by Catherine Petruccione

#134,11 May 2009

An Interview with J.C. Hallman

BookThink's Author Profiles

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I first had the pleasure of interviewing J.C. Hallman for BookThink in March 2007, when we discussed his two non-fiction books The Chess Artist (St. Martins Press, 2003) and The Devil is a Gentleman (Random House, 2006). Shortly afterwards, he moved to the Twin Cities, where he continues to write, teaches at The University of St. Thomas, and enjoys the thriving literary community in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

He's a terrific writer and, because he is so curious, knowledgeable and interested in all facets of life and literature, a great interview. Scholarly yet down to earth, he's been a casino dealer, hung out with chess junkies, infiltrated religious cults, utopian communities and more in his quest for knowledge of the obscure side streets of life.

I recently had a chance to talk with him about his soon to be released The Hospital for Bad Poets, a collection of truly remarkable short stories (Milkweed Editions, May 14, 2009). If you pick up the book, I think you will recognize your own sentiments, as I did, in more than one of these quirky, insightful tales. Hallman's writing is intelligent and original, twenty-first century modern, yet timeless.

We'll also get a preview of a non-fiction book on utopian communities which he is finishing up for St. Martin's Press.

To learn more about J. C. Hallman and his books visit his website.

BOOKTHINK: I loved reading this collection of stories in The Hospital for Bad Poets. I think my favorite was "Ethan: A Love Story." It rang so true for me. Having grown up in Minnesota, I moved to California, then to New York, and found that when I would go back home for a visit, it had become foreign ground to me. And you really put that feeling across in your story.

HALLMAN: It certainly is one of the more autobiographical stories. Obviously, though, it takes a fairly bizarre turn - and somehow that bizarre turn helped make fictional sense of out of a factual experience that otherwise might have remained simply frustrating. That story, for me, explains why fiction is necessary - because "real" experience is sometimes so bizarre that you have to depart from fact to render it with anything like accuracy.

BOOKTHINK: It's a great story. Let's talk about the cover story, "The Hospital for Bad Poets." The title was derived from a quote from Nietzsche, is that correct?

HALLMAN: Yes, it's from Thus Spake Zarathustra. The real story behind how that title came to be is that I was taking a class to be a paramedic. After my first book was published I had done a book proposal for another book but wasn't sure that it was going to sell, and I had to have a back-up plan. I'd worked as a casino dealer for a few years, and I liked having that kind of real life experience to go along with the writing life. I started taking the EMT Basic month-long compressed course, and I was dating a poet. She recommended reading Nietzsche. I came to that passage as I was learning all about how ambulance runs work. I was doing hours in the local emergency room, which you log as part of the certification process. I really just combined a few different facets of my life at that moment.

BOOKTHINK: Kind of poking fun at the struggle and suffering that goes into writing poetry?

HALLMAN: Yeah, certainly. Although I think of it ultimately it as a defense of poetry, even though it doesn't sound like it's going to be. The speeches that this Dr. Krupp character gives at the end are pretty close to earnest, even though the whole situation is pretty bizarre.

BOOKTHINK: Then there's the story about dating the two nurses. Nurses are fun, aren't they?

HALLMAN: (Laughs) - No comment!

BOOKTHINK: That was probably rather autobiographical also?

HALLMAN: Certainly. But a lot of the stories are making use of scholarship in one way or another. It occurred to me in the writing of that particular story that the people in it, the nurses and the protagonist together, were behaving in such a mercenary fashion that they might as well have been micro-organisms. Then I started to do some research and came across the suggestion that the origin of sexuality was like a health-delivery system. Nursing. And that just seemed too perfect to pass up. And so the autobiographical sections of that story became wedded to some of this other stuff that made this link between these relationships and the science behind the origin of sexuality.

BOOKTHINK: It was a different language of courtship, that's for sure.

HALLMAN: There are two stories that deal very openly with sex in the book, this one and "Double Entendre". I'm interested in how literature uses the freedom to say whatever it wants to say. If you look back as recently as Cheever, here's a writer who wasn't always allowed to be as open as he wanted to be. So that our ability to say anything we want is actually pretty new. And lot of the time I don't think that freedom gets used all that well, so I wanted to try to discuss that. In "Autopoiesis for the Common Man" it was to look at people in a peculiar and funny way, and in "Double Entendre" becomes almost a discussion of precisely that: a critique of how we write about sex.

BOOKTHINK: It was almost like a writing lesson on erotica.

HALLMAN: Yeah. But you have these dueling voices, one that wants to be doing it well, and then another that is giving bad advice. And hearing those two interact. For me, it was a way of commenting on what we've done with that freedom to say whatever we want to say.

BOOKTHINK: Funny, because I was watching Inherit the Wind last night, the old movie with Spencer Tracy where it's the "Monkey Trials" and Tracy is defending a teacher who was trying to teach about evolution and Darwin in a high school in a Southern town and gets arrested. Spencer Tracy was using language in the courtroom that the locals were getting rather upset about. But part of his thing was to defend the right to speak and think freely.

HALLMAN: Right. Another figure who looms very large on that front was Lenny Bruce, who was fighting just for the right to utter even certain kinds of syllables - he would sort of replace extreme profanity with jumbled syllables that sounded sort of like he was saying something - but he wasn't, and he got arrested for that. So there is an important story behind the fight to have the freedom to really write whatever you want to write, particularly when it comes to writing about sex; we often seem to opt for titillation rather than a serious discussion of any kind. And in those two stories at least, that was what I was setting out to do.

BOOKTHINK: The stories are about everyday people, sometimes in strange situations.

HALLMAN: I got really interested in how scholarship or academic work and philosophy interact with real life. To look at very ordinary people and how their lives are affected by stuff that seems very esoteric and distant from regular life. The stories are experimental in a lot of ways, and yet I think that experimental fiction runs really awry if it becomes esoteric in its goals. Experimenting with fiction is figuring out another way to make it new, and on top of that, to arrive at sentiments that may not be available in a strict realist mode. A story that might otherwise seem sentimental or relying on unearned emotion, can, with a different kind of story telling, achieve a real sentiment or dredge up an emotion that might otherwise be lost or just be too simplistic.

BOOKTHINK: It's always interesting to see ordinary people reacting to odd situations.

HALLMAN: Yes, and often the more peculiar the situation they are in, the more you see how ordinary they are. I agree with Updike that the goal of literature has got to be to figure out how to celebrate the ordinary. While Updike is a pretty classic realist for most of his books, he experiments in some of his work as well. For me, from a pretty early age, there was a desire to take what was a pretty standard upbringing and turn it into something that was worth considering. That was the task. I feel linked to Henry James in this regard. Henry James went through an experimental phase from 1895 to 1900 where he began to play around with ambiguity in fiction. And of course that was his way of contending with situations that were not inherently dramatic.

BOOKTHINK: And what are you working on now?

HALLMAN: I'm working on a book about modern utopias. I'm just finishing this up for St. Martin's Press.

BOOKTHINK: The last time I talked with you that was going to be your next project.

HALLMAN: Yes, and then this book of short stories came along. The book on utopias was premised on the fact that I actually grew up on a street called "Utopia Road."

BOOKTHINK: I remember you saying that.

HALLMAN: So there's this story in the collection called Utopia Road which is about as fantastic a story as is in the book. But the one core thing is actually autobiographical, and I wrote that story when I was pretty young. For me, growing up in a master-planned community, in a place where the goal was to deny any extremity of emotion, either very good or very bad, the task was to find a way to write about that in a way that's dramatic. This is the same task that Henry James was faced with, and his solution was to play around with ambiguity. So you get a story like "The Turn of the Screw," a ghost story where you don't know whether this distressed governess is seeing ghosts or not.

So I began to play around with that sort of thing myself, realizing that the task for bringing drama to situations that were not inherently dramatic involved experimentation. In "Utopia Road" that began by experimenting with the fantastic, and in other stories it's experimenting in different ways - either setting out to tell stories that don't really have characters in the traditional sense, or in finding ways to introduce other commentaries on life.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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