Introduction to the Interview
by Alexis E Santí, Editor in Chief
I FIRST MET CARA HOFFMAN AT A COFFEE SHOP IN MY HOMETOWN OF ITHACA, NEW YORK. We talked about books and things. We exchanged some very funny emails thereafter. An odd thing happened though on my way to getting to know Hoffman. I discovered a writer that was shockingly talented. She gave me some of her short stories, each more beautiful than the last. I’d never solicited another writer since the premiere issue of Our Stories and decided I should. We published her short story “Waking” in the Spring of 2007, we have her short story “The Paragrapher” for this issue, fittingly four years later. To give you a sense of the way she responded to that first publication she told me she thought I was nuts. I’m glad that she was wrong.
Here’s what I can tell you about Cara Hoffman. She cares deeply about matters of justice, the environment. Trained as a journalist she comes to writing from a position not of showy postmodern tricks but of accuracy in rendering imagery and conveying a story. There is something about her writing though, something uncanny that I have come to observe as an innate sense in command of language. She has a force about the way she puts things that is almost intimidating to read. It is as if in every sentence she is daring you to second-guess her word choice. Don’t believe me though, The New York Times said of her work, “For all the passion in this intense narrative, Hoffman writes with a restraint that makes poetry of pain” and of So Much Pretty (the novel that is now published by Simon & Schuster) the New Yorker said, “delivers a skillful, psychologically acute tale of how violence affects a small town, its tentacles enmeshed so deeply into the collective fabric that it takes the thoughts and actions of one intelligent adolescent to shake things up and force everyone to examine their duplicitous complacency”
Hoffman’s novel, So Much Pretty is not easily summed up. To say that it is a novel about social justice would be to put it too mildly. To call it a summation of the critique of the small town life would also be a disservice. It is a much larger more powerful novel than all that. The novel weaves a tapestry of characters: men, women young and old, horribly disconnected almost all disempowered and broken. The main thread of the story involves a woman whose rape, kidnapping and murder stands for the main plot of the story, I believe Hoffman’s novel strives for something larger. In a sense, the entire community is being “raped” by institutions that neither employ, protect nor nurture the populace. At one point the reporter in the novel angrily shouts that the main employer is not the city’s prized agribusiness (run by a wealthy family in town) but that the main employer is one of the big box stores Home Depot, a sort of sad fact that most small towns. In addition, there are some very painfully wrought sections where one character writes a series of letters to a friend explaining why he has to continue to work for a pharmaceutical company that is poisoning the community. All of the characters here feel compromised, some without self-acualization. Make no mistake, the mystery of what happened to the woman whose body is found in the first few pages is where our gaze continues to return but Hoffman is smarter than that, more audacious and unflinching.
The subsequent failure of all the institutions is where she takes her strongest aim; to either the system of patriarchy that puts the misuse of women as a right of power and passage, or to the small communities that turn a blind eye to injustice and acceptance of violence. Her articulation of the all too common failings of the law that should have protected a woman from being raped and murdered and the inability of a justice system to pursue rapists are powerfully rendered. Finally, she exposes pathetic impotence–in allowing a two tier system of justice to exist–and its placating nature, which has allowed sociopathic corporate interests to usurp our health, rights and our very way of life. Hoffman’s novel does not play a single pathetic chord though to let us off the hook. It does not give up and rely on simple conjecture to intellectually process what is wrong with society. Cara Hoffman’s book raises a calculated gun to this evil, stares straight at it and then pulls the damn trigger.
Interview conducted by Alexis E. Santí via email
It’s amazing having talked to you about the process of writing So Much Pretty from its early initial stages to now seeing it in print. It is as if I have been in the lucky position of watching a dream come true. Tell me what it is like being you these days, how has this process changed your life?
Publishing So Much Pretty didn’t really change my writing life. I wrote every day before the book came out and I write every day now. But selling So Much Pretty changed things for me in a big way, enabled me to leave a limiting environment and move to New York, sell another novel and work on a number of collaborative projects. The things I’m happiest about are being able to write all day, not ever having to drive again, living close to my friends and colleagues. Biking along East River Park, swimming at the Chinatown Y, teaching at the Girls Club, hanging out with my kid, and having Sunday dinners with my brother and sister-in-law who live a few blocks away. It’s very relaxing and exciting at the same time. I love it here. New York has changed my life.
Your novel speaks truth to power and expresses a sense of justice seeking in reaction to a senseless murder of a woman. In the social justice community there is a term for such murders as Femicide: a term that allows us to frame the deaths of women simply because they are women, that if the sex of the victim was male the crime would have not occurred. Do you have any thoughts about the language of crimes and how we as a society use language in the media and press?
Sure. Of course. I think language has an enormous impact on how we think. The answer is too long to really get into here but I suggest folks read George Orwell’s essays on Nationalism and Freedom and The English Language. The same aesthetics that apply to dehumanizing language that is applied when talking about war is used when talking about gender.
What role does your social and political ideology have on your writing?
I would say there’s no real separation between a person’s ideology and her spirit.
Which writers have been the biggest influence on your writing and what work do you believe hasn’t received the attention it deserves?
Louis Ferdinand Celine, without a doubt influenced my writing and I think anyone who hasn’t read Journey to the End of the Night or Death on the Installment Plan should do it. And David Wojnarowicz is another. Close to the Knives is a masterpiece. I also love Zora Neale Hurston. All three of these authors are very very funny and deadly serious about the issues.
On page 85 you wrote, from the perspective of the character Flynn, the reporter who guides us through the novel, “I honestly believed articles in the newspaper could change the way the world worked. And that meant I could change the way the world worked. And that’s not the healthiest thought for a human being to have.” Do you believe novels can change the world?
No. I really don’t. And similar to Flynn’s feelings about reporting I think it’s dangerous to entertain these kinds of conceits. The influence of literature is limited. Direct action is what changes the world.
Can you tell us something about your writing process? When do you write, mornings and or nights?
I like to write for long blocks of time, so a twelve or fifteen hour stretch is about perfect. That usually goes from morning to night or the other way around depending on what time of day I start.
Part of your novel seems to be a critique on the middle class movement to get off the grid, the reverse migration from cities to the counties of America. Gene and Claire are looked as the perpetual outsiders inside of the town of Haeden, and you have numerous exchanges that people reflect on both the couple, Flynn as an outsider as well but I think it is best stated on page 124 “Why Gene believed he could “live the alternative” in order to convert people to organic farming. But that lived alternative was subsidized by wages coming from a pharmaceutical company Gene wasn’t willing to work for himself. How was that sustainable?” Are you out to kill this dream before it really got off the ground?
Back to land is one of the most arrogant and willfully naïve “political” tendencies I’ve had the displeasure of seeing up close. I use political in quotes because it’s really a lifestyle trend of the privileged. Back to the land is an alternative to nothing. And the fact that it failed miserably in the 60’s and 70’s doesn’t dissuade the educated failures of the chattering classes from flocking to the hinterland with a messianic gleam in their eyes, ready to save the world with heirloom tomatoes.
There’s plenty of musical references in your novel whether it is MC5 or Iggy Pop, what’s on your playlist these days?
The Clash. It seems everything gets back to The Clash in the end. I love Joe Strummer’s voice. When I was a teenager I wanted to marry him. I was heartbroken when he died. I like the Pixies. I like the way Frank Black can manifest a kind of incredulous, offended, gleeful shriek when he sings. What else do I listen to? LCD Sound System, Crystal Castles, stuff my kid gives me which is all generally inspiring, but honestly I mostly listen to opera and the Estonian composer Arvo Part, whose choral compositions are crushingly beautiful. So square when you get right down to it.
Our Stories has a humanistic submission model where we give feedback to every short story that we receive. What do you think about this model for a literary journal?
I think it’s brilliant. And really helps folks who are writing outside of the MFA model.
You were previously a journalist, how do you feel your writing was shaped from your previous career?
I had a good idea what day to day life was like for the character Stacy Flynn—a reporter who moved from a daily in a mid-sized city to a small town weekly. I think the way being a reporter shaped my writing has a lot to do with discipline. As a rule I don’t miss deadlines and I very rarely get distracted. Those are things you learn by doing. Reporting made it possible for me to write and file under any emotional circumstances. And to pay attention to the obvious, to the details.
What’s next for your writing and for So Much Pretty?
I’m working on a novel about a woman coming home from a tour of duty in Iraq.
Final question: who do you write for?
Ah, that’s an easy one. My son, E. I started writing fiction seriously when he was six months old. I did it because I had no education and no job and believed it would be a way I could support us. Writing didn’t pay off until he was in high school. And thank god it did. I’d have hated for him to think you can’t succeed in the arts and you have to study something practical. That would have been a bad example.
Thank you Cara.
CARA HOFFMAN is the author of So Much Pretty. Hoffman grew up in an economically depressed town in upstate New York, the home of two maximum security prisons. She dropped out of high school, bought a one-way ticket to London with her savings, and spent the next three years writing and working as an agricultural laborer and runner in Europe and the Middle East.
| Our Stories Literary Journal, Inc. © 2006 |