The Laws of Harmony
by Judith Ryan Hendricks
Harper, 478 pages, $14.95
Available at Collected Works, 208 W. San Francisco St., 988-4226
Judith Ryan Hendricks' fourth novel, The Laws of Harmony, tells the story of Sunny Cooper, born Soleil on the Armonia (Spanish for "harmony") commune outside Taos. She lived a hippie-Bohemian existence that she grew to hate, even as as a child. After the tragic death of her young sister tore her family apart, she left to eventually become a marginally successful voiceover actress in Albuquerque. Everything seems to be going smoothly until her fiance Michael is mysteriously killed, then she uncovers some shady business deals on his part, then she discovers he's been sleeping with her best friend - it's all enough to make any girl leave town. So leave town she does, to – ironically enough – the town of Harmony, Washington, just outside Seattle in the Puget Sound. There, Sunny finds that you can run, but you can't hide from the past that makes you who you are.
The book is a fun read with plot twists at every turn, characters to fall in love with, and a comfortable voice that makes the fiction come alive. I sat down with Hendricks to talk about the new book. Full disclosure: I knew Hendricks' dog when I worked at a local doggie daycare... does that count as a conflict of interest?
CJ: Being a writer myself, I know that there's never a fully fictional piece of fiction.
JH: You've got that right.
With that in mind, how much of yourself is built into a character like Sunny Cooper?
I always think that writers and their characters are kind of like each others' alter egos. It's kind of like how people say that people tend to resemble their dogs. Even the people that re really despicable, I think they're parts of yourself that you want to get out. Get rid of.
I can relate to the fact that Sunny always feels like the outsider – I've always felt like that. I think that many, if not most writers sort of feel that, because – I mean, and you probably know this – there's always a part of you that's an observer. No matter if something wonderful is happening or if something awful is happening, there's a part of you that's standing over in the corner that's thinking, "I'll have to remember this and write it down."
There are so many aspects of this book that required such interesting research.
Yeah, like learning to ride a motorcycle!
I know! I just got to that part!
That was so much fun.
For the motorcycle part, I went to the Santa Fe Harley-Davidson class. They have a weekend class called The Rider's Edge. They were really great. It's a four-day thing - Thursday and Friday evenings we were in class-class, then Saturday and Sunday all day we were out at the National Guard Armory riding motorcycles in the parking lot. That was really fun. If I'd been about 10 years younger I think I might have bought a motorcycle. I hadn't even been on a bicycle in years – in fact, you have to say that you can ride a bicycle before you can even take the class. So I had to haul out my dirty old cruddy bicycle to make sure I could ride it before I signed up for the class. You can see why people really get into it. I decided that would be a really good thing for a confidence-building thing for Sunny, and a way to meet new and different people, like Piggy.
What about the commune?
I did a lot of research on that. I read an article by Phaedra Haywood in the paper, when I was just getting started [on this book], about how she grew up on a commune and how her mother would send cookies with her to class, and they were always whole grain and honey-sweetened and she would always hide them in her desk because she didn't want anybody to see them, and after class she'd give them to the janitors. So I called her up and we had coffee at Counterculture – how appropriate – and she told me a lot of interesting things.
I was mainly interested in how the children who were in that situation felt, because you know, people who went to the communes to live, it was a choice they made. Usually something they felt strongly about. But if you were a child and you were born there and brought up there, you didn't really have that choice. She said that it was fairly evenly divided between kids who really liked that lifestyle and came back to it when they were grown up, and those who hated it and didn't want anything to do with it. I figured Sunny fell into that latter category. And also, of course with her it was partly because of the association of it being where her sister was killed, and her whole family really dissolved there, so it wasn't bound to be one of her favorite places.
The other research I did for the communes was I read an incredible number of books. It's so funny how the whole thing got started – I had no intention of writing a book about anything like that, but this fiend of mine gave me a copy of Lisa Law's book, Flashing on the Sixties, and that's really what started the whole thing... So I started looking things up on the web – and as you know, if you're a writer and you start looking things up on the web, it's pretty much a sure sign that you're going to do something. So I started looking things up and that's when I found the story of the child who was killed at New Buffalo.
What is that story?
It was 1979, it was the last solstice party at New Buffalo, and there were these two children - I think it was a little boy and a little girl playing on the roof of one of the pueblos, and they fell through the glass skylight. The little girl just kind of rolled and got up, but the little boy had two puncture wounds in the chest and died on the scene. It was really awful. So I didn't want to copy that story exactly, but it was the kind of story that really grabs you and all I could think about was what happened to the other child afterwards. And that kind of ties in to how a child would feel growing up in that atmosphere.
Have you ever visited the site of one of the old communes in New Mexico or Colorado?
I went up to New Buffalo and poked around, but I didn't talk to anybody up there. I didn't want it to be tied too closely to New Buffalo. People, I think, get annoyed with that and I don't blame them. If you weren't there, you don't really have the right to tell about it. So I made up my own commune.
Speaking of making things up, I became totally enamored of the town of Harmony, and so I went looking for it online – and there's no town of Harmony! Is there a town that Harmony is based on?
I think it's really loosely based on Friday Harbor on San Juan island, [Washington], but there's also some stuff in there that I stole from Orcas Island, east [Puget] sound. It's really kind of an amalgamate of places up there. We used to live in Seattle, and I go up there when I feel like getting away.
Were you apprehensive about creating a fake town?
No, it's much easier to do that than to place it in a real town, because you always get people saying, "That's not located there!" or "That never happened then!" I've already gotten flack from someone who said I had the whole San Juan island thing wrong – she tried to tell me there were no black widow spiders. This is the kind of thing you get.
No, there are! But because she hadn't seen any there, this woman decided that there weren't any. But anyway. When I wrote Isabel's Daughter, my second book, which takes place in Santa Fe, I went back and forth about that for the longest time because I just thought, "If I get one thing wrong, I'll never hear the end of it." At one point I had made up a town - but then I kept thinking, "Oh, this is so stupid. Everybody knows it's Santa Fe. So I'd might as well just say so." But I had all these fictitious characters and now people read the book and they go, "Oh, I know exactly who that is!" And I didn't live here when I wrote that and I didn't know anybody here. So I made up all these characters and everybody's telling me they know who they are!
In that spirit, are there any people who you've surreptitiously based characters on?
Piggy [the biker] was based on a real person, but he was my neighbor in California when I lived in Long Beach. The first time I saw him I thought, "Oh god, what a character he would make." He had the big beard and he was huge – he was, like, 6'3 and very grrr, you know. And he looked really mean. And so I remember one night I was walking my basset hound. It was just about dark, and my husband was out of town. I bent down to untangle the leash, she'd gotten it wrapped around her legs, and - you know how you sense something behind you? I look up and there's Piggy, and he says [high-piched voice] – “Ohh, what a cute puppy!”
So that was the start of Piggy. I knew that I was going to use him. I don't know where the name came from, but he just looked like somebody who'd be named Piggy.
Lastly, as I'm reading it, I'm trying to categorize it in my head – there are parts of it that are mystery, parts that are like a coming-of-age story, there are moments of romance – what do you think the book is, in your head?
In my head, it's not anything. I try to purposely not to write in a genre, but I love mystery stories and I've always wanted to write one but I've never been able to because my mind doesn't work that way. And I didn't want to write about a character that's always stumbling over dead bodies – it has to be realistic to me, otherwise nobody else is going to find it realistic. So instead I just put little mysteries into my regular stories. And also because I think everybody has an element of that, and they have an element of romance. I think life is kind of like emptying out the refrigerator and making soup. You have to throw all the ingredients in.