This month, Novel Bay Booksellers hosted a series of author signing sessions featuring local and regional authors. On July 25, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., author Margaret Hermes will be at the store at 44 N. 3rd Ave. in Sturgeon Bay to sign copies of its latest issue, The opposite of chance.
Hermes has a long-standing connection to Door County, visiting as a child in the 1950s. She grew up in Chicago with her four brothers and an aunt – a situation that she says led to her becoming a passionate reader and writer.
Hermès’ work has appeared in numerous magazines and literary reviews, and its history Guilt by association was a selection with honorable mention in the fiction category of the Prix Hal 2020.
In The opposite of chance, Betsy, fleeing the shock of her husband’s infidelities, embarks on a solo trip to Europe that changes her life in unexpected ways. Armed with a traveller’s phrasebook and a Swiss Army knife, she brushes against the possibilities of connection, almost entering the life stories of the strangers she meets.
I sent Hermes a few questions to learn more about her book, her writing style, and tips for aspiring creatives.
Grace Johnson (GJ): The opposite of chance is the story of a woman in search of her independence, freed from the influence of her ex-husband, who was inspired by your own solo travels after your separation. On your own travels, you have insisted on going it alone, even though people have offered to join them. Why was it important for you and your character to go it alone?
Marguerite Hermès (MH): Like my protagonist, I had been fairly protected when I was young. Growing up in a large family, I shared a small room with my young aunt until I left for college, then I got married three months before I graduated. I had never really been alone. I wanted to learn to sail solo and sent my main character on a trip to become a traveler rather than a tourist. I had learned that if you are traveling alone, every encounter is important. Each interaction can send you in a different and uncharted direction, geographically or internally.
GJ: You’ve been working on this book for 40 years. It’s a long time to sit with one character. Do you feel a little sad to see the end of Betsy’s story, or does it feel more like the completion of this period of your life?
MH: The joy of this book – and what made me want to come back to it after long pauses – was that I wasn’t confined by my main character. She doesn’t even appear in the alternate chapters. I have never encountered quite the same structure in a novel.
In the odd-numbered chapters, we see Betsy and the people she meets. In the even-numbered chapters, the reader learns what happens in her life once she has moved on. And the perspective shifts to that of these other characters. The reader not only meets – but sees the world from the point of view of – a Lebanese Muslim leaving for Mecca, a young Pakistani player who hides his profession, a French financier who grew up on a rabbit farm, etc.
And, in a way, the entire novel is more of a beginning of Betsy’s story than an end. This contrasts with my own backpacking adventure, which I think marked the end of a period in my life.
GJ: In a blog post you wrote for LitHub, you discussed the pact you made with a neighbor to complete work in your respective fields within a year. There was a moment that I really liked when you wrote, “… we realized that by not finishing anything, we were protecting ourselves from exposure; to have our work read, seen, judged. What advice do you have for other creatives who are nervous about presenting their work to the general public?
MH: Well if, like my friend and I, you are unable to complete anything then I would highly recommend that you make a deal with another with the same disease. If your acquaintances are not that distressed, still set a deadline for your work to be shown to someone else who is committed to pushing you to completion. But I wouldn’t recommend revealing your work in installments – the goal is to get a first draft or portfolio before submitting for review or review.
For those who have accomplished the task of getting to the end, I urge you not to take the rejection personally. Your story or your landscape may be beautiful, but – on that day at this exact hour – that blind editor or downhearted curator didn’t like it. Publishers – and directors and gallery owners – all have their own particularities, as well as moods, budgets and bad days.
Simply put, a stack of rejects doesn’t mean your work is without merit. It’s incredibly difficult not to be discouraged by rejections, but learning to see them as inevitable obstacles in moving closer to acceptances is crucial.
GJ: Can you explain the title of the book, The opposite of chance?
MH: Ah, the title. My working title was Back and forth. I like the unambiguous sharpness of this. It indicated that it was a travel book and that it contained both types of chapters. However, the editor and publisher felt it lacked spice.
I spent an absurd amount of time over the course of several months trying to come up with a title that would satisfy all of us. I kept a notebook handy to jot down the possibilities. Friends emailed their suggestions. None of these seemed to work for the novel as a whole. The title couldn’t just reflect Betsy’s experience; it had to include stories in which she did not appear.
Finally, I decided to reread the manuscript – while I was traveling (!), Just before the pandemic set in – to see if any internal phrases jumped out at me, and “the opposite of chance” did exactly. that. I like that these words contain both the notions of fate and randomness. It seemed to me to reflect the essence of the different encounters and their consequences.
GJ: I saw on your site that you write everything by hand (same here!). Do you think it makes a difference in your storytelling process? What is your favorite writing tool?
MH: I think the physical action of handwriting early drafts helps me express my thoughts, much like setting the gears in motion, and I lament that my granddaughters (budding novelists!)
My favorite writing tool is the Pilot Varsity blue ink fountain pen, but I can never get my hands on it when I’m ready to write, so I mostly use the wholesale soft feel BIC.
GJ: What are you reading now?
MH: Accompanied by a summer reading group, I painfully survey Dostoevsky’s book Demons. I can’t believe this novel is from the same guy who wrote The Karamazov brothers.
Read recently, and more satisfactorily, has been The giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel. Weighing under 200 pages, this is not your typical Mantel doorstop. Mantel makes the voice of the giant sing, whether he is telling the story of the little people or telling his plans for the money he makes by being presented as a monster. I wish he would never stop talking.
GJ: What’s one thing you want to leave our readers with? It can be a piece of wisdom, a joke, a daydream – the dealer’s choice!
MH: So tempting. I love humor and I welcome those instances where I manage to get it on the page. But I think the one thing I most wanted to convey to the reader of my novel was not Betsy’s growing independence, but a sense of empathy – something that isn’t always evident in Betsy herself. , as in her response to the childish Florida lawyer who turns out to have vulnerabilities she can’t imagine. To me, The opposite of chance is not just about a woman and the people she meets while traveling. It’s about trying to understand the circumstances – family, nationality, income, class, race, gender, religion, education, skills – that shape us so differently. As a writer, it was, first, trying to look into their eyes and, second, trying to share their vision with a reader.