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Writers in the Library



Norris Eppes: Your short stories often contain worlds that feel extensive enough for their own novels; the “Meritorious Life” stories come to mind. Did The Regional Office is Under Attack grow out of a short story like this? If not, how do you decide which idea to explore in a novel, and which to write as short fiction?

Manuel Gonzales: The Regional Office did not grow out of a short story idea, in fact. Although when I first started writing the opening to what would become the Regional Office, I wasn’t thinking of it as a novel idea, either. Mainly I had a character in a moment and then kept running with that moment. It didn’t take long — maybe three or four pages of writing — before I knew it wasn’t going to be a short story, though. Because the world was already, very early, too big, or, rather, my interest in the world was too big to be contained in a story. When I have a story idea, the world is almost secondary, or it’s implied as larger but what concerns me and what concerns the story is often very small, is a character, is a small set of circumstances, a small but significant desire. But also, it’s generally not a decision. I don’t look at an idea and decide — story, novel?, which should it be? The ideas come to me and they simply feel like they are what they are when they arrive.

NE: Your novel doesn’t seem concerned with violence as a subject; but there’s a heck of a lot of violence in it. How do you write a book about a surprise attack, super powered assassins, and a lethal mechanical arm without it becoming gory or gratuitous?

MG: It’s funny this kind of question — How did you do this or that? — which I get often and I’m sure other authors get as well but it’s funny because I have no real good answer for how I wrote a book about assassins and lethal mechanical arms and attacks without it becoming gory or gratuitous. It wasn’t planned, wasn’t deliberate. It wasn’t something I was thinking about when writing. I would write a scene or develop a character or push the story along and every so often, intuitively, I would think, Oh, I need a fight here, or not even that, I wouldn’t even think that, I would think, What happens next? and a part of me would answer, A fight, and I would write a fight scene. Because the violence wasn’t my concern, it never became gratuitous. If you look at, say, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, the violence is front and center and is over-the-top — except it’s not out of the bounds of what happened — and so it’s gratuitous-ness is intentional and hopes to make a point, I think. Since I didn’t mean to or want to make a point of the violence, since it was just there because moments seemed to — because of the narrative tropes I was playing with — seemed to require some action, some fighting, some cutting of people in half, that all became more background.

NE: In Chapter 13 of Regional Office, Sarah rephrases her thoughts in a way that reminds me of your short story “All of Me.” I was intrigued by this voice in both places; a style of narration where the character slowly brings the reader up to speed with what’s really going on in her head. Is that the effect you intended in these moments?

MG: I don’t know if it’s the effect I intended, honestly. (Most of the things I do I don’t know how or why I’ve done them only that they seem right and when they don’t, I take them out and put something else in until that seems right, etc.) What these sections feel like to me are the way I sometimes process moments in my own head. My own thoughts loop around, jump trains, find their way back to where I started, but with more context — so it’s less trying to bring the reader up to speed and more exploring the way we sometimes know something intuitively but then have to do the hard work of explaining to ourselves what we already have intuited but not quite accepted yet.

NE: Not many people reach for an academic journal when they want a pleasurable reading experience; but Regional Office includes chapters excerpted from a scholarly paper that tracks the downfall of the regional office. These sections remind me of the experimentation with form in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. What was the idea behind including these excerpts from a scholarly work? 

MG: I love the weird jargon of scholarly papers — although to be honest, this white paper that runs through the novel is just a white paper in name alone — it hardly contains any actual jargon you’d associate with a true academic paper. Mainly, I used it as a way to get a lot of story into the novel in a way that wouldn’t require me to bog down Sarah or Rose’s narratives with that story. Originally, the novel contained four different narrative lines — Sarah, Rose, Mr. Niles, and Henry — and then I wrote the opening section and on a whim called it The Regional Office is Under Attack: Tracking the Rise and Fall of an American Institution (which, could I have thought of a more anodyne title for a white paper?), and once I did that, I set to rewriting the entire novel from scratch because how I’d set it up originally didn’t mesh as well or look as good against that opening section, and in doing this rewrite, I realized that Henry and Mr. Niles were performing a lot of the same work, so I cut out one narrative line — Mr. Niles’s — and then I realized while writing deeper that I wasn’t ever super interested in Henry’s stand-alone narrative line, that I was really interested just in Sarah and Rose, and so I cut him out, too, but then I realized a lot of Regional Office origin story and backstory had been contained in those two sections and I needed that, I felt, and so I decided to run that original white paper throughout the whole novel as a way to get in the story I needed to tell about Regional Office’s history and the revenge plot so that we’d be able to hang Rose and Sarah’s alternating narratives on something structural.

NE: The Regional Office is Under Attack doesn’t force readers to pick out a protagonist and an antagonist. Were you consciously trying to subvert the “hero/villain” idea with your novel? Especially when it vibes with genres where the “good/bad” lines are drawn so distinctly?

MG: Yeah. (Ha, what if that were my entire answer?) I think each of these characters begins with good intentions and these intentions are marred by circumstances that lead to other decisions that are still hewing to the good intentions but are further removed — in other words, most people aren’t hero/villain binaries. Most people make good and bad decisions almost equally and due to circumstances, due to context, and often don’t realize in the moment they’re making a decision that what they’re doing is either good or bad. Sarah is defending an organization that has kind of lost sight of its mission; Rose is trying to destroy an organization that, from certain perspectives, is doing as much harm as it is good — abducting girls and training them to fight the forces of darkness? Well, both groups do this very same thing. They just think the other is the force of darkness, and the other thinks they’re the force of darkness. And it wasn’t that I was trying to subvert the hero/villain idea but that I don’t really believe in it.




Come hear Manuel Gonzales on Monday, April 10th, 2016 in the Hodges Library Auditorium at 7PM. As always, the Writers in the Library readings are free and open to the public.
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Manuel Gonzales is the author of the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack! and the acclaimed story collection The Miniature Wife, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. A graduate of the Columbia University Creative Writing Program, he teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, andThe Believer. Gonzales lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children.

Norris Eppes is an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee.

Interview with Poet LeAnne Howe

It is our great pleasure to be hosting poet, essayist, scholar, and more, LeAnne Howe, for our next Writers in the Library Reading Series Event! You can find out more at our website or on our Facebook or Twitter pages!

 

Jeremy Reed: We often think of writers as poets, playwrights, novelists, or essayists. We don’t often think of a writer as all of those things at once, and yet your writing incorporates multiple genres often. How do you think the process of working in multiple genres has affected your creative life?

LeAnne Howe: You left out scholar. I also produce literary scholarship in my field, Native American literatures.  Hubris made me say this, forgive me.  But to answer your question, I truly never think about what kind of work belongs in a certain genre. I’m more comfortable letting the work choose how it wants to be experienced in the world. Sounds a bit wacky, but that’s how I work.  I start out writing what I think will be a poem and it turns into drama and fiction.  That’s how Savage Conversations was born; it began as poetry, now it’s a drama for the stage, and at the same time it’s poetry.

My literary ancestry began with the stories my grandmother and great aunts told at family gatherings.  Storytelling came first.  I was also a journalist for several years, so literary scholarship seemed a reasonable creative move.  My career has been a Tribalography, my term, for the way American Indians tell stories (in multiple genres).  And one thing leads to another.

The affect of writing in multiple genres is that I manage to stay busy.  At this time, I’m working on a new documentary film, Searching For Sequoyah. The website is now up  http://searchingforsequoyah.com/. This summer in Toronto, Canada we go into rehearsals for a new play I’m co-authoring with Monique Mojica, Sideshow Freaks and Circus Injuns.  We are performers in the show.  Monique is a wonderful actress, teacher, and playwright.  We also have many Native collaborators from the Southeastern tribes.  The show is scheduled to open on August 24, 2017.  I’m also finishing a novel this semester.  Again, the affect on my creative life is that I am busy, but I don’t think this is much different than most artists.

 

JR: In addition to writing as much as you do, you’re the Eidson Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia. How does teaching relate to your writing life?

LH: I’m very fortunate.  Teaching and research are a creative symbiosis for me.  My teaching is fueled by my research interests.  And vice versa.

JR: You’re known as a writer who writes humor exceptionally well. What do you think the role of humor is in writing today?

LH: Humor disarms the reader, disarms an audience.  I use it to help readers enter a Native story without feeling guilty about the genocide that was enacted against our ancestors, our tribe, and families.  And I’ve always wanted to be thought of as a female Will Rogers pointing out ironies and absurdities for a bilious public.   Hubris made me say this, forgive me.

 

JR: Your most recent book, Choctalking on Other Realities, concerns your experiences traveling the world and representing American and Native identities abroad. In that collection, you write: “Native stories are power.” Yet, too frequently, Native writers are left out of conversations about contemporary American literature. What recent Native writers’ works do you admire and wish had a wider audience?  

LH: I’m very interested in the work of Tommy Pico, a Native poet. I’m reading IRL, his first book of poetry.  But really, I could name 57 Native writers and most people will never have heard of them, or read their work.  Perhaps it is our invisibility in the literary world.  Recently I was talking to a group of people about Louise Erdrich’s work.  They’d never heard of her.

 

JR: Your newest project, Savage Conversations, centers around Mary Todd Lincoln’s claims that a “savage indian” would torture her each night while she was in an insane asylum in 1875. How has writing about this topic affected your concern regarding how Native stories are represented in American history?

LH: We’re not represented at all.  We get about a paragraph (so to speak) in U.S. student’s K-12 education and we’re represented as past tense, dead.  All gone.  Alas.

Historians and authors interested in the Lincolns knew about the period in Mary Todd Lincoln’s life in which she blamed an Indian spirit for her madness.  But they ignored it.  Why?  This is the question I asked when I began researching Mary Todd Lincoln.  It felt very much like the 1995 case of Susan Smith from South Carolina who blamed a black man for kidnapping her children.  People may remember that Smith killed her children then claimed a black man drove off with them in her car.  Both women blamed the “Other” for their insanity.  The “why” question is something I try and answer in the book.

Working on Savage Conversations has given me insights into how a President’s wife in 1875 imagined American Indians.  She imagined us as savages.  It helped me consider that perhaps Abraham Lincoln thought Dakota Indians were savages.  He ordered the execution of thirty-eight Dakota Indians for participation in the so-called Dakota Uprising in 1862 in Minnesota.  I don’t agree that just because he spared the lives of over 200 other Dakotas that this is an indication of mercy, or that he saw them as human beings.  That’s not what he says.

Come hear LeAnne Howe read from Choctalking on Other Realities Monday, February 6th in the Hodges Library Auditorium at 7PM. We look forward to seeing you there!

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LeAnne Howe, the Eidson Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia, connects literature, Indigenous knowledge, Native histories, and expressive cultures in her work. Her interests include Native and indigenous literatures, performance studies, film, and Indigeneity. Professor Howe (Choctaw) is the recipient of a United States Artists (USA) Ford Fellowship, Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, American Book Award, and an Oklahoma Book Award, and she was a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar to Jordan. In October 2015, Howe received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association, (WLA); and in 2014 she received the Modern Languages Association inaugural Prize for Studies in Native American Literatures, Cultures, and Languages for Choctalking on Other Realities. 

Jeremy Michael Reed is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee. His poems are published in Public PoolStillValparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere. More of his work can be found here.

Interview with Novelist Tawnysha Greene

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Taylor Gray ’17: Your debut novel, A House Made of Stars, is a continuation of your dissertation, which began as the final project for a fiction class. What inspired you to continue growing this story?

Tawnysha Greene: When I defended my dissertation, I had an early draft of the novel with an ending I liked, but one of the most honest (yet most helpful) revision comments I received was that my character and my book hadn’t earned that ending yet. The book needed to be longer, and my character had to grow into that ending and earn it for the story to be complete.

I wanted to see my narrator earn the ending I wanted for her, so I spent the next year building her–making her braver, stronger–so that by the time she found her voice in the novel and decided to speak out, she had earned that voice and all the words she had to say.

The novel’s narrator is quite young, so your audience hears this heart-wrenching story of domestic abuse from a victim who has relatively limited understanding of the hardship and abuse she endures. Of all the characters in the novel, why did you choose the young daughter to tell the story?

I chose to make the narrator of A House Made of Stars a young girl, because in doing so, I could use a simpler, more honest mode of storytelling. There are so many issues addressed in this book—poverty, illness, abuse—and I wanted to convey these issues in the most direct way possible. Children are far more honest than many adult narrators and can be acutely aware of their surroundings, so I decided that I needed a younger narrator if I wanted this same kind of directness in my novel. I also decided on her as the narrator rather than her younger sister, because she is a bit more aware of her family situation as she can overhear bits of spoken conversation whereas her sister, who is deaf, cannot.

The characters in the book are nameless, which is quite an interesting choice. Tell me a bit about that decision.

Unfortunately, abuse is something that plagues far too many families, and it is easy to feel as if you are alone when you are growing up with an abusive parent. I wanted to write the characters in A House Made of Stars as if they could be anyone anywhere who was struggling with abuse. I wanted to write a narrative in which there is hope and a way to escape an abusive home. I hoped that in doing so, I could instill a small sense of encouragement and show that anyone living in a home of domestic violence can survive against all odds and emerge to have their voices heard and acknowledged.

Whether intentionally or inadvertently, both the father and the mother dismiss the narrator’s identity to some degree. The father refuses to accommodate his daughter’s deafness by using sign language, and the mother often rewrites stories in order to conceal the violent abuse. Tell me about the significance of communication (or a lack thereof) in the novel.

Communication is power in this book, and at the beginning, the narrator’s parents withhold this power from the narrator–whether it be refusing to engage with her in sign language or rewriting her narrative to cover up the truth of their family life. However, as the book progresses, the narrator learns how to communicate for herself—first in secret in signing to her sister and her cousin, then more openly in letters, then finally in the call she makes at the story’s end. She learns her value as an independent voice in the family, and how important it is to speak out for her family’s safety and well-being.

Throughout the novel, there are moments where you humanize the abusive father. Why did you feel this was necessary?

The father’s character was an especially difficult one to write, because he appeared too flat in a lot of my earlier drafts. He was reckless and violent, but he was not as believable as the other characters, because he did not have the same kind of redeeming qualities as they did. So I explored ways in which I could humanize him more and explain his actions. I added scenes with his sister in which she shares painful details about their past. I gave him a burn scar that runs from his neck down to the top of his hand. I gave him reasons for his pain and anger.

Instead of making him a stereotypical abusive father, I aimed to make him a wounded man who never healed from his past. This way, I could still write him as an antagonist, but as one who was a more rounded and well-developed character.

The story started out as a “secret story” that only your professor would read, an assignment that allowed you to write about a topic you may not feel comfortable sharing. Did the sense of discomfort stay with you as you continued writing? How did you handle writing such disturbing scenes?

The “secret story” is a wonderful assignment, because it forces you to try new things–whether it be an unfamiliar writing style or content you would have been uncomfortable sharing in a workshop setting. Writing these secret stories always involves risk, and there is usually a sense of discomfort when you try new things and falter along the way, but I find that these are the stories that are the most cutting, the most honest.

Honesty is something that I hoped to capture in A House Made of Stars, especially as my narrator is a young girl who would remember every detail about her family, so I owed it to her to be unflinchingly honest about everything in her life–both positive and negative–regardless of how uncomfortable they were. So when I wrote the scenes of abuse, I imagined how she would see these scenes and remember them, and I did my best to write those scenes with that same intensity.

Apart from being published, what was the most rewarding part of your journey with A House Made of Stars?

The most rewarding parts of the publishing journey have been the people who reached out to me after reading the book and who shared their own stories of growing up with an abusive parent. Their heartbreaking narratives of pain and, in spite of it all, survival, and ultimately, forgiveness and hope inspired me, because it was at this time that I realized that this book was no longer the “secret story” it had started out being–it was a story that too many of us already knew. While sad, this kind of connection was more rewarding than any other part of the publishing process, because it brought me these new friends who understood my narrator as they were all her at one point in their lives. Their journeys toward healing and peace were also moving and have given me hope that one day soon, my narrator can find these things, too.

What’s next for you/for this character?

A House Made of Stars a bit of an anomaly in that it doesn’t wrap up as neatly as many novels typically do. Some readers pushed for an epilogue at the end of the book to tie up the ending a bit more, but I hesitated to include one, because the rest of my narrator’s story was so much bigger than a short note at the end of a book. So much more had to happen before she truly found closure about her childhood, so I decided to start writing a sequel to better detail this journey.

This book is untitled as of now, but takes place twenty years after A House Made of Stars has ended. The book is still in its first draft stage, but I am looking forward to learning more about this character as an adult and what she can teach me.


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Come hear Tawnysha Greene read from A House Made of Stars along with UTK alumni Kristi Maxwell on Monday, October 3rd in the Hodges Library Auditorium at 7PM. You can also hear her talk, “Publishing Small, Dreaming Big: How To Market a Small Press Book to a YA Audience,” at 2PM in 1210 McClung Tower!

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Taylor Gray is a senior at the University of Tennessee majoring in English with concentrations in Literature and Technical Communication. Through her studies, she has developed an interest in feminist and multicultural literature. In hopes of becoming fluent in Spanish, she is minoring in Hispanic Studies. When not writing or studying, Taylor enjoys reading thrillers, finding new music, and checking her horoscope. She also dedicates much of her time to the UT College of Architecture and Design as the first-ever communications intern.

Tawnysha Greene received her PhD from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. Her work has appeared in PANK, Bellingham Review, and Weave Magazine. Her first novel, A House Made of Stars, was released from Burlesque Press in 2015.

Interview with Christopher Hebert : Part Two

Part two of Megan Faust’s interview with Christopher Hebert, this year’s first reader for the WIR reading series and a former Writer-in-the-Library!  Come see him read  from his newly released novel, Angels of Detroit, at the University of Tennessee on Monday, August 29, 2016. The event is part of the university’s Writers in the Library reading series. The public is invited to this free reading at 7 p.m. in the Lindsay Young Auditorium of UT’s John C. Hodges Library.

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Megan Faust (’16): You mentioned in our last interview that this was up to the interpretation of the reader, but as I was reading Dobbs’ thoughts on how the planet is careening towards disaster and Clementine’s musings on the 6th Ice Age and what scientists in the future will find of our destroyed planet, I’m also watching news stories about the horrific flooding in Louisiana.  It’s all reminding me of hurricanes and tropical storms, An Inconvenient Truth, etc.  Did you at least somewhat intend this book to serve as a kind of warning?

Christopher Hebert: Yea, as I said, I didn’t really have my own particular thesis or angle that I was interested in announcing.  What interests me as a writer are complex, volatile situations in which there are no easy answers.  I think what interests me about the world is the lack of simplicity in things.  Where you see simplicity, you imagine simple solutions.  But simple solutions don’t honor what’s actually happening.  If we can’t really face the complexity of many problems from many angles, we’re never going to figure out what to do about them.  We see that a lot on our political stages.  People are just giving you a 10 second soundbite like, oh, this will fix everything.  And it sounds good, but generally when that happens, it just digs a deeper hole.  So what I was interested in doing was taking seriously a lot of the different things you see in places like this.

You go to Detroit now, and you see billboards with slogans saying nice things about Detroit.  That grows out of the very bad publicity Detroit gets a lot of as there are a lot of people saying bad things about Detroit.  And I see those signs, and I’m like, yea, I’ve got a lot of good things to say about Detroit.  I like Detroit in a lot of ways too.  But I don’t think you can say only nice things about Detroit.  I don’t think that actually makes anything better.

You can look at Detroit and see a lot of things that are improving.  Since I moved in 2008, billionaires are buying up buildings in downtown, there’s a lot of development there.  There are all kinds of fancy new restaurants and new bars and great mixology happening.  There’s a lot of cool stuff you can get, like fabulous crepes and coffee.  There’s a Whole Foods there now.  So you could look at that and say, this is great.  And it is, but a lot of that is gentrification, and a lot of that is not remotely helping the poor people that continue to live there.  I feel that still needs to be acknowledged too.  Yes, there are good things happening in Detroit, but Whole Foods is not going to solve the problem of people living in abject poverty in houses that are falling down who have no public services of any kind and are extraordinarily vulnerable to everything.

There are plenty of people who look at a place like Detroit and think that it’s beyond saving.  It’s beyond hope, and all we can do is cut it loose and move on.  Or that it’s an example of our hubris or the mistakes we’ve made in the past.  But I don’t necessarily think that solves problems either.  What we see in Detroit is not limited to Detroit.  That was part of what really resonated with me.  I looked at Detroit and I saw St. Louis, I saw Ohio, I saw where I grew up in Syracuse.  You can’t just cut loose all of these places when they become inconvenient.  So I wanted to take seriously that particular view – that we have created these ruins through a lot of destructive practices and a lack of foresight – but I didn’t want that to be the dominant view of the book.

I wanted that to be in juxtaposition to people who are like Clementine.  To me, she’s a little different from Dobbs in that she’s aware of ecological problems and she reads up on them, but she’s also not giving up like he is.  He’s sort of leaning into it and aligning himself with the cockroaches of the world because they survive, and she’s not.  She is still spirited and smart and doing her thing.  And then there are people like Constance.  She lives there and she knows how grim a lot of it is.  She’s one of those people who doesn’t have very much, but she’s planting this garden, and by the end of the book, she’s creating this new place where people can eat who otherwise can’t.  So I think it was my attempt to grapple with the many sides of this.

When I went inside the corporation, I found even that is complex.  Since both of our presidential candidates were in Detroit this past week, we’ve been hearing talk about policies to turn around the outsourcing of manufacturing.  That’s often an easy line: all of these jobs went to China, and we need to get them back.  But that’s not that simple either because often when you’re talking about that, you’re waxing nostalgic about 1950s manufacturing, which doesn’t exist anymore.  There are far fewer people doing manufacturing.  It’s now all automated, and those jobs don’t pay very well.  Even if you steal back from China all of the Detroit jobs that we sent over there, it would be like 1/50 of the manufacturing base that we once had.  And so when I was inside of the corporation, I wanted to try and take seriously what it meant to try to run a business in a place like this without putting up a paper demon.

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MF: So maybe it would be closer to say that this is more of a warning against simplicity than it is a warning against disaster.

CH: Yea.  I don’t really think that books, especially novels, are good for teaching people lessons.  People don’t want to be taught things that they don’t want to learn.  What books can do, and what they do better than anything else I think, is give you an opportunity to dwell in someone else’s life for a while.  One of the results of doing that is you come to sympathize a bit with them.  You come to understand who they are and what they’ve gone through.  They aren’t necessarily demanding your sympathy or asking you to feel sorry for them, but a lot of that inevitably happens.  You learn what it’s like to be a poor person living in a Detroit neighborhood.  At no point does any person say, I want you rescue me or make all of this go away.  You spend enough time with them, and you begin to care about them.  You begin to see that this is complex.  And once you recognize that complexity, I think you’re less likely to go tossing out innocently ignorant solutions to problems that aren’t actually solutions.  A lot of the things that we spout about, like all we need to do is this, is true only if you ignore 3/4 of what’s out there.  But if you recognize that there are people living in Detroit… It’s part of the gentrification that’s going on.  It’s nice that there are now shiny buildings in Detroit, and you can get an awesome espresso.  Those things are great, but there are still those other people out there.  How are we going to deal with that?

But on the liberal end, it doesn’t do any good to demonize corporate entities.  We’re all complicit in buying their crap and supporting this world that we live in.  We can’t pretend that the poor are all innocent and the corporations are all the guilty monsters.  There are things that they do that are troubling and that make us unhappy, but we can’t shift all of the blame.  We need to see that we are all cogs in this machine that has a lot of problems.  So that’s something that I think a book can do successfully instead of demand that readers shut it and take a position.

It does leave a lot of room for interpretation and space for some reviewers to close the book and say, well, the apocalypse is coming.  And there are some who will close it and say, yea, there are problems, but this is a hopeful book.  For me, it’s hopeful.  I didn’t really anticipate the apocalypse reading, but I’m responsible for writing an ambiguous book, so I’ll take it.

MF: Gotcha.  If you were to write a similar novel about Knoxville, what kinds of characters would you populate the city with?  What conflicts or tensions might you weave throughout the narrative?

CH: Oh man, that’s a good question.  I don’t know.  I’m still getting to know Knoxville, and I’ve been wondering lately if I’ll ever be able to write about it.  I don’t know the place well enough.  I do have a thing for political struggle; my first book was set in Haiti, and it was about race and politics there.  I don’t know – this town in a lot of ways is the opposite of Detroit.  I got here at just the moment that Knoxville was really blooming.  It was in the very recent past that Market Square was just a dump, and there was nothing there but Tomato Head.  The Old City wasn’t there either.  This was all very recent, within the last 10 years.  You hear a lot about cities reinventing themselves, especially in the Rust Belt.  It’s been remarkable to see the transformation here and how successful it’s been.  On the other hand, it was on a much smaller scale, and it wasn’t industry that needed to be replaced.  We’re talking about a downtown district of tourism and restaurants, and that’s easier to manage than replacing vanished manufacturing plants.

I see a lot of wealth in this town.  I live in Bearden, and I drive past Sequoyah Hills, Lion’s View, and the endless mansions on the river.  I’m often quite curious about what’s going on in East Knoxville.  I’m curious about immigrant communities here, and what their view of this place is, and how all of this development is touching them or not.  So I wonder about the other Knoxville.  But between campus, Bearden, and downtown, you see a lot of success and money and good things.  Maybe it’s the dark side of me, but I always wonder about what’s hiding in the corners or what we are sweeping away that we don’t want to look at.  Just like when you drive a bit north and you cross under the bridge, and you see leagues of homeless people.  I remember shortly after I moved here, people were saying that we don’t have a homeless problem here or that it’s fairly well maintained.  Whether that is true, I don’t know, but what certainly seems to be true is that the city has succeeded in attracting them all to one place.  I don’t know if that’s a way of making the problem less visible because it doesn’t occupy all parts of the city.  I don’t know, but it’s interesting.

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MF: So there’s no upcoming novel on Big Orange Country?

CH: There’s not.  I’m working on something that, as of now, is set in New York.  It’s very different.  I’ve written a lot of stuff that pulls in politics, revolt, tumult, and stuff like that, so I’ve decided to try to do something a little lighter and see how that goes.

MF: A little lighter… So you’re not setting your story in an industrial wasteland?

CH: I’m not!  No industrial wastelands, no political violence, no crushing riots.

MF: Wow.  No one will recognize Christopher Hebert.

CH: Yea, it’s a quieter book.  As of now, it has none of those elements in it.

MF: Is it a different experience writing a book like that?

CH: Every book is different, and having written books, you feel that you have the experience now to keep writing them.  But in a lot of ways, every book is a new project that you have to completely figure out from the ground up.  It creates entirely new challenges.  Angels of Detroit is my second book, but it took forever to write because I had all of these pieces and I needed to figure out how they went together.  Some of the challenges of the new book are formal.  One of the ideas I have is that it takes place over the course of a single night, so it’s compressed.  And hopefully shorter.  My last two books are both exactly 432 pages, so that’s a specialty of mine.  I’m determined to write a slim little quick read, but I suspect that somehow or another – and actually already as I’m writing it, I see little things about economic disparity pulling in.  The main protagonist is a high school kid, and I already see an awareness of socioeconomic difference in the community and different students in school.  But I’m going to maintain the plan that this is a…

MF: Light-hearted summer beach read.

CH: Exactly.  But we’ll see.  Maybe I just can’t help myself.  Maybe it will transform into something else entirely.  In broad strokes, it’s about a kid who’s drawn into this mission that falls in his lap that he doesn’t want to do yet he has to, and it takes the course of a single night.  What it will lead to, I don’t know.  There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of space for it to bloom into something else.  Maybe 432 pages of something else.

MF: It sounds like these books have a mind of their own.  They’re coming from you, but they very much so demand certain things from you.

CH: Yea, and for me, that’s the pleasure of writing.  I do know writers who start with an outline and then just write that outline in book form.  I like to be challenged, and I like to not know where I’m going.  I think I would just be bored if I knew what the book was about and who these people were.  My favorite characters in the book are the ones who surprised me, who I didn’t really know at all.  I take pleasure, and I think a lot of writers do, when our characters come to life and do things that we never intended.

MF: Do you have a favorite character in Angels of Detroit?

CH: There are a lot of characters I like, but the writing experiences I enjoy grew out of chapters just spiraling out of my control, like the chapter on Mrs. Freeman as a young woman in Detroit.  That was one of the later chapters I wrote, and I wrote it because I was aware that it was hard to get a sense in the book of the glory days of Detroit.  There’s a very clear sense of the grimness and how difficult things are now, but not of what it was.  And also no nostalgia for what it was.  So I realized I needed to do that, and she was the person because she was from there and she came from a wealthy family.  She would have known and experienced this other side of Detroit.  That chapter is one of my favorites because I feel it does both simultaneously.  It allows you a breezy walk through the glory days and shows you what it would be like to be a young woman from a wealthy family with access to all of the resources of the city.

At the same time, that ultimately gave me an opening to talk about what happened, what it led to, and the ways in which Detroit’s problems grew out of racial conflict, segregation, and policies that separated white from black.  In a lot of ways, that’s really what drove the city to what it is today.  So I enjoyed being able to do something light while having something very dark happening underneath.  But I also learned a lot about her and the complexities of her position in writing that chapter.  She has a lot of warm and nostalgic feelings about the place.  She loves the city in a lot of ways, and she can now, with the benefit of hindsight, see her responsibility and the responsibility of her family and the wealthy families she knew who were able to just cut themselves off from all of the inequity, inequalities, and brutalities of life for poor people and African Americans.  That I found interesting.

Clementine too was a joy to just spend time with and hang out with and see where she took me.  Those scenes where she’s just running through the fields discovering things – part of that is reflective of the writing experience.  Where is she going?  I don’t know, let’s see where she goes!  And then she goes there and it’s like, oh yea!  Cool, of course she has a little hideout in a bush where she keeps all her stuff.  Of course she would, why wouldn’t she?  But I didn’t know that until I wrote it.  That’s the way for a lot of us: I don’t know it until I write it.  And they cease then to be characters, and they start to become real, credible people.  They need to be credible people for anyone to care about them.  Readers can tell the difference, even if they don’t know why.  They can’t see what a writer is doing, they can’t see how their emotions are being tweaked, but they know when they care about a character and when they don’t care about a character.  We often talk about how much you relate, but relating doesn’t necessarily mean they look and sound like you.  It means that you recognize their experiences and their emotions, and that you can understand what it would be like to be this young girl in this place.

MF: It’s more about empathy than relating in a more one-dimensional way.  Very cool.  I really liked that chapter too.  To me, it was kind of shocking when she was talking about the riots that occurred in Detroit.  She said that it took her a long time to not look at the African American population as this angry mob hell-bent on destruction.

CH: Yea, and I think that was the immediate response: rage.  She’s thinking, why are they doing this?  Why are they destroying this city?  It takes a while before she can step back and see that it’s because we’ve set these conditions in motion.  They’re destroying the city because they’ve been left out of the workplace, they’ve been targeted by the police, they’ve been prevented from moving into most of the city, they’ve been ghettoized.  That’s why they’re burning the city down.  But it’s hard if you’ve never been exposed to them.  If you’ve lived in this cloistered, privileged life, you would have never known that, so of course your first response would be, what the hell is wrong with these people?  But before she can get to the point of seeing her responsibility, she first needs to be able to see these people, recognize them, and see what’s happened.  In some ways, that’s the project of the book.  You need to see before you can understand.  There’s only so much you can come to abstractly.  You need to be able to affix concrete feelings and experiences to people and places so then you can realize, ok, this is what happened and this is what we’re dealing with.  And then you can move forward in some ways.

MF: That’s wonderful.

CH: I think so.  Whether or not it works, I guess we will see.  It at least makes things interesting for me as a writer.  We’re all different, but I… I like complexity and unanswerable questions.

MF: That makes it really easy for interviews, I’m sure.

CH: [laughs] You’re welcome.

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Christopher Hebert is the author of the novels Angels of Detroit (Bloomsbuy, 2016) and The Boiling Season (HarperCollins, 2012), and the winner of the 2013 Friends of American Writers award. He is also co-editor of Stories of Nation: Fictions, Politics, and the American Experience (forthcoming UT Press). His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as FiveChapters, Cimarrron Review, Narrative, Interview, and The Millions. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

Megan Faust is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She graduated with degrees in English literature and psychology and plans to pursue a doctorate in English. In her spare time, you can find her kayaking on the French Broad or arguing with someone about social disparities.

Interview with Author Christopher Hebert

The Writers in the Library Reading Series is thrilled to start it’s 2016-2017 season with author Christopher Hebert, whose novel, Angels of Detroit, was just released by  Bloomsbury USA. Below Hebert talks with UTK English alumna Megan Faust (’16) about process, place, and inspiration.

UT Eng WritersLibrary digital

Megan Faust: So first I wanted to ask about your relationship to Detroit. What inspired you to write about the city?

Christopher Hebert: So I moved to Michigan in 1989 to go to graduate school. I wasn’t living in Detroit, I was living in Ann Arbor, which is a suburb outside of Detroit, but Detroit was where all the cool things were happening. Fairly soon after I moved there, I started going into Detroit to go to music shows and museums, and I got to know the city. I got to be sort of startled by the city and the state that it was in. I’m not originally from Detroit, but I’m originally from the Rust Belt. I grew up in central New York, so a city that has suffered a lot of the same problems though on a much smaller scale.

I spent a lot of time in the Rust Belt growing up in Syracuse, and I had gone to school in central Ohio. The year before I moved to Michigan, I was in St. Louis, Missouri, which also had a lot of the same post-industrial problems. So I came to Detroit, and I felt like a lot of things came together. I was in Michigan for quite a while. I was in graduate school there, but then I continued working there as an editor. I was working for a publishing house, and one of the areas that I focused on in the books I was publishing there was music, specifically music about Detroit. It became a personal interest but also a professional interest, conveniently. They built off one another and dove-tailed. So in my day work, I was doing a lot of research and work on Detroit, and at night when I was writing, I was also working on the novel.

MF: Your book is filled with such disparate characters, from this little, insanely adventurous black girl living in poverty to this world-weary, corporate executive white woman who has overcome decades of sexism. I was wondering what gave you the perspective that informed the creation and development of such different characters?

CH: It was not something I really planned on going in. It grew very organically. Part of the reason the book took so long to come together is that I didn’t really have a masterplan going in. I had a few particular characters; I had this wandering guy we start with, although what he was doing I didn’t really know for a while. I had the political activists – most of them. The rest of it just sort of grew as I was going. I kept following these characters to see where they would lead. I had these activists who were pissed off about this corporation and what they were doing, and at a certain moment, I realized I wanted to go inside the corporation and find out who those people were and what their side was. That lead to Mrs. Freeman, the executive. That was the way a lot of the book worked. I would find myself moving in one direction, and then I would get curious about who the people are that are doing this. I was writing a lot about these blighted neighborhoods in which very few people continue to live, and at a certain point I realized I wanted to know who are these people? Who are the native people of this neighborhood who live there and continue to try to make a life? That led to Clementine, the little girl, and her great-grandmother.

I didn’t know this going in, but gradually it became clear to me that what I was writing was a portrait of a fragmented community. I had a lot of pieces. For a while, the pieces create problems as a writer because I didn’t know what these narratives had to do with one another. But then, after years of working on it, I realized that they’re all telling bits of the story. They’re telling the bits of the stories they have. In some ways they overlap, in some ways they diverge, but really there is no way to tell this story except by getting as broad of a taste of what life is like in the margins. Because in a lot of ways that’s what the city is like. It’s a big city geographically. The space is big, but there’s so much abandonment that what you have is pockets of people. You have a few people here and a few people there. That fragmentation is very much a part of what it’s like there too.

I also never entered the book with a particular thesis about the solution to the problems or who was to blame. So that gave me the luxury to just explore everyone, to give that executive as much space to become a person that we can feel sympathy for even though she feels to blame for some of what’s happened. I felt like she still has interesting things to say about all of this. Detroit isn’t simple, what happened there isn’t simple, and the answers aren’t simple. I’m not interested in simplicity. I’m interested in the complexity of all of this and giving everyone a chance to speak.

Detroit_HC_sketches

MF: I think that is a great tie-in with the title too, Angels of Detroit. It made me wonder if there are actually demons in this story or if everyone has a bit of redemption within them.

CH: I like to think so, and I liked to see some of the reviewers tackle the title and come up with who they think the angels are. The responses I get are really interesting. Some people feel like this is a book about the apocalypse and that we’re all doomed. Other people look at it and think it’s a book about struggle but also hope. I think the hopeful people in particular think of Clementine as one of the angels of Detroit.

MF: At one point in the novel, a character refers to Detroit as “the new old West.” To me, this summons up a sense of lawlessness that I saw reflected in McGhee’s plots, the abuses of the corporation HSI, and even Constance’s garden. Can you share some thoughts on Detroit as a new frontier of sorts?

CH: What’s interesting about Detroit is it’s this canvas against which a lot of people see possibility while a lot of other people just see hopelessness. Once upon a time, it was the 4th largest city with millions of people in it, and now it has fewer than 700,000. On the one hand, there are a lot of different things you could do and a lot of different ways to fill that space and replace the auto industry and the manufacturing that fled. But how you do that isn’t clear. In the meantime, what you have is just vast emptiness. In that emptiness, a lot of things grow, and some of it is crime. Living there is extremely difficult because it’s hard to police a city that big when you’ve got five people here, ten people there, and twenty people over there.

So it’s not exactly that it’s lawlessness but that the very layout of it stretches services. Also, the bankruptcy has made it difficult for a lot of things to happen that you would expect in a city. Policing was a big problem for a long time. Until very recently, there were very few streetlights. There’s very little working public transportation. People are really vulnerable to a lot of different things. The city has recently been really active about tearing down all of the abandoned houses, but for a long time they didn’t. That bred a lot of what you would expect to happen when you’ve got endless quantities of empty structures for people to go into and do whatever the hell they want. That was breeding a criminal element where drugs, guns, prostitution, and everything else can happen. When you have a vacuum, things have a way of coming in to fill it up, and one of those things is criminal entrepreneurship.

I also wanted to balance that with what Constance is doing, as you said. Another big part of what’s going on there now is that people are seeing this emptiness and thinking, what can I do with it? For a lot of people, their answer is, I’m going to build a garden. They don’t actually own the land that they’re building it on, it’s just that nobody else is taking it, the city isn’t going to stop me, so I’m just going to do. And they do it. There are some enormous, really successful gardens. But that’s a good observation. Technically, what she is doing isn’t legal. On the other hand, no one is going to stop her, and it seems like a worthwhile thing to be doing. There’s a lot of DIY going on there. There are a lot of people reclaiming stuff just because it’s there and no one else has any plans to do anything with it, so why the hell not?

But things are getting better. Even as we speak, more streetlights are going up, the police are receiving more funding. When they were going through bankruptcy, there was just no money and no resources. Yet in the last year alone, they’ve torn down around 10,000 abandoned buildings. Even the house that I write about in which Dobbs has set himself up – for a long time, that was standing. But the last time I was in Detroit, it was finally gone after many years. It was a real house. I had modeled after an actual house that had been in the area.

MF: Were the places in the book modeled after buildings that actually exist?

CH: It’s a mix. Some of them definitely were, some of them aren’t. A couple are borrowed from St. Louis, which was where I lived before. The loft/industrial apartment that McGhee and Myles have is actually the remarkably shitty place I lived in in St. Louis.

author photo 2016 (cropped)

MF: I noticed that the relationships between people in this book are a little unconventional. For the most part, the bonds formed between absolute strangers are stronger than those between family members or lovers.

CH: I’ve never heard that before, that’s interesting.

MF: Yea! I was thinking, since this book is connected largely to the breakdown of our civilization and environment, both industrial and ecological, I felt like the relationships arising in this city were products of their context. I was wondering if you saw a connection between the breakdown of an environment and the rearrangement of relationships between people?

CH: Yea, absolutely. I mean, I’ve revealed that I obviously didn’t plan it that way. But I think I was cognizant that I was working right from the start with nontraditional characters and people who are living on the fringe in a lot of different ways. So yea, I’m not surprised that the familial relationships are also strained. I think the only healthy one is between Clementine and her great-grandmother, and even that is sort of combative. They have a certain kind of understanding, but it’s still one that’s often in conflict. That’s really interesting. I would totally buy that. No one has ever mentioned that before, but yea, I could totally see that.

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Join us tomorrow for the remainder of the interview and more about Hebert’s forthcoming reading at 7PM on Monday, August 29th in Hodges Library!

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Christopher Hebert is the author of the novels Angels of Detroit (Bloomsbuy, 2016) and The Boiling Season (HarperCollins, 2012), and the winner of the 2013 Friends of American Writers award. He is also co-editor of Stories of Nation: Fictions, Politics, and the American Experience (forthcoming UT Press). His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as FiveChapters, Cimarrron Review, Narrative, Interview, and The Millions. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

Megan Faust is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She graduated with degrees in English literature and psychology and plans to pursue a doctorate in English. In her spare time, you can find her kayaking on the French Broad or arguing with someone about social disparities.

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