Joyce Hackett - Author Interview
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
Joyce Hackett: I've been writing since I was ten, when I won a poetry contest and received a fifty dollar U.S. savings bond, and the loony idea that you could make a lot of money as a writer. Then I won another essay contest entitled "Why I am proud to be an American" by rewording a bunch of John F. Kennedy quotes into my own pastiche. It was a small town, and there wasn't much going on.
Moe: When did you 'know' you were a writer?
Joyce Hackett: I guess, in graduate school, I finally understood something when, writing by candlelight, I missed a long New York City blackout and didn't know it for quite a while.
Moe: Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager?
Joyce Hackett: In high school I was good at sports, and listening to depressing music over and over, but didn't write much, as the mental landscape was somewhat abysmal: a backhoe of sky blue eyeshadow, along with a lot of cheerleader outfits worn as normal garb. Only when I was in college did I remember how much I loved to sit alone with a pen and a dictionary.
Moe: Can you tell us a bit about being a community activist?
Joyce Hackett: I'm obsessed with land use, and public space, and was the chair of a coalition of community groups advocating for more effective land use practices and better public spaces. My most recent project is Washington Write-a-Story Day.
Moe: What inspires you?
Joyce Hackett: The reason I love New York, which is perhaps the toughest city in the world to live in for an artist, is the talk on the subway: the conversations one hears there, and in restaurants, and in museums. There is so much talk, and the only word for it is wonderful. New Yorkers are fully themselves in a way I often find the rest of the U.S. isn't. People don't isolate in cars, and they don't watch much TV, and they walk on sidewalks, where they have to bump into each other, not malls, where you could wander around for miles with nothing but food as a companion. Scratch the "you" there and insert "I", because growing up, that's what I did, a lot.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Joyce Hackett: I have no idea how I spend my time. I live with a writer who gets up like clockwork and produces like he's at an office. I'm up in the middle of the night working, then go back to bed, get up late, walk the dog and work another chunk of hours. Mostly I do an enormous amount of research for a book and then when I feel I am stuffed, to the point of disgust, I have to go off in a hole and digest and then spew.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read?
Joyce Hackett: It takes a year for me to have a draft of a book that I don't think anything is wrong with--or rather, I've worked as far as I can and don't know what is wrong with it.
Moe: Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Joyce Hackett: I write through for a while, try to, especially when I'm not writing and trying to write, but then let myself edit, because I find that in the pursuit of specificity in sentences, I actually come to understand what it is I'm writing about.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you'll have?
Joyce Hackett: Well, I think about inventing a new form to match the content of a book. That's what Shakespeare did--Troilus and Cressida is perhaps his ugliest language but most appropriate to the content. I think more about the dominant metaphor and tone than about genre, though. For me, tone is all.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Joyce Hackett: I've given up planning in advance: trying to be efficient, I spend months doing nothing if I do it that way.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book?
Joyce Hackett: I think research is mostly about, not being "right", but about being "not wrong". So often it introduces a vocabulary for a life and a set of concerns and a way of perceiving, but once a writer knows everything, she is able to write very little on a topic.
In my own book, Disturbance of the Inner Ear, is about a cellist, and I interviewed about 400 cellists for that book. While I was doing my research, at a certain point a cellist I was interviewing, Gary Hoffman, quoted a sentence to me almost word for word that I had written the week before in the voice of my narrator. He said: "When you are playing in that perfect zone, the notes come in slow motion, like a series of home run pitches you can smack--one after the other." Well, my narrator knew nothing about baseball, but I'd written in a line about how in a perfect performance the notes come in slow motion, and time stops. And when Gary Hoffman said that to me, I thought, Bingo. I'm there. And I didn't do any more research. I think on that day I knew more about the cello than I ever had before, and than I ever have since.
Moe: Do you visit the places you write about?
Joyce Hackett: I do visit the places I write about, but only afterwards (Though I took a wonderful drive over the Brenner Pass in Italy that informed much of the last part of my book).
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Joyce Hackett: I tend to write about people very different from me, but people whose emotional centers I can relate to, even if my life circumstances are different. As I mentioned, I live with another writer, so I think it's part of the deal that you don't scavenge too close to home.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer's block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Joyce Hackett: I do suffer from writer's block, which I think is a feeling of irrelevance and uselessness that relates to being disconnected from people. When I do community service, and go out and create good things for others, it feels like an antidote, and often I'm able to come back out of my own self-evaluation, thinking about someone else and what their world is like.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Joyce Hackett: Well--there are books that have saved my life simply by setting down experiences I thought no one else felt. So, I hope to do that for others.
Moe: Can you share three things you've learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Joyce Hackett: My novel was rejected by forty publishers and agents, and often, I'd get letters from them that objected to its idiosyncrasies in an irritated and even a nasty way. Later, when it was published, the dazzling reviews cited, in a positive way, exactly what people had objected to when it was unpublished, which was that it was different from what they'd seen. So I guess I learned that if you're willing to work hard enough to really set down your unique vision, it makes sense to stick with it and not allow people to commercialify your work.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Joyce Hackett: I get a nice letter from someone every so often telling me how the book changed their life, but I get about one letter a month inviting me to be the featured cellist at some middle school Cello-fest (that was actually the title of the event) in the midwest. At which point I have to write back and tell them I don't play the cello, and they really wouldn't want me to get up there and hack away, onstage. My best letter ever was from my own physician, who said when he'd first started the book he hated the physician in the book, whose also a gigolo and a compulsive liar, but by the end, he had a new model for soulfulness. He told me I was a jewel of our civilization. And ironically, I take much better care of my health since I got that letter. Now, if I have even a sniffle, I get it checked.
Moe: What's your latest book about?
Joyce Hackett: I'm writing one book about a family that lives in the tunnels under Riverside Park and is being displaced by Harlem's gentrification, it is called Manhattanville. I'm writing a second book, Reconstruction, about Frederick Douglass and his white, German-Jewish mistress of 26 years, Ottilie Assing.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Joyce Hackett: Well, I mostly read what I need to know for my fiction. I love diving into a novel, but it happens less than it used to. The more solving of technical problems one has under one's belt, the more a writer thinks as a craftsman and less as an amateur, or lover, of books.
Moe: When you're not writing what do you do for fun?
Joyce Hackett: Walk my dog and paint.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Joyce Hackett: It's like the old joke where the guy with a violin case rushes up to a stranger on 57th Street and asks, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" And the stranger answers, "Practice, practice, practice." I think the only way to write well is to write badly, often, a lot. The difference between the pros and the ams is one simple factor: how hard they work. Meaning, strictly, how many books one reads and how many hours one spends learning the language and writing.
Moe: If you weren't a writer what would you be?
Joyce Hackett: I'm not that stable, so if I weren't a writer, I might be a bag lady or in prison. Who knows, maybe I could have made it through to a normal profession, but I don't think so.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Joyce Hackett: In response, I think I can only tell a joke I heard during the Monica Lewinsky era.
Hillary Clinton, after an illness, dies and goes to heaven, where she meets St. Peter at the gates. Peter says, Hillary, we've been waiting for you. And Hillary says, Peter, great to see you! What is the procedure here and how do I master it? Peter says, Hillary, all you have to do is spell one word. Hillary says, Actually, as you may know, one of my best traits is how accurately I spell. What is the word? And Peter says, "Love". And Hillary says, That's easy! L-o-v-e. Peter says, You're in! Listen, could you watch the gate for a while? I have to go to the bathroom. Sure, Hillary says.
So she's going through the routine with the people in line to get into Heaven, when way back, she sees Bill, glad-handing. And he makes his way up to her, she says, H-Hi, honey... I mean...what are you doing here? And he says, Honey, I never been so happy to see you mah whole laaf. And Hillary says, It's... it's good to see you too, Bill. But... what happened? And he says, blubbering, Hil, I was so broke up after your funeral, I met a nice girl and took her home, and in the car, you know, one thing let to another and I crashed into a tree. Hillary says, Wow. And Bill says, but I'm SO glad to see you. So what's the drill here? Hillary says, It's easy, honey. All you have to do is spell one word. Bill asks, What's the word? Czechoslovakia, says Hillary.
Ok, so it's a silly joke, but the point it makes, other than to comment on the state of their marriage, is that any word can mean anything in context. I love thinking about how that basically factual, neutral word, Czechoslovakia, conveys so much!
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M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario, Canada. If you are going to find this eclectic reader and writer anywhere it is probably at her computer. For more information visit her official website.
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