Jen Hirt is the author of the memoir Under Glass: The Girl With a Thousand Christmas Trees, which won the Drake University Emerging Writer Award for 2011. Her essay “Lores of Last Unicorns,” published in The Gettysburg Review, won a 2010 Pushcart Prize. Her essays have also received the 2012 Gabehart Prize for Nonfiction from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, an Ohioana Library grant, a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant, Pushcart Prize nominations, and a notable essay mention in Best American Essays. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Terrain, TriQuarterly, The Colorado Review, Redivider, The Sonora Review, Confrontation, The Baltimore Review and others. She is currently co-editing the collection Making Essays: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (SUNY Press, forthcoming 2015) with poet Erin Murphy, and is finishing her second book, an essay collection tentatively titled Monster Magnificent. She teaches creative writing at Penn State Harrisburg.
Under Glass explores the destruction of Hirt’s Greenhouse in Strongsville, Ohio, owned and operated by the Hirt family for four generations. The story is Hirt’s memoir: remembering a childhood spent in greenhouses, describing her parents’ later financial pressures and divorce, and witnessing the literal demolition of her past, when 14 greenhouses are ultimately torn down and replaced by a corporate pharmacy in 2005.
Rachel Wilkinson corresponded with Hirt about the process of writing the book.
Hot Metal Bridge: Under Glass is a multi-layered book in many ways, even in terms of its nominal subjects: a greenhouse and its history, family and heritage, childhood and adolescence, divorce, illness, etc. How did you build in all these layers?
Jen Hirt: I saw that other writers were layering and I just emulated them. Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Scott Russell Sanders, Mark Doty. In the last few years, my model has been Cormac McCarthy, although I had not read his work at the time I wrote Under Glass. In graduate school, I was one of those students who read with a pencil in hand, filling up the margins with observations. I obsessed then (and now) about how things work, how things go together, would deconstruct essays, stories and poems, find their bare bones structure and then carry it over to my work. A friend and I would draw diagrams of each other’s essays on the backsides of the pages as a form of workshop commentary. I think that drawing those schematics—and seeing the schematics of my own essay—really gave me confidence in how to layer a piece.
HMB: In assembling a collection of essays, how did you balance the layers while still maintaining a coherent whole?
JH: Each chapter in Under Glass was written as an independent, stand-alone essay—all suitable for evening workshops during my M.F.A. years. When it came time to assemble them for my thesis, I took the advice of Kim Barnes, who said to look at the first sentence and last sentence of each piece and organize them from there. But even so, the thesis didn’t feel like a coherent book. That was in 2004, before the greenhouses had been demolished. In 2008, long after the demolition, and after all the dust (literal and metaphorical) had settled, I heavily revised the essays so that they were more of a memoir, less of an essay collection. I made a chart of first sentences and last sentences, but also themes, anecdotes and timeframes, and it sort of fell together like a magic puzzle. The actual shattering of all that glass gave me the impetus to create a coherent whole of my essays.
In my current manuscript, I have not yet settled on an overarching theme: sometimes it’s the notion of “fine woods” (my grandmother’s phrase); sometimes it’s the symbol of the unicorn. Lately, it’s been monsters. I keep seeing different ways for my most recent essays to fit in to any of those themes. So, that tells me I don’t have it right yet. I don’t have the balance. Maybe I’m waiting for a sort of “linchpin” essay, or an obvious conclusion essay, or maybe I need to reduce all my essays into smaller vignettes that fit together. I don’t know. It’s my summer project.
HMB: In a similar vein, the book seems to move through juxtaposition or association: the destruction of your family’s greenhouse is braided with the history of a royally-owned Victorian conservatory; the dictionary definitions of “hold” are tied to different memories; a household philodendron stands in as a mythological Norse “world tree.” What was your process for building and forming these associations? How did you structure essays around them?
JH: I work on three assumptions: 1) that time is not linear; 2) that the story will find its writer; and 3) that once you know what to look for, you’ll see it. I’m not one of those crazy New Age people, but I like to think I’m attuned to synchronicity, coincidence, and the deep subconscious. I’d be a metaphysical poet if I were strictly a poet. The world, I believe, is talking to me, and if I listen to the associations and juxtapositions, I’ll figure them out.
But I’m also a workaholic researcher, and when opportunity strikes, I own that gold mine, which means I retreat to my office, usually for two or three days, and get a draft of the essay down. Or, another way to say it is: I don’t know what I’ll find, but I know where and how to look. How to watch, how to listen, how to jot down ideas in a notebook.
HMB: The book is also rife with allusions: Theodore Roethke, Susan Sontag, Phillip Lopate, REM, Harold and Maude. How do you use the work of other writers and artists to enrich your own?
JH: It really goes back to my education in good old MLA citation—support your evidence with sources! But it’s also about showing my thought process as I reach a better understanding of my situation. When I’m trying to figure something out, I tend to saturate myself with influence—I’ll randomly read Roethke’s journal, or listen to a favorite song on repeat until I have it memorized, or track down a movie scene that I think is relevant. Some insight will eventually click in my head and I feel obligated to cite the cultural references that helped me reach that insight. All these people—artists, singers—are saying it better than I can and I like to pretend that I’m part of the conversation with them.
HMB: Peter Trachtenberg said there are two kinds of nonfiction stories: the known story, where the writer has access to a subject or to the facts, and the unknown story, where the writer must construct a narrative only from a set of artifacts. In writing a family history, how did you navigate between these two kinds of story?
JH: Great question. I guess I just went back and forth. I’d talk to a family member, then write that up, then go look at a photo, think about it, see what new insight came to me. I was living in Iowa and Idaho during most of the writing of this book, and the greenhouse is in Ohio, so one of my “back and forth” strategies was the actual traveling, back and forth, to and from Ohio. I’d have these super intense 48-hour visits where I’d have to get everything I needed for whatever part of the book I was working on. My family is not very forthcoming, so I had to go to the artifacts to fill in the story. I’m also not talkative or forthcoming (family trait!), so my graduate writing professors prodded me to take advantage of my access to the subject—in this case, living relatives. I remember professors actually saying, “You need to interview your family when you are home on break.” Meanwhile, I was totally happy to sit by myself and sift through photos and speculate on their story. I probably would have just done that left to my own devices, but I’m glad I didn’t.
HMB: Was the distinction between the known and unknown stories blurred?
JH: A little bit. I quickly found that if I asked three relatives to tell me their version of the same story, I’d get three different stories and the usual family politics came into play: “Don’t listen to so-and-so, she’s lying because of what Uncle so-and-so said to her 40 years ago at the picnic…” In a way, all the stories are unknown, and half-truths. Just last year [2013, three years after the publication of Under Glass], I came across an amazing story about my great-grandfather. I wrote about it over the course of just a month and it’s in the most recent issue of Ninth Letter. It would have been great to put it in Under Glass—in fact, I would have made it a centerpiece, or possibly the concluding chapter, because it’s the story of how our greenhouse ended up being in Strongsville. But I didn’t know about it until last year. As a result, I’m now more attuned to the blurred distinction between the known story and the unknown story. It’s humbling, actually. Nonfiction is such a moving target.
HMB: How did you approach artifacts versus existing places and subjects?
JH: Well, artifacts (photos, a business ledger, actual pieces of glass) are static, more or less, and so I see them as stabilizing. Existing places change constantly, but you have to train yourself to see the change. Otherwise, home is “home sweet home,” and it’s just like it always is, and geez, that’s a boring essay, right?
I once had an architecture professor advise me to take readers on a tour of the greenhouse—she basically said to write to architects who had never seen it before. She said something like, “Just start at the front door and walk us through the greenhouse. Show us what you see.” It was such an interesting idea that I went right home and wrote it out. I loved the exercise of approaching that existing place like an architect, or a tour guide, instead of a family member. Very little of that exercise made it into the book, but it led me to even better ways to weave artifacts with existing places, because it helped me gain confidence in seeing artifacts and places through someone else’s eyes, not just my own.
HMB: Many of the essays in the book turn on imagining or reconstructing events, especially, “Ricinus Communis” [a first-person account of the third ricin poisoning trial in US history]. What is your research process like?
JH: My research process is circuitous and library-based. I rely heavily on three things: a library’s academic databases; lots of trial and error with keywords, phrases and timeframes; and the art of skimming in order to quickly assess whether an article is worth reading in depth. I find (and read) more things than I use. Some people see this as failure and say to themselves, “I spent five hours reading three articles and only found one interesting line to quote. I must be a terrible writer.” For me, that’s success. I guess I am by nature a scavenger, and a resourceful opportunist. I handwrite notes and ideas in a journal as I research via the library, and I have no idea when I’ll use those ideas, but I’m sure I will someday. I guess it’s like stockpiling. I’m a nonfiction prepper, like a doomsday prepper, only sane, and without guns.
HMB: I also read Under Glass as a meditation on place: from Hirt’s Greenhouse in Strongsville to the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, to your grandparents’ woods-surrounded house that became part of a shopping center. How do you capture place? How did you convey both the largeness of places and the particularity of them?
JH: I feel like when I was in graduate school in the late ’90s and early aughts (I guess that’s what we’re calling 2000-2010 now?), creative nonfiction writers were really embracing place. It was such a thing. In 2001, I moved to Moscow, Idaho for my M.F.A. and everyone was just seducing everyone with place, place, place—and the inland Pacific Northwest was such a different place. Mountains, white water, lentil fields, pine forests. It was a fascinating terrain, and I was immediately welcomed in to the tiny literati world of that isolated M.F.A. program, where everyone knew every weird bit of history about the region. So I learned to do description on a personal level but also through a historical lens, and as an outsider and an insider. I learned to use tone to show my opinion on a place without outright “telling” what I thought about the place. I think I learned to convey the largeness and the particularity by studying Annie Dillard—she could take you from seeing a centimeter of riverbank to seeing the entirety of an epoch in the span of a sentence.