Literary Hub

Walking Through the Woods of Midtown with Jessica Francis Kane

A Fake Phone Booth

Jessica Francis Kane and I are standing at a fork in the path around Central Park’s pond, unsure which direction to go, when a scruffy-faced white man with a walkie talkie asks “Can I help you?” It’s one of those wonderful New York City moments when the city seems to offer exactly what you’re looking for, in this case a mobile information kiosk.

Kane and I have met to discuss her fantastic new novel, Rules for Visiting, and she suggested we take a short tree walk through the park in keeping with the novel’s main character, May Attaway, a gardener with a deep knowledge of trees. The problem is, we’re not sure where the walk begins, and Kane—murmuring “remember when we made fun of our parents for not being able to work the VCR?”—is unable to find the photo of the route on her phone. So we ask the helpful stranger.

“I scout locations for films,” he tells us. “And I’ve never heard of that one. But did you know there are eight phone booths in the park? Or six? Definitely six. At least.”

Before I can ask about his slippery math, he points out a phone booth the director had brought special to this spot because none of the six he found fit the aesthetic of the show they’re shooting. As we watch, an actress pretends to have an argument on the fake phone. Later, the scout tells us, she’ll faux vomit in the phony trashcan next to it.

Before she does, Kane finds the map on her phone and determines that we’re actually on the tree walk, and that it takes us right through the film shoot. The helpful scout personally escorts us past the actress and phone booth, and our jaunt through the woods of midtown begins.

Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)

Rules for Visiting opens à la Dante, with the novel’s protagonist at age 40, unsure of her next steps and burdened by the weight of her past—grief, regret, depression. May Attaway lives with her elderly father in the house where she grew up, the same house where her mother died at an early age. She’s a gardener at a university, and follows a fairly solitary routine each week, month, and season, day in and out. Though this sounds static, May’s a sharp, erudite, and funny presence, and Kane introduces her with the ear of a poet.

After following the pond’s shoreline, Kane and I end up at a tall, slightly crooked tree with many small branches jutting from its thick limbs. A gray placard labels it a Pin Oak. I consult my New York City Trees book, which tells us it’s so named because those many thin branchlets resemble pins. “I think May would like that,” Kane muses.

Though politics isn’t a direct factor in the novel, the current cultural moment looms over it—how do you feel close to friends whose values have shifted radically from your own?

Names are important to the character, and presented an early way into her voice. Kane tells me how, when working on the book at the MacDowell Colony, she walked into town to try to get her bearings. She ended up sitting by the riverbank. Two boys came along and she asked them what the river’s name was but they didn’t know. “I thought how sad it was,” she said, “that they don’t know the name of the river that runs through their own town, but then I thought of how many things I don’t know the name of. I had just had a baby, and when you have a baby you’re naming the world for a new person. I wanted to know what things were called, so I started paying more attention.”

Like her protagonist, Kane loves plants and the natural world. She spent part of every summer with her grandmother in Connecticut, toiling in her garden. Years later, when Kane lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, she kept a column called “Notes from the Lawn,” about her first attempts at cultivating her own garden. It was there that she noticed the generally terrible landscaping choices made in the suburbs. The term “arbotchery,” which Kane coined to describe the maiming of trees around electrical wires, made its way into May’s observations. So in some sense, Kane has been writing into this character for years.

The weight of that time comes through; May is a living, breathing, complicated presence to be around on the page. She has the heft of a life lived, and we meet her in medias res.

Fortnight Friends

Before Kane arrived at May’s voice, she’d developed a plan for the plot. Kane had read books in which women come together as friends, typically for a vacation or weekend getaway, and at the end problems are solved and the characters feel more connected than ever. Rules for Visiting works in opposition to this kind of narrative. Instead of coming together, May visits four of her oldest friends one-by-one, and these stays aren’t always easy for guest or host. Instead of falling back into rapport with her friends, May is very aware of the distance that has grown between them over time, and isn’t always sure how to bridge that divide.

“I wanted it to feel real,” Kane said. Friendships change, and while the people who were close to us when we were in middle school may still be important in our lives, our relationships will not be the same. Children disrupt things. Marriages and jobs do too. Decisions about where to live might make it harder to keep up. Though politics isn’t a direct factor in the novel, the current cultural moment looms over it—how do you feel close to friends whose values have shifted radically from your own?

That moment directly influenced Kane’s thinking about the book’s conclusion. “This book, like most of my other work, was headed in a depressing direction, but after the 2016 election I just couldn’t do it,” Kane told me as we walked. “We need more happiness in the world. I wanted to see if I could get to a happy ending but have it feel earned, not falsely happy.”

May refers to her hosts as “fortnight friends,” in honor of how women in Jane Austen novels often stayed with one another for a couple weeks. The book is dedicated to Kane’s own fortnight friends, one of whom she’s known since the age of four. Three of them will accompany her on a West Coast leg of her book tour. “I’m lucky—they did some of the heavy lifting of keeping our friendship healthy during years I wasn’t able to.”

It is just as hard to do what Penelope does—she’s wily, she raises a son—as it is to have adventured like Odysseus, but Western literature has not valued that female experience.

Standing in the sunshine admiring a Sweetgum, I admit that I’ve neglected many of my old friends, in part because where I once might have written an email now I post to Facebook, which isn’t the same. Kane agrees. “There’s a performative aspect to everything you do on social media. That doesn’t mean it’s not genuine, but it’s different.”

In the novel, May visits her childhood friend Lindy, who is described as having an impeccable online persona, with just-right Instagram shots of her life. After her stay, May finds that Lindy has posted a photo of May’s thank-you note. In this way, their friendship has become part of the public story Lindy tells about herself, and something about that makes May uncomfortable. Kane shares her view. “What is social media doing to friendships? I’m curious about the long term effects are.”

Science tells us that face-to-face time is good for our health, so much better than screen-to-screen time. Though it takes planning and effort, the statistics are clear: visiting a friend is good for both the mind and body, and those benefits reverberate when we return home. And yet, Kane wonders if enough of us make time for cultivating those relationships.

Back to Reality

The importance of plant names led Kane to think about the word friendship itself, and so one morning at her desk she turned to the Oxford English Dictionary. “I am probably one of the last remaining people who owns the entire set,” she says, which was a gift from her husband. She discovered that in Western literature, the word friendship first appears in Beowulf. This brought an entirely different kind of knowledge to May’s character—an interest not just in the natural world, but in the literary one.

That pulled other stories and characters onto the page, specifically Penelope from The Odyssey. “We’re charmed by Penelope’s weaving,” Kane said, “and her tricking of the suitors, but that’s often as far as it goes. It is just as hard to do what Penelope does—she’s wily, she raises a son—as it is to have adventured like Odysseus, but Western literature has not valued that female experience. I got angry about that.”

Like the warriors of ancient times, May goes on a kind of hero’s journey, one that unfolds in a modern context. May travels and arrives at various households, some full of children and others not, some in states of disarray, each with their own particular habits and idiosyncrasies. She relies on Emily Posts’ rules of etiquette, but as the story goes on, she develops her own way of navigating these complicated, sometimes fraught, trips. There’s something wonderfully real about all of this, and truly epic, though in this case the monsters May faces are ones she’s created and carried with her; the power they have is that of fear, depression, and inertia.

At this point, Kane and I have meandered our way through Central Park’s forest dark, emerging into the sunshine of baseball fields where a class of children play lacrosse with tennis balls. We believe we’ve identified a Sycamore tree, but aren’t sure—the jigsaw puzzle-shaped bark, mottled brown and grey and white, looks a lot like the Sycamore’s cousin, the London Plane. That confusion brings no dismay, however. Because the pleasures of strolling through nature with a sharp, observant mind like Kane’s, talking about stories and friendship, wondering about the names of the trees which arch over our heads, buds full and about to burst, are honest and good. Which, I think, is something May Attaway would recognize too. As would most anyone, really.

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