Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Best-Selling Author Hannah Tinti (GSAS ’97) Talks on Campus about Writing and Returning to NYU to Teach


What did you study at NYU?

I attended the NYU Creative Writing Program in fiction. It’s a great program and I learned so much that helped me in my career as a writer and editor. When I first moved to New York, I knew that I wanted to write, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make a living. So I always had a day job in the publishing world. I worked at The Atlantic Monthly before it moved to DC, and I also worked at The Boston Review. Later, I had a job at a literary agency, polishing manuscripts for publication.

During my second semester of grad school, a group of students formed an outside workshop and asked me to join. We’ve been meeting for almost twenty years now and have all published books. Together we’ve learned how to sustain an artistic lifestyle, which can be very difficult. Your income and time and space are always an issue, particularly living in New York. Finding the balance between family, friends and work is always a challenge, and keeping in touch with other writers who are trying to reach the same goals is the only way I’ve been able to do it. You tie together ropes and help each other along the way—reading manuscripts, sharing ideas, navigating rejections and acceptances, finding the right agents and editors, and letting each other know about fellowships or residencies. 

Because NYU’s program is small, it fosters that kind of atmosphere of close friendships and connections. I’ve seen it happen in my students from last semester, in particular. Now they are all supporting each other, and it’s great to see.

When did you start working on stories that would be published in your first book, the short story collection Animal Crackers?

The concept for my first book began here at NYU as my thesis. Though it went through many changes, eventually those pages became my story collection Animal Crackers, which was published by The Dial Press in 2004. When it came out, I sent copies to my former professors who had given me guidance, including Dani Shapiro, A.M. Homes and Paule Marshall. I remember I got this lovely letter back from E.L. Doctorow. He was my thesis advisor, and I had written one of the stories, “Reasonable Terms,” in his workshop. His recent passing is a great loss for the program, but he made a huge difference in my life, and many students’ lives, over the years.

Now I’m teaching in NYU’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, the same program where I earned my degree. It’s a weird journey to cycle back in this way, to teach the same classes that I took when I was here as a student, but it’s also very satisfying. I know exactly where the students are coming from, and they take heart knowing that I was once in their shoes and can understand their perspective.

One big change in the program since I was here as a student is the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, which has made a huge difference and provides a warm and friendly home for NYU’s community of writers. I got the chance to meet Lillian Vernon at our holiday party, just a few days before she died, and she told us all to take care of the house and make it grow. She was an incredible woman, and left a lasting legacy. NYU has also greatly expanded the writing program in the past 20 years, with classes in Paris and Florence, bringing in master teachers like Zadie Smith and Anne Carson, and giving the students more choice and opportunity. Deborah Landau, the director of the program, does a wonderful job managing it all, opening doors for students, keeping in touch with alumni and making sure everyone stays connected. It’s been a joy and honor to be back here as a faculty member.

What was your writing process for The Good Thief, a novel, after previously writing short stories?

I believe all writing, whether a story, an essay, or a novel, begins with a seed—one idea that sparks the rest. For The Good Thief, it was when I was reading Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk, a wonderful etymology of words that have fallen out of use in the English language. One of the entries was the phrase “Resurrection Men.” I was raised Catholic, so was drawn to the word “resurrection,” and thought it was quite beautiful. Then I read the definition, and was horrified! Because “Resurrection Men” was the name for thieves in the 1700s & 1800s who would dig up bodies and sell them to medical schools. I became fascinated with the idea, and started sketching out a scene, just figuring out the elements I would need to make it work: a horse and buggy; shovels; a cemetery; and a lookout of some kind. That lookout ended up being a young boy, Ren. While describing him I realized that he was missing one of his hands, and as soon as that came together, I knew he was the key, and that this was a novel and not a short story.

It’s a strange sort of relationship that we have with our subconscious. When I write, I ask myself questions and start to put things down, but it’s almost like the story is already there and I’m just discovering it. It’s a relationship that you have to foster, and learn to trust that it will take you in the right direction. For example, the graveyard scene I just described was the first thing I wrote, and it ended up being the middle of the book. Then I went back to the beginning, to figure out how Ren got to the cemetery, and then I wrote the end. This is advice I often give to my students when they get stuck. If they don’t know what happens next in their story, they should jump ahead (or back) and write the scene that they know needs to be in the story. It’s a way of writing that’s grasping the solid foundations and not worrying yet about how the scenes actually web together to form a cohesive plot. You can figure the connectors later, and build bridges from scene to scene. Most important: it keeps the writer engaged in the parts of the story that they’re most excited about. And that usually produces the best work.

The Good Thief was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award, winner of The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award. What was your experience of the critical acclaim?

It was wild and thrilling, and I was surprised, at first, that the book struck a chord with such a wide readership. I wrote it for adults. I wasn’t thinking about it migrating to younger readers, but then it won the Alex Award, which is given out each year by the American Library Association for books that were written for adults, but that librarians can recommend to younger readers. Then suddenly it started being used in courses for colleges, and also high schools, and even some junior highs and ESL language courses. Readers responded to the Dickensian style, and really connected with Ren, the poor young boy who goes on this journey to find a family. Book clubs also seemed to enjoy that it has a happy ending. I put Ren through so many horrible things in the story (evil killers, dead bodies, severed hands, etc.) that I had to give him a happy ending.

You are also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine One Story. Can you tell us about your experience as editor?

When I was at NYU, I met another student who was attending Columbia’s MFA creative writing program, Maribeth Batcha. While at Columbia, Maribeth had also formed an outside writing group, and they would mail each other hard copies of their stories. She thought it would be easy and simple to make a magazine that contained just one story.

A lot of literary magazines were folding at this time, and many of the glossy magazines that used to run short fiction had stopped. We saw this need and wanted to fill it. In the publishing world there is either The New Yorker, which publishes really well known people, or there are university magazines, which are great, but they come out irregularly and have a small audience. With One Story, we set out to create a magazine that would exist between those two ends of the spectrum. We launched in 2002, and our format was so different (publishing one story at a time) that we got a lot of publicity, which quickly expanded our circulation. One Story is now one of the largest literary magazines in the country. We have anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 readers for each issue.

One of the rules we made at the beginning of One Story was that we would never publish an author more than once. There are so many writers out there that people haven’t heard of yet, and we wanted to be a delivery system for those new voices. After thirteen years, we have published 225 issues, from 225 different writers from around the world. We’ve also expanded. One Story started as a zine that Maribeth and I cranked out of our apartments. Now we’re a non-profit organization with an office in Brooklyn and a hard-working staff, that celebrates the art form of the short story and supports the writers who write them, through education, publication and mentorship. Recently, we launched a Young Adult version of the magazine called One Teen Story, which publishes top YA authors as well as writers under the age of 18, to inspire the next generation of short story writers. It’s a fun project.

As an artist, you never have just one job. I patch my life together through teaching, writing, and editing One Story. The negative is that it can spread you too thin. The positive is that you can take on extra work when you need it and control your schedule. You’ve got to keep a lot of balls in the air, but it gives you freedom to live your life a different way. I’m lucky that all my jobs are things I care deeply about, especially teaching here at NYU, where I can pass on what I’ve learned over the years and hopefully make things easier for the next group of writers coming up.

What do you tell your students?

The main thing is to learn to trust themselves and their instincts. To notice what they notice and try to find the patterns in their work. To write about the things that interest them the most—and not what they think someone else wants to hear. The closer they can get to what they care about, the more powerful their sentences will be. There is a lot of fear on the page when they first start writing, and they need to find ways to cut through it, to be authentic and true. To find this, I often give them writing exercises to slow down and just observe. Living in New York, we frequently have to disengage to simply exist (avert our eyes, cover our ears, hold our breath), but when you are writing you have to do the opposite. You have to be open to the world.

When is your next book The Twelve Bullets of Samuel Hawley coming out?

It will be out with The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House, in 2017.  It’s also been optioned for a television series, which is in process right now.

Click here to find out more about Hannah Tinti and her projects, One Story or One Teen Story.

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