Robin Hemley is the author of eight books of nonfiction and fiction and the winner of many awards including a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship, The Nelson Algren Award for Fiction from The Chicago Tribune, The Story Magazine Humor Prize, an Independent Press Book Award, two Pushcart Prizes and many others. His work has been published in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and elsewhere and he frequently teaches creative writing workshops around the world. He has been widely anthologized and has published his work in such places as The New York Times, The Believer, The Southern Review, Orion, Ploughshares, Narrative.com, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, New York Magazine, and many of the finest literary magazines in the U.S.
Nonfiction Editor Liz Anderson conducted this interview with Robin Hemley.
Liz Anderson: I have read that you come from a literary family-in what ways did this contribute to your writing today? In any way did it hinder you from aspiring to become a writer?
Robin Hemley: That's a tough question for me. I have always measured myself against my parents—their stock has always been high with me, but it's had its ups and downs, and my own estimation of myself as a writer has been intertwined with them because they were my parents, but it's hard to always know in what ways. My father, Cecil Hemley, was most famous as a translator and editor (really the discoverer and promoter as well) of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Laureate. My father was the founder of the Noonday Press, probably one of the most important presses to publish in the U.S. In the 1950's Noonday discovered and/or promoted writers who are now household names: Not only Singer, but Susan Sontag, Boris Pasternak, Jean Paul Sartre, and many others. He was also a well-known poet in his day and president of the Poetry Society of America. To this day, there's a Cecil Hemley Award given for the best lyric poem by the Poetry Society of America. And he was a novelist and playwright, too. His shadow certainly looms large in my imagination—though he died when I was only seven, I was always aware of his legacy. My mother was a short story writer and was also well-known in her day. She was always a great encouragement to me, but on some level we were also perhaps a little competitive when she was alive, which was really odd when I felt it. But probably we all compete with our parents, whether literary or not. Each takes stock of the other, sometimes with pride, sometimes with a more complex set of feelings. Mostly, I'm sure that coming from a writing family helped me choose writing as a career, though it never helped my career very much. No one ever published me because I came from a writing family or gave me any breaks. But my parents never had the name recognition as, say, a John Updike, so no one else was measuring me against my parents the way David Updike might be measured against his father.
LA: Out of the eight books you have gotten published, which book were you most excited to share with others?
RH: I've always been most excited about my most recent book, whatever that was . . .I was perhaps most excited to share my first book, ALL YOU CAN EAT, a short story collection because it was my baptism/bar mitzvah/whatever you want to call it, as a writer. I was just 30 and felt that I had made it — but really my career was just beginning. The book was reviewed all over the place, too, in the daily New York Times, in People, in London. Recently, I was just as excited to share my most latest book. I think most writers feel this way. Writing a book is such hard work that you probably couldn't get through it if you weren't excited to share it at some point. Maybe this was less the case with my book INVENTED EDEN, a book about a purported anthropological hoax in the Philippines that took me five years to research and write. I was nervous about some of the reactions of the people I interviewed, but two of the people I was most concerned about conveniently died before publication or soon afterward (though I don't think my book had anything to do with it). I wasn't really eager to share that book with them!
LA: I am in the middle of reading your book Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness and cannot help but feel the intensity in your writing. Can you tell us a little about the book and what you found most difficult to share with readers?
RH: This was my first real foray into memoir and I jumped in full force. I wrote the book in its entirety showing it to almost no one except for my friends Suzanne Paola (the poet and nonfiction writer who sometimes writes under the name Suzanna Antonetta) and her husband, the poet Bruce Beasley. I feared that if I showed it to too many people, I might kill it because the emotions were so raw and the form so unusual—it's a fairly fragmented memoir in which I allow various texts (court documents, my mother's short fiction, my sister's odd autobiography penned the last year of her life) to speak to each other by way of juxtaposition. I've probably never been so emotionally scoured by a book. Everything was difficult to share, especially my own shortcomings, but I kind of fooled myself as I was writing the book that I wouldn't be sharing it with anyone, that it was being written for me. I was most nervous about sharing the book with one reader in particular, my mother. There were things in the book that I knew she wouldn't like, in spite of her being a writer, and these things were difficult to share, but once out there in the open, none of the reactions were as bad as I thought they'd be. In fact, my mother came to be very proud of the book—though I have to be careful in saying that. Patricia Hampl has a wonderful essay, “Telling Other People's Secrets,” in which she relates the story of convincing her mother to allow a certain poem with some embarrassing personal information into Hampl's first book of poetry. Years after relenting, Hampl's mother admitted that she always hated the poem but loved her daughter and that's why she stepped out of the way of the poem's publication. For me and many of my friends, the most difficult audience is the family. The family is often the source of our best material and the source of our deepest worries in terms of audience.
LA: All writers encounter weaknesses at some point in their career-what do you feel has been your biggest weakness in the writing process?
RH: I don't have one big weakness; I have many, and they're the same as most writers encounter: self-doubt, impatience, self-love, flitting from one thing to the next. These all torment me in any given year. But I've overcome them often enough and I hope I'll continue to best them . . .
LA: What is your routine for writing-whether it be certain music, a favorite place, or even a comfortable chair-what puts you in your element?
RH: I don't really have a routine anymore—maybe checking my email too frequently! That's my routine . . . ha. When I was a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in my twenties, I lived near a couple of dogs that were intermittent barkers. I could never predict how long they would bark and at what intervals and it drove me crazy while I was at my writing desk. So I bought a fan and turned it full blast, even in the dead of Winter, just for the white noise. Even after I left the Fine Arts Work Center, I kept the fan and turned it on every morning when I started writing. But now I write everywhere and anywhere—I do a lot of my best writing on airplanes in the middle of a crowd. If I'm writing well, I don't need to rely on any specific routine, though I still prefer to write in the morning. Anyway, it really doesn't matter where I like to write or what music I put on—what matters is your own routine, not mine.
LA: Your most recent book Do-Over! is explained to be a personal account, “ In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments.” What do you hope to achieve with this book and how does it compare to your previous writings?
RH: Well, how it compares to my previous writings is up to you and everyone else. I hope it compares well, of course, but it's different. I think that if you read the work over my career, you'd see that I'm a very eclectic writer. I love writing fiction and nonfiction, but one thing that has been a constant throughout most of my work is my sense of humor. Of all my books, this is the one in which I gave full rein to my sense of humor, though I didn't want it to be fluff. For me to care about it, the book had to have a serious center. I think it carries many of the themes that I've addressed in other books such as NOLA and INVENTED EDEN, the idea of skewed perceptions, of the unreliability of memory and experience.
LA: I have come across many of your books, essays, and short stories-what piece are you most proud of and why?
RH: I want to say the type of thing a parent says to a child—I love you all equally. But I try not to care too deeply about them once I've written them. I once heard Borges say that he never kept any of his books in his house. I try not to keep mine in my house, or at least not too many. I've seen a lot of writers who make a little household shrine to their work, all their book covers on the wall. But that always strikes me as a little pathetic. I'm proud of all my stories and books and essays, or most of them, but I don't want to dwell on them . . . There's something distasteful about that.
LA: What modern writers do you look up to? What writers inspire you most?
RH: You said, “modern” as opposed to “contemporary,” so I'll just mention both. There are so many, it's hard to single them out. I love Borges, Kafka, J.M. Coetze, Paul Auster, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Donald Barthelme, Dennis Johnson, Abigail Thomas, Jo Ann Beard, many of my friends who are wonderful writers . . . I can't name them all.
LA: What do you consider as the most favorable aspect of being a published writer?
RH: Getting the best seat in a restaurant.
I wish. Actually, the best thing is when someone you don't know at all tells you or someone you know how much they like your work. That's the best because, unlike performers, writers usually have no idea how their work is affecting others unless they're giving a public reading. My literary fantasy has always been to see someone I don't know reading one of my books on a plane, but that's never happened and I doubt it ever will.
I DID have a fun experience close to that tonight (which is Halloween). I stayed at home to hand out candy while my wife went with my daughters Shoshie and Naomi to a good trick-or-treat neighborhood in Iowa City where I live. At one point, my wife was calling her: “Shoshie, Shoshie.” Another group of trick-or-treaters was passing by and a woman stopped my wife and said, “Is your husband a writer?” and my wife said yes.
“Did he write about your daughter Shoshie?”
“Yes,” my wife said.
“And it's a new book?”
Yes, it's called DO-OVER!”
“Oh,” the woman said. “I just finished reading it and I loved it.”
That certainly made my day . . . Any writer wants to feel that his/her work isn't going into a complete vacuum, so such moments are gratifying, of course. I should add that you asked me what the most favorable aspect of being a “published” writer is, not what the most favorable aspect of being a writer is. They're different. The publication is great, but the writing process itself when it's really going well can't be beat. I realize that's probably a literary clich‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬© but it's true. To know you've written something that's come out well is pretty unbeatable, probably because it's not a feeling that visits every day—not even close.
LA: Many readers of Superstition Review are hoping to someday “make it” as successful writers. What advice can you share with them about your personal journey?
RH: I don't know that I've “made it.” I don't know many writers who feel they've made it and if they do, they might be past their expiration date. There's nothing like complacency to make a writer falter or become a shadow or parody of himself. Self doubt and frustration are no fun, but they're part of the creative process and probably an important part because they give a writer his/her edge. They guard against complacency.
My best advice is to take the long view. Writing is a life-long apprenticeship and in most cases, a literary life is long and there will be ups and downs. Neither state lasts. This was probably the best thing about having literary parents—I saw that careers have peaks and valleys and that you have to write finally because you love the writing itself. There's a wonderful poem by W.S. Merwin called Berryman in which the poet Berryman tells a young Merwin that if he needs to know if he's any good or not as a poet, he probably should stop writing. “You die without knowing,” Berryman tells him. Bleak? If you want to look at it that way. It can also be quite liberating. Our desire for fame is a manifestation of vanity and shouldn't be the reason we write. As writers, we're part of an on-going conversation between writers that has lasted for centuries, and it's an honor to participate in that conversation, even if only in a small way, even if only as a reader. We need more readers, actually, and reading has always been for me the best teacher ultimately.