CT: I've known you for quite a while now, and one of the things I know about you is that you are a fantastic teacher. What are some of the things that you find yourself telling students about writing?
PH: My last class was a novel-writing workshop, where we workshopped a full novel manuscript every week. At the end of the semester, the students had mugs made up and printed with a couple dozen of my most commonly repeated remarks, things like, “whose realism?” or “mystery vs. mystification,” or “build scenes from the ground up,” or “questions of genre.” It got to be like the old Magic 8 Ball: ask the mug!
I always urge students to write as clearly as they can about what they find truly mysterious, rather than writing obscurely about what will prove to be trite popular opinion once the decoder ring is found at the bottom of the cereal box. I urge them to think about things like: to describe something is not to explain it, to know something is not to understand it.
I’m on a bit of a tear about genre lately. Genre is a label assigned to a work of art after it has been created, almost always by someone who did not make it. As such, thinking too much about the boundaries and classifications of genre while in the act of creation can hamstring an artist. What if, in the middle of what you think is a novel, there are suddenly line breaks? What if a lyric essay suddenly erupts out of a short story? What if you, the artist, turn away from what physicists would call “emergent properties,” (another term from the mug!) and in so doing take a detour from the truest, deepest, most beautiful impulses that motivated the work? Your job as an artist is to make a work of art that succeeds on its own terms. A genre of one! Who cares what they call it afterwards?
CT: I also happen to know that you do some pretty esoteric reading, and I wonder if you'd like to tell us a little about what you’ve been reading lately and why.
PH: I have piles of books all around my house that I drift around and among. I love reading the densest, most thoughtful stuff I can get my hands on in any idiom, really, any discipline concerned with investigating human experience. Science magazine arrives every week, and I learn stuff from that that lights my brains up all the time: a third to a half of the water on earth is older than the sun; the sharks in Greenland are the oldest vertebrates, some as old as the Reformation; exoplanets form in ways that contradict everything we thought about planet formation from our own solar system. Pretty much everything we think about homo sapiens is, like, a hundred times older than we thought.
Somehow, Edmund Husserl showed up on the coffee table, and his critique of science and technology, his archaeology of the history of science, is thrilling reading, and from what I can tell so far, almost no one reads him in English anymore. I love phenomenology, so I guess I was predisposed to like him. I find a lot of neuroscience to be malarkey—all that functional magnetic resonance imaging stuff strikes me as old-fashioned phrenology playing with a fancy new toy—so Husserl’s critique of subjecting the subject to the “art of measuring” is fascinating. Since the “self” cannot be measured, it must not exist, and all that grammatical three-card monte nonsense. (The last issue of Science, coincidentally, had an article about how the three standard software programs used for fMRI experiments yield false positives something like 70% of the time: here’s where “sorrow” is. Or not.)
I got to teach a month’s worth of Marilynne Robinson’s Old Testament seminar last fall, so now I’m pretty tight with Samuel and Kings and Isaiah. When I went back and started reading Shakespeare’s late plays after teaching that stuff, it was hard to find a line that doesn’t ponder the difficulties of kingship and servitude, the evils of flattery of power, the always pressing need for the proper rebuke and reproof of our princes and judges and lawyers and emperors.
CT: I don't know how much contemporary fiction you keep up with, but I wonder if you see any trends? Anything that irks you or that you particularly admire?
PH: The best part of teaching novel-writing workshops was that I got to read a good new book every week. A bunch of them are on their way to print now, so that’s exciting. The trends that irk are the eternal ones—bland, off-the-rack, by-the-numbers thinking and pieties. To judge by a source like the New York Times Book Review, you’d think there were about eight authors in the whole country, every one of them a bland, clever, hip, well-educated, well-behaved burgher. Such is what one is bound to find in commercial sources, though, and I know that there are as many radically brilliant, visionary artists out there as ever.
CT: You've published two novels now, Tinkers and Enon, and you are no doubt at work on a third. Maybe you could talk a little about what you're working on at the moment.
PH: I’m working on a third novel. I stumbled across the historically factual story of a mixed-race settlement on an island off the coast of Maine called Malaga that existed from 1793 until 1912, when the residents were evicted in an enthusiastic combined spirit of coastal tourist development and eugenics. The first international congress of eugenics was held in the summer of 1912, right when these people were being booted off the island, either simply thrown to the wolves, as it were, or carted off to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. So, I started fiddling around with the idea of an isolated, culturally mixed community on a small island. Naturally, Noah’s Ark came to mind, and The Tempest, and stuff like that. And race in America. And the pseudoscience of race—like phrenology and craniometrics, and trying to make value statements about the qualities of a given human being’s life based on subjecting his or her head to measurements, etc. It really fit with what I’ve been reading about lately, so I’ve been running (well, crawling, really) with that. It won’t at all be a historical novel about that actual island, though. I’m just using the basic premise and setting to conjure my own sort of folktale/myth.
CT: You are known as a novelist, but I wonder if you've ever thought about writing in any other mode. Ever been tempted by poetry? History? Theology?
PH: I’m not tempted by poetry because I can never figure out where to put the damn line breaks. That said, I do think of Tinkers as an unlineated lyric narrative poem. I’d love to write theology. Theology is cosmology, metaphysics, so-called. In its very essence, it generates and ponders meaning by and through narrative, something people seem perversely to delight in ignoring. The sort of ambiguity and dialectical methods of counterpoint and juxtaposition that people thrill at in novels are used as evidence for the Bible’s primitiveness rather than its sublime aesthetic and moral complexity. Anyway, I wouldn’t mind jumping into that fray sometime in the near future. I’d like to write a biographical essay about Husserl, too. So, yes, various other sorts of writing hold strong appeal. My vague plan is to finish this next novel and maybe try some fun, polemical, history-of-ideas kind of nonfiction.Harvard Review 49, guest edited by Paul Harding, is available for purchase online.