There are acts that happen upon us, and moments that happen for no reason, and if we are to survive what comes our way to finish our rotations around the sun…then we who are able must deliver ourselves from the aftermath to where we need to go. it was true with the serpent in the garden and it has been true ever since. The snakebite is not what defines a life; what defines it is how we extract the venom.
~ from The Remnants by Robert Hill
Don’t ever loan me a book. Especially if it’s a good one. I will break the spine and earmark pages and underline passages on every other page to get at the story within.
Like many good novels I’ve held, my copy of Robert Hill’s The Remnants (to be released by Forest Avenue Press on March 15th), has been studied in such a way, the corners of the pages no longer crisp. But The Remnants is not your typical read. Brandi Dawn Henderson on Poslit compares Hill’s story to dark chocolate, saying it’s “single-source…dusted with gold flake and basil sugar…not for people who like milk chocolate.” And she’s exactly right.
The Remnants is a story about the tiny town called New Eden and its odd inhabitants, whose devotion to each other both sustains and destroys them. Hill addresses themes found throughout literary fiction–love, incest, reclamation of self…heavy hitters, but he paints the story with language that rolls across the tongue and through the mind so easily, you float along unaware at first. Then you pause to take it in. But never do you close the cover. Because the story, told through the eyes of True Bliss and Kennesaw Belvedere who are both on the cusp of their hundred-year birthdays, gives us a clear understanding of how a man’s sins may mark the course of another’s living, but they don’t have to claim the ending.
I’m honored to host Robert Hill for a Q&A and excited to offer a book giveaway. It’s simple to enter: just drop your name in the comments. The deadline is Tuesday, March 15th. Now, welcome Robert Hill.
CC: The Remnants is written in a unique style of prose that’s delightful, whimsical, almost musical at times. Yet, the story itself touches on very serious themes of love, lust, heartache and guilt. These two elements of style of theme work so well together in the book, and I’m impressed with the art and craft you put into the story. What prompted you to approach it in such a way?
RH: My writing idiosyncrasy is that I write out loud, and more often than not, what I write is written to be read out loud. When I used to write advertising copy, I had to hear “the sell” land; when I wrote grants, I had to hear the compelling argument build to a crescendo, out loud. For some reason, I need to hear the syllables hit certain highs and lows, each word build on that, each sentence climb a fence, each paragraph leap over and land. If it isn’t right from the first syllable/word, if the textures don’t jingle and thump and coo and roar or whatever, I have to start over. Because I heard stories before I read them (as a child), the auditory must have imprinted on me more strongly than when I learned to take in the written words quietly with my eyes. It’s probably a kind of literary ADHD. It can be maddening at times, and certainly makes for slow going in the writing process, having to hear everything, and hear it again, and again, and again until something in the rhythm of it all clicks for me. A psychiatrist could no doubt write a prescription that would cure me of this, but I already have too many co-pays.
Because of writing like this, everything I write takes on a musical quality – sometimes more so, sometimes less. That’s my style. When I began The Remnants, I had a single character in mind, a couple of shadows of two other characters, and a kernel of an idea of what their world was, but when I sat down to write the first thing that happened was the music took off immediately. In fact, in an early draft, I described the mating rituals of the town; the sounds coming from clandestine get-togethers, as a cacophony of old time instruments, harmoniums and wheezing pump organs, things like that. After the sound established itself, the next surprise was the darkness at the heart of the town. That opened up everything for me, and helped to ground what could have been a trifle of a story into something much deeper for me, truer, and speaking to a bigger humanity.
CC: In the early pages of your book, Kennesaw Belvedere sets off for his birthday tea at True Bliss’ house, embarking on an odyssey of remembering and letting go. I recently read an introduction to another book in which Neil Gaiman says, “Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over,” and this got me thinking about Kennesaw, True…all the characters in New Eden who–with their strange genetic oddities–reflect the sins of common man. What’s one true thing from The Remnants that you hope stands out for readers?
RH: That nobody starts out bad. That everybody needs some kind of connection with another. Be it through love or friendship, through sex, heartbreak, memory, thought, by birth or community. No one wants to be lonely when they hear the screech in the night. For the characters in The Remnants, there is the unspoken hope that those connections will last through eternity.
CC: In this interview about your first novel, When All Is Said And Done, you mention how your friends staged a “creative intervention” that set you on your path to becoming a novelist. We all need friends like that; I had a similar experience. While I have yet to publish a novel, I wouldn’t be where I am today without one friend’s not-so-gentle nudge to quit complaining and get writing! Community is crucial when it comes to writing. How has your tribe of writers grown or changed since publishing your second novel?
RH: My first novel happened because friends directed me to Tom Spanbauer’s “Dangerous Writers” workshop, and I owe everything to that experience. Since then, I’ve been part of small writing group, all of us disciples of Tom’s, and all of us still seeing each other’s work through Tom’s eyes and heart. Having feedback and encouragement from a group of writers whom I respect and trust has made, and continues to make, a huge impact on me as a writer and as a person. I love these people dearly, and I continue to write because they are in my life.
CC: What are you reading these days?
RH: Currently reading Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. For my book group, just read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, which followed on the heels of Phil Klay’s Redeployment. Also, just read two books by Lori Ostlund, her new novel, After the Parade, and her re-issued short story collection, The Bigness of the World, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. Both beautiful, with a hugeness of heart at their core. On my “to be read” stack are W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, and that leviathan of the moment, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. And, then, there’s my little guilty pleasure: small collection of verse “written by” and dedicated to cats, called I Could Pee on This. Having had many cats in my life, I can speak to the raw honesty of the verse. Truer words were never meowed.
CC: What’s one bit of writing wisdom you hold on to as you dive into a new story?
RH: Every single moment of life, every person you’ve ever known, every odd look cast your way, every mistake you’ve ever made, every surprise, every faked orgasm, every selfless act, every single thing from the moment your memory started – it’s all going to go into your writing if you are writing about something honest and true. Writing is like Method Acting: you have to put your own experience behind a moment to realize the truth of it and make that truth evident to the reader. Doesn’t matter if you’re writing about a soccer mom or a Viking warrior. You know what love feels like, what hate feels like, jealousy, greed, rage, sorrow. You have to be able to tap into all that inside of yourself. And you have to respect that those experiences you’re tapping into matter enough that they will bring something worthy to your writing and to the reader.
But even more important: you have to write for you. And you have to love the process, as aggravating and lonely and long as it can be. You can’t think about getting published or making money from it or any commercial end result. If you’re not enjoying the process of writing while you’re writing, if you’re not making yourself laugh and cry and ponder while creating, and surprising and delighting and sometimes astounding yourself with what is coming out of you, then no one else is going to feel anything from your work, let alone want to publish it, or buy it, or read it.
Robert Hill is a New Englander by birth, a west coaster by choice, and an Oregonian by osmosis. As a writer, he has worked in advertising, entertainment, educational software and not-for-profit fundraising. He is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Walt Morey Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. The Remnants follows When All Is Said And Done (Graywolf, 2006), Robert’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. Learn more at his website.
Don’t forget: Drop your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of The Remnants. Deadline to enter is Tuesday, March 15th!