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Interview Jim Heynen

One by one the boys drifted off into daydreams. In the middle of the knee-high bean field, giving in to their three-hour duty of "walking beans" for sunflowers, for volunteer corn, for milkweed, for cockleburs. For whatever wasn't beans and needed pulling. For whatever didn't belong in these green rows of soybeans soybeans soybeans. Each in his own way, they drifted off.
And while drifting they stooped or bent, pulling out or breaking off what didn't belong, now when the sun was more wet than hot and the smells rising from the field were like the odors from an old bed, flatter or duller than the smell of soybeans or whatever didn't belong. Shuffling steadily, they drifted off, moved past duty or work, past praise or blame, without word or effort, crossed that line into the blur of trying and not trying, of doing and not doing, where tedium could be leisure and boredom contentment.

from The One-Room Schoolhouse

Stacey Knecht
Jim Heynen

The One-Room Schoolhouse

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SK — How is it that a born-and-bred New Yorker like myself can be so moved, can so fully identify with a little boy growing up in farm country? Why do I feel as though I've seen the things he's seen, smelled the same smells, lived the same adventures?
JH — The American poet Donald Hall said that when literature succeeds, one person's inner life speaks to another person's inner life. The fact that a female New Yorker can be moved by an Iowa farm boy's portrayal of farm life suggests to me that our inner lives thrive on a varied diet. I know that when I read I love to have my inner life restored through unfamiliar metaphors for familiar emotions. Everyone who writes depends on those ideal readers who are willing to extend their imagination into that unfamiliar metaphor so that the magic of inner-life connection can occur. If my stories are crafted in such a way that the youngest boy's experiences are so convincing that readers are willing to extend their imaginations, great. I'll humbly take credit for that ring of authenticity.

SK — ’Unfamiliar metaphors for familiar emotions': that sums it up perfectly. Can you tell me a bit about your own chosen metaphor(s)? And how do you happen to know so much about being the youngest?
JH — Although I've consciously rejected most of the Dutch Calvinist teachings of my youth, I think my metaphors often are no more than secular alternatives (or parallels) to what I was taught: notions of redemption, renewal, mercy, justice (though this often resembles karma more than Old Testament retribution) – even resurrection, as in the story ‘The First Calf Heifer.’ I never consciously put these ‘secret religious messages’ in my stories, but sometimes when I'm reading them, I think, ‘Oh no! John Calvin and all your subversive mind troopers, how did you get in here?!’
I mostly write about what I know, but I also write about what I don't know about what I know. It's pretty safe to say that there's a grain of truth in almost all my stories, even in the ones in which women are featured. I owe a lot to my mother – who was a kind of one-liner story teller – for the humor in the stories about women. She's the one who told me about a woman who used her false teeth to make waves on her pies (‘Pies’). She's also the person who suggested that one woman she knew put her own breast milk in people's coffee (‘The Minister's Wife’). Of course, my mother's one-line, kitchen humor comments graduate into stories for me.
About the youngest boy looking so good in many of the stories: yes, I was the youngest boy. The stories that feature him in a way that might make readers admire and sympathize with him only prove that the youngest child has a gift for making his privileged position appear pitiable.

SK — The youngest, in your stories, seems to have a kind of intuitive wisdom. More so than the others in the group of boys that you call, simply, ‘the boys’.
JH — Yes, I realize that's true – so I suppose I'm doing more than finding an avenue to justify my own tendency to self-justify and self-pity as a person who ‘suffered’ the false agonies of being youngest – the one at the bottom of the totem pole in my family and among my boyhood friends. I also realize how much the youngest boy embodies a Wordsworthian Romantic vision – ‘the child is father of the man.’ The wisdom of innocent boyhood as opposed to the perversions of adult manhood. The oldest boy in the stories is closest to adult male rationality and practicality, the youngest boy is much more intuitive and romantic. If collectively my farmboy stories make an argument for the intuitive and romantic over the rational and practical, I'm quite content with that outcome.

SK — A kind of Peter Pan-feeling (I won't grow up!)? But is it worth the agonies? And the fears? I'm thinking of the scene in which the youngest boy is out on his own, and gets very close to a dandelion, which he suddenly thinks is breathing. It frightens him, he races back to his haven, his home. I had an experience like that when I was about seven: I was at my grandmother's house in the country, in a field right outside her front gate, and I saw a fledgling that had fallen in the grass. When I went over to comfort the helpless bird, it suddenly stretched open its mouth – it was gaping yellow inside. I was terrified, somehow this tiny creature had betrayed me and become a thing of horror. I ran back to my grandmother's house as quickly as I could and I've never forgotten it.
JH — Would that more people would retain that innocent fear and recoil from the horrible – even if the recoiling is an innocent misconception of reality.Yes, I think it's worth the agonies and fears. If more people were stunted in their ability to grow up, I think we would have far fewer human-against-human atrocities in the world.
I do remember at one period while I was writing the boy-stories that I was obsessed with the issue of childhood feelings of rage which, in my understanding, are almost always connected to feelings of injustice (as in the story ‘Gotcha’). I think, as adults, we tend to trivialize those childhood feelings. We forget how intense they were. When we call an adult a ‘frustrated romantic,’ I think we are identifying a collision of childlike sensitivity and innocence with adult rationality and practicality. I would like to think that the intuitive child is more likely to find peaceful and even beautiful resolutions in situations that could easily transform into rage.

SK — But sometimes the most intuitive children are thwarted by the very adults, or older children, who ought to be guiding them toward peaceful and beautiful resolutions. Do you think that growing up on a farm is more conducive to the channeling of rage than growing up in the middle of a metropolis? Difficult question, because growing up on a farm in the days when you were a boy is probably very different to rural life in 2004.
JH — I very comfortably and very quickly answer Yes, I really do believe that the rural setting is more conducive to rage-channeling. I also think that, because childhood rage is so often rooted in feelings of injustice, that rural kids identify with the abused and exploited animals. Animals look so helpless and innocent: it just doesn't feel right to a child that animals should be treated like insensate commodities. I think my own sense of empathy for others started with my identification with animal suffering on the farm. Certainly, feelings of empathy must be a primary rage-remedy or preventative.
But specifically about expressions of rage: I think vandalism is an expression of rage, as are most childhood acts against power and authority. One factor in rural life (and I think this might still be true today to an extent) that helps channel childhood expressions of rage is that the whole community responds to the inappropriate behavior rather than some detached law enforcement agency. I know, as an adolescent boy, when I threw ripe tomatoes at a car on Saturday night when farm people went into town, my punishment was to wash and polish the car of the man whose car I had splattered with tomato juice. No police were ever involved. Another good thing about the rural setting is that it provides so many possibilities for inventive working out of bad feelings. Of course, some of those possibilities simply lie in work-demands: go pick cockle burrs from the corn for an afternoon. If feelings of injustice are at the root of childhood rage, idleness is the enabler.

SK — The stories in this collection are primarily about 'the boys'. An obvious question: where were 'the girls'?
JH — I asked myself the same question: Just where are the girls – shouldn't I be giving 'the girls' equal time on the page? When I did try writing girl-stories, I discovered two things: 1) they usually shared youngest-boy qualities and the punch of the stories became gratuitously anti-male, and 2) in my honest recollections of rural boyhood the boys really were separated from the girls and had separate group-boy experiences. It felt phony to me to try to create a world in which that wasn't true.
I also think there may be a difference between boy and girl energy (or, as some psychologists would say ‘between puer and puella energy’). Of course, they intertwine and overlap, but focusing on just the boys gave me the chance to embrace the various nuances of boy experience.
When I started writing these little stories in the late 1970s, I had been immersing myself in Native American songs and tales. I was especially attracted to the Trickster figure because he often responded to problems in surprising and, yes, tricky ways. Reading the Native American materials, which were kept alive orally before ethnographers recorded them, I was reminded of the folk humor and oral story-telling voices from the rural community where I grew up. It may be that ‘the youngest boy’ aborbed some qualities of the clever and wily Trickster figure. And when the boys act collectively in ways that lead to interesting insights, they're usually insights that would align with the youngest boy's sensibility if he were alone.

SK — Do you have boys of your own?
JH — Yes, I have a son whose nurturing years were in the small Northwest coastal town of Port Townsend, Washington. Many of his experiences paralleled my own in some ways, like playful risk-taking and playing jokes on outsiders who considered themselves superior to the small-town locals. I even got some of my material from son Geoffrey. The story ‘Specs’ was actually inspired by a scene in which a bully taunted Geoff's bespectacled friend by calling him ‘Four Eyes’. When Geoff confronted the bully, the bully hit him in the mouth, cutting his lip and causing profuse bleeding. Geoff's retaliation was to stand there undaunted and to let the blood from his cut lip drip all over himself. Geoff was a hero in his friends' eyes by demonstrating that a boy could stand up to a bully without behaving like one. Of course, I developed that story differently and imagined it in the rural community where I grew up. The farm, for me, remains the most comfortable staging area for my imagination.

SK — What did Geoff think of ‘Specs'?
JH — He liked it, especially the way I spun off from the truth to invent a story that was even more interesting, a kind of hyped-up version of the truth. In reality, what Geoff did was go play basketball in his bloodied condition for an hour after the incident. This impressed his friends too. Geoff was surprised that I was right about his becoming friends with the bully later, though in different terms. The fact that I cast Geoff in the desirable role of ‘the youngest boy’ in this story didn't hurt our father-son relationship either.

SK — He isn't really the youngest?
JH — He has an older sister, but among boys he is the ‘onliest’.

SK — The crown prince.
JH — Crown Prince indeed. People's hero.
You know, we've put considerable focus on ‘the youngest boy’ in this interview, and I'm realizing that he, like the clever and wise grandfather in the stories, usually offers eccentric, modest, or comic resolutions to ordinary problems. I’ve rather liked that focus: it’s made me reflect on what I've done with the youngest boy in these stories over the years, and I’ve come to see that he usually is the medium for the message – even when he's wrong.

The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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