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The Ordinary Meets the Bizarre and Other Matters

An Interview with J.C. Hallman

by Catherine Petruccione

#134,11 May 2009

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.

BOOKTHINK: You have to be a little brave or reach some level of maturity as a writer to be willing to take those kinds of chances. I don't think that's easy for writers to do.

HALLMAN: I heard John Barth say once, or maybe I read this somewhere, that every time he sat down to write he tried to write like Dickens but it just came out like ... John Barth. For me, there are plenty of failures behind or between all these stories. I guess I don't consider it brave in the sense that doing it any other way wouldn't hold my interest. And for fiction to hold my interest, I really need to know I'm finding a new way to tell a story. That's something I'm proud of in this collection - that there is something that bonds all these stories together, but they are also very different from one another. I like that.

BOOKTHINK: And what do you think the bonding element is for these stories?

HALLMAN: I think it's things that we've been talking about; something ephemeral, and hard to pin down, and for that reason, worth exploring. It's something about finding a way to re-invigorate the ordinary, rediscovering sentiments and finding a way to tell stories about things and situations that might otherwise not seem inherently dramatic enough to hold a story - that's important to me. In doing that, you find a new way to tell a story. I think that ought to be every writer's task: to forever expand the possibilities of what stories can do. And that means finding new ways to explore ordinary experience.

BOOKTHINK: Are you teaching writing at the University?

HALLMAN: Yes, I'm actually here as a non-fiction writer, but we all teach creative writing in all forms. I think I sent you a link an article that kind of touches on the whole business of teaching writing.

BOOKTHINK: Do you enjoy teaching?

HALLMAN: I think the idea of reaching out to people who want to be writers and helping them along and trying to open doors for them is something I would do even if I wasn't a teacher - it's something I did when I wasn't a teacher. It's become part of the task of being a writer - to become part of that community that's more dependent on one another now than it ever was.

BOOKTHINK: Lots of changes going on in books and literature. There are some great things about it, and some kind of scary and sad things about it. I hope we don't lose paper three-dimensional books entirely, because there's something so lasting about them. I worry that we aren't going to have letters from the past, books from the past - a lot of history will disappear because with technology a lot of things are "in the moment," and then they disappear ... people lose interest and they are gone. But that remains to be seen, don't you think?

HALLMAN: Yeah, it's hard to say. My father is an inventor. He anticipated and articulated this to me awhile ago - something like the Kindle. He anticipated that there would be some kind of leather-bound volume with a series of paper-thin screens and that it would feel very much like a book but that each page would be its own screen and I wonder if he's not ultimately right that that's not going to be something that combines the old and the new.

BOOKTHINK: It's wonderful to have a library in your hand, I'm not saying there's not something good about it, but ...

HALLMAN: It is troubling. I'm editing a collection of writing by writers about literature. Critical activity about books by writers rather than by critics. This book is called The Story about the Story. The writers in it very often celebrate the subjectivity of their experience of whatever it is they are writing about. And one of the things that pops up a lot is just the tactile sensation of books as the most important memory of one's early encounter with a story.

BOOKTHINK: Isn't it? I mean, I just feel good sitting in a room with cases of books - it makes me feel good.

HALLMAN: I could be wrong about this, but it seems like you are seeing more of people making their own books - and I kind of wonder if this whole business of the printing press is going to turn out to have been a half-millenium long bubble, and we'll go back to sort of a Blake situation where people are writing their books and making them, too.

BOOKTHINK: And perhaps people will begin appreciating them as an art form again because books at one time were quite beautiful, and now they really aren't; they just slap a colorful dust jacket on them. So maybe we'll go back to fewer books but very beautifully bound books.

HALLMAN: As an author, it would be wonderful to be able to decide yourself how many words per page. Although The Hospital for Bad Poets turned out really wonderful in that regard. That's small presses; you see some of the best looking books coming out of them; they are beginning to fill that niche with work often as good or better than big presses.

BOOKTHINK: Short stories seem underappreciated in today's society.

HALLMAN: I think it's a smaller niche. You don't have to look any further than the sales sheets to know there is a discrepancy. It's still kind of the school one goes to in order to learn how to write. I think that it's still hanging on as an important form. People have been declaring the "death of the short story" for many years. Yet it's still here.

BOOKTHINK: It's odd to me, because it seems to me they are a perfect fit for today's world - because none of us have a whole lot of time. You can go to bed at night and read a complete tale from beginning to end. You can read one while you are on a commute or in a waiting room.

HALLMAN: These are things I've been hearing ever since I started writing 25 years ago. That for every person who is saying, "Short stories are over, it's only the novel now," there are people saying, "Even the novel's over, fiction's over." The other side of the coin is people who are saying the short story is due for a renaissance. It's always hovering between those two points, which sort of means it is in its place. Every once in awhile there is a story collection that comes along and seems to crack its way through and get people thinking again.

BOOKTHINK: I'm just thinking there have been a lot of great movies that have been based on short stories - Brokeback Mountain, The Green Mile, Stand by Me. I always wonder, how do they do that? That's pretty cool. You can take a short story and turn it into a movie; that says a lot about what's packed into a short story. And are they really easier to write than a novel or are they harder because you can't really ramble on in a short story?

HALLMAN: It's a weird nether-territory between poetry and a novel, and obviously different short stories tip toward either end of that spectrum. I mentioned "The Turn of the Screw" earlier - at 200 pages, Henry James considered it a short story. And yet short stories can be just a couple thousand words as well. It's one of the more flexible forms - a lot fits under that umbrella. There's more variety, perhaps, in what a short story can be than a novel, or even poetry, although certainly the umbrella of poetry is pretty wide as well. But what can amount to a short story is something that we're still in the process of figuring out. And again, it's important to find new ways to offer up something that can be called a short story. I like that. I think it's essential, and I think the way in which we keep literature alive is by forever seeking out new forms that can accommodate the way in which the world is changing.

BOOKTHINK: Your first two books were non-fiction, but you've been writing fiction for a long time.

HALLMAN: I actually started out writing fiction, and some of these stories go back a number of years. To my mind, the best non-fiction is written by people who also have a foot in poetry or fiction, and sometimes all three. I think that the way in which I'm playing around with the scholarly or academic material I was talking about before is a way of figuring out how those worlds bridge one another. It should all come back to just good writing. I think of a piece like the introduction to James Agee's A Death in the Family - "Knoxville: Summer of 1915." What's interesting about this is that James Agee never said whether he thought A Death in the Family should be called fiction or non-fiction - he died before it got that label. In the beginning, it was actually published as an essay, and it was included as the introduction to A Death in the Family by someone else, not him. The piece does this amazing thing. It starts out as a relatively straightforward essay about his home town, talking about the layout, etc., and slowly moves more and more toward a poetic kind of language and then jumps into verse for a little while and becomes a poem for about ten lines, then just pops right out again, and ends. I think what Agee is doing there - and you can see this at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as well - is exploring the way in which all these forms are ultimately only separated by a thin tissue. And good writing, whatever it is, ought to be setting out to push through those membranes and reveal how it's all part of the same task.

BOOKTHINK: Tell me a little more about your upcoming book on utopian societies.

HALLMAN: It's an examination of the history of utopian thought and literature in the context of visiting six modern expressions of utopian thought, or attempts to create utopias now. And that ranges from bizarre ideas out of conservation biology to the oldest commune in the U.S. to a mega-city that is being built off of the coast of Korea to the Slow Food movement in Italy, and a couple of others. It's pretty wide-ranging and kind of a globe-trotting book-it goes all over the place.

BOOKTHINK: And so did you?

HALLMAN: Yes. It was a pretty wild ride. Incredibly fascinating because so many essential thinkers from Leszek Kolakowski to Ernst Bloch to Lewis Mumford to Martin Buber to Buckminster Fuller, and on and on, considered utopian thought in one way or another. And so many of them did it in a positive way, wanting to come to the sense of the utopian spirit. It's a bit of a hurdle to approach the concept of utopia from a kind of apologist's point of view, and that's what I set out to do. Again, coming from someone who grew up on a street called Utopia Road, what I would consider a fairly dystopian suburb. Definitely not good. But what I found, and this is something that pops up in history too, is that utopias are often conceived in response to things having gone awry. They are cures. That was a surprise. The very first one in the book is Pleistocene Rewilding; the idea is to heal the damage that's been done to North America by rampant growth by re-introducing large animals that invigorate ecosystems.

BOOKTHINK: Interesting. And where do you find the places to do that?

HALLMAN: That's where it gets tricky. That's the beginning of where it becomes a science. To my mind, it's the essence of a progressive spirit. There's something missing from progressive spirit right now in that it's become reactionary - it reacts to something rather than to figure out what action to take. Even Obama's election has a kind of utopian air to it, and what we are seeing now is that process of "OK -what do we do?"

BOOKTHINK: And to get people to go along with looking at a long-range plan instead of a reactionary move - it's not that easy.

HALLMAN: A good example of that is global warming. Everyone wants to do something about global warming, but the experts who are coming out with the realistic plan, on the proper scale, and the nature of those plans are so far beyond the pale that people can't conceive of doing it. We just wind up addressing paradigm issues. And yet, when you go back into history, you see a huge range of thinkers attempting to implement these grand plans. I don't know, maybe we are at a point in history when we need really big plans again.

BOOKTHINK: But most people don't want to tackle big plans because we are so used to quick fixes. I was taken by that during the primary when Obama and Hillary were campaigning and Hillary wanted to lower the gas tax to make gas cheap again, and I thought, "Oh, Boy, here's trouble." Because the normal reaction of people is, "Yes, we need cheaper gas and we need it now." They forget about the global warming they were talking about yesterday because today their wallet is empty and they need gas.

HALLMAN: Yeah, but I think it's coming around. It's interesting, Louis Mumford wrote a book called The Story of Utopias in 1922, and I make the suggestion that The Story of Utopias essentially becomes a sort of rough draft for The City In History, a seminal book on city-planning published in 1961. In this book he makes the argument that the original Utopias which Plato and Aristotle and various other classical thinkers wrote about were not reactions to nothing; they were reactions to what had already become of unplanned civilization. They were reacting to Athens, to what had become a hugely overcrowded, disease-ravaged city. They recognized that if you wanted civilization to work, you had to plan. We've forgotten that, and as we now confront all the various challenges we have, we need to figure out how to believe in and plan better cities. And that's something of the spirit I'm trying to tap into; that we should re-think the stigma that has become attached to utopian concepts.

BOOKTHINK: And what is the oldest utopian community in the United States?

HALLMAN: It's Twin Oaks, a commune in Virginia. It was begun by a woman who just died last year named Kat Kincaid. I stayed at Twin Oaks for the three weeks leading up to its 40th anniversary in the summer of 2007. And that actually makes it the longest lived secular social experiment in American history. It passes up Oneida and any number of communes from the 19th century, like Brook Farm and New Harmony.

BOOKTHINK: I'm really looking forward to that book. Any other projects stirring?

HALLMAN: I have a novel that I've been sitting on that I'd like to re-visit, and we've been talking about a couple of non-fiction projects. There's been a couple of interesting stories from Swaziland I'd like to investigate in a kind of Bruce Chatwin fashion.

BOOKTHINK: Will you be able to get away from the University to do that?

HALLMAN: We'll see!

BOOKTHINK: And how do you like living in Minnesota?

HALLMAN: Minnesota's great. I've been here two winters - one was great, one not so great. The Twin Cities are an incredible place to live for a writer. I won a McKnight Artist Fellowship a few weeks ago. That is one of the kinds of things available here, which is remarkable - and an incredible opportunity. There are so many small presses here. It just feels very much like a "book city." Milkweed Editions, the publisher of The Hospital for Bad Poets, is in this building called "The Open Book" in downtown Minneapolis. You go there, and you just do not believe there is anything wrong with the world of books. There is the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts there. There's also the loft literary center; they have spaces for readings and plays, and in just this one building there is an incredibly vibrant community for writers and for books. It's great to have access to that. On top of that, Gray Wolf Press is here, and Coffee House Press. I live right between the two cities and to have both available to you, and to be able to hop into a neighborhood bar and feel like you are in a college town at the same time, you really do have a remarkable situation.

BOOKTHINK: Hmmm ... maybe it is time for me to go back home! Once again, it has been a great pleasure talking with you. I hope that The Hospital for Bad Poets finds a wide and appreciative audience, and I hope we can keep in touch with you on you

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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