Samantha Hunt is the author of MR. SPLITFOOT, a ghost story. Her novel THE INVENTION OF EVERYTHING ELSE won the Bard Fiction Prize and was a finalist for the Orange Prize. Her first book, THE SEAS, won a National Book Foundation award for writers under thirty-five. Hunt’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, McSweeney's, Tin House, New York Magazine, A Public Space, and a number of other fine publications. She lives in upstate New York and teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
“Reckoning with the World’s Cruelness,” an Interview with Samantha Hunt
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Audrey Hawkes. Of the process she said, “Reading Samantha’s novel was a rollercoaster of emotions for me. Her portrayal of motherhood, sisterhood, and the bonds of women in general truly moved me, and the dark, twisting mystery of the story engrossed me the entire time. It was so exciting to get a glimpse at her process through our conversation.” In this interview, Samantha talks about her family, her literary and life influences, and the idea of human connection and relationships.
Superstition Review: Mr. Splitfoot bounces between a first-person and third-person narrative. I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel. What influenced your decision to use multiple points of view? Could you describe the impact point of view has on how a story is told?
Samantha Hunt: First, thank you for these questions.
Second, Microsoft Word needs to make a keystroke that will instantly switch any long book from 1st to 3rd person or back again. Many times I’ve had to enact this switch on my own and it sure is time consuming. Each POV has its riches and deficits, and it is often hard for me to choose. But the question of why 3rd? Why 1st? What’s the difference? To me it’s one of knowledge, of distance. I wanted to keep Ruth foggy and far away. She’s a mystery, so the third person. I also want Nat and Ruth, when they are young, to be one person. They have melted together, that close. I couldn’t choose one first person narrator between them. I didn't use many tags, no, he said she said, because I want a purposeful body confusion between them when they are young. That is part of what family means to me. Then, as they grow, they split into two bodies, the split of the splitfoot. It’s a gestation.
In the other narrative I want Cora’s evolution from drained brain/cyborg to human to be fully felt, fully experienced as I think her computer addiction is something many people can relate to. So first person. Let you feel her even more. The challenge of having a voiceless character in this section was already enough of a challenge. Ruth wouldn’t be able to keep narrating in third or first since she can’t speak so someone else would have to control her silent section. I like that idea too: the 1st person narrator as a guide, even if the guide is being guided by someone else. A lost guide.
SR: Ruth and Nat’s relationship was so intriguing to me, and I love that you were able to create such a strong platonic bond between them without making it sexual or romantic. What inspired you to write them this way? Will you share some influential relationships from some of your favorite books?
SH: More than literature their relationship comes from life. I am the youngest of six siblings. We are extremely close, hardened or better to say soldered together by certain challenges from our childhood. We very much took care of each other as we didn’t have much supervision from our parents. Nat and Ruth’s relationship comes from that as well as a very close friendship I had with a gay man when we were quite young. The idea of the platonic.
From literature, I think of Laura and Mary Ingalls. When my youngest daughters were born Min Jin Lee sent us the whole set of the Little House books. We’ve savored them over the past six years, during the time I was writing Mr. Splitfoot. I am often moved by these sisters' intimacy and how Laura really wants to work to earn money to send Mary to school. That level of love and sacrifice is of great interest to me. It feels rare.
Nat and Ruth allowed me to ask so many questions that haunt me like, how do we make kin where there is none, where there are no parents? What does it mean to care for someone else? Why is care so often gendered?
SR: One of the lines that really stood out to me was when Ruth was giving the other children in the foster home money she earned, “as if being born a girl makes her responsible for everyone alive.” Much of the novel explores the roles of women, especially as mother figures or caregivers, and what effect those expectations can have. What inspired you to tackle this subject?
SH: Oh! Such a complicated American idea caring for others. As I mentioned, I have a huge family, not only siblings but three daughters, aunts, uncles, in-laws, cousins, nieces, nephews, mother and a 101 year old grandmother who is a real matriarch. Unlike a lot of other families, we are very close. I see my family often. I have many people taking care of me and many people I take care of. I think about care a lot.
My daughters all arrived within three years and so my first years as a mother were marked by often feeling overwhelmed. It was during this time that I was writing Mr. Splitfoot. I was scared by the amount of responsibility and by the sudden tidal wave of vulnerability I felt. Having grown up as a tough girl, it was a shock for me to suddenly feel terrified. Like the nun in the book, I often imagined horrible things happening to my children. It plagued me. Why did I feel so scared, so alone? My partner is a good guy but even that didn’t stop the world’s bad thinking about mothers from creeping in, eating my confidence. How come no one warned me about the blow to identity, how come no one told me that becoming a mother is a really good time to grow strong? To think about what real care means? How a person can be so grateful to lose selfishness. It took a long time for me to remember my agency, my authority and really the power of being someone who made lives happen. So, yes, I was really thinking about care in this book and the fact that very few people are teaching children this essential skill: How to care for others.
The selfie use of technology Cora demonstrates at the start strikes me as the opposite of real care. How did our ability to care for others get so lost? Because of technology? How is there anything else that matters beside caring for others?
SR: The climax of the novel is incredibly gripping; I felt like I couldn’t read fast enough. What was it like writing a story with two separate narratives that had to come together in the end? What was your process for planning everything out so it wrapped up so nicely?
SH: It was a whole lot of fun to play the two off each other as I was revising, to see how one could inform or hint at or reveal clues to the other side. It was also a long, hard process. I figured the story and plot out as I went. It’s not something that comes naturally to me. Or perhaps anyone. Slowly, slowly painting in layers as I was taking care of three kids and teaching full time. Slowly. I made graphs and maps. I rewrote a lot. For me, writing is primarily rewriting. I’ve gotten slower lately. I spend more time thinking than writing, or using writing as a tool for thinking.
SR: What drew you to the gothic genre? What are some gothic novels or authors that inspired or influenced you?
SH: When I was in college I took a course with Roxanne Lin. Dan Quayle was Vice President at the time, and he kept saying stupid things about family values. His definition of family was so narrow. Anyway, Lin made an amazing course called Family Values where we only studied the works of the Shelley Family so, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The grief and connection between Mary the mother, a feminist, and Mary the daughter, whose birth killed her mother, is something I think about a lot. The text of Frankenstein is extremely important to me, to everyone, written by an 18 year old girl! That always cheers me up when the sexism of the world tries to overwhelm.
I also credit my mom with my interest in the gothic. We had one book of particularly well-loved poems that she’d often read to me, and two of her favorites that swiftly became two of my favorites were Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwaymen.” I love them still! Creepy! Then there’s Hitchcock’s Rebecca and of course, Jane Eyre. The Brontës were and are important to me.
SR: Your previous novel, The Invention of Everything Else, plays with science and time travel. What was it like going from that to the ghost-story gothic of Mr. Splitfoot?
SH: To me it seems a natural progression, moving from science to questions of wonder, to a question of how do we extend the boundary of science. How do we explain the things science hasn’t yet gotten around to explaining?
SR: How did you decide on the title of the novel?
SH: The title started with the Fox Sisters. (Sisters everywhere.) These young women were the founders of American Spiritualism, that religion that believes we are always in communication with the dead. One of the first spirits the Fox Sisters spoke with was Mr. Splitfoot, curiously, a name for the devil. I wanted the Foxes to be present in the book because as a writer of fiction, I admire their con artistry, but I take issue with the notion of a devil. I don’t believe in evil. To me then, the split became the sign of growth. The movement of one body away from another: Nat and Ruth, the Voyager missions, mother and child, one foot from the other as we walk. How splitting is growing.
SR: Creating a whole new religion with so many details, including excerpts from its holy book, must have been quite daunting. Could you describe the process? What made you want to take on such a challenge?
SH: I really enjoy constraints and assignments. I’ve been greatly influenced by the games and constraints of the Oulipo: Calvino, Perec, Queneau. And so I had fun creating my own religion. I started with things I love: astronomy, geology, LPs, mountains, old houses. Then I whirled them together and watched how it came to ruin by introducing the power of ego.
I lived just down the road from Joseph Smith’s birthplace for years and love studying young religions, American religions. To create a text for my religion, I relied upon Smith and his translations of the golden tablets. I translated the Book of Mormon, the Bible, the Constitution, plus a lot of songs I love into The Book of Ether, my religious text. Now The Book of Ether exists only as a ghost book, meaning, it’s not fully written. This is an idea I’m very interested in: books that don’t exist. I really try to fill my novels with as many non-existent books as I can since it is such a pleasure for me to think about what that even means and just how many books there are that don’t exist.
SR: The novel is filled with eerie imagery, and some of the images, like when Zeke showed up without a nose, were downright frightening. Could you talk about your inspiration for those types of moments? Are there any poignant moments in your favorite books that play with compelling image?
SH: Maybe Tom Sawyer and Becky down in the cave, Bertha burning up in Jane Eyre, Addie’s rotting body drawing in the vultures in As I Lay Dying, but once again it's more stuff from life than literature. All those stories one first hears as a child, first brushes with the world of crime or violence, like whispers from your parents, those are greasy. They never left me. I remember going to stay with one of my sisters at her school when I was thirteen. That night a girl in my sister’s dorm got raped. I remember my sister and her friends gathering to talk about it and one girl saying that the victim had to have her tampon “surgically removed.” Wo-ah. I heard that story so long ago but it haunts me still. It had such power of conducting fear. These are the real forces behind Mr. Splitfoot, a child’s reckoning with the world’s cruelness, overheard stories from my youth: the bitten-off nipple, the girl who drove her car off a cliff. And how these stories were told again and again. How stories get peoples’ handle oils all over them. Maybe because I’m the youngest sibling, I heard a lot. Older siblings have stories.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
Right now I write inside of my truck parked down by the river in order to escape the Internet in my house. But I am trying to build a studio without Internet on my property. After a stint at the McDowell Colony where I had a studio alone in the woods, no cell service, no Internet, I realized that the greatest luxury nowadays is to be unconnected. McDowell was one of the most productive places I’ve ever been. I love it there and I’m hoping to create something similar, closer to home.