A World That Was Not the World: A Conversation with Laird Hunt
By Sean McCoyJune 8, 2023
This Wide Terraqueous World: Essays in Fiction by Laird Hunt
The piece “Climb the Whale,” for instance, uses a personal narrative about a pair of jeans as a jumping-off point for the inclusion of an imaginary story about two gunmen in Colorado, itself spliced with a detour into the history of whaling. The overall effect is a blending of seemingly disparate literary forms and walks of life, through which the varied forces of memory and capitalism tangle across time and space—overconsumption of spermaceti, Western expansion, the threads of one’s ancestors—in a fine dendritic pattern. Other essays explore Hunt’s past, meditate on writers and their works, and examine the nature of photography and ruins. In the midst of today’s fixation on the ways that autofiction exploits biography, Hunt’s is a book concerned with how autobiography can avail itself of fiction: its techniques, its past exemplars (W. G. Sebald, Willa Cather, László Krasznahorkai, Juan Rulfo), and the manner in which truth emerges from the slippages between genres. “[M]y life is rich in experiences and vivid emotions, but I don’t ever want to publish an autobiography,” wrote Clarice Lispector. For Hunt, the sentiment is the same.
Our conversation, conducted at Hunt’s dining room table over excellent takeout, covered all the above, with special attention paid to the bafflement of photographs, the form of the haibun, his late grandmother, things that are beside the point, Nachlass, flares from the past, sentence craft, poetry, that time after college when he almost joined the CIA, and his 2003 novel Indiana, Indiana—an earlier companion to Zorrie, now republished in a 20th anniversary edition.
SEAN McCOY: I was struck by the way that dreams appear in This Wide Terraqueous World. For instance, you quote Burroughs: “I was afraid some day the dream would still be there when I woke up.” Later, you write: “Photographs are staging grounds for great dreams.” And then there are your recurring dreams of being underwater, unable to breathe. Is there a relationship between your dreams and your writing?
LAIRD HUNT: The interest in dreams is long-standing. I think if you went back to my very first scribblings, dreams were there—a sort of haunting that surrounds. Crossing paths with works like Aurelia by Gérard de Nerval—who said something like, “Dreams are a second life”—and others was very helpful to me. As was encountering the way that Sebald writes dreams in his great prose works, like The Rings of Saturn; he narrates them as if he hasn’t stopped describing the waking life.
I recall reading somewhere—or perhaps I heard this in an interview on PennSound—that Bernadette Mayer, a friend of your family who appears in this book, loved to ask her guests to recount their dreams. She would even hold these dream salons with her family each morning.
I’m blessed to live with two people, my daughter, Eva, and partner, Eleni, who remember their dreams in enviable detail. They both frequently have lengthy, vivid dream lines. As a matter of fact, just three mornings ago, I heard a long dream from Eva that my phantom self had played some small part in. Then Eleni came over and told me her long dream, 20 minutes later. I, meanwhile, have become someone who, when it comes to dreams, remembers only shards. Fragments. Images. I cannot narrate my own dreams because I can’t remember them.
According to This Wide Terraqueous World, Bernadette Mayer thought you were in the CIA. You write that she was joking, but the joke seemed to linger …
Ha—that’s right. I forget who first told her that I had gone through most of the recruitment process in place in the 1980s with the CIA. Probably I myself had, on one of those marvelous long evenings of gossip and drinks in our early days as writers in New York. And I did come pretty close! But then I stepped away in favor of teaching English in Japan and trying to figure out being a writer. Later, once I arrived in New York, I got a job at the United Nations. Every day I would ride my bike up to 42nd Street and sail back down and arrive at one of the endless poetry readings, say at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, wearing a suit and with my UN ID card blowing in the wind. Bernadette would have seen me from time to time at those events as well. It became a running joke, a point of connection—Bernadette and her little suspicion—and I was all for having any point of connection with Bernadette Mayer.
You were going to Poetry Project readings. You’re married to a poet, Eleni. I know that many poets have been dear in your life. Can you speak to their influence on your novels? It seems to me that poems often hover around the edges and in intervals of your larger prose works. I’m thinking of the interludes in Kind One, or how the certain sections of Indiana, Indiana suddenly disperse across the field of the page.
Basically, I wouldn’t be a writer of any kind if it hadn’t been for poetry. Early on, I marveled over Susan Howe’s word piles in Singularities; I read Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” and My Life by Lyn Hejinian; I read both Ted Berrigan’s and Bernadette’s sonnets; I read The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley and Park by Cole Swensen. I’ve always been interested in form, in container. Poetry offered me a glimpse of what really interesting work, work writhing with life, could look like—how it could be made. How I might productively spill out of my received notions of what a story or novel should be.
Do you feel like this interest in the container is related to your fondness for short novels—a form that’s more compressed, perhaps something whose scope better permits you to focus on the sentence?
I’m kind of a sentence drunk. Baudelaire has that great exhortation in his prose poems to be drunk: on wine, poetry, or virtue (whatever). You could say my enduring inebriant of choice is the sentence. And I’m still trying to figure it out, right? With everything the word implies: you’ve got to do your time. But it’s also making me think of—when you mentioned short novels—how even before I went to Naropa, where I got an MFA, I spent that time teaching English in Japan, and I got super interested in Japanese literature. And I thought for a long time that the most glorious form I had come across—the best possible way to get it done—was the haibun, that prose-poetry hybrid, as in The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Bashō. Yasunari Kawabata’s great short novel Snow Country was a kind of variant.
On the topic of sentences, you published an essay some years ago in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, in which you quote Clark Coolidge: “In my skull is an avenue I stroke.” You then go on to say: “It seems likely I might be alone in seeing in these eight words, words ripped right out of their contexts, a possible model for narrative.” Does that image still animate you?
I’ve always been interested in what can be pulled, teased, cajoled, or yanked out of something—whether it’s a grouping of evocative words, like Coolidge’s avenue, or something a little longer. Georges Perec talked about the infra-ordinary, those very small things that we pass by every day without a second glance. But that writers like Perec or Clarice Lispector, especially in her “crônicas,” extract whole relative universes from. Robert Walser was another great one for seeing worlds in grains of sand. Susan Howe says somewhere, possibly in My Emily Dickinson, “Who will speak for what is beside the point?” I’ve always been really interested in this territory. Maybe that’s why I go around taking pictures of lost gloves and the contents of gutters and stuff.
Photographs, like poems, tend to lurk at the edges of your novels. They appear in the second half of Kind One. They frame the text of your early chapbook Snow Country. They’re filed at the end of This Wide Terraqueous World. I wonder if photography is related to what you elsewhere call your interest in Nachlass—that which is left behind?
Well, you know, if you do this writing thing for any length of time—and especially if you’ve smeared it out across the decades—you realize that already the earliest books you bought as fresh young paperbacks are starting to yellow, as are your earliest notes and manuscripts and the photos you took. It’s a Nachlass in the making. An impending Nachlass. To me, it’s heady, even intoxicating (there I go with the getting drunk again) stuff. All you have to do is pay a visit to great writers and book collectors, like Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, or go over to a favorite used bookstore, like Paper Nautilus here in town, to catch a whiff of what I’m talking about. It’s the greatest smell in the world. Like cosmic mulch. In what ways do we own our own mortality? This feels like one of them. The writer and weaver Claire Crews recently helped me get this great old edition of Montaigne, in Charles Cotton’s translation, and it is crumbling in this way that appeals to me hugely, that feels, well, both exciting and right. There’s a photograph over there [points to a wall in his kitchen] of a turquoise tissue paper packet that I took in a gutter in Paris a dozen years ago. The packet was just lying there waiting for the trash collectors, but now its echo hangs on the wall.
In one of these essays, considering such objects, images, memories, you write: “What I was supposed to solve by gathering clues was unclear.”
For me, it’s always been the highest satisfaction—and I have had the greatest sense of urgency—when I’m in the magma of a piece of writing. When I’m in the hot, messy middle of it. When whatever is being extracted from eight words or a found photograph or one I’ve taken or whatever else is not yet fully clear to me. I tend to lose that deep emotional interest in something when I’m starting to wrap, to approach the ending. As soon as I start to figure stuff out, to maybe see some uppercase eventuality, I get terminally bored. I’m reminded here of Jacques Roubaud, who said, in a short film I saw at the Centre Pompidou many years ago: “When someone asks me what a poem means, I repeat the poem.” To hell with the paraphrase!
I’m thinking of your photographs again.
One thing that has never changed is my sense that I don’t know what I’m supposed to be seeing when I look at a photograph. Of course, when I look at a photograph of someone I love or knew in the past, I’m not immune to that recognition. But beyond that kind of, you know, relational quality, I find it hard, even baffling. And I think that that fundamental inability to fully engage or connect with photographs and yet be attracted by and interested in them has kept me coming back.
In “UN Story,” you’re reading a novel by Jane Bowles, back when you were working for the UN in Palermo. You describe her novel as spilling out into the world around you, the “texture of a world that was not the world,” a double exposure, to use the language of photography. And in another piece, there’s a scene in which you, today, are visiting a mechanic in Providence and simultaneously playing video games as a kid in your grandmother’s Indiana farmhouse. Are there certain places in your life where you feel close to another world, a shadow world?
One of my great joys is to walk in cities. The bigger, the stranger, the better. And it’s partly because one encounters so many different types of things—things that your eyes just graze over, that your nose just catches a whiff of, that your ears just partially register (even when, as in places like New York, they are objectively extremely loud). And others that cause all your senses to immediately fire. The French translation of my third novel, The Exquisite, was New York no. 2 because it contains two versions of the city that inform but don’t explain each other. I suppose taking photos as I go, or doing the currently much-in-vogue “field recording,” or stopping to write down some outrageous piece of vernacular I’ve just heard, is a way of trying to probe this shadow world that, for me at least, opens itself up more readily in cities than it does elsewhere.
You’ve written a number of historical novels. I’m curious about your relationship to history. Maybe I can prime you with a handful of quotes?
Okay, go for it.
First, at the outset of This Wide Terraqueous World: “History is fiction. Fiction is history.”
Later: “The past is impressionist, the present realist, and the future abstract.”
And in that essay in Biting the Error, you quote Adorno, who argues that a strict adherence to realism actually, paradoxically, undermines our perception of reality:
The more strictly the novel adheres to realism in external things, to the gesture that says “this is how it was,” the more every word becomes a mere “as if,” and the greater becomes the contradiction between this claim and the fact that it was not so.
Do you feel an aesthetic inclination toward historical fiction—perhaps because of a preference for impressionism?
When I’ve thought about the past, it has most often been with a sense of confusion. Partly because I was largely raised by someone, my grandmother, who was enamored of what went before but not necessarily inclined to narrate it. It seemed like a shooting-off of flares or a tossing-up of glittering and sometimes very sharp shards. And that made it a space for invention, for surmise, for supposition. The elements were there. Strong feeling was there. But she wasn’t clearing her throat, taking a deep breath, and telling long stories about it all. And the details sometimes shifted. Things were left out, and other things took their place. The push-and-pull between fiction and nonfiction, the imagination and memory, was present practically every time we sat down to dinner and she began to talk about her father and her grandfather and her mother and her grandmother and what she and her younger sister had gotten up to on some long-ago day in their youth. That experience of the past as a space of mystery, and the way it might be engaged with, or indeed had to be engaged with, laid an enduring number on me.
It’s present for the character of the elder brother in “Climb the Whale,” who visits his father’s birthplace in Norway and learns that his father’s stories from that place never occurred.
That was so important, that moment of partial recognition when he makes his return—to a place he’s never been—and sees where his brutal father grew up and learns that no teacher named Master Pedersen ever existed. These altered bits of story, of the past, don’t take away from a story’s truth value. They just transform it and possibly into something marvelous. It’s in these small changes, the fine textures of change—to borrow from and warp Henry James—where, to me, the exciting business on the page gets done.
In another piece, you write, “I tend to be uninspired by eventualities.” Is there something about history that speaks to this feeling—maybe that avoidance of “wrap” you mentioned earlier—even though, in some ways, history is the eventuality?
This links back to the notion of the past as impressionist, and to dreams. To me, history has always been a space and occasion for dreaming, of tremendous wondering and longing. And sadness and beauty—all of those things that my work in the present contends with. And all things that are becoming, rather than ending.
Laird Hunt is the author of Zorrie, which was a 2021 finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. He has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Fiction, the Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine, and Italy’s Bridge Award.
Sean McCoy grew up in Arizona and received his MFA in literary arts from Brown University. He edits Contra Viento, a journal for art and literature from rangelands.
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