April 28, 2014 |

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

God Says No

Later you would call it an accident, when the guests found you in the kitchen bleeding into the duck confit. When that didn’t work, you blamed me, just to save your own skin. Yet we know the truth, don’t we? And when we hear your confession, my name will be cleared once and for all, and the weight of your two enormous egos will no longer oppress me.

– from “High Five”

James Hannaham’s writing draws attention to the parts of society that so often go unnoticed, ignored—those that get left to the wayside or swept under the rug. My first introduction to his work was his piece in Story, “High Five.” Loving that, I went on to read his debut novel, God Says No. These stories seemed fresh and honest, new approaches to subjects such as religion and ambition that I had not previously considered; I knew Hannaham was someone interesting I wanted to interview. I contacted him via email and we carried out the interview through a flurry of keys and blocks of text during March of this year.

STORY: First, I have to say how much I enjoyed your piece, “High Five,” in our first issue of Story. It was one of my personal favorites from this issue. One of the things I found interesting about “High Five,” was that at times it reminded me of shows and movies like Toddlers and Tiaras and Mean Girls that draw attention to our society’s obsession with body image, beauty, and perfection. Would you care to speak about that a bit?

JAMES HANNAHAM: I suppose that “Habit Patterns” has many of the qualities that you mentioned, but to think of it as having been influenced by the particular shows/movies you mentioned would be anachronistic. Not only is “High Five” based on a movie from 1954, I wrote the first draft of the story in 2001 to make myself laugh after 9/11. Maybe this helps to prove that our obsession with body image, beauty, and perfection in the USA is eternal!

STORY: Reading “High Five” in relation to some of your other writing—such as your debut novel, God Says No (GSN)—I have noticed that your pieces tend to focus on people, ideas, or situations that are not typically discussed or widely written about. Where did you find inspiration for your writing a story about, well, hand modeling, among other things? Or about Gary Gray’s identity struggles in your novel? Do you feel you seek out the unattended subjects for your fiction?

HANNAHAM: One of the main inspirations for the story was a behavioral corrective film from 1954 called “Habit Patterns.” For a while I was obsessed with the Prelinger Archive (I still sort of am), a treasure trove of instructional films of the sort that one might be forced to watch during a rainy day recess period in grade school, collected by a guy named Rick Prelinger. Most of the films were later moved to archive.org. Spend some time there, I guarantee it will ruin your life for a while.

“Habit Patterns” is the tale of a disorganized girl named Barbara, growing up in an upper middle class suburb, it would seem (not a lot of these films are so specific to class, and the ones that are directed at people with first world problems have a midcentury quaintness and irrelevance now that I find hilarious).The film is narrated by an unseen woman whose voiceover castigates Barbara mercilessly for the entire cautionary tale. Essentially, Barbara goes to school (late) with dirty fingernails and a stain on her sweater that she hides (inefficiently) with a scarf. It turns out that Anne Tolliver, a hoity-toity popular girl from school, is having a rather adult party that afternoon, to which Barbara and a friend get invited. But Barbara’s habits, which in addition to sloppiness include social awkwardness and not reading popular books, turn her experience into a total disaster. Apparently Barbara has the wherewithal to recognize how badly things have gone (a transformation the film doesn’t show us) and so she ends up weeping alone in her bedroom, vowing to put her clothes on hangers overnight because it “rests the fabric.”

In the midst of my obsession with this campy short film, I realized that it breaks one of the supposedly cardinal rules of storytelling: “Don’t judge your characters.” All the voiceover does is judge, judge, judge! And yet I found it utterly compelling: the voiceover has the opposite of its intended effect—you’re not supposed to identify with Barbara or feel sympathy for her, you’re supposed to be on the side of the judgy narrator and the bitchy friends and feel better about yourself for not having Barbara’s bad habits. But since the 1960s, we’ve all became more Barbaraesque, and the narrator’s strategy for social improvement fell out of favor almost completely.

So I looked for a way to replicate this broken rule of narration in a story. I’d been writing a lot of profiles of musicians and actors at the time (Jewel, Alanis Morrissette, Mary J. Blige, etc.) and I was thinking a lot about fame and how emptily people pursued it, or more accurately, how it pursued them and they seemed to think they wanted it but had only one happy idea about how and why it had happened and how it could turn out for them (actually I should mention some of the totally not-famous-now people I interviewed, because at least those 3 women were canny about the whole game. I’m talking the band Honkey Toast, Eagle-Eye Cherry, MJ Cole, etc.). I’m not sure why I decided that Tiffany should be a part model. I dated a couple of guys in the 90s who had entree into the fashion world, and when I found out that there was such a job as a part model, I remember being amused when I considered whether someone could become famous as a part model—it seemed to me as if one could become famous for nearly anything at the time, especially if it was completely insubstantial. The upscale black Westchester context was one I thought I could represent; I grew up lower middle class black trash in Yonkers and I had recently read Lawrence Otis Graham’s book Our Kind of People (1999). Though we were more like the black version of Barbara, my sister and I knew of and often made fun of Graham in high school, long before he wrote anything. We knew him from the Yonkers chapter of an NAACP organization called ACT-SO that encouraged black youth to compete in various artistic and academic categories. They trotted him out to give encouraging speeches to the youth, but we thought he was kind of a stuffed shirt.

I love your phrase “unattended subjects,” by the way. I suppose I myself have felt like an “unattended subject” more often than not, due to my “double minority” status as a black gay man. Maybe there is something deeply ingrained that attracts me to subjects that are obvious, ongoing, and overlooked, to use 3 words that begin with O. With (GSN), a lot of the things that happen to Gary are stories I heard from gay people that made me say, “Really? Didn’t we do this already? WTF?” And my next book, DeliciousFoods (DF), is about a black American woman who gets entrapped in slavery on a farm in the South. In the 1990s! It’s based on a variety of true accounts of people who worked for no pay on what they call “crack head crews.” So there’s that.

STORY:  One of the most exciting things about “High Five” is the roller-coaster ride experience of reading it, how the reader gets pushed and pulled a few different ways in terms of the reality of what is going on—until the end of course. Did you stumble upon this form drafting, or was it there from the beginning?

HANNAHAM: I drafted “High Five” fairly quickly; it was foremost an ecstatic outburst. I’m pretty sure I was thinking of the ending before I started out. What I wanted mostly was to adopt that nasty, campy, haughty voice and live in it for a while. Then as I drafted, it occurred to me the context in which the narrator might be telling the story, and unlike “Habit Patterns,” I decided to let the reader know the narrator’s relationship to the tale.

STORY: The “Habit Patterns” film portrays a more dated era of American society with vastly different concerns and manners. With that in mind I feel compelled to ask how you, a writer from a more modern time, came across this film or even this site?

HANNAHAM: I’ve been a reviewer for many years, and that means I get a lot of random stuff in the mail. Sometime around 1996 I was getting CD-ROMs from a company called Voyager, one of which was called Our Secret Century, a compilation of a variety of great instructional films from bygone eras that Rick Prelinger had collected. I’m pretty sure that’s when I first became aware of the archive. But when I was in grade school, we did watch a lot of these kinds of films, the 1970s versions, during recess on rainy days. I guess not long after CD-ROMs went the way of digital audio tape, I realized that much of the archive had moved online, and it proceeded to eat my life.

STORY:  You mentioned that the idea for “High Five” came about, in part, from your reflections on people and fame. Have you ever considered fame for yourself—what it would be like if you could be renowned on the same level as Tiffany? Would you still want to teach?

HANNAHAM: Well, it’s Tatiana who becomes famous, not Tiffany! I think I am afraid of Tiffany’s dilemma, of becoming a fame-grubbing wannabe who has no idea that her real strengths lie in a different place than where she has directed all her energy. Or I used to be afraid of that. I have a much more Bayesian acceptance of where my talents lie and how to use my limitations to their best advantage now. Publishing a first novel also relieves anxiety. A few of the lines in the story, though, I still feel were directed as much at myself as Tiffany, particularly the line, “Oh, Tiffany, the price one pays in dignity while scrambling toward a destiny in which only she has faith!”

I’ve interviewed a slew of famous people, and I’ve watched a couple of people become famous, or at least gain a certain cult status. I have an art-famous cousin (Kara Walker). So I can’t say I’ve never imagined what notoriety would be like, but I also don’t have many illusions about it. I’m only interested in fame to the extent that it could make my career more sustainable. It’s rough for writer/teacher types. I’ve been on the job market for about 8 years now. I’m 45. If I can leverage fame into an IRA account, then bring it on, baby! I probably would still want to teach, if only to get out of the house now and then. There’s also no guarantee that fame would come with money attached, or that the money wouldn’t run out. So maybe I would still have to teach!

And it would be literary fame, anyway—with art-fame and lit-fame in the US it seems you get to keep much of your privacy. Kara was one of Glamour’s women of the year in 2008 and I heard that the paparazzi gave each other confused looks when she came down the carpet for the ceremony, like, ‘Do we photograph her?’ To paraphrase Gore Vidal, saying you’re a famous novelist nowadays is like saying you’re a famous ceramicist.

STORY:  You said you wrote “High Five” to make yourself laugh after the tragedy of 9/11, could you speak more about yourself at that time? Did that event have any other effects on your writing? How, at such a chaotic and turbulent time, did you find yourself able to write a story so detached from such grave concerns?

HANNAHAM: I think I’d started it before 9/11 but its loopiness really took shape right afterward.

I never doubted for a moment that art would go on, but people started to say of frivolous work, “That’s so September 10th.” Still, it was too soon to write directly about the tragedy; the first 9/11 books did not arrive for a few years yet (except for Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me, which eerily presaged the events and came out that month!) The huge plot point in the middle of GSN was actually inspired by stories I heard about people who’d been in the towers and used the tragedy to fake their deaths and run away from their lives.

I don’t think the story’s detached (so to speak) from grave concerns. Tiffany is deeply engaged in an existential struggle with her identity. She believes herself to be one sort of person but finds out that not only is she another sort of person, that person has a life of its own. A more fabulous life than hers! So she resorts to violence in order to resolve this internal conflict, which is clearly a big mistake. There’s something a bit 9/11-ish about her methodology, no?

I have a thing about hands, apparently—the new book is partially about someone who loses both of his hands—I guess since they’re so important to writing. I suppose losing them represents one of the biggest problems I could imagine for myself, aside from losing my mind. I guess Tiffany does a little of both.

The biggest effect that 9/11 had on my writing was that it inspired me to get the hell out of Dodge and go to graduate school and get an MFA. I was having trouble getting by as a freelance writer, New York was chock full o’ tension, and I’d heard that there were good schools in warm places that actually paid you to go to them. So I wound up at the Michener Center in Austin. And in the words of Frost, “that has made all the difference.”


Read Part Two of the Interview

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.