An Interview with Hannah Tinti

Michelle Boise

Photo by Daniel WallaceHannah Tinti is a writer, editor, and educator. Hailing from Salem, Massachusetts, she studied creative writing at New York University and co-founded One Story magazine where she is the editor-in-chief. Her shorty story collection, Animal Crackers, was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award and sold in sixteen countries. Her novel, The Good Thief, is a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a recipient of the ALA’s Alex Award and the winner of the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. In 2009, she won the PEN/Nora Magid award for her editorial vision at One Story. She is also the Literary Commentator on the Public Radio program Selected Shorts.

At the AWP conference in Boston this year, Hannah Tinti was on a panel (among others) entitled “Keeping Track of Your Book.” Authors discussed how they visualized the arc and architecture of their stories and how they kept characters, the passing of time and plot all on track. Writers, editors and publishers alike swarmed the conference, but this particular lecture hall was so crowded on this snowy March morning that a police officer had to close the door and turn the disappointed away, (me being one of them).

This room has reached capacity! the man in uniform said to the mass still pushing its way toward the mouth of the promised land. He stretched out his arm to make it clear, none shall pass. There were a few pleas, (I have a friend...that fell on deaf ears) some irritable huffs, and a handful who thought if they just waited long enough, a space might open up. What did it matter that the addition of one more would break the law, that it would be a fire hazard? If the room went up in flames, and we were all trapped inside, it was at least in the pursuit of knowledge that we died, in the hope that we might begin to understand this maddening, heart-wrenching business of writing---the nuts and bolts if you will.

Reached capacity? But we still had questions, and this was a really good one--how does one organize a book-length work? Moreover, behind those doors were experts, writers in the field who’d lived through the drafting of a novel, memoir, or story collection. They’d taken the punches, torn out their hair, stared down the blank page of self-doubt and bit their thumb at it---discovering, in some ethereal way, to make it all come together in a glorious kum ba yah.

Luckily for us, Hannah Tinti is one of those generous writers who remarkably finds time for anyone with a question, any fellow writer in need, anyone who puzzles over stories like she does. Her enthusiasm for writing is infectious and her perseverance in the field is exemplary. She’s a woman of many hats---while running a literary magazine, teaching and heading workshops, she not only talks to novice writers about her craft and but also shares the importance of story-telling with youth across the country. It's a wonder she finds time to write let alone walk her dog, Canada (for which I'm sure Canada is grateful). Take heed writers or the narrative-curious! Hannah Tinti has something to share and I can assure you, it’ll be worth your time to listen.

Switchback: You’ve mentioned that you don’t do much research or plotting in your initial drafts because it can distract from the narrative and character development. If you do any outlining, how and at what stage do you organize your story structure?

Hannah Tinti: I find that my stories and novels start to take form as I’m working. But once I finish a first draft, that’s when I go back and try and give it a proper structure. Some projects are more complicated than others. At AWP in Boston, at the panel you mentioned, I used different colored balls of yarn to explain the narrative threads of my current project, weaving the yarn through the audience. In the end, it looked like a giant cat’s cradle, and I was climbing through it and getting caught. It was an apt analogy.

SB: Both your story collection and novel exhibit elements of the Macabre. You’ve mentioned that the setting of your childhood has influenced your work---picnicking in cemeteries and the celebration of Halloween year-round in Salem---but what else draws you to the Gothic qualities of narrative?

HT: Growing up in Salem made me pretty immune to the macabre. Ghosts and witches were part of my everyday life. As a teenager, my friends and I worked in the local tourist traps, donned rubber masks and jumped out of dungeons to scare people. It was a great job. As for other possible reasons for my macabre tendencies, you should read my essay in the Arthur Jones graphic novel anthology, Post-It Note Diaries, about how I almost died in a graveyard when I was five.

SB: In your story “Slim’s Last Ride,” from the collection Animal Crackers, a pet rabbit is slowly dismembered, yet it’s rendered comically endearing. You deftly strike a balance between the twisted and the sunny. I think this is one of the reasons this story is still so vivid to me---it’s extremely disturbing and yet I’m utterly enthralled by the unfolding terror.

You’d mentioned that for a writing prompt at NYU, A. M. Homes had given you a photograph of a boy holding a rabbit with a cape tied about its neck, and this exercise opened up a whimsical darkness in your writing to which audiences responded. Can you share with us other experiences and/or authors that aided you in finding your voice?

HT: A switch got turned with that particular story. I finally understood what “voice” meant on the page. Until that point, I hadn’t really written a successful story with a proper beginning, middle and end. Other teachers who helped me move forward in my writing were Dani Shapiro and E.L. Doctorow. But one of the best teaching experiences was my day job in publishing. I read the slush pile, and learned very quickly what NOT to do, by reading hundreds of stories each day and seeing why they were rejected.

SB: In an interview with Charlotte Boulay from the Fiction Writer’s Review, you said, “I think the ability to take criticism and thoughtfully implement it in your work is key to building your skills as a writer.” As a writer, what’s some of the best criticism you’ve received? And as an editor, what do you find yourself saying time and again?

HT: My editor Susan Kamil gave me some great advice when she told me to take the first 25 pages of The Good Thief and turn them into 75 pages. She wanted me to slow down and let the reader get to know and care about the characters before taking them on their journey. She was so right. The thing I find myself saying the most to writers is also about slowing down, but it’s about their endings. Often they don’t know how to finish their stories—so they drop off too suddenly and too soon. The reader needs a chance to say goodbye to the characters and end on an emotionally resonant note. Otherwise they feel cheated.

SB: One Story is a distinct publication, not just in the sense that it hallmarks a single story in a gift-like package and only publishes authors once, but also because the editing staff is uniquely involved in helping writers develop each piece to its utmost potential. While this is much more work, why have you chosen to take this approach in your magazine?

HT: Because of our unique format of publishing one story at a time, an enormous amount of pressure is put on each story. They literally carry the entire magazine. Also: we do not publish an author more than once. They just get one shot in our pages. So we do our best to make each story a home run.

SB: As many know, the publishing world has seen unprecedented changes these past five years (the addition of electronic media being one of them). How has this affected One Story? What have you done to survive where so many literary magazines have failed?

HT: A lot of the credit goes to our publisher, Maribeth Batcha. One Story was her concept and the design was based around trying to solve the problems other lit mags were facing. We wanted something that would be cheap to print and cheap to mail, and because of this, it allowed us to come out more frequently (every 3-4 weeks) and establish a close relationship with our subscribers. Our format has also made for an easy transition to electronic media. We were one of the very first magazines on the Kindle, and have a beautiful app for iPad and iPhone, though most of our subscribers still prefer our printed issues that come in the mail.

SB: I’ve heard that you’re a huge fan of comics. Do you have a favorite? And what do you think is the future for text accompanied with illustration?

HT: I follow a lot of comics and love graphic novels. Some of my favorite series are Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth and Scott Snyder’s American Vampire, as well as Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. Other favorites: Lynda Barry, Tim Lane, Chris Ware, Matt Kindt, Alison Bechdel, Craig Thompson and Marjane Satrapi. I think that comics are going to become more mainstream and illustrations are going to become more easily integrated into text, especially with the push of electronic publications. My goal for a long time has been to start running some graphic shorts in One Story. We’re working on that now.

SB: In Tin House, I read an excerpt entitled “Bullet Number Two” from your new novel. Your cast of characters are compelling, fully-realized convicts, alcoholics and murderers. How do you render such sympathy for these dregs of society as you’ve so expertly done before in Animal Crackers and The Good Thief?

HT: I guess my heart always goes out to the lost ones.

SB: How do you make a space in your life for writing? When you have so many other things on your plate, is there a ritual you impose to clear your mind and enter a story?

HT: I’m always struggling to find a balance between my writing life and all the other things I do to pay the rent. There’s no ritual, but I have to bury myself a bit to get in the right mind-set for the words to come, and by that I mean I unplug from the internet and turn off my phone.

SB: What have you read or heard recently that has inspired you?

HT: Thor Hanson’s Feathers, which is a natural history of feathers and why they are so awesome. Theodore Roosevelt’s The Wilderness Hunter, a collection of his notebooks and stories about hunting in North America.

SB: You mention the book Deerslayer in both The Good Thief and the story “Gallus, Gallus” from Animal Crackers. Why is this book significant to you?

HT: I read all of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales when I was a little girl. Last of the Mohicans is probably the most gripping, but Deerslayer has a special place in my heart. Maybe because that’s the novel where Natty Bumppo kills his first man and changes his name from Deerslayer to Hawkeye. In each book he’s known by a different name, and I’m drawn to the idea of one person having many different identities and adventures.

SB: In the titular story, “Animal Crackers,” your protagonist examines his reaction to a lover sharing her past: “Hearing all this made me uneasy, the way people can tell you secrets about themselves too soon and make you feel responsible” (5). I just love this sentence and can’t stop dwelling on it. It’s of course humorous in its hard truthfulness, but it also seems to speak to the burden of the storyteller. In what ways do you feel responsible for the characters you create?

HT: Secrets create intimacy, whether you want that intimacy or not. I think it’s a bit like that when creating characters, too. Some will spill their guts five minutes after you meet them, and it can be a bit overwhelming and make you want to back off. Others you have to watch, and study, and slowly win over, and when they finally crack, it’s like winning the lottery.

SB: If you could use a wishing stone as Ren does in your novel The Good Thief, what wish might you make today? (excluding beauty-pageant world peace)

HT: I’d wish that the book I’m writing right now was finished.