Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hilary Thayer Hamann answers our Top Five

Hilary Thayer Hamann is the author of the novel, Anthropology of an American Girl (Spiegel & Grau). She will be reading and signing at the bookstore on Thursday, Sept. 23rd at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Let’s see, there are about ten or twelve thousand books on my nightstand right now, so many in fact that I really ought to take a picture and e-mail it to you! It looks like a brick wall. And by no means does the quantity indicate my ability, just foolish, blind ambition.Lately, I’ve been interested in sparsely written fiction by women with strong underlying stories, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, a really great collection of her short stories, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and The War. I’m curious about voice, about the possibility of establishing something idiosyncratic and unforgettable for the protagonist in a neatly written package. A lot of times what comes through a tight plot-driven book is basically the author (this is true of Jackson) in another guise, which is fine, because it’s economical. But I’m finding that, as a writer, I prefer a firmly shaped character to lead the way. I like motive and plot to reveal itself somewhat organically from the behaviors and preferences of the characters. I’ve also been doing research for my next book and so have been reading about the Vietnam era, lots of non-fiction books from the library and new works like Tim O’Brien’s excellent The Things They Carried and Karl Marlantes’ beautiful Matterhorn. I’m reading the O’Brien book to my kids (10 and 12). They are completely involved.

2. How do you write?

Following the May release of Anthropology of an American Girl (AAG) by Random House, writing became my full-time job. Prior to the release, I worked with them on the re-edit, going back and forth with the manuscript, and that took lots of time. Also, I’ve been involved in a family business for many years, which I have turned over almost entirely to my ex-husband. And, most importantly, as I mentioned, I have two young children, and one teenager in her second year of college, so my life is devoted to them and to giving them a balanced education and a happy home life. Sadly, there are not a lot of cool coffee shops where I live now, so typically I go to the public library every day and work there. Even if I feel I can’t write too many words on a given day, I know that I at least have to be with my ideas in solitude. I will read, listen to music, and organize my work. For most of the summer there was a lot of publicity happening for AAG, so I had to be ready to accept opportunities at the drop of a hat. I was working in the round, collecting and sorting, building character sketches, etc. I have one gigantic file of notes with alphabetized labels like: architecture, clothing, dialogue, music, names, scenes. This is the more or less organized dumping ground for all things connected to the project. I also have an image folder full of things from the period pulled from the web. I can play this on slide show sometimes. Last, I have a music playlist for each project. There is the AAG playlist, which I never return to now that it’s over, and I have a new one for the latest book. I build very eclectic lists that I gather meticulously, so my lists will have songs few people have ever heard of.

The song list from the book is:

Follow you, Follow me, Genesis
Can’t Find My Way Home, Traffic
You’re All I’ve Got Tonight, The Cars
Cow Cow Boogie, Ella Fitzgerald
Here I Am, Come and Take Me, Al Green
Who’s Gonna Be Your Sweet Man When I’m Gone? Muddy Waters
Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Allman Brothers
Turn the Page, Bob Seger
Jesus Met the Woman at the Well, Peter, Paul, and Mary
Rock On, David Essex
Bernadette, The Four Tops
Tell Me Something Good, Chaka Kahn and Rufus
Bennie and the Jets, Elton John
Mainstreet, Bob Seger
What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye
Hey You, Pink Floyd
Fire, Ohio Players
Let the Sunshine In, The Fifth Dimension
Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, Four Seasons
Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits
Point Blank, Bruce Springsteen
She’s the One, Bruce Springsteen
The Cisco Kid, War
My Cherie Amour, Stevie Wonder
How Soon is Now? The Smiths
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Bob Dylan (Judy Collins version)

But I listened to lots of other things that did not appear in the book (Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Beth Orton, Nina Simone, etc).

I will often work on something late into the nght, or will get up and work again. The best part about writing is when you are about “seven-tenths wet,” you know, like almost all the way in the water. Not wet enough to start retreating, but just immersed enough to have to keep plowing forward in order to survive. It’s when all your intent lay directly ahead. I am only about three tenths wet right now! I need the one voice to click in. Right now I have three in tandem, and I am waiting for one to take the lead.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

There are lots of these moments, and they come in a variety of ways. I remember being in high school and starting using journals for self discovery and self preservation. I kept these books for several years. I could have just left off there as many people do and felt that I was a writer. After all, I was writing. I got a lot of feedback on academic writing while in college and graduate school, and that was fun. I guess I was halfway through AAG when I wrote the “This is Where I Falter” scene, which falls halfway through the book between high school and college years. The book contains two distinct sections and in the middle I write in my own voice, asking for some sort of divine inspiration!

4. What are you working on now?

I am writing a few books. The main one is about my childhood in the Bronx. It was not a very picturesque landscape, but I was happy there. I want to study lower middle class security and risks. What constitutes a win, or a loss? Loyalty? Sacrifice, etc. A second is about my later life and the reversals in fortune that have occurred to me. I work on this every day. It is very much like journaling. I am also developing a book about teaching classic music, film, and books, and general media awareness to children.

5. Favorite recent find?

I actually have a great answer to this. It’s a website called “The Selvedge Yard” (http://theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com/). It is a carefully curated home for high resolution photographs of fascinating design objects, sexy people, and cool tropes of the late twentieth century. You can find photos and essays on everything from Ford GT40 race cars to classic Schwinn Stingray bikes to the history of denim in Hollywood to the ancient art of Tebori Tattoo to amazing photos of the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen, etc. It’s awesome!

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