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Perfect Silence

A conversation with a history-minded nephew this weekend brought to mind a novel published back in 2000, Perfect Silence by Jeff Hutton. At the time I was doing a web site called Nimble Spirit, and I reviewed the novel and interviewed the author for the site. The book is still available, in print and for the Kindle, and I still recommend it.


Interview: Jeff Hutton

Jeff Hutton’s debut novel, Perfect Silence, seamlessly blends the worlds of early baseball, the Civil War, nature, and spirituality. Hutton’s tale of Joseph Tyler, his father, Caleb, and Sarah Kingsley is one of reconnecting with life after suffering great loss and alienation. Jeff Hutton spoke with me by phone from his home in Connecticut.

Michael Wilt:  The author biography on the flap of Perfect Silence is somewhat scant: You are a landscape designer, 46 years old, and this is your first novel. Tell us a bit about your development as a writer.

Jeff Hutton:  For those who write, I think writing is something you do all your life. I really practiced at my writing in high school—I was a really big letter writer, something I think is now a lost art. I wrote music and songs through my college years in the seventies, which was another way of perfecting my writing. Writing lyrics forces you to make a point succinctly. I believe, too, that a writer thinks as a writer, so I never stopped thinking as a writer. I did end up writing some children’s books for my children when they were young, and started and put away the novel once or twice, and then just put it all away for a while and raised kids and got busy with things. But it was inevitable that I would start it again, which I did back in 1997, and remembered how much I loved it. So it became a labor of love until its completion. But I’ve been writing since I was in grade school, various forms of poetry and songs and a couple of early attempts at a novel.

MW:  Have you always had an eye on publication while you were writing?

JH:  I don’t think you can ever think “publication.” If you write for that you’re in trouble. But then again, as with writing songs, you write songs for people to hear, and ultimately you write words for people to read, so you hope for that eventuality. But I began to write again simply because I had to write, it was something I just had to do. And as it evolves, you want your friends to read it, and having been an avid reader all my life—the real “school of writing” I went to was reading—I felt that it might be considered for publication and it might be worth reading, so I decided to pursue that.

MW:  Several threads weave through Perfect Silence—the Civil War and baseball, the need for some sort of spiritual and relational reconciliation—upon a fabric, as it were, of landscape.

JH:  I tried to make the barriers between some of these things less clear. The physical world, the spiritual world, the world of pure joy, the world of love, these things are all interconnected, but in our lives we desperately try to separate them. In my fiction I try to mix them all up—I have stones that have patterns of stars in them, and I have lots of personification in nature. Whether I was trying to do this consciously or not I can’t really say, but I think that is a thread that goes through all the themes of the novel. Joseph in his dialogue and Joseph in his feelings doesn’t consciously separate and label everything as clearly as we all tend to do. All of these things are part of who he is  nature, the physical world, the spiritual world, this world of joy that he discovers through baseball, his grieving for his mother, his torturous relationship with his father. As complex as that sounds, it’s a very simple story, with such matters seen through Joseph’s eyes and with no real attempt to make them understood in any great, overriding way.

I intended for the novel to be simple from the start. I didn’t want it too complex, I didn’t want too many characters, I really wanted things to center on one person. I love novels like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and anything by Charles Dickens, where the story centers on an individual and through it all you can’t wait to see what happens to that single individual. That’s sort of where I thought I would go with this.

MW:  Given all these elements, what was your starting point?

JH:  I’ve been taken with the Civil War as long as I can remember, reading fiction and history about the Civil War. And I’ve been very drawn to the letters that came from the Civil War. The letters from soldiers are just incredibly, beautifully, lyrically written. They may not be grammatically correct or their spelling may be poor, but they’re just incredibly written. As I said, I think letter writing is a lost art. I’ve enjoyed writing letters over the years, and I’ve read a lot of historical letters, like Thomas Jefferson’s letters to his nephews, and I think that became a focus that drew me to the real human side of the war and the human side of the history.

My interest in baseball sort of evolved as my son started playing and I began coaching Little League. Eventually I discovered that the two intersected. There’s a sort of an unknown history, but it’s becoming more known, of baseball and the Civil War. When I discovered the intersection and saw some pictures of Civil War regiments holding baseball bats, I was just overcome by this feeling and couldn’t wait to write.

MW:  You’ve spent many years as a landscape designer, and manipulation of landscapes—clearing fields, making stone walls, marking out baseball fields—is a recurring element in Perfect Silence.

JH:  Part of landscaping is trying to put a personal stamp on the natural world in some way. In this story, Joseph’s father, Caleb, does it very literally. He really wants to define his world, and stone walls are his manner of definition. Later on I think Joseph does a similar thing, but his boundaries are the boundaries of the baseball field. He even says, “These are my stone walls.” So I think he finds his place in a world that’s too big for him to understand, both physically and spiritually, and it allows him to concentrate on something that is clear to him. I think Caleb does that when he withdraws from trying to come to grips with his wife’s death; building walls gives him a sense of control.

As a professional landscaper, I wonder what I’m doing sometimes, because we can’t replicate the natural world. We try to do the best we can, and sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, and sometimes we improve. There’s probably some deep philosophical thing there, but I’m not sure I can clearly define it. I also think that landscapes of baseball fields really were, and certainly are today, wonderful memories of a more rural America. Driving through the Bronx and then walking into Yankee Stadium is breathtaking. Even in the early twentieth century that was a big part of it. Baseball fields were built in urban centers, and during the Industrial Revolution people were moving to the urban centers and I think they sort of rediscovered a pastoral past, literally, with the ball fields.

I guess after twenty-two years of landscaping, everything I write has that at the base: my understanding, or lack of understanding, of where the landscape really lies in the whole realm of things.

MW:  As a historical novel, Perfect Silence must have presented some particular challenges for you as a writer in the late twentieth century.

JH:  For me, writing fiction is a lot like doing impressionist paintings. It presents my impressions of things. I do the best I can with that, and I hope I’ve done it effectively. And while I think, based on my reading and research, the book is pretty accurate, I can’t know that it’s, strictly speaking, a historical record. By the same token, one of my goals when I started writing this was to be able to take out the words “Civil War” and have the feel of it remain accurate regarding all these others wars we’ve fought. And baseball’s history often intertwines with the history of war. If you know the history of baseball, you know that guys like Ted Williams went off to fly bomber missions and came back and hit .355 the next year. I think Joseph’s experience coming out of the Civil War is not unlike the experience of people who came out of the Vietnam War. There is a sort of universality there; it needn’t be frozen in time, but should have a broader sense to it.

Writing historical fiction, or any fiction, speaks to that old writers’ rule: You write what you know. I’m not sure I agree with that at all. Certainly you write what you know to some degree, but there’s also the matter of personal impressions. I’ve never lived for a great deal of time in Virginia, I’ve never been in battle, so these are impressions of things that I’m interpreting for the reader. I just don’t think I agree with the rule, You write what you know.

MW:  With all its attention to war and baseball and relationship, Perfect Silence is a deeply spiritual novel. If you don’t mind, what might you share regarding your own sources of spirituality?

JH:  That’s been a big part of my life. My parents were churchgoers and I was involved with the church. I grew up as a Methodist and am a churchgoing Congregationalist now, but more important is that kind of thought process and kind of searching has always been a part of my life. I approached it more “seriously” at a younger age, and really in different way, but I’ve always thought that human life is spiritual, and that if you try to deny that, it’s harmful. So I don’t consider myself a highly “spiritual” person but I do find a lot of joy in many of the things that Joseph finds joy in, particularly in nature and also in family. I think one of my favorite spiritual times is on Sunday morning, in the two hours before we go to church, when my wife and I listen to classical music and read the paper together, and in the context of a work week and all the other things going on, that’s an incredible time for me. Church is good too, but I think those hours before church are some of the best hours in my life. And we do some hiking as a family, and for me those are all transcendent things. My own religious beliefs probably don’t matter, but I think the awareness of being part of something greater is important.

MW:  Who are your favorite writers?

JH:  I read a lot of fiction—that’s where I learned to write. I studied literature in college and back then John Updike and D. H. Lawrence were very important to me. I read a lot of poetry, and when I started writing seriously again I went back to reading Robert Frost, and his poetry was very helpful in writing this book. And I think whenever you’re involved with fiction, with writing words, looking at poetry is liberating. And contemporary writers—I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy and Rick Bass. There are a lot of writers I love to read, Hemingway, Faulkner, and I’m sort of working my way through the top one hundred novels of the century list. The one novel that I try to reread every five years or so is Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, one my favorite novels of all time, the ultimate spiritual novel.

MW:  What’s next? What are your plans as a writer?

JH:  I’m very excited about writing, always have been, and now I’m sort of off the mark and ready to go. I’m about halfway through a novel—I’m not exactly sure where it’s going—in a contemporary setting, and again I think it’s about someone trying to connect somehow with life again. To make it very brief, a guy’s sitting in his office and witnesses a car accident in which a mother and a son are killed, but the woman’s other son, who is also in the car, survives. At first the man just turns away from it, as something routine in his day, but it profoundly effects him after that and he searches out this boy who survived, and it evolves from there. I’m not sure yet about the primary theme, but that’s where it is. I hope to finish that this winter; that’s my goal.


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