Interview with Mercedes author Alex Hart, July 2022
Where are you from?
New York City.
But you don’t live there now?
How did you get from there to here?
I went in an airplane. [laughs]
How long have you been living in Porto?
When did you start writing this book?
Early in the pandemic.
Had you ever written a book like this before?
I wrote another novel first, about a 15-16 year old girl named Hilda. I fell in love with that process and decided to do another one when I was feeling antsy during repeated quarantine.
How does writing a book make you feel less antsy?
For me it’s better than yoga. It’s like putting a lump of new clay in front of me for my hands to try to mold into something. It gives me a task, I feel that my day has more purpose.
How long did you write each day?
That’s top secret.
How many days or weeks or months or years did it take?
Also top secret. But I can say it was less than a year.
Did the book come to you fully formed?
Absolutely not. That’s the fun of it. It’s an exercise in trust, in opening up the creative self to seeing what emerges. Every day I would read the previous two sessions, then simply listen to what Mercedes, or other characters, or the place itself, needed to say.
Did you edit as you go?
Yes, when I reread the previous sessions I would edit them lightly. Also when I transfer my hand-written or typewritten drafts to the computer, there is some light editing there as well.
Never any heavy editing where you throw out entire chapters or entirely rewrite them?
What did you start with – an incident or a sentence or knowing something about the character? What was the germ of the book?
A piece of art of mine. It was an antique photograph of a young girl whom I had “dressed up,” as I do in some of my collage work. I felt that she, like other characters I’ve worked with, had something to say. I felt that she was a force and that I should listen to her.
Did you learn from her?
I delight in her. I want her to be known. I think she’s important. I offer her out into the world as an example of someone I admire. I don’t know that I learned. I grew in doing the work. But since she came from me, I don’t know whether I could learn from her.
Did you have any other books in mind that you’d read or admired, or do you see in retrospect any relationship between this book and other books?
Books are so … [tears up] … I get a catch in my throat saying it, they’re so crucial to me, they’ve been company to me my whole life. I can only hope to participate in that beautiful project of giving the world books that are such lovely companions. There are so many that I could list. Pippi Longstocking is a strong one. Also the All-of-a-Kind-Family series. These were not direct inspirations, they simply are in my spirit.
Would you call this book a young-adult book?
Well, I know you have called it that. My daughters have raised an eyebrow, saying it’s more a middle-reader. I struggle with all labels and am ambitious to write all-ages books. Partly because of the way we have read books together as a family, where there’s something for everyone. The protagonist is eleven years old, but what kind of a book is it? I don’t know, you’ll have to try it for yourself and see if you connect with it.
How did you know when the book was done?
What I seem to feel, and I felt this about the earlier book Hilda, building it brick by brick, is that it becomes something, but also it starts to strain under its own weight. Things start to emerge and get more multi-faceted, and the situation starts to push out against its walls, and you need to let out some air, to resolve some things. There’s a natural feeling of crisis at some point, then a needing to let the dust settle. Hopefully with a feeling of resolution, but not too tidy, open to the fact that she will do more things, past those pages.
When you sat down to write the last chapter, did you know you were writing the last chapter?
No, I just knew I was close.
How did you feel when you said to yourself, “Ok, it’s done.”
I’d love to say I put my head down and wept. When I had more of an emotional reaction was when I read each chapter aloud to the family at the end of each work day, which was part of my process. There was catharsis. And letting go.
Did anything from outside literature impact this book, aside from your own life?
The big elephant in this room is the idea that attending school, from a very young age all the way into your twenties, is the definite and only path, an idea so many cultures have bought into. Through my experience with our daughters, their search for themselves, their experience of what it is to be a human being, their – not just learning, everyone is obsessed with learning – but living, discovering what it is to live as themselves, I have developed into a strong advocate for unschooling, to give children authority over their own lives. To be much more optimistic about their ability to find their way and live in a way that’s meaningful for themselves, worrying less about the external, about parents and structures.
I didn’t set out to do it, that wasn’t the plan, but quickly it became clear that this book was going to be about a girl who didn’t fit into the “classic” system. Today’s school system is not even that old in terms of human history, but we’ve forgotten that there are other ways. So she pushes back against what everyone wants to hold out as natural law. Her natural law is very different. And I greatly enjoy that.
Mercedes’ parents are not around very much, at least not from her perspective. She seems to enjoy the freedom, but at times she wishes they were around a little more. How does that fit in with your ideas about unschooling?
That part isn’t autobiographical. As parents, we’ve been around quite a lot. But there’s this book Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing from the 1950s. Or maybe he was writing later about his 1950s childhood? Many people recall having had much more freedom, especially in the US, when they were children, compared with children today. They’d get on their bike in the morning and not be back until dinner time, if then. With no explanation. No cell-phone so they could be located. It sounds wonderful to me. To feel comfortable enough in your surroundings to have your children do those things, find their own thrilling adventures, and even trouble, right? And resolve it themselves. I think we greatly underestimate children and what they’re capable of doing without out intervention. So I wanted to give Mercedes as much as space as possible. Without it feeling too fraught or stressful.
Do you imagine ever writing a sequel or prequel to this book?
I’m writing a companion book, from the perspective of Charlie, he’s the boy next door in Mercedes. I hold dear the idea that one day there will be enough love of Mercedes that I’ll be asked to go back and see what she’s up to. I think I will wait and see if that moment arrives.
Mercedes, like you, adores food. And is female. Whereas Charlie’s a boy, obsessed with architecture. Is it harder to project yourself into his head?
I question whether it will succeed. I didn’t have that with Mercedes. It does feel a bit reachy, but it does still feel natural. My hand doesn’t hover over the page for minutes or hours at a time. I write. What I feel and what comes.
And I am quite interested in architecture. I’ve never studied it, but if you look at my bookstand, half is on things like urban ecology. Some of my most wondrous moments in life have been coming upon architecture. One being the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. I think it’s very exciting to see what human are capable of, that’s epic like that. Or just really intelligent about the human experience and how to house it.
Jumping back to Mercedes, reading as a parent, I found myself wanting her to tell her parents, her mother especially, how she’s feeling, how she wishes her mother were around more and opening up more. But Mercedes seems very reluctant to do so. Why is that?
I’m interested that it created that want in you. I think that I have become more accepting of people’s natural ways. Pushing for change from others has not been very productive in my life. So maybe I offer that to Mercedes! [laughs] As a way of saying it is what it is, and her task is not to get her mom to be otherwise, but to negotiate her life as best she can and find her fun and her glories in other places.
By the way, though Mercedes doesn’t get much hugs and kisses from her mom, she does have a very interesting model in her, because her mom is actually working on something that she’s passionate about and she’s doing it unapologetically. I don’t think there’s enough room for that in our societies. I don’t want her to be seen as an antihero, but rather as someone who is a pure expression of what she feels driven to do.
This book is not about the pandemic, but is it an escape from all that? Is it in any way a reaction to these extraordinary times?
The pandemic meant I was able to focus on the book. It was quiet, too quiet. Mercedes was good company to me during that. But I don’t think there’s much pandemic in it. Maybe other people will find there is. I adore young people, and wanted to spend some time with them. I always do, pandemic or no pandemic.
It felt to me like an inverse mirror, a blissfully pandemic-free atmosphere, but also a useful lesson for pandemic times in how to take pleasure in small things such as making your leftovers into lunch.
It’s important to me that we can stay in the place we are, in the moment we are in, and see beauty there. So if there is that in this book, and if it can be a moment in time … maybe it feels a little unplugged. It’s in a more rural setting. I find that soothing.
Is there also a little nostalgia for a more innocent time, or maybe nostalgia for when you had children that age, your children now being older? A little saudade?
I push back against that. Why is it nostalgia? Why can’t it be now also? Why can’t at least some of it be now? I question it. The same way I question school being The Way. I question whether there aren’t more ways we can allow childhood to be owned by children. What takes place in Mercedes doesn’t have to feel cute or foreign. Maybe we’re more adjacent to it than we think.
Let’s circle back to the idea of unschooling. If readers are intrigued by that aspect, how would you recommend they learn more? By reading, say, Grace Llewellyn or Peter Gray? What’s been influential for you?
Mostly what I have done is watched my children. I’ve seen that when we’ve restrained ourselves from intervening (unless it was health- or safety-related) and let them lead their own lives, be it in projects, work, studying, play, or food, I’ve seen such gorgeous humanity at work. Figuring things out. Such shining, shining moments. I’ve become a believer through the doing of it. Or not doing!
Funny thing is, it’s also much less work for the parents! Even with our eldest daughter, who has chosen to go back into the system for high school. It’s clear that this is her choice and we’re not there to carry her books or to do her homework or even to check to see that she’s done her homework. So many things done by well-intentioned lovely parents the children are perfectly capable of doing and enjoy doing on their own. With no oversight. All the helicoptering takes so much effort and worry. E.B. White said a long time ago, “never hurry, never worry,” and I would say isn’t it lucky if that is possible? And: where possible yes please let’s do that.
Read more about Mercedes here.