—SIDE B: Author Interview
Hilary Thayer Hamann is the author Anthropology of an American Girl, published this past May by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House. The novel was originally self-published under the printing press owned by Hamann and her then husband, and enjoyed some success and developed something of a cult following. I have not read the original, but I did have the pleasure of reading AAG over the summer. I am delighted that I had the opportunity to interview Ms Hamann so that I could share with you all her insights on writing, publishing, and the creative process as well as her novel of course.
The novel published under Spiegel & Grau is about 600 pages long. The original self-published work was even longer. How long did it take you to write the novel originally?
Probably about two years total—that is to say, working every day, largely uninterrupted. But some of the work was drawn from journals and poems that I’d written previously, so let’s tack on another year for good measure. When I first wrote it, I had no clear thoughts about publishing it for the masses, so I didn’t think twice about length. I just told the story I wanted to tell, as I wanted to tell it. If I ever envisioned a potential audience, I probably just thought of friends—people I wanted to share with. I never thought of readers as trend-following consumers with particular habits or preferences about length and subject matter. Essentially, I had studied anthropology, and was inspired to write about growing up American in a nuanced way. I wanted to explore the internally and externally generated misconceptions that can accompany our national identity. How do Americans opt in to stereotype; how might we opt out? In the end, I think the book is about mindfulness.
Anthropology of an American Girl is a work of semi-autobiographical fiction. How did you balance the fictional aspects with the biographical ones? Some writers feel restricted by what actually happened versus what needs to happen for the character(s) in their book—was this ever a difficult task for you?
It wasn’t hard to integrate fact and fiction, but I was definitely conscious of the process of integration. Sometimes it felt natural, sometimes it required a little more planning and patience. I’m not the most patient person. There’s actually a point halfway through the book which includes the injection of my voice. It goes: This is where I falter. This is where I lose myself. That’s me talking, reminding myself of who I was as a woman, what I was trying to say as a writer, marrying the two, re-shaping my intention for the work. It fits with what the character is going through, so I kept it in. But it’s actually me, at this sort of treacherous bridge between worlds—giving up versus completing; personal versus public; fact versus fiction. I’d laid out everything that had led me to the point of loss, and I had to find cause for continuance. I had to venture out from the factual story I wanted to tell and move into fiction to complete it. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t engaging in fantasy. Once I began to move forward I feel I became a writer. As it turns out, it is probably the favorite passage of readers. It is often quoted on-line, and I know of a few women who have used it as a monologue in acting.
You published AAG under Vernacular Press, an independent publishing company that you co-founded. Why did you decide to start this company and eventually publish under it?
My ex-husband had a print and design company that made high-quality materials, including one-of-a-kind books for other people. At the time my novel was finished it became necessary that I join him and work at the office. I agreed to do it only if we could do artistic projects too, so we started Vernacular and used my book as the inaugural piece. We leased some space in Soho, took on a staff member, and started an internship program. It was a time of big dreams. But practically speaking, the venture constituted an investment that was beyond our means. We lacked the capital to get lift-off or to see any real return.
What are the benefits of traditional publishing versus self-publishing? Conversely, what are some of the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional methods?
My experience with traditional publishing has been positive. The people I’ve met are experts who care about books and all that the creation and preservation of books entails—from the cultivation and protection of authors to the maintenance of strong retail relationships. They invest seriously—financially and energetically—and they follow through seriously. I’ve had to work hard, but in new ways. With self-publishing I was living the job. My whole world was the office, and my days went from 8am to 10 pm at least. Then I would write in the car and through the night. My friends and my husband were at the office, and my children grew up there. Even my dog was there! As an independent publisher, I was able to direct the content, the marketing, and the artistry. I was a good manager with a great staff and the world’s best interns, and I happen to have a lot of cool ideas. However, I had no money. And besides, these are not things a writer ought to be doing. I was unable to write creatively while doing all that management. It was seductive, though, and in some ways, I really do miss it.
In what ways was the novel improved with the addition of an editor? Was it difficult at first, having already self-published and developed a following, to make the necessary changes?
As much as I love the original, it needed an editor. It was kind of gloppy, like a cake you make when you are a teenager—it tasted good and was satisfying to make, but it was not particularly well-crafted. Cindy Spiegel, my editor, treated the work with love and careful attention. I often couldn’t believe how well she knew the book, nor could I believe the degree to which little things mattered to her. It wasn’t always a matter of cutting a few passages or pages, but a word or two. I was surprised—and gratified—by how detailed she could be. There is more continuity now in terms of tone, and a regular rhythm has been established. It’s been a dream to work with her. I’m very lucky. I trust her, and I think, I hope, she trusts me.
And, you’re correct: the fact that the first edition was so loved complicated the editing. One of the best parts about the original was that it came across as brave and tender all at once. We weren’t always clear on which bricks to pull. There was this rawness people had responded to; however, that sort of excessive specificity is not necessarily going to appeal to a wider audience. Suddenly the novel represented a real investment, and it was important to be responsible to all parties—publishers, retailers, and readers. We tried to make modifications that honored the original, but that breathed new life into it. Mostly Cindy and I agreed, but when one became intractable, the other would step back, and agree to agree, which is the key to effective diplomacy in business or in friendship.
Was writing something you always wanted to do, or did you have other ambitions?
I don’t know if I always wanted to be a writer, but I’ve been serious and intuitive my whole life, which I suppose are writerly traits. I notice a lot, and it takes hold and resides in me. However, I was involved in the theater from a young age and I studied film and television in college. I figured I would act or direct. But I had a baby right after graduate school and she was unwell and needed me around, so I channeled my creative energy into writing.
How has journaling helped you become a better writer? What are some of the benefits of keeping a journal?
Mostly journals are excellent references to time and place. I tend to write detailed descriptions about the day because those are the hardest things to recall. Not just news, but point of view about the news. There are a lot of journals, but now I journal on the computer—which has its advantages and disadvantages. I can search by names and subjects more easily, but I’m on the computer all day, so the prospect of sitting there journaling for more time is daunting. I am still working that out too. I envy writers who have it all figured out. I recommend that everyone keep a journal. They are not the exclusive jurisdiction of writers.
You received a BFA in Film & Television Production and Dramatic Writing and an MA in Cinema Studies. You’ve also been involved in community theatre. In what ways have film and theatre influenced or informed your writing? Would you consider writing for film or stage in the future?
I have considered writing for film and theater, and I hope to find the time to do so soon. I would especially like to write serious dramatic plays for young people to perform. That’s a goal I’ve had for a while.
I loved being involved in the theater. I worked on 30–plus plays between the ages of 11 and 19—everything from Under Milkwood to Room Service to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Fiddler on the Roof, in which I played Yenta! The groups I belonged to happened to be high quality, not that that matters. They were relatively open, non-hierarchical structures based on friendships between familiars. There were directors and producers per play, but these positions were not exclusively held. It’s just an excellent way to spend time—studying a play, figuring out its dynamics, performing it for peers. More people ought to do it. And certainly, more public schools should designate funds for theater. What a tremendous loss.
Film is far more hierarchical, and that bugs me. In the end it has to be that way. It’s a matter of liability. Film is non-linear and the costs are staggering. Every person involved needs to assume a piece of the responsibility, and responsibility costs money. So the hierarchy is logical. In film school, I gravitated toward documentary because I liked to do everything myself. I hated the rotating crew thing. I chose non-fiction, studied great films and filmmakers, and I called my work “cinema verite.” I ended up doing very well.
Who would you say are some of your literary influences, and how have they influenced your writing?
I love literature—classic, modern, experimental. Anything by Austen, Hardy, Lawrence, James, Wharton, Rand, Tolstoy, Hesse, Mann, Dickens, Dumas, Camus, Marques, Borges. The list is too long to name. I have been greatly affected by Marguerite Duras. I love her autobiographical journal, The War, about a woman in the French Resistance whose near-dead husband returns from a series of concentration camps. Duras and her new lover nurse the husband back to health before moving on with their lives. It is powerful and direct, touching, and real. The use of voice is shockingly simple. I carry it with me everywhere.
What projects are you working on now, writing-related or otherwise?
I’m working on a new novel, which in a word or two is about a Vietnam veteran and a nurse. It’s based in part on my childhood in the Bronx and the things I saw and learned there. I’m exploring the dangers and the importance of small lives and tightly-knit communities. And also, I want to write about the idea of sacrifice. Lately, I’ve been considering making it a thriller. That’s new ground for me. I’m also crafting the story of a woman who has a reversal, loses everything, but is ultimately better off for the loss. I’m going to try to do it in a way that is soft, silent, not at all superficial or excessively romantic.