Erin Stalcup: Sincere thanks for your recent visit to the University of North Texas, where you not only read from your incredible novel-in-progress, but also conducted a publishing workshop that gave students valuable professional advice. And, thank you for agreeing to answer a few follow-up questions about your visit.
Hannah Tinti: I had such a great time at UNT. The teachers, the students, everyone was amazing. I feel like I not only made connections there, I made friends. So it was fun to share a bit of the new book, and I felt very honored to read for you all, and to be asked to come down and visit Denton, which is now one of my favorite places.
ES: At dinner before your reading, you weren’t certain whether to read from The Good Thief, or from your new novel, which you’ve nearly finished but haven’t yet named. Everyone was thrilled to hear the new work, so thank you for being brave enough to, as you said, make yourself vulnerable as a writer. Your main character has been shot twelve times throughout his life, and the book tells the story of each bullet wound. I admired several things about the chapter you chose to read: you evocatively portrayed the landscape where I was born and raised, Northern Arizona; you made every single page riddled with suspense (not just the obvious suspense in that we all knew someone would be shot by the end, but also suspense about who he is, how he got to this point in his life, who the other characters are, and what’s going to happen next, to all of them); and, you create characters that feel nearly larger than life—two Navajo men who run a hotel, a creepy guy with “motor oil” hair and terrifying freckles, the main character, who’s driving around with a lot of guns and seven thousand dollars, and the young girl he meets who needs his help, who has a black eye and says she pierces her ear with a metal loop when she wants to remember something important, and who has a purple feather tied to the top loop and a baby held on her hip—yet, your characters don’t ever feel like cartoons. At the bar after the reading, someone asked how you generated such a suspenseful chapter, and you answered that writing at a desk is dull, and whenever you feel yourself getting bored, you ask a question: “What’s the weirdest thing that could happen next?” And then you write that thing. But, as odd as this chapter was, full of dust storms and guns and blood and diapers and naked people, it never felt unbelievable. Can you say a bit about how you balance believability with excitement, strangeness, and suspense? Do you use anything except for your gut to create characters and scenarios that feel enthralling, but also very real?
HT: How to make weird things feel believable—I think the devil is always in the details. Sticking to the facts and not over-writing. You want the reader to experience things alongside the characters, and a few well-placed, closely-observed descriptions, along with one or two facts will make them relax and trust you. Then you can take them anywhere.
Starting from real-life experience also helps. I once traveled through the four corners, as my character does in the chapter I read. I was caught in a terrible dust-storm, like in the story. And I was also forced to stop at a strange motel run by Navajos. There wasn’t a gun-fight, but it was definitely the kind of place where I could have been murdered. So I had that experience to draw from.
As for the gut question—yes, I trust my gut most of the time. It’s a bit like using a divining rod. I’ll get inspired by things I see and experience that spark the idea and get me to sit down at the computer, but it’s my gut that leads me from sentence to sentence.
ES: You also told us at the bar that you hadn’t always been a shooter, but you’ve been learning how to fire guns in order to understand your main character. What other kinds of preparation work have you had to do for your writing—either for this novel, or forAnimal Crackers, or for The Good Thief? Another way of asking this question might be: how has your art changed your life, how has writing left the boundaries of the page and entered your actual days, how has it made you do things and learn things you wouldn’t have otherwise? Feel free to answer as literally or loosely as you wish.
HT: There is a constant crossing of my real life and my writing life. I do research for anything I want to make happen on the page. The factual details help the reader to believe in you, which is an important aspect of writing I often talk to my students about. It’s our job to convince the reader that we know what we’re doing, and to keep the reader interested, so they don’t “get out of the car” (i.e. put down the book).
Sometimes I discover something in the real world, and it bleeds into the writing (like vampire squids or resurrection men), sometimes it starts on the page, and bleeds into my real life (like learning how to shoot a double-barrel shotgun). For example: I’m currently teaching a writing class after hours in the Museum of Natural History. To prep for this, I read a history of the Museum, DINOSAURS IN THE ATTIC by Douglas Preston, which chronicles many of the exhibits. I also spent countless hours exploring every inch of the building. Now I’m pretty sure my next project is going to circle around the idea of museums. I can’t talk too much about it, but I’ve become obsessed. Every week I go to the museum and stare at Apatosaurus bones and dioramas of the African Koodoo. That’s what happens to most writers, I think. You come across something that strikes a chord and then it infiltrates every part of your life and you bore everyone you know by talking incessantly about it and then you write about it until you are exhausted and have worked it out of your system. I suppose it is a bit like falling in love.
ES: Well said—I think you’re exactly right about that feeling, that obsession and elation.
In his introduction to your reading, Andy Briseño accurately said that you’re a master at both “creating and curating” fiction. Not only are you a brilliant writer, but your editing has also made the literary world a better place—thank goodness One Story exists. Your magazine’s mission to “save the short story” seems to be working! Several of us here at UNT are working on novels, myself included, after spending a long time studying the shorter form. As exciting as it is for me to try to learn how to write a novel, I have to admit, the short story is the form I most adore. Can you say a bit about the differences between the two forms—the pleasures of writing and reading each, the different ways they challenge and reward us?
HT: The magic of the short story is that you can sit down and read it from start to finish. In just 10 minutes, you can have a complete artistic experience. Stories are also easier to re-read than novels, and each re-read reveals something new and teaches you something. It’s like taking an engine apart and then putting it back together. You keep doing it until you know all the parts and how each part plays a role and makes the car run. As for the writing experience—the language is tighter, more like a poem, and every sentence is scrutinized and needs a reason to be there. It’s all about compression.
A novel gives an author more freedom to explore and to spend time with the characters. You use the heart of the book to branch out and create an entire world. The language is looser, and by that I mean you don’t have to cut so much. But novels can be very challenging to write, because of the time commitment. They are also harder to hold in your head all at once. Sometimes you can see the author losing steam on the page, because the original idea has faded. A truly great novel, one that keeps the reader happily “in the car” all the way is a rare experience, and usually works because the author has worked meticulously on the structure and pacing. This is usually what makes a good story, too.
So whatever your poison, story or novel, my advice is: nail the structure. Take your favorite novels and stories apart, examine what is going on, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence. Learn the framework, then bend it to fit your own work.
ES: Sincere thanks for your visit, and for giving us more of your thoughts here. We are all so grateful for your generosity.
HT: Thanks to you and everyone at UNT. I had a wonderful time. Texas Forever!