Paula Saunders published “The Distance Home” to strong reviews last year, but it had percolated for decades. The book — a deeply resonant novel that explores the struggles of a Midwestern family — is autobiographical.
Saunders grew up in South Dakota, the daughter and granddaughter of cattle brokers. Her mother, a housewife, started a ballet school in her basement after her kids took classes from a former professional dancer.
The book’s central themes revolve around the conflicts between Eve and Al, characters based on Saunders’ parents, and their treatment of their three children — particularly Leon and Rene. Leon, based on Saunders’ brother, is shy and clumsy, so Eve enrolls him in ballet classes as a child; Rene, who is based on the author, soon follows. Both children excel as dancers, but pay terrible costs. For Leon, it exacerbates a rift with his father, who thinks dance is unfitting for a boy; for Rene, it reinforces a competitive, confident streak that’s delightful to her father but threatening to kids at school.
As her characters try to cope with the emotional turmoil in their family that eventually turns violent, Saunders renders each of them with compassion. They are as vulnerable — sometimes achingly so — as they are tough. Following a passage describing a devastating pneumonia outbreak two generations earlier, Saunders writes:
‘(A)s Rene walked along to school, the prairie would seem to teem with those who’d come before, who’d made their way through this endless sea of cactus and yucca, outcroppings and wash-out gullies, just like the great explorers — by being tough and sharp and willing to stand apart.”
Saunders lives in California with her husband, author George Saunders, whom she met in the Syracuse University creative writing program. She studied with Toni Morrison at State University of New York at Albany, but set aside writing for many years as she raised two daughters and pursued other interests.
We spoke with Saunders by phone in advance of her Sunday appearance at Printers Row Lit Fest to discuss “The Distance Home,” which was recently published in paperback. The following transcript has been edited and condensed.
Q: You took a long break from writing. Why publish now?
A: I was part of the family that I described in the book, so I don’t feel like I had a real road map in going forward and creating my own family. I think that took a lot of energy and thought. One of the other reasons is that the material in the book is difficult for me, as a participant in it, trying to understand the different nuances of our relationships. I had to take the time to grow up and really try to understand things from different perspectives. I tried to write this book when I was younger, but I was too angry. I was really angry at my parents and I was angry at the situation that they created in our family and I was angry at the consequences for each of us, but especially for my brother. So I couldn’t quite get the nuances. I needed an understanding for the situation — of my own, my parents’, our family as a whole — and the situation of families in general. I needed to understand how our family fit into the larger landscape of American families.
Q: Was there a particular moment when you decided this was the right time to go back to this book?
A: We were part of a Buddhist group up in upstate New York, and in that group I was teaching younger children who were mostly Tibetans from India, Nepal and Queens. I started teaching Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series to a group of 13- and 14-year-old girls, and I realized, god, this is so similar to — at least the landscape — was so similar to my experience and the people were so similar to the people who I had known and grown up with. I thought, I can do this. I can try it again. So I went back to it after maybe 10 years of not writing at all or even reading fiction. I had really made a transition into Eastern thought and Buddhist thought. I kind of hate to bring up Buddhism, because it puts me a little bit on the outside of things. And it wasn’t just that. It was the time to reflect and then participate in this way with these younger children and then realize, wow, I also have a story to tell and I can do what she’s doing here. I know I can. I felt that confidence suddenly.
Q: The way you describe Christianity in the book — which is more a cultural undercurrent than a central focus — feels like someone who has stepped outside of that tradition.
A: Yes, and I think that’s really true. I feel connected to both Buddhism and Christianity in that same way. I really have always felt connected to Christianity in a much more open way than the church. Even as a young person, probably in my later teens, I would be visiting back home and would go to Bible study with my friends, and I would just sit and argue with the pastor. They didn’t like me to come back, because I would spend the whole Bible study hour arguing different points, because it literally didn’t make sense to me. Turning to Eastern philosophy finally later in in life made sense to me.
I had a deep feeling of connection to the biblical stories and the idea of Christ and the resurrection and Christian love. I felt like I really understood, but it didn’t make sense to me in the way that I was getting it, which is with this huge dichotomy: heaven and hell; pure and impure. That didn’t jibe with me. I couldn’t figure that out, and I think maybe because I’d been in my own family and I’d seen the idea of that split being so destructive. There’s good and there’s bad. There’s heaven and hell. There’s pure and impure. For my brother and me, it worked out really badly for both of us. Buddhism gave me a way to dissolve that split a little bit to see things in a more whole and accepting, open way, so that I could process the experiences I had with a little more understanding and humanity.
Q: Much of this book centers around — as you say — how poorly things went for you and your brother. Much of this seems to be because both the characters of Rene and Leon don’t act according to gender norms of the day. Would Leon’s trajectory have been less tragic had he been a girl?
A: Yes. Then it would’ve just been the two of us girls at ballet class, and that wouldn’t have touched a nerve with my father. It’s such a complicated thing, because you wonder: My mother was always interested in musical theater and dancing, but she has such a fraught relationship with my father; then did she enroll my brother in dancing class to kind of needle her husband a little bit? You can’t figure out where this all begins. But yes, it was a problem for my brother to be a ballet dancer in South Dakota at that time. I would hope that by now that has changed.
Q: But also for Rene, part of the problem she has fitting in is that she’s not behaving the way a girl is supposed to behave, either.
A: That’s exactly right. Isn’t that interesting, because now we have language for it. A girl can be strong — but she may be called a bully when she’s strong and opinionated and has her own inner direction and is willing to be a leader. So now we have the language that puts those two things together, but then we really didn’t. You were just a bully, which is a terrible title to receive.
Q: Let’s talk about how the Midwest figures in here; a hard winter can wipe a family out if the livestock freezes to death. How are your characters and their relationships shaped by the survivalist mentality that’s been passed down through generations?
A: What happens in a family that’s under a lot of pressure is that the stakes go way up. Somebody’s going to be right, and somebody’s going to be wrong. If your parents end up on different ends of that spectrum, then of course there’s no real reaching the middle. There’s just fighting for who’s right and who’s wrong, because the stakes are high: We have to get by. Also, you have to make your way forward in this American dream, which is that we have to be successful. We have to progress. We have to have more than we used to have. If you’re if your parents have different visions, then there’s a lot of friction in the family. So when you talk about the violence that rises up in a family, I think it comes from that. The beating that Leon received in the book, I think doesn’t have so much to do with Leon. It has to do with Al’s frustration and with Eve’s stance against him and embarrassing him. These things are all compounded and they tend to explode at Leon, who has been ostracized in the family.
These are the things that tend to go on all the time psychologically in our culture. We have these kinds of pressures that build and then we lash out at the people who’ve been set outside of our acceptance. That’s also how I draw that parallel between Leon and the Native Americans.
What we did with the Native Americans when we came here is use up their knowledge and then ostracize and destroy them. It’s such a horrible system, and it’s just one that seems to be innate in us as a people. We’re such a violent people, but I think if you look back, you can see at least elements of it are learned. You can’t undo what’s been done except through prayer for forgiveness and understanding, but you can certainly undo what you’re doing and then reimagine the future.