by James Hannaham
Issue #121 • June 1st, 2009•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
“How old are you?” Erika asks.
Panic vibrates in Lopey’s voice. “I’ll be ten in a week and a half. You know that. Why you gotta ask?”
She sees he’s been crying. A stream describes his cheek where a tear fell. He doesn’t wipe it away. She wants to do it for him. He sets his jaw and fixes his eyes front. Opening her handbag she fishes out a package of bubblegum, holds it toward him. He raises his palm, shakes his head, pushes it away. The hard glance makes him seem much older, it unnerves Erika.
“Can you explain this to me? I’m at a loss for words.”
“The whole thing. Your behavior. This—” Erika pushes out an aggravated growl, cups her outstretched palms in helplessness, and weaves her fingers together. The weaved fingers become a cap that she places on her head and squeezes, as if she could literally push comprehension through her skull. She keeps thinking the cops had no right to decide to scare him with a visit to the precinct, no more right than he had to mess with drugs. “What have you done?” she asks no one. The hollow corridor makes everything sound bigger. “What were you thinking? Were you thinking?”
James Hannaham’s stories have appeared in The Literary Review, Open City, Nerve, and several anthologies. He has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, The Blue Mountain Center, Chateau de Lavigny, Fundació n Valparaíso, and a NYFFA Fellowship in Fiction. He teaches creative writing at the Pratt Institute. His first novel, God Says No, was published by McSweeney’s Books in May 2009.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JH: I love this question because it implies that you only need one idea to create a story or a novel. If that were true, I’d be as prolific as Balzac. “The” idea, or the earliest one I can remember, anyway, is that I read a story by another author from my hometown (Yonkers, NY), and I decided I wanted to try my hand at depicting the city, too, but from a different angle. I took piano lessons during high school, and in order to get to my teacher’s house, which was in a really nice area of the city, I had to walk through a pretty bad area of the city. That contrast, I think, is what gave the story its atmosphere, originally, and by extension the main character’s internal conflict(s).
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JH: Honestly, knowing when to stop. I wrote most of it while at The MacDowell Colony, at a time when I was trying to teach myself to write a novel, to expand without worrying too much about editing myself or “issues of craft” or “streamlining” which ultimately seem hackish to obsess over anyway. The level of concentration you get at MacDowell and the ability to hear your own voice is unbelievable. By the end the story ballooned to 40 pages—just the right length to make getting it published a near impossibility. If the residency had been longer, the story might have ended up a novel.
HT: Music plays a central role in “Interrupted Serenade” and several specific pieces are mentioned throughout, yet your descriptions never feel too technical or jargon-y. How were you able to make these elements accessible to readers who might not be musically-inclined?
JH: Yeah, how did I do that? It wasn’t a conscious decision. I have written a lot about popular music, and that usually requires the writer to describe what music sounds like without going into a lot of technical info, and more importantly to avoid using clichés, i.e., “this rocks!” I suppose I just tapped into that skill without realizing it.
HT: What made you choose the pieces you did and do they hold any significance for you?
JH: There are a ton of associations here. In 1993 I dated a musician who had a CD of Debussy’s Preludes, and I fell in love with them. The relationship ended, but I never fell out of love with the preludes. In 1996, I moved into an apartment that contained a piano and started playing again. I taught myself some of the easier ones; I could kind of play “Le Serenade Interrompué” at a certain point. At MacDowell, there are very nice pianos all over the place for the composers, and I was probably trying to play that piece in the library at the same time as I was writing the story. Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu” was one of the first mp3’s I ever owned; I played the recording a lot while writing the story—I never even attempted to play that piece. It has a reputation as a rather difficult piece for young pianists to attempt: the right hand juxtaposes some incredibly weird multiple against the left, something like 15/7. Also, in high school, I got involved with an NAACP achievement program called ACT-SO (Academic, Cultural, Technological Scientific Olympics). I went to the national competition twice as a composer. One year the organizers showcased this kid from inner city Chicago who played “Fantasie Impromptu” for a huge auditorium full of people and floored everyone.
HT: The dynamic between Erika and Lopey is one of the richest aspects of your story and highlights a relationship that isn’t often explored these days, though it’s arguably more prevalent than ever, that between a step-parent and a step-child. Why did you choose to explore that relationship in particular?
JH: Off-balance families seem far more normal to me than nuclear ones. I was a child of divorce; my parents separated when I was 18 months old, so I never missed what I hadn’t had. I didn’t even feel alienated from my peers because of it—I remember having a bonding moment with a bunch of buddies in second grade about our divorced parents. It was the New York Metro area in the 70s, after all. Also, my sister’s best friend growing up was Jamaican, and Jamaicans can have some extraordinarily complicated families—lots of steps and halves and just craziness. I think I was mining something from my experiences with my father’s girlfriend, but not directly. She was much more of a bohemian soul sister than Erika.
HT: Though Lopey is caught between many dichotomies—race, class, the masculinity embodied by Evil David versus that of Mr. Schroeder—you leave him in a state of suspended silence. Why did you choose to end your story there and where do you see Lopey heading now?
JH: Around the time I wrote the bulk of the story, there was a program of Ken Loach movies at my local cinema and I went to and loved nearly all of them. The majority of Loach’s films are psuedo-vérité fictional stories about very poor people in the north of England. He has a way of ending a film that I wanted to emulate in fiction—things go extraordinarily badly for most of his characters, and then he’ll end the film at a moment when they get irreparably worse—it utterly breaks your heart without a shred of sentimentality. It’s like the story itself can’t bear to look any more. The final shot in his first feature, Kes, is of this desperately poor boy burying his beloved trained kestrel after it has just been murdered by one of his relatives, if I recall correctly. Devastating.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JH: I’m not sure it’s finished. I started it in the summer of 03.
HT: You recently published your first novel, God Says No, which is receiving wonderful reviews. Is it difficult to make the switch from novel writing to short story writing? Does your style change in the different forms?
JH: n the middle of writing GSN, which began life as a very different book in 2001, I wrote a story that changed my approach to writing significantly—I realized that, like the composer I started out wanting to be, a big component of what turned me on about writing was the sound and rhythm of words, and discovered that if I took more pleasure in those elements, better stuff began to come to me quite naturally, even in terms of what people often call “content” or “narrative.” In the middle of a class this past semester, I told my students “writing is a kind of music,” which sounds sort of confusing, I think, until one admits that writing is made of sound as much or even more than meaning. Poets seem far more accepting of this idea than fiction writers for some reason. I’m trying now to adapt my style to something that’s appropriate for each new idea or project, betting that some essential quality will remain. Probably my favorite building blocks: the tacky, the tragicomic, the bittersweet.
HT: What are you working on now?
JH: Turning those ‘wonderful reviews’ into cold hard cash. It’s like alchemy only more difficult and less scientific.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JH: Jennifer Egan once told me to give myself the permission to write badly; essentially stressing that rewriting is more important than writing. Something can be revised, even if it’s bad, but nothing can’t be. I have probably repeated those lines to all of my students and anyone who has ever asked for my advice about writing. Joy Williams, with whom I took a workshop in grad school, supposedly doesn’t revise, but this just confirms that she’s in league with Satan.