Rachael Hanel Q&A

July 27, 2020
Rachael Hanel ponders life and death in her memoir of growing up the daughter of a gravedigger.

“I’ve always processed my thoughts through writing. I enjoy revisiting memories. On the page my dad would be alive again, my grandpa alive, my grandma alive. I felt very close to them while I was writing the book and there are days now where I look back and miss that time I had spent with them while writing.”

You give readers a strong sense of your family, particularly your father and mother. Which authors do you draw for inspiration when it comes to writing characters? 

The book I read the most often as I was working on my memoir was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I probably read it eight times. It’s such a perfect memoir on so many levels, including character description. She does a great job of drawing  well-rounded characters. People are neither all good nor all bad. It’s important to portray their complexities. Bechdel opens her book with a sweet moment of her dad playing on the floor with her when she was a little girl. But as the book goes on, she reveals his darker secrets.

How has the reaction been in Waseca to the book? Has it all been positive or has there been some Sinclair Lewis-type sensitivities?

When my book came out I did a lot of readings and events in Waseca. The turnout was always great and I enjoyed seeing people I hadn’t seen for years. The response seemed positive, but we do live in the Midwest so for all I know people went home and told their friends and family how much they disliked the book. But I think overall the response has been positive and people enjoy reading about a place that they know.

You write about learning about the different aspects of your father’s personality from reading his yearbooks and discovering how much of a cut-up he was and how that didn’t reconcile with his later profession.

There’s something intriguing about getting a glimpse of your parents before they were your parents. They had a life before you and as a little kid; that revelation is pretty eye-opening. You tend to think that they were put on earth just to be your parents and serve you. It’s a good ego check.

The horribly short time period of your father being diagnosed with his illness and dying is upsetting – just four days. You wrote so vividly about how your family managed this time. When you write from personal history, is it painful and triggering? 

It was actually therapeutic. Sitting down to write that 20 years after it happened was the first time I had put it down on paper. I’ve always processed my thoughts through writing. Overall I enjoyed revisiting the memories. On the page my dad was alive again, my grandpa was alive, my grandma was alive. I felt very close to them while I was writing the book and there are days now where I look back and miss that time I had spent with them while writing.

You wrote about how the family never functioned the same again after your father passed away, which is so common in families. Was it challenging for you to decide not only to address the topic but actually write a book on it?

That part of the book was a byproduct of the story I wanted to write, which I’ve always seen as more about my dad and his job and what it was like to grow up in a cemetery. His death and its aftermath was just a smaller part of that bigger story, and I couldn’t have left it out. Because it was essential, I didn’t sweat the fact that I had to write about it, even if it might be uncomfortable for others to read.

I loved how you described your father as an artist in the way he would sculpt and design gravesites, and take such great care in honoring the deceased. Did your father’s job fill you with a sense of wonder?

Sure. As I was growing up I didn’t think much about how his job was like an art. I just saw it as hard and dirty work. But in writing about it and reflecting on it, I could see the pride he took in it and how careful he was to make sure that everything was just right.

You did an elegant job establishing time as a theme, in part by describing the clocks and watches in your life — the grandfather clock, your father’s timepiece. Was that an intentional choice to support the narrative?

I don’t think so. I wish I were that creative to see something like that from the beginning. But as I continued to write I think it became more apparent that the grandfather clock, especially, was a symbol. We couldn’t escape the fact that it was the centerpiece of our home, ticking the seconds away loudly. Time in our house became this really tangible thing.

Your mother took great joy in books, which seemed to feed her need for internal adventure. Did seeing your mother read as much as she did help light your devotion to books?

Yes, 100 percent. I am so grateful that she gave that gift to me and that was she such a role model. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be a writer today if she hadn’t modeled that love of reading for me. I know of parents who never read in front of their kids, and I think there’s no way their children will grow up with a love for books. Parents, let your kids see you reading something more than your phone.

I love how you circled back at the end of the book of the two of you working together, and introducing the tragedy of baby graves. Was that the structure that you had in mind early on in the writing?

Structure came last. I had everything written and then I had to decide how to organize it. I think that’s the best way to do it, unless you are gifted enough to see both a beginning and end when you start to write.

I love the “As You Think You Travel” poem etched on the front of your parents’ gravestone. You said you memorized it from seeing the poem hung in your childhood bathroom. Can you still recite it? 

I haven’t tried to recite it for a long time. Only the first three or four sentences come to mind. I do love it still, and the meaning changes at different times in my life. I’m grateful I grew up with that type of inspiration posted in my house.

The story of Cheryl Tuttle was so painful. I liked how you always thought she should be out in Hollywood. Do you still conjure her at times?

I do think of her, and part of me wishes I could see her again. But also, I have this beautiful image in my mind and I wouldn’t want reality to mess with that.

You have also written more than 20 nonfiction books for children. What do you love about writing for young readers?

I am a teacher at heart. When I was little I loved playing school. I took me a while to finally land there as a career. But when I was a journalist, as well as when I was writing those nonfiction books, I saw myself as a teacher. I enjoy teaching people something about the world around them.

What’s next for you?

I am almost finished with a narrative nonfiction manuscript about Camilla Hall, a Minnesota native who was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973 and 1974. The SLA was known worldwide for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Camilla, along with five SLA associates, was killed by Los Angeles police in May 1974. I was drawn to her because by all accounts, she was a pacifist. She grew up in a stable household, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. But she is a complex character, and she had a dark shadow side underneath that bubbly Midwestern exterior. She also came from a family who experienced a lot of grief. So I guess dark, Midwestern stories of grief are the ones I’m drawn to. I’m crossing my fingers that the manuscript finds a home before too long.

— Photo by Steve Pottenger