Rachel M. Harper is a novelist, screenwriter, and mother. She is the author of Brass Ankle Blues, a Borders Original Voices Award finalist and a Target Breakout Book. Her work has appeared in many publications, including Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Literary Pasadena, and Mending the World: Stories of Family by Contemporary Black Writers, as well as The Carolina Quarterly, Chicago Review, African American Review, and Prairie Schooner.
Harper has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Southern California and is on the faculty at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program.
Harper’s most recent book, This Side of Providence, is a lyrical narrative filled with complex characters that navigate the subjects of motherhood, love, loss, betrayal, and forgiveness.
Literary Mama Social Media Editor Rudri Bhatt Patel spoke with Harper on the phone and corresponded via email on her thoughts about her recent novel, writing, and balancing motherhood.
Rudri Bhatt Patel: I pay attention to epigraphs and love to hear why an author chooses a particular passage to set the tone of his or her work. How and why did you decide on the Milton epigraph for your novel?
Rachel M. Harper: I fell in love with the word “Providence” when I was a child growing up there—not because I knew what it meant but simply because it had a beautiful sound, and I was already the type of child who noticed things like that: words and sounds, the rhythm of a sentence, the melody. So I paid attention whenever I saw “Providence” in any context outside of the name of my hometown. When I studied Paradise Lost in college, I took note of the reference to Providence, the idea of Providence, and I remembered it years later when thinking about the epigraph for this novel. I was thrilled to come across it again because it seemed so fitting—the idea of wanting the dark parts of himself illuminated, the low parts raised and supported; it felt so true to the characters in my novel. Cristo and Arcelia, of course, but also Snowman and Luz and Miss Valentín—really all of them who want to change and grow, who are trying so desperately to evolve beyond their circumstances.
And the last line, the notion of asserting “Eternal Providence,” of giving divine care and direction—I can’t help but think of all the caregivers in the book: the mothers and teachers, the mentors, the older siblings, and how that is what they are trying to do, each in their own small (or large) way. The final words hit me hard every time I read them: “And justify the ways of God to men.” I find it so moving to want to justify the ways of God, to explain how the divine works to men, to human beings, and not the other way around. They don’t need to justify the ways of men to God—God knows why we make mistakes, why men fail, how uniquely human we are—but it is us human beings, the ones struggling to understand God and Providence and why these horrible things happen—we are the ones who need help understanding.
RBP: I love the multiple voices presented in This Side of Providence—from the addict mother, Arcelia, to the strong-willed Cristo, as well as the introverted but lovely Luz. How did you manage to flesh out the arc of these diverse characters in your narrative?
RH: I spent a lot of time working on this aspect of the novel because I felt so strongly that multiple voices should be used to tell this particular story in the most authentic way, but it’s not easy to find the right balance. I created a lot of charts and diagrams for myself during the writing process just to see the voices objectively, and then I tracked each character’s storyline moving forward in time. I wrote a five-page synopsis of the entire story, following the plot points for each main character, and, through that synopsis, I figured out which character should tell which part of the narrative in his or her voice. At that point, I had a solid outline broken into chapters and delineated by narrator and that, as a tool, was indispensable. I think the mathematical part of my brain began to take over during that process, and as I moved into the writing, I would go back and forth between the outline and the manuscript, making sure I had fleshed out all the storylines in satisfying ways. Arcelia and Cristo were the focal points, but I knew that Luz and Miss Valentín and Snowman were crucial, too. We had to get to know each of them through their own chapters in order to understand the complexity of each relationship from the various points of view. The best way to do that was to give everyone their own story arc and then to weave them together into the central narrative. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about how it all comes together, which feels really good.
RBP: You explore universal weaknesses like addiction, self-medicating, and making wrong choices in Arcelia, Snowman, and Miss Valentín, yet their flashes of goodness stay with readers. How do you strike a balance in presenting flawed but sympathetic characters?
RH: Authenticity—of character, voice, and action—is very important to me, so I work hard to strike the right balance with all my writing. It takes time and revision to get it right, but it’s always worth it. Readers can tell when authenticity doesn’t ring true. But when it does, those are the characters they remember—the ones they love years later, long after they’ve finished the book. It’s important for each character to have both good and bad qualities, which is a more accurate representation of real people. Especially the bad guys, the most flawed—you have to give them strengths, too. If they don’t have any power, it’s too easy to disregard them and too easy to cheer for the most sympathetic one or the obviously innocent. Nothing is so black and white in real life, so I don’t think it should be presented that way in fiction either.
RBP: In my opinion, one of the most poignant moments of the novel is this passage:
Luz drops her fork into the bowl. The macaroni splatters onto the table, a few pieces hitting my arm.
“Give her a chance? How many chances should one person get? This is our mother we are talking about. Not some lady in the street.”
Arcelia made decisions that directly impact her children in negative ways. While Cristo is willing to offer unlimited chances to his mother, Luz decides she is done. It is a transformative moment in which a daughter realizes her mother moves from hero to human. How important, do you think, is it for a child to recognize the flaws of the woman he or she calls mother?
RH: For me, that moment is important because it’s about the loss of innocence, which I think is one of the definitions of growing up. And recognizing the flaws and the humanity of your mother encompasses one of those moments. When Luz gives up on her mother, she’s really recognizing Arcelia’s limitations, which are no more or less significant than the limitations of any human being. Everyone has them; it’s just about where you draw the line and how that line impacts the people around you. The other important thing about that moment is that it’s really about Luz choosing herself. She knows she can’t survive another disappointment, so that’s why she doesn’t let her mother back into her heart. Luz is not a cruel person, but she’s practical, and she knows that if her mother breaks her heart again, she won’t be around to pick up the pieces.
RBP: Puerto Rican culture is an important pulse in this work. Why did you choose this particular culture as a backdrop for the novel?
RH: I never consciously chose for Arcelia to be Puerto Rican or for Snowman to be black; that’s not something I picked out in advance or inserted onto the characters after I created them. They arrived in my head fully formed: how they looked, how they sounded, how they walked in the world—it was all there when I first began to picture them. I’m not Puerto Rican, but it’s a community I’ve been a part of for many years. I’ve lived all over Providence, Rhode Island, in neighborhoods of various ethnic and racial blends, and I’ve known several real-life versions of all the characters in my book. As a writer, all I can do is search for the truth and then write it down as I see it or imagine it. Everyone is a created character, but they’re always inspired by parts of real people I’ve known—a mix of truth and fiction that hopefully feels real.
RBP: You tackle race, prison life, addiction, rape, and more in this moving look at a narrative pitched toward love and family. Did some of these themes naturally develop or were you purposeful in including these threads in your novel?
RH: Everything developed naturally as I got deeper into the story. For me, action and plot are the results of character. So that’s where I start: by figuring out what’s true about each character and their main relationships. I look for the conflicts, the points of tension, both external and internal, and begin there. Figuring out a character is excavation work for me, as opposed to building. I’m not creating new layers; I’m revealing layers that are already present. Arcelia was on a particular journey; she knew where she had come from and where she was going, and I was just along for the ride.
RBP: Your prose is filled with lyrical timing and cadence. Do you look to poetry as a meditative practice?
RH: My father was a poet, so I was raised in a household that honored language in a very specific way. I think those rhythms were bred into my brothers and me at an early age. We spent our childhood listening to jazz and soul music and sitting in poetry readings instead of church.
I look at poetry as life. Reading and reciting it is a spiritual practice for me. I can’t stress how fundamental poetry is to me, as both a writer and a human being. I think it’s one of the purest art forms. And I think we should all be encouraged to write poetry—not just writers, I mean everyone. We all talk too much, as a nation, and, instead, we should be encouraged to stop and think, to put our feelings into something meaningful. When my kids get all worked up, I often tell them to just go write me a poem.
RBP: You attended your writing residency in April 2015 while your children were 4 and 11. How did you balance motherhood and pursuing your month-long residency?
RH: It’s very hard to find the right balance between work and motherhood. It often feels as if I’m sacrificing one for the other, and I never know if I’m doing enough for either. I used to worry about it constantly, but now I try to remind myself that I can’t expect to be perfect, and that I’m only human. What I do know is that I’m trying my best to show up fully for each aspect of my life whenever I can. When it’s time to pick up my kids (who are now 5 and 13 and in school full-time), I’m there—for homework, for dinner and bath time, for ear piercings, and piano recitals. And when it’s time to write, I sit down at my desk and get to work. I want to teach my kids through example, to model that type of commitment, focus, and integrity. I also know that I’m very fortunate to have a supportive network of family and friends to help out when I travel on book tour, to teach, or when I’ve been lucky enough to attend artist colonies to work on early drafts of novels. Their support is absolutely imperative to my functioning as a mother and writer, and I do whatever I can to maintain those relationships.
RBP: What does a writing day look like for you?
RH: My perfect writing day begins around 5 a.m. before the sun rises. I sit down with a blanket over my feet and a cup of coffee in my hand and begin by re-reading what I wrote the day before. Then I write for as long as my attention holds, usually four to five hours if I’m by myself. Ideally, I would take a break then to exercise and eat and then spend the afternoon reading and writing more. During first drafts, I usually work on one project at a time, but when I’m revising, I can hold more than one world in my head, so I often spend the second part of my workday on a different project. Those are the best days; I feel such a sense of accomplishment when the sun goes down, just to have spent time in two completely different worlds. It’s a great form of time travel.
RBP: What three pieces of advice would you offer mother writers?
1. Get up before your kids. I try for at least 2 hours, but even 30 minutes will make a huge difference, just to start each morning by giving something to yourself first, before your day switches into fulfilling their needs.
2. Let the kids see you writing. This demystifies the process and gives them a model of working motherhood they can learn from if/when they become parents.
3. Separate art from commerce: Don’t connect the value of your need/desire to write to your ability to make money doing it right away. Hopefully, that will come, but it’s okay to need it for yourself at the beginning and to take that time to nurture something for yourself, even before it translates into money for the family.
RBP: You’ve written poetry, screenplays, novels, and short stories. What’s next for you? Any desire to write nonfiction or memoir?
RH: I’m revising my third novel right now, which has been a really interesting process. It’s so different from This Side of Providence in many ways, yet, at its heart, it’s a family story, too, dealing with a lot of the same issues of loss, forgiveness, and love. I’m also writing two scripts right now—an adaptation of a friend’s book and an original screenplay. I’ve never had much inclination to write memoir, but since my father’s passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood and how unique it was, how much it formed me as a writer and person, how it primed me to live a particular type of life. I’m just taking notes right now, impressions really, but it could certainly develop into something more, perhaps even a book. I won’t make any promises, but I’m open to seeing where it takes me.