Virginia Pye Interviews Caitlin Hamilton Summie, Author of “Geographies of the Heart”

Caitlin Hamilton Summie (photo by to Alexandra Summie)

In Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s beautiful debut novel, the heart of a family is peeled away, layer by layer, until we know each member intimately and with profound results. Sarah Macmillan cares deeply about the bonds that tie together the generations of her family. She’s a loving and attentive granddaughter, and it pains her to witness her grandparent’s demise as they age. Her relationship with her sister is complex and marred by misunderstanding. The two are mirror images, the same and yet different in important ways. Glennie is career minded and aloof from her family, while Sarah defines herself through her familial relationships. Her marriage to Al is strong and one of the many true pleasures of this story is how Al eases into her family until he’s the favorite grandson. This novel of four generations is rich in nuance and its warmth and generosity leave a lasting impression.

I’m delighted to ask Caitlin a few questions about Geographies of the Heart.

VP:  First of all, congratulations on writing this multi-layered, emotionally rich story. I loved so much about it, including, or especially, the portrayals of Sarah’s grandparents. Can you share a little about why you chose to populate the first half of the book with scenes that revolve around those wonderful, elderly characters?

CHS:  Thank you so much for your kind words, Virginia. I can’t tell you how special it is for me to hear that you cared for my characters because I care about them so much. I think the multigenerational aspect of Sarah’s family is key to understanding her, even foundational, so that to understand her, one needs to understand and know her grandparents and their relationships with her.

VP:  Loss plays an important role in this story in many ways. Sarah is deeply saddened by losing her grandparents, but also there’s a tragedy that takes place involving a neighbor child, and, significantly, a miscarriage that hits Sarah hard. Can you talk about why such losses belong at the center of a family story?

CHS:  I think the joys of this family’s life are clear, if not always explicit, but for Sarah, who is afraid of death and loss, the tension in the novel comes from her having to face goodbyes with her grandparents and also her deeply painful miscarriage. She has a view of family that she holds dear, and these losses don’t fit her vision. The losses drive her rising frustration with Glennie, who in some ways she loses as well. Sarah had always counted on her sister being there, and as her losses mount and her heartache grows, the fact that she doesn’t have Glennie beside her, or even available to her, becomes in some ways the defining loss of her life.

VP:  As you suggest, the story revolves around the troubled relationship between Sarah and her sister. In the end, both play a role their larger family in their own distinct ways, and with each other. Do you think it’s common for a relationship between sisters to be so charged and full of quiet, painful judgments?

 CHS:  I don’t know if it is common for sisters to have such a charged relationship, but I think it makes sense that these two sisters do. For a while, Glennie is staying away/hiding because of her eating disorder, and then their inability to speak to each other, to find the words back to each other, leads to simmering tensions and misunderstanding. I want to note that Sarah tries early on to speak to Glennie, but Glennie rejects her because she knows Sarah will address her eating habits. Glennie’s disease and need for control, and her absolute dedication to her work, cause as much distance as Sarah’s expectations and need for family life to follow certain paths. They become like magnets, repelling each other.

Click here to purchase

VP:  The women of the Macmillan family have a tradition of each adding a square onto a traditional quilt. Over the course of the novel, Sarah becomes a seamstress by profession, so she’s especially equipped to make her square. Her mother and her mother’s mother have done the same, and Glennie, will add one, too. I’m curious how you chose the idea of the quilt as a symbol of the connection between the generations of this family? 

CHS:  I felt that a patchwork quilt reflected these different and yet connected, even similar, women and the generations. Each square allows each woman her own voice and individuality and yet they are all tied together. Also, the way the family grows and changes is a coming together of different threads, different families. In the end, too, the way the novel is told is like patches—in chapters that are spread out in time, chapters that illuminate episodes. Also, this quilt is all about generation after generation of family, and I loved that it reflected history and family history, which are both important to this book.

VP:  Yes, it is a perfect metaphor for how a family’s history is carried from one generation to the next. You write, “It’s important to know how one’s story begins, especially in our family. Stories connect us; words are our banners and flags. We have no crest. We have the twining of our chapters.” Say more about that idea: how words and stories are passed down like DNA.

CHS:  I believe family stories are Family DNA in a way, that there are unspoken and spoken legacies families share, like depression but then also shared memories. The family memories and stories are, to me, as important as the branches in a family tree because they are part of the soul of a family and part of the soil in which a family takes root.

VP:  Faith is also very important to the Macmillans, and Al, who is a professor of Religion, is thoughtful and articulate about how his faith shapes his world view. It’s not often these days that Christianity is shown in such a warm and generous light in a novel. Your characters are church goers who aren’t extremists but use their faith to guide their behavior and understanding of the world. Their faith gives them great peace. I wonder how you thought to include this aspect of their lives? Was it important to you that they are believers?

 CHS:  My characters are kind, helpful, flawed people who are buffeted by multiple losses, some in quick succession, and their faith provides some solace and hope. They are good neighbors; they strive to be good friends and good family. They strive to forgive. Their faith inspires part of this, and their families inspire part of this, and then so do their hearts. I think of faith as one thread in their weave, as it is in mine.

VP:  The tone of this novel is notable. It has a lovely, calm pace. Plenty of things happen to these characters, so it isn’t that that novel lacks action. But the story seems to flow like a calm stream, not rushing, not urgent, not overblown. That was such a relief after reading too much fiction that’s pumped up and showy. I appreciated the quiet beauty of your sentences and the respect you show in the portrayals of the inner lives of your characters. I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson and Kent Haruf. The story takes place in Minnesota. Do you think the tone is somehow Midwestern in its understated qualities?

Virginia Pye

CHS:  Oh wow—to be compared to Marilynne Robinson and Kent Haruf! Thank you! How wonderful and humbling. It’s true that a lot happens, that the novel is often simmering and intense yet calm. I write really internal stories where the biggest plot twist is something like one character forgives another. I don’t think forgiveness comes with a bang sometimes. I think it can come after quietly looking each other in the eye. In my world, that is a calmer moment. To me, this novel is how life is—there are bumps and changes, sometimes big ones, but often they are more deeply felt by an individual than giant booms and craters that others can feel or see. But I don’t know that the tone derives from a Midwestern sensibility; I think it’s just the way I write, perhaps. I’m interested that you think some modern fiction is pumped up and showy. I have wondered occasionally if some novels are trying to keep pace with other mediums, like TV.

VP:  You’re known for your short stories and your earlier collection was also beautifully written. It makes me curious if you’re working on stories now, or are into a new novel? In either case, I know it’ll be a treasure, like Geographies of the Heart

CHS:  Thank you, Virginia. I appreciate your support and kind words so much! I have an edited and completed picture book that I might try to shop again. I also have worked on and off for eleven years on a middle grade novel that I might revise and submit again. But I have no short stories in mind, no novel for adult readers planned. I’ve worked for such a long time on this novel, and before that on the story collection, that I need a break. I have lived with these characters for nearly half of my life. I’m not sure what’s next. It depends on what voice I hear. For now, I am content to turn my free time and extra energy elsewhere—to house repairs and decorating, to reading, to time with friends and family.

Leave a Reply