A Conversation with Caitlin Hamilton Summie


by Elaine Neil Orr




Caitlin Hamilton Summie's Geographies of the Heart, Fomite, 2022.


Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Finalist, General Fiction (70,000-100,000 words)






In Geographies of the Heart, Sarah Macmillan is devoted to her multi-generational family, but her younger sister, Glennie, is dedicated to her career. As they age and face loss and other challenges, they’re forced to confront their differing priorities, sometimes with Sarah’s husband, Al, serving as mediator. This is a novel about the power of legacies, the importance of forgiveness, and the fertile but fragile ground that is family, the first geography to shape our hearts.



Elaine Orr: Was the idea of the sisters, Sarah and Glennie, and their differences, the germ of the novel? They strike me as a version of the Mary and Martha story in the New Testament, one the dutiful daughter, the other the scholar/searcher.


Caitlin Hamilton Summie: That so interests me because I haven’t yet read the New Testament and now will do so, but no, the germ of this novel came with the second chapter, "Cleaning House," which I wrote during graduate school, sometime in the 1990s. It was originally a short story, and indeed was published as one a few years ago. After initially writing “Cleaning House,” I found myself continuing to write about Sarah. And then her husband, Al. And then I knew that Sarah’s sister, Glennie, had to be given a chance to speak as well.


Elaine: Tell us something about the process of writing this novel. How did it happen over time?


Caitlin: I believe the first piece of this novel was written about 1994. My memory may not be accurate, but that is what I think. The last rewrite for my publisher, the wonderful Fomite Press, was completed in February 2021, as I recall. I have spent nearly three decades and almost half of my life writing about the Macmillan-Nelson clan. They are very real to me, very alive to me.


As a working mother, there were huge gaps in time when I couldn’t write due to other demands. Sometimes I worked on other manuscripts. I call the work and family life and other writing my “happy interruptions.” But I always came back to writing about Sarah, Glennie, and Al.


In 2017, I had a short story collection published called To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, also by Fomite Press. I included three stories about Sarah and her family. A book club asked me what would happen to them all and so I decided to finish their stories in a novel. I was thrilled when I sat down one day to put all the pieces and stories and scraps together only to find I’d done the same thing in 2010! I’d completely forgotten, in the rush of motherhood and work. I had a draft, though, and so I forged ahead.


Elaine: I love the way you speak of the characters as alive, for you. I feel much the same when I write a novel. Geographies of the Heart is set in Minneapolis. What is your relation to that place and what did you hope this physical geography would add to the emotional geographies of the characters?


Caitlin: I spent half of my childhood outside Minneapolis. It’s not where I am from originally, but it is the place that imprinted itself on me the most, perhaps because I was there from age 10-17 and those are such formative years. Also, the cold was imprinted on me. I often find myself writing about snow and ice, about enduring that deep chill. In this novel, the cold matters. There is a rift like a cold front that freezes each sister’s heart. In some ways, the novel is about their ability to thaw.


Elaine: I love that description of the cold front and the sisters’ hearts. This novel is truly a family saga. It adds such depth to the story to include the grandfather’s community of friends and especially Larch. Did Larch exist from the beginning of this project? What are the roots of the grandfather’s war history and friendships?


Caitlin: Oh, Larch! I love Larch. He came out whole from some place I don’t know. I was told to change his name once, and I couldn’t. He is who he is.


This novel is fiction. I don’t have a sister. I can’t sew, and I write my way toward characters and events, without any outline (which is one reason I take a long time to complete a project). I’m always fascinated by what moments or feelings appear in my fiction, as I’m writing, that are seeds from my own life, though. My grandfather is not Sarah’s grandfather, but he did serve in both World Wars, and he used to have coffee with some friends at the local grocery store, once the store developed a restaurant. I never met any of his friends, but I am sure my grandpa’s service and morning coffees were the seeds for Sarah’s grandfather’s history and for his pack of friends.


Elaine: Everything that’s in us somehow comes to bear on our fiction, I think. Al and Sarah share a very realistic love story. For Sarah, in particular, their relationship emerges within a family ethos of endurance. Continuance, even covenant, is central to the novel. It’s a very traditional value, which I find quite refreshing these days. Why was it important to you to create this family ethos?


Caitlin: I always knew who Sarah was, and in her own way, she is a fighter. Family matters to her, and she is not going to walk away when things get tough. Nor would Al. Somehow, through everything, they each held on to the light they had found together and held on to the belief that it would endure. They both value family and connection and honesty so much.


Elaine: There’s a surprise near the end of the novel that we can’t reveal. But it prompts a question, and that is: how did your conception of family evolve as you wrote? Did you always know that you wanted to expand readers’ understanding?


Caitlin: I knew at a certain point that I wanted to have the plot develop the way it did. At the time, I was thinking of this more as a novel about sisterhood, and it came to me very late in the process that the book is more Sarah’s than anyone else’s, actually. Then I realized how much more the plot choice meant—and it fit. It was right. I felt it was true.


Elaine: Your writing is often breathtakingly lyrical. I would read passages and read them again for the sheer power of imagery. You use recurring images such as light, turning, blood/hearts, and especially the quilt and squares of a quilt. It seems to me these must have evolved. The quilt is central. Can you talk about how you see these sets of images shaping the novel?


Caitlin: Thank you for those kind words! I am touched!


For me, the quilt represented the Macmillan women beautifully, each having her individual square yet all connected, all stuck close together, going back for generations, row after row. It’s a patchwork quilt as well, and it represents something that isn’t perfect. The Macmillans certainly aren’t a perfect family, or the Macmillan-Nelsons. But they are families striving to be stronger ones.


Writing about blood and hearts felt natural for a story where bloodlines and family were central, and of course it all worked with Glennie being a doctor.


And the light? And turning? For the grief and sadness they faced, I needed them always to turn, to view things differently, and to turn toward the light. I felt that sense of hope and renewal was important.


Elaine: I was reminded, reading your novel, of the crucial difference point of view makes. At the beginning, we are in Sarah’s point of view and later we get Glennie’s. And we get Al’s. He is something of the mediator. But it is so important for the sisters, especially, that we see both points of view. Did you have to work harder to achieve one of these characters’ voices than the others?


Caitlin: I always hear a voice or a line, which is the start of a story, and I heard Sarah’s first. Al’s came easily. It was Glennie who gave me pause. She is a complicated woman, and I wanted to do her justice. It would have been very easy to make her a villain. But she is better than that and more than that. I had to really listen and think about her, but she first came through in a scrap piece I’d written that became a chapter in the novel, and I kept my ear to that piece like it was a tuning fork. I knew that was her. I just had to listen.


Elaine: I was so glad when you developed Glennie’s point of view because I began to love her. One of the developments of the novel is that later on, she does (and sometimes in her doctor’s role) begin to show up and care for the grandparents and the family.


I want to discuss elder care, because it’s so crucial to the beginning of the novel and it’s so critical to women’s lives now. In the reception of the novel, is this a topic that has come up often? Because Sarah is a mother and not “professionally employed,” she seems the “obvious choice” for shouldering most of the work. Glennie, on the other hand, is less maternally inclined and is a doctor. And yet, whatever the family system, these divisions of labor can cause tension. What does your novel show us about the yields of elder care? And what can adult children miss if we aren’t present for it?


Caitlin: I haven’t had much response to the elder care threads in the novel, but a number of reviewers have commented on how much Sarah is juggling—parenting, elder care, a job—and have used the same word in describing Sarah: relatable. I think this means that, as you say, a lot of women are living similarly to Sarah and caregiving for parents or grandparents.


Elder care is different than being with young children, who are growing into themselves and often darling and silly. In elder care, we often watch the diminishment of a person. Even in the best situations, there is greater vulnerability in that role reversal and, eventually, pending loss. Still, elder care affords a child the chance to be there for parents, to compassionately care for them and defend them and protect them. It’s a way of giving back. I think it allows for a deepening of relationships sometimes, too. Glennie misses that deepening of relationships. I think it’s easy to judge her, but her passion for work is acceptable. It’s how she handles things that becomes problematic.



In the following excerpt, unemployed Sarah, in her early twenties, is tasked with handling her grandparents’ care when no one else in the family is available. The novel is told over decades, by three narrators, and in this chapter, many of Sarah’s worries emerge.



Cleaning House

Sarah

October 1995


In their dusk-lit nursing home room, my grandparents seem at peace with the half-darkness, in that space between what they know and what they don’t. It’s as if the shadows suit them, soften the edges. Promise a gentle passing.


But none of that is true.


As their day nurse, Kirsten, said on the phone yesterday, “You did something. I don’t know what. But this situation has been going on for days now, and you need to get over here and fix it.”


I know Kirsten well enough now to have heard the laughter in her voice, but there was a sharpness in it, too, that sent a wash of fatigue over me and stalled me for an entire day. I’m the default caregiver, still being unemployed. I can’t seem to market myself so maybe this field isn’t for me, but at least temping has allowed me to care for my grandparents in moments like these. Dad gets two personal days. Glennie is even more unreliable now that she wants to take the MCAT early, next semester, the wrong time to push herself if you ask me, but she doesn’t ask, just pops in sometimes to prove she’s okay. And Mom has to ask for time off weeks in advance at the garden center because she’s the manager. It doesn’t matter to the owners that these are her parents, and I know she loves her job. Still, I’m not sure how to handle everything, I want to say, standing here in the nursing home hallway. No one has time to listen, though, not really, not when there are health crises almost every day in the nursing home and deadlines and rigid, rule-following bosses. I could imagine what Kirsten would say anyway, and I could even imagine her saying it.


“You’re as good as your mother with them.” Her dyed blond hair in a tight ponytail, showing hints of dark brown at the scalp. The deep wrinkles in her forehead. Baggy eyes. Baggy scrubs, solid purple or ones with flowers. Eyebrows raised as if to warn me. Kirsten could be thirty or fifty, but I bet she is closer to thirty. She has her hands full every day, and her sympathy for me is limited, and I understand. Who needs angry eighty- and ninety-year-olds?


My grandparents have been arguing, and the argument has escalated into barks with my name in them. Sarah!


Then suddenly this morning, silence. They will not talk to each other. In fact, they will talk with no one.


Except, apparently, me.


Kirsten phoned to update me after their breakfast, and I said I’d be by before they ate dinner. And now here I am, on this crisp October evening, gathering courage before crossing the threshold, wondering what I’ve inadvertently done that has made my grandparents, married for a remarkable 61 years, stop speaking to one another and the staff.


The door to my grandparents' room is pushed back against the wall, and three black numbers form a diagonal down the white paint: 129. Someone has taped construction paper leaves to the door announcing their 61st. Congratulations, Catherine & Ed!


Grandpa lays quietly in his bed, hands in constant spasm, his middle grotesquely enlarged. Grandma, in a chair by the foot of his bed, stares fixedly out into the hallway, her same determined glare suddenly fiercer. She’s wearing a navy sweat suit, which bags around her legs. Her hair lies flat on one side, then swoops up on the other. Her scalp shows through in spots. She slumps, but she stays where she is, right by Grandpa. She waits. She can’t see me, but she will try. For as long as it takes.


She’s the only brave one in the whole damn family.


 

Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, JMWW, Mud Season Review, Belmont Story Review, Hypertext Magazine, and more. Her story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, won the fourth annual Phillip H. McMath Book Award, Silver in the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for Short Stories, and was a Pulpwood Queen Book Club Bonus Book. Her debut novel, Geographies of the Heart, was inspired by three stories in her collection. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003. Find her online at caitlinhamiltonsummie.com.


Elaine Neil Orr is an award-winning professor and writer. She writes out of two Souths, the American South and Southern Nigeria. Along with two scholarly books, she is the author of the memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (UVa.P 2003) and two novels, A Different Sun and Swimming Between Worlds (Berkley/Penguin/Random House, 2013, 2018). Her short fiction and memoir have appeared in Blackbird, The Missouri Review, Image, Shenandoah, and Southern Cultures, among other places. She is on the literature faculty at NC State University and serves on the faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing's low-residency MFA program at Spalding University. In 2019, she won NCSU’s highest research award for her achievement as a writer.