Wilberforce, H. S. Cross’s stunning debut novel, is out this week. In celebration we were only too glad to pick her brain. See her dig into the literary archaeology of the school story, and even produce the very first yarn she ever finished solo—from second grade, no less!
What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
Enraptured by my first trip to the theater, I wrote my first book when I was five—that is, I dictated it to my mother, who set it down in ballpoint on a notepad and stapled the pages together so I could read it at night. The genre was Self-Actualization. Here is the first page: “When Heather is six years old, she is going to play Gretel in The Sound of Music.” Page two: “She is going to sing Do-Re-Mi.” The earliest story I can remember writing on my own was penned in . . . second grade? It’s on “story paper,” and I had been given an abstract, red cutout for inspiration. (Oh, the 70s . . .) A Xeroxed reproduction survives. You will see that it received a starred review:
What books would you consider ancestors of Wilberforce?
Besides the obvious school stories the characters themselves have read (Kipling’s Stalky & Co., Wodehouse’s Wryken stories, Tom Brown, etc.), Wilberforce also descends from edgier school stories like Alec Waugh’s The Loom of Youth, his brother Evelyn’s Charles Ryder’s Schooldays, or Ernest Raymond’s Tell England. Less obvious is Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series: written in the 1980s and 90s, these books revolve around a fictional cathedral town called Starbridge and concern the relationships between priests-in-crisis and their spiritual directors. Howatch is interested in the intersection of psychology and spiritual life, and each volume features a different theological trend. She cut her teeth writing gothic-style sagas, and the Starbridge books are quickly paced, melodramatic constructions, with a touch of the supernatural. Several of her characters are memorably charismatic, the kind that walk off the page and make you ache to know them personally. The first Starbridge book, Glittering Images, and the eight that followed made me into someone who could write Part Three of Wilberforce.
Is there a book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
I’ve failed to finish many books. Sometimes I quit because the book has to go back to the library. More often, I abandon a book because I’ve realized life is too short for it, or because I don’t want to spend any more time in its author’s worldview. There’s an oft-quoted verse for church fundraising: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” As corny as this sounds, it’s proven true for me with material things, and I’m beginning to understand that it’s also true of mental treasure. I’ve always been a fan of reading at whim, reading anything and everything. Periodically, I’ll institute a regime of “finish everything even if you have to speed-read or skim.” These disciplines never last, though, and the older I get, the more I’m learning that books can diminish as well as build up, and that discretion in reading can be a prudent, even necessary, practice.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
The chronology is vague, but I think the most recent sob-fest was Lewis’s The Last Battle. There I am racing through this children’s book for a discussion group when the last two chapters strike—they should have put a trigger warning on that thing. I’m crying again now just flipping through it. Another recent tearjerker was Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. I had no idea what was coming, so I naively opted to finish the book during a subway journey. I wound up gasping on the A-train platform half-blind with tears, feeling utterly demented (because—spoiler—the narrative takes you inside a successful suicide) and dissociated from myself. Pro-tip: finish books like this at home.
Do you have a favorite literary character?
It depends what you mean by favorite. The most brilliant example of portraiture in English fiction has to be Esther Summerson in Bleak House. The character I wanted to be when young was, of course, Scout Finch (of To Kill A Mockingbird, one now must add). I would have liked Stalky from Stalky and Co. as a best friend in high school; he would have dragged my paralyzed good-girl self into some adventure and courage. As for a literary crush—and let’s take as given Jane Austen’s various heroes, plus Aragorn—I fell heavily for Peter Wimsey in Strong Poison. That jail-cell proposal is one of the most outrageous scenes I’ve ever read in a British manners-mystery.
If you could say anything to your book’s protagonist, what would it be?
Morgan Wilberforce is seventeen, headstrong, and in the grip of forces beyond his control. I can’t imagine he would listen to a word I said. Besides which, where could I start? If I ever did capture his attention for some brief moment when he wasn’t wreaking havoc, I’d probably say what everyone else says: Oh, Morgan!
H. S. Cross was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and studied at Harvard University. Wilberforce is her debut novel. She has taught at Friends Seminary and lives in New York. Cross is at work on a new novel set at St. Stephen’s Academy.