Last summer, Meghan Kenny traveled to northern California to give a reading in the vineyards. Surrounded by land that is just starting to recover from years of drought, it was the perfect spot for her to discuss her debut novel, The Driest Season (W. W. Norton & Company). The novel is set in a rain-depleted Wisconsin during World War II. It’s a slow burn of a book, inhabited by a lead character so well drawn you can almost feel the brush of her cotton clothes as she puzzles out the world around her.
The very first line is a scorcher: “In that driest season, Cielle’s father hanged himself in the barn.” Kenny’s enormous strength is her ability to capture the emotional scope of her characters. Just as she did throughout her debut short story collection, Love is No Small Thing, she infuses soul into Cielle, her sister, mother and neighbors as they grapple with the devastating death of a beloved man. As her starred Kirkus review puts it, “Kenny’s thoughtful, finely crafted work is an eloquent reminder that the breadth of the world matters less than the depth of a character.”
A long-time Kenyon College friend of my husband, Kenny has a background rich in fellowships and writing residencies all over the world. She currently teaches writing at the Lancaster Country Day School in Pennsylvania and last fall ran a Contemporary American Writers course at Johns Hopkins University’s MA in Writing Program.
She graciously shared with The National Book Review a little family history and talked about why she took a deep dive into a time and place long neglected -- Kristin Kloberdanz
Q: You once mentioned an old family story about your grandfather. Would you mind sharing this story with our readers? How did this inspire The Driest Season?
A: It was actually a story about my maternal great grandfather, who lived on a farm in Boaz, Wisconsin, where the novel is set. When my grandmother was younger her father died, but she and her three siblings never spoke about how he died. My mother and her siblings thought he might have hanged himself and that maybe my grandmother had found him. This was what sparked my curiosity to write the initial short story by the same title, which then turned into the novel—I’d wondered what it would have been like for her if she had found him, and how her perspective and life would have shifted because of that. In 2014, I took a trip to Boaz to do some final research. At the local Richland Center library, I scanned microfiche for anything about the family, and there it was, on the front newspaper of the paper: October 12, 1932, my great grandfather had hanged himself from a short rope in their barn on a Sunday. It was a chilling find. We’ll never know who found him. It felt eerie to read the truth of this secret no one in my family had spoken about, and that I’d imagined a story around.
Q: You initially wrote this as a short story that won the Iowa Review award back in 2005. Why did you return to this tale all these many years later? Or did you never leave it?
A: I always loved this particular story, and I returned to it two years after it was published, in 2007, when I was looking for an agent. Agents were writing kind notes about my short story collection, but they wanted to see a novel. I’d never attempted to write a novel before, so I looked for a story that might have potential for something longer. This was the only story that drew me back in because of the personal and emotional connection, its tone and language, and because I wanted to know more about the protagonist, Cielle, and how finding her father hanging in the barn affected her beyond the moment where the story ended.
Q: You so perfectly capture the feel—the smell of the grass, the sound of an approaching storm, the cracked soil of drought—of the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, where the novel is set. Have you spent a lot of time there? Where did you grow up?
A: I have not spent a lot of time in Wisconsin, despite the fact that my parents were both raised there, my grandparents lived there for fifty some years, and my mother’s Irish and Norwegian ancestors settled there the mid-1800s. My family visited every few years when I was growing up, but my parents left the Midwest when I was about two years old, for Connecticut and New Hampshire, where I grew up, so I identify with New England and the Northeast. I’ve always loved Midwestern farmland, it is a landscape I love and feel at home in, so maybe it’s in my blood?
Q: Why did you set your story during World War II? What was appealing to you about this period of time in US history?
A: I chose to set the novel in 1943 because the home front during wartime intrigues me. I was drawn to the larger looming loss, not just for Cielle, but for so many others in small towns like Boaz, WI. I see the novel as confronting and moving through loss, questioning loyalty and courage, and wondering why horrible things happen. WWII seemed to amplify Cielle’s confusion and grief on a grander scale in a way that echoed back the dangers of taking risks and caring, and the necessity to be resilient and endure.
Q: The very first sentence in the book informs the reader that 15-year-old Cielle, the heart of this novel, has lost her father to suicide. Yet, while Cielle, her older sister, Helen, and her mother grapple with grief, the family never capsizes. It seems a bit of wartime stiff-upper-lip but somehow the complex tangle of fear of the public knowing it was suicide, anger for their father’s abandonment and longing for his return (even if it’s just a longing for the safety he represents) keep them propelling forward. How did you tap into this particular array of emotions that accompany death?
A: There are elements of the stoic Scandinavian farmer mentality, as well as fear, shame, and good old- fashioned denial factoring into how Cielle and her sister and mother respond to death. I’ve lost loved ones to death or by them choosing to leave my life, and I tapped into that pain, confusion, that feeling of failure and abandonment, and the chaos of emotions that comes with understanding that there’s little we can truly control in our lives. We dream and plan and work toward goals, yet things work against us all the time, and I’m interested in how people keep moving forward, reset the course, and find new hope.
Q: The women in this novel are likewise layered and multifaceted. Cielle is coming to grips with her father’s death, but also exploring crushes and independence. Helen wants to both be home and be off at college; she wants to be married yet autonomous. Their mother in her devastation nonetheless works to cover up the suicide and care for her girls. Are you from a strong family of women yourself?
A: A stubborn, independent streak runs in our family of women, and we’re good at being resilient and at persevering. If that constitutes strong, then yes. I didn’t know my great grandmother, but I’m sure her husband’s suicide hardened her. She was left with a farm and four children, and went into survival mode. I think that shaped my grandmother into a person who was resilient, and who did what she had to do. Later in life, it was important to my grandmother to create a warmer, safer home life for her own family and four children, because it was something she never had, and she did that well, but retained a stoic, independent, stubborn, survivalist mentality in many ways, and I’d argue, passed that right along to the rest of us.
Q: What authors and writing are you drawn to? Did any great writing influence The Driest Season?
A: I’m drawn to all types of authors and writing. When I set out to write this novel, I thought about novels I admired and would want to emulate in terms of tone, structure, or style, and at the time, those novels were: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, Light Years by James Salter, The Quiet American by Graham Greene, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, anything by Marilynne Robinson, My Antonia by Willa Cather, All the Living by C.E. Morgan, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy to name a few.
Q: You have taught literature and writing to a wide range of students. Do you take your own advice when writing?
A: I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years, which seems impossible. I try to keep my advice to students realistic and attainable, and what I know to be true for me as a writer, but no, I don’t always take my own advice, like, “Don’t be a procrastinating perfectionist, worry less about what others think, and write more.” I give them that advice because it’s what bogs me down, and advice I wish I could be better at taking myself.
Kristin Kloberdanz has worked as an editor, writer and reporter at Time, Book and Health magazines. She is currently a managing editor at FitchInk.