Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was nominated for a National Book Award. Her second, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Tell me about the writing of Ms. Hempel Chronicles.
“It began as just a single story that I wrote in the fall of 1998. But then the character kept popping up in my head. I would write another story — sometimes months or even years later — and think I had said everything that needed to be said. But then something else would want to be made known. My writing practice tends to be very erratic — I always encourage my students to develop a daily writing practice, and I’ve never succeeded in doing it myself. The thing that’s great about the story form is that it’s something you can write over, say, a summer break — a relatively brief but concentrated period of time. When I write, it’s on a computer, and I usually have to clean the entire house first — maybe take a shower before I’m finally ready to sit down.”
What’s it about?
“It’s about a young, inexperienced middle-school teacher in her mid-20s. The stories cover several years, so we see her go through her 20s. She’s working with children who are navigating their passage from childhood to adolescence, and she herself is trying to figure out what it means to be a grown-up.”
What inspired it?
“A number of things — in part, absolutely, my own life. I’m probably one of the very rare people who looks back fondly on her own middle-school years in Boston. I love that time of transformation, when you start building your own identity very deliberately. And I also taught middle school for many years in Brooklyn. I owe a great deal to the students and teachers with whom I worked. They provided much of my favorite material in the book.”
What book has been most life-changing for you?
“Jane Eyre completely killed me when I read it in eighth grade — it’s one of my favorite middle-school memories. I was totally gripped by the story, and I felt such a connection to Jane and was swept up by the figure of Mr. Rochester. And I think, in part because they had a picture of Charlotte Brontë on the cover, that it was the first time I began to think about the writer, the person out of whose imagination the story arose. I’ve read the book at many different points in my life — it’s interesting because Jane Eyre is also a teacher, and the book describes her both as a child and as a young woman. I never thought of the connection between Jane Eyre and Ms. Hempel Chronicles, but it’s funny to think that they cover somewhat similar territory.
What can a novel convey that other media cannot?
“I think one of the great things about a novel is that it requires that you spend time with it — at the very least, many hours if not many days or weeks. I think getting immersed in that kind of prolonged imaginative experience is powerful. There’s a sense of the novel traveling with you through your life. Also, fiction allows us to spend a long time inside another person’s head, to fully enter someone else’s consciousness. I think those are two specific gifts that a novel offers.”
Do you see any connection or contrast between Ms. Hempel Chronicles and your earlier work, Madeleine Is Sleeping?
“Ms. Hempel Chronicles is written sort of in a classic realist mode, and Madeleine Is Sleeping comes out of a more fantastical tradition, with a more unconventional form. But I actually feel a little self-conscious because I think both books have all the same tics and obsessions — the same preoccupation with transitional moments between childhood and adulthood, the same sort of sexual preoccupation. They seem very similar in that sense.”
Name: SARAH SHUN-LIEN BYNUM | Age: 37 | Occupation: AUTHOR, DIRECTOR OF UCSD’s MFA IN WRITING PROGRAM | Neighborhood: LARCHMONT VILLAGE | Where interviewed: IN HER CAR, ON THE WAY TO UCSD