From Salem to Gowanus: The odyssey of Hannah Tinti
It is refreshingly unusual to meet a writer whose work you greatly admire and to discover that the writer is warm, engaging, smart as a whip and as open as … well … a book. Hannah Tinti (who is a proud Gowanus resident) is the author of the 2004 short story collection “Animal Crackers,” the 2008 novel “The Good Thief” and, just published this month, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” which is an unqualified triumph. If you have room for only one book in your beach bag this summer, “Hawley” is it. The book is both a coming-of-age story and a thrilling tale of revenge and renewal. Think “The Road to Perdition” meets “Paper Moon,” with “Treasure Island” and “Great Expectations” thrown in for good measure. Compelling does not begin to describe its relentless pacing and narrative drive. Tinti is supremely confident, consistently fearless and prodigiously gifted — a trifecta that immediately vaults her to the pole position among American writers.
Recently, Tinti and I met at the Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton Street, where later in the evening she would be bartending at an event celebrating Independent Bookstore Day. We talked about “Hawley,” some of her favorite themes, her childhood in Salem, Massachusetts and why she lives in Brooklyn.
Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Brooklyn Eagle: I’m curious: Is the fact that you grew up in Salem at all responsible for your fascination with crimes; mysterious, malevolent characters and good versus evil?
Hannah Tinti: You know, I do think growing up in Salem was an influence. As a kid, I liked to tell scary stories. And Salem is fertile territory for a writer. Two things happened that emphasized Salem’s connection to the witch trials and ghosts and goblins: First, the coal plant closed; then, Parker Brothers combined with Milton Bradley and moved out to western Massachusetts. So, after that, the mayor and City Council put more energy into promoting Salem’s notorious past and attracting tourists, [and] now it is like Halloween 365 days a year there.
Eagle: Before we move on to the book, let me ask some Brooklyn-centric questions: What made you decide to live in Brooklyn, what are some of your favorite Brooklyn-based activities and are you part of the famous Brooklyn “literary mafia”?
HT: [Laughing] Is it a mafia? I mean, I do have writer friends in Brooklyn, but also lots of other friends with more normal occupations. That said, I am very involved in the Brooklyn and the entire New York City literary community, principally because of One Story magazine [Note: Tinti is the executive editor of the short story monthly, which is based in and published out of the Old American Can Factory on Third Street.] So, regarding your “mafia” question, I suppose the answer is “yes,” though I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider. I was a shy kid and I get along best with other people who also feel like they don’t fit in. As for as activities, the thing I do the most is walking. I have a dog, so I’m out on the street three to four times day. My favorite walks are in Prospect Park and through Red Hook and along the piers.
Eagle: On to the book: “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” feels like it’s set in a sort of timeless setting — not the distant past but not quite the present either. Was that deliberate?
HT: Yes. For example, as I moved forward with the writing, I realized that I didn’t want any digital devices in there because I felt like they would ruin everything. I didn’t want to deal with texting, laptops. Also, the whole scene in the boat at the end [spoiler alert] wouldn’t work because Loo could have just held up her cellphone and known exactly where she was. So, I fudged some things and didn’t really spell out the time period in which the story is set.
Eagle: That’s a good segue to my next question: What is it about you and watches? [Timepieces figure significantly in “Hawley.”]
HT: [Laughing] I think watches are fascinating and time is a fascinating thing. For example, I love certain novels that play with time. I’m very interested in time as a device. If you remember at the beginning of the novel, there’s Frederick Nunn with all his clocks. I’m like Frederick Nunn — I always like to know what time it is even though I don’t actually wear a watch. Instead, I have this weird, internal clock and it’s usually pretty accurate. But I do love looking at catalogs of intricate, one-of-a-kind watches that were made for wealthy barons of industry and that took years to assemble.
Eagle: Is that what gave you the idea of Ed King [the book’s principal villain] and his bloody quest for the holy grail of watches?
HT: Exactly. The idea that a watch could be worth $10 million. And these barons would compete with each other to see who could have the most intricate watch made for them. The analogy with today, I guess, would be who can build the tallest skyscraper.
Eagle: Hawley’s partner in crime, Jove: Is his name meant to make the reader think of Jupiter, the god of the sky and thunder?
HT: Yes, because the 12 bullets are connected to Hercules’ 12 labors. So, for example, Mabel Ridge is a stand-in for Hera, who is always trying to thwart Hercules at every turn, and Jove is a stand-in father figure for Hawley, since Hawley’s father died when he was so young.
Eagle: What accounts for your uncanny ability to write about adolescence [Loo, the heroine of “Hawley,” is 12 when the novel begins and Ren, the principal character in “The Good Thief,” is even younger at 9 years old] so convincingly? Are you still very in touch with your adolescent self?
HT: Yes, I think I am. Growing up, I was quiet and shy and when you are quiet and shy, you spend a lot of time observing things. So I have a lot of strong memories of my childhood. But, also, the fun thing about writing a coming-of-age story is that kids are figuring things out for the first time. I think readers love these kinds of books because it reminds them of their own discoveries.
Eagle: Speaking of discoveries — when Loo discovers her father’s violent and murderous past, her reaction is at first judgmental, but then — and I believe this one of the elements that makes the novel so satisfying — it becomes one of acceptance.
HT: I think there’s this nature-versus-nurture dynamic. I mean, Loo has inherited certain violent tendencies. I do think a capacity for violence can be passed on. And Hawley recognizes this trait in his daughter, but he’s also trying to show her another way of living. So, as best he can, he’s trying to show her normalcy, even though Hawley himself has not had a normal life. But remember, Loo has also inherited things from Lily [Loo’s mother.] But her mother’s already dead when the novel begins, so Loo is trying to figure out how to live in the world with her violent tendencies, yet still hold on to her mother’s compassion. You know, I think our parents are both heroes and strangers to us, all at the same time.
Eagle: I agree. There are some lines in chapter six that have haunted me ever since I read them. Hawley and Lily are living in Alaska and she’s now pregnant. “She took his hand and put it on her swollen stomach. Recently, the baby had started to move. Whenever Hawley felt the fluttering deep inside his wife, it made him want to get into his car and drive.” Those lines haunt me because that’s precisely how I felt when I first learned I’d be a father. And male friends have told me the same thing. How did you know?
HT: [Laughing] That’s the ambivalence all you guys feel, right? About the commitment of being a father. A lot of my friends who are fathers — after reading the book — have pulled me aside, secretively, and said the same thing: How did you know? I mean, all of these guys are good fathers, but they didn’t have the immediate physical connections to the child the way the mother did. For guys, I think that connection comes later.
Eagle: Very true. You also scared me and made me feel guilty when you write about how, when Lily first tells Hawley she’s pregnant, all Hawley thinks about is his scrambled eggs getting cold. How did you get inside my head?
HT: [Laughing] But isn’t that true?! Doesn’t that happen?! And believe me, it’s not just a “guy thing.”
Eagle: Another male-centric question: How did you become so familiar with guns, rifles, pistols, ordnance? Lots of research?
HT: I did do a lot of research. I had never shot a gun before I started this book.
Eagle: That’s remarkable because the first time Loo fires her father’s bolt-action Model 5 Remington is incredibly well-written. It reminded me of that great scene in “Shane” when Joey asks Shane to fire his pistol and the sound is like an explosion.
HT: Thanks. The first time I fired a gun was at the West Side Rifle Range in Manhattan. I signed up to learn how to shoot a .22 caliber rifle. That was my first time, but then one of my good friends Helen Ellis, who has a cousin who belongs to a gun club, arranged for me to go to the club and shoot everything: pistols, rifles, you name it. I was madly taking notes the whole time. I learned about the physicality of the different calibers and the difference between shooting a shotgun as opposed to shooting a sniper rifle. Plus, I have some relatives who are in the military, so I talked with them. Then I also have a good friend who, when his father passed away, inherited a gun shop. So, he fact-checked all my gun references.
Eagle: You know you were so lucky that The New York Times got Pete Hamill to review the book [Note: Hamill loved it.] In his review, he has a funny line to the effect that you must have joined the NRA to learn so much about guns.
HT: [Laughing] Yes, I know. I have to say that I was so honored to have Pete Hamill review the book, and the fact that he liked it was the icing on the cake.
Eagle: How were you able to make your descriptions of the gunshot wounds so precise, vivid, visceral? There are many passages that made me wince. Did you talk to a lot of trauma surgeons?
HT: YouTube! I did a lot of research on YouTube. I did also read descriptions in medical journals from people who had been shot. But more than the technical details, I felt that each time he’s shot, there’s a life lesson: That just as he’s trying to make his way through the world, something else pulls him down, but he keeps getting up.
Eagle: OK, we figured out the watch thing — now what about the whales?
HT: The whales kind of came in accidentally…
Eagle: You didn’t know from the beginning there’d be two whales?
HT: No, the whales just kind of materialized — and actually, there are more than two whales, because there’s the whale’s heart that Loo crawls into at the museum and the stone whale where the kids party (which really exists, by the way.)
Eagle: The whale’s heart — there’s one at the American Museum of Natural History.
HT: Yup, I went there and saw it. And even though it’s for little kids, I said, “I’m crawling in there,” and I did. It was amazing and it was essential in helping me write the scene with Loo.
Eagle: Were you worried readers would find your adding the whales a bit hubristic? Like “Here she goes, she’s giving us ‘Moby Dick?’”
HT: Yes. Actually, I was very nervous about that because I thought, “You’re not a good enough writer to do that.” But the only way I can get those kind of demons out of my head when I’m writing is to pretend, “Hey, no one’s ever going to read this anyway.” I like to go against the grain. But I will tell you that in one of my early drafts I did take out the whales because I thought it might feel cheesy. But then I thought, “I’m going to go for it.” And also, I wanted to make the whales fearsome, like the whales 18th-century whalers encountered. For those early whalers, these really were monsters from the deep. Not like a whale-watching expedition today, where everyone’s going “Oh, look, a baby whale, how cute.” They’re huge creatures! And we are like gnats to them. Also, I was worried about the [politically incorrect] aspect of his shooting at the whale. I thought “Oh, God, everyone’s going to come after me.” And I even thought the same thing about all the guns. In fact, some of the comments on Amazon cited all the guns and the violence. And I understand.
Eagle: But, you know, this politically correct bunk and the “trigger warnings” is getting tiresome — I mean, c’mon, it’s an American novel and as H. Rap Brown famously said, “Violence is as American as apple pie.” Anyway, to move along: [spoiler alert] Is Ed King really dead at the novel’s conclusion? I kind of felt maybe you left some doubt there because you are contemplating a sequel.
HT: No, I’m not thinking about doing a sequel. That’s not what I’m working on next. Although … who knows, maybe in the future…
One thing is for certain about the future: Whatever tale Tinti does give us next is sure to be riveting and spellbinding.
“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is published by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House. For more information about the book and the author, go to randomhousebooks.com.
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