An Interview with Hannah Gersen
Words By Dani Hedlund
First of all, I loved this book. The moment someone told me there was a football book out, I was so excited. I found it so riveting and intimate. What inspired you to write Home Field?
A lot of different things. In retrospect, after finishing it, I’ve realized how it came out of the health problems I was having which, for several years, left me missing athletics and being outdoors. I think that’s probably why I wrote the book, though I wasn’t really aware of that until recently.
I’m feeling much better now, and when I was reading the proofs, I was struck by how full of longing it was for that life—I don’t think I would have written it if I’d been in better health. But that’s sort of the meta-answer.
I found the setting of this book really fascinating. Small town football has an incredible kind of dominance over an entire community, and you wrote the town as though it were a character with its own secrets. What was it like to write a town as a character?
I’ve been living in a city for the past fifteen years, but I grew up in a small town. So there was a little bit of nostalgia in the writing. I like seeing the same people all the time and I like a slower pace. I prefer living in the city but people say that the part of the city I live in is like a small town.
Talk to me about the importance of the mother’s suicide for the whole book.
It’s the premise of the book, an open secret no one wants to talk about. It’s just one of those things that everyone is trying to work through but they can’t, really. There’s no good answer to it and you can only really cope with it. That’s really what the book is about. There’s no big secret revealed. It’s just about a sad thing.
Can you describe Dean’s character a bit?
Well, he’s the football coach. That’s his primary identity, at first. I knew football would be a big aspect of the town’s culture and I wanted the novel to be about an authority figure that loses that authority, but then gains it in another way. It’s a story about a man who has to become a mother. He has to become nurturing, so I wanted him to be a very masculine guy involved in this very powerful part of the town’s culture. I wanted it to be an important, all-consuming job that he wouldn’t want to give up for a lot of reasons. He’d really have to change in a big way and it would be hard for him to change—to give up a sport he loves. I’m not a huge football fan personally, but it was something I’ve grown up with and most of the men in my life love football.
There are a lot of scenes between Dean and the assistant coach where they discuss the particularities of playbooks. It reads very authentically. Did you consult the football fans in your life to find out, “Hey, is this what a linebacker does?”
Yeah, my dad is a huge football fan, but he hasn’t watched it for years. I don’t know how he keeps up with it—online, I guess—and he reads about it. I called him at one point when I was writing the book. It turns out that he had been the reporter for the high school team because he wasn’t good enough to play. I knew football players in high school, as well, and could draw on that. My husband read over the scenes for me and told me if things were accurate or not.
As I said, it reads very authentically. There was a wee period of my life in which I did sports reporting, as well. I told all of my football friends about it. Everyone forgets that high school football is a thing because we get so obsessed with NFL culture.
I’m still afraid someone is going to call me out and say I obviously know nothing about football.
The way you blend the history of family dynamics—what happened, the catalyst event—with the development of the action, left me constantly in shock. It seemed almost like a mystery novel. I was really struck by how none of the characters are saintly—everyone is sort of gray. Was it difficult for you as a writer to make sure there was darkness in everyone?
Yeah—not in writing it, but in the rereading process. I was worried because Dean isn’t a very tolerant character. He’s really just not there for his kids, not really present or paying attention. Their mother has just died and he’s not really thinking about that so much. He’s just thinking about how angry he is. But I think by the end of the book, he’s changed. I think he’s a better person than he thinks he is. I think those characters are interesting. He’s always going to do the right thing, but he may not think that he will.
Talk to me about your life as a writer. I know you’ve always had a fruitful writing career. What made you want to write a novel?
I’ve written a novel before that was terrible—I didn’t do anything with it. I wrote another and couldn’t get an agent, and that was difficult. And then I wrote a book of short stories that did get an agent, but couldn’t get a publisher, and that was difficult. But at that point, I had a lot of editorial interest in my writing. So my agent said, “Why don’t you try another novel?” In the meantime, I’ve been doing journalism and reviews and things like that.
How is this different from your first two novels?
The first one was a hot mess. It was a coming of age story that got really sidetracked and mixed up. I have a lot of affection for it but I would never show it to anyone. The second one was more organized, plot-wise, but I tried to set it in New York City, and I don’t think I knew it well enough. I was just tackling a lot. I haven’t read it in years so I don’t even know what it’s like anymore.
When I started this book, I was pregnant and I feel like I was conserving my energy. That was also when I started to get sick, so I thought I would just keep it simple and set the story in a small town, focusing on just one family. So it’s a smaller book, in a way, but it ended up getting bigger in the way books do.
That’s something that I commonly come across when interviewing debut writers who wrote big magnum opuses with big time jumps—the one that is most successful is the one with the simplest idea. It’s interesting that as brand new writers our impulse is to over-reach.
I think you’re worried that you won’t have enough, so you want to come to it with all these ideas and don’t realize that the book will expand as you write it. So you just have to trust the process.
Do you think that writing a lot of short works and editorial works helped you write this book?
I think the short stories helped. I learned a lot from the short stories. After I wrote this big novel that no one wanted, I just thought I would go small and get back to basics. I think that definitely helped me learn how to get a lot into one scene and how to create characters very quickly in just a few pages, since you’re bringing in new characters all the time who need to be established quickly. I don’t know about the reviews and other things. I enjoy them and it’s nice to publish every once in a while. It’s also nice to have an excuse to reach out to other writers.