“In service of some larger narrative”: A Conversation with Henry Hoke – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Henry Hoke is the author of The Groundhog Forever, the story collection Genevieves, and The Book of Endless Sleepovers. Recent work appears in The Offing, Electric Literature, Hobart, Carve and the Catapult anthology Tiny Crimes. He co-created the performance series Enter>text in Los Angeles, and teaches at the University of Virginia Young Writers Workshop. Sticker, a memoir,is forthcoming from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons. Born to Alabamians, Henry grew up in the south and earned his BFA from New York University. He holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, where he taught from 2014-2019. He has curated events at the &Now Festival, Machine Project, the Neutra VDL House and the Poetic Research Bureau. His play At Sundown premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and his short film Taking Shape screened on HBO. He lives in Brooklyn.

Kristina Marie Darling:  It was an absolute delight to read your debut novel.  Much like your previous hybrid texts, silence works powerfully to convey – and complicate – meaning.  The spaces between words – those bright apertures – become charged with interpretive possibility.  Why is it so crucial to leave some things unsaid in a narrative?  

Henry Hoke: I like to leave space because I appreciate it in other work, whether poetry or elliptical prose. I love to open a book and see a lot of space. In this moment we’re all dealing with a deluge of text, media coming at us from every direction in our browsers and apps, with little pause, telling us who we are and what everything else is. 

In my daily writing I can never just crank out page after page, so I let things really sit and ferment in my mind and notes before shaping them in the document, and this leads to a concentrated outcome, a distillation. This helps me leave things unsaid, which is absolutely something I aspire to in my books. I think great literary work can reject the oppressive certainty of the world.

KMD:  THE GROUNDHOG FOREVER blurs the boundaries between poetry and fiction, essay and short story, and so on.  What first drew you to hybrid forms? 

HH: I’ve always been enamored with the in-betweens, souls that refuse classification.

My MFA at CalArts was essentially a hybrid MFA. It’s a program that honors the book project on its own terms, and doesn’t track students into poetry or fiction and their trappings. This community gave me the tools, or rather, let me drop the tools I was holding and forge my own.

Because this novel strives to knot some divergent threads – a couple hours I spent in a small room with Bill Murray, my experience in lower Manhattan on September 11th 2001, the kaleidoscopic longing of young queer artists who don’t see a future where they fit – it called for stylistic freedom and hybridity from the jump.

KMD:  In a literary landscape filled with micro and flash prose, can you speak to what hybridity makes possible within a book-length project?   

HH: One of the great lessons I learned in film school was the importance of giving every scene its own stand-alone spirit, arc and purpose. This stopped me from spreading my inspiration too thin, or getting overwhelmed by the whole and phoning in moment after moment in service of some larger narrative. Assembling a collection of short, concentrated fragments became my whole practice, varying approaches and modes throughout a manuscript, each page a fresh moment, a variation on the theme. Lincoln Michel called them “glittering and strange necklaces” in describing the stories in my book Genevieves, which I love because it really captures how I feel when I work, stringing beads of text together. Every one of the collections and novels I write will be, at its heart, a book-length poem.

KMD:  Relatedly, I find the strangeness of your work compelling.  So much of the time, writers veer away from what is truly surprising in favor of the familiar.  What advice do you have for writers who struggle to invite moments of surprise and wonder into their texts?

HH: For The Groundhog Forever I took my weirdest, most idiosyncratic, least marketable idea and rode it for a while. I don’t know if that’s good advice. But I’m never afraid of being strange.

I like when an author breaks character a little, when they air their frustration with the craft constraints in the manuscript itself. When it feels like they’re aware of the book, the audience, the absurdity and beauty of this exchange between writer and reader.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a fiction writer, you have also worked in the film industry.  Not surprisingly, your hybrid texts are wonderfully cinematic.   What can writers learn from artistic mediums outside the realm of the literary arts?  

HH: Everything. The more outside the echo chamber of institution and industry you can be the more avenues you have for expression. I’ve been lucky to get to teach creative writing to college students from all different artistic disciplines, and what they each bring to the table is experience in their fields that gives them refreshing perspectives and unexpected influences.

I only worked in the film industry long enough to realize I hate the film industry, but once I left I was able to enjoy watching movies again, and then I transformed all my shitty experiences into ghost stories. 

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What’s next?  

HH: I just finished Sticker – a memoir of my childhood in Charlottesville, Virginia, told in 20 different stickers – which will be out next year as part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. Next up is a Los Angeles novel, which I began as soon as I moved back to NYC. It’s told from the perspective of a mountain lion in Griffith Park deciding whether it wants to eat a person or become one.