Arna Bontemps Hemenway and Caitlin Horrocks in Conversation

Caitlin Horrocks: Library Journal wrote that “a quick online survey of Hemenway’s stories reveal award-winning tendencies and a liquid but densely packed writing style.” I’ve found myself thinking a lot about that word, “liquid.” I think it applies to the writing style in Elegy on Kinderklavier, but also to the way time moves in a lot of the stories: there’s a constant slipping into and out of moments, years, events — a fluidity in the way the characters live and think about their own lives. Is that something you were thinking about as you assembled the book, and/or as you wrote the individual stories?

Arna Bontemps Hemenway: It seems so much more clear to me now that I have some distance from my stories that this complex of style, structure/form, and perspective that I suppose results in that fluidity was really about me struggling with a pretty simple question, which was: how do we live in time?

I wouldn’t say this was something I was consciously thinking about, at least not so much as I was just sort of bobbing along in the current of what I was beginning to think interesting fiction should try to do: namely, answer in some way the troubling, impressionistic, constantly remediated, self-narrativizing, deeply emotional, liquid experience of life as I seemed to be living it, anyway. I think in large part I was writing to try and show myself that one can push one’s little boat out into that storm and actually arrive somewhere, instead of just suffering through it, which is what I was sort of doing in real life at the time.

Ironically, the year before I went to Iowa and began writing these stories, I read your story, “At the Zoo,” in the Paris Review and was kind of blown away by how subtle and complete its control and understanding of this idea of “how we live in time” is. “Fluid” is a good word for that story, too; in how the point of view moves, in how the characters seem to experience the impossibility of time. In that story the time traveller (for those who haven’t read it, the reference is literal) feels almost like a taunt, because he (possibly) has primary, arbitrary access to experiences that for the other characters must be constructed only via the imagination of memory. And all of this happens in the span of a couple hours on a visit to the zoo! That story just slayed me. I remember thinking to myself, Well, I’ll never be able to construct anything as exact and masterful as that, so I better find some other way.

Recently, it has also got me thinking about memory in your stories. You’re sort of known for your wildly varied premises — a whole town that hibernates together, a group of “terranauts” in a biodome, a Russian mail-order bride in Finland with a missing daughter, just to name a few. It reminds me a little of Jim Shepard, whose work I love and whose premises span recorded history. In almost all of his stories, you slowly realize that the characters and circumstances are just wild orbits of the same invisible, dark planet of loss. In your stories, on the other hand, they often seem to describe different orbits of memory, if that makes sense. I know you’ve said you “try to be totally undiscriminating” in your inspirations, but your interest in the different premises seems to unify them in a way. Is there something about that interest that you’ve become conscious of in your writing? Is there something about memory as a shaping force, for instance, that preoccupies you?

CH: If memory was a shaping force in those stories, it was an unconscious one — I think we were both bobbing along in the current, as you say, of trying to make fiction that reflects what it’s really like to live in time, to be looking forwards and backwards and sideways. I love the idea of stories as little boats out braving that storm. Although it occurs to me that they’re only able to do that because we get to create both the particular storm and the boat that can withstand it. I had a fiction teacher once who talked about certain stories as “Swirling Vortexes of Time.” Maybe it’s because I’m a Midwesterner, but when he said that I would picture tornado shelters, basements, ditches. I think several of the stories in Elegy on Kinderklavier create their own storms, their own swirling vortexes of time. Do you want the reader thrown wholly to the winds? Or do you think about what grounding or shelter to offer? What is the fictional equivalent of a storm cellar? (and if that’s too entirely ridiculous an extended metaphor, feel free to say you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about).

ABH: Ha, well, as my answers have probably already made clear, I am partial to ridiculously extended metaphor.

You once wrote that “competency is a particular enemy of the short story.” That’s so true, in my opinion. I would say if there’s a fictional equivalent of a storm cellar, it’s the safe, terrestrial space of competency. I think what I wanted in several of these stories was to escape the distinctly competent narrative structures we’ve developed in fiction as a way to write about trauma. I was often frustrated by what I took to be these sort of thoughtless allegiances to linearity, post-Carver understatement, The Telling Detail, etcetera, etcetera. Especially when it came to writing about Iraq, I thought that was, at best, kind of pointless and, at worst, in a larger way, irresponsible.

For these stories I did a lot of primary research into things like DARPA technologies, “After Action Reports,” psychological operations training, stuff like that. And the thing I kept running up against was that the truth — that the military created fake Iraqi villages in Arizona and paid for real Iraqi expatriates to come in and play detailed psychological roles, for instance, or that DARPA has developed a flying surveillance platform that operators can later use to manipulate and recreate time — was just not going to be reached by fleeing into the safety of the narrative storm cellar.

But I’m also very aware that this book is in some ways obviously just me trying to learn how to write a good story. When it suited my purposes, I was using all those conventions I criticize above as much as anyone else. I think I was just trying lots of new things to see what might work for me. If the stories often throw the reader to the proverbial swirling vortical winds of time, it’s probably because I was being blown around up there too, trying to figure out how to get down.

CH: I’m incredibly flattered just to show up in the same paragraph as Jim Shepard, whose work I love. I thought you said something incredibly insightful about his fiction that I’m now going to ruin by taking literally: “In almost all of his stories, you slowly realize that the characters and circumstances are just wild orbits of the same invisible, dark planet of loss.” I can’t help noticing that the penultimate story in your book is set on an actual dark planet of loss. In “The Territory of Grief,” a group of settler-mourners have left Earth for New Jerusalem. What did setting this story in another world allow you to do or say that you couldn’t in a story set here on Earth?

ABH: I’ve never had a great relationship with reality. Especially when I was writing these stories, I often felt oddly dissociated from what was happening, or where I was. This was most pronounced when I was living in Israel, trying to decide whether or not to immigrate and become a citizen there. All modern people who live in ancient cities recreate or simulate those cities in a sense, and this is most unnerving I think in Jerusalem.

And this other thing happens if you hang around Jerusalem enough which is that you end up taking an accidental tour of the sites of awful bombings — this happens because there aren’t really “sites” at all; these are just the bus lines you have to take to get to the cellphone place, or the coffee shop you happen to stop at on King George. There was this one day, when I went from Ben Yehuda (which was bombed in ’48, ’75, ’76, ’79, ’97, and ’01), got on a bus which had been attacked with a bulldozer three weeks before, then got off and had a coffee about twenty feet from where Rabin was assassinated. There’s a distinctly Israeli attitude about returning, pointedly, to the places of these deaths in daily life. And I remember it occurring to me on the way back that night that our daily presence at these places was a kind of recreation of or substitution for the dead. It’s a way of offering oneself up, in the end. But if I wrote about that directly, it wouldn’t be, if that makes sense. I wanted something that would speak to what it really felt like.

At first I might’ve been trying to duck the politics a bit, but as the story developed it became sort of the opposite of that. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia had just come out, and I remember thinking to myself, literally, there is no true way to write about Jerusalem without putting it on another planet.

Every story in Elegy on Kinderklavier is based in some way on a real event, usually via research. Word on the street is that you’re working on a novel about the composer Erik Satie, who — man, if there was ever a life for a novel, it’s his. But you’ve also said that you “still have a lot of unanswered questions as far as making a life into a book — I don’t want to plod along, year by year, writing the novel equivalent of a biopic.” So I guess my question is, between the novel and a couple of your stories, what wisdom have you come by in terms of writing fiction that has real bones in it? Have you been able to intuit any answers since that interview?

CH: Satie’s “real bones” are in a cemetery outside Paris; I once wandered around it fruitlessly looking for his gravestone, until a caretaker chased me out. I think that afternoon had a worrying amount in common with my writing process. Writer Kelcey Parker has said, “Historical fiction is always a ghost story.” Part of the lesson I take from that is that the real bones can’t be dug up. Researched fiction needs to be transubstantiation, not resurrection. Ghosts, but not zombies.

It strikes me that for some readers, your story “The Fugue” — republished in the 2015 Best American Short Stories — which features U.S.-built pseudo-Iraqi villages, might feel almost as much like science fiction as “The Territory of Grief.” Recreating Iraq in Arizona is different in degree, but not in kind, from recreating Jerusalem on another planet. You mentioned that a lot of conventional fictional techniques seemed “kind of pointless and, at worst, in a larger way, irresponsible,” when writing about Iraq. Could you talk more about that?

ABH: That Satie grave story is actually a great way to describe my thinking in answer to this question. I wish I had heard you tell it before people started asking me about my grumping about conventional Iraq fiction — I could’ve stolen it and come off a lot smarter.

I think part of the problem with writing conventional fiction about Iraq is that it’s a little bit like grave robbing real experience. I just mean that conventional fiction about Iraq perhaps helps us see the things of war better than the truth of war. And just, for me, that’s sort of missing what fiction can do that nonfiction, for instance, can’t.

My thing is this: Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse-Five twenty or so years after World War II; for O’Brien and Vietnam with The Things They Carried it was fifteen. And let’s say these kinds of books take a good ten years to write. Well, it’s been eleven years since we invaded Iraq, and I just sort of wonder if anyone is starting to work on anything that departs so wildly from conventional narrative as those books do.

Iraq strikes me as a fundamentally different narrative beast than anything we’ve ever known. Maybe that’s just me being young or particularly poorly read (guilty on both charges), but I think a world made up of drones, volunteer soldiers with millennial self-awareness, the constant mediation and recursion of technology, etcetera, etcetera, calls for some fictional innovation or departure that for the most part we haven’t seen yet and that I hope we will, eventually.

It’s possibly a task that is really for a novel. But I do think — and this is me going out on a controversial limb here, maybe — that it might end up having to be a civilian novelist that does it. Of course, I could be wrong. In either case, I suppose what I’m doing in publicly questioning the conventional Iraq fiction we’re seeing now is to encourage someone to genuinely try to escape it. It’s also entirely possible that I’m just full of hot air on this.

CH: I won’t ask you to crawl out on a controversial limb any farther than you’re comfortable crawling, but your answer gives me the opportunity to inflict on you a version of the question all short story writers get asked, incessantly, about the novels we’re all supposed to be writing or supposed to want to write. Are you interested in trying to be that civilian novelist who tackles Iraq? If not, do you have a different novel project in mind? Or are you focused on stories?

ABH: Haha, I know, I know — Physician, heal thyself! There may come a time when I have the talent to attempt the Iraq novel I’d most like to read, but it’s (sadly) not yet arrived.

I feel bad because I think I’m actually the rare writer who (so far) feels exactly the way people think one should about progression: I’ve written this collection of stories and am now almost completely interested in writing novels. Right now I’m working on a novel manuscript about a young man taken in by a prominent political family. I’m about halfway through, I think. We’ll have to see if it comes to anything.

Part of my focus on novel writing probably comes from how huge a role reading novels plays in my life. I remember at Iowa one of the best experiences I had was actually just listening to Yiyun Li talk about how she experiences the novels she reads. Among other things, she mentioned how it helped to sometimes think of her fiction as being in conversation with those works. This can lead to some wonderfully strange connections (for instance, between a William Trevor novella and Li’s novella, “Kindness.”) Have you had any reading experiences that really helped you?

CH: The idea of fiction being in conversation with other books or stories has been an important one for me. The story of mine you mentioned earlier, “At the Zoo,” for example, I think of as being in conversation with the Stuart Dybek story “Paper Lantern.” I’ve had more reading experiences help me than I could possibly list! But then an occupational hazard is reading all the time with an eye towards what can be analyzed, imitated, pillaged. Sometimes I have to remind myself to let myself be helped as a human being, not just as a writer. I know you’ve mentioned elsewhere reading for “two main reasons: enjoyment and demonstration (in that order).” I really think that order is important. Are there particular books that were important to you in writing the stories in Elegy in Kinderklavier, and/or that are important to you now, as you’re transitioning into novel writing?

ABH: I like the idea of reading as a writer (and then writing) being an essentially recombinant experience. The most help you get — that I got, anyway — is just as you say; a book or a story helping you “as a human being.” That’s a sort of verboten thing to teach, but I really believe in it. It’s the kissing cousin to a pet theory I have about how the failings of one’s writing are related to the failings of one as a person, but I won’t get into that.

There were a couple books that really made Elegy on Kinderklavier possible, especially the titular novella, which is a good example of the process for me. It’s heavily under the influence of Jane Smiley’s novella “The Age of Grief,” and Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. There were four things that came together for me in writing it: an idea from “The Age of Grief” about a child’s sickness and a parent’s absence, a tone/voice from The End of the Affair, various volatile experiences in my own life at and before Iowa, and some unintentionally haunting journals kept by families with children who died of a Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. At the time this combination felt a little alchemical and desperate and technical — I think I thought (with some accuracy) that I took this element from this, this element from that, etcetera. And that’s not untrue. But nowadays I think I can see a little better that those books actually helped me the most by teaching me something about my obsession with the various species of grief, and how our lives are sort of imagined by those species. That’s the fancy version I’m going with, anyway. The truth of how what I was reading came into me and Elegy came out of me is probably much smaller.

These days it depends on the specific project but I’m just reading and rereading, trying to learn how to write a novel, sweeping the stairs of my personal pantheon: Alan Hollinghurst, Philip Roth, David Grossman (enshrined for To the End of the Land), Kathryn Davis, Sebastian Barry, Zadie Smith, Graham Greene, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro (for Never Let Me Go), Nabokov, J.M. Coetzee, Irene Nemirovsky, to name a few. In a perfect world, I would read all day. But you know how that goes.

CH: Sorry, you don’t get to mention a fascinating-sounding pet theory and then just walk away! Can you please say more about how the “failings of one’s writing are related to the failings of one as a person”? I’m really intrigued.

ABH: Ha, I was hoping to get away with that one!

In its most basic form, this idea grew out of something I noticed, which is that the writing I saw often seemed to exhibit weaknesses or faults that had some relation to the apparent weaknesses or faults of the writer him or herself. Of course graduate school is a little petri dish of this because you have to know a group of writers and their writing pretty well to really notice it over time. But basically, you know, it was like, someone whose personality was very forward and loud and emotional would turn in stories that were full of huge, sweeping, lyric sentiment. And the weakness of the story would usually be that it lacked the kind of self-awareness that might rein that in, control it, and make it more emotionally exacting or effective in its empathy. Or, a brilliant writer who found it painful to bring him or herself to engage in the sort of shallow constructions of easy social interaction would turn in stories that were often stunning and cerebral, but that eschewed the commerce of traditional narrative or impersonated it as a sort of commentary, at times to the story’s detriment.

Of course a lot of great and published writing came from both these types, and most elements of the above examples could be accurately used to describe my own writing’s faults (as well as those of my person). There are a lot of problems with this idea, as well. First of all, you can be (and often are) wrong about someone. Restraint or empathy (I’m always atop my “high horse of empathy” as someone at Iowa once put it) very well may not be a goal or value of a great story. Ditto “traditional narrative” (whatever that means).

My point in bringing this up at all is just to say that the biggest leaps of improvement I’ve made as a writer have all come from trying to lay bare the personal causes of my writing’s weaknesses. For instance, as you can see in my book, I’ve struggled with verbosity, turgid prose style, convolution, and pretension (attention prospective readers: it’s not all bad, I swear). As you can see in this interview, I’m still struggling with those things. You can judge for yourself if there are upsides of those weaknesses (or strengths that caused them in the first place).

I think my writing got a lot better once I realized it was desperation for approval — a need for attention and validation — that was causing a lot of that style. This isn’t to say you have to turn into someone else. I still want to write ambitiously; it just helped a lot to see this truth about my writing (alas, only really after leaving Iowa), and be able to say to myself, Hey, you know, it’s OK. You don’t have to obsessively prove yourself. You can reach without overreaching.

But, I mean, you have to be careful. Would Infinite Jest be better if more restrained? Would Roth novels be better if he understood women enough to get along with them in real life? Would The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay be better if Chabon didn’t indulge his boyish interests? Would Cloud Atlas have happened if David Mitchell weren’t so gorgeously insane? It’s a balancing act. The answers to some of those questions are probably “yes.” But not all of them.

CH: I think fiction writers should almost always be riding around on our high horses of empathy, although I know that’s maybe not what you meant (or what the person meant who originally said it). I think that’s the horse that makes fiction possible. Even if the author isn’t writing to empathize with traditionally “round” characters, or to tell a traditional narrative, I hope the author’s empathized with the reader somewhere in there, if no one else.

Your theory makes me think about the gentleman’s agreement that tends to govern fiction workshops, in which of course this story has absolutely nothing to do with the author’s real life (even when we sorta kinda know it does). I think your theory points towards those parts of writing that can’t be taught — no one is going to know you well enough to question the relationship of your work to your inner self better than you can. I think I like the idea that we can become better writers by becoming more self-aware people, even if the implications are a little scary. (Okay, maybe more than a little scary.)

I’ve been teaching a lot of creative nonfiction classes, and it’s kind of refreshing to welcome the life into the room alongside the work. It’s also made me think a lot about what fiction or nonfiction accomplishes better or differently than the other. You already touched on this earlier, in your answer about conventional fiction helping us see “the things of war better than the truth of war,” and “sort of missing what fiction can do that nonfiction, for instance, can’t.” I know this is an obnoxiously Big Question, but are you guided in your writing by any Big Ideas about what fiction does, or does best?

ABH: The problem with me was, I think, a little too much of the high horse (not enough of the empathy) in workshop. It’s not really all that later now, but just by virtue of life experience, I was at Iowa during a kind of crazy time, and I was pretty insufferable. I couldn’t shut up. I was hopelessly arrogant. I had horrible panic attacks and anxiety, some of which I dealt with via a kind of counterphobic mania. These are still daily battles, but I like to think I’d be a more enjoyable classmate and student these days. Of course, I learned those lessons just in time to become a teacher.

I don’t know about Big Ideas (though that hasn’t stopped me from trying them on in this interview, clearly, sigh). To be honest, most of the time I feel so totally stumbling-around-in-the-dark about writing (and reading) fiction that I’m sure most of the Big Ideas are best left for someone smarter than me.

I will say the best idea about writing fiction that I ever heard was kind of a small one. It’s just this: the value and pleasure and meaningfulness of writing are in the experience of writing well. Not so much in publication, or esteem, or even “being read” at all, per se. But just enjoying the act and practice by itself. It seems the natural reflection of the core pleasure of reading, but for some reason it’s a lot harder of an idea to inhabit, probably because sometimes I still have this dream where Faulkner hands me the Nobel Prize.

CH: I have definitely had a version of that dream. I also once had a dream where an editor told me that if I was willing to claw around in a box of garbage, he might publish my story. I spent the whole night clawing around in that box. Apparently I have no pride, even in my dream life. To follow up my obnoxiously big question with a totally silly one, do you mind if I ask about your name? Is there a story behind it?

ABH: I don’t mind at all. My name is Arna Bontemps Hemenway. I was named after the Harlem Renaissance era poet and novelist Arna Bontemps. My Dad, Robert Hemenway, named me. When he was young he was researching his book on the author Zora Neale Hurston and ended up becoming friends with Arna Bontemps, who had known her.

Many years later, when I was born, my mother’s finalists for names were America, Doo Doo (short for Deuteronomy), Hat (short for Hattemer), and Pearl (because I was supposed to be born on Pearl Harbor Day). As was clearly needed, my Dad stepped in and named me after his friend. I use my full name in print to honor both my father and the original Arna Bontemps, both of whom deserve to be remembered by as many people as possible.

CH: Well, Doo Doo Hemenway has a certain ring to it, but Arna Bontemps Hemenway probably looks better on a book cover. Where it looks awfully good. Finally, what do you wish I’d asked you that I haven’t?

ABH: Oh, how about, “What would you like to say to all the readers who A) have lasted all the way to this point in the interview B) are about to click over to buy and read Elegy on Kinderklavier, or C) who’ve already read it?”

I’d say thank you so much. It’s impossible to tell how genuinely someone means something on a little computer screen, but if you’re reading this, I really do mean it from my heart. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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