“It keeps us awake at night longer than it should.” A conversation with Shane Hinton
Here’s the thing about trash: it grows. You can be arrested one day, taken to the county jail, and the next day, as soon as you get back, it’s a whole new ballgame, trash-wise. It never stops coming. Martin and Louis can take short naps, but the pickup trucks roll through the gates, the weight in their beds making the vehicles lean backwards. Old people and young people park on the raised platforms and shovel stuff out onto the pile.
After a short time, Martin and Louis were both asleep, and I climbed over the fence and went down into the trash pile. Mostly, I was looking for love letters. They were hard to find, and usually when you did they were surrounded by signs that the people in them had recently died: medals, prescription bottles, eyeglasses. I liked that stuff, too, but it was the love letters that kept me coming back.You can ask people to see their love letters, and people just won’t let you see them. They think you’re kind of creepy for asking. But you can learn a lot about people from their love letters. There’s no spellcheck, for one. So people who have learned words by hearing them spoken have a funny way of writing. Once, I found a sticky note that said someone was placed on a “petal stool.” If you ask me, that sounds a lot better than a pedestal. If I had to choose something to be placed on, I would choose the petal stool.
–Excerpt from “Nobody Loves Mr. Iglesias,” PINKIES (Stories, Burrow Press)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: First of all, congratulations on the publication of PINKIES, and happy Father’s Day! I understand that last year around this time you and your wife Jess became parents to twin girls, so it sounds like a productive year all around. You’ve described the creation of this collection as “like birthing another, more troubled child.” I’m no expert on new parenthood, but if my Facebook feed is to be believed it’s some magical combination of exhaustion, fear of failure, and acute, incomparable joy. Can you talk a little bit about the “birthing” process of putting these stories together and finding a publisher for your debut collection? What first drew you to Burrow Press (or them to your work)?
SHANE HINTON: You describe both parenthood and writing a book with incredible accuracy. I started working on a few of these pieces years ago, but most of the stories were written in intense, weekend-long writing sessions at a cabin my family owns in the woods north of Tampa while my wife was pregnant. The deadline imposed by the birth of our twins was a constant threat, because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to write for a long time after they arrived. It led to a lot of 10-12 hour days where I sometimes wrote entire drafts of stories in a single day, which was very different from the slower pace I had been used to. I think it created a sense of urgency in the work, as well. It was panic writing.
I’m so happy to have the book out with Burrow Press. After they published one of my short stories in their online journal, Burrow Press Review, the publisher asked if I was working on a story collection. I was, but it was nowhere near completion. I told him I’d have a draft ready in six months, even though only a few of the stories that ended up in the book were finished. Then I started working like a madman.
I have always been attracted to small presses because so many of my favorite writers and books come out of that space. The fact that Burrow Press is local to Central Florida also meant a lot to me. I attend their reading series, and I have deep respect for the fact that they’re creating a literary community basically from scratch down here. We have a lot of writers, but we needed someone to step up to the plate as an organizer, and the folks at Burrow have proven that they’re more than capable of meeting that challenge. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of this press at this particular time.
AR: Turning to the stories themselves, I loved the way many of your narrators seem both driven by their anxieties and compelled to let those anxieties play out to their most extreme conclusion. Instead of avoiding their fears they create the conditions under which those fears are most likely to be realized. In the title story, father-to-be Shane Hinton, concerned about his family’s vulnerability to pythons in their Florida neighborhood, puts out traps filled with live baby mice to lure the predators closer. And in “All the Shane Hintons” an insecure husband, worried that his wife might leave him for another better Shane Hinton, throws a barbecue and invites all the other Shane Hintons he can find on the internet (except the convicted rapist S.H.—who shows up anyway). This isn’t mere exposure therapy—your characters are not cured of their anxieties so much as poking the wound. In spite of not being named Shane Hinton myself I found these narrators intensely relatable. I’m not even sure what my question is beyond…why do you think we do this to ourselves?
SH: I’m going to be honest here: your question gave me chills. I think it’s a testament to the communicative power of fiction that you were able to pinpoint something about me by reading these stories. Yes. I do this. I needle myself. I let myself get carried away in worst-case-scenario fantasies. I calculate my fears far into the future. In a strange way, it’s comforting. It’s like an old friend who always makes you pick up the bar tab but you know will pick up the phone when you call.
I think I do this to exert some control over my anxiety. It helps me give focus to something that feels abstract and featureless and therefore overwhelming. Fixating on something or putting myself in uncomfortable situations tells me exactly what I should be afraid of. The things these narrators are scared of are often outlandish, but, truthfully, they’re not many steps removed from things that actually terrify me. They’re absurd versions of my real fears.
AR: As the daughter of a catastrophic thinker (and inheritor of that tendency) I can totally relate. One thing you don’t seem fearful about is putting some very personal fears out there and attaching your own name (and biographical details) to them. Several of your narrators are named Shane Hinton, and some of them also happen to be married to women named Jess, expecting children, etc. (BTW, I loved how the comments thread on “All the Shane Hintons,” when it appeared on The Butter, became a sort of ad-hoc confessional for readers with their own doppelganger stories to relate—you’ve clearly hit on something that people think about quite a bit.) Can you elaborate on your choice to give these fictional characters your own name? And have any other, real-life Shane Hintons reached out to you yet? It seems like a matter of time…
SH: I’m interested in readers’ expectation that anything can be nonfiction. The James Frey and Brian Williams debacles say a lot about how we approach narrative. Personally, I believe perception is too fractured to take much of anything at face value. That’s why fiction is such an amazing tool. We don’t have to worry about whether or not something is “real.” It’s on the page. We feel it in our guts. It keeps us awake at night longer than it should. It’s real whether we like it or not.
A big part of the impulse to name characters out of myself is to play with the reader, asking them to draw their own line between fact and fiction. Fiction isn’t written in a vacuum. Of course the writer’s life experiences inform all aspects of the text. What are they and where? Does it matter? As a reader, I feel like it does. As a writer, it feels less important.
I haven’t gotten any angry emails from any Shane Hintons yet, but I cringe when I imagine them. If any of you are reading this, I apologize in advance. Also: would you be interested in attending a barbecue?
AR: Your characters show remarkable stoicism, sanguinity even, when faced with the most desperate or unsettling circumstances…for a collection in which anxiety plays such a central role there’s a notable absence of histrionics. The narrator in “Never Trust the Weatherman,” pinned under a tractor with a life-threatening injury, calmly calls 911 and chats amiably with the emergency responders and his parents, who stop by with a picnic lunch (he’s going to be there awhile). In “Symbiont,” (one of my favorites) a young woman discovers an old man’s head protruding from between her legs one morning. After Googling her condition and finding a message board of similarly afflicted folks, she adjusts by wearing loose-fitting dresses, tries to be considerate about not peeing on his face, and feels concerned when her “symbiont” develops a cold. While acknowledging that their situations aren’t “normal” your characters do their best to manage with the tools at hand: they call their insurance company (and hold), buy more snake food, take the Road Safety course, bury their dead pets. Can you tell us more about this juxtaposition of the absurd and the mundane in your fiction?
SH: The mundane is absurd to me. We accept an awful lot of abstractions that stand in for larger things we think we believe about the world. If we take a second to look at our moment-to-moment life, it’s very strange. I wanted to acknowledge that with these stories. I hope the world of PINKIES calls attention to the assumptions we make without even realizing it. At the very least, I hope it makes readers see some small element of their lives differently.
The exercise of fiction, both as a reader and a writer, is so much about learning to see things with new eyes. Not only is that how we keep the world fresh and interesting to ourselves, but it’s also how we become better people. I write to help myself understand the world, and the main way I do that is to extract the emotional significance from something and blow it up on a test range where it won’t hurt anybody’s feelings, hopefully. I like to take the core of something that has happened to me and let it go off the rails. Once it’s shattered and in a million pieces I can usually look into the crater and figure out how I felt about whatever it was. But before, when experiences are in their original state, I have a hard time processing them. Is that weird? The more I talk about it, the weirder it seems.
AR: Not weird at all! When I was a kid I found it impossible to imagine what adulthood would be like– it was as dark and inexplicable to me as trying to picture being dead. What has surprised me the most now, as an adult, is that I have just as much difficulty grasping “adulthood” as I did as a child. Many of your characters seem similarly baffled by their everyday reality–as though they are still waiting for the missing instruction manual to show up in the mail–but they muddle on without despair, in spite of setbacks and grim odds. There’s a sort of rebellious life force, a stick-to-it-ness that your characters display–I hesitate to label it optimism…is it weird that as a reader I found this kind of hopeful?
SH: I absolutely think it’s hopeful, and I’m glad that you do, too. Adulthood can so easily be crushing. I still have the same difficulty filling out tax forms that I did when I was 18. I own a house. I have multiple insurance policies. And yet, every time I have to fill out paperwork for any of these things, it seems like it might kill me. I always feel like I’m committing to something that I don’t understand, that I couldn’t possibly understand, and that maybe – probably – has been constructed to keep me from understanding it.
There’s a danger when you get into some of the subject matter that this book deals with that you might just be wallowing. I like to look at the things we want to look away from, but I don’t think it’s just for the sake of being gratuitous. You have to know what you’re up against for there to be any sort of real upshot. We deal with impossible subjects every day: our bodies, the legal system, the environment, disease, instability, traffic. It’s gross. Making it from morning to night is a victory worth celebrating.
AR: There is something more than a bit menacing in the background of these stories, and it feels somehow tied to the landscape and the tension between the man-made and natural world. Pythons devour neighbors, cows sink into quicksand, a couple makes love in a pesticide-contaminated creek. A man picks through garbage at the dump looking for love letters. A couple suffers a miscarriage and their dog keeps bringing them dead squirrels. Another pet seems about to be eaten by a baby alligator. I’ve noticed in other fiction and essays I’ve read set in Florida how the setting often seems almost like its own character. How important is place to you in setting the tone of your stories? What is it about Florida that seems to lend itself so handily to the surreal?
SH: I like to tell people that in Florida everything is trying to kill you. Growing up on a farm, I had to learn respect for the woods early in life. Black widow and brown recluse spiders live under rotting tree branches. Rattlesnakes and coral snakes hide in the palmettos. Water moccasins can be aggressive toward swimmers. Bubbles on the surface of the water might indicate an alligator lying in ambush. It’s a lot for a kid to remember.
Not only is it a place that humans probably shouldn’t live, it’s also this strange combination of expensive malls for the super-rich and old-school southern segregation. It has beautiful beaches blocks away from very dangerous neighborhoods. It has lazy, crystal clear rivers with venomous snakes and alligators lining the banks. Florida always wants to show you both how good and how bad life can be. It wants to make sure you don’t forget either half of that equation. It’s paradise at a cost.
AR: This seems as good a time as any to mention that amazing cover illustration for PINKIES, by John Hurst– it’s the perfect mashup of vulnerability and threat, predator and prey, birth and death that your stories evoke. Did you have any hand in the design of the book or selection of that image? (I would imagine with a smaller press you might have a bit more say in the look of your book– but really I have no idea.) What are your thoughts on the book design?
SH: John Hurst is a mad genius. I could never have imagined a cover so evocative and beautiful. I appreciate his work more than I could ever possibly say. I feel totally confident that any success the book has will be due in no small part to the brilliant cover art. It fits the collection perfectly.
The publisher had some ideas from the beginning of the process about general directions that the cover could take, but I kind of washed my hands of the process. I’m not a visual artist at all. Not even a little bit. I love visual art, but for whatever reason my brain just isn’t able to frame it. I asked for veto power in case they picked something that I absolutely hated, but from the moment we got the first rough sketches back I knew it was going to be something special. John Hurst is a genius. Did I say that already? Genius.
AR: If PINKIES were to be taught in a writing or literature course what other writers or specific works would you want to appear on the syllabus alongside it and why?
SH: That’s a great question. I’m less a scholar than a lover of books and words and stories, but I can talk about the books that have been most important to me.
Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline was probably the first book that really split my world open. I was already a big reader, but here was the anger, the resistance to grammar and tradition, the sarcasm, the dark humor that I loved in life, distilled and poisonous and beautiful. It spoke to my experience of the world.
Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms came into my life after I had been studying literature and writing in a serious way for a few years, and its total abandonment of the elements of fiction was uncomfortable and, somehow, hilarious. I don’t know if anyone has been able to make so much out of so little as Kharms. He reinvents fiction with each piece and yet manages to take care of the reader throughout. It’s admirable.
I want to keep this list short, so I’ll put here a couple of books that have come into my life more recently: Dance With Snakes by Horatio Castellanos Moya and Car by Harry Crews, both for more or less the same reasons. They are strange and beautiful, fast, plot-driven, risk-taking, face-breaking short novels. It’s hard to walk away from either of those without your blood pumping.
Purchase a copy of PINKIES here: http://latenightlibrary.org/pinkies
Shane Hinton holds an MFA from the University of Tampa. He lives in the winter strawberry capital of the world. His fiction has appeared in Word Riot, The Butter, Dead Mule School, Atticus Review & elsewhere.