.   It’s not enough to claim that I believed every word of it; I felt every syllable.  This archetypal tale of crime and punishment, so filled with tragedy and sympathy, is one of the most wildly alive novels I have ever read.   Every sentence teems with truths both literal and metaphorical, and yet, for all its wisdom and profundity, it reaches us in the manner of a folk ballad, high and sweet and clear.” -- Michael Parker, author of All I Have in This World and The Watery Part of the World

“. . .what to read, watch, and listen to this. . .month in order to achieve maximum Texas cultural literacy. . .Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, Elizabeth Harris. . .” -- Jeff Salamon, Texas Monthly
“In the tradition of Wendell Berry’s elegiac fiction, Elizabeth Harris’ Mayhem. . . a novel that shows reverence to the American South and the people who labored there, but, unlike Berry’s Port William, Kentucky, Harris’ Prince Carl County is unmistakably Central Texas, complete with cattle, cotton, pink granite courthouses and tight-knit German communities.” – Amy Ritthaler Gilmour, San Antonio Express News
“. . . expresses solidarity with marginalized white women from small rural towns, performs a sophisticated act of sisterhood.. . .the quietly insightful and beautifully written Mayhem intrigues and enlightens.” -- Judith Newton, Huffington Post

How the Author of the Story Became a Character

Guest Post by Elizabeth Harris

Some readers have asked why I allowed the author in Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman to talk about writing the novel, why I “went meta-” there or “broke down the fourth wall.” I didn’t start out to: it developed out of the material. First I should say that the author-character is not me: some of the things she says about herself happened to me in writing the novel and some didn’t. But it’s true, as she says about herself, that I set out to write the story of a small-town geriatric nurse, a middle-age white woman who had come down in the world. What had happened to bring her where she was?

I named her Evelyn and began to write scattered bits of action and settings. I accumulated various pieces that might go into the story in some form. After I decided Evelyn would’ve been innocently involved in a particular crime, I suspected I might develop a vigilante theme by fictionalizing some Central Texas historical actions from before she could’ve been born. I also kept wanting to include a child character such as I had been, visiting a bedridden invalid and wondering about the woman taking care of her, a child who would grow up and have an inkling about this woman. I wanted to write mostly about the woman, hardly at all about myself. How to fit pieces like those together?

A basic question in writing any fiction is who will tell the story, which is obvious sometimes but wasn’t this time. Should it be an author or one or more characters and, if an author, whose perspective(s) should she see from? Because I was imagining widely separate time-settings, I leaned towards either an author or a collage of different voices including an author and characters. In my short story collection, The Ant Generator, I’d stuck my toe into collage but I’d never worked with it at length.

Beginning to assemble materials, I wrote a rough version of the novel’s most dramatic events as seen by an author through Evelyn’s perspective: weeks of build-up, then the day her husband Les and his brother half-castrate a neighbor, Charlie McCoy. It was a dreadful piece of writing, even for a rough draft, a melodrama so limited to the strong emotion of one character that it bored me. But drafts are to learn from, and I learned, minimally, that I needed to move the perspective around in those action-filled scenes.

At the same time, breaking those scenes up into completely separate bits of character perspective did not seem like a good thing to do to them. Collage might be the wrong idea. To maintain continuity in an exciting sequence, I seemed to need an omniscient author who could get into and out of perspectives of several characters. Omniscience can also look at time-settings remote from the rest of the story and might help me get some of the local vigilante history in. I was almost sold on it.

But I still wanted to get the novel’s origins in. Then I thought, why not let the omniscient author tell that story as her own? Her appearance in childhood scenes would make her a character; would that work, for an omniscient author? I remembered Joyce Carol Oates’s novella I Lock My Door Upon Myself, where the omniscient narrator becomes a character at the end—that works. Of course, in Mayhem, I wanted that to happen early on, since the bits about the narrator as a child, and as a student who begins to understand, are about the novel’s origins. But getting those in early offered its own advantages. The author’s attitudes there might imply a contemporary witness to the gender crimes later dramatized against Evelyn, without their having to be identified as anything like that. (For instance, the assumption that Evelyn, being the woman in the case, is guilty when in fact she’s too traumatized to speak.)

A problem I could see with this idea was that I couldn’t just introduce the author as a character near the beginning and drop her. She’d have to appear at least once later. I remembered another novel, Michael Ondaatje’s, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, where the author appears as a character at the end. And as soon as I tried that with Mayhem, I knew I’d found the right way to tell the story. The ending expanded, became an action, offered a small surprise, and became—not happy but—less sad. Too, although Evelyn has managed her changed, not quite ruined life with dignity and growing awareness, some readers might need another character to relate to in the novel, and maybe the author-character could provide that.

Elizabeth Harris is the author of Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman (2015), which won the Gival Press Novel Award and was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Best Fiction (2016). Mayhem has been reviewed with enthusiasm, praised as essential cultural Texana, and compared to fiction of Katherine Anne Porter, Wendell Berry, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx for its style and its penetration of the Western myth. Harris’s first book The Ant Generator (1991), a short story collection, was chosen by Marilynne Robinson for the prestigious John Simmons Award from the University of Iowa Press. Some of her stories have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of Wind, The Iowa Award, and Literary Austin. Two other novel manuscripts of Harris’ have been recognized in national competitions. 
Harris grew up as Betsy Hall on the east side of Ft. Worth, where she became an avid reader. Her father was a journalist, a former editor of The Daily Texan in 1930-31 who worked for the now-defunct Ft. Worth Press and Pittsburgh Press, and she recalls former newswomen—who had become reporters during World War II—as personal inspirations and role models. She went to high school in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, and to Carnegie-Mellon and Stanford Universities. She taught fiction-writing at the University of Texas at Austin and counts many friends and writers among her former students. She and her husband are birders and football fans. Visit Elizabeth Harris at
  August 15 - 24, 2016
Check out the other great blogs on the tour! 

Author Interview
Guest Post
Author Interview
Author Interview

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