The Gyllenhaal family, a Swedish noble dynasty descended from the cavalry lieutenant Nils Haal (who was ennobled in 1652 by Queen Kristina), has certainly produced some interesting profiles. In Swedish history we find a Gyllenhaal...
In Swedish history we find a Gyllenhaal Prime Minister of Justice, a prominent Gyllenhaal entomologist, a Gyllenhaal composer and socialite, among others, and in the U.S. who hasn’t heard of the siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal? Recently we made another pleasant discovery when we found Liza Gyllenhaal, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Local Knowledge.”
“I think we all have something deeply embedded in us that keeps us going,” Liza Gyllenhaal says over coffee at Bryant Park in New York. “Today I believe in everything, I believe in nature, I believe in things we cannot comprehend. I don’t think one explanation is going to cover it all. But my values, all my values, go straight back to that town.”
The town she’s referring to is Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. A town that is not only something of a seat for the Gyllenhaal family, but also the Episcopal seat of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, a church based on the works of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. And the church Gyllenhaal grew up in.
“I always felt that I was Swedish,” she continues. “The culture of Bryn Athyn has very Scandinavian overtones, and of course the name helps.”
She looks Scandinavian too, with her blond hair and delicate features. Gyllenhaal grew up in a close-knit family with five siblings, in a community completely steeped in Swedenborgian beliefs.
“It is a difficult religion,” she says. “It’s very intellectual, it takes a lot of study to understand it. It’s also quite conservative, at least it was when I grew up, and rigorous. I felt I had to find the world, so I broke with the church intellectually when I was at college.”
All the same, shades of her faith remain very intact in her. She says she still believes in some of the basic tenets, like the sanctity of married love. Swedenborgians believe that when they find their true partner in life, they will also be together in the afterlife, joined for eternity.
“I believe in that very strongly,” Gyllenhaal says.
Her break with the church was soon followed by her falling in love with books and reading. Although she had always been writing, a fresh new look at the world gave her a voracious appetite for books — an appetite she is still trying to satiate.
“I read everything, absolutely everything. I came to New York wanting to be a poet, but it is very hard to be a poet outside the academic world, and I also wanted desperately to be out in the world.”
So instead of becoming a poet, she founded an advertising agency that specialized in publishing accounts and, for fun more than anything, tried her hand at writing in the mystery and romance genres.
“I wrote a few books, they were good but it was really about the plot more than anything,” she says now. “What I really wanted to do, was to write something essential. Something that’s more than a story, more than character.”
Talking to Gyllenhaal about writing, and writing well, is very stimulating. She has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about what it is that makes a story attractive, authentic and timeless.
“It is all about exploring something fundamental. It’s like a good marriage, you’re pursuing something more than you are. You have to find a story about life, it has to have a real basis. I think that if you try to be honest and you work hard, it works. Maybe it’s not always the case, but most of the time it is. ”
The story of “Local Knowledge” came to her, she explains. She didn’t find it.
“It came to me in a big way because my husband and I had bought a house in the Berkshires and I watched the development there, the difference between the community there, and the upscale urban weekenders who have the money to buy up and develop the land, the greedy overreaching. Then I met a woman, I only spent an hour with her, and I knew right away that I had found in her the ‘voice’ of the story.”
The result is a novel that probes the nature of family, friendship, love and ambition among people in a small town, the secrets they keep and the lies they tell. It is also about a town in transition and how this affects the residents.
Gyllenhaal is currently at work at another book (“I have just spent four months writing it”) and she also re-visits Bryn Athyn from time to time.
“I have only good things to say about Bryn Athyn,” she says. “The people there are wonderful, it was a great place to come from and I love going back. But it’s a bit like wishing you could stay ... but knowing you can’t, you know? Because I don’t have that kind of innocence anymore, it’s an innocence that you lose when you go away. But it’s all for the better,” she says and smiles.
by Liza Gyllenhaal
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: NAL Trade; First Edition edition (January 6, 2009)
Product Dimension: 8 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches