thechapbookreview

John Madera Interviews Tina May Hall

Madera: First of all, congratulations on winning the Caketrain Chapbook Competition. How did it feel when you found out the news?

Hall: I was absolutely ecstatic.  Joseph and Amanda (of Caketrain) let me know on January 4th and I was just so pleased and so happy to be starting the new year with such good news.

Madera: What, if any, kind of dialogue happened between you and Brian Evenson?

Hall: Brian was very generous with his praise of the manuscript, and he had a couple of suggestions.  I took one of them—to draw less attention to the titles of the sections by taking out the table of contents—and I ultimately rejected the other, which was to change the title of the novella.  I tried out a bunch of other titles, even made a list of 50 (really awful) others, which is an exercise I assign my students sometimes, but it had been All the Day’s Sad Stories for a long time and I was pretty immune by that point to the moroseness of it, so it stuck.

Madera: Some of these pieces have the strength of standalone pieces (I’m thinking of “Roadside Attractions,” “The Catherines Sew Grandchildren’s Costumes on Their Breaks,” “On the Way Home,” and “In February, Mercy Imagines Summer”) and so I wondered how you put together this book. Did it begin with a vignette, or a series of them, that then developed into a full-length story? Did you have a number of seed ideas that you built on? Did you approach it in a sentence-by-sentence manner? Or was it a combination of all of the above, or something else entirely?

Hall: It’s funny you mention “Roadside Attractions” because that is the first section I wrote, and it started like everything I write, with a sentence.  Actually in this case, two sentences: “Bone loss, birth defects, mammogram.  These are the words that float up to her from the car radio.”  From there I just started getting intrigued by this character and also by the idea of things drifting to the surface, whether they were public service announcements or weather reports or tensions in a marriage.   I wrote each section separately and with the idea that it would be able to (sort of) stand alone.  I usually work very short; in fact, at the time I was writing this, it was the longest narrative I’d ever constructed.  So it made it more manageable for me to think in terms of vignette and scene and to use the white space as breathing space—a coping strategy, I guess!

Madera: The lyricism, not to mention the muted sadness, throughout All the Day’s Sad Stories is reminiscent to me of the fiction of Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels. Both of whom are accomplished poets. Do you write poetry as well? Who are some poets that you regularly enjoy?

Hall: First of all, thanks for the very kind comparisons—I love both of those writers.  I admit I tend toward the more narrative (even if it is skewed narrative) poets—Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Anne Carson—and fiction from writers who are almost poets—Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Virginia Woolf. Some of the fiction I write plays a lot with negative space, even between sentences, so sometimes people take those stories for poems and I’m always honored by the mistake.  I used to write poetry and edited poetry for a couple of literary magazines, but really, my poetry is crap.  There is something I still don’t quite get about the line and how the shape of a poem works.  Whereas, the sentence feels very comfortable for me—I can really play with that form and push it around and relax into it.

Madera: I wondered about the use of curly brackets in the book. Is it like how it’s used in some programming languages, that is, as a way of enclosing blocks of code? Or like in math, where it denotes a set? Was it a strictly visual or aesthetic thing?

Hall: Don’t you love those brackets?  I can’t take any credit for them.  They were entirely Joseph Reed’s idea.  He was meticulous in his editing of the novella, and he is a brilliant designer.  It is wonderful to see how the book becomes a collaborative product and how much grace good design and editing can bring to a project.

Madera: Which writers were guiding lights for you when you first began to write, and then which ones helped to shape and/or hone your style? Who and what were you reading while you wrote this book? Music? Films?

Hall: Hmm…definitely Jane Austen, who I read first when I was too young to realize how witty she is (I was shocked when I revisited her in high school and college).  Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Jayne Anne Phillips both changed my understanding of what fiction could do.  When I’m reading these writers, or someone like Kathryn Davis or Carole Maso (who I mentioned above), I get so excited about what they are doing to fiction that I actually have to stop reading and catch my breath sometimes.  As for writers I have actually worked with, I have to credit Trudy Lewis for keeping me on track and demonstrating a level of care and attention to detail in her own stories that inspires me.

When I was writing the novella, I was reading and teaching Don DeLillo, and it is quite clear to me how much I was affected by his work, particularly a certain blandness of affect and the interjections of floating bits of pop culture.

Madera: I also wanted to ask you some general writing questions. Do have any kind of writing ritual? Are there some mantras you employ while writing.

Hall: I have a two-year-old son so my writing ritual is pretty much to type as quickly as possible whenever I find myself alone in front of the computer.  I am very prone to stopping sentence by sentence to fiddle until the sound pleases me, so I guess my informal mantras are Keep moving and/or Let it go.  But I also try to be kind to myself, and if I only get a couple of sentences written after a few hours working, I tell myself that it will go faster the next time I sit down and  I’ll write ten pages at the next sitting, even though I know it is a lie.

Madera: What’s the drafting and editing process like for you?

Hall: As I said above, I work pretty slowly, but I’m always working on three or four projects simultaneously.  So I end up with fallow periods where everything is in flux and then bursts of completion.  I revise a lot and over time.  It seems to be that it takes about a year after I get the first complete draft done before I realize what the story really needs.  I wrote the sections in the chapbook over the span of about 14 months and then spent about a year revising them before sending them out.  Revising is the most fun for me—I love to tinker and worry about syllables and work the repetition, so undoubtedly I spend too much time on this step.

Madera: What are you working on now?

Hall: I’m working on a series of found stories—stories that I construct out of Victorian scientific treatises.  They are great fun and feel almost entirely like play.  And I’m writing a novel which is sort of a murder mystery/postmodern gothic about a woman who writes encyclopedia entries and gets stuck on the Arctic.  Her story is interwoven with the story of Lady Jane Franklin who was the wife of the one of the most notoriously ill-fated Victorian arctic explorers, and it has been fascinating doing the research for it.  I have definitely gotten bogged down in maps of the search for the Northwest Passage and in diaries of all those old crazy stoic explorers, but I don’t regret it.

Madera: What is your teaching style like? What are some strategies you employ? Do have some particularly effective writing exercises and/or prompts? What are some readings you like to assign? How do you see teaching helping/hindering your own writing process/output?

Hall: My students would tell you I have a notecard fetish, and it is true that I love to have them write things (character types, favorite words, a setting in a sentence, an action-provoking problem, a line of dialogue) on index cards and pass them to the right or left and then write a scene based on the cards they have in front of them.  I like to pile on restrictions in the in-class exercises.  I do the same thing to myself whenever I am feeling stuck or flat—I have found that trying to work the word “chicken” into a story invariably invigorates it.

I assign a lot of reading—you really can’t be a writer without being a practiced reader.  My husband is a writer too, and he and I sit around and do that geeky writer thing of listing “perfect” stories.  So we read a lot of those in class—Ishiguro’s “A Family Supper,” Carver’s “Cathedral,” Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” anything by Alice Munro or Stuart Dybek.  It is still amazing to me that someone pays me to sit around dissecting narrative arcs and diagramming sentences and figuring out how an author gets away with so much exposition.

Generally, I say that teaching feeds my writing—both literally, in the sense that it keeps me in chocolate and my son in diapers, but also that I am inspired by my students and their joy in language.  And I genuinely mean this about 98 percent of the time.  And then two percent of the time I am fantasizing about having some kind of beach hut somewhere or a garret in Paris or a cabin in the Rockies where all I have to do is just sit and spin stories and wait for someone to bring me a glass of wine.

Madera: When you mentioned coming up with new titles I remembered that Fitzgerald had considered a number of names for The Great Gatsby like (according to Wikipedia) Gatsby; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; Trimalchio; Trimalchio in West Egg; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby; and The High-Bouncing Lover. So what were some other titles that you considered?

Hall: Oh, most of them are too awful to reveal.  But, just to give you a sample, A Year of Small Disasters; Omens Mistaken for the Changing Seasons; Small Graces; and because I am a fan and proponent of the long title, When an Unborn Child Goes Missing, Look to the Fallen Leaf, the Weather Report, the Stolen Kiss, Anything Small Enough to Be Covered by the Hand. So you can see why I stuck with the original title.

Madera: What distinguishes lyrical fiction from the prose poem for you? What is it that makes a work like Woolf’s The Waves, with its incredibly heightened language, not to mention its exquisite re-envisioning of form, fiction? Why are Woolf, Maso, and Stein (all of whom I also adore) “almost poets?”

Hall: I don’t really distinguish (short) lyrical fiction from the prose poem.  To me (although I have had heated debates on the topic with colleagues at the campus pub of a Friday), the terms prose poem and short short story (or flash fiction) are interchangeable.  By my reading, Woolf and Stein and Maso are fiction writers because they work at length with what seem to be sentences rather than lines and because they claim that designation for themselves.  It makes sense to me to think of them as fiction writers precisely because they are “re-envisioning” the form—they aren’t working outside of fiction, but rather on fiction.

Madera: When you mentioned DeLillo’s influence especially the “blandness of affect and the interjections of floating bits of pop culture” in his work, I immediately saw the parallel in All the Day’s Sad Stories. However, it wasn’t something that was evident to me while reading the text. And while the pop cultural detritus in DeLillo is often wonderfully overwhelming in its exuberant celebration of and obsession with media glut, in your work it’s much more subdued, integrated into the emotional fabric. So how did this happen? Or perhaps I should ask: how are you influenced? After a period of absorption, does a transmutation period follow? Is it even evident to you while you’re writing? What is influence anyway?

Hall: I don’t think one can help being influenced.  Nor is it something a writer should worry about or try to avoid.  One of the pleasures of writing is the feeling of entering a conversation with other writers, and influence is a part of this.  That said, DeLillo is such a different writer from me—as you point out, his obsessions are far removed from mine—that I felt absolutely confident that whatever I was doing would be distinct from his project.  Sometimes my students will tell me they are afraid to read much because they don’t want to lose any sense of their own originality, and I always advise them to read more (and to read a range of writers) and to write more at the same time so they can learn to recognize their own particular voice.  I think when you feel relatively secure in your own voice, it gives you a stable center and allows you to read widely and be thrilled and inspired and still safe in your own work.

Madera: Gertrude Stein, in “Poetry and Grammar,” famously states: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences…I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.” So since you mentioned it, would you diagram some of your favorite sentences and then also talk about why you’ve chosen them?

Hall: Oh boy, I would need a big old blackboard to really diagram sentences properly.  Generally, I like to look in class at a series of sentences, to see how a writer sets up certain rhythms.  So, for example, the following first few sentences from Raymond Carver’s story “Feathers”:

“This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper.  I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran.  That made us even.  But Bud and I were friends.  And I knew there was a little baby at Bud’s house.”

The first sentence is interesting because the use of the nonrestrictive subordinate adjective clause, “This friend of mine from work,” and the embedded additional nonrestrictive adjective clause, “Bud,” is such an oblique way of getting into a story.  Also the use of “this” instead of the indefinite article “a” and the “he” (which makes the first clause nonrestrictive) give the sentence (and the story) an instantly colloquial feel.  But then he breaks up this kind of circuitous, talky syntax with the simple conjoined declarative sentence, “I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran,” which is brilliant, not only because it anchors the rhythm on a sentence level, but also because it performs the “evenness” alluded to in the next sentence through its parallel structure.  This parallel structure also accomplishes some important exposition—we know by the end of the sentence that Fran must be the narrator’s wife or the equivalent. Following up these two very simple sentences with two sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions introduces tension into the story because there is some question about which clauses the conjunctions are meant to be joining.  Does the “but” complicate the statement that the narrator and Bud are even?  Or does it gesture back to the problem of them not knowing each other’s wives?  The “and” also seems to indicate that the following statement is problematic somehow, that it has some part in the narrator’s decision to go to dinner.  Also, starting the two sentences with the conjunctions eases us back into the colloquial flavor of the story.

I won’t go on, but when we do this kind of close analysis in class, it really highlights the control a skilled writer can exert over his or her material.  I jokingly exhort students to respect the sentence, but it is true that this is our responsibility as fiction writers.  It is our unit of meaning, and too often, its possibilities are ignored or left to intuition and chance.  The most valuable exercise might be diagramming one’s own sentences.  For instance, when I sit down and diagram part of a story, it becomes very clear to me that I tend toward parallelism in threes and embedded prepositional phrases.  Knowing this makes me attentive to overuse of these strategies and gives me an easy place to start cutting when I am revising—I always start with a hard look at the prepositional phrases.

Madera: Who are some of those writers who have gotten “away with so much exposition?” And how did they do it?

Hall: I think a writer like Carver, who is a very voice-oriented writer, gets away with exposition precisely because of the colloquial tone he manages to sustain.  For instance, “Cathedral,” a story which really centers on the scenes with the blind man, is set up by a big old chunk of exposition at the beginning of the story which Carver can manage because the voice is so conversational.  He draws the reader in by creating the feeling of someone talking just to you.  Interestingly, “Cathedral” starts with a sentence constructed much like the first sentence of “Feathers”: “The blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on the way to spend the night.”  Again, there is that redundant “he” which instantly signals the tone to the reader.

Another story that is interesting to look at in terms of exposition is Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  That story is extremely exposition-heavy, but it manages to stay buoyant due to the specificity of detail and the self-conscious conceit of listing.  Somehow the listing energizes the exposition, gives the story a source of tension to pull the reader along.  It is a great story to examine with students to see how technique can create tension as well as event.  The amount of exposition in O’Brien’s story also focuses attention on the few scenes we do get, all of which touch in some way on Ted Lavender’s death, so that Lavender’s death becomes a lodestone for the story, like Lieutenant Cross’s good-luck pebble, the thing the story itself carries.

Madera: What were some ways that Trudy Lewis kept you on track? I also don’t know her work, so what would you recommend I read as a start?

Hall: Trudy was my dissertation director, so she kept me on track in a very literal way, by shepherding me through my comprehensive exams and the dissertation and my first job search.  But she also is a grounding force through her example.  She has an amazing work ethic, writes complicated, witty, perfectly-structured fiction, reads voraciously, researches a range of interests from turn-of-the-century mill workers to Colette to roller derbies, and is a fantastic teacher, dedicated and careful—all while balancing a life with her big bear of a poet-husband and two very active sons and a border collie.  So Trudy has been showing me for the last 13 years or so how one can manage to be a working writer and have a full life and still stay somewhat sane and responsible and happy.  The Cream City Review has a wickedly funny story of hers online HERE.

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  1. […] interview with Tina May […]

  2. […] December 31, 2009 by John Madera I’ve read over 120 books in 2009, and by the time the year is up I’ll have reviewed over fifty. At the risk of being redundant, I’ve put together a list of the books I thought were this year’s best. I’ve also included links to the ones I reviewed. But before that, I should mention some great books that weren’t published this year: Eugene Lim’s Fog & Car, Eugene Marten’s Waste, Mary Caponegro’s first three books, Michael Kimball’s The Way the Family Got Away and Dear Everybody, Ken Sparling’s Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia. And there’s Shane Jones’s The Failure Six, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, and Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, all of which won’t be released until next year. By the way, while the so-called major presses churned out a whole lot of fluff I did enjoy John Haskell’s Out of My Skin and Anne Michaels’s The Winter Vault. So, besides beautifully-crafted language, eddying narratives, evocative imagery, and provocative characters—whose quirks, thoughts, and comings and goings remain with me—what the books on this list have in common is having been published by independent presses. 1. All the Day’s Sad Stories, by Tina May Hall: Every sentence is honed to perfection. And I find it inspiring how many of its sections easily function as standalone miniatures. I interviewed Hall HERE. […]

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