Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New Blog!

Hello to anyone who might be checking this blog. Please note that I'm now blogging at the site for my new novel, Stranger Here Below. Hope you'll come visit me there!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Keeping It Local in Phoenixville, PA

Last weekend I discovered a wonderful independent bookstore not far from Philadelphia, Wolfgang Books in Phoenixville, PA ( Thanks to store owner Jason Hafer for hosting me in the store on Saturday afternoon, and to the folks who stopped by to chat and have their copies of In Hovering Flight signed.

Phoenixville seems aptly named; it’s a former industrial town on the Schuylkill River that’s had a wonderful revival ( Wolfgang Books is located on an historic main street lined with restored buildings, all of them filled with beautiful restaurants and stores. Wolfgang Books is one of those stores where you want a copy of everything they have; Jason and his staff have clearly chosen—and displayed—their books with love. The space is glorious too. The day I visited the wide sun porch at the front of the store, normally a spacious reading room filled with comfy sofas, was set up for that evening’s reading by poet Elizabeth Bodien (

The store seemed part of something bigger happening in Phoenixville—the vital return to living and buying locally. As climate change worsens and fuel supplies dwindle, towns like Phoenixville and stores like Wolfgang Books are powerful reminders of the pleasures of getting out of our cars.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Back-to-School Blues

I think all writers give their characters qualities and life situations that they, the writers, wish they had themselves. For some reason the end of summer has been particularly hard for me to face this year. I’ve been wishing I were a bit more like Addie and Tom in my novel In Hovering Flight. I’d like to have more of Addie’s feistiness and more of her ability to convert her rage and despair into art (at least at times). I’d like more of Tom’s patience, and also just a bit of his musical talent. And I’d like to be more like both of them when it comes to all the demands of fall—the school supplies, the uniforms, the forms and reports that are due, the appointments that have to be scheduled.

I’d like to say well, I’ll get to those things when I can. On my daughter Anna’s first day of school a couple weeks ago, the sun was shining, it was beautiful out, it still felt like summer, and I did not feel ready to let summer go. If I were Addie or Tom, I’d have been painting or writing, or out in the field listening to bird song. In In Hovering Flight, Addie and Tom’s daughter Scarlet routinely shows up for the first day (or week) of school without the necessary supplies, the necessary uniform for gym, etc. But she survives. She’d rather sit in study hall and read anyway.

Alas, my daughter likes to have those things all taken care of well in advance. She is her mother’s daughter, I’m afraid. So she left that first day with a backpack filled with everything she’d need, and I resisted the urge to take a long walk on that beautiful morning and spent the time after she left getting ready for my own classes instead.

Maybe next year I’ll manage to be a little more like Addie and Tom.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Audubon at Home

I’ve registered our house and yard for Pennsylvania Audubon’s “Audubon at Home” program, and today is the day: I’m going after as many of those invasive non-native plants that are creeping all over our yard as possible. Get ready, English ivy and Virginia creeper (thanks to our friend Sharon Henks for helping me name some of the enemies). The Audubon at Home program is a way to consciously dedicate part of your home, office, school or park property as genuine habitat for birds. When you register, you sign a Healthy Yard Pledge to

--Reduce pesticide use
--Conserve water
--Protect water quality
--Remove invasive exotic plants
--Plant native species
--Support birds and other wildlife on your property.

It’s not hard, and it makes sense. It’s interesting, though, how ingrained some bad habits can be. Owning a home that depends on a backyard septic system has forced us to be more conscious and careful about our water use. But it was only six or seven years ago, not long after we moved to our current home, that our neighbor Patrice made me aware that the Sevin Dust I was instinctively reaching for as soon as some little bug started chewing on the leaves of my dahlias was maybe not such a good idea. I’d seen my parents use that stuff regularly on the plants in our garden growing up; they were of a time and place where you grabbed what the market had to offer to try to improve your chances of a healthy harvest. It did unnerve me a bit, reading the fine print about how long you needed to wait, after powdering a vegetable plant, to eat what grew there, and how carefully you needed to wash what you were about to eat. Now I’ve learned to try to grab Japanese beetles with my own fingers early in the morning. And, more often, I guess I’ve just learned to share.

I’ve tried, through the years we’ve lived here, to plant mainly native species. There are nice native plant sales in our area each year; a favorite of mine happens every May at the Wildland Conservancy’s Poole Wildlife Sanctuary in Emmaus, PA ( But now it’s time to put some real energy into getting rid of species that crowd out the good stuff (good, for instance, for the birds). My husband is less than supportive of this part, since he loves anything that’s green and thinks it all should stay. So I’ll be fighting this battle on more than one front. Wish me luck.

The longing for perfection—the perfect lawn, the perfect garden—is there in most of us, and it’s hard to fight sometimes. In the case of our yard and garden, I’m helped here by my own laziness, or maybe more accurately, my desire to do other things besides pruning and trimming and constantly mowing with my free time. But that longing for perfection always bears scrutiny. It’s a uniquely American thing when it comes to the perfect lawn, as the writers of a number of interesting books in recent years have pointed out. (For a terrific review of some of these books by Elizabeth Kolbert in the July 21, 2008 New Yorker, go to

It’s time to seek another kind of perfection now—one that has to do with the survival of living species on earth, ourselves included. Some consciousness-raising about our own backyards is a good place to start. Check out the national Audubon at Home program at, and spread the word.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Only Connect (Me)

In Jennifer Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep, a central character, Danny, who has “304 Instant Messaging usernames and a buddy list of 180,” has rented a satellite dish for a trip to Europe for guaranteed cell phone and wireless Internet access. He can’t bear being disconnected. Egan writes

His brain refused to stay locked up inside the echo chamber of his head—it spilled out, it overflowed and poured across the world until it was touching a thousand people who had nothing to do with him. If his brain wasn’t allowed to do this, if Danny kept it locked up inside his skull a pressure began to build.

I love The Keep for a lot of reasons—its updated metafictional gambits and its surprising and moving ending to name two—but one of the things I love the most about the novel is the character of Danny, the way he’s arrogant and laughable and pitiable, and at the same time, eerily recognizable: eerily like me, eerily like a lot of us, I’m guessing, in his terror when he isn’t connected, isn’t wired, when his brain is locked up inside his own head.

As I write this, I am, for some reason, without wireless. Blame Verizon. My daughter is playing in her room with a friend, and I have an hour or two before I’m sure to be needed (“We’re bored”), and I’ve decided it’s time to get back to my blog.

But I can’t. That ought to make me happy, if you believe all the things I say to other people and to myself, about the distracting uselessness of blogging, of Facebook, of Twitter (not that I’m up to Twittering yet). And yet, here I am, unable to blog, and instead of seizing such a moment of potential restfulness, focus, lack of distraction, I’m feeling really jumpy.

I haven’t even wanted to put anything on the blog for a while now. I’ve been taken away from that, for good and bad reasons. Too busy with work and home life, trying to concentrate on another book, carving away at a couple short story drafts. Lately, though, I’ve wanted to come back to the blog; I’ve felt a strange sense of neglecting my novel In Hovering Flight, and maybe its readers, by not posting things here.

Mostly this feeling came, I think, from talking with the members of a book group here in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania who recently read In Hovering Flight. Several members of the group are nurses on the neurology ward of a big area hospital, and man, they told hair-raising stories about, among other things, doctors who lull families into thinking that their brain-damaged relatives are going to recover.

I love nurses. I love their clear-sightedness about medicine, their humor, their independence, their bluntness. Someone needs to write a book about them, I told them—a book about “the night shift” (a favorite topic that night). Right, they said—but truly about them, not another TV series glorifying the doctors.

Our conversation wasn’t as far afield from the issues in In Hovering Flight as this might sound. We got to questions about life support, and what doctors say to families, from a very specific point in the book: Addie’s decision not to treat her cancer when it returns. The honesty of all the people in that group took my breath away, but none more than that of our host that evening, a woman who’s had chemotherapy, radiation, and a double mastectomy and who knows, without a doubt, that if her cancer comes back, she will go through none of those horrors again.

It was the first time anyone told me that I’d gotten Addie’s cancer, and her feelings about treatment, exactly right. I felt such gratitude to her, and to all the people in this group, for their willingness to confide their deepest feelings and fears about their own well-being and the impact that has had, and will have, on their families.

I’m still waiting for the picture of all of us that our host’s husband took that night. When it arrives, I’ll post it here. Suddenly, it seems, I have things I want to say about In Hovering Flight (and other things) again.

I’m not sure how to reach people with this question, but I’m genuinely curious and would love it if others would weigh in with their thoughts here. Is Addie’s decision to forego conventional treatment when she’s diagnosed with cancer a second time understandable? Selfish? How do you decide? If you’ve read the book and thought about this, please let me know.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Being Economical

I’ve done a couple readings recently at colleges in my area, and I’ve spoken to some terrific students—first at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA, then at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. The DeSales students were advanced creative writing types, working with Juilene McKnight and my friend Steve Myers. We had dinner together, all of us, before the reading, and man, did those students ask good questions. Really pointed ones—and behind a lot of them was a very understandable anxiety. How will I do this thing I love to do (making films, writing poems, being a good old-fashioned journalist) and manage to live, now, in this economic mess?

Similar questions and anxieties at Lehigh, where I spoke to students in my friend Ruth Knafo Setton’s creative writing class. I kept trying to argue that they shouldn’t rush, shouldn’t feel that they have to hurry up and publish and make a name and blah, blah, blah. And I fear that’s how I must have sounded to them (“blah, blah, blah”). Why shouldn’t they be hungry, and impatient for it all? And why shouldn’t they be anxious?

Anyway, there was lots of good talk about writing too, and lots of good questions about In Hovering Flight. I’m grateful to Steve Myers for making me aware, when he introduced me, of this wonderful line from one of Emily Dickinson’s letters: “I hope you love birds, too. It is economical. It saves going to Heaven.”

And also for reminding me that a mistle thrush shows up in one of his poems, and so sending me back to read the beautiful work in his book Memory’s Dog. The mistle thrush appears in a poem about Oxford called “At Magdalene”; here’s an excerpt:

Inside, everything’s in the making:
boy sopranos practice Britten,
hidden from us by a thick oak door; organmaster warming
in the chapel—several measures of a hymn,
opening strains of “Like as a hart,”
that Howells anthem.
Mistle thrush beginning at the window, calling in a storm.

There’s a story behind the mistle thrush showing up in In Hovering Flight, as the bird Tom watches as a boy, in the hedge outside his school. Originally I’d made it a redwing thrush, but then Tom Phelan, my generous consultant on all things Ireland, told me a redwing wouldn’t likely appear as far north as Falcarragh. So much for my fevered online searching. “Nests in hedges,” my notes say; a reference to the “Royal Society for the Protection of Birds” also appears there, as do several lists of beautiful names, like willow warbler, stonechat, whinchat, ring ouzel. And then some fabulous place names: Muckish Mountain, Inishowen, Errigal, Ballywhoriskey. Too bad I couldn’t use those.

Interestingly, mistle thrush was first on my list of possible birds; why did I opt for the redwing instead? Maybe something about “nests in hedges”? In fact I can’t remember. There’s so much I can’t remember about the writing of In Hovering Flight, which is related to what I kept trying to tell these students. I let myself go down mysterious paths; I changed course many times. The book is better for it, I think. But some of the students I talked to seem to feel that they just don’t have the luxury of time for lots of tangents, lots of wandering around on the page, in their own heads. I do understand the urgency they feel, but I also think it’s kind of a shame.

Had I not spent an afternoon at the site of, among other organizations, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (, I’d have never had the pleasure of imagining my character, Tom, as a boy, repeating those glorious names to himself over and over. I think writerly tangents are economical, in the long run. Like loving birds.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Paradoxes of Caring

I thought I'd let a piece that I wrote for any interested TwitterMoms do double duty and post it here. On the heels of the holidays, this meditation on caring feels pertinent to me again. I know it showed up on a few mothering/parenting-related blogs, but I hope it's okay to post it here as well. --JH

A brief piece in the November 21, 2008 issue of The Week describes my novel In Hovering Flight as, among other things, a consideration of “the paradoxes of caring.” The more I’ve thought about that phrase the more apt it’s come to seem to me.

Addie and Tom, two of the novel’s central characters, care passionately about birds and about the natural world, and also about the work they do in connection with this passion for the environment—Tom as an ornithologist, Addie as a bird artist and, eventually, an environmental activist. They also care deeply about their daughter Scarlet, the book’s other important character. For Tom, there’s a healthy balance and a meaningful connection between his various loves. But for Addie, the people and things she cares about often seem at war with one another. When Scarlet is a baby, Addie finds it nearly impossible to get to her blind in the woods and sketch, much less do any painting. When Scarlet is older and more independent, Addie’s despair over overdevelopment and environmental degradation often pulls her away from her work. Later, her own declining health interferes. So there’s one paradox of caring: for the mother in this book, the various people and things she cares about seem to interfere with this other important thing, her work as an artist.

When I began thinking about what I might say about motherhood and the writing of In Hovering Flight, I thought, initially, that I would write about that term “hovering” in the title. “In hovering flight” is actually a phrase from Roger Tory Peterson’s description of the song of the bobolink in the fifth edition of his Birds of Eastern and Central North America (“Song, in hovering flight and quivering descent, ecstatic and bubbling, starting with low, reedy notes and rollicking upward”); these are lines that Scarlet, who grows up to be a poet, uses when she tries to convince her father that words are necessary to capture the beauty of bird song. But these days the term “hovering” is being used in another context, to refer to the overly protective (and damaging) involvement of so-called “helicopter parents.” In a review in the November 17, 2008 New Yorker Joan Acocella discusses several recent books on “the rise of overparenting”—or, “hothouse parenting,” or “death-grip parenting,” or, in Acocella’s terms, “hovering parenting.”

Isn’t it ironic, I imagined writing as I reflected on motherhood and my novel, that that word “hovering” appears in the title of my novel, where I deliberately set out to portray two parents who are the antithesis of smothering, overprotective parents. As an adult, Scarlet sees the debt she owes her parents, who have taught her to love and value her work, however little the world might value it—an important lesson for a young woman who aspires to a life as a poet. She describes a childhood and early adolescence of warmth and freedom, “everything as safe and sure as Eden.” And when she is ready to leave the nest, she flies north, to Maine, with the confidence that, surely, only a child of hands-off, anti-hovering parents like Addie and Tom could possess.

But of course that’s only telling part of the story. Actually, Scarlet leaves home before she has finished school, choosing to spend her last year of high school at the home of her parents’ friend Cora—away from her mother’s despair over her work and over the planet’s decline, and also away from Addie’s increasingly public activism. And here I can see something else in what I was doing, in writing about Scarlet and Addie: I was exploring the possibility that a mother’s passion for her own work, or a mother’s own passions in general, might eventually alienate her from her own child.

My daughter Anna was three when I began working in earnest on In Hovering Flight. She was, in very real ways, my inspiration for the young Scarlet, and my memories of the elation, and also the profound exhaustion, that I felt during her first months were still vivid, and so shaped my writing about Addie’s first months with baby Scarlet. What I didn’t completely own up to in my initial thinking about this piece were the ways in which In Hovering Flight enacts my own personal paradox of caring: for my family (my daughter and husband, and now too my own aging parents), for my teaching, for my work as a writer. The effort to balance all of these is my struggle—and, I know, also my gift—every day. I hope for the ability to hold all of this together as gracefully as writer Scott Russell Sanders, who says in an interview published in the September 2008 Writer’s Chronicle

Like any writer, I struggle to preserve the mental space necessary for creative
work. But I’m not willing to abandon the students and others who depend on me,
I’m not willing to exploit my friends, and I’m not willing to sacrifice the
people I love in order to produce a more nearly perfect book. So I go on
struggling to make my imperfect art in the midst of relationships and

The Quakers say that work is love made visible. That’s what I wanted to give to all my characters: work that, for them, is their love, their deep caring—for life, for the planet, for one another—made visible. But I realize now that in having Addie struggle, and at certain points fail, in the effort to resolve the paradoxes of caring, I was being a bit more realistic. When you care that much, and for that many, it isn’t going to be easy—for you or for the ones you love.