Because We Want Control: An Interview with Melanie Finn

The Gloaming centers on an accident – a woman, Pilgrim, swerves her car to avoid hitting a dog that has run into the street and instead strikes and kills three children waiting for the bus. Recently divorced, her life out of her hands and feeling the weight of whispers all around her, Pilgrim runs away to Africa, only to find the accident haunting her even there.

It’s intense, raw, a story less about moving on with ones’ life than learning how to live aware of life’s messy, connective tissues. And of course, it’s a testament to the striking writing of its author, Melanie Finn. I got the chance to ask Finn a few questions, about the story, her connection to Africa, and how a person should deal with the weight of their own actions:


Kati Heng: You were born and raised in Kenya until age 11. In what ways do you (or don’t you) feel like you belong to the country? Does it still feel like home?

Melanie Finn: You always belong to the place where you were born and raised, don’t you think? Those first years of experience and exploration are so intense and sensory. I can still see the places I loved best with complete immediacy – the wild, rugged landscape of Tsavo with its red earth and herds of elephants; the tidal pools and empty sand beaches of Malindi; my own suburban neighborhood which still retained pockets of thick, wild woods. This has all changed now: my childhood home is a shopping mall and we know what is happening to the elephants.

Kenya shaped my psychologically, too. The racial conflict was very complicated for me. This was the 1960s, the post-colonial decade, and there was a lot of blatant racism, maybe a bit like the South here? Jokes and rules that separated blacks and Asians from whites – these make no sense to children, because children instinctively see everyone as the same. We learn to be racists. Isn’t that a terrible thing to teach a child? Parts of my first book, Away From You, were my attempt to understand what I had learned and fought to unlearn.

I’m nearly 52 now. I’ve lived mostly in the US for 40 years. I definitely feel American in my political and social outlook. I’ve lived in New York City, New Mexico, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles, the Mojave Desert and now Vermont, so I have seen different places and experienced different perspectives. I love that people can move so freely here, especially when you’re young. In Europe, people tend to stay very close to where they grew up or move to one city and stay there.

KH: There’s a line early in the novel about how the only way to truly understand Africa is to know it can never be understood. Can you talk a little more about this?

MF: The last time I was living in Tanzania I was coming back from the airport and I saw a donkey in the middle of the road. It had been hit by a car, its back was broken and it couldn’t move out of the way. It didn’t seem to understand what had happened and just kept braying and trying to stand up. I drove on to a police station a little further ahead, and asked if they could put the donkey out of its misery. The whole conversation became about how I’d hit the donkey and I’d have to find the owner and compensate him (and probably the cops, too). In the end I just drove away. It was the most beautiful evening, I could see the white pudding bowl peak of Kilimanjaro and the sky turning pink and that poor bloody donkey slowly dying in the road. You can waste a lot of time trying to make sense of incidents like this.

KH: The Gloaming revolves around an accident that leaves three young children dead. Even though everyone understands this is an accident, the characters struggle to find who or what must hold the blame. Why do you think there is such uneasy in allowing an accident to be just that – an accident?

MF: Because we want control – such a Western perspective. I remember a young mother whose daughter had just died as a result of giving her some bush medicine and she said, “Shauri ya Mungu.” It’s God’s Will. And I was amazed – it wasn’t God’s will at all, it was a bad decision by the mother. In the West we want to see cause because then we can determine blame. But in many places in the developing world, blame is pointless. The young mother poisoned her own child because she couldn’t get proper medical care. She had no transport, no money, and the nearest clinic was a three days’ walk. I’m not sure where the line for accountability should be, but I’m pretty certain that in our litigious culture we’re way too far on one side of it!

KH: One of my favorite lines is when the police officer working with Pilgrim acknowledges and allows her to cry for herself and her place in this tragedy. The line hurts, though, because, in a sad way, it felt like Pilgrim will never be able to allow herself separation from her role in the accident. Do you think she will ever move past her guilt, shame, heartbreak? Should she?

MF: No. I think there are experiences we never move past. We incorporate them into who we are – loss, grief, but also moments of great beauty and revelation. According to the playwright Arthur Miller, “Everything we are is at every moment alive in us.” Pilgrim did her best to move on in a way that was constructive and brave, but she could never really leave the shadow of the deaths of the children. I don’t think anyone could.


KH: In your life, how have you found ways to move past feelings of guilt and shame without resorting to, as Pilgrim does, leaving?

MF: Oh, I’ve left plenty, I’ve done plenty of running. But, as a friend said, “No matter where you go, you open the door and there they are, your problems, smoking your cigarettes and drinking your beer.” Eventually, I ran out of room and began the great “unshucking” – you just have to discard mental baggage that isn’t helping you and is just neurotic.

KH: I imagine this book must have been very emotionally trying to write. How did you balance your day and the writing to combat the dark?

MF: Most writers I know slip out of their writer’s mind fairly easily. We’re so desperate to turn off the computer and get the hell out of the room. I spend as much time outside as I can, I run, I hike, I ski. I would say, though, that as a mother, it felt almost pornographic to be writing about dead children, having to inhabit that dark, dark reality and unfathomable grief. I definitely hurried through some parts of the writing, and I often questioned my role as a writer – this sort of magician who creates reality. It’s like reading gruesome psycho killer books – who would create that kind of suffering and why? And yet, I was conjuring this terrible, terrible event.

KH: Finally, tell me about how you keep your books. Are they on shelves? Are they alphabetized? What rooms are they in? What books have you had since you were 15? What books are you constantly re-reading? What’s on your nightstand right now?

MF: My books are in no particular order but I like to have them out where I can see them, on shelves, on pretty much every surface of the house, in the bathroom, by my bed. I like non-fiction, I read very few novels, I love good detective fiction. Poetry I read over and over again, my Yeats is thick and worn from being read in the bath for nearly 30 years. The one book I reread over and over again is Madame Bovary. Flaubert nails the pathos of characters who are utterly unlikeable – vain, selfish, cowardly: e.g. most of us, most of the time.

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