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Laird Hunt proves life centers on the seemingly-mundane through the life of 'Zorrie'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Laird Hunt's "Zorrie" is about the kind of life we may not often read in novels. Zorrie is elderly. She's begun to tire after a life of hard work in Indiana and Illinois during the depression and then World War II and finds a postcard of Chicago in her mailbox and thinks she'd like to see it someday. She's lost her parents to diphtheria at an early age and then, not much later, the aunt who stepped in to raise her. She goes to work. She gets married. She absorbs more loss and loneliness and keeps going. The National Book Award finalist of a novel packs a hole absorbing human life into just 161 pages that are polished like jewels. Laird Hunt teaches at Brown University and joins us now from Paris.

Mr. Hunt, thanks so much for being with us.

LAIRD HUNT: It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: You grew up, I gather, all over - Singapore, San Francisco, London - but ultimately a farm in Indiana. Did you ever see Zorrie there, close up or at a distance?

HUNT: I sort of feel like Zorrie was all over that rural Indiana landscape. When I was living there in the 1980s at my grandmother's farm, just the two of us on this central Indiana farm, the landscape really was dominated, made exciting by these older women in the community - older farm women, retired teachers, fierce, smart, decent people. That's how I experienced that world and that landscape.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to give people an idea of your extremely rich narrative. Let's just begin at the beginning of the book and something as simple as a hoe in the ground and what it sets off in Zorrie.

HUNT: (Reading) Zorrie Underwood had been known throughout the county as a hard worker for more than 50 years. So it troubled her when, finally, the hoe started slipping from her hands, the paring knife from her fingers, the breath and shallow bursts from her lungs, and smack dab in the middle of the day, she had to lie down. At first, she carried out this previously unthinkable obligation on the worn leather of the day bed in the front room with her jaw set, hands pressed tight against her sides, staring up at the end of a long crack that ran the length of the ceiling, or at the flecks of blue light thrown onto the legs of the dining room table by the stained glass jay (ph) that hung in the south window. When, after several minutes of this, she felt her breath slowing and the blood flowing back out through her veins, she would ease herself up, shake her head and resume whatever activity had been interrupted.

SIMON: Tell us about the time she spends in the clock factory. She finds a real sense of oneness with friends Janie and Marie painting radium on clocks, which just would not happen these days. Let's put it that way.

HUNT: No. And thank goodness, right? Although when Zorrie takes on this work, she's at loose ends, let's say, during the depression and finds a job painting the faces of clocks, watches and clocks, using radium powder that was meant to be this miracle substance. And as a matter of fact, the young women - it was almost exclusively young women who worked in the factory - were instructed to point the brushes with their mouths with this radioactive substance. So there's this undercurrent in that part of the novel of the difficulty to come because of this. And yet at that moment, at that very moment, Zorrie finds extraordinary friendship with two other young women.

SIMON: Why does she get called ghost girl?

HUNT: You know, that was the name that was used in the 1920s and '30s. And this I gleaned from the wonderful books written by Claudia Clark, "Radium Girls," and Kate Moore's "The Radium Girls" - ghost girls, because they literally glowed in the dark after long shifts at the factory. They had radium powder all over them. And they would walk out into the streets. And when it was just dark enough, they would light up.

SIMON: She falls in love. She has a marriage. He goes off to war. He doesn't come back. We sometimes forget how many stories like that there are, don't we?

HUNT: So many stories, so many stories - and they were all around me when I was a teenager, 13 years old, when I went to live with my grandmother on the farm. And there were all these echoes of that earlier experience, whether it was World War I, whether it was World War II, that sense of loss and of carrying on that really marked me early on.

SIMON: Why does Zorrie sometimes have a dread of dreams?

HUNT: Zorrie, because of the tumultuous nature of her early days, because of her status as an orphan, has, I think, a pretty reasonable interest in feeling in control of her life. And, you know, when we're dreaming, all bets are off. She's the kind of person who dreams when she's awake, right? She dreams about different things. She thinks about different things. But she controls that. When she sleeps, she doesn't have that control, and that scares her.

SIMON: Do you think we pass people every day who might be as compelling as Zorrie, who's at the center of this novel?

HUNT: I've been convinced of that since I started writing. I mean, it has always seemed to me that no matter where you are walking down the street, you see someone, and there's this extraordinary life walking by you. We know nothing about it. It may not be a loud life, maybe not a trumpet life, but it's a rich life. You can bet on that.

SIMON: Laird Hunt - his National Book Award-nominated novel, "Zorrie." Thank you so much for being with us.

HUNT: It's been such a pleasure, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.