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'Relative Strangers' a hit for local writer

This article first appeared in th St. Louis Beacon, March 2, 2012 - St. Louisan Margaret Hermes is on quite a roll. Her new collection of short stories, "Relative Strangers," has brought her critical acclaim from many of today's best writers and placed her among the top names in contemporary literature.

In addition to being an essayist and author, Hermes is a staunch environmentalist and some in the area may know her from her work with the Coalition for the Environment. "Relative Strangers," however, departs from her ecological work, as she presents 14 stories that feature a keen understanding of what makes people tick, but not click, in a dysfunctional America. Her stories, set in various places and times, are sprinkled with tender and provocative examinations of familial relationships.

"Relative Strangers" is the winner of the prestigious Doris Bakwin Award for 2011. The award recognizes women writers and supports the mission of small, dedicated nonprofit press. "Relative Strangers" beat out more than 130 entries for the prize.

Several common themes are reflected in this work. She skillfully examines our society by exploring topics we deal with every day: change, loss, alienation, frustration. A tone of dissonance brings the sadness of dysfunction to the surface. Underneath this are layers of hope, desire and plenty of dreams.

The stories collected in "Relative Strangers" highlight the notion of families and interpersonal connectivity as being essential to human nature. The reader can tell that Hermes is interested in how people from various classes, ages and backgrounds communicate. Every story is connected by contact with strangers, be they inside or outside of a family. By focusing this collection on the detachment and dysfunctional aspects of our society she mirrors the emotional malaise that often stunts personal growth.

"Transubstantiation" chronicles a 29-year-old marriage that is suddenly threatened by an attack on a passenger car by unruly teenagers. The story is tinged with loss, grief, sadness and love that establishes early on in the anthology that Hermes is an emotionally instinctive writer.

"For The Home Team," set in 1951 Brooklyn, makes an interesting correlation between rooting for a home team and how being away from home (your home team) can ruin a friendship. This happens to Daniel during a summer when he is sent to his uncle's farm in New Jersey and discovers a lifestyle very different than the one he left behind. The story deals with loneliness and separation on many levels, with Daniel losing touch with his friend Billy, his exile to a farm and his parents' marriage ending. All of this is told with smooth and intelligent prose.

"Meet Me" is filled with suspense centered on a box of matches. The drama unfolds when a young wife, Deborah, suspects her husband may be having an affair. Rob, her husband, suspects she is smoking again. This very brief story is just long enough to let the intense distrust percolate in the reader's mind.

In reading "Relative Strangers," the importance of survival clearly comes across. Hermes' rich characters never seem to find themselves in implausible situations. They often are in difficult situations, however, facing the challenges and obstacles of real people. This allows the common themes of distrust, isolation, loss and loneliness to permeate each story.

Many of these stories have been published before in different forms in various publications and anthologies. "Relative Strangers" draws these stories together in one anthology for the first time.

Hermes took time out to talk about the book, her writing process and the difficulties in reading your work aloud.

Where did these stories come from?

Hermes: Many of the stories sprang from something or some things real and, I hope, reflect real feeling, though all of them are fictions. For "Growing Season" I stole from the youthful reminiscences of assorted male friends over the years, but the story is no one's memoir. The structure has been painstakingly crafted to alternate between the two variations bigotry takes in this coming of age tale.

On the other hand, "Parings," a fable about isolation and the inability to communicate, sprang directly from a dream.

One of the stories, "Meet Me," was the result of my asking my partner to just pick the title for a story out of the air. I was feeling uninspired and fresh out of ideas, but apparently so was he. He said he couldn't think of a title and started to lay out plans for the afternoon. "Meet me--" he said and I said, "That's it!"

Change seems to be a major theme in each of the stories. Was there a big change in your life that caused this to be a recurring theme or catalyst?

Hermes: Some of the stories in the collection were written years ago, some recently, so there have been enormous changes in my life between stories. But I think change is what drives my interest in any story. In theater, I am not a fan of a one-person show; I want to see a character develop on the stage, not see them at the end of their development or hear about how they developed into what they are now. The change can be internal -- an epiphany -- or external. Ideally, for me, a story will have both.

In the title story, the most significant change comes about in how the protagonist views her family; in "Foreign Exchange" it's in how the protagonist views herself. With "The River's Daughter," the "action" happens offstage and the first-person narrator is left to reflect on the past, but though the past is over, it's still not static, because her view of it and even her relationship to her absent sister evolves over the course of the story.

Describe your writing process.

Hermes: Well, I start with paper and pen. Seriously. My first drafts are always handwritten. For me, there's something about the brain and the hand working in concert that helps the ideas take shape.

But I don't suppose that's what you meant by process. The first draft (often handwritten on the backside of drafts of other stories) gets typed into the computer. I edit as I type. I ponder the exact right word to go in the blank space that I left. I think some about the rhythm of my sentences. I'm interested in how they sound as well as in what they say. My stories take forever. Not the first draft necessarily, but the revisions. I go through umpteen revisions. And then I revise some more. That's actually my favorite part, the honing and polishing. The creating is more nervous-making -- the story could go off in an unexpected direction, could get away from me or just peter out. When I'm at the revision stage, I'm feeling fairly confident about what I've got and I get to tweak it.

When I'm working on something longer, I often use an old trick of stopping for the day when I feel I still have a lot to say so I'm not faced with a blank page and a blank mind the next time.

You are doing a series of readings for the book. As the creator of these stories do you have a different mindset for when you are reading them than when you wrote them?

Hermes: I probably have a different mindset even from one reading to the next. I remember going to a reading where the author confided that he was tired of reading his stories aloud, tired of his own voice. I'm not tired, I'm nervous.

What projects are you working on?

Hermes: I'm in the throes of revising a novel I've been working on since the end of the last century! It's a multigenerational story of a Slovak-American family. I'm also continuing to write short stories, and, lately, some very short stories. I enjoy being able to take on the persona or perspective of disparate characters for a few pages.

Rob Levy is a freelance writer. 

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