Where did you find inspiration for the detailed descriptions of wood chipping?
“For weeks we’d been taking down trees all over the golf course at the Chestnut Hill Club, and recently I’d been on the chipper with Jorge, carrying branches with frozen hands to its mouth and tossing them in, the grinding gears catching the wood, crunching and pulling until it came out the other end, finely chopped, spraying into the back of the dump truck.”
I worked on a grounds crew for nine summers, a few springs and falls, and one winter. That one winter, I worked during the three- or four-week break over Christmas, and the crew was in the middle of taking down hundreds of trees. I was on the chipper for a few days, so for eight hours, from before the sun came up to mid-afternoon, I was tossing branches and logs in. It was unbelievably cold that week on the chipper, but I loved being out on the course with no members around. And even though it’s been over a decade since I worked that winter, I can still imagine all that wood getting chewed up and spit out.
The theme of the church contrasts so well with Hank’s relationship with Bellarosa. Did you always have a religious background in mind for him?
“But on the walk up the avenue to the church, I felt the same guilt I had so often before, guilt I attributed to being raised by a father who demanded modesty in women and a mother who followed his word without question.”
Hank’s connection to religion is critical in this story. Yes, he studied it, but more importantly, as noted in this line, his upbringing has influenced how he views God and sin. Catholics have an extraordinary ability to feel excessively guilty. But there’s so much more to religion, and Catholicism, that you can explore by reading the Bible for yourself, with yourself in mind. And then there are so many sources beyond the Bible. I looked at The Corinthian Body and Harlots of the Desert for this story, seeing how aspects of sexuality, sin, and repentance intersect, and those are books that Hank, given his studies in Theology, would also know and contemplate, especially at this moment in his life. But it’s difficult to overcome a learned behavior, and Hank clearly does struggle with how to manage the conflicts between the way he grew up and more modern and progressive interpretations of the Bible, especially the role of women in the Church and society in general.
“With each one, I worried about nubs and splintered pieces, waiting to feel a tug toward the chipper.”
Well, that actually happened to me one of those first days on the chipper. I tossed a log in and there was a branch that got caught in the pocket of my sweatshirt, which pulled me toward the chipper before the pocket ripped and the log went free. There is a safety handle that reverses the blades, and I was ready to hit that, so it all would’ve been fine even if my pocket hadn’t ripped, but there was a moment of panic. This line comes after the dream that Hank has, and his feelings of guilt overwhelm him so much that they work into his unconscious mind. There’s a sense that he must be punished, he must suffer, for his sins. He knows his desire for Bellarosa is too great to overcome at this point, no matter how much the guilt dominates him. This will lead, eventually, to repentance, but he isn’t ready for that yet.
“She asked what I did, and I told her I was a landscape architect, because saying I worked on a grounds crew just didn’t feel like myself.”
I added this during the revision with Morgan, but it certainly is a feeling the permeates this story, and the novel as a whole. Hank isn’t quite sure who he is, who he wants to be. This feeling of being stuck between two worlds, I’m sure, is one many have experienced, and I also hoped that this line would touch on the idea that those workers on the grounds crew do have certain skills that often go overlooked or under-appreciated. I learned so much about that world, the subtle beauty of cutting and pruning and planting, and the precise science that goes along with that.
I am interested in the revision process for this part of the story. Did you consider other variations of this line? Did you ever think of not leaving this part up to interpretation for the reader?
“For a moment, I imagined her upstairs, living in my building, being so close to me these past few weeks.”
This line is pretty much as it was in the first draft, as is most of this final scene with Bellarosa. She could be living in his building, or the next street over, or in the same city. There is no definite answer to how close she is, but that doesn’t matter for their relationship. It will never move beyond online, even if they live close enough to have an in-person, physical relationship. For Bellarosa, keeping where she lives a secret is for her safety. There’s a serious issue of stalking with online performers, which is why Bellarosa always dismisses the men who ask where she lives. She understands what could happen if she revealed too much, if she didn’t keep her distance, even as she creates this intimate experience with Hank. So really, the reader can wonder where exactly Bellarosa is, and it doesn’t really matter where she is. I also love how apartment buildings function in life, and therefore literature. You can be sleeping mere feet from someone. You hear them fighting in their units. You smell the food they’re cooking. You hear people in the halls. But you may never see them. That fascinates me, and I wanted to create the possibility of that here.
“I would find him, in a while, but right then that was all I wanted: the quiet of the church, the sight of others who had come there so late in the day, each of us there for a reason that no one else knew.”
I work with an editor, Jaime Karnes, and she suggested that Hank needed to be present in the church for the final scene, because originally he was just on his way to church. That scene expanded the story, not much in terms of length, but more in scope. Being able to place Hank in the church, but not yet in the confessional, and surrounded by others who have sinned, touches on the role of sin in the Catholic Church and also society. What would confession look like if it were communal, the members of the parish coming together and discussing their sins with each, and not just listing them off to the priest in a booth? But there would certainly be judgment with that. The definition of sin is so subjective, but Catholics do tend to have pretty strict standards, because the Church does. Based on these standards, we pass by people every day who have just sinned, are sinning, or are on their way to sin. And then there’s the way we discuss our sins. Some are glorified and applauded and discussed quite openly, others kept hidden, and possibly a great burden to the sinner. We don’t know how much of a burden these sins cause, and how the guilt that comes along with them can torment a person. And Hank doesn’t even tell Fin about Bellarosa, and Fin is the one character who would understand, who would be an outlet of sorts for Hank. Even if Fin feels no guilt, Hank would be able to speak openly, without fear of judgment. But there’s always that fear, for every person and every action. What will others think of me? When you feel you’re held to impossible standards of morality by your community, and in Hank’s case his church, you tend to keep those burdens to yourself. You and God know, but sometimes that isn’t enough.