Brief q+a with Laird Hunt (updated with comments re: Ulysses thread)
I’ve read some good books put out by good presses this year (Graywolf, Dalkey and the NYRB come to mind, but I’m not discounting Eugene Lim and Ellipsis’s [Ellipses?] forthcoming books from that list. Can’t wait to check those out). But I don’t think anyone has hit it out of the park yet in 2009 like Coffee House. Evenson’s book completely eviscerated me and others just like me and probably others not at all like me (it has that kind of broad appeal). It’s easily the best story collection I’ve read in quite awhile. The other beauty, though, is Ray of the Star by Laird Hunt. The story of a guy named Harry, shattered by an accident that took the lives of his family, as he attempts to reconnect to life, love and sanity kicks serious ass. Remarkably, Hunt just keeps getting better, and it excites me to think that we haven’t even seen his best yet. I emailed with the author a little bit, and he fielded my asinine questions, which I just sent to him en masse, with wit and aplomb.
I was reading your playlist suggestions on the Times website, and I was pretty blown away to read that you wrote Ray of the Star in six weeks. Do you normally write that fast? You strike me as more of a deliberate writer, agonizing over word placement and rhythm and other aesthetic concerns. Six weeks!?
I’ve never written anything that fast, although years ago I wrote the first draft of my first book, The Paris Stories, with considerable speed (and a lot of cigarettes). Of course there was a good deal of reworking, after I had done the first draft of Ray, but it was nothing like my experience with the first three novels, each of which unfurled themselves slowly over a period of years. Both Indiana, Indiana and The Exquisite lived happy plot-free existences for at least 2 or 3 years before I saw the stories in them and could start to think of ways to shape those stories into something interesting. Ray’s story and the plot built in and around it were there from the beginning. As were those bloody sentences.
One of my favorite passages in The Exquisite was when you explored the idea of two New Yorks. One is the everyday city that smacks you in the face, the other is more ephemeral and rarely glimpsed. The city in your new book seems like more of the latter. Could you give me a bit of background into the setting (Barcelona?)?
You ask about The Impossibly later on and that was the book where I started exploring the second kind of city you mention. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but when I’ve left a place I know or think I know pretty well the names start falling off it. Or rather, I cease to be obliged or to oblige myself to truffle my daily conversations with references to, say, “Katz’s” or the “Ginza” or the specific kind of hair product you can find at that dope boutique “in the 5th” in Paris, etc. All those references that seem more about stating allegiances (to yourself or others) or sharing condition (with yourself or others). After I’ve left a place (and I count deep sleep, visiting new neighborhoods, going out at odd hours, getting hurt, badly frightened, etc., as kinds of leaving) the whole shebang quickly becomes mostly smoke and mirrors, vague lengths of corridor, the yaw of walls, the color of doorways, the frequency and duration of silences, cracks deepening on slabs of sidewalk, people moving toward or away from you. A version of this state occurs when you encounter a city for the first time, are walking its unknown and unknowable streets in that fog of first encounter. I covered a conference for the UN in Palermo and of course had almost no time to do any digging at all into the extraordinary layers of the place (though I actually saw quite a bit, including the inside of a Norman palace and the crypts beneath the city where wealthy 18th and 19th century citizens, dubiously embalmed, are still on ragged display). I found the residue of my odd encounter with the city provocative and some months later wrote a failed but kind of interesting short thing about it.
Ray of the Star, the initial impulse for it, came out of an intense week I spent in Barcelona, toting my young daughter around, worrying about what would happen if someone nabbed her or I dropped her or she kept throwing up (she got very ill on the trip) or whatever other paranoid fantasy a new parent can cook up. I walked through Gaudi’s great phantasmagoric cathedral and along the glittering coast and down the living statue lined central pedestrian street with my youngster strapped to me, and when I got back to the States the whole place seemed so strange and warped it was difficult to reconcile with the really rather benign word, “city.” I’ve lived in a number of serious urban centers (Singapore, London, Strasbourg, Tokyo, Paris, New York…) and while I dig exploring in my fiction the kind of frisson patterns of naming and knowing can set to humming through characters’ heads (see Henry in The Exquisite), I’m also interested in going after what happens to characters who are either totally (the narrator of The Impossibly) or partially (Harry in Ray) bereft of them.
Harry is questioning his own sanity toward the beginning of the book, although he comes to the conclusion that describing himself as “mad” is probably inaccurate. What’s madness but nobility of soul, at odds with circumstance? That’s not mine, it’s Roethke’s. But the question still stands.
I get the Roethke thing, but madness and/or the possibility of it hits too close to home (wreckage in the family) for me to engage at any kind of length with clever formulas about it (I suspect Roethke had his own good reasons for saying it) — I’m just not into Romantic narratives about brilliant, visionary mad men, etc. I just went to the theatrical adaptation of Indiana, Indiana, my second novel, and am reeling from seeing that study of different forms of madness (and the damage they set it in motion) dramatized. Harry in Ray is operating in the wake of deep trauma, and I suspect he rather wishes at times that what he is feeling could be ascribed to madness, mild or not. But there is no such “out” for the poor guy.
I am, curiously, also currently sitting in a café exhibiting photographs of various mental institutions across the country. There are bars across many of the pictured windows. I shudder, involuntarily, at the proximity of them.
On your website, you have a dramatic adaptation of Ray of the Star, and offer “nifty things” to anyone who turns it into a video. Has anyone done this yet? What are the nifty things? Do you think Gilbert & George would be appropriate to cast as two of the three old men/demons? Also, do you picture the talking shoes being CGI or, like, Muppets?
Hmmm, yes, what is a nifty thing? What would it be? I think I had something(s) in mind those months ago when I first put playwright Paul Ketchum’s terrific adaptations up but I haven’t had to think of it since, given that, to answer another part of the question, no one has done this yet. But I have lots of nifty things lying around in my life waiting to be picked up and handed over to some enterprising someone or someones…
Lovely Gilbert & George might have a snitch too much flash to be cast as the connoisseurs as I envision them. I see a kind of stock image retiree look happening. But that’s just me. Muppet style, I think. Or, wait, claymation. Yes, the kind of trainers that Wallace would strap on to engage in a bit of sport (cue Gromit rolling his eyes)…
Representative Henry Waxman recently suggested that Restless Leg Syndrome was not a real disease. Is it more or less real than reverse phantom limb syndrome?
Yeah, well, thanks a billion Representative Waxman. I have RLS and it is every bit as unpleasant and not quite as funny as I make it out to be in Ray. Imagine a condition that rears its ugly head just as you are dozing off, keeps you up sometimes for hours, feeds on exhaustion… Plus it gets worse as you get older. People who don’t have it think you’re clowning if you mention it. And yes, much the way they might greet someone who announced that they had negativity delirium or prosopagnosia or, not that many years ago, that big faker hypochondriac thing, depression.
I understand you live in Boulder. What do you make of the Broncos’ chances this year? Is Orton the anti-Elway?
I’m on Twitter and on Facebook and daily read a good number of “updates” from writer types about the sports teams they love. When I lived in New York a ton of the poets were mad about baseball and you had to hear a good deal about it, maybe, ahem, more than necessary. Paul Auster is a huge baseball fan if memory serves. And I remember the writer Etel Adnan talking about her love of American football. And of course half the whole world loves the other kind of football. I was a pretty mean strong safety in high school and was highly rated enough to get piles of recruitment letters until a nasty knee injury at the start of my senior year stopped them coming. A Dartmouth coach continued to call me on Friday nights in the offseason for a while, but nothing came of that (the knee never really got better). I’m rambling, but here’s the thing – I’m an ex-athlete turned writer who could care less about every sport (except, oddly, scandal tainted track and field, which I like to quietly follow through news articles.) That business of putting on a ball cap or bright wind breaker and going out to the stadium and hollering and being in a largely, frighteningly conservative atmosphere and backing groups of colorfully dressed very young people, and so forth, well, I did it. In fact I lived it. For years. But that was long ago. I don’t know about Orton. Is he any good?
We emailed a bit more, and later this came out of it, which I thought was interesting (on the subject of writing for your audience):
When The Impossibly came out my late, beloved Grandmother, who put me up and put up with me for five years in rural Indiana on the family farm, greeted me at my first post-publication visit with the following: “Well, I’ve read it one and a half times so far and I just have one question: what’s it about?” My Grandfather, another hoosier, spoke in similar if somewhat more grumpy terms about The Paris Stories. Both of them responded awfully kindly to my attempts to talk about what I thought I had been up to. Though when I mentioned the humorous aspect of The Impossibly my Grandmother just shuddered (she did not find it funny at all).
My loved ones are an indulgent bunch — I write what I have to and they are nice to me about it. In some ways it helps that I’m married to a poet, Eleni Sikelianos, who is much more fiercely experimental at the level of language than I am. I’m the easy one in the household. When we see her family they all want to ask me what I’m working on.
I read Blake Butler’s essay and the astonishing thread that ensued about Joyce et al last week with great interest. Beckett and Stein were my first great writing heroes (The Impossibly apes Stein’s Toklas Autobiography rhythms). I’m not at all interested in attempting to recreate modernist temples in our 21st century dispensation, but the residue of those seminal encounters remains very real for me. I’m grateful for it.