Adult life is hard, and I have yet to meet anyone who actually feels like a grown-up. Most of us are making it up as we go along, trying our best to be decent humans, doing as little damage as we can. The political state of our country hasn’t helped matters, and making sense of all the anger buzzing around us is an exercise in frustration at best, despair at worst. Add to this the ups and downs of love – well, it ain’t easy. Hestia Harris gets it: “Life is a near-constant calculation of risks” she tells us, and she also believes we “are born knowing everything we need to know about love.”
Through her deeply relatable and likable protagonist, Hestia, Christine Grillo has channeled the fear and rage and craziness of the past decade, giving readers a smart, hilarious, and ultimately compassionate view of what it is to live a meaningful life in a world full of strong opinions and even stronger weapons.
Hestia Strikes a Match is the story of a woman in her early 40s, newly single thanks to the second Civil War (she is ostensibly widowed when her husband leaves to fight for the cause), and trying to figure out how to navigate dating, friendship, family, and career in a world defined by divisive politics and violence. Grillo manages to capture the uncertainty and fear of this era of political extremes, at the same time showing the difficulties of simply moving through middle age with more questions than answers, coming to terms with loneliness and compromise, and ultimately making peace with the myriad forces beyond our control.
I caught up with Chris and she answered some of my questions about this stunning debut.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Did you set out to write a novel that takes place during a civil war or did that come later? How did the plot of this novel evolve?
Christine Grillo: I think the first spark for this novel was a conversation with an old friend, someone whom I had really liked and would have characterized as simpatico. The conversation took place during the Trump Administration, and we were catching up after about 15 years. As we chatted, I realized that he had become shockingly right-wing. That exchange made me think a lot about what ideology can do to friendship and love, and I started writing about crappy romances taking place during a civil war.
BFB: What research, if any, did you do to write this book? How did the real-world events of Trump and January 6, etc. influence your writing/revision process?
CG: Life can be stranger than fiction, and real-world events proved satire-worthy. What feels weird to me now is that some of the events I “invented” for the novel later came true. For example, in the novel, terrorists bring down Baltimore’s electric grid, and in February of this year, neo-Nazis were arrested for plotting attacks on Baltimore’s electrical sub-stations. But back to your question: I had to do some reading about the original civil war to figure out the mechanics of what happened when, and I adjusted for today. I wrote timelines for the current unraveling, as well as a Declaration of Immediate Causes that Impel Secession, and even a preamble to the New Confederated States of America’s constitution. And does watching Derry Girls count as research?
BFB: Those Derry girls know civil war, so yes, that is 100% research! What was the most challenging part of writing this novel?
CG: I had a hard time figuring out why Hestia wants to find love. I got very granular with that question, trying to nail down what, exactly, people crave when they’re looking for a partner. Is it the hand-holding? Is it someone to text with? A best friend? What is it? But something else I struggled with then and now is the worry that I’ve made light of civil war. The novel is often humorous, but I don’t think there’s anything funny about our current ideological conflict. In a real-life civil war, people like Hestia, Mildred, Sarah, and Ed would probably be fine, because they have resources. But there are so many Americans—people whom we glimpse in the novel but are not represented fully—whose lives would be devastated by civil war.
BFB: I’m glad you mention the humor in the novel, which reviewers – and even the jacket blurb – have noted. Did you set out to write a “slyly funny” novel? How did humor help you tell Hestia’s story?
CG: Civil war, white nationalism, and insurrection were all very much on my mind when I started writing this book. I wanted to write about those things, but I didn’t want to write a depressing book about how doomed we are. Who wants to read that? Characters like Hestia, Mildred, and Sarah allowed me to build a sad world, because their insecurities, squabbles, and confusions yield funny conversations and situations. Funny people are funny whether there’s a civil war not, which is a helpful fact.
BFB: Indeed! And one of the funniest characters is the inimitable Mildred, a sparky 80-something who provides much of the wisdom in the novel. Hestia’s job at a nursing home and the inclusion of excerpts from a writing club Hestia conducts with the residents of the home provide further perspectives from the octogenarian set. Was a nursing home always a part of Hestia’s story?
CG: Mildred is probably an amalgamation of several older ladies in my life who had no filter. I love when elderly people don’t hold back, because they have actual wisdom to share, unlike young people. The retirement village was a way for Hestia, who’s clueless in so many ways, to mingle with people who know some stuff and have seen some things. I remember talking with a dear friend’s elderly mother, I was remarking on how warm and generous she is, and she said, “Oh, well, I’m also petty and resentful and vindictive.” She said it with zero judgment toward herself. She just owned it. I love women like that and wanted to represent them.
BFB: Hestia’s other bestie is younger – a millennial – who provides an excellent foil for Mildred.
When I started writing the novel, Sarah mostly existed to illustrate how frustrating it is to be the Gen Xer who has to deal with the annoying tensions between millennials and Boomers in the workplace. But an agent wanted me to expand Sarah’s arc, and when I shared a draft with the Baltimore Fishbowl’s very own Betsy Boyd, she said, “Chris, you should make Sarah a foil.” So, of course, I did.
BFB: Already the book is receiving rave reviews and appearing on must-read lists. How does it feel?
It feels like I’ve won the lottery! I have no idea how this happened. But I’m also trying to detach a little bit from the reviews and lists now, because self-care means not checking Goodreads.
BFB: Fair enough, but so far everything I’ve seen has been positive. The novel is so vivid, as I read I kept imagining the Netflix series. Have you thought about what actors would play the roles in a TV/movie version?
I certainly have! I have a long list. For Hestia, it’s a toss-up between Aubrey Plaza, Abbi Jacobson, and Lizzy Caplan. For Mildred, I’d love to see Judith Light or Lily Tomlin. There’s a UN Peacekeeper, Marcello, who I want to be played by Pedro Pascal. I can see Zach Galifianakis as the brother-in-law, Jamie, and I can see Alexei, the bartender, played by Jason Mantzoukis. I want Jack Black to be cast as Johnny Puppets, and I want Monkey Tea Tom to be played by Blake Anderson. I could go on, but I’ll finish by saying that Isabella Rossellini has to play the part of Clara, and if she could bring one of her goats from her farm to the set, I get first dibs on feeding it.
Upcoming Events for Hestia Strikes a Match
Monday 4/17 Politics & Prose, Bethesda MD (in conversation with Angie Kim)
Thursday 4/20 The Ivy Bookshop, Baltimore MD (in conversation with Elizabeth Hazen)
Saturday 4/22 Old Town Books, Alexandria VA (in conversation with Kristin Zory King)
Saturday 4/29 The Annapolis Book Festival (with Nikki Payne, Martha Anne Toll, Michelle Brafman)
Tuesday 5/2 The Curious Iguana and Frederick Public Library, Frederick MD
Tuesday 5/31 The Center for Fiction, Brooklyn NY (with Elliot Ackerman)
BONUS! Here’s a 5-minute audiobook clip: https://soundcloud.com/macaudio-2/hestia-strikes-a-match-by-christine-grillo/s-KERQHr8prHg