Lone Star Book Blog Tour: Mayhem by Elizabeth Harris

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Three Lives of a Woman
Elizabeth Harris

Genre: Historical Literary Fiction
Date of Publication: October 5, 2015
Publisher: Gival Press
Number of pages: 130

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Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman is a literary novel with a historical setting that engages issues of gender, vigilantism, recovery from trauma, and nostalgia for the rural and small-town past.

Two stock-farmers in 1936 Texas are accused of castrating a neighbor. Mayhem is the story of their crime and its consequences–the violent past and standard gender relations that enable it, and its economic displacement of the modest, well-connected woman who occasions it.

Around the edges of the story, an authorial narrator admits why she fictionalizes this past and shapes the novel as she does.


“Mayhem is a wonder of a novel.  A careful evocation of time and place, community and character, pitched in a voice rich with the lyric poetry of everyday speech, the novel seems not so much narrated as blown up by a breeze.   It’s not enough to claim that I believed every word of it; I felt every syllable.  This archetypal tale of crime and punishment, so filled with tragedy and sympathy, is one of the most wildly alive novels I have ever read.   Every sentence teems with truths both literal and metaphorical, and yet, for all its wisdom and profundity, it reaches us in the manner of a folk ballad, high and sweet and clear.” — Michael Parker, author of All I Have in This World and The Watery Part of the World

“. . .what to read, watch, and listen to this. . .month in order to achieve maximum Texas cultural literacy. . .Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, Elizabeth Harris. . .” — Jeff Salamon, Texas Monthly

“In the tradition of Wendell Berry’s elegiac fiction, Elizabeth Harris’ Mayhem. . . a novel that shows reverence to the American South and the people who labored there, but, unlike Berry’s Port William, Kentucky, Harris’ Prince Carl County is unmistakably Central Texas, complete with cattle, cotton, pink granite courthouses and tight-knit German communities.” – Amy Ritthaler Gilmour, San Antonio Express News

“. . . expresses solidarity with marginalized white women from small rural towns, performs a sophisticated act of sisterhood.. . .the quietly insightful and beautifully written Mayhem intrigues and enlightens.” — Judith Newton, Huffington Post


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Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

My father was a journalist, what he called “a newspaperman”—he was working for The Ft. Worth Press when I was born—and both of my parents were devoted to developing their children’s reading. They were also both story-tellers, in different ways. I grew up awash in books, newspapers, magazines, and oral stories.

How long have you been writing?

Since I was about thirteen, though I didn’t really begin to learn until I was in my twenties, and I learned very slowly. I didn’t study at a college writing program, though I taught in one later. I studied literature in college.

What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was least useful or most destructive?

Being privileged to make a career as a college teacher, most useful to me was discovering new books, teaching particular techniques of fiction, and reading very good fiction closely, to see and talk about how it’s written. Learning to critique other writers’ manuscripts was also helpful, because it helps you see your own work, and—even better—if you find other writers sympathetic to your work, allows you to exchange critiques with them, as I do with a small group now.

Most destructive about teaching, however, was spending so much time reading and responding to students’ work, and the extent to which it occupied my mind even when I wasn’t actually doing that. I wrote steadily while I was teaching, but I felt like I never had enough time or mental space.

How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning? Do you have any name choosing resources you recommend?

Names are important to me both for the ways they sound and for meanings associated with them. Online lists of baby names are useful, also lists that tell you first names that were popular in particular years. In this connection, though, I confess I named Evelyn in Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman for an old friend of my mother’s whom I never met, and I did that because it meant the name belonged to a particular era. I’m also a habitual reader of obituaries, not necessarily looking for anything but because they develop your sense of what names belong to what eras and in what kinds of life stories.

Who are some of your favorite authors you feel were influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your writing?

I tend to have favorite books, not authors. Some books influential for me were those that created a contemporary perspective on historical settings: Russell Banks’s, Cloudsplitter; Pat Barker’s, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road; E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. These and other books led me to believe I could do as Mayhem does, look freshly at actions in historical periods for what they might imply about contemporary life.

What literary character is most like you?

To me, no literary character seems much like a person, let alone myself. Characters, even when richly characterized, are radically simple compared to people, especially people you know well. In Mayhem, the author-character resembles me, though she says things about herself that aren’t true of me. She resembles me in being inspired by a childhood memory to write the novel.

What is something you want to accomplish before you die?

I don’t want to make myself sound dull, so I’ll say first that I’ve already traveled a good bit, and my husband and I have made several “trips of a lifetime.”  The ones most wonderful to me were wildlife safari in Botswana, a cruise to the Galapagos, and birding in Trinidad, Panama, and Costa Rica. As to what I want now, it’s always the same thing: to finish the book I’m writing. The book changes, but the ambition doesn’t.

Do you have any strange writing habits you’d like to share with your readers?

Sitting here day after day trying to write things that most of the world won’t care about is strange enough for me.

Where is one place you want to visit that you haven’t been before?

I’d like to go to India, but I doubt I will.

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Elizabeth Harris is the author of Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman (2015), which won the Gival Press Novel Award and was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Best Fiction (2016). Mayhem has been reviewed with enthusiasm, praised as essential cultural Texana, and compared to fiction of Katherine Anne Porter, Wendell Berry, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx for its style and its penetration of the Western myth. Harris’s first book The Ant Generator (1991), a short story collection, was chosen by Marilynne Robinson for the prestigious John Simmons Award from the University of Iowa Press. Some of her stories have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of Wind, The Iowa Award, and Literary Austin. Two other novel manuscripts of Harris’ have been recognized in national competitions.

Harris grew up as Betsy Hall on the east side of Ft. Worth, where she became an avid reader. Her father was a journalist, a former editor of The Daily Texan in 1930-31 who worked for the now-defunct Ft. Worth Press and Pittsburgh Press, and she recalls former newswomen—who had become reporters during World War II—as personal inspirations and role models. She went to high school in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, and to Carnegie-Mellon and Stanford Universities. She taught fiction-writing at the University of Texas at Austin and counts many friends and writers among her former students. She and her husband are birders and football fans. Visit Elizabeth Harris at www.elizabethharriswriter.com




August 15 – 24, 2016

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Check out the other great blogs on this tour! 

8/15 – Review – Hall Ways Blog
8/16 – Author Interview – The Crazy Booksellers
8/17 – Guest Post – All for the Love of the Word
8/18 – Review – Margie’s Must Reads
8/19 – Author Interview – It’s a Jenn World
8/20 – Excerpt – Kara The Redhead
8/21 – Review – My Book Fix Blog
8/22 – Promo – Blogging for the Love of Authors and Their Books
8/23 – Author Interview – Reading By Moonlight
8/24 – Review – Forgotten Winds

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