BEHIND THE BOOK
A CONVERSATION WITH CHERA HAMMONS
author of Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom
Help us publish this title by giving today!
Chera Hammons is an award-winning poet. She holds an MFA from Goddard College and serves as the Writer-in-Residence at West Texas A&M University. She lives in Amarillo, Texas. Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom is her first novel.
So far, what’s been the most surprising (and/or difficult, and/or enjoyable) part about writing your book?
I’ve been lucky during the entire writing and publishing process surrounding Monarchs, particularly considering it’s my first novel (I am normally a poet). It’s been a labor of love, and I’ve been glad for the opportunity to do it. The writing itself was an escape for me. I was homebound due to illness at the time of its writing. Writing the novel allowed me to travel back to a place I missed a great deal, Vermont, where I went to graduate school. It allowed me to indulge my interest in saddle making, a craft I’ve always wanted to learn. This novel offered me the opportunity to imagine in-depth being able to ride horseback freely, though in real life, my hands and legs lose feeling after about ten minutes, and I haven’t been able to do more than a sitting trot (sometimes, not even that) in four years now. It allowed me to escape the hot, flat, windy Texas Panhandle (which I do love, though it can get wearying) for a clear, cold, tree- and mountain-filled landscape.
The level of involvement required to prepare a novel for publication as opposed to a book of poetry was a bit more than I expected—the different summaries and questionnaires and those sorts of things to complete—social media requirements. But really this all makes sense because a novel is marketed differently than a book of poetry is, and Torrey House is a bigger press than those which have published most of my poetry books. It has been wonderful to have such kind, experienced people guiding me through all the steps with my first novel. I feel the book is much stronger having gone through the Torrey House process. I’ve been impressed with how considerate and conscientious everyone at Torrey House is. They are as invested in my book as I am, and that’s truly gratifying. I’m grateful to them!
Tell us about your dream book launch party.
I’m a pretty laid-back person, I like simple things, and I think I might be able to get pretty close to what I would consider to be my dream launch party. We have a wonderful independent bookseller, Burrowing Owl Books, in Amarillo and Canyon. The owner, Dallas Bell, is genuinely supportive, and she is beloved in the local reading and writing community. With her help and the help of some of my university coworkers and friends, the last poetry reading I did at Burrowing Owl ended up being standing room only (something that is probably not usual for a poet to experience). So of course, I would love for the book launch to be there, and it probably will be.
I would of course hope for my friends and family to attend. I have several of each group, of course, who aren’t interested in this sort of thing in the least. But my retired parents, bless ’em, always come to the events tell them about. In fact, in days not long past, I would sometimes do readings with maybe seven or eight people total in the audience. Two were always my parents, one often my mother-in-law, and one was always my husband Daniel. Now that I usually get paid to do events, there might be up to 115 attendees, but those are still my favorite audience members; they’ve been with me from the beginning. I also appreciate seeing friends I know from the university, who are great about supporting each other.
If I could pick anyone to be in attendance, I’d also get some of the people I really admire or miss who are too far away or otherwise likely unable to be able to come: the entire Torrey House team (and especially Anne Terashima, with whom I’ve worked most closely), my advisors and friends from Goddard, my dear late writing teachers ’Annah Sobelman and Bruce McGinnis, some of the friends I haven’t seen in years (I’m looking at you, Braxton, Casey, and Erin), my younger brother, some of my horsey friends who might, I hope, read the book just because of the horses, and the writing friends I usually only get to talk to via email. There are really too many people to name. And I very much wish the late Shirley Jackson could be there, if I could invite anyone. I have long been a fan of her work, and her estate was truly generous in allowing me to use a quotation from her novel The Sundial as my epigraph.
In other details, I would like to serve some wine, cheese, and fruit (cheese is my favorite food, though I can’t have it myself; if you can, you should enjoy it, because life is short. For that reason, I begrudge no one their cheese). And there will be comfortable chairs for anyone who desires one. And plentiful, close parking for all.
Describe one of your favorite places. What makes this place special to you?
There’s a village in northern New Mexico called Jemez Springs. It’s in a caldera, surrounded by hot springs, granite cliffs, sunflowers, and mineral deposits. About seven miles north of this village is a fishing area called Dark Canyon. I had found it years before and always enjoyed going there, but during the year of my divorce from my abusive first husband, when I was very ill without yet knowing the cause, I used to go there a lot by myself, even though I usually had to drive there from Texas. I never saw anyone else there—the tourists were more likely to pull off at Soda Dam, a naturally occurring dam caused by the mineral deposits of a heated spring meeting the cold water of the stream. I could not disappear at Soda Dam. Dark Canyon was just beyond it, a little higher up. I’d park my car in the gravel lot there and walk down the trail toward the sound of water. Just a few feet of walking took me into the trees—mostly thin, towering pines, with splashes of vibrant green or red leaves of other trees or vines beyond them, depending on the season. I could hear no cars or people. I would often pass old campfires surrounded by rocks that were still warm, as if I had only just missed someone else there.
At the stream, there were big flat boulders with small waterfalls (a foot or two high) making a deafening sound around them. I would make my way to a dry boulder in the center of the stream and sit for hours, feeling completely alone and whole and myself. There was water rushing behind me and water in front and I felt like no one could reach me there. It was the one place I could be still. During the summer, I could watch mossy green algae flowing over rainbow trout at the bottom of the stream. (I bought a fishing license because I liked the sound of it—you had to buy a special one for the High Country. High Country: a place remote and cold and beautiful.) During the winter, the surface of the water would be frozen, but I could hear the water alive and breathing underneath. Later on, I took my best friend there, and not long after that, we were married. I have a lot of deep associations with that place, and many of them, I can’t untangle. But mostly, it was my one refuge when my world was in indescribable turmoil, the one place I could rest. I haven’t been there in years because travel has gotten to be too difficult. I sometimes think that, if death isn’t the end, Dark Canyon is the place where I will wake.
"There was water rushing behind me and water in front
and I felt like no one could reach me there. It was the one place
I could be still . . . I sometimes think that, if death isn't the end,
Dark Canyon is the place where I will wake."
What are you most looking forward to in 2020?
In addition to, I hope, a general striving toward the promotion of kindness and social and environmental responsibility in the year ahead, there is much I look forward to in 2020. Holding Monarchs in my hands for the first time will mean so much to me; since I learned to read at a very young age, it has been my dream to write and publish a novel, and this is my first. I also have a poetry book, Maps of Injury, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2020. This book will, if it does as intended, help to give a voice to people who, like me, live with chronic illness, and I hope it will help them feel less isolated.
I look forward to my continued work with writing students; I get to help them find their voices, which is something that still leaves me in awe. I’m also excited about attending AWP for the first time, and meeting in person some of the friends I have before only been able to speak to over the phone or internet.
My dearest personal project in 2020 will probably be the saddle training of my coming six-year-old mustang mare, Selkie, whom I adopted from the Bureau of Land Management in April 2019 for $25. She had two failed adoptions before I got her and was difficult to reach at first. I've taken things slowly with her and have so far focused just on gentling her and getting her used to being around people. She’s living in the pasture now with my other horses and seems happy and healthy. I can lead and lunge her and pick up her feet. I’ve put my bareback pad on her and leaned across her back. In the summer of 2020, I hope to be riding her. Really riding. She is very quick and also very opinionated; it would be a lie to say I’m not nervous about this project, especially with my limitations. But I’m more afraid of stagnating. It would be easy to sink under my illness, especially on the worst days; I know because I’ve come so close to it before. Though I have had to make many adjustments to keep them in my life, the horses keep me moving ahead. If I can train and ride my own mustang, I’ll feel like I can do anything! I hope that, as long as I’m able, I’ll always push myself to pursue the goals that are most important to me (some form of them, at least).
Why Torrey House?
I wanted to find a certain kind of small press to publish Monarchs because, for one thing, the plot is not a mainstream kind of plot. It doesn’t do what many readers have learned to expect from a book with a strong female protagonist. The protagonist is not conventional; she’s a woman who is past middle age and struggles with illness. She sometimes makes bad decisions, due mainly to her isolation, but she always means well. Part of the point of this book is to subvert some common tropes. The protagonist does not feel like her happiness depends on having a romantic relationship and children. The men in the book fulfill the roles usually played, in literature, by women; they are the helpmates who move the plot forward, and they are the ones who are most likely to be found mysteriously dead in the woods. The book is also very concerned with issues like the management of and responsibility to the land and wilderness, and it deals with topics like ecology and animal care. I wanted to find a small press that had women in leadership roles and that was also very concerned with being a good citizen and making a difference in the world, both environmentally and socially. I didn’t think anyone else would really understand Monarchs well enough to give it a chance. And I’m lucky to be at a point in my writing career where I'd rather not publish a book at all than publish it at the wrong place, or somewhere I wouldn’t be proud to associate with. A relationship with a publisher is like any other relationship; it is wise to choose carefully.
I became interested in Torrey House originally because I liked the mission. I felt the press had the same concerns I did. The people there felt the same responsibility. I had found the press originally in the Poets and Writers directory and liked what I saw when I researched it. My husband Daniel, who studied environmental ethics at the University of Edinburgh, sang their praises when I told him I was thinking of submitting; he was familiar with their mission and some of their books. I looked at the other books the press had published, looked up covers and reviews and availability, looked up what their authors had said about them. I read every interview with Kirsten Johanna Allen and Mark Bailey I could find, and it felt like they were having the same conversations I was having in my real life, that we had the same concerns about the world and the same love for the wilderness. When I got the call from Kirsten to let me know that Torrey House was interested in Monarchs, it was like a dream come true. It seemed like the perfect fit (and it has been).
Favorite Torrey House titles?
So far (because I intend to have read all of them at some point), my favorite Torrey House book has been 29 by Mary Sojourner. The protagonist Nell is imperfect and unapologetic, and I admire her for that. There is excellent character development in the book. Sojourner also did a wonderful job bringing the strange landscape of sand and Joshua trees to life for someone who hasn’t ever seen it. Since I live in Texas and lived briefly in New Mexico, there was concurrently enough familiarity in details regarding the desert landscape in the book for me to feel quite at home there. I think the novel is brilliant in how it deals with the nuance inherent in some complex issues. I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving something away.
The next book I intend to order is Before Us Like a Land of Dreams by Karin Anderson, and I’m very much looking forward to sitting down with it. I have found every Torrey House book thus far to be both important as far as subject, and enjoyable to read. They inspire deeper thought without being heavy-handed. It takes talent to write that way, and talent to develop a catalog full of books with those qualities. I’m beyond excited that my book will be among them.
Help bring Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom by Chera Hammons to the page.