Tuesday, January 5, 2016

1/2 Dozen for James Tate Hill

It's my great pleasure to introduce James Tate Hill. His debut novel is out in the world and I deeply appreciate the wisdom and honesty that he drops for us here. 


Q: I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration—the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas—but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

A: Academy Gothic is and isn’t based on my own experience teaching at the college level. Having only taught at large state schools, I projected some of my own bleaker experiences onto a small liberal arts college where budget cuts aren’t so deftly absorbed. All this is to say the novel’s atmosphere and plot details accumulated over time, but I can point to a handful of moments in which the possibility of a novel, specifically a comic novel, began to take shape. One of these came when a man who was neither a dean nor our superior shushed a room of university faculty with a method I have only seen used in elementary schools. He was an administrator whose salary—a colleague showed me a website where the salaries of all state employees can be viewed—exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, conducting a meeting whose purpose I don’t recall and might not have known before, during, or immediately after said meeting. Perhaps all you need to know is that magic markers were involved. Trying to gain everyone’s undivided attention to begin the meeting, he raised his hand and continued to do so. One by one, we gleaned that he was requesting that we do the same. “Hands? Everyone? Hands?” Only when all faculty had raised one hand and ceased all conversation did the meeting begin. Seeing the fury in the eyes of so many colleagues—hearing it in their muttered profanity—it wasn’t a far leap from academic satire to a murder mystery.

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

My obsession with the 1980s is ongoing, but it changes shape every few years. I was born in 1977, so my entire childhood spans the decade of new wave, Atari, Michael J. Fox, and neon-tinged capitalism in all its seductive, destructive glory. Lately this obsession has morphed into a curiosity about the fear and confusion of the era that I was too young to notice at the time. Americans had lived with the Cold War long enough for nuclear annihilation to seem, at least to me, like a teacher’s idle threat to send you to the principal’s office. Kids raised on the broad strokes of movies like Red Dawn and Rocky IV will find the complexity and empathy missing from those movies in TV’s The Americans, the best show on television since Breaking Bad came to an end. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys give nuanced performances as travel agents and parents who happen to be resident spies for the Soviet Union. Having never enjoyed a James Bond movie or John le Carre novel, the word spy made me initially wary, but the show is as character-driven as it is well-plotted, and the period details are plentiful enough to satisfy 80s nostalgists. And anyone who enjoys The Americans should pick up You Are One of Them, the debut novel from Elliott Holt from 2013. It’s about an American girl whose childhood best friend might or might not have died in a plane crash and might or might not have been a diplomatic pawn of the Soviet Union. You’d think the depth of these more ambitious stories would make the sitcoms, arcade games, and toys of my youth less interesting in comparison, but understanding the context for all the brightly colored distractions adds new layers to my appreciation.
Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Let’s go with old #17: Talk is cheap. During the first semester of a graduate program in literature, I learned very quickly that I didn’t have the stomach or heart to be a scholar. I spent most of my free time, and much of the time I should have been reading critical theory, reading books about screenwriting and information packets for creative writing programs. It was probably a book by William Goldman where I encountered some invaluable advice about dialogue. I’m paraphrasing, but the essence of what he said is that words are free in the real world, but at the movies they cost five bucks, or whatever a movie ticket cost when he was writing. As a reader, I love dialogue as much as anyone, but as a writer I’m constantly asking myself if my characters are simply talking because I can’t think of anything essential for them to do. If I had a nickel for every line of dialogue I’ve cut from a draft because it was pausing the narrative rather than moving it forward, I’d have the funds to see every movie I want to see for the rest of my life in IMAX 3D.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world—something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

I was lucky to have had an agent for the first novel I completed, an underdeveloped comedy whose narrator is a small-town copy editor who becomes friends with an actor/professional wrestler modeled on The Rock. I consider myself lucky because my agent was a good one, and when he wasn’t able to sell my novel it was pretty clear the problem was the novel and not the agent. Only a couple of the rejections gave specific—read: honest—reasons why they were passing, but one that did has stuck with me, for better and worse. The gist of the editor’s comments were that the novel’s subject matter wouldn’t appeal to female readers, and that the number of male readers there might be for such a book wasn’t large enough for him to take a chance on it. My novel’s problems were legion, I would realize in the months after we stopped sending it out, but this was the first time I learned of factors unrelated to the quality of one’s work being involved in acceptance or rejection. At the time, a writer friend, a former professor, told me how ridiculous this editor’s comments were, but I’m still not sure where I stand. Even if we dismiss the notion that not enough men read books, or that women are less interested in certain subjects or kinds of stories, it was instructive to learn that the publishing industry believes both to be true and that the size of a writer’s audience probably depends less on the quality of his or her work than how enticing it sounds in summary.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

The prevailing image of a writer as a young man or woman seems to be the introvert more drawn to the library than the playground. While I learned to read at a young age, was moved ahead a grade in elementary school—the whole bit—my memories of Saturday afternoons at Charleston, West Virginia’s Kanawha County Public Library are of puppet shows, free movies, and checking out books with far more pictures than words. When reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, I based my choices on how short the passages were in the two sections from which I chose. As an only child, my default setting was keeping to myself, but it was TV, video games, and comic books I turned to when I was alone. By the time we got cable in 1989, a year before I upgraded my Nintendo to a Sega Genesis, I was so blissed out with entertainment options that I didn’t even read the books I was supposed to read for school.

What kind of writer did this make me? A late-blooming one, for one thing. For another, when I finally started reading fiction with some degree of seriousness, the books I read were decidedly literary. In fact, they often felt like the opposite of entertainment. It took many more years to discover reading could be what I wanted it to be, that I could find in books whatever I wanted to find, and that the distance between depth and entertainment doesn’t have to be so wide. From there, I finally learned, or started to learn, how to write the stories I wanted to read.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

Until publishing my first book, I had thoughts about the publishing world, but I wouldn’t say I had feelings. News of bookstore closings and dwindling book sales depressed me in the way one grieves for victims of natural disasters in another hemisphere; until it’s your loved one, we tend to shake our heads and send what we can to the Red Cross. Recent news points to independent bookstores thriving across the country, and from what I’ve read book sales seem steady, but the most eye-opening realization these past several weeks has been how small the world of books truly is. I don’t mean the community of writers or the literary world—I’m talking about the world of people who read and care about reading and books. I joked last year that if a meteor hit Minneapolis during the AWP conference, 96% of the market for chapbooks would be wiped off the face of the earth, but the truth behind that joke is that the audience for books of any kind consists of a troublingly high percentage of fellow writers.

As a child who didn’t turn to books as a primary source of pleasure or entertainment, I’d feel a little hypocritical saying we need to get our kids more interested in books. And the dilemma of how to market books to the population as a whole isn’t a new one. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that books have survived for many decades in spite of competing media. More good news is that books don’t need to adapt to the marketplace; fiction and poetry and stories in printed form do what they do as well as they ever have. If Kindles and audio books have brought a few new people into the reading community, it isn’t nearly a number as high as it could or should be. I can think of no invention more capable than books of instilling empathy and knowledge, those elusive properties that could, in great enough quantities, probably save the world. I’m not sure publishing is in need of saving in the same way our planet or political system both are, but the fates of all three might be improved if you convince some of your friends and family members who don’t regularly read books to give them a try.

James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic, winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. His fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, and The Texas Review, among others, and he is the fiction editor for Monkeybicycle. Originally from Charleston, West Virginia, he lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Lori. Find out more at jamestatehill.com or follow him on Twitter @jamestatehill.