Diane DeSanders‘s first novel, Hap and Hazard and the End of the World, was thirty years in the making. It examines the stresses in a marriage in the years after the Second World War, viewed through the perspective of the couple’s three children–and in doing so takes a revelatory approach to questions of familial discord and coming of age. Robert Lopez talked with her about the book’s origins, DeSanders’s use of place and time in the novel, and more.
How did this book come about? How long have you been writing it and how does it feel to publish your first book?
I first intended to write about the boy I call “Nathan” in the book. He was adopted at the age of six by the people who lived next door to us, and was my first real friend, an odd misfit of a boy who was a major influence in my life from ages five to ten. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write about his life and his death.
But as I took myself back to those times in my life and in the life of my family, I found myself more and more writing about myself, my parents, the mysteries to a child of what was going on in the adult world, what it was like to be that age and trying to make sense of the world around me, until those issues became the subjects and the dramas that took over the book.
Some of the parts of the book that are about “Nathan” were written almost thirty years ago, so I guess you could say that I’ve been working on it, obsessing about it, noodling with it, for just about that long — thirty years — although it has changed and changed again and taken several different forms since then.
Even though enough has been altered and re-imagined in this book that it actually has to be classified as fiction, it is based on my own family to such an extent that I’ve had a hang-up about the effect on them of seeing this book in print. That’s one of the reasons it’s taken so long to finish the project, and to complete my own little journey culminating in publication.
Now that it’s done and out there, I feel that something important to my own development — a major step to making my life my own, at last has taken place. I feel free.
It’s interesting how you started with Nathan, but veered more inward into your own family. As such, it seems clear that you had to write this book, which also speaks to the hang-up of your family seeing the book in print. Risk and urgency, etc. Did you find the voice and stance of the narration immediately? The child’s voice is one you capture very well. Did you find it difficult or challenging to write in a child’s voice?
Yes the narrative voice simply came out of me that way as I put myself back there in my imagination. Once I did that, and imagined the thing unfolding as if watching it on film, I would simply describe what I was seeing, and it came to me easily. Writing in a child voice always has come to me easily. I used to think of myself as somewhat a case of arrested development, so maybe that has something to do with it. I don’t know.
“Risk and urgency, etc.” — I would love to see that phrase unpacked!!!
Did you conceive of this project as a unified book, a novel or connected stories from the beginning? Or did that evolve as you were writing?
I first conceived of the book as a novel, although many parts of it were first written as stories and then were changed in order to fit into the book as a novel.
But over the many years of working on it, the book has been changed into many forms over time. This time I had turned it into a story collection, but as my editor wanted it to be a novel, I had to go through it again and re-form it back into a novel. All of this actually taught me a lot about writing something as large as a book.
There’s a lot of Texas in the book. How important is Texas to you, as a writer? Has a sense of place always been a part of your identity, both as a person in the world and a writer? Are there writers from Texas or the South that you’ve particularly admired over the years?
I have always identified as a Texan, I suppose it’s just in the air down there. Texas History is required in the seventh grade all over Texas, and we all grew up yelling, “Remember the Alamo” on the playground.
There is still a whiff of frontier attitude in Texas, and as a history teacher I always like that.
Having lived in New York for thirty years now, I also identify as a New Yorker, so I guess I have a strong sense of place for both locales and both cultures I’m not sure I would say this “as a writer,” just as a person in the world. I am aware of having wanted to convey what Texas was like when I grew up there in the 1940s — very different from the way it is now, at least in the cities.
Writers that come to mind are Larry McMurtry, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Paulette Giles, Mary Karr, Horton Foote, all of whom write about the small seemingly insignificant things happening between people, among other things.
One of the most striking and vivid aspects of the novel is the time period, post WWII. Not quite into the cold war and that particular paranoia, nor the idyllic Leave it to Beaver television era of the mid-late 50s, but fresh off the horrors of the war, which our narrator witnesses first hand. I’m curious about how growing up during this time and being a history teacher informs the novel. How did you have to balance what a child sees and experiences living in the moment with what you know as a person in the world and a history teacher?
I don’t have that much to say in answering this. Remembering the time seems to come automatically to me, and the things I learned from studying history for many years seemed to just fall into place. It wasn’t something I had to work on to integrate. I have had a strong desire to reproduce the particular period I remember so well — a time in which the thirties and the forties were still very much alive in our minds. I think those of us born just before the war have a unique perspective that is not written about much. It’s more mixed and subtle — not so easily caricatured.
Everything I’ve learned from books has served to validate and deepen my experiences as a child, plus all the things I heard adults say during the period.
What’s next? Are you working on another book?
I’m not sure which of several things I will do next. I have a few beginnings. I recently had to spend time in a rehab center, and I’m thinking of writing about that, and about the whole aging thing. One thing I know, and that is that I want to write something that makes us all laugh at the worst things.
Photo: Britney Young