Vinegar Hill: FAQs

Question: What is the significance of the title of Vinegar Hill?

From the start, I knew that I wanted to name the book after the street this family lived on, but even after I’d finished the manuscript, I wasn’t able to come up with a name that set an appropriate tone. I wanted something with a bitter connotation-this is a book about a difficult year in the life of a family-but I wanted to modify that bitterness with a sense of motion or transition as a means of suggesting, even if subtly, the promise of transcendence and hope. I was living in Ithaca, New York at the time, where I was finishing an MFA in Fiction at Cornell University. One day, driving to nearby Trumansburg for a conference with my advisor-a wonderful teacher and writer named James McConkey-I happened to glance up and see a street sign that said “Vinegar Hill.” It was perfect. I had never turned onto that street before, and I made a point never to do so afterwards. I wanted it to belong solely to my characters. And it does.

Question: Do any of the scenes in Vinegar Hill come out of your own life?

The scene in which Ellen is teaching Amy to swim in Autumn Lake draws on a personal memory. Like Amy, I was walking in deep water with my mother, who was encouraging me to walk further; like Amy, I felt something knobby with my bare toes; like Amy, I pulled it up to the surface. What I describe in Vinegar Hill is exactly what I saw. At the time I was furious with my mother for not warning me that it was there, and it took her a while to convince me that she hadn’t known. It was the first time it had occurred to me that my mother didn’t know everything, and the thought both fascinated and frightened me. In Amy’s case, the realization hits at a time when she’s particularly vulnerable.

Question: Why is Ellen so passive? Why doesn’t she stand up for herself sooner? Isn’t this the 1970’s?

This is indeed the 1970’s, the decade in which I grew up, and this is a realistic portrayal of the religious and social barriers facing a woman in rural Catholic Wisconsin who considered leaving an unhappy marriage. Because this is the 1970’s, and not the 1950’s, such a woman might-perhaps-find some support in the community if she could show evidence of physical abuse. Ellen, however, is not in physical danger, and though she recognizes her own unhappiness, she has never heard of such a thing as emotional abuse, and would dismiss such a phrase if she heard it. She grew up, as I did, worshiping martyrs, women who became saints because of the suffering they endured, women like Mary who were idolized for their passivity: “Not my will but Thine be done.”

Ellen relies on her faith, rather than her head and heart, to guide her, for she’s been taught to believe that things of the body are tainted, sinful, suspect. In my mind, she is a kind of female Job, and the irony-of course-is that there is no point to her suffering. The endurance she believes will lead her to understanding, a resolution in her marriage and her faith, will bring her to a point so low that she identifies with an atrocity committed by an equally desperate woman years earlier. At that moment, Ellen sees herself clearly, a “moment of grace” (a term Flannery O’Connor used when speaking of her own work) which allows her to wake up and take steps to save herself and her children, despite the painful alienation her from her family and community which is bound to result.

Question: Were you raised Catholic?

Yes.

Question: Are you a practicing Catholic now?

No.

Question: The only character whose point of view you don’t enter is Fritz. Did you ever consider giving him a voice of his own?

I not only considered it, I tried it, but it was dreadful. All I found in him was exhaustion and rage, characteristics which are already clear from the things he says (and does) to members of his family. Fritz was raised at a time when a man was considered a tool, a task; his value rested not on his humanity, and certainly not on the quality of his mind, but on brute strength, and the number of hours he could work in a day. Fritz, like James, went into the fields as a child, and by the time he was of age to marry, any originality or lightness or spark had been worked out of him, crushed. To a man like Fritz, a wife is just an extension of his livestock, another responsibility. Children represent future workers, the survival of the farm. They are sent to the fields. The cycle repeats itself.

Question: Do you consider James a sympathetic character?

When I think of James, I think of a dog on one of those very long, thick chains. The dog begins to run, gaining speed, but then the chain runs out and yanks the dog off its feet. James feels the chain when he loses his job; he lands back in his parents’ house, and the brief burst of speed is soon forgotten.

James is a man for whom the past exists as the present; his daily life is cut with old terrors (the scene in the shower with the rose-scented soap; the scene with Monty on the road.) Tucking his children into bed, he is paralyzed by thoughts of their frailty, leading him into thoughts of his own childhood vulnerability-and then he’s lost again, withdrawn, passive. Even his bursts of anger accomplish nothing useful.

And yet, he tries. Look at how he wants to put the children to bed properly. Look at his attempt to buy Ellen a Christmas gift. But his actions are empty because he doesn’t feel, doesn’t know what to feel. He looks to the men he sees on television to guide him, looks to the stereotype of what a husband and father “should” be. Certainly, the men in his own family haven’t been much of an example. Ironically, at the end of Vinegar Hill, James does almost everything Ellen wants him to do at the beginning of the book. He chooses her over his mother; he stands up to his parents more actively; he offers Ellen physical affection. But Ellen is not the person she was at the beginning of the book, and it isn’t going to be enough.

Question: Did you suspect you were writing an “Oprah Book” when you were writing Vinegar Hill?

I started Vinegar Hill in 1990 and completed it in 1991. It was published in 1994, before there was such a thing as an “Oprah Book.” It was out of print from 1995-1998, when Avon Books published its first paperback edition. No one could have been more surprised than I was when I answered the phone and heard, “This is Oprah Winfrey.”

Question: How do you feel about being an “Oprah Pick“?

Unspeakably grateful. Click here to read about the unexpected ways it has affected me.

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