Maria Hummel, GOLDENSEAL

Maria Hummel, GOLDENSEAL

Maria Hummel joins Zibby to discuss GOLDENSEAL, an utterly inventive novel that burns with atmosphere, mystery, and resentment, as two estranged friends reunite to confront each other. Maria provides insights into her inspiration for the novel (it involves LA’s art and hotel culture) and then discusses the themes she enjoyed exploring: aging, loneliness, friendship, and the impact of historical events. She also talks about her creative process, the emotional toll of writing about characters dealing with tragedy, the excitement of her last novel being a Reese’s Book Club pick, and what she is working on next!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maria. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest novel, Goldenseal. Welcome.

Maria Hummel: Thank you. Can you see my background?

Zibby: I can see your background.

Maria: That is the Millennium Biltmore’s Crystal Ballroom, which was in the scene towards the end of the book where Lacey spins alone under the chandeliers. This is a 1951 photo. It hasn’t changed much, I don’t think, over time in terms of the main elements. I thought it was more interesting than my office, which looks like a mess right now because we’re getting it ready to be the guest bedroom.

Zibby: Tell listeners a little bit about your book and why it makes sense that we are looking at a black-and-white sketch behind you of an old, glamorous hotel ballroom.

Maria: It starts with an old woman, a stranger arriving in a sunny metropolis on the West Coast. She hasn’t been there in four decades. Everything looks very different to her. She takes a taxi to the center of the city to meet a friend who is living in a hotel at the center of the city. Her friend is getting ready for this stranger to arrive. The woman in the taxi is not sure the woman in the hotel is going to let her up to see her. The woman getting ready isn’t sure she wants to see this old friend, but she is going to look as glamorous as possible for her arrival. The book follows from there, and their conversation when they finally get together and what it was that drew them together and what tore them apart.

Zibby: I feel like even though it’s based on a scene in a more contemporary world, we’re really thrown back again and again to difficult situations in the past, their parents’ relationships, the whole underpinning of who they are as people and how they got to be who they are, both the good and the bad. I feel like Muti and Poppy have had such a tough life, oh, my gosh. It leaves me with a sadness, a melancholy type feeling because there are just so many obstacles. When I got to your afterword and it was like, 9/11 and the pandemic and this and that, I was like, okay, so this is the headspace that she was writing in. I’m kind of understanding. Sorry for talking so much. Back up with where the idea came from and how you ended up going backwards as well as forwards.

Maria: When we moved to LA, my husband and I, in the early 2000s, I got thrown into two cultures. One was the museum world. I was working at the Museum of Contemporary Art. He started working in hotels, the Biltmore and the Bonaventure and one that was out in the valley. Then we had a friend who worked at the Chateau Marmont. I just fell in love with the hotel culture in LA. I feel like you might have some scenes in your new book that have LA hotels in them too. I don’t know. LA hotels have a special character to them. I especially love the Biltmore. That knowledge of that world combined with a book that I read that came out in American translation in 2001 called Embers by a Hungarian author named Sándor Márai, which was originally published in 1942, is a story about two old friends, males, an old general and a soldier, meeting in a castle in the Carpathians for the first time in forty years. They’re also weighing out friendship. When I read that book, I thought, this is such a great treatise on friendship, but it’s about male friendship. Female friendship is different. Wouldn’t it be great to use this structure but set it in an American castle? There it is. Then the third piece was, as we all experienced, we lived like recluses, particularly for me, the academic year that was 2020/’21. I thought, I know how to write this character now, this person who’s basically a hermit who lives in the hotel and never goes out and is locked in her tower.

Zibby: Can I read this one passage? Is that okay? Which I found particularly poignant about what it’s like growing older and being sort of lonely at the same time. This is Lacey talking. “I know myself, and I am old, and I have few choices left. One of them is to fear death. All my life, I have feared it, that healthy fear everyone has, that death would steal something from me, my remaining years, my golden days, but I no longer need golden days. Tomorrow will be the same as this day and the day before that, and I could live them or I could let them go. You see, it’s quite extraordinary what happens to you when you live alone for a long time with only your thoughts for company. A double self grows, a mirror self, the one who lives and the one who watches her life, and the second self begins to understand that the first is terribly ordinary, has always been, even if she was once beautiful and happy. The second self says, don’t be afraid of death or the truth. They have been waiting for you all along.”

Maria: Thanks for reading that. That was definitely a lesson of the pandemic, that second self. I feel like a lot of us went through that. That definitely came out of that experience for me.

Zibby: The idea that life is just every day on repeat like a Groundhog Day type of existence and it almost doesn’t even matter if you live another day, it’s like depression personified, in a way, or just reality. What is life? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just feeling in a mood today.

Maria: She’s trying to prove to her friend, too, that she’s steelier than her and she doesn’t care. There is that too. There’s a little bit of posing in it.

Zibby: Okay, that’s good. You also talk about experience — Poppy and Muti, who I mentioned earlier, if I’m pronouncing it right, how they were at Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen and all of the camps. Then you said, “Muti and Poppy came home inseparable for the rest of their lives, but they never left again.” Also, so heavy in a book that doesn’t — it’s not designed to feel heavy. It’s like a reflection. Did you design it to feel heavy? Are you surprised how I’m feeling? Am I misinterpreting? Do you know what I mean?

Maria: There is a tragic layer to the book that I actually had to pull back a little bit. Originally, I had written a more tragic ending, and then nobody liked it. The people of Muti and Poppy’s generation went through a whole lot. Those two, they were from Prague. World War II just decimated that crossroads of Jewish and German and Czech culture and the sophistication and the incredible art that came out of that period. It got destroyed for Muti first because she was Jewish. The Germans were expelled by the Czechs very forcibly after the war too. They were enemies. I’m not going to say that as a people they didn’t deserve retribution in ways that — at least, I can understand the feelings behind that longing for retribution. Those were people who were very devoted to their city and to the culture that they had lived in. Then suddenly, you don’t belong here either. You’re gone. I thought that was interesting that the Germans got sent to the same place that the Germans had gotten sent to, which was Terezín or Theresienstadt. Then the Russians rolled in. Those Czechs didn’t have it easy either.

Zibby: Just couldn’t win there.

Maria: No. Basically, Eastern Europe, it’s a hard place.

Zibby: Do you have a connection to Prague yourself, or this time? Are you just interested from a historical perspective?

Maria: I was so lucky. I got to do my study in Prague about two years after the wall came down. Three, I guess. It was so amazing because it was a city — communism had really preserved its outline since World War II. There was such an incredible flowering of Czech culture under communism. I absolutely fell in love with the city and thought, one day, I’ve got to put something here. Those passages were easy to write, the Prague scenes, because I just had them in my memory from wandering around Prague. I just also loved what a crossroads culture it was. I don’t think, often, it’s recognized what an incredible melting pot Prague was for early-twentieth-century literature and art and everything.

Zibby: I went to Prague once. It was probably in 2002. I’ve always been so fascinated by the culture there as well. It’s sort of mysterious.

Maria: They’ve produced so much great work. It’s phenomenal.

Zibby: Wait, sorry for cutting you off. I feel like I don’t have a good sense of you as a person. Where did you grow up? Who are you? How did you become a writer? I know where you live now. I know you became a Reese’s Book Club pick, which is amazing. What’s the backstory here?

Maria: I’m back in my home state. I grew up in Vermont. I should also say I’m the daughter of a German. My father immigrated in the sixties. My mother’s family has been in the US for a really long time. I did also spend quite a bit of time going over to Europe as a kid, so that also seeded some of the things that I’ve written about. I grew up in Vermont. I bounced around a lot of different places. Went to grad school in North Carolina, UNC Greensboro, for my MFA. Then moved out to LA and worked in the art museum. Then I got a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford and spent a long time at Stanford, I think eleven years, both as a fellow and then as a lecturer there. Then I got a tenure-track job at UVM, at University of Vermont, and wanted to come back east because all of our family was on the East Coast. We came back here. Vermont was a great place to spend the pandemic. It was an easier place to get outside, low population density. I’ve been feeling lucky. Although, I do miss California too. I love Santa Monica. I know you have a bookstore there. My brother lived there for a long time, so I spent a lot of time there.

Zibby: Yes, I love it out there. I wish I were there today. That’s awesome. What was the experience like of becoming a Reese’s Book Club pick?

Maria: I got hives.

Zibby: Did you?

Maria: I don’t know if they still work the system this way, but they told us about a month and a half in advance. At that time, it was kind of a rollout thing where they would do a video where you’d give clues. Whoever was the person before you would give clues to your book. People on Instagram, if they guessed it right, they were entered into a drawing. There was very strict warnings that you could not let this information out of the bag in any way or the honor could be rescinded. My editor threw his back out and I got hives trying to keep a lid on it. Then I think some London tabloid saw pictures of her holding the book. They were like, is this the next Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick? Anyway, what a terrific experience being connected with those folks. They do such great things for women authors, women readers, readers in general. I felt so fortunate to be inducted into that family because it’s been such an honor and revelation to see how much they’ve been able to do as a book club.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Wow, what a story. Do you have an old girlfriend from camp or someone you met that you have a relationship with?

Maria: I was thinking about that question and how to respond to that if people ask. Most of the time when I write fiction, my characters are composite characters, with the exception of a few, usually secondary characters, that I might be drawing from life. Lacey and Edith, honestly, those two characters — it always seems corny when writers start talking about their characters like they’re their own people, but in as much as any characters I’ve ever written are their own people, these two are. I would send them on book tour instead of me remarks about people or whatever. Once I started writing them, they just kept talking as a writer. That’s never happened to me before. I think they’re more like anime, in a way, than they are modeled on actual people. It’s deep from my subconscious.

Zibby: I always wonder if those are actually real people somewhere or people. I don’t know. I hear this so often. People are like, this sounds crazy, but my characters talk to me, which I totally get. You wrote it in six weeks, right, the first draft? That’s crazy.

Maria: Yeah. It was an unbelievable experience. When I look back, I don’t really know how it happened. I have two kids. It was lockdown. I started right after school ended, literally, the day or two after my UVM semester ended. I’d go from parental stuff and then go upstairs and just keep writing. I was really living in the world of the novel the whole time I was writing it. I don’t really know what I cooked or anything else.

Zibby: You don’t pronounce it — what was the old-fashioned way? It wasn’t Lacey. There was some other —

Maria: — .

Zibby: I was trying to say it out loud the way you wrote it. I was like, how am I saying this?

Maria: I know. Maybe my phonetics aren’t so good.

Zibby: No, no, it’s fine. I didn’t know that was a name the way that it’s pronounced. Are you writing anything else? Have any other characters taking up residence in your brain lately?

Maria: I have, in a different way. I got really into researching into the life of one of the Grimms’ fairy tale .

Zibby: You mentioned .

Maria: Her, the one I mentioned in the afterword, Dorothea Viehmann, she is now occupying a presence as the heart of a novel that I’m writing. I learned more about her. She was the daughter of an innkeeper and the wife to a tailor, had seven kids. She doesn’t tell the Grimms the stories until the end of her life. In the record, she disappears and her husband disappears for nine years. There’s birth, birth, then gap, and then more births. I was like, okay, there it is. I can write into this. What happens in those nine years? It’s a love story, a story of a long marriage. All the tales that she tells are kind of wound through it more like as if things from life inspired them.

Zibby: Awesome. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Maria: I read a really good one once, which was, the first seven years are the worst. It’s kind of cynical. The thing that I tell most aspiring writers is, make allies. Make friends. Find people around you who also really care about writing. If you find them, hold onto them. The farther you go, at any time in your writing career, it never ends that you need those people. It never ends that you need advocates or that you need readers or that you need just somebody who understands. Sometimes people can get sort of pitted against each other when they’re younger thinking it’s a competition of who’s going to make it kind of thing. Honestly, the writers I know who are happiest are ones who have really nourished their networks and have people that they regard very highly and regard them highly and work together to achieve a common goal, which is really to just keep literature in the world, like you. You’re doing a lot, obviously. People like me are really grateful for that ambassadorship you do between writers and readers.

Zibby: I like that, ambassadorship. Maybe I’ll steal that. Thank you for that. That’s great advice. Nourish your network. I like it. It sounds like a whole article. You should write it if you haven’t already. Maria, thank you so much for coming on. Thank you for Goldenseal and for the time spent with these two lovely ladies. I appreciate it.

Maria: Thank you. Have a great afternoon. I love that I’ve been watching the various sleeping positions of your dog.

Zibby: Sorry about that. Bye.

Maria: Bye, Zibby. Thank you.

Maria Hummel, GOLDENSEAL

GOLDENSEAL by Maria Hummel

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