Sigrid Heath talks about her new novel, Far Cry

Sigrid Heath

During my interview with the writer, actor and former Woodstock resident Sigrid Heath (now living on the island of Paros in Greece), I thought of Picasso’s famous line: “When art critics get together they talk about form and structure and meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.” 

Although the line is often construed as an impish poke at the pretense and immateriality of criticism, I think Picasso simply meant that artists don’t get to decide the meaning of their work. That is conferred by time and by cultural process. Meaning and relevance are happy accidents of good storytelling, of pursuing imagination to its last grains. The working artist rarely stops to ask what it means, only what comes next, what goes here.

The vivid world of Sigrid Heath’s Far Cry sets up shop in your head and doesn’t want to disperse when you are done. You are loathe to dismantle it by starting another book. Set in America immediately after the Civil War and during westward expansion, Far Cry is a strangely intimate and epic historical novel with many facets. 

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It’s a revisionist Western adventure, an exploration of the relationship between two fundamentally different women thrust together by violence and captivity. It’s a cross-cultural, non-verbal love story, a study of the atrocities of slavery and genocide and white supremacy examined in close quarters. It’s a brilliant rendering of landscape, period, and place. It’s the resonant, timely account of one woman, the narrator Sarah Byrd, shedding cultural blinders, dismantling the structures of her own considerable privilege, and, half-broken by it all, choosing to live in a bigger world, a truer truth. 

I asked Sigrid Heath what it all means. She said she really hadn’t given the matter much thought.

Martin Amis once said that for a period after he finishes a novel, tying his shoes is too daunting a task for him. We think of creativity as something that gives back more than it takes, but at a certain level of ambition — a novel, for example — it’s like it takes a bite out of you that doesn’t grow back. How is your recovery going? How Faustian was the bargain for you?

I’m still in recovery. I’m not myself yet. But, of course not. I’ve just completed something I’d never done before and was fairly convinced that I couldn’t do — often I thought I should give it up and just read and swim in the time I’ve got left and call it good — so I am not who I was before I started the book. 

It did take a bite. It took everything I had, actually, and that was my Faustian thing: I will give this everything I’ve got, and if it fails it will not be because I didn’t open my veins to make it as good as I can make it.

It was not an intellectual exercise. I built the characters in the way I was trained as an actor. My teacher taught Stanislavsky via Michael Chekhov, Anton’s nephew. One embodies all the qualities of a particular character. For certain sections, this had me down on my hands and knees on the floor howling. When language came from this, I got up, ran to the computer and wrote it. 

I paced the floor, being Sarah, being Elizabeth, being William, being Ruth, all of them, even those who didn’t speak in the book but who were spoken to. This required locating their emotions in my body and writing from how that affected my thoughts and the way I moved. 

I also sat down and wrote biographies of each of the major characters, but the language, the voices came from that deeper work. I miss the hell out of that intensity. It was particularly compelling during the last three years. I still hear their voices and have to tell them I’ve killed them off! I don’t know when or how I’ll be able to write something else. 

Surely that imaginative process must have been steered by research and immersion in period and primary history. How were you able to produce a viable period voice? 

I’m not sure how the voice evolved. It’s not far from my own, which was a conscious choice. So much of this project was challenging, I didn’t want to try for anything that didn’t come fairly naturally. And I wanted to be clear. A few characters speak in a bit of dialect — Irish Mary, Mary Small Wing, the trader Ruth.             

You have Southern roots, which might help account for your instinctive feel for the reconstruction south. But what about the Lakota and Native American culture and the western frontier? 

Having come of age in North Carolina and traveling a lot in the Southeast (the smell of pine straw; the rhythms of conversations; the lyricism that floats on the surface of all that ripping and tearing) gave me a feel for Sarah’s world. The other? I can’t really explain it. I loved reading Zane Gray as a kid, Jack London, Steinbeck, and a bit later, Willa Cather. I was a precocious and constant reader. I wouldn’t do homework, I’d read novels. I had dreams of pioneer life.

When I began serious work on the story, I wanted to immerse myself as much as possible in the lives of the Indians with whom Sarah and Elizabeth traveled. I added many, many books and articles and papers to what I’d read out of interest. With every detail I learned, I built that world in my imagination and entered it.

You prove yourself to be a wonderful landscape painter in Far Cry but what fascinates me is the micro dimension in the novel’s world — the feel for furniture and fabrics, the minutiae of daily living, the contents of rooms and little boxes, the tactility of 150 years ago. 

These small things we carry around in our lives, the look, smell, and feel of the rooms in which we breathe, are important to me. In imagining the world of the book, I drew floor plans of the houses. I researched what kind of stove these places might have, when people began to build bathrooms inside their houses and how they worked. I looked at endless numbers of photos of houses’ interiors, of furniture, of clothing. 

I think parochial historical fiction can project a naive sense of deprivation on the past. Oh, the poor sweet past with no vacuums. How did they ever? Your world is all about the sensual richness and sufficiency of things. It makes me feel like the deprived one.

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These little objects we gather have a talismanic quality in my life, so I assumed they would for Sarah and Elizabeth. This was a matter of instinct. And a very strong feeling that we are more similar to our counterparts of earlier times than we are different.  

Again, I was not consciously making that sort of comparison. I have less stuff than many people have, my peripatetic life demands I keep things fairly simple. But what I have — my mother’s pearls, a kitschy painted wooden duck I picked up in Mexico on a trip there as a child, a silk jacket that one of my Danish grandfather’s Merchant Marine brothers brought back from China in the 1920s, shells from many different beaches — I keep not so much for sentimental value, but because these things remind me of who I am.

Sarah’s awakening proceeds in a series of radical displacements and blows to head, from the one that takes out her eye to the one from her family’s former slave Ruth, a literal slap-in-the-face awakening to the truth of her childhood.  I sense there was already something about her, an out-of-placeness that made her a good candidate to be disabused of her culture’s myths and distortions and to take readily to other values. By contrast with Lizzie — a truly humane, feeling person of strong values but one locked in social structures — there’s something in Sarah that already seemed “ready to pop.” 

In some ways, marrying against her mother’s wishes, marrying a man like her degenerate father, in defiance even of her own sense of the right, was the beginning of Sarah’s separation from that life. But again, the development of those two characters was less a matter of intellectual design, of a juxtaposition of psychologies and learned values, as it was something more inchoate. 

I have always felt ‘out-of-place’, an outsider, an observer, and have been comfortable with this. From when I was first kicked out of college in 1965, I’ve always been ready to blow things up, take a hard left turn, immerse myself in something new and strange. Like moving to Greece, for example. 

While I had no outline, I had a timeline. How Sarah and Elizabeth and the others changed — or didn’t change — when faced with these actual events, was an experience of discovery more than design. 

Many will be tempted to think of Sarah as a proto-modern woman. That suggests that our age has a comfortable claim to racially inclusive and feminist values. Sure. Again, you steer way clear of any sort of condescending view of the past. 

I don’t have a condescending view of the past because I don’t see it as ‘the past’. In fact, I think that’s part of the flaw in the American character. Greeks of the classical age felt the presence of entities from the Heroic Age. Modern Greeks maintain certain rituals, certain ethics, that had been considered so important to ancient Greeks they were put under the purview of Zeus. 

Modern Lakota and other tribes fighting the continuing abuse of land that was ceded to them in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, and the one signed in 1851, and all those that came before and after and have been violated with no apology and no effort at reparation, do not see the past as ‘the past’. It’s now.

Black Americans who are in the streets because they’re tired of being murdered by whites are acting on the depredations of the past 400 years: the past is with us. It’s in our DNA, it’s time we bring it fully into our waking consciousness. Ruth forced this on Sarah and then asked her, ‘What you gonna do now?’ It’s a question we should all be asking ourselves. I believe it’s the hardest question of our age.

The first half of the book is a luminous mediation on earth, friendship, interdependence — I’d call it idyllic but for all the violence, blood, betrayal, and death. The second half is full of plot and social complexities, recognizing complicity and responsibility. Are you in or are your out? Of your time or outside it?

More than ‘are you of your time or outside it’ — as I don’t think Sarah thinks of herself in the context of her times, the immediacy of her lived life is more than enough to deal with — I think the greater question facing her has to do with complicity and responsibility. 

Late in the story, when she begins to see the evil of what we now call white supremacy (evolving out of European supremacy and justified by a militant Christianity) and how it’s visited upon people she loves who are Negroes, and people she loves who are Native, she begins to feel complicit and is tortured by it. She understands she needs to find a way to live ‘honourably’, as her partner Theo puts it, within this dilemma. 

Sigrid Heath’s Far Cry is published by Rhinebeck’s Epigraph Publishing, featuring interior linocut art by Carol Zaloom. It is available at local independent bookstores and on Amazon.