May 6, 2014 |

Of Food and Fame: Talking with James Hannaham (Part Two)

Last week in Part One of our interview with James Hannaham, we reflected on “High Five,” his work that was recently published in Story. He discussed his inspiration for the piece as well as his ideas of fame and his work following the tragedy of 9/11. This week, we conclude the interview, discussing Hannaham’s new, upcoming novel, Delicious Foods.

STORY: Congratulations on your upcoming new book, Delicious Foods (DF), by the way. I am a big fan of God Says No (GSN), so I am really looking forward to your new work. It is scheduled to be published sometime in 2015 with Little, Brown right? How does it feel to be coming out with a second book? How has your experience been different so far working with Little, Brown on this project versus McSweeney’s?

HANNAHAM: It occurred to me while (endlessly) drafting DF that when you write a first novel, you always know that you’re writing it in part to prove that you can write a novel that someone might publish. The phrase “failed novelist” may haunt you as you work. With the second one, motives are murkier: To prove that you can do it again? To suggest that you could have a career? Because you’re not done saying what you said with the first one? Because you weren’t happy with the first one? As a résumé builder? I can only conclude that this book wanted me to write it maybe a little more than I wanted to write it. I did not think of myself as much this time, in fact, after a certain point, I felt like I owed it to the characters to finish so that people would now hear their (rather horrifying) story.

DF was bought at auction and it’s not my first book, so there have been a lot of differences, starting with the money. I got to choose who I wanted to work with, so I chose Ben George at Little, Brown, partially because he reminded me of Eli Horowitz, the genius who edited GSN. Based on some of the horror stories I’ve heard about people’s publishing experiences, I have been extraordinarily lucky so far. And Kara agreed to do an illustration for the cover, so I am over the moon about that.

STORY: You told us a little bit about DF earlier, the man losing both of his hands and “crack head crews.” Would you be able to share anything else with us at the moment?

HANNAHAM:  DF is the story of a woman and her son who get trapped in a “debt slavery” scam; it’s based on a variety of true accounts of black U.S. citizens who have been enslaved in the South in modern times. It’s not the norm, but it does happen. Some shady growers will take a van to urban areas looking for drug addicts and homeless people and take them very far away from the city, where they can’t escape, and hold them there on threat of violence. They’re told that they owe money for the ride and the nasty accommodations, and they get demerits for bad behavior and trying to escape and petty stuff like that, so that it’s very difficult to get out of the debt. I am still not sure what makes drug addicts and homeless people more attractive to these employers other than that they won’t be missed, and they can be easily controlled and exploited.

Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about.

You can’t make some of this stuff up. I am still totally appalled that they had the balls to name their operation Bulls-Hit Farm!

STORY: Your title for this new book is great by the way—Delicious Foods. I feel like titles are a very important and sometimes overlooked aspect of writing because they need to draw readers’ attention and give a hint to at least some aspect of the story without spelling everything out. You have done this so well in the past with “High Five” and God Says No, how do you come up with titles for your works?

HANNAHAM: It might have something to do with the fact that I’ve been in journalism so long, writing headlines and coming up with pithy ways to compress ideas; it might also have something to do with the fact that I procrastinate a lot while I work, and in some of the moments of procrastination, I do things like change the font or make long lists of potential titles, which actually means that I’m not technically procrastinating. And aside from the fact that Delicious Foods is the name of the horrible company that exploits its workers in the book, that really is how you and I experience that exploitation every day, by eating delicious foods. The phrase implies a pernicious power relationship that not only are the workers in the story trapped in, but the consumers of whatever fruit they pick also participate in, when they remain ignorant of the working conditions that have brought produce to their tables. My hope is that the phrase will never seem quite as innocuous afterward to anyone who reads the book.

STORY: Lastly, I am always interested in how people write, such as their writing rituals or tendencies. So I would like to know, what is your writing method like? Where do you write? Are you strictly a behind-the-desk type of person or do you write on the go?

HANNAHAM: I’m a binge-and-purge type; I don’t write every day because I’m sort of particular about my environment. I know that I can get better results if I have no distractions and complete silence, so the best things for my writing are wearing earplugs and leaving New York City. Third best is coffee. Once I get going, though, I can work for many hours of a given day, which would not go over so well at home. I have been to too many residencies, so I know how good working conditions can be, and it seems dumb to settle for less, though I often have to.

I wrote a lot of DF while lying down. I think it started because I was at a residency during the summer in a room that would overheat uncontrollably b/c of its giant windows, but it was connected to a linen closet that had an A/C vent but no chairs, so I would go in there to get cool and lie down. Then for some reason—maybe I felt like I got better stuff while lying down?—I started to lie down on purpose. I interviewed the artist William Pope. L at one point, and he had a really interesting take on the cultural meaning(s) of verticality vs. horizontality that may have influenced me in some way; I did think about what he’d said more than once.

Read Part One of the Interview

Read an excerpt of “High Five,” featured in Story Issue 1, Side B

Buy Story #1

James Hannaham, author of the novel God Says No (McSweeney’s), has published stories in One StoryFenceOpen CityThe Literary Review, and BOMB. For a long time he has contributed to the Village Voice and other publications. He was one of the co-founders of the performance group Elevator Repair Service and worked with them from 1992–2002. More recently he has exhibited text-based visual art at Samsøn Projects, Rosalux Gallery, and 490 Atlantic. His hopefully upcoming second novel is called Delicious Foods. He teaches creative writing at The Pratt Institute and Columbia University. His story “High Five” appeared in Story #1, side B.

Tracy Chopek is a soon-to-be graduating senior Professional Writing Major at York College of Pennsylvania with a minor in Psychology. Outside of Story, Tracy is highly involved on the college campus and participates in the YCP fellowing/writing tutor program, Peer Support Network, and Improv Club. This is Tracy’s first semester as an editorial assistant at Story.