—BOXING THE OCTOPUS
“A painfully realistic portrait.”
“The plot…rings true and encompasses the complicated coming of age of an engaging main character.”
It's hard to add anything to the buzz being bestowed on Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann's debut novel, self-pubbed in 2003 and revamped for release last week by Spiegel & Grau.
"If publishers could figure out a way to turn crack into a book," gushes PW, "it’d read a lot like this." O Magazine says, "Remember what it feels like to be 17? Hamann does, and her heroine, Eveline Auerbach, sounds like somebody many of us knew—or were. Bright but disaffected, interested in pleasing adults but also rebellious, Eveline has a deadpan delivery Holden Caulfield might envy."
The Providence Journal calls it “an extraordinary debut, updating the 19th-century social-psychological novel of romance and manners.” Other reviews invoke Jane Austen, George Eliot, and JD Salinger, and the cover is evocative of a very specific literary time and style. One thing I love about all this is a noted absence of words like "girl power" and "estrogen." I don't recall ever seeing a book by a woman so oft compared to Salinger, and I like that we seem to have embraced the idea that icons rise above gender.
I won't even attempt to sum up the plot, which rings true and encompasses the complicated coming of age of an engaging main character. I'm not sure any woman looking back on her own initiation into reality, love, and disillusionment could nutshell it in less than the 600 pages it takes to tell this story. And it'll be impossible for women of a certain age to read this without revisiting those deeply personal passages.
I won't lie, this is a hefty tome to slog through (or maybe I'm just less sophisticated than other readers raving about it), but the author is so adept at putting the right words in the most tantalizing order, I kept reading, even as I repeatedly asked myself "What the hell is this book about?" Ultimately, you start to realize it's about everything. Or something. Or nothing. And hormones. Which is exactly what you realize about that phase of your life once you're comfortably in your forties.
Others are welcome to their loftier takes on Evie's evolution, but as the mother of a blossoming young woman who's as thrashingly impassioned as I was at that age, I practically bit through my bottom lip by the time I got to the end. For me, this book was a painfully realistic portrait of a girl who takes herself and the world way too seriously. Like I did. And my daughter does. I ended up wanting to friend Evie on facebook just to make sure she got over herself and made it into the new century okay.
In a PW interview, "From Underground to Random House," which centered mainly on the fact that the book was originally self-published, the author had this to say about that process: “With my husband at the time, I had a design and print company called Vernacular Press, plus a gallery in SoHo with a staff of about 10 people. We made beautiful products and decided we wanted to do really beautiful books. Our first thought was, “Let's just do something for ourselves, and then we'll send it out.” ...I am an intern magnet. I always had about five loyal, terrific college kids working with me. ...Self-publishing is difficult, because you don't really have the eyes to see. By 2007, I was exhausted, overinvested emotionally and financially. That's when we shut Vernacular, and I sent out the manuscript, again.”
—BOXING THE OCTOPUS: Author Interview
Yesterday, I offered my two cents worth on Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann's debut novel, self-pubbed in 2003 and revamped for release last week by Spiegel & Grau, which has been eliciting critical superlatives and comparisons to everything yumcious from crack to Salinger. Today, we have a word with the author.
Hilary, thanks for taking time to visit. On the topic of self-publishing, you've said, "I wanted to work with something really organic, the whole way through. I wanted to make that art my own." Does the novel feel any less your own now that you've reworked it within the traditional publishing process?
The self-publishing process was definitely organic! It was like working with a living entity that required constant consideration and care. And it demanded a different application of strength and intelligence than I've had to exercise as a writer exclusively. So though it was liberating, and I evolved in ways I never could have anticipated, it was not without its pressures—economic, professional, and social. Lately, I’ve been able to write more or less exclusively, and that’s been a pleasure. I’m proud of the product that grew out of that time. It was raw and dense and in need of an edit, but it was also poetic and courageous—-an endeavor of the heart and mind. Though I didn’t expect this when I embarked, I think my writing style—my voice, I guess—-was given the chance to develop in a type of untended isolation. And I feel especially fortunate to have gotten direct feedback from readers on that voice, and on the overall endeavor. Anthropology is not the usual take on American women. There is an effort to confront stereotype to study the ways we fall victim to it. Of course, developing in isolation is not always reasonable, nor is it necessarily the best thing for the product—or the readers. The new edition is much stronger and more accessible. Cindy Spiegel, my editor and publisher, cleared away much of the density of the previous version so that the story could lift off the page. In the process my original vision became clearer to me as well. So in response to the question, both works feel like my own, but in different ways.
Considering how dramatically the world has changed--and how dramatically you yourself probably changed--over the last seven years, I'm curious about how the characters and heart of the novel were transformed (or not) as the manuscript was reshaped. Did the original Evie stay the same and provide an anchor or did she evolve while other elements in the novel provided a stable platform?
Quite honestly, Eveline hasn’t changed at all. I don’t think she could have. The entire book is her internal point of view, so any alterations that were made occurred more or less as adjustments in her memory. Certain details dropped back and broader messages and themes moved forward. In fact, none of the characters changed from the original. If anything, they were given space to breathe as the book was edited, and their intentions became more evident. At the time I originally wrote the novel, I was conscious of describing a pre-digital world in which random and serendipitous connections were possible—not only possible, but they were actually the engine of social survival. Your destiny was totally influenced by your approach to living. Were you the sort of person who was out and about, at home, at clubs? I mean, people used to have to sit by a phone and wait for a call, or sit by a window and wait for a car to pass! There are a few points in the book at which Eveline retreats from the social landscape to take time to think, or wait for things beyond her skin to settle down, and she is able to do that, to take that time for herself. If such a personal retreat would have been unlikely when I first released the book, it would be impossible now. It’s very hard to cultivate a private world for oneself anymore. It’s like there’s no alternative to the public path you are on.
We recently featured an interview with your agent, Kirby Kim at William Morris Endeavor. How did you connect with him? And where will you go from here?
Kirby has been an integral part of all this. He’s intelligent, collected, knowledgeable, and professional. I sent the paperback to a handful of agents in July 2007, and Kirby was the first to read the book and get back to me. He then sent it out to a handful of publishers, and by September I was sitting with him and Cindy Spiegel talking about her vision for the project. That was a really nice moment for me. Being in that room with those two on a rainy autumn afternoon, having a strong intuition that the book was in the right hands, that I’d done the right thing, and that I could let go, even just a little, of all that I’d been managing on my own for so long. I felt like I was with friends, and I guess that was the case.