New Voices: A Conversation with Hilary Thayer Hamann
Who or what inspired you to write?
I tend to be a visual thinker, and so, for me, writing is a form of translation. I observe and absorb information in the abstract—gestures, motion, graphics, colors, shapes, sound. Maybe it’s the corner of a raincoat blowing up slightly off a man’s knee, or a woman putting lotion on her hands over and over, or a drive to an airport in a crowded car. I collect these abbreviated gestures in my mind. I like that they are truthful things in and of themselves: nothing has to be explained. They’re autonomous, which is often what makes film so compelling. But in writing, you go farther: you daydream into gesture. A writer invents the missing information, fabricates the possibilities—who is late, who is in love, who is heartbroken, ashamed, delirious, determined, dejected. As a writer I can give new meaning to the random gestures in my mind; I can link the images. Writing becomes like putting together a puzzle, or several puzzles at once. And in attempting to share what I perceive, I get technical about the missing details. I try to make my images persuasive by describing all the things that could possibly be there. It gets to be almost architectural, like laboring over an intricate rendering of a building that you know will never be built.
Tell us about your debut novel, Anthropology of an American Girl
Anthropology of an American Girl is a semi-autobiographical novel drawn in part from observations contained in my journals and in part from episodes of my imagination. It is the story of a young woman and her culture that strives for a measure of narrative depth, detail, and objectivity. I studied anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking in graduate school at NYU, and while considering other cultures and the ways in which people and places are represented, my thoughts turned to my own country, my ethnicity, my heritage. I started thinking about how America is perceived, and about the ways Americans see themselves versus the ways we are seen. I asked myself difficult questions such as: Where is my home? Who are my people? What does it mean to be free? Do I abuse my privilege? Am I capable of injustice? Have I ever experienced discrimination? What are the consequences of conformism? Am I rich? Am I poor? Am I happy? I thought about what constitutes my culture and my place in it. In order to investigate a big concept with a measure of authenticity, I relied on a single voice. And so, this is also a story of personhood, of growing by degrees. You know, being human is automatic, but being a person—a being with special moral and spiritual qualities—requires tremendous effort. It is a privilege and a responsibility.
How do you approach fiction: lots of research, total imagination, or a little of both?
Both. I research the cultural events and atmosphere of the period covered in my work. My latest project is set in the Vietnam era, so my desk is crowded with stacks of fiction and non-fiction books pertaining to war, psychology, politics, and unique examples of “voices.” I am longing to hear from renegades, witnesses, the oppressed, the authoritarian, the heart-broken, the disillusioned. Whenever possible, I conduct research from books rather than the from Internet. Not only do I have enormous respect for the processes and protocols followed by writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers, but I believe there are important serendipitous relationships that result from books “meeting” on my desk. I build a sort of wall around me, and when my mind drifts, or when I am seeking something unnamable, I look to my shelves and the books start to “speak.” There are two ways that the Internet has become indispensable to me as a research tool. The first is that I create soundtracks to listen to when I write. I hunt down songs, familiar and obscure, popular and classical, and I collect them on iTunes. The second is that I download hundreds of photos from the era I’m describing and build digital albums. This is enormously helpful when describing clothing, cars, homes, etc. Recently I saw a party photo from the 1960s with balloons that looked like jelly beans stuck on the back of a door for decoration. I don’t know if people still do that, but we used to rub the balloons in our hair and stick them on walls and doors. What a great thing—I’d forgotten that!
Do you have any special writing rituals?
I would love to have all pressing business out of the way before I sit down to work, but with three kids, a dog, a pet duck, and an elderly father, that’s just not an option. So I’ve trained myself to surrender to chaos and rely on only those things that fall under my control: coffee, music, and a few square feet of privacy. Oh, and giant headphones. They look like muffins on my ears.If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
I grew up working in community theater, both onstage and off, and nothing makes me happier than the idea of returning to it. As a matter of fact, I just withdrew several play anthologies from the library, because somehow I got the bright idea that I would like to write a play in my spare time! I also love film. As I said previously, I think cinematically, and personally, I thrive on big, messy productions, so filmmaking would be a natural home for me. Unfortunately, the process is fractured, and often the hierarchical structure brings out the worst in people. Unless you are at the very top, it can be a frustrating field. Theater, however, tends to inspire more team spirit. Authors, of course, are in complete control, but the process is unspeakably lonely, and you have to be able to handle the unattended hours. If it’s not exactly pressure, it’s a bizarre absence of pressure, like a vacuum. People keep saying, “Well, I’d better leave you alone.” And they do!
Who is your favorite fictional character and why?
That’s a tough choice to make for an avid reader. The first character that comes to mind is possibly the least well known. I like Zeno from Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno (1923). Zeno is a ne’er-do-well member of the Italian bourgeoisie who moves back and forth from psychotherapy sessions to an absurd middle class family life. If in his therapy sessions he is at ease and “truthful;” at home he is so completely out of sync with his surroundings and so thoroughly unable to navigate the new morality of the new middle class, that he is fresh and believable. Zeno is described as delusional and self-doubting, but, of course, every character is the author’s creation. Through Zeno, Svevo Is able to comment on the rise in conformism, mediocrity, hypocrisy, and the cultural “death” that concerned him. Through it all, Zeno comes through as an open- minded, optimistic, non-conformist who maintains his authenticity and unique selfhood despite being socially tethered. Like everyone else around him, he has no discernable motivation beyond a desire to survive comfortably. Unlike everyone else, he cannot live in absentia. He tries; he thinks; he studies himself and others. And though such processes shape his fate in negative ways, they set him free as a character, making him worthy of being a protagonist. Zeno is an accidental rebel. I always think of Roberto Benigni when I read this book. He would be terrific playing this character.
What are you reading right now?
Currently I’m reading Don Quixote and Wilke Collins’ The Woman in White. I chose them because it’s winter and certain books are best in winter. After I submitted the final edits for Anthropology of an American Girl, I read through all of Jane Austen. I’ve read the books several times, and I’ll read them again, but I’d never read them all in a row. It was quite an immersion. Austen was formidable in every sense of the word—a literary heroine. She wrote compelling, seemingly small stories, yet she never ventured from her central points, which were not only social, but moral and political in nature.
Reading preference: print or digital?
Print. Since my job entails staring at a computer screen for endless hours every day, the thought of having to do the same for pleasure would be maddening. I don’t even watch television for that reason. Also, I collect rare and unusual books, and I am passionate about the artistry and intention that goes into making them. You just need to hold one in your hand and consider the number of eyes and minds that were involved in its creation to be completely awed. Having said that, I understand that change to this industry is inevitable, and I believe that some of that change represents responsible progress. Obviously the systems of mass production and distribution are a major concern in terms of the environment—but this is true for soda and soap as well as for books. There is so much at stake here. I wish we’d taken the time to articulate the potential consequences of the switch from print to digital before we’d found ourselves knee-deep in the midst of it. We need to consider what is sacrificed by the change. It is too reductive to think we are cutting excess and embracing an inevitable future. We need to ask ourselves hard questions about freedom of the press and the rights of citizens to know. How can we maintain standards and quality in newspaper and book publishing without paying dedicated professionals to do their jobs? I can’t see—yet—Watergate being broken online. Maybe such things will come eventually, but in the meantime, there is an enormous void. We are training an entire generation away from high standards. There is much to worry about here. Specifically, I worry about public access to reputable, vetted information, and about a “brain drain” in terms of writers, editors, and publishers pursuing other options besides literature and journalism.
Do you have a new novel in the works?
I’m working on the story of a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who returns home to find a world irrevocably altered by the pressures of the social and political upheaval of the era. His view of “home“ is further compromised by the consciousness expansion he experienced during his years away. He falls in love with a woman who is equally trapped and disillusioned, and who, like him, is no more than a pawn of authorities, systems, and organizations. It is a story of parallel entrapment, and perhaps, of liberation.


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