Do I Stay or Do I Go?
In her debut novel Migratory Animals, Austin author Mary Helen Specht explores the push and pull of place
West Texas native Mary Helen Specht intended to leave her home state in her rearview mirror, but Austin's writing community fortuitously bewitched her. Now in her third year teaching creative writing at St. Edward's University, Specht uses a "kaleidoscope of viewpoints" and inspiration from her time as a Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria to tell a remarkable story that crosses the East-West hemispheric divide. Her debut novel Migratory Animals (Harper Perennial, 320pp., $14.99) explores the ideas of home and health, family and future, and the paths cut by love and pain as a young scientist doing research in Nigeria must return to Austin and help her sister cope with the same disease that killed their mother. Prior to her hometown launch of the novel at BookPeople on Tuesday, Jan. 20, Specht spoke with the Chronicle about research for the novel and writing about Austin. (For more of our interview with Specht, visit austinchronicle.com/daily/books.)
Austin Chronicle: How does it feel to debut at BookPeople, to be in front of a community you've worked with professionally for awhile, in a new way?
Mary Helen Specht: I mean, on a certain level I have to admit, like most writers, I'm an introvert, so I'm more comfortable by myself working on my writing. But that said, having spent a long time trying to get this novel finished, and to a place where it could go out into the world, I'm very excited to actually have real people reading it and to go and talk to people about the book. So, half excited and half terrified.
AC: I think that's normal. From what I can tell, you're a pretty liberal arts-minded person, so how did you decide Flannery would be a scientist?
MHS: Good question. First, I would say that I love doing research for my books. I feel like sometimes, especially with younger students, there's this misconception that empathy as a writer – like imagining characters that are unlike you – just comes from a kind of force of will. Like you just sit down and think really hard and all of a sudden you can understand other people's experiences. I think it's really much more about research and observation and looking at the concrete details of their daily lives. I just love that aspect of writing, so when I was developing Flannery, I started with the idea of place. A woman who comes to Africa not necessarily expecting to stay, but she's fallen in love – with Nigeria and with the people she's met there. But I also wanted to explore the idea of the white-savior complex in a way. Of coming to a marginalized place and having this idea of wanting to save it – which, on the surface, sounds great, but it's also very problematic, of course. I thought making her a scientist doing work in climate would be a way to kind of explore that tension.
AC: Speaking of research, I think anyone who's dealt with a family illness could relate to parts of your book – the pain in the story is palpable. Is this from personal experience, or was it something you had to research?
MHS: Thanks for saying that – what you said is precisely what I was hoping to do. I don't have Huntington's Disease in my family, but I was working initially with the sisters and with the idea of other diseases that I had more personal connection with. When I was driving to visit my parents in Abilene actually, I heard Charles Sabine on NPR talking about his experience having Huntington's in his family. His father died of it and his brother had been tested, and he was trying to decide whether or not he would be tested for the disease. Of course, there's no cure, so it's very fraught to decide if you want to be tested. I was really moved by the story but also by the universality. In HD, the children watch their parents die kind of slowly and horrifically from a disease they have a 50% chance of inheriting, and I felt like that's kind of a twisted and magnified version of what we all go through to some degree. You know, watching our parents age, whatever challenges are in our particular gene pool or circumstance, and seeing, in a way, our own futures. I felt like HD was an acute but magnified version of what I thought was the common human experience.
AC: I have to ask: Is El Gaton a twist on Barfly's? The fire escape staircase, sitting right above Burger Tex, I'm reading that thinking it's gotta be Barfly's, but the "wall of wine" threw me.
MHS: [Laughs] Yeah, basically I was thinking of Barfly's. What I did was imagine if Vino Vino had opened and taken over Barfly's. With fiction, I never feel tied down to being perfectly accurate, so I like to play with it. You know, capturing Austin was a lot harder than I thought it would be.
Mary Helen Specht will be reading from and signing copies of Migratory Animals Tuesday, Jan. 20, 7pm, at BookPeople, 609 Lamar. For more information, visit www.bookpeople.com.