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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Q&A with Debut Novelist Mercedes Helnwein

The Potential Hazards of Hester Day by Mercedes Helnwein

Novelist Mercedes Helnwein has always been a writer, but until recently, was better known for her visual art, which has been called "an exciting mixture of purity, mysticism and raging beauty that follows the concept of no rules." And now, she's written a novel, which has gotten nice write-ups in Los Angeles Magazine and PW, to boot.

In The Potential Hazards of Hester Day, we meet the lovably disillusioned Hester, recently graduated from high school, and anxious to get out of a pit commonly known as Florida. If Mommy had her druthers, young Hester would be off to become a brain surgeon, but Hester knows that any proper escape has to be on her own terms.

After arranging a hasty marriage of convenience to her arch-nemesis from the public library, a prickly amateur scholar named Fenton Flaherty, Hester finds herself in hot water. So, she leaves home with the only decent member of her family, her 10-year-old cousin, Jethro, and hitches a ride in Fenton's camper.

Soon, the unlikely trio is off on a road trip through the South and Midwest, embracing the eccentric and the surreal with open arms. Of course, none of this can end well, and certainly not as our heroes expect.

I recently got to chat with Mercedes about the book, her research road trip to the South and Midwest, and the connection between writing and fine art.

There's a lot going on in The Potential Hazards of Hester Day -- a spontaneous, unconventional marriage, kidnapping, makeshift families, and a road trip, to mention a little of it. Was there any particular spark or idea that served as your point of entry to the story?

The entry point to the story was definitely based on the characters. Hester was developed fully in a short story called "Amazing Grace". I knew immediately that I had to write a lot more for this character -- I was far from done using her. And this was paired with the idea of putting her into a mismatched but genuine friendship with a ten-year-old kid. For some reason that was enough to let loose the rest of the novel.

What drew you to writing about the Midwest and the South?

I got into the blues when I was about 14 and immediately became obsessed with this music. I fell in love with the lyrics and felt that it was the first time I heard something that was completely honest.

I also read "Huck Finn" around the same time and a little later got into Steinbeck. All these things were about old America in the South and Midwest -- different angles and views and layers of it, but somehow the same thing.

I'm very old-fashioned when it comes to ideals and aesthetics. I think this modern age has lost a lot of qualities that were once naturally part of every-day life. Going through the Midwest I was kind of looking for traces of Good Old America -- proof that it existed and maybe still does in places.

I also understand that you took a road trip through the Midwest as research for the book. What kinds of things did you discover, and what was your favorite stop along the way?

Yes, in the winter, just like in the book. This was the first time I had ever gone through the Midwest/South, so I was extremely ecstatic and, to be honest, it really didn't take much to fascinate me.

There are a few things that come to mind. Crossing the Mississippi for the first time. Driving through the Kentucky hills on a quiet Sunday morning, and seeing people walking to an old, white-washed country church. Getting lost in the extreme middle-of-no-where Kansas. Visiting Mark Twain's boyhood home. Eating a weird lunch in this tiny restaurant off the side of a road in Kentucky, where everyone knew each other.

Even just seeing a barn for the first time. As I said, it didn't take much. I was easy to impress.

At one point in the book, Hester tells another character that all she wants is to embed herself in situations that are surreal; however, she seems to gravitate with equal enthusiasm towards what is romantic -- is there a connection between the two?

Yeah. I think that just depends on the person gravitating towards the romantic. In Hester's case, she's odd enough to where the romantic could be the surreal for sure.

What is the relationship between your writing and your visual art? Does your work in one medium inform the other? And are there things about the creative process that are the same (or different) for each?

It's related, and yet it's not. The two of them compliment each other extremely well. The fact that I do all this visual work, helps me in my writing and vice versa. Subject matter-wise, I'm not sure if there are that many similarities. Some people say there are. For me personally it's hard to tell, because the two activities are so different; I'm in very different mind-sets for them. But at the same time, they do kind of inspire each other, so I guess there are ties between them.

What are some of the things that inspire your writing?

Old American folk songs and blues songs. Music in general. Anything weird enough to grab my attention -- conversations, bumper stickers, commercials, viewpoints, news stories. Great sentences no matter where they come from.

What are you reading now?

I'm reading through a collection of Bukowski poems. Open All Night.

What are you working on right now, writing or otherwise?

I'm working on a new series of drawings for a solo show in L.A. this September at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery.

I'm also working on a new novel, as well as a screenplay. It's a very interesting combination of work going on all at once. I definitely never have nothing to do.

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