The Interview | With Brian Hall

Catching Frost's cadence

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Mundow
April 6, 2008

Brian Hall's 2003 novel, "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company," re-imagined not only the Lewis and Clark expedition but also the inner lives of its participants, Anglo and Native American. "Fall of Frost" (Viking, $25.95) penetrates even deeper, this time into the life of Robert Frost, which unfolds as a graceful, mesmerizing switchback from the poet's 1962 visit to Moscow as the Cuban missile crisis looms. In addition to other novels, Hall is the author of "The Impossible Country," one of the most perceptive books written about the former Yugoslavia. He spoke from his home in Ithaca, N.Y.

Q. How long did your immersion in Frost last?

A. About 2 1/2 years of reading all the letters, all the poetry, nearly all of the secondary material. I would study a letter from 1942, a poem from 1903, and another letter from 1916, and see that Frost was mulling over the same issues, using the same words. That's one reason the novel is chronologically jumbled. I wanted to show that a writer lives his/her life through recurring words and ideas that often come years apart. So I juxtaposed widely different parts of his life where you see a phrase from 1938, say, cropping up in a different context in 1962.

Q. Once you chose that structure, did you chart it methodically?

A. I come from a science background and tend to be an overplanner, but I didn't want to overplan this. I have the chapters taking us through Frost's trip to Russia and his death shortly afterward, about a dozen of those, fairly evenly spaced throughout the book. Interspersed with that, in a vague chronological progression, we hear about his childhood, move to the Derry, N.H., years, to England with Edward Thomas, all the tragedies with his children. Frost's unusual, I think, in that his bedrock impressions are not his childhood, but instead the Derry years. As he moved out of suicidal despair following [his son] Elliott's death, he found the freshness of perception that normally exists in childhood; the world around him had an extra gleam. Most of his really great poems come out of that period.

Q. What does the mission to Moscow reveal about Frost?

A. His fascination with being the prophet/poet who visits the emperor [Nikita Khrushchev] to seduce him into granting a personal wish that will also, incidentally, save the world. An early example of Frost playing that role is when he goes to meet the president of Amherst College, and I included that to show how long the idea percolated in him. That scene also reveals Frost's resentment toward powerful people. He wasn't an abstract political philosopher. He always sought an intimate, ardent communion with other people, and in that moment - to him - of overflowing kinship, people invariably disappointed him. That's one reason he could be so prickly.

Q. Not just prickly, it seems.

A. Frost certainly had this reputation, dating from the [Lawrance Roger] Thompson biography, of being a monster. But it seems that after an explosion of anger he would often make real amends. Another common perception is that he [presented himself as] a farmer. But if you go back to the early years of his fame - 1915 to 1925 - he consistently said "I only play around at farming." Reporters imposed this rough-hewn, granite-faced image on him. I was happy to find that out.

Q. Why did you include a description of yourself visiting the Frost Homestead?

A. In the novel, I mention the Younger Poet, the Biographer, the Critic, and so on, and I examine the somewhat queasy relationship between a great figure and his followers. I wanted to make it clear that I am one of them. I'm picking over the remains as much as anybody, if not more. I also included that chapter because the Derry farm was the closest thing Frost had to a piece of native ground, and it seemed so painfully appropriate that it was later literally poisoned as an automobile graveyard. I wanted to bring us to the final stage when new soil is trucked in to that old ground, and I was the only available figure to be a witness to that last transformation.

Q. How did you achieve this enticing cadence?

A. This is a book about lyric poetry, and I'm not a lyric poet. So what could I do in prose that, even in a vague way, mimicked some of the effect of lyric poetry? Having short chapters is not enough. Breaking up the chronology forces the reader to approach the chapters in quasi-isolation; in a way, it's as though they were a collection of interrelated poems.

Q. Why did you include an author's note and end notes?

A. To make it clear that this book is very close to being a biography and that I prefer not to depart from the facts. I had a good deal of elbow room in my Lewis and Clark novel, because the gaps in our knowledge of them are enormous. But Frost is so well documented that I thought I could write virtually the entire book from verifiable material. However, if I could somehow control readers' responses, I would have them not look at the notes until they've finished the novel.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at>

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