The events of Clare Beams’ debut novel, The Illness Lesson,start with the founding of a school for girls in 19th-century New England, but the novel begins just before that with an omen. A flock of mysterious red birds visits the Massachusetts estate of Samuel Hood for the first time since the collapse of his previous social experiment decades earlier, a failed agricultural commune called the Birch Hill Consociation. Some find the birds beautiful, but to Samuel’s daughter, Caroline, their “shape might be a red so bright and so unexpected, so unlike the colors of her life, that it held a violence.” Samuel is a noted idealist in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he, Caroline, and his acolyte David live off the income of his Transcendentalist essays. The girls’ school is an attempt to prove his latest hypothesis: that girls can be ushered into the world of ideas as easily as boys.
Clare Beams’s story collection We Show What We Have Learned was published by Lookout Books in October 2016, and is currently a finalist for the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ecotone, The Kenyon Review online, Willow Springs, and elsewhere, and has received special mention in Best American Short Stories2013 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV. She was a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, and the 2014 Bernard O’Keefe Scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She has an MFA from Columbia University and lives with her daughters and husband in Pittsburgh.
Hilary Leichter spoke with Beams over email about her story “The Drop,” appearing in Issue 12 of The Common.
Hilary Leichter (HL): Where and when do you write?
Clare Beams (CB): These days, wherever and whenever I can. I have a daughter who will be four in March, and a brand-new daughter who was just born in December; my first book came out in October, and I’m teaching in a new place this term. So right now I have to pull my minutes for writing out from all the minutes of nursing and grading and trying to convince my older daughter she should eat something besides macaroni and cheese, and put on her pants. I think most of us are always fighting for those writing-minutes, in one way or another.
The Rituals With Which We Stud Our Lives: An Interview with Clare Beams
The church ladies were having coffee in the living room of the Baker house when Martin Williams delivered his parachute to Lily Baker, his bride. Only some of the church ladies could really have been there, but in retellings they all claimed seats. They allowed one another this. A natural desire, to be part of the story.