“Virgil and Joy Division are equally and simultaneously true”: Six Questions with Jim Heynen08/20/2012
Caught between the pressures of family, friends, teachers, and her rural Dutch Calvinist community, Alice Krayenbraak does what any stressed out high school senior would do: She falls madly, blindly in love. In The Fall of Alice K., acclaimed author Jim Heynen leads us down a young heart’s treacherous path and into the arms of a fraught redemption.
Here, Jim Heynen responds to a few questions about Dutch Calvinists, writing his first novel for adults, the specter of apocalypse, and nerdy wordplay.
Milkweed: From the specter of Y2K, to an impending farm crisis, to the persistent fraying of the Krayenbraak family, anxiety over one type of catastrophe or another colors Alice’s life. What ties them all together?
Jim Heynen: I’m realizing, in retrospect, that what might tie them all together is a dark Calvinist view of reality. The Calvinists of my youth assumed that this life is naturally catastrophic—which should teach humility. And humility is what Alice doesn’t have, at least not at the beginning of the novel. She was uppity and therefore setting herself up for a fall.
Alice’s strict Dutch Calvinist family and community is something of an anomaly in broader American culture. Likewise, her boyfriend Nickson’s Hmong family is an unfamiliar presence in rural Iowa. What does each family have to learn from the other?
The Hmong teens in the novel are very Americanized—and can match Alice in their confidence to deal with various challenges—social and academic. But members of a minority culture always understand the majority culture much better than the majority culture understands the minority. Alice and her family are much more naïve about Nickson and his family than he and his family are about Alice and her family. If either family learns anything, it’s really a reinforcement of what they already assumed about each other.
There is an irony, of course, in the fact that the little enclaves of Dutch Calvinist communities around the country were once minority cultures themselves and generally survived by isolating themselves from the mega-culture. Now they’ve elided with it, especially in politics so that many of them are now part of the very large Christian Right.
In writing the novel, I had to deal with my own stereotyping. I tend to remember most clearly the rigidity of the rural Dutch Calvinist community of my youth. My stereotyping of the Hmong whom I’ve known is that, although they have assimilated amazingly well, only a fool would intentionally cross them.
This novel foregrounds social issues stereotypically considered “urban”—teen sexuality and pregnancy, racial integration, drug trafficking—in rural Iowa. What do you think is the biggest misconception about the urban-rural divide?
Certainly, there is less violent crime in most rural settings, but rural communities have always had their fair share of teen sexuality and pregnancy. In the last few decades drugs and drug trafficking have made their way into even the most traditional small town communities. Meth labs in abandoned farmhouses, for example. The consequences of drug use and abuse may not be as concentrated and intense as it is in urban communities, but it’s there.
I’m sure there’s well documented research on racial integration in rural communities, but my sense of things is that it is occurring with less conflict than it did a century or so ago in urban communities.
Much of your previous fiction focuses on the motivations and adventures of farm boys. What were the greatest rewards of writing from the point of view of Alice Krayenbraak, a teenage girl, in The Fall of Alice K.? The challenges?
The greatest reward was the freedom to move out of boyhood memories and into the imagined world of teenage young women. It took lots of empathic research—and “test-marketing” with women friends. But as I was writing, I kept remembering how my mother dressed me up as a little girl when I was a little boy. That female voice has been waiting to get out for many, many years.
Throughout the novel, Alice and her best friend and fellow bookworm Lydia swap “Nancy Swifties” back and forth. Nancy Swifties are groan-worthy puns inspired by the Tom Swift series of books for boys, quips like, “‘I might as well be dead,’ Alice croaked.” When did you first fall in love with Nancy Swifties?
It started with Tom Swifty exchanges with writer friends and, occasionally, with students. Tobias Wolff loves Tom Swifties, and he’s one of the writer friends I exchanged them with—not in writing, in person! Though I can recall one from his writing too: something like “‘Is that a bear I see outside?’ Tom asked intently.” Carol Bly was also great at preposterously funny Tom Swifties. But the word-play games between two women I really owe to my wife and sister-in-law, who, when they’re not competing in SCRABBLE, love to throw around groaners.
In light of Alice’s tumultuous love and family lives, who’s closer to the truth?: Virgil, who surmised that love conquers all, or rock band Joy Division, that claims love will tear us apart?
Virgil and [Joy Division] are equally and simultaneously true.
Jim Heynen is perhaps best known for his collections of short prose featuring young farm boys, most notably The One-Room Schoolhouse: Stories about the Boys. The Fall of Alice K. is his debut adult novel.
[Editor's note: The post originally stated that The Cure claimed "love will tear us apart." It was obviously Joy Division.]