JEFFREY CONDRAN interviews HANNAH TINTI
Photo by Linda Carrion
Periodically, The Common will feature conversations with editors that illuminate the wide-ranging nature of their work and their creative lives. In today’s piece, Jeffrey Condran talks with One Story editor Hannah Tinti about the writer/editor relationship, The Good Thief, and the relevance of digital tools to the literary community.
Preparing to interview Hannah Tinti, I reread her books, looked through my favorite issues of One Story magazine, browsed her website and blog. Quite inadvertently, I also began to talk to the many people whose lives Tinti has influenced. Six degrees of separation is frankly too large a gulf when it comes to the literary world and Hannah Tinti: she’s published, taught, read with, or simply handed a copy of One Story to so many people. On a recent night in Pittsburgh, I ran into Allison Amend (One Story #13) and Laura van den Berg (One Story #102), and both writers erupted with the same line: “I love Hannah!” It’s not unusual for writers to tell me, in all earnestness, that Tinti has “changed their lives” and literary fortunes. She has a well-earned reputation of working tirelessly on their behalf, helping with fellowships, book contracts, and jobs.
I met Tinti for the first time in 2007 at the Colgate Writer’s Conference where she was conducting a short story workshop. In the evenings there, the writers and students gather for cocktail hour on the porch of the bucolically situated Merrill House. There, always, was Tinti, drink in hand, moving from group to group. The first evening, her look was the long dark hair and intense expression on her book jackets; the next a Pippi Longstocking-like pig-tailed sweetness. This past winter, at the AWP conference in Washington, DC, I swung by the One Story table three, four, five times to say hello, only to hear the words, “You just missed her!” before being told which panels she could be found on at what times. This interview is the result of several email conversations conducted during the spring of this year.
Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts and is cofounder and editor-in-chief of One Story magazine. Her short story collection, Animal Crackers, was a runner up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her first novel, The Good Thief, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and winner of the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. She won the 2009 PEN/Nora Magid award for her editorial work at One Story, and recently joined the cast of Public Radio’s Selected Shorts.
Condran: Being a writer is a notoriously hard business. Will you talk a little bit about how you decided you wanted to be a writer and how you managed not to give up on the idea?
Tinti: I studied science in college—I had visions of being a female Jacques Cousteau. But I have problems memorizing things, especially numbers. I could get an A in English without working very hard—it just came natural to me—but I would kill myself to get a C in Physics. Then, about half way through college, I took a creative writing class with Blanche Boyd, and it was like a hundred pieces sliding into place at once. I realized I could take the parts of science that interested me and explore them using the more innate skill I had with words. Blanche made being a writer seem like the absolute coolest thing you could do with your life, and the authors she exposed me to, like Raymond Carver, changed how I saw the world.
Condran: What was your experience at NYU like? Did you consciously choose a program that offered an MA rather than an MFA?
Tinti: When I went to NYU they didn’t have an MFA, only an MA. There weren’t as many programs in New York back in those days (now there is Hunter, New School, Brooklyn College, etc.), and my other choice, Columbia, wasn’t offering any financial help. At NYU I got a teaching assistantship, and the classes were at night, so I could hold down a full time day job, which I did for two years—working 9-6 in an office, then going to classes from 7-10, and writing on the weekends. So my choice to attend NYU was financial, but also because I was excited to work with the authors teaching in the program at the time: E.L. Doctorow, Mona Simpson, Paule Marshall, Dani Shapiro and A.M. Homes.
Condran: Many suggest that the benefit of completing a graduate writing degree is the people who you meet, especially teacher/writers. Did you find this to be the case for you? Who are the figures that you think of as mentors?
Tinti: I think one of the best things about being in a writing program is the community it gives you. Being an author is a very solitary, lonely profession, and just being around like-minded people who are trying to accomplish the same goals helps. Not everyone goes on to write books—many of my classmates became journalists, or editors, or educators, or car salesmen. But they are still some of my closest friends, and we help each other out. My two biggest mentors from NYU ended being A.M. Homes and Dani Shapiro. They’ve both advised me, time and again over the years, and we’ve continued to collaborate on different projects. I feel lucky to have them in my life.
Condran: At this year’s AWP conference in Washington, DC, you were part of a panel with editors from Tin House and the New England Review titled, “Editor as Mentor: Literary Magazines & Emerging Writers.” Will you talk a little bit about your feelings about literary mentorship in a time when stories of writer/editor relationships like the one’s between Maxwell Perkins and Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald have become increasingly rare?
Tinti: Writer/editor relationships are very different now, because editors change houses so often. Back in the days of Maxwell Perkins, a writer would sign with a house and stay there for the rest of their lives, nearly always working with the same editor. Now, in order to move up, editors have to change houses. The number one problem I see my fellow writers dealing with these days is getting “orphaned”—meaning the editor who fell in love with their book and bought it leaves the company. Then the book is passed to another editor who didn’t buy it, and has their own projects already, and they just shuffle the book through the system and it dies on the shelf. So, writers are lucky if they even do one book with the same editor, never mind two or three. At the same time, these kinds of “mentor” relationships are vital for authors to navigate their way through an increasingly treacherous and changing industry. For many, agents have taken on the role of mentor, or in some cases it is a teacher they have studied with, or an editor at the literary magazine.
Condran: Because there’s so much rejection involved in the submission process, it’s sometimes difficult for aspiring writers to believe that editors are out there looking for them and want to promote their work. It’s often frustrating. Don’t you have a story you tell about editors and paper dolls?
Tinti: It’s very hard for writers to send work out and get rejected. But I didn’t really understand how difficult it was on the other end, as the editor, until one of my first jobs as an editorial assistant at the Boston Review and then at the Atlantic Monthly. I had to read hundreds of stories every day, and every day hundreds more came in. As a writer you start to take the rejections less personally when you understand this—how quickly your work is being judged, and also how the personal tastes of that one reader, and whether they had their coffee that morning, come into play. It still hurts, though. Even when I would get an encouraging rejection, asking me to send something else, I’d still be really mad at the magazine, and it would take six months or a year for that anger to subside and for me to feel OK about trying them again. So I devised a system: whenever I would send out a story, I would make paper dolls and write the names of the editors on each of the dolls, and keep them in an envelope. When I got the rejection, I would take out that paper doll and burn it. By the time the paper turned to ash my anger would be gone—I’d gotten my private little revenge—and I’d be ready to send them another story. Now, at One Story, we get close to 10,000 stories a year, out of which we can only publish 18. We have to reject the rest. So I imagine myself being burned in effigy all day long.
Condran: One Story has been a tremendous success. Will you talk a little bit about the founding of the magazine and some of its guiding values?
Tinti: The concept of One Story belongs to our publisher, Maribeth Batcha. She was part of a writing group that would mail each other stories. Maribeth realized there was something special about reading a story alone this way. Her background was in the business side of magazines, subscription development and advertising, and she asked me to come on as editor. We sat down and made a list of all the reasons why literary magazines fail—most have very short lifespans, unless they are associated with a University or a funder who has deep pockets. Our guiding values are roughly: Looking at short stories as individual works of art; publishing stories that are strong enough to stand alone; to continuously seek out new voices by publishing authors only once; to come out frequently, so that we build a relationship with our subscribers; to run work by both established and emerging writers; to create a magazine that is friendly and easy to read; to support our authors long after they publish with us; and most important, to build a community of enthusiastic readers. I believe One Story has stuck by these principles, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.
Condran: For many literary magazines, because there is a regular turnover in editorship or, like Ploughshares, where guest editors are employed, the aesthetic of the magazine changes over time. So far, this hasn’t been the case at One Story. Do you think there is a One Story “aesthetic”?
Tinti: We look for high quality writing and stories that are strong enough to stand alone. Because we never publish an author more than once, each issue is completely different. We don’t go back to the same writers, the way some other magazines do. I think that keeps the work we publish very fresh, and it’s one of the reasons why our subscribers enjoy the magazine so much.
Condran: Many One Story fictions have child or adolescent narrators. I’m thinking now of Ben Stroud’s “Eraser” and Joe Meno’s “Children Are the Only One’s Who Blush.” And, of course, there is Ren from your own novel, The Good Thief. Do you find particular literary possibilities in children?
Tinti: I think that readers can feel an immediate sympathy for children in a way that is different for adults, and it can be easier to show how they have changed—children alter so rapidly. But I also believe the story dictates the characters. I don’t purposely look for adolescent narrators.
Condran: Many people find children to be intrinsically limited as characters. They are not culpable for their actions. They act as foils for the actions and psychology of adults. To some extent, it could be argued that this is the nature of Ren’s relationship with Benjamin Nab.
Tinti: Ren learns a great deal from Benjamin Nab—so in some ways The Good Thief is a coming of age novel. But Ren is the hero, and also the moral center of the book.
Condran: How would you categorize your style as a writer?
Tinti: My writing is plot-based, a lot of strange things happen, and I try and keep the language clean.
Condran: The stranger the event, the harder the writer has to work to earn that moment. Do you believe that careful plotting is the key element for preparing readers for such moments? To what degree do you understand the plot of a story before you sit down to write?
Tinti: I never know a plot when I sit down to write—I figure it out as I go, reaching blindly in the dark. Then, once I find the place I’m going, I go back and put in the proper steps. Road signs so the reader doesn’t get lost along the way.
Condran: One reviewer described you as a writer who can, “walk a tension-wire line between magical realism and modern suburban gothic.” Another suggests that your writing has a kind of “grotesque vigor.” What do you think of these labels?
Tinti: I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, where it is Halloween 365 days a year, so I’ve always had a bit of a dark side. But I do try and temper all that darkness with some humor and moments of light. You can’t expect a reader to only take beatings—they need a reason to hope and they also need moments of joy.
Condran: At another AWP panel you talked about monsters and elements of the gothic in literary fiction. What does gothic mean to you? And what resonance do you think this style has with 21st century readers?
Tinti: To me gothic means the Brontës and Shelly. Secrets and passion and rolling moors and monsters and houses with too many rooms. These days you’d probably have to add zombies and vampires to the mix. I believe there will always be an audience for this kind of writing—the same way people gawk at car accidents. It’s about getting close to the things we are afraid of, in order to more greatly appreciate the life we have left to live.
Condran: There does indeed seem to be an audience for the macabre. The last few years have seen this kind of writing dominate many publisher’s lists, whether it be literary in nature or the most basic formula construction. Is there something that accounts for readers’ tastes moving away from realism?
Tinti: I believe fiction often reflects back the surrounding world. Since 9/11, the surreal has become a part of our everyday lives. There also seems to be a greater desire, and ability, to escape into fantasy. It’s a way of processing an extremely complicated reality. The same way Lord of the Rings grew out of Tolkien’s experiences in WWI.
Condran: In The Good Thief you made use of the atmosphere of 18th century New England. I’m thinking of the profession of Resurrection Men and, say, the description of the port town of Granston. What kind of research did you have to conduct for the writing of this book?
Tinti: When I studied writing with E.L. Doctorow at New York University, he told us not to do any research for our novels in the first draft, because the research would end up driving the narrative, instead of the characters. He was right. When I started researching aspects of The Good Thief, such as the history of medical schools, I came across so much good material, I wanted to put it all into the book, even though it didn’t belong. We’ve all read historical novels that do this—get bogged down with information. I did a lot of cutting to keep the pacing and the historical aspects of the book in the background. I drew on my own experiences to describe the settings. But I also made a lot of things up completely, to create my own alternative New England.
Condran: Writers like Junot Diaz and Dan Choan have compared The Good Thiefto the works of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. These, however, were men writing about their own times. What attracted you to such a historical setting? What do you think it can do for a book that, say, a more contemporary setting cannot?
Tinti: The time period in The Good Thief was dictated by the subject matter. Once I knew that I wanted to write about resurrection men (thieves who steal bodies and sell them to medical schools), it made sense to set the book in the 1800s, when medical schools were starting to open across Europe and the United States and there was a market for cadavers. It was easy for me to write about the time period because I grew up in Salem, in the historical district, so I knew how everything should look and feel.
Condran: Janet Maslin, in her New York Timesreview of The Good Thief, describes your writing as having “a total absence of writerly mannerisms.” Though it’s difficult to know exactly what she meant by that, do you agree with this characterization of your line-by-line style? If it’s accurate, do you think this style is in response to the sometimes sensational content of your work?
Tinti: I try to write cleanly and clearly whenever possible. This probably comes from working so long as an editor. If a reader gets confused, they will stop reading, so I am always careful about how I lead them through the story. I think a lot about the reader’s experience, especially when dealing with sensational material.
Condran: Just glancing at your website and the blog space there, as well as the similar blog space on the One Story site, your life seems incredibly busy. A few months ago, I saw a post that said, “Off Grid.” How do you juggle the responsibilities of being an editor and the business of writing with the creative aspects of the work?
Tinti: It’s difficult to slow down and sink into the writing. Lately I’ve been going off grid, whenever I can. I post it on my site/facebook/twitter and put up a vacation message so that readers and fans sending in questions or people that I work with in publishing will know I’m gone. Then I disconnect my phone, and go offline, and get out of New York City. It takes a few days to wean myself from the Internet, but then all this space opens up in my head and I get a ton of pages done. I’ve got two off grid sessions planned already for 2011. Can’t wait.
Condran: Do you have favorite places that you go?
Tinti: Usually someplace near the ocean. Last year I went to Cape Cod and Whidbey Island.
Condran: Hemingway, in the preface to the Modern Library edition of his stories, talked about certain places being “good” to write in, others less good. Do you feel that place can have an effect on the work you’re producing?
Tinti: Definitely. I ended up setting a whole chapter in my new novel on Whidbey Island.
Condran: Speaking of websites and blogging, how important are these digital tools to being a successful writer?
Tinti: The way the publishing market is right now, they are very important. It’s a way of creating a literary community for yourself and your work. It also allows writers to interact directly with their readers. But it’s not for everyone. Some writers I know have a difficult time being plugged in this way.
Condran: On the other hand, there are writers out there who have yet to publish a book who have incredibly elaborate web pages and blog spots. Does there come a point when all of this “literary” chatter becomes a distraction?
Tinti: I think so. You can build excitement for a title online, but if the writing isn’t strong when your book finally comes out, readers will quickly desert you. I’m always telling my students to stop worrying about getting published and start worrying about whether their writing is working. That’s where they should be putting their time and all of their efforts. If the writing is good and connects emotionally, everything else will follow.
Condran: In a world that is so digitally oriented – even One Story is available on Kindle – do you think that the pleasure that Ren from The Good Thief takes from books is still as emotionally accessible and relevant? Here is what you write about him just after he has stolen The Lives of the Saints from Father John: “Possessing the book had somehow made what happened inside the pages belong to him. During the day he looked forward to the sun setting, to the time when everybody else would go to bed and he could read the stories again. He cared for this more than eating. More than sleeping. He finally said, ‘I wanted miracles.’”
Tinti: A good reading experience is about the story being told, not the way that story is delivered. I believe that digital devices will simply get more people reading. That said, I don’t believe physical books will ever disappear. There is something very important about taking a book and making it your own—marking the pages, underlining, dropping it in the bathtub, falling asleep with it on your lap, carrying it with you on a train. It becomes a part of you.
Condran: Recently, you’ve been affiliated with the Sirenland Writer’s Conference in Italy. What have those experiences been like?
Tinti: I co-founded the Sirenland Writer’s Conference with Dani Shapiro, Michael Maren and Antonio Sersale, owner of Le Sirenuse Hotel. This year Jim Shepard, Dani Shapiro, and I taught the workshops. Andrew Sean Greer was our visiting writer. This was our fifth year in Positano. It’s an extraordinary place, one of the most beautiful, dream-like landscapes I’ve ever been to, and it fosters its own kind of special magic. If people would like to find out more, they should visit our site:www.sirenland.net.
Condran: How did you discover Positano?
Tinti: Dani and Michael met Antonio Sersale at a dinner party in New York, and when he found out they were writers, he said: “I have always wanted to have a writer’s conference at my hotel!” Antonio is an extraordinary person who understands the transformative power of reading. We would not be in Positano if it weren’t for him.
Condran: What was the impetus behind starting a writer’s conference? Other than the spectacular setting, what do you think sets the Sirenland conference apart from others?
Tinti: I think the quality of the workshops is what sets it apart, along with the close camaraderie that builds between the students and faculty. There is no hierarchy at Sirenland—all the students and the faculty socialize, and we work hard to make sure every Sirenlander has a fantastic experience. The food is pretty amazing, too. And the Italian waiters who greet you each morning with a cappuccino.
Condran: Very recently, you’ve become involved with NPR’s Selected Shorts. Will you talk a little bit about your involvement with that program and the work it does to promote the short story form?
Tinti: Selected Shorts records actors performing short stories live in front of an audience at Symphony Space in New York City, and broadcasts nationally every weekend on public radio. Last December, Kathy Minton, the director, and Isaiah Sheffer, the long-time host, asked me to come on the show as their “Literary Commentator.” I do interviews with the writers, and also try and add some context for the work, so listeners can appreciate the stories on a deeper level. I’ve been a fan of the show for years, and I’m having a lot of fun being Isaiah’s sidekick.
Condran: People always say that poetry is meant to be read aloud, listened to. What do you think about this dynamic with fiction? Selected Shortsmust have given you a whole new insight into the idea of a literary reading.
Tinti: I’ve been impressed at how much a good actor can do to bring a story to life and make it connect with listeners. We recently recorded a session with John Lithgow performing a story called “Sir Henry” by Lydia Millet, and he had the entire audience eating out of his hand. Selected Shorts has definitely made me re-examine how I present my own work in public.
Condran: What’s next for Hannah Tinti?
Tinti: I’m writing a new novel about love and guns and working on a comic book.
Condran: Suddenly “comic book” and “graphic novel” seem to be on the lips of so many writers I know. Are illustrated works part of a new zeitgeist?
Tinti: I’ve always read comics, ever since I was a little girl, and I’m glad to see them finally getting a place at the literary table. Webcomics, the iPad, and other electronic devices are only going to open up this world more and integrate visual elements into more traditional texts.
Condran: When can we expect your new novel to be out in world?
Tinti: I have an idea, but I don’t want to jinx it. I still have a lot of work to do.
Condran: Thanks, Hannah.