Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Carol DeChellis Hill: A Reintroduction


Carol DeChellis Hill circa 1970

A few weeks ago I was reading an old interview of my favorite author, David Foster Wallace. In the introduction, the interviewer, David Wiley, apprised readers who may be unfamiliar with Wallace’s work of the sort of writer Wallace is by comparing him to other similar writers. When it comes to Wallace, the list of his comparable contemporaries gets to be drearily repetitive as the same names get mentioned over and over (Vollmann, Powers, Franzen, etc.). So I was very surprised indeed when Mr. Wiley invoked a name I had never heard before: Carol DeChellis Hill.

I did a Google search and not a lot of information came up. Most of the search results were used book vendors selling her books. After rooting around a little, I pieced together that she had four or five novels, the first one written over 40 years ago. I was intrigued enough to pick them up to see what she was all about. Some of her books were out of print. A couple of them were available new on Amazon but as weirdly expensive paperbacks. There were no ebook versions. Using the Amazon marketplace and eBay, I picked up four of her books relatively cheaply, a small investment for what I hoped would be a worthwhile discovery.

As soon as her books started to arrive I dove in, and soon I began to get pretty excited. She was a really good, sometimes brilliant, writer. I started to devour her novels at a fast and steady clip. A couple of them I was convinced were masterpieces.

As I approached the last few pages of what I had initially ordered, I began really scouring the Internet for more information about her. I’m the type of person who loves reading about artists I admire. (Even if they are not traditionally “interesting”; for instance, I’ve somehow read three Salinger biographies. Three!) I love in-depth interviews, profiles, stuff like that.
So I was a little discouraged when the internet offered hardly anything at all about Carol DeChellis Hill. There was no Wikipedia entry, no website (official or otherwise), no author’s page on a publisher’s site. There were none of the standard social media outlets authors use for promotional purposes: no Twitter account, no Facebook, no blog. Not only that, no old interviews came up, no profiles…nothing. I couldn’t even tell for sure whether she was still alive.

I started tracking down all the miscellaneous writing she had done—the text for a photography book, a novelization of a movie, little short stories squirreled away in now defunct magazines—eager just to read more of her prose. While unearthing her more obscure work, I gradually came across stray bits of biographical information about her. I knew I was going to write little reviews of all her books when I was done, but at a certain point I realized I could supplement those mini capsule reviews with all the info I had uncovered about her. Doing so would create a one-stop place for people who newly discover her work to come and learn more about this unjustly overlooked author. So, with that in mind, this is as much of Ms. Hill’s story as I can piece together.

Before we begin, I will point out that most of the information about Carol DeChellis Hill that can be found on the internet is taken from her short bio in Contemporary Novelists,7th edition, a prohibitively expensive, 1000+ page compendium of author bios published in 2000:



Early Life

Carol DeChellis Hill was born Carol Sue DeChellis on January 20, 1942. (This is according to the CN bio, though there is compelling evidence she might've been born in 1939. See below.) She grew up in Westfield, New Jersey, and graduated from Westfield High School where she participated in many organizations including the literary club, dance club, and bridge club, as well as being involved with the school magazine. Her main interest, however, was theater and acting. During her senior year she served as president of the school’s theater troupe, the Mask and Mime Club, and she had a major role in the fall play, A Roomful of Roses. She was voted “Class Actress” in the senior superlatives.



                                   

After graduating high school, she attended Chatham College (founded in 1869 as the Pennsylvania Female College) in Pittsburgh, where she received a B.A. in history. She was very active in various communities and organizations. She was president of the Christian Association, a student counselor, member of the Chatham choir, and president of the Junior class. She was also an excellent student, perenially making the Dean's List.




After college she moved to New York City, where she became the assistant publicity director for Crown Publishers. Throughout the '60s, she was active in a couple different theater companies, including the Judson Poets’ Theatre, which became one of the first theaters that constituted what is now known as “Off Off Broadway.” In 1967, the Workshop Theatre at New York University produced her full-length play Mother Loves (which unfortunately I’ve been unable to track down).

Early Writings and First Novel

Carol DeChellis Hill circa 1970

The earlist piece of writing by Hill that I can find is a letter she wrote to the editor of The Massachusetts Review in 1965 (Vol. VI No. 3) concerning Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?


The earliest long-form writing by Hill that I can find is an essay called “Theatre Without Ideas,” published in the journal New Politics, December 1965. (She is credited as Carol D. Hill.) It is a review of the play known as Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. She is fairly critical of it; she writes that “[t]he play fails in dramatic terms primarily because Weiss has not created character” and that there is a “lack of originality in the ideas of the play itself.”



The earliest fiction by Hill that I can find is the short story “The Shameless Shiksa,” published in Playboy magazine, September 1969. (She is credited as C.D. Hill.)




It is about a young Jewish teenager named David who is working at his father’s fruit and vegetable counter in a New York City grocery store. He is mesmerized by an attractive female customer who regularly comes in and shocks everyone with her casual talk of subjects widely considered inappropriate for discussion such as female orgasm and the mechanics of insemination. She discusses these things in a matter-of-fact way (it is implied that her interest in these subjects is scholarly) and never in an overly salacious manner (even when she is egged on by others), which makes everyone in the store, especially the boy’s mother, look like prigs in comparison when they are left mortified by what she is saying. David is also embarrassed by her frank discussion of sexual matters, but he’s understandably fascinated by her as well and, predictably, she takes over his fantasies. In the aftermath of a chance encounter with her out in public, something happens that causes David to believe he has left adolescence behind for good. But his pronouncement of “Now I am a man” is more menacing than it is triumphant, as his coming of age isn’t facilitated by the object of his affection so much as it seems to come at her expense.


On May 20, 1970, Random House published Hill’s first novel, Jeremiah 8:20. According to the Contemporary Novelists bio, she was 28 years old at the time of publication. (Though she might've been 31, see below.) This 371-page novel centers around a 39-year-old protagonist named Jeremiah Francis Scanlon. He’s fat, balding, and socially maladroit. He lives in New York City and leads an uneventful life working as a bookkeeper. He resides in a boarding house filled with colorful characters, most of whom are indifferent to him when not openly scornful. Deeply unsatisfied in an indefinable way, Francis, as he is called most of the time, gets it in his head one day that the black community is hoarding the answers to life’s big secrets, and he proceeds to get a tape recorder and starts to surreptitiously record as many conversations between black people as he can get away with. It is from this point that he embarks on a path of discovery, both about the world at large and himself.

While the novel is written in the third person, about 80% of it is closely tied to Francis’s POV, with plenty of descriptions of what he is thinking. They are the thoughts of a not overly educated man, full of terms like “din’t” and “allus” (always), words lacking terminal g’s (“cleanin”, “somethin”, etc.), and mindless repetitions:

Having nothing to do when he got there, he rearranged the sachet his mother had insisted upon, among his socks, and looked for his book of crossword puzzles. He lay there for some hours, across and down, down and across, not caring really, whether he got it right or not. That was why, he knew. Milda always won it because she cared. He didn’t really. He woulda liked to beat her to it, but really he didn’t care. He lay back on the bed, opening and closing the night table drawer that contained his supply of butter cookies, and lay there munching in a vague and absent way as he stared hopefully out into the street, hoping faintly that he might see something there.
                         -Jeremiah 8:20, pg. 43

Francis is someone in whom exists a blend of naivety and idealism, a person who believes newspapers never lie, cops possess unassailable probity, and Moby-Dick is a true storynotions that people around him have no problem disabusing him of. He is, in many ways, that familiar figure who treads the line between charming naïf and blundering idiot. What makes him unique is that there is no clear indication that he should be the recipient of either our scorn or sympathy; readers will find their feelings about him change on an almost page-by-page basis. He can be by turns frustrating, piteous, funny, admirable, dull, and surprisingly insightful. He doesn’t exist mainly to prove an author’s tendentious point. In other words, he is that which all authors strive to create: a real, three-dimensional character.

While Francis’s voice is prevalent throughout, there are occasional moments when the book shifts to an overarching view of events, and in these moments it is capable of beautiful observation:

ARE YOU SCARED?
There seemed to be a strange stillness in the air after he said that and suddenly a waft of salt air so pungent to his nostrils that it stilled any further query, surrounded them. The fog rolled in obscuring the land with its wet heavy blanket, dragging almost clumsily, so slow, so stumbling was its advance, catching on each thing, then to lift suddenly, over a bush, like the perilous, inconclusive things raised by children, in small gusts and ebbing queries, answered occasionally through the distance by a lugubrious response, a tried and agreed upon thing whose occasional sounding it was believed, ensured the general safety. Real fog, however, the kind raised most persistently, would distort even the most practiced sound.
            -Jeremiah 8:20, pgs. 270-271

Jeremiah 8:20 is an ambitious novel, whose goal seems to be nothing short of encapsulating America, and it succeeds pretty well in doing so. Through Francis and the characters he encounters, Hill explores myriad topics including politics, office drudgery, sexual repression, race relations, war, and the age-old question of “How does one live?” The character of Francis and the heavily slanted-POV style of the novel seem to anticipate the characters and styles of novels published later in the ‘70s that are widely regarded as modern classics. You see aspects of Francis and his concerns mirrored in Bob Slocum (Something Happened by Joseph Heller, 1974), Harry White (The Demon by Hubert Selby, Jr., 1976), and Richard Nixon (The Public Burning by Robert Coover, 1977).

There is a building tension as the novel takes on theme after theme and loads them in significant and thought-provoking ways. Most narratives that attempt to filter everything (or at least everything important and vital) through a single character seem to inexorably inch toward a climax that involves either a nullifying apocalypse or a cleansing rebirth. It is a credit to the author's talent that the ending of Jeremiah 8:20 feels like both at the same time. The long and short of it is that this book is an amazing artistic achievement.

Below are four critical appreciations of Jeremiah 8:20, all of which elucidate the novel's merits much better than I ever could. First is a review by the late great John Leonard that appeared in The New York Times on May 21, 1970. Next is a review by Robert A. Gross from the May 11, 1970 issue of Newsweek. Third is a positive review (with some qualifications) written by Eugene Goodheart in the journal Midstream in October 1970. And last but certainly not least is a very perceptive appreciation written by the distinguished poet and professor Samuel W. Allen from the December 1970 issue of The Crisis.


  


Early to Mid-‘70s

Carol DeChellis Hill circa 1974


In 1973, Holt Rinehart published Subsistence U.S.A., a book of Bruce Davidson photographs with accompanying text by Carol Hill. The book contains long interviews with people from all over the country living in some kind of privationsometimes voluntarily, sometimes not—along with photographs of them. Hill writes little introductory pieces before each interview, describing the environment the person lives in (they interview people from California to Maine and everywhere in between) and the situation the person finds him or herself in. They interview hobos, hitchhikers, destitute families from down south, and hippies trying to live off the land, creating an affecting portrait of the perseverance of American people.


The short story “Gone” was published in the November 1974 issue of Viva magazine. While it is very short, it is well written and manages to be surprising while striking a poignant chord that hums after the final word is read. I think it may be the best 508-word short story I’ve read this side of Donald Barthelme.


In 1974, Random House published Hill’s second novel, Let’s Fall in Love. The story is a postmodern murder mystery that takes place in various locales around Europe. A pair of detectives are trying to solve the murder of an old lady who collected erotic esoterica, from antique dildos to 19th century erotic manuscripts. They eventually cross paths with a $10,000-a-night high-class courtesan and her acquaintances, some of whom have ties to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. Eventually it is uncovered that the murder is part of a string of other unsolved murders that have something to do with the location of priceless paintings the Nazis stole and hid away during WWII.

The novel is as crazy and madcap as it sounds. It is also very entertaining and pretty experimental. Hill drops in what appear to be real New York Times articles, mixing truth into her fantastical narrative with intriguing results. There are also excerpts from real hundred-year-old erotic texts, statistics from modern sex studies and surveys, reproductions of paintings, and old magazine ads.

Some of the book is just flat-out funny, like when one of the characters decides she’s going to write an erotic novel and enlists the help of her friends:

   “Now everyone,” she called, clanking on a glass, “pay careful attention. First we have to define terms. Now we need terms for the male and terms for the female. The first question is, is the dirtiest word dirtier than the euphemism, and which is better for arousal?”

   “Certain words,” Anna said, “we know are dirty, i.e., prurient. They are: spread, if you follow it with the legs; if you follow it with peanut butter it’s okay; squat, usually, licked, usually.”

   “Sucked?” someone asked.

   “Oh, that one,” Anna said, “depends on how you use it,” and with that she leaned back, smoking a lollipop.

   “Now is penis better or dork better?”

   “Dork?” Lola said. “Ugh, is that a word for a penis?”

   “Yes,” Anna said, “it rhymes with pork, that’s what I don’t like about it.”

   “Scratch dork,” Lola said. Anna agreed. They sat for a while around the pool enjoying the cool breezes. Finally Rabbi Fennerman said, “What about schlong?”

   “Schlong?” Anna asked incredulously, “Don’t you mean dong?”

   “No, no schlong,” the rabbi insisted.

   “I like that,” Anna said, writing it down, and then she read the sentence out loud, “He put his schlong into…”

   “Wait,” Lola said, “put is too aggressive, try something more delicate, like place.”

   “Place,” Anna said, considering it. She looked around, taking a vote. Bacco nodded. So did Rabbi Fennerman. It seemed that they agreed that place was the thing for schlong.

   Anna started again. “I think we’re going to write a very good pornographic novel. Now listen to what we have so far, “He placed his schlong into…”

   “No no no,” Bacco said, “place is too polite, schlong has a very pushy quality.”

   “I think that’s an anti-Semitic remark,” Rabbi Fennerman said.

   “No,” Anna said, “I don’t like pushed his schlong into.”

   “Wait,” said Lola, “it’s not so aggressive if you change what he’s pushing it into.”

   “What do you mean?”
  

   “Well, if you have him pushing his schlong into her cunt, that’s very rough.”

   “Well, what do you want it in, her ear?”

   “No, some euphemism. How about pushing his schlong into her velvet glove?”

   “I don’t like velvet glove,” Anna said, “it sounds fuzzy.”

   “You’re right,” Lola said, sitting back and thinking it over. “If anything is velvet it should be the schlong.”

   “What about rose,” said Bacco.

   “Perfect,” said Anna, reading out loud, “He pushed his velvet schlong into her rose…”

   “No no, no,” Lola said, “you can’t say that.”

   “You can’t? Why not?” Anna asked.

   “You can’t because,” Lola said simply, “people don’t go around pushing things into roses. At least certainly not decent, honest, hard-working people.”

   “Well, he’s got to do something to it,” Anna said, “maybe pry. What about he pried open the rose?”

   “That makes it sound like a tin can,” Bacco said.

   “Um.”

   There was silence for a moment and then Lola said, “Maybe the rose could do something to him.”

   “Like what?”

   “Embrace,” Bacco volunteered.

   “Embrace?” Anna said questioningly.

   “Yes, good, good,” Rabbi Fennerman said. “The rose embraced his velvet schlong.”

   Anna was busy scribbling it down and asked him to repeat it.

   “ ‘The Rose and the Schlong.’ You know, that’s not a bad title,” Bacco said.

   “ ‘The Rose and the Schlong.’ ” cried Anna, “yes yes, it’s absolutely perfect.” And so they all agreed.

            -Let’s Fall in Love, pgs. 143, 146-47

With its elements of terrorism, sex, politics, and outré characters, Let’s Fall in Love reminds me of a DeLillo novel, something like Running Dog, Players, or Mao II. And like most DeLillo books, Let’s Fall in Love crescendos to a literally incredible ending, one involving characters miraculously surviving a plane crash and then having to escape an aborted séance in a moated castle in the Alps while evading gunfire and crocodiles. Overall, this is a solid and fascinating second novel. Side note: The cover of the UK release might be my favorite book cover ever:


Another short story of Hill’s, “Only Sleep With the Husbands of Friends,” was in the June 1975 issue of Viva. [Note: Although the CN bio says there is a story called "Lovers" in the April 1975 issue of Viva, there is no writing by Hill in that issue.] It is a highly erotic tale of a 30-year-old woman and her efforts to alternately resist and succumb to an Italian painter's charms.




An Unmarried Woman


In 1978, Avon released the novelization of the Paul Mazursky film, An Unmarried Woman. Actually, it says it was based on the screenplay, so Hill probably had not seen the movie before writing the novel. (Note: This book, as far as I can tell, is the first thing that credits her as “Carol DeChellis Hill” and not just “Carol Hill.”)

The book (and movie) is about a woman in her mid-30s named Erica who believes she has a good marriage until her husband announces out of the blue that he’s leaving her for a younger woman. With the help of her friends, she navigates the waters of being newly single while trying to guide her precocious teenage daughter through adolescence.

The movie is not talked about much these days (there is no Blu-ray, and the DVD is out of print but available on Netflix streaming) but it was popular with both audiences and critics at the time, earning over $20 million at the box office and scoring three Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress for Jill Clayburgh. It was also named best film of 1978 by Roger Ebert.

The novel is written in that slick, easy-to-read style of books that seem like they were shipped directly to airport bookstores as soon as they got off the press. It is designed to be finished in one or two sittings. It is competently written, but something of a head-scratcher. I’d be interested to know the circumstances that led Hill to take this project on.

There are some key differences between the movie and book. The book has characters in it that were either cut from the movie or never made it past the early script phase. One of these characters is Erica’s mom, who doesn’t play a significant role in the story but her short scenes make sense because of course you’d call your mom if your marriage broke up. Another character that appears only in the book is Erica’s boss, and his only purpose seems to be so Erica can ask him for a raise because she’s worried about money now that her bread-winning husband is out of the picture (he is a stock broker and they were one of those vaguely wealthy Manhattanite families that populate virtually every movie that takes place in NYC). This is another major difference between the two: in the movie, Erica seems to hardly care about money at all, acting like her financial situation will remain unchanged even though she works as an underling at a not very upscale art gallery. My guess is that while having the character worry about money is certainly more realistic, it is not what Mazursky wanted the movie to be about, so he opted not to have the character express any concern at all. In the book Erica finds herself thinking about money every few pages in a very believable fashion.

Also, Erica’s daughter is way more erratic in the book, prone to wild mood swings, acting out more, etc. In the movie the daughter is a lot more placid and calm, evincing “maturity” in almost every scene. Again, I think the book is more realistic (the daughter is, after all, only 15 years old), but perhaps Mazursky liked the unconventionality of having an imperturbable teen daughter in a movie about divorce, especially since the girl they cast was clearly older than 15 and looked fairly mature already.

The last big difference between the movie and book (besides the ending of the movie, which would be difficult to duplicate in prose, especially airport-book prose) is that Erica has some pretty strong disagreements with her friends in the book, leading to hard feelings that persist for large chunks of the story, and are in some cases never fully resolved. In the movie the friends are pretty much unconditionally supportive of Erica, always there for her and always receptive to Erica’s emotional needs. In the commentary to the movie, Mazursky talks about how Erica and her friends were precursors to the characters in Sex and the City, and how it was almost revolutionary back then to depict a group of women as genuine, supportive friends and not conniving and back-stabbing and in constant competition with one another. Not that the friends in Hill’s adaptation were total bitches to each other, but there was a fair amount of contention interlaced with their good times together. It could've been that Mazursky wiped out any trace of ill will between the friends early on before they started shooting, or maybe it was a decision made during filming, or maybe Hill was just taking liberties with the story, changing things as she saw fit. I could see any of these being possibilities.

Writing Full Time

Carol DeChellis Hill circa 1985

Hill worked as a publicist and editor for many major publishers throughout the ‘70s. She attained her highest position in the publishing world when she became the vice president of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1978. She was also the senior editor at that company and edited many bestsellers, including Barry Goldwater's memoirs and The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias. (He thanks her in the acknowledgments of the new edition published in 2011.) In 1980, she turned to writing full time.

In March of 1985, Holt, Rinehart and Winston published Hill’s fourth novel, The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer. (It was published in England in 1988 with the title Amanda and the Eleven Million Mile High Dancer.)


Amanda Jaworski, the book’s protagonist, is NASA’s premier female astronaut and about to be the first person to travel to Mars. Her specialty is particle physics, but she is no stuffy scientist. Instead, she is the kind of free-wheeling genius who has no problem gliding around her workplace on roller skates. She is a fiercely intelligent woman who also happens to fully embrace her femininity; she “liked strawberry sodas, high-heeled shoes, men, lipstick, convertibles, long hair, bright toenail polish, particle physics, quarks, entropy, speculations regarding the speed of light, Darwinism, and archaeology.” It is undoubtedly these unusual qualities of hers that attract the notice of two suitors: Bronco McCloud, a jet pilot oozing machismo, and Donald Hotchkiss, a dashing aerodynamic engineer. She spends most of her time with the more sensitive and giving Hotchkiss, but finds herself wistfully thinking of the more adventurous possibilities that McCloud offers:

She thought that for women, the likes of McCloud would hang them all. She knew she would give up everything for the joys of McCloud’s love. True this was no idle passion; this was no will-o-the-wisp thing without meaning. The meaning of this was this: with McCloud and McCloud only could she give herself fully. Why this should be she really didn’t know. But somewhere in his sweet momentariness, like the pause of a butterfly on a flower, Amanda found herself. The staunch reliability of Hotchkiss, Hotchkiss’s very depth, that he would rescue her if need be from the jaws of death itself—this life-giving action was totally ignored by the female heart. The female heart, she thought, if one approached it that way, was giving hell to time. No future, no past, only the now, snatched at the heat of passion, was the gentle sex’s way of saying fuck you to hands of time. Time, time, time, the enemy, time ending the race, the dare, the choice; women more than men, although all of them for sure, but women were timed: a time to bleed, a time to stop, a time to bear children, a time to stop; aspects of femininity were built so rigorously into a clock as to force an urgent stand against such a terrible oppressor. Now and only now—what a way of getting even. She didn’t understand it. She knew only this: it was a dangerous game and required an elastic nature Amanda knew she did not have.
   
                      -The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, pg. 61

In other passages, her analytical assessments of female concerns give the whole novel a feminist tinge:

She was thinking about that. And wondering what she would find on Mars. She was also thinking about women. She was thinking that despite all this emancipation business, men still ruled the earth. In most countries, in most places, men ruled. And most people in most countries thought that men had “the answers.” What bothered her was that women thought they should defer to men, that men should have the answers; or therefore, that women shouldn’t. She thought that women who acted like they had the answers weren’t sure deep down. Why, she wondered, was it so hard for women to be sure?

            -The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, pg. 153

Letter included with advance copies
of The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer

But soon there is hardly any time for introspection as the mechanics of the plot take over and the story progresses at a dizzying pace. It all starts on the cusp of her journey to Mars, when strange things start to occur. Her cat, Schrodinger, gains unnatural intelligence, allowing him to read in multiple languages. Amanda is visited by alien beings from millions of light years away. And unbeknownst to her, 10,000 Native Americans have disappeared without a trace in Texas. Soon Amandaalong with Hotchkiss, a boy prodigy, and a trained chimp named 342finds herself on a journey to Epsilon Eridani, a star 40 million light years away from Earth, in order to retrieve her cat, who has been stolen by a seemingly omniscient being called the GBC, or the Great Cosmic Brain. It is there she uncovers the existence of armies of red and blue robots intent on destroying the human race at the behest of the GBC, who turns out to have been the earth’s creator. She enlists the help of the mysterious Rastus and an inchoate entity called the Ooze to help her return to Earth and save it in the process. The story culminates, of course, with the appearance of an eleven million mile high dancer. (In the acknowledgments, Hill says she was inspired by a picture in The Cosmic Code by Heinz Pagel.)

Picture that inspired The Eleven Million Mile High
Dancer, from The Cosmic Code by Heinz Pagel
Characters and out-of-nowhere plot elements keep piling up in this science fantasy extravaganza. It never devolves completely into farce, but a light, comedic tone is maintained throughout, overlaid with a constant sense of wonder at the universe we live in.

In the mid-'80s, Hill wrote a couple book reviews for The New York Times, including one for Lorrie Moore’s first novel:

ANAGRAMS by Lorrie Moore. 225 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $15.95.

BY CAROL HILL

Published: November 2, 1986

IN Lorrie Moore's ''Anagrams,'' there's a fierce, hot eye that makes you wonder whether you're going to be stranded in the familiar desert of the modern imagination. But the book has a saving grace: Benna Carpenter - who is either a poet, teacher, nightclub singer, aerobics instructor or all of these - is appealing as the heroine of this extraordinary and often hilarious first novel. She sees the irony of her situation, describing her meetings with her imaginary friend, Eleanor, as ''The Great White Wine'' - ''whiney white people getting together over white wine and whining.''

Benna's closest real friend is a musician, Gerard Maines. Their apartments share a thin wall, and Gerard sits one night, dopey with love, fully dressed in his dry bathtub, waiting for Benna to return, yearning only for the sound of her toilet flushing. Gerard loves Benna, and she kind of likes him. This is their first attempt to make love: ''We ended up in my bed together, sort of, spastic and looped, doomed for failure, like two senile inventors in an upstairs room, lonely as spoons. The whole business finally seemed less an expres-sion of mutual attraction than a soft, noodly act of existentialism.''

Benna and Gerard eventually do become lovers, and she sits in a rinky-dink cocktail lounge where he sings and plays piano and dreams of becoming an opera star. Then Benna gets pregnant, the imaginary Eleanor sleeps with Gerard, and Benna has an abortion. Miraculously, the relationship between Benna and Gerard not only survives these events but becomes a deep, close friendship. Throughout all of this we are treated to Benna's reflections, which often take the form of quirky, fond musings on words: '' 'Have fun in Tunis,' I'd say as he disappeared off to rehearsals. I liked to say Tunis. It sounded obscene, like a rarely glimpsed body part.''

Words roll around in Benna's mind like Life Savers on a tongue. Beneath the sweet pleasure of play, however, we sense her need for something else, some deeper articulation that will exorcise distance, bring her love and keep her from death. Watching a flock of birds, she muses: ''From four blocks away I could see that the flock had a kind of group-life, a recognizable intelligence; no doubt in its random flutters there were patterns, but alone any one of those black birds would not have known what was up. Alone, as people live, they would crash their heads against walls.''

To avoid hitting the wall, Benna falls in love with Darrel, a black Vietnam veteran who is taking her poetry class. Race is something Benna tries to avoid through her almost magical belief that whatever separates us can be overcome if we find the right words. She assigns sestinas to her poetry class, writing on the blackboard the end words ''race, white, erotic, lost, need, love, leave.'' Darrel raises his hand and says that's seven words, not six. Benna erases ''love,'' then changes her mind and erases ''white.''

It is a loss in the novel that this particular relationship is not developed further. It's unfortunate too that the changes of place and point of view in the beginning chapters interrupt and confuse us, so that we move away from the story. Some of the early chapters read almost as if they were independent entities, and it may be that Ms. Moore's talents as a short-story writer, revealed in her collection, ''Self-Help,'' tempted her in that direction. These opening chapters are like a magnificent engine alone on its track. We watch, waiting for the hookup, which we get only in the last section of the book.

Here we meet a wondrous 6-year-old, Georgianne Michelle Carpenter, who is Benna's imaginary daughter. And it is here that so much of the power and impact of the novel begin to make themselves felt. George and Benna have a very good time: a sweet happiness flows between them as they watch the news, take showers together on Saturday mornings to the tunes of Broadway shows, dust the living room and revel in the intimacy of sickroom caresses and goodnight kisses.

Benna loves Georgianne intensely, and in this love, which is sustained only by words, we discover how much this novel is about language, about the power of sounds to slice through the darkness, and through meaning to join us. It is a tribute to Lorrie Moore's talent that the reader believes in Georgianne. UNEXPECTEDLY, Gerard dies, a brutal blow to Benna, who makes one last, painful effort to connect by visiting her lost, hapless brother, Louis. When she and Louis wind up watching a sitcom about a dog on Christmas day in a dreary Queens apartment, Benna's humor erupts in a swift, savage swipe: ''Her mind wandered. She thought of pets growing tired and committing suicide, what notes they would leave: 'Dear Benna: It's all a crazy game. Farewell, Max, Your Schnauzer.' ''

We think Benna may now have lost her real connections in the world. But we're wrong. There are stronger ties still. There are Benna's gifts, imagination and language - and there is the child, Georgianne. Benna's love for this child - like ''Anagrams'' itself - is a powerful example of how imagination can save us with temporary pleasures.

Henry James’ Midnight Song

Carol DeChellis Hill circa 1993


On August 31, 1993, Poseidon Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, published Hill’s fifth novel, Henry James’ Midnight Song. (She is credited as “Carol De Chellis Hill.”) It’s a murder mystery that takes place mostly in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century, and it features an array of real-life characters including Sigmund Freud, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, along with lesser known historical figures like Lexa von Aehrenthal and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

It is abundantly clear that Hill is well versed in this time period and the people involved. It is this knowledge that allows her to mold the truth for her own purposes in order to create a dazzling work of fiction. The book does not demonstrate absolute fidelity to historical fact, nor should it. (In a postmodern touch, a foreword claims that this is a “found text,” only lightly edited, and warns the reader that there are many chronological inconsistencies in the narrative. This unnamed scholar even goes so far as to point out some of the inaccuracies with footnotes.) In a work of fiction that uses historical figures, the author needs to be nimble enough to know when to deviate from recorded fact, lest the work turn into a collection of facts, which does not a novel make (not a good one, at least).

While it’s true that readers bring along certain unavoidable preconceptions when they encounter real-life figures on the page, Hill does not rely solely on these preconceptions to inform the characters. These are not stiff, musty cutouts from the annals of history. Instead, Hill augments what we may know about each individual (or think we know) with a strong authorial vision (and revision). Henry James and Edith Wharton are developed as any newly introduced characters are in a well-written novel. After that first frisson of recognition, we quickly discover them anew, as Hill does a great job in imbuing them with individual concerns, hopes, and dreams (most important in early 20th century Vienna). It takes remarkably few pages for them to become alive to us, to become characters we care about. In this way, Henry James’ Midnight Song reminds me of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, another novel that used numerous real-life events and characters. Pynchon also resurrected his historical figures from safely embalmed history, vivifying them into extraordinary literary creations while deviating a fair amount from established fact. The lesson here seems to be that it’s easy to give writers artistic license when you feel secure with their ability at the wheel. While Henry James’ Midnight Song does not have the intimidating bravura of the pseudo-18th century diction Pynchon created for Mason & Dixon (making Midnight Song an easier and more pleasing novel for most readers, undoubtedly why there were some grand statements made about Hill’s achievement, such as the one made by Judith Caesar of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “[Henry James’ Midnight Song] puts Carol DeChellis Hill among postmodern masters as Thomas Pynchon, E.L. Doctorow, and Umberto Eco. She may even be better.”), there are certainly affinities between the two novels, including the literary device of telling stories within stories. (For what it’s worth, Henry James’ Midnight Song was released four years before Mason & Dixon.)

With this novel, Hill confirms the breadth of the wide-ranging talent she evinced with her debut novel 23 years prior. In some ways, Henry James’ Midnight Song feels like an encapsulation of the themes of all her previous major works. The book resonates with the sentiment expressed by one of the characters in Jeremiah 8:20, that literary works can somehow be truer than reality. The murder mystery mirrors the basic plot structure of Let’s Fall in Love, and one of the epigraphs of that book is quoted by a character in Midnight Song (“One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind.” –Alphonse Bertillon, Founder, Bureau of Criminal Identification, Paris Police Department). The feminist concerns of The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer are reflected in the characters’ rumination in Midnight Song about the differences of male and female authorship of a novel, and there is open speculation about how history might’ve been different if Hitler had been born female. (One of the characters sees visions of the future Holocaust.)

But the main thing that unites Carol DeChellis Hill’s vastly different works is her voice, which is clear, lucid, and perspicacious. One gets the impression that these novels needed to be cared for by someone with the integrity to put aside ego and do whatever was necessary for the book, adopt whatever voice was needed, do whatever research the story required. As far as I can tell, they could not have had a much better steward than Hill, who was able to construct lasting, resonant novels that overflow with ideas and contain abundant pleasures for both the heart and mind.

Henry James’ Midnight Song came out in 1993, and there hasn’t been another Carol DeChellis Hill book since.

Post-1993

It appears Norton handled the paperback release of Henry James’ Midnight Song, and also did a re-release of Let’s Fall in Love and The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer in 1996. On the back of those books, it says Hill was living in New York City and teaching writing at New York University.

In the mid-'90s, Victoria magazine set up a "tea and conversation" with Hill and three other writers (Francine Prose, Judith Thurman, and Susan Minot). They discussed their work and writing process. Some of the conversation was printed in the September 1995 issue. Here are all of Hill's comments:

"Let me start by saying that I don't write from a quiet place within. I write from a miltary zone. A war zone all the way. With the exception of my first novel, my books have felt like wrestling an alligator.

I spent a long period of my life thinking there must be an easier way. I went out and bought a whole bunch of books called 'How to Write Novels.' I thought that maybe there was something I was missing. I went through the motions of trying to write in a very structured and studied way. I set my alarm clock. It didn't work. So I keep writing from my military zone.

For my last book I did a lot of research on Einstein, who ultimately didn't make it in as a character. Someone asked him what was the source of his creativity. He said, 'I get my best ideas anywhere among the three B's—the Bath, the Bed, the Bus.'

The three B's offer brooding time. Writers are not writing all the time. Often ideas are on the back burner, bubbling away. I had the original inspiration for 'Henry James' Midnight Song' twenty years before I wrote it. I read an uncharacteristic fragment of Edith Wharton's writing and I could feel a novel beginning. I took notes on subways and in the backs of cars and ignored them for years. When I went back to them it appeared that a murder had occurred in Sigmund Freud's study and that Edith Wharton and Henry James were suspects. I realized I had a novel I needed to write.

'A writer,' as the Polish author Czeslow Milosz said, 'cannot be really one person. A writer is more like a house without any locked doors. With unknown guests who come and go. A writer must only hope that these spirits who inhabit him or her leave benign traces and trails.'

I have a lot of thoughts that come up and I think, I'm not going to write that down. Writers spend a lot of time backing away from writing. But finally something comes up that is sufficiently powerful that you want to transform it. Then you realize, I am going to have to write this story in order to read it."

(The article included a caricature of Hill drawn by Richard Ely, included here for completeness's sake:)



In 1997, she was on the panel of judges for the National Book Award. They gave the award, somewhat controversially, to Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. (DeLillo’s Underworld, one of the nominees, was widely expected to win. Also published that year was Mason & Dixon, which was not nominated.) The panel that year was headed by the author Nicholas Delbanco. I spotted a copy of Jeremiah 8:20 online that Hill had inscribed to him, presumably before they, along with their fellow judges, were to start debating on whom the award should go to. The vendor selling the book included a letter Hill wrote to Delbanco. In a fascinating paragraph, she talks a little about the process of writing her first novel. She also gives her first impressions of The Puttermesser Papers, the Cynthia Ozick novel that was nominated. (As a DeLillo fan, I’d have loved to hear what she thought of Underworld.)



According to Amazon, Jeremiah 8:20 was republished on March 27, 2001, by an organization called the Author’s Guild. It is from their “backinprint.com program,” a print-on-demand service. According to their website, they specialize in making available again notable out-of-print books in new paperback editions. It appears the author, or someone representing the author, has to actively enlist their services to get a book reprinted. This edition of Jeremiah 8:20 is still available on Amazon. [Note: I actually have a bunch of these, so if you've gotten this far and are interested in CDH, email me a mailing address at dhsayer84[at]gmail[dot]com and I'll send you a free copy.]


Miscellany

Hill was interviewed by Don Swaim for his radio program Book Beat on April 24, 1985. The raw, unedited audio of this interview is available for download. They start out discussing The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, then Hill talks about how she became a writer.

Some of her papers are at Boston University, in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. They appear to have a 4-page short story called “A Woman’s Story,” and material related to Let’s Fall in Love, as well as four drafts of Henry James' Midnight Song and something I've never heard of called You Must Remember This.... (Time to start planning a trip.) At least some of this material seems to be in the Natalie Robins collection. Natalie Robins, an author, is married to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who was a major contributor to the New York Times (now retired). Maybe Ms. Hill and Natalie Robins were/are friends or acquaintances and the collection contains correspondence between them? (Note: Lehmann-Haupt called Henry James’ Midnight Song “dazzling” and an “extravagantly imagined new novel” but he did have major reservations about it in his New York Times review.)

The archives of The Westfield Leader, the local paper of Hill's hometown, contain many items of interest. There is an engagement notice on May 23, 1963, which says she will be marrying Herbert Hill that summer (and thereby acquiring the "Hill" surname). In the August 29, 1963 edition, it states that Ms. DeChellis married Mr. Hill at her home in Westfield on August 23, 1963. Herbert Hill was the national labor director of the NAACP at the time, a position he held until 1977. He died in 2004, at the age of 80. Strangely there is no mention of Carol DeChellis Hill in his obituary in the New York Times.  



In the July 16, 1970 edition of The Westfield Leader there is an article about the publication of her first novel, Jeremiah 8:20. It lists a few of the early accolades and favorable reviews the book received, and goes on to list some biographical facts about Hill. Note that the article states that she graduated from Westfield High School, class of 1957. This is confirmed by the yearbook I found. If her DOB from the bio in Contemporary Novelists is correct, she was 15 years old when she graduated. While this is not outside the realm of possibility, if she was the more conventional 18 years of age upon graduation her birth date would be three years before the bio states, in 1939, which would make her 74 today (if the date in CN is in fact correct, she turned 71 this past January). She also mentions working on Jeremiah 8:20 when she was 29 years old during the Don Swaim interview, which doesn't make sense if the CN bio is accurate (it claims she was 28 when the novel was published).


The article states that she is still married to Herbert Hill. At some point they must have divorced (Herbert Hill's obituary mentions that he married a professor named Mary Lydon in 1977) and she later married Jerry Albert, whom she thanks in the acknowledgements of The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer and Henry James’ Midnight Song. (One can probably safely assume that he is the "Jerome Albert" credited as the photographer of her author photos on the hardcovers of Let's Fall in Love and Henry James' Midnight Song.)

Final Thoughts

My excitement at discovering Carol DeChellis Hill’s work was quickly tempered by disappointment at the fact that hardly anyone seems to know who she is. Her obscurity in the literary world is a downright shame considering that her debut novel Jeremiah 8:20 is not only one of the best first novels of all time, it deserves to stand side by side with other well regarded books of the same era. Her subsequent books are also very good, and burnish what has been a distinguished oeuvre.

And yet there has not been another novel, or much word from her at all, in 20 years. Has she been working on something all this time? She was clearly not a “book a year” author, taking 7 or 8 years between her last couple books. But on that schedule, we should still have had two new novels since Henry James’ Midnight Song. Did she have no more to say? Did her inspiration fail to match her extraordinary talent? Or is she meticulously preparing a grand final project? If so, her first novel in 20+ years would be a major literary event, and a triumphant return of someone who should, if there’s any justice, be regarded as one of the most significant American novelists of the last 50 years.

DHS

15 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I read Midnight Song when it first came out and was likewise puzzled by the dearth of output, let alone information, on the author

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  2. Thanks for tweeting me about this. Makes me want to reread Eleven-Million and Midnight Song; will have to look for the others

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  3. http://caroldechellishill.com/

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  4. https://www.facebook.com/carol.h.albert.39

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  5. In the time since I published this blog, it's been easy to piece together the rest of CDH's story using Google (Caroldechellishill.com actually went live right around the time I posted in April). I've been aware of not only her site and facebook, but all sorts of biographical information, mainly through The New York Times. I've chosen not to update the blog for the time being, as there seems to be a clear division between her life as an author 20+ years ago and her current life and I figured it should be up to her to decide when and how to bridge that gap. (There were already some steps made toward that on her website, where you can read a recent piece of her writing.) At a certain point I think it will be unavoidable to update the information, but at this time I'm keeping the blog as I originally wrote it before I discovered what she's been up to for the last 20 years, keeping the focus on her literary achievements.

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  6. i had her as an instructor about 10 years ago at an NYU evening creative writing course. I'm embarrassed to say i didn't know her whole history, but i can say she's fabulously kind and helpful.

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  7. I believe you're right about her birth date (Contemporary Authors got it wrong, as CA does all too often). I believe she was born January 20, 1939, and plan to indicate the 1939 birth year in the next/last edition of my "Crime Fiction IV: A Comprehensive Bibliography 1749-2000."

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    1. I'm honored to contribute in some small way to your important tome, Mr. Hubin.

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  8. I'm astonished that she's so little known; her professional credentials are exceptionally strong, and her books show a fearless, reaching mind. I suspect that, at some level, female experimental writers are just too unwieldy -- no one knows what to do with them. I'm not suggesting a kind of knee-jerk sexism on the part of reviewers/readers, nor am I relying on a knee-jerk "Women always get short shrift!" response. But I can't see any other element that has led to her being overlooked. Barth and Barthelme, for example, are/were free to meander madly but their characters didn't muse about women having no power in the world -- makes their work more digestible (or less indigestible). ....... I'm so glad that you've created this thought-inducing, thought-provoking, meaningful, and respectful post -- thank you very much.

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    1. I agree 100%! I have the utmost confidence that she will eventually be "rediscovered"; her novels are that strong. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and also for the kind comment.

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  9. Thanks for this -- really good work. I'm hoping that she has one more book to write. I'm getting older and too many of the good ones are leaving, as Rumi says, this waystation' -- I just found out that Sheri S. Tepper left in October and she had 2 or 3 novels left in a series she was working on. I mention her as she also had a lot to say about women and issues. Both of these great writers have had a big influence on my forward progress. Thanks again.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it! I'm embarrassed to say I've never heard of Sheri Tepper but I'll be sure to rectify that. I agree that it seems the great ones are leaving us too soon with no clear successors to the amazing literary tradition they've established. It seems important to acknowledge them while they're alive (regardless of whether they themselves even want that recognition--without imposing on them, of course, if the attention is undesired) so as to get the word out to prospective readers and future admirers. That was the spirit in which this post was written, and I'm glad people are finding it of worth.

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  10. I have just picked up "The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer" second hand and am beginning to read it. I was trying to find something about the author - and google took me to your blog. I will read it all later, but was impressed by the detail in your blog - it looks like you have professional research experience. So I thought I should thank you before I forget. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks anonymous! I have no professional research experience, I'm just really passionate about CDH. I hope you enjoy EMMHD, and if you do I strongly encourage you to track down her other work. She's a great writer.

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