Author Q&A with Summer Hammond
by Christine Nessler
March 15, 2023
This week’s Author Q&A is with Summer Hammond. Summer grew up in rural east Iowa, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where she served as editor on Chautauqua. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Texas Review, Sonora Review, and StoryQuarterly. She is a 2021 Missouri Review Audio Miller Prize Finalist and a 2022 semi-finalist for Nimrod International Journal’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize. Summer and her kindred spirit, Aly, currently live in Wilmington by the sea. Visit her at http://summer-hammond.squarespace.com/
Hammond’s non-fiction piece, iowa blues, and greens, is featured in Issue #10 of The Good Life Review.
Tell us about yourself.
I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and remained in the faith for twenty-seven years. I mention this first because of the profound impact this religion had on my life. Because the faith is very academic by nature (Witnesses were first known as International Bible Students) I learned to read, study, write, and speak publicly quite early. However, I celebrated no holidays, did not participate in sports or extracurricular activities, carried a “No Blood” card in my wallet in case of an accident or medical emergency, believed that life should be devoted to the preaching work since Armageddon was on the horizon – and therefore turned down jobs, opportunities, schooling and other possibilities, believing that I was sacrificing for the True God and eternal life in Paradise. This delusion, fused with a dysfunctional family life and chronic illness, created a hobbling set of circumstances to grow up in. I didn’t get my driver’s license until age twenty-seven – the same year I left the faith, and celebrated my first birthday.
Tell us about the work you have done or do that makes you most proud.
In 2015 I started writing a novel called The Impossible Why based on some of the more traumatic experiences growing up that I hadn’t written about before, namely, my mother and my religion, and the very painful journey I had to take to free myself from both. Writing the novel forced me to relive that journey and pause in some terrible moments that had blurred the past while living through them but writing them forced me to reckon with and for the first time, really feel them. It was emotionally and spiritually grueling. I’m proud of the courage and grit it took to write The Impossible Why, and my reason for staying with it – to connect with others who might be experiencing similar struggles (those of us with painful mother relationships are often quiet about it). I thought of the book, the whole time, as a love letter, written to sisters and friends. Also, writing the novel helped me gain acceptance into a Masters of Fine Arts program, a feat I couldn’t have imagined for myself growing up. I never thought I would achieve a college degree, much less a Master’s! Although unpublished, I’m proud of the work my book has done, both inside me, and in the world.
What inspired you to write iowa blues, and greens?
We were assigned to write a list essay in one of my creative nonfiction workshops at the MFA. I had never heard of a list essay. I did some reading and research, and when I began to write, “Iowa Blues, and Greens” is what emerged. I’m still not sure it actually meets the criteria for a list essay! But it took me on a writing journey I had never been on before. For one thing, this was the first time I wrote about my family’s experience with “mobile home sickness” – chronic illness as a result of formaldehyde exposure.
What message do you hope reaches your audience through iowa blues, and greens? What impacted you most when writing it?
You are not alone in the complexity and the brokenness. I often felt, growing up, that I had a bizarre life that made me bizarre, and ultimately, unlovable. I understand now that everyone is dealing with strange and surreal aspects of life – in various manifestations – no one is safe from the cracks in the sidewalk, the grief. What impacted me most when writing was how frightened I was to write about the health impacts of formaldehyde exposure. I realized how much shame had accrued around this story. Sharing it in my MFA workshop was bracing! From past experience, I feared not being believed, or being looked down on. Writing this essay made me braver. After the MFA, I was able to write a more focused essay about my family’s experience with environmental illness called The Poison House, Causeway Lit’s 2021 Winter Nonfiction Winner.
How has your experience of growing up in rural Iowa shaped you as a person?
This is one of my favorite questions to ponder in life. My husband and I drove an 18-wheeler cross-country for a decade and as we trekked across the nation, I wondered constantly who I would be if I had grown up in that scorched, treeless town we passed through in Arizona, or if, as a child, I’d had the view of that mountain rising up, there in Montana. Or coming up amidst the skyscrapers in NYC – who would I be then? The question was endlessly intriguing during our travels because there was no answer. Cornfields and Mississippi, dump trucks and gravel roads, river boats and red barns – this landscape, these sights, knit my imagination in ways I’m not sure I will ever fathom.
What is your writing process? How do you make it a part of your daily life?
My writing process is daily and ongoing – although I do not put words on the page every day. I am in process when I am reading and communing with another writer’s mind. I am in the process when I am engaged in a vigorous conversation and discovering what I really think and struggling to articulate it. I am in process when I am walking, reflecting on, and trying to make meaning from the story of my life. I’m in process when I’m staring out the window, dreaming up absurdities– it is all a steady writing practice that grows, develops, and is refined, largely unseen, in the mind, before the hands ever hit the keyboard.
What is your favorite nonfictional prose genre to write?
Narrative nonfiction. I grew up filling notebooks with short stories and graduated with my MFA in fiction. Storytelling is not merely what I love, it is who I am and how I interact with every single little particle of the world. I can’t help myself, no matter what I’m doing, from making a story of it!
What part of the artistic process do you consider to be the most difficult, as well as most satisfying, and why?
The most difficult and the most satisfying are separate parts of the process for me these days! This is a recent development. I would have answered previously that cranking out a rough draft was both difficult and satisfying. Only a few years ago, I could write fifteen to twenty pages in a day. However, since entering menopause, my attention span has changed, along with everything else. Now, writing a rough draft is painful, demanding a level of sustained concentration that is almost beyond me. Revision is, at this time in my life, the most satisfying – the work is already there, and the refining, shaping, molding has become an immersive and soothing form of play.
Do you have any fears as a writer?
I am steeped in fear as a writer! The most compelling fear, right now, is being a woman writer about to turn forty-seven. To be older than twenty-five – in any capacity – in our culture is anathema. I was the oldest woman in my MFA cohort. I was asked my age and resisted disclosure. I had a legitimate concern of activating bias, both conscious and unconscious, against me. Each time, during a workshop lecture and discussion, writer was paired with young (and those two words seemed always to arrive together, like a married couple) – I winced. It was like a door slamming in my face. I am not young, and I am a writer, and I still have dreams, and the dreams are beginning to hurt. They are beginning to feel like too late.
What is your favorite thing about writing nonfiction?
Being an excavator of the self and one’s own life story. Digging around in the things that have happened, paying deep attention to them – asking these things to tell a story, one that might be useful and perhaps even necessary to the world. Writing nonfiction invites you to witness your own life with wonder, tell the truth about it, and offer it as an act of love.
How has writing nonfiction helped you to grow as a person?
Nonfiction has asked me to confront hidden parts of my experience and hold these to the light, weak-kneed and trembling. It has asked me to be more honest – more – and the insistence is always there, each time, never dimming. I am always exerting myself to answer the call – more, deeper, truer.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “The Good Life?”
This is my first interview, and answering questions about writing is just – bliss!
This is The Good Life.
Summer.. We are truly grateful you took the time to answer our questions and were so direct and vulnerable in your responses. Thank you for sharing your work and part of your life story with us and allowing us to share it with others. We wish you the best in life and with all your writing endeavors!