Hannah Tinti: The new voice of American literature

image-hannahtinti200Hannah Tinti was born and lives in Salem, Massachusetts.

She has just released The Good Thief which is a novel about Ren, an orphan who is 12. The story is set in New England and it was inspired by resurrection men – grave robbers in the 1800s. After meeting Benjamin, Ren goes on a journey involving thieving and corruption.

The rights to The Good Thief have been sold to 11 countries and Hannah is considered the new voice of American literature. The book’s central character Ren has been likened to Oliver Twist.

Hannah has also written a book of 11 short stories called Animal Crackers in 2004 which became runner-up for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick for summer 2004 and Amazon’s Breakout Book in 2004. The rights to Animal Crackers have been sold in 16 countries.

Click play to listen. Running time: 26.50

 

Animal Crackers The Good Thief

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for talking to us today Hannah.

Hannah:
Thanks for having me. It’s really exciting.

Valerie:
Now apart from all the books that you’ve written you’re also editor of a literary magazine called One Story. So what skills do you draw on from your editing background to help you in your writing?

Hannah:
I’ve got to say that being an editor makes me much harder on myself as a writer. It’s really hard for me to let things go. I’m always finding things that I can cut out and oftentimes even after I publish something I’m going at it with a red pen. So whenever I read from it to an audience it’s never what’s on the page.

Valerie:
Do you find that you’re actually editing as you go and does that slow you down quite a lot compared to if you didn’t have that in the back of your mind?

Hannah:
It is. I’m a slow writer. My new book The Good Thief took me six years to write and I think a lot of that is because I kind of micromanage every aspect of it. But the plus side of that is when I finally can deliver a manuscript it’s much more polished and further along so it makes my editor very happy.

Valerie:
Tell us about The Good Thief, which is about Ren an orphan.

Hannah:
The Good Thief is a novel. It takes place in New England which is the northern part of the United States and it takes place in the 1800s. It concerns a boy named Ren. Ren is an orphan. He grows up in an orphanage and as his story begins, we find out that he is missing his left hand. It was cut off some time before he was left at the orphanage and this missing hand is really the key to his identity and he really spends the rest of the novel on this quest of finding out who he is and where he came from.

One day a con man named Benjamin Nab arrives at the orphanage and claims Ren as his long lost brother and Ren soon finds after they leave the orphanage together that he was lying. So the story’s also about story telling actually and Benjamin, every time they get into a new scrape, he tells some long elaborate tale to get them out of it. It was a lot of fun to write actually because every time I was telling one of Benjamin’s stories I could really let my imagination go wild.

Valerie:
You said it has a six-year gestation period. How did the story develop and what was the initial inspiration for the story?

Hannah:
It all started when I came across this word “resurrection men”. I was studying words that have fallen out of use in the English language and I thought it was a beautiful word “resurrection men”. And then I read the definition which is thieves who would dig up bodies and sell them to medical schools, and this became extremely prevalent in Europe and the United States when medical schools were really proliferating and doctoring was becoming more of a science. I was really drawn to it as a subject matter because what they were doing was the worst possible thing you could ever do, desecrating a grave. But ultimately it did lead to a greater good because these doctors were able to practice and potentially save lives in the future.

So any sort of grey area like that is a wonderful thing for a writer to explore. What started it was I had this image in my head of this scene and in the scene, it was at a graveyard and the men were behind the gates digging up the bodies and then on the other side of the gate was a young boy and there was a cart and he was holding on to the reins of his horse and I could see it entirely. I could see the breath coming from his mouth. I could feel how terrified he was and I just started to describe him.

And I wrote that scene and that scene actually ended up falling in the centre of the book. Everything started coming from there. It was like, “Who is this boy? How did he get here? How did he fall in with these thieves, with these dangerous men?”

So I knew it was going to be an exciting story, an adventure story, really more of a classic like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped or Treasure Island but with my own bend on it. Those were the books that really inspired me. Also American writers like Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper and they were the books that I loved as a child and I wanted to make something that I would want to read myself.

Valerie:
It’s interesting isn’t it that the initial germination of an idea may not necessarily be the start of the book? It could fall as you say in the middle or at the end or perhaps not end up in the book altogether.

Hannah:
Absolutely. I think the things that stay with us, these images as a writer I feel like we get haunted by things. Sometimes people are haunted by things that have happened to them in their own lives and sometimes it’s just an image or something you read about that stays with you.

It’s a bit like psychotherapy really. You end up trying to come at it in different ways and explore it and communicate with other people what you’re trying to say. For me it ended up being a story about reinvention, this idea of resurrection, coming back from the dead, changing who you are and also of family because Ren’s quest is really to find a family of his own. And sometimes what constitutes your family is not the classic mother, father and children.

Sometimes it ends up being an array of friends, of odd people he meets. He meets this giant who’s a murderer. He meets a dwarf who lives on the roof. He meets a crazy lady who shouts all the time. And these are the people who become his family and who love him.

Valerie:
And you’ve also became well known for Animal Crackers in 2004. How did that come about? How did you write Animal Crackers?

Hannah:
I was working on short stories and there was this one story in particular called Slim’s Last Ride that I wrote. It was about a rabbit of course and it opened the door for me. Suddenly I realised that I wanted to pursue this idea about animal versus human nature, this line where people cross over. And I wanted to explore the moment right before a person becomes a murderer or right before someone commits some sort of horrible act.

A lot of times when we read about something in the paper, a murder trial or something like that, the people are described in animalistic terms. And I think as people we do that to separate ourselves from it. “That’s something I could never do. That’s something only an animal could do. “But in fact, we’re all animals and we’re all pretty much capable of anything given certain circumstances.
So this was that sort of element that I was really exploring with that.

And contributing to that is the fact that I studied science in school actually. I was originally a biology major. I was fascinated by animals and it allowed me to combine my excitement about animals and science with my other love, which was literature.

Valerie:
And of course Animal Crackers is a book of short stories but The Good Thief is a novel. What do you prefer? Writing short stories or entire novels?

Hannah:
I think that they both have their good points and their bad points. For me I never thought that I’d write a novel.

Valerie:
Really?

Hannah:
No. Oftentimes I read books and I think, that would have made an amazing short story but as a novel it was too weak. It was like tea that was too weak or something. If it was a smaller cup it would have been perfect. I never thought that I would write a novel but when I came across this idea of resurrection men I knew that it was too big of a story and too complicated of a story to try to tell in the space of short fiction. So it took me a while to switch gears and write much larger and go in different places and explore. The writing was quite different.

Valerie:
As a writer what did you have to do to switch gears?

Hannah:
To not micromanage every sentence. In a short story really every single sentence matters. It’s more like writing poetry. Every sentence has to lead to the next in a certain format and rhythm and each paragraph has to sort of end in a certain way. It took me a really long time to write obviously. I’m sure there are some elements of the book that still feel a little bit like short stories because I actually end up writing each of the chapters almost thinking of it more like Dickens who would write his novels serially. So trying to create each chapter to have something really exciting and interesting happen and let it have its own arc like a short story does.

Valerie:
And you said you started off studying biology. So how did you transition into writing and when did you feel yourself that I’m a writer?

Hannah:
Well my mother is a librarian so I grew up around books in a home that valued reading. I loved science. I wanted to be the next Jacques Cousteau. That’s how I imagined myself as a child and I would watch his films and I would read all about the ocean. I love the water and I love boating. So that’s where I saw myself in the future. So when I started studying in school I loved the stories and all these elements about the animals. But the fact is I was really bad at science. So as much as I loved the material I’d have to study three or four times. I think my brain just doesn’t work that way. It’s not a mathematical brain.

So I went to my second love, which was reading and literature. And I took my first creative writing class and it really changed my life. Suddenly to try to write, I realised that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Valerie:
Wow. How did you go about making that into a professional reality though?

Hannah:
At first I worked in publishing and I started off working at magazines. I worked at the Atlantic Monthly and the Boston Review and a few other monthly magazines in the United States. I then worked at a literary agency, so I really learned the business. I also worked as a book seller, an independent book seller in the United States.

I ended up applying to an MFA program, a creative writing program. I went to New York University and that really allowed me to explore the craft more and really learn the skills I needed I think to take these bits and pieces and thoughts and give them a shape and a form and actually be able to produce them. It was very helpful for me. I don’t think that creative writing classes are for everyone. I don’t think MFA programs are for everyone. But for me it was extremely valuable.

Valerie:
What was the most useful thing you think you got out of that course?

Hannah:
For example I studied with E.L. Doctorow who is best known for Ragtime and The Book of Daniel and his most recent was called The March. He is very well known for writing historical novels that feature real people in real times and explore real issues. He gave me wonderful advice which I used in The Good Thief, which was to not do any research.

Valerie:
Oh really?

Hannah:
Yes, it was sort of surprising. He said, “Don’t do any research.” He said, “Everyone’s seen enough movies to fake a time period.” And he said, “Your first draft needs to be driven by the characters and your situation and your plot and not about the outside world.”

Valerie:
Wow. That’s quite incongruent to what many writers do.

Hannah:
It’s true. But then he said, “Then after you have your first draft, then you do the research.”

Valerie:
Right.

Hannah:
So after you have your plot and your storyline then you go in and add the details that will bring it and correct the things that are incorrect for the time to make it feel authentic. I did things like I went to the library and I read old newspapers from the time period and I read about the history of medical schools in the United States. I read about the industrialisation of North America. Things like that that really helped me add the little bits and pieces that make it feel real.

Valerie:
Tell us what you’re working on now? Are you working on another project?

Hannah:
I’m just about to start my book tour in the United States. The book just came out about two days ago. I’m not going to have time to write for a while but I have a vague sense that I might not be through with this world, the world I created in The Good Thief. I think I might be taking some of the characters and taking them somewhere else and seeing what happens. But I don’t think I have enough written yet to say officially that’s what I’m working on next but that’s what I’m sort of dabbling with at the moment.

Valerie:
When you are writing, can you describe to us your typical working day?

Hannah:
My typical working day. I wake up, I walk my dog. That’s the first thing I do in the morning. And then I try to get right to it without opening up email or reading the paper or anything else and just try to enter the world. I don’t have a regular schedule. Some writers I know write every day from say 6:00 to 9:00 or something like that. I’ve never been a person that does well with keeping with one particular schedule. One schedule will work for me for a while. For a while I’ll be writing just early, early in the morning. I’ll wake up at 5:00 and I’ll write from 5:00 to 10:00. And then that will stop working and then I’ll start working really late at night.

When I was finishing The Good Thief, I was working incredibly well from 11:00 until about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.

Valerie:
Oh my God.

Hannah:
I found it was because there was so much happening in my life at the time that that was the quiet time. No one else was calling me. No one was emailing. Everyone else was asleep and you could almost feel the silence in the world. That kind of quiet I needed to put the final touches on the novel.

Valerie:
You’ve received so many great reviews for The Good Thief already and they’ve been fantastic reviews. Is it hard to live up to the expectation and live up to the accolades, because I read you were described as a new voice of American literature?

Hannah:
It’s incredible. You put so much of yourself, really your life’s blood into something like this and again I worked on the book for so long. Even though it is about grave robbers in the 1800s, there is a lot of myself in that book because you mime your own personal love and tragedies to be able to write things like this. So it feels very intertwined with yourself.

To actually have it well received is so beyond what I even imagined. I was just thankful to have it out there and to finally be able to share it with other people. I think also as writers we’re kind of reserved people and we keep a lot of things inside and that’s how they come out on the page. So for me it’s really a sharing of myself with other people to have it there and to have actually other people respond to it and have an emotional reaction to it.

It’s incredibly rewarding. I’m excited to be out and meeting people finally who have read the book. It’s really thrilling.

Valerie:
Now you said that you worked in various positions in the publishing industry and all of that as you were writing. Was there a point where you felt personally that kind of switch? I’m a writer as opposed to I’m working in a literary agency or I’m an independent bookseller and writing on the side. Was there a point where you really felt the difference?

Hannah:
For me I actually felt like I had to make a choice whether I was going to work in publishing or whether I was going to be a writer. There are some people who work in the industry and also produce wonderful books. My UK editor Charlotte Mendelson has done incredibly well with her writing and she’s also a fantastic editor. Some people can compartmentalise. But for myself I was working at a literary agency and coming along quite well and I really had to make a choice if I was going to stay there and become my own agent. Of course when you have that kind of job you spend all your time reading and you have to do a lot of socialising and it takes away from any time that I had to write.

So on a whim I applied to a writer’s residency at this wonderful place on the West Coast in the US called Hedgebrook. It’s only for women and actually they’re highly encouraging of international women writers. So if you have any listeners who are women writers, they should go to www.hedgebrook.org and apply. It’s a wonderful place.

I got in and I felt it was a sign that I should really try to give the writing a go and put it first. Once I made that decision to put my writing first before anything else, every job I took after that I always considered what the hours were. Any place I lived I wanted to be sure that I would be able to write well there. By making it first in my life that’s how I think I was really able to make a commitment that you needed to make it work. I think some people do this with their marriages. You finally make the decision to put this person first in your life, this relationship first. For me that relationship was my writing.

Valerie:
There was a point that you had to make it the priority.

Hannah:
Exactly.

Valerie:
How many years ago was that?

Hannah:
Let’s see. Gosh, when was that? I don’t know if I can remember the exact date. I think it was like 1998 or 99.

Valerie:
Quite a while ago?

Hannah:
Yes. About 10 years ago.

Valerie:
Great. Finally, what advice would you give to other aspiring writers who are not near the level that you’re at already with these fabulous books already out but have got something recent or in the process of writing and they’ve made writing their priority? What advice would you give to them?

Hannah:
I think belonging to a writing group is incredibly helpful. I have two other writers that I exchange work with. We’ve been exchanging work for about 13 years. You have to become a part of a community because writing in a vacuum is really hard. But if you have friends who are trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do, you encourage each other and you inspire each other and you sort of lead each other along. If someone falls back, maybe they have something happen in their lives – an illness or a change of place or something like that – the other friends can keep them going forward. I think that’s the thing. You have to just keep working at it.

Valerie:
Is that mainly for encouragement and motivation though?

Hannah:
And also for publishing contacts and things like that. Because what happened is for our group we weren’t all publishing at once. One of us got published first and then helped the other people make some contacts. One person helps another.

This happened to me. With one story now that I sort of am more established. I really try to publish early, maybe people for the first time or they’ve just started to publish their own work and by doing that I introduce them to editors and to agents.

The literary community even worldwide is a small community and if you’re going to take from that pool you really have to give back to it in one way or another. Some people do that by working in publishing; some do it by belonging to a writing group; some people teach; some people just go to readings or they buy a lot of books. You have to stay engaged and I think being part of a community for me helped me keep going.

Valerie:
And what else?

Hannah:
What else? I would say one of the best bits of advice that I got when I was finishing The Good Thief was to simplify, simplify, simplify. By that I mean everything from your sentences to your plot lines to the number of characters because it’s all about communication and are you getting across what you’re trying to say. Once someone told me to do that when I was really all tied up in knots and I didn’t know which way to go with my book. They said, “Look. Just try to figure out exactly what you’re trying to say and then look at your work and cut away the pieces that are not all going towards that end.” That was one bit.

And the other thing that they told me, which I think a friend of mine told me which is really helpful, was to use what you already have. By that I mean when you need to have something happen in your story, don’t add another character to make that happen. Use the characters that you’ve already introduced. Don’t take them to a new setting. Use the setting that you’ve already used. Because the fact is that each time something appears again in your book, it seats up more meaning. So by using the same characters, using the same settings, it’s almost like it distils in a way.

Valerie:
It’s part of a simplification process, isn’t it?

Hannah:
Exactly. You don’t want to move your readers around too many places or throw too many characters at them because they won’t become attached to any of them.

Valerie:
Sure.

Hannah:
So that was also helpful.

Valerie:
Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today Hannah. We’re very excited about The Good Thief at the Australian Writers’ Centre and really appreciate you spending the time chatting to us today.

Hannah:
It was absolutely my pleasure and thank you so much for having me.

Valerie:
Great.

Hannah:
Cheers.


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