Jim Hanas is the author of Cassingle: Five Stories (2009) and Single: Two Stories (2006), two e-book collections of short stories that previously appeared in McSweeney’s, Fence, One Story, The Land-Grant College Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn and online at jimhanas.com.
Q (Meg Pokrass): What story or book do you feel closest to?
Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is, to me, the perfect piece of fiction. It is dark, grotesque, hilarious, and it delivers an unsettling feeling all its own. It is also spellbindingly clever. From the vernacular letters to Miss Lonelyhearts at the beginning, to the absurdity of sticking the protagonist with his pen name throughout–well, I just love it. I read it again and again, and I get excited when I see an old edition of it with a cover I haven’t seen before (paired, as always, with the also fine The Day of the Locust). That said, there are a few other things I turn to for inspiration that aren’t fiction. I think Paddy Chayefsky’s movie Network is a great example of how to lead an audience gently away from reality and into absurdity. Gay Talese’s classic magazine article “Mr. Bad News“–a profile of Times obit writer Alden Whitman–is a model of restraint. And Errol Morris’s documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control–with its slow accretion of meaning and awe–is a good place to start if you want to show and not tell. All of these are touchstones I return to when I think about what I’m trying to do.
How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”
After years of trying and failing, resolving and lapsing, having time and not having time, here’s what works for me: One half hour, before work, every business day. I’m never going to be an eight-, six-, or even four-hour-a-day writer. I simply can’t take it. I’ve had unlimited time available to me before and I used it poorly. I once played golf in the punishing Memphis heat every day for an entire summer just to avoid writing. (I hadn’t played before and I haven’t played since.) For me at least, consistency is more important than quantity. You’ve got to buy into the stories you’re writing, and to do that, you’ve got to check-in with them every day. Do I do this? Sometimes. I’ve also come to accept that trying and failing is part of the deal.
What are your favorite websites?
Answering this makes me realize what a faithless web-surfer I’ve become. While I used to read a lot of sites and blogs regularly, I now rely on Twitter and Facebook to churn up the good stuff. Does this work? How would I know if it didn’t? But I did make a concerted effort a few years ago to pull back my attention–to let go of keeping up with the news cycles and the RSS feeds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m zealously pro-technology–between work and play I’m probably online 90 percent of my waking hours–but I can’t keep up with everything, so I’ve stopped trying. This second, I’m a big fan of Feedbooks–one of several e-book publishing sites out there. I’ve tried them all, I think, and I like Feedbooks’ Twitter-like simplicity.
What are you working on now?
I just released a second e-book collection of five stories, Cassingle–which includes work that previously appeared in McSweeney’s, Fence, and elsewhere–and now I’m considering projects for the spring. I first released an e-book, 2006’s Single, as sort of an experiment. Then, earlier this year, I serialized a new story online, “The Arab Bank,” and played around with using Google Maps and Street View to enhance the story. My intention, moving forward, is to do two projects like this a year, whether it’s an e-book or some other form of online storytelling.
I know fiction writers like to curse the Internet as a distraction that keeps them from their work, but I like to tinker as much as I like to write (did I mention I once played golf for a whole summer to avoid writing?) and I now see the tinkering as part of the work. In fact, the immediacy of digital publishing–the knowledge that there’s an audience (however small) ready to read what I write–has lent new urgency to my writing process. Traditional publishing via literary journals makes the writer/reader relationship seem abstract and remote–especially in time. Maybe I’m just impatient, but it seems to me that digital publishing has the potential to bring that relationship back to life.
If you had a prop that you carried with you every day, what would it be?
I have such a prop–my new iPhone. I finally realized that not having one while championing e-books constituted professional malpractice.
What advice would give to aspiring writers?
To avoid golf.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.