Charles Bice and I sent a few questions to Then We Saw the Flames author Daniel A. Hoyt, and the next thing you know, I’m considering booking a trip to Dresden, enrolling in the MFA programme at Kansas State University, and have bought a hundred dollars’ worth of books. Thanks, Dan, and just let me know where to send my expense reports! Meanwhile, here’s Dan and Charles:
Charles Bice: Hi, Dan. You’ve created an amazing collection of thirteen stories in Then We Saw the Flames. Each seems drawn from a completely different place, as if written by a different talented writer. What process do you go through in creating a story?
Daniel A. Hoyt: I try to give each story its own shape, and ideally that shape is related to meaning and to character. I’m not a linear writer: I tend to start with an image or a moment, and then I add more sentences, paragraphs, and scenes in a collage-like way. Slowly I find a style that fits the piece. From there, I figure out where the story will end, so I know my destination: I write towards that ending. This process allows me to tap into voices and characters in an organic way, to live with them, to give the story over to them.
CB: A number of your characters are in a sense displaced. They are immigrants, like Amar and Tiananmen, or marginalized, as in Black Box, or neglected and far from home, as in El Americanito and Boy, Sea, Boy. What sorts of experiences or inspirations led you to create these characters and situations?
DH: I am often inspired in new ways when I’m on the margins, say, when I’m traveling in foreign countries. “Amar” came out of a visit to Dresden. I arrived a day after a minor riot at a punk rock show, and I remember having a bad head cold. I wandered around the city in the spring rain, and the neighborhood where I was staying had all kinds of kebab shops run by immigrants. I was there, but I wasn’t part of Dresden, not really. I use the margins as a position of inquiry, but my characters are trapped somehow, and that helps drive the conflict. “El Americanito” came from a trip to Acapulco for a wedding; Tiananmen sprang out of a desire to write a story called “House of Pancakes,” which eventually became “The Chez du Pancakes”; and “Boy, Sea, Boy” was inspired by a line from the excellent New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones (about a Slint song). I try to be open to all kinds of story ideas. I like moments that I don’t quite compute, when I’m on the margins of understanding.
CB: How did the audio production of the stories match up with what you might have heard in your mind’s ear as you were writing?
DH: I’m so grateful for the thoughtful and rich work that you put into the narration. I read my work aloud a lot because sentence rhythm is so important to me. I’ve probably read these stories to myself five times each, and I feared I’d just be sick of them, but it was an absolute treat to hear them from a new voice. It put a slightly different spin on things, like hearing a cover of a song you haven’t heard in years, and I love cover songs. Sometimes you would read a sentence with some different cadence, which made the line snap differently, but most of all, you’re so adept at voices that the characters took on another and bolder layer of life. I got to meet them again and from a different angle.
CB: Have you tried your hand at writing novels? How would your approach to a novel be different than for a short story collection?
DH: I have a couple of novels in progress, and the novel form requires me to think about both process and progress in different ways. I’m a slow writer, but there’s a certain point with a short story, when I’m about 80 percent done, when I can immerse myself in a piece for a long weekend and really live in the story. (That works best when my wife’s out of town, but the pets get awful lonesome when I do this. I imagine them saying, “Earth to Dan,” and flicking their paws in my face.) I haven’t exactly nailed my own process for novel writing, and that’s one of the issues I’ve thought a lot about in my teaching. The academy encourages short stories, and the publishing industry asks for novels. I love short stories, and I wish the form had more readers, but I feel that graduate students should be encouraged to start writing novels earlier on. That’s one of the great things about teaching at Kansas State University. We have a class in novel writing, which is an all-too-rare offering in creative writing programs.
CB: You teach creative writing at Kansas State University. How has your experience in crafting this collection shaped your teaching—and vice versa?
DH: I try to get my students to embrace the work and the joy of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, of living a different life for a while. I encourage my students to write about things they want to learn. Toward the end of the semester in an advanced class, I also use anecdotes about my collection to help explore some of the nuts and bolts of the writing life. I’ll talk about how long I worked on a story (months to years) and how many literary magazines rejected it, and I’ll talk about an early draft of a story and then the finished piece to make some points about revision. These anecdotes are stories about craft and the publishing world, but they’re also little odes to patience.
CB: When it’s the last class of the term and those budding writers are moving onward, what is the one nugget of writing advice that you want them to take away with them?
DH: I want my students to respect words and to love them, to read things out loud and hear the snap and twist of a sentence, to push beyond the line everyone’s heard before. If you’ve seen if before, re-write it: Make it something new.
Miette Elm: Do you listen to many audiobooks? If so, what are some of the best you’ve heard, and when do you find time to listen?
DH: I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks, which is more of a condition of my lifestyle rather than a commentary on the form. We live close to campus (we did at my previous academic position, too), so I walk to work every day, and sometimes I go weeks without driving. I’m not a headphone dude. I like to hear the world as I walk through it. My affiliation with Iambik, however, has inspired me to listen to more. I have J. Robert Lennon’s Castle ready for the next drive to Kansas City.
ME: Are you working on any writing projects now? What’s next?
DH: Those aforementioned novel projects are still swirling around, but my primary focus has been a new collection of short stories. The working title is Famous Women, Famous Men, and all of the stories deal with some kind of famous figure (Dickens and Van Gogh, for example) or someone dealing with unexpected celebrity or someone coming in contact with the “famous.” There’s a story about Hemingway impersonators that’s forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, I’m headed to Spain later this summer to write about Goya, and I have a couple of stories in progress that deal with digital fame: the curse of YouTube. This collection should have almost as many voices as Then We Saw the Flames, but I suspect most readers will see more overt thematic connections. I hope to have this collection ready to shop to university publishers and perhaps agents by the end of the fall.
ME: We take great pleasure in looking for sharp contemporary literary fiction that more mainstream audio publishers overlook. Who are we missing? What are some titles you’d love to see turned into audio?
DH: The first thing that comes to mind is people I know (either well or just via e-mail) whose books I love. Jerry Gabriel’s Drowned Boy (Sarabande), Darren Defrain’s Inside & Out (Main Street Rag), and Jeff Parker’s Ovenman (Tin House) quickly come to mind. My colleague Katy Karlin’s collection Send Me Work is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press, and it would make a great audiobook. I’d also love to see Iambik create some kind of literary magazine sampler, where new stories (and new writers) from places like The Kenyon Review or Indiana Review or Parcel could reach new audiences.
Daniel A. Hoyt’s Juniper Award winning Then We Saw the Flames, published in print by the University of Massachusetts Press, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99. You can also buy it as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 3 of 6 titles for $29.99.
And, if you stop dawdling, you can still get 50% off any order by entering #jiam2011 at checkout through the end of June 2011. If you haven’t looked at a calendar lately, the end of June 2011 will happen in another several hours. Hurry up!