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*Water Wings* by Kristen Den Hartog - author interviewAn Interview with
Kristen Den Hartog

Interviewer Luan Gaines: Where did you get your inspiration for Water Wings?

Kristen Den Hartog: I think the biggest inspiration for Water Wings was my own hometown, and my family. I was living very far from that place and those people when I began writing “Wave,” a story about a little girl whose father dies in a car crash. That story slowly transformed into Water Wings, a novel that touches on a lot of things we as a family experienced (divorce, three girls with three differing perspectives, mothers and their boyfriends, etc), and twists them into fiction. I hear a lot of writers say they needed to leave a place before they could look at it in a new way, and write about it convincingly, and I suppose that was true for me too, because in the stories (and eventually the novel) that came out of that time, “home” is so present, it’s almost a character itself.

Your other novel, The Perpetual Ending, was full of magical images. This story is a little different, but retains the same descriptive qualities. Do you see everything this way when you write?

It’s hard to say what I “see” when I write. Mostly, I try to put myself in the mind of the character, and see what she would see. Hannah and Vivian would see very different things, for instance. In moments of crisis, Hannah tends to look away from the crisis and sees the world surrounding it in startling detail. And Vivian looks at the crisis head-on and examines it in its ugliest moment. What’s most interesting to me about this is that neither way gives a clearer picture, necessarily, only a different one.

You write of the sisters and their cousin as children. With Vivian's character, you speak of childhood trauma with such simple objectivity, it is as though the reader is sharing the experience. How were you able to access these childhood feelings so clearly?

I’m not sure why, but writing from a child’s point of view has always felt comfortable for me — not easy, but natural. I try to remember how I processed things as a young girl, and what sorts of events affected me strongly. And I try hard to avoid taking the obvious routes for my characters, and lumping the children in together, as though all kids see the world the same way. Some people lose touch with the child’s-eye-view, I suppose, but hopefully it always stays with me.

The commonality of small town life underlies events in Water Wings. Is this not the nature of all human experience or endemic to small towns?

The thing about a small town is that it’s small! You grow up knowing who everyone is, and everyone knows you. You can almost memorize the cracks in the pavement. There’s this sameness about everything around you, and the constancy of the river floating by. I guess those things have their equivalent in bigger places (within neighbourhoods, for instance), but in this case the small town is integral to the story for a huge variety of reasons: the explosion of that constancy when Mick leaves, and then dies; Hannah’s ability to observe the natural world in such excruciating detail; Vivian’s longing to leave a place that suffocates her; Wren’s decision to stay, and her ability to see the town’s beauty alongside its ugliness (of course she has this ability with people too).

*Water Wings* by Kristen Den HartogHow would you compare Hannah and Vivian's memories as they return home for Darlene's wedding?

Again, Hannah blurs things, or looks at the edges of them, and Vivian stares them down. There’s a line in the book that I hope sums it up perfectly — Hannah “no longer trusts her own memory and wonders if perhaps the purpose of memory is not to be an accurate account of a life but rather to convey the way whatever happened in your life made you feel.”

Each daughter has a particular relationship with Mick, yet Vivian's appears more grown-up. Is this because she is the oldest or is there another dynamic at work?

Being the oldest means she remembers the early years of their family life more clearly. She has more sympathy for Mick and less for Darlene because she has a better sense of Darlene’s transgressions. More basically, I think her personality differs from Hannah’s. And Mick understands that. When he answers her questions about life and love, Vivian realizes, “He always told the very naked truth to Vivian, and gave Hannah the better version.” Vivian appreciates his respect for her maturity, but though she would never say so, she misses being his little girl — especially once he’s gone from them forever.

As the story moves back and forth in time, there is a sense of mystery. Did this plot device enable you to give more emotional weight to the family's secrets?

Sure, yes. But the mystery really revolves around memory. As the story unfolds, Hannah’s take on things becomes increasingly questionable — not just for the reader, but for Hannah herself. As she revisits home for her mother’s wedding, she can’t help but recall a variety of events from her childhood, both good and bad. But when she shares these recollections with her sister, Vivian laughs and corrects her. An imaginary friend turns out to have been a real boy, and so on. And as we move toward the end of the book, we realize a more pivotal memory has been blurred and almost obliterated. I have to say I didn’t think of it as a plot device as I wrote the book — only as the way that tangled pasts untangle themselves.

As the girls grow, Darlene becomes ever more self-obsessed, almost reversing roles. How does each girl manage to move on, while their mother refuses to mature?

I think it’s precisely because of the role reversal that they are forced to mature. It’s built into the relationship. Vivian, for example, “grows up” even before her father moves out of the house, just by observing the shoddy behaviour of her mother. And while for Hannah the process takes longer, in some ways her maturity is more expansive than Vivian’s, because she sees subtleties, and doesn’t let a person’s flaws impede her ability to love them.

Is Darlene afraid to accept responsibility for her youthful indiscretions? Does she feel guilt for the breakup of the marriage?

Yes and yes. I think Darlene is broken in a lot of ways, and that she genuinely loved Mick but wasn’t capable of the hard work and commitment that marriage requires. By extension, she genuinely loves her daughters, but it’s faulty love, full of rips and weak spots. Her selfishness (which grows out of her well-masked insecurities) is paradoxically the thing that does her the greatest harm.

*Perpetual Endings* by Kristen Den HartogHannah and Vivian have lost a father. Don't they lose their mother as well when she refuses to mature emotionally?

Yes — somewhere early on in the story, Hannah feels sorry for Lily Sinclair, whose mother left when she was just a baby, and Hannah can’t imagine how awful that would be … but the truth is, that Hannah herself is motherless on another level.

Do you think Mick and Darlene would ever have reconciled had he not died so tragically?

Again and again, I suspect. But the reconciliations would be more like collisions.

I love Wren's character. How does her birth defect affect her actions towards others? Do others in the story view Wren differently because of her deformed hands?

Wren’s born into the knowledge that she’s different – which is how we each feel about ourselves, isn’t it, but she has a physical manifestation of that, which sets her apart even further, and raises questions about our ideas around beauty and goodness. For instance, Darlene is physically gorgeous, and Wren is deformed. Emotionally, the opposite is true. As to how they treat people, Wren is magnanimous and forgiving, while Darlene is unwittingly cruel and self-involved. To take that a step further, Darlene recoils from insects, while Wren is drawn to that world partially because of her disappointment in the human one.

As to how people treat Wren, I think the only characters unaffected by her deformity are Hannah and Vivian, who have grown up with her and think of her as normal…. Whereas kids like Lucy (and later Stuart) alternately ridicule her and try to befriend her precisely because she’s an anomaly.

As far as motherhood, Wren's mother, Angie, is more responsible than her sister Darlene, yet she fails to appreciate the beauty (inside and out) of her own daughter. Why?

Guilt, I suppose. Guilt that the product of her and Charlie’s love is imperfect, guilt that she even thinks of her daughter as imperfect. Bigger than her inability to see Wren’s beauty is her fear for her daughter, and her awareness of the difficulties she’ll face in her life – and of course this fear and awareness only adds to Wren’s challenges.

Wren is a touchstone for her cousins, the repository of their history. What does each sister bring to the circle of friendship they share?

Vivian brings fearlessness, sarcasm and muscle – it’s through her that Wren understands she’s being ridiculed by the kids at school, and while Vivian seems cruel for showing her, Wren is stronger, eventually, with the knowledge. Similarly, Vivian lifts Hannah to look into their father’s apartment window. Hannah brings faith and innocence to the circle. After the fight on the beach, and Vivian’s cruelty toward Wren in the water, it’s Hannah Wren looks for, a speck of pink coming through the trees. And when Vivian soothes her sister to sleep, telling her the story of Ursa Minor and Ursa Major, she soothes herself by the very nearness of Hannah.

Would you consider Wren an outcast, living her life the way she does? How does Wren's child add to her separateness from the town at large?

An outcast, yes, but also an outsider looking in, which means she can often see the goings-on more clearly. Her separateness from the town at large probably brings her closer to the reader, and allows her to act as a kind of conduit.

Wren's character is central to the emotional plot line, particularly her accepting and forgiving nature. Yet the action revolves around Hannah, Vivian and Darlene. How does this happen?

In the earliest draft of the story, Wren was actually quite a minor character. It was only as the book evolved that I saw her potential, and her ability, as mentioned above, to give the readers a window into the Oelpke family. She can tell us things that Hannah and Vivian can’t, because of her distance, but she’s also close enough to be affected by their tragedies, and connected enough to have her own tragedies matter to the rest of the story. Her presence also allows us to see two families, two different styles of parenting, side by side, and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each.

*Water Wings* by Kristen Den HartogAfter Mick, Darlene chooses a number of unattractive men, none as handsome as her former husband. Is she subconsciously punishing herself?

The important thing to remember is that we see these men, for the most part, through the eyes of Hannah and Vivian. For them, no one can live up to Mick. They might not seem nearly so unattractive through the eyes of other characters. But also — Darlene craves adoration. She loves Mick partly because he had the strength to call her bluff in so many ways, but that kind of relationship takes work and compassion. The men she takes up with afterwards (Jay, and especially Tim) require little work at all – but also bring her short-term satisfaction, like candy.

As a reader, I'm never quite sure of the truth, on the verge of finding answers at critical times in Hannah and Vivian's lives. Are we meant to find answers to the mysteries in the story?

Only the kinds of answers that raise more questions.

The beauty of rural Canada is a setting in both of your novels, The Perpetual Ending and Water Wings, really an integral part of the story. Does the natural beauty of your surroundings affect your creativity and story ideas?

I’ve been writing about that part of the world for a long time now. The setting of the novels, as I mentioned, is a big part of my own history. It’s in me to describe that place. No matter where I live, I take it with me. I’m working on a third book now, also set in the valley, but I can feel myself getting ready to move on to new territory. Which doesn’t mean that this landscape won’t continue to influence me, or inspire me in a less direct way.

Are you working on any more projects currently? Can you share with us?

The next novel, The Origin of Haloes, will hopefully be ready for publication in 2005 … but a new gurgling baby keeps me awfully busy. The Origin of Haloes draws on classical mythology, Renaissance masterpieces, and the history of the Olympic Games, in order to tell the story of a family with a deep dark secret, and a father last seen headed for the river with a canoe on his head.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

Read. Travel. Listen. Observe. One of the greatest things about being a writer is that living helps you get better at it.

Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Kristen Den Hartog via email for Click here to read her review of Water Wings; or Click here to read her review of The Perpetual Ending.


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