Tuesday, May 4, 2010: Maximum Shelf: Anthropology of an American Girl
Maximum Shelf: Anthropology of an American Girl
In this edition of Maximum Shelf, the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere, we present Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann. The review and interview are by Marilyn Dahl. Spiegel & Grau has helped support the issue.
Books & Authors
Interview: Anthropology of an American Author
Hilary Thayer Hamann was born in and lived in Manhattan until the age of seven. For the remainder of her childhood, she spent weekends and summers in the Bronx and weekdays on Long Island, where she attended school in Sag Harbor and East Hampton. She graduated from New York University, where she received a B.F.A. in Film & Television Production and Dramatic Writing, an M.A. in Cinema Studies and a Certificate in Anthropological Filmmaking. As the assistant to Jacques d'Amboise, founder and artistic director of the National Dance Institute, Hamann produced We Real Cool, a short film based on the Gwendolyn Brooks poem. She has worked in New York's film, publishing and entertainment industries and is co-director of Films on the Haywall, a classic film series in Bridgehampton, N.Y. She lives in Manhattan and on Long Island. She has three children, one of whom attends Vassar College; the other two are home-schooled. Visit her at anthropologyofanamericangirl.com.
Anthropology of an American Girl was originally self-published in 2003. Why did you decide to do that?
Until the book was sold to Spiegel & Grau in 2007, it had never been submitted to anyone, so the decision to self-publish had nothing to do with rejections or any concerns I might have had for the material. Basically I found myself in a unique position. My ex-husband has a print and design company that produces materials for others, so when my manuscript was finished, we elected to produce it ourselves. We had this great loft in Soho, filled with energy and light and professionals and interns, and it occurred to us that we might be able to transition out of producing and designing and into content development. At the very least we figured it would be a "gift" for family and friends, and at most, it represented a way to unite my interests and commitments with his.
So, in fact, the decision to self-publish was not difficult. I'd written the book--that was the hard part. And I felt it was unusual enough to withstand an indirect journey. As a writer, I knew what it had taken to create it. I'd worked to keep it as close to my internal vision as possible, and having that private knowledge was helpful. You know, this idea that there's nothing you would have done differently with the material no matter where it was headed. And as a reader, I was confident that it contained descriptions of womanhood, manhood, nature and citizenship that were new.
You say that originally publishing your book was just for fun. So you had no ambitions to write the great American novel and get on bestseller lists?
My ambitions at the time were complex, as ambitions often are. Personally I'd written and I wanted to continue to write, but professionally I had a production company on my hands that I hoped to make more artistic. I saw the novel as a contribution to the greater picture. And yes, I would love to make the bestseller list! Then, now, anytime.
How did you end up publishing with Spiegel & Grau?
As soon as I decided to close the publishing venture, everything opened up for me. To this day, I can't believe the amount of energy I'd spent breathing life into dead things. It reminds me of that old saying: when a door closes, a window opens. First I received an inquiry from a major film company about the rights to the book. It was June 2007. I met with the producer who'd read the novel and loved it. She encouraged me to seek a second publishing life for it. There were no more books for sale, and yet, more and more readers were finding it, blogging about it, calling it their "favorite," listing it with classics. I thought, well, it has these reviews, it has these fans, maybe I need to let it go. I sent it to a few agents in June, met my agent Kirby Kim in July, met my editor and publisher Cindy Spiegel in September, and Anthropology was sold to Spiegel & Grau in October.
How was the editing process? Painful?
Very painful! Just kidding. But it was time-consuming. That's because we proceeded with care. Cindy chose to sift through the existent novel grain by grain, rather than go in with heavy machinery. She was determined to preserve the essence of the original even while opening it up. She helped me tease out the characters and shore up the plot to make it more accessible to a wide audience. It was like she got rid of the thicket and let the trees stand. The original novel had never been properly edited. It was poetic, but not very rhythmic.
Through the process I developed a new respect for the business side of publishing. There was a lot more give and take than I expected. Like writing, publishing requires time, energy, expertise and a basic love of books. There is an equivalency of investment that I think is taken for granted by normal people. Of course, this is true of the sales side, too. Yet, here we are facing tremendous changes in media culture. We're losing entire industries that have, for better or worse, been investing in standards. And consumers aren't exactly saving money by not buying books or newspapers, we're just moving dollars to electronics, which are hollow vehicles without content. So who's going to break the next Watergate? Who's going to pay those journalists, those writers? What's to become of Main Street when all the small stores are wiped out?
Is the book autobiographical?
Insofar as any book is autobiographical, yes, but no, not strictly speaking. The characters are amalgams of people I've known, mannerisms and gestures I've taken in and retained. Evie does follow in my footsteps to an extent--I did attend those schools, walk those streets, think many of those thoughts. I did fall in love with someone and lose him. I was transformed through the compound experience of love and loss. Like her, I've remained true to the epiphany. There are incidents we've both experienced; there are ones I missed, that my friends or acquaintances experienced. The same could be true (I hope) of many readers.
Some of the material for Anthropology came directly from journals, but the "real" writing, the business of sitting down, "the suffering the cost" of being a writer, spanned about two years. It's been said many times but never enough: it's hard to write. You have to psych yourself into creating boundaries. Time in the chair, time out of the chair. It's so easy to stray. Sometimes I go get a cup of coffee and find that hours have gone by before I sit again. Sometimes I've been sitting so long that I miss entire days. Very depressing.
Evie seems to be quite wise at a young age. Is she looking back, with the wisdom of maturity? Or is the story told as it happens?
I know what you're talking about, and it's a mystery, even to me. But it's one of the things I like best about the book. I suppose it's my perspective as an older woman meeting Evie's as a younger woman. I definitely had the feeling while writing of going back to the girl I was at 17. Selfishly, I wanted to rediscover bravery through her, bravery I used to have. In the process I gave her the resources she needed to sort things out, resources she couldn't possibly have. So I think there's this layering, or this exchange of her new view for my established one. While writing I kept this clipping of a young woman pinned to my wall. The caption says, "Welcome to your 15-year old body. Instructions to follow."
There's also nostalgia. I'm returning to things dismissed, sacrificed, forgotten, and I'm investigating the sensation of loss. If lost things mean nothing, then why do they cause pain? Is it simply "lost youth?" What do those two words even mean when we say them?
Evie makes several statements about herself as an American that seem almost old-fashioned. At the end she says, "I am an American girl. I stand with my feet firm on the soil of a nation."
In the book I tried to take an "anthropological" view of everything, even America. I found that I had to spend as much time rescuing it from stereotype as I did men and women.
The best thing about America is its very real acceptance of people from other cultures, all of whom possess alternative points of view. Yet, we somehow get trapped, as we are at present, talking in terms of polar extremes in ideology. The identity gets so rigid it might snap. And so, many reasonable Americans develop this aversion to embracing the fact that they're American.
I tried to touch on points in the middle, wondering about the country as a home, wondering how did I get here and would I stay if I had the choice? Asking myself, if I choose "yes," then what does that mean?
Anyway, it was easy with Evie. She started out as most children do--open, permeable and democratic, and she ends up there, too. She arrives at a place that is holistic, that incorporates all aspects of her journey--from impoverished hippies to wealthy powermongers. The reason love is so important to her is because it is organic, it's from the inside out, and therefore true. As she says, that is where she met herself. The self is the thing to cling to--as long as you recognize that you are one self among many. That is the part about "standing firm, feet on the soil of a nation." She's not running or hiding from the worn-out tropes, she is electing to reclaim them.
One of my favorite characters is Rourke's best friend, Rob. I could have written an entire article just about him. Why do you think he's so appealing?
I love him too! I think it's his fluid approach to living. He bends and dips and dives. He moves with the moment. So many people--and this is true for fiction characters, too--get tied up in intention, which is a very past/future trajectory. But Rob is conscious of the present. He's like an elegant dance partner. He can keep time--and not just for one, but two. He knows where you've just been, he anticipates every next step, but he is really, really enjoying the present. When he's in the room--that is, on the page--I feel relieved, like everything will be okay. What he lacks in social graces he more than makes up for in generosity.
Are you working on another novel?
Yes, I'm writing about the Bronx in the 1960s and '70s. First of all, I want to write about veterans, and for me, it will be Vietnam veterans. But mainly I want to describe the world I grew up in. There's something I'm seeking there. Not something I saw, but something that made me begin to see. I want to capture it--that brand or stamp of seeing through culture and family. It's the strangest thing, the impulse to create. It's like, I have to reach to touch and take hold of that one thing, but I have no idea what the thing is. We need to nurture the impulse in ourselves, in others, especially in children. That desire to make art for art's sake.
Playlist: Anthropology of an American Girl
Music is an important backdrop to Evie's life. Here is a baker's dozen, just some of the tunes in the book.
Can't Find My Way Home, Traffic
Here I Am. Come and Take Me, Al Green
She's the One, Bruce Springsteen
Ain't Wastin' Time No More, Allman Brothers
Bernadette,The Four Tops
Bennie and the Jets, Elton John
Hey You, Pink Floyd
Can't Take My Eyes Off of You, Four Seasons
Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits
My Cherie Amour, Stevie Wonder
How Soon Is Now?, The Smiths
The Cisco Kid, War
Book Brahmin: Hilary Thayer Hamann
On your nightstand now:
I have so many book-covered nightstands it's a wonder I don't end up buried alive. The three books nearest to me lately are The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Thomas Wolfe. The "Thomas" part is completely coincidental.
I love Mann's devotion to time and space--the characters, the reader's, his own. The Magic Mountain is epic but never dull. It's intoxicating but relaxing, like a glass of fine wine. Hardy is more coy. With every sentence I read, I can almost "see" what's been plucked out. Like paper cuttings around his feet. His descriptions are vivid but not too exact. And the landscape is like a character, like the world has legs. He's very respectful of nature's energy--it's not incidental to plot. And with Wolfe, I admire the way he has grappled again and again with matters of authenticity and accuracy.
I'm currently writing about the Vietnam era, so I've also been reading from a variety of sources. The Fifties and The Sixties by critic and writer Edmund Wilson is a strangely illuminating series of journal entries. I like the unguarded view into the mind of an established white man. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey is great for its use of voice and for its description of the dissolution of the barriers between systems. Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown is lovely for its pace, clarity and its admission of subjectivity. It is one man's experience, not all men's. And The Women's Room by Marilyn French, which I have yet to read.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I loved the first of The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner for its description of orphans making a home out of found objects. I was the only child of divorced parents, and we were poor, so I loved the whole "making something out of nothing" element.
Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth struck all the right notes for me--morally, philosophically, intellectually. I was transformed by the idea of boredom and insularity as selfish things, and wonder, acceptance, and willingness to risk as generous ones. Though I couldn't have been more than nine or 10, it shaped my sense of citizenship.
Another work that made a deep impression was Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop. My fourth-grade teacher, a wonderful lady named Barbara O'Reilly, read it aloud in class in about 1972. The book is based on a true story that occurred during World War II about 20 French schoolchildren who provide refuge to 10 Jewish children. At the time there wasn't as much known about the Holocaust as there is now, so it had a tremendous impact on me. I was overwhelmed.
Your top five authors:
James Joyce for writing like a painter; Jane Austen for writing like an anthropologist; John Steinbeck for writing like a citizen; Marguerite Duras for writing like a filmmaker; and Charles Dickens for writing with love and leniency for even the worst of his characters. And of course there's Shakespeare. And the Russians.
Book you've faked reading:
I can't say I've ever faked reading. However, there are books I struggle with. I hate to be obvious, but Ulysses is a tough one. And I'm ashamed to admit that I'm not so good with poetry.
Book you're an evangelist for:
If by "evangelist," you mean buying copies of the book to hand out to others, forcing them to start reading while you're standing there, judging their interest as inadequate, then grabbing the book back in order to impress upon them all that they are missing through a little impromptu recital, I'd say without question: Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo and The War by Marguerite Duras. For nonfiction it would probably be The Gift by Lewis Hyde.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I collect rare books, so I buy most of the fiction for the covers. Except rare children's science books. Those I buy for the awesome art on the inside.
Book that changed your life:
There is so much reading to do in one lifetime that I find myself making distinct choices about how I spend the hours and what voices I allow to gain entry into my mind and imagination. So taken in bulk, everything I've read has affected my life.
But being very bold here, I'm going to say Rich Man, Poor Man by Irwin Shaw. I was about 13 years old. Thirteen is a cagey age, a secretive age, an age you never hear much about. And for good reason. You're really on the brink--of something, who knows what. It was summer in the Bronx. My neighborhood was a completely level, filthy, concrete landscape. It was actually a bus and garbage truck route. The world there was fast, but low and small. It moved like a clock, like a clock inside a clock. Like it had no idea of time beyond its own. Rich Man, Poor Man transported me to the South of France. I distinctly remember thinking, "My God, there's a world out there." And the South of France? I went as soon as fate and fortune allowed--I was 15 years old.
Favorite line from a book:
I have about a million. I read with a pen and underline constantly. My most recent favorite is from Romeo and Juliet, which I just re-read yesterday. I like when they find the dead bodies at the end and the prince says: "Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague, see what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. And I, for winking at your discords too, have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished." It made me think instantly of feuding factions of Americans, of caustic and divisive language leading to actual tragic consequences, and of what might be sacrificed in the process. I also love when the prince quiets them first, saying, "Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while, Till we can clear these ambiguities."
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I have an uncanny ability to forget what I've read. The specifics, that is; the themes stick forever, like tattoos. If I wait long enough, I can pretty much re-read anything. I just re-read all of Austen. One book after another, voraciously. I was like, "Wow, this woman is amazing." Meanwhile, I've read them many times before. The next book I intend to read again as if for the first time is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gábriel García Marquez.
Mandahla: Anthropology of an American Girl
Anthropology of an American Girl (Spiegel & Grau) by Hilary Thayer Hamann (Spiegel & Grau, $26.00 Hardcover, 9780385527149, May 2010)
Where to start with this magnificent book? With the dazzling quality of Hilary Thayer Hamann's prose? With the themes of love and loss, trust and betrayal, innocence and maturity? With the tremendous satisfaction one feels at the end? There are so many ways to praise Anthropology of an American Girl, an exceedingly intense and passionate book; it's a romance in the grand sense, a rich, affecting experience.
The novel opens in the autumn of 1979, with Eveline and her best friend, Kate, bicycling to the beach in East Hampton, where they sit in the rain and contemplate their coming senior year. A few months earlier, Kate's mother, Maman, had died, a year after Kate's father; now Kate lives with Evie and her mother. Evie feels the loss keenly, since Maman was gentle and nurturing, traits her own mother lacks. Evie is also waiting for her boyfriend, Jack, to return from his annual Outward Bound summer. Jack, a musician, is a troubled soul who has been seeing shrinks since he was seven, and self-medicates with whatever's handy. Evie seems, at 17, preternaturally aware of the ways of the world, but she's had some bad experiences recently and has learned that "pain gets heavy when you carry it far from its source... pain becomes its own story." Soon life will have more pain for Evie; she is about to step off a cliff.
One afternoon, she meets Kate at her locker, where Kate says, "I think I'm in love." At that moment, Eveline turns and sees a man, "cleaving the air like an angry black slash." He smiles at her and lodges inside her like a bullet--a coup de foudre. He's the man Kate has fallen for--Rourke, the visiting drama coach.
Evie and Rourke meet by chance in a record store, but despite his interest and her desire, "we were impotent with respect to circumstance, and that made me angry, and my anger bound me to him. Rourke understood; he seemed angry as well." They continue to run in to each other. The romanticism of their chaste encounters is both heady and delicate, described in a young voice by a girl who feels a thrill just touching a piece of paper her beloved has written on. But there is a deeper current at work, a feeling of destiny, or maybe only vain hope. She watches him at rehearsal, she writes on her arm with a pen. In the darkened theater, they memorize each other's face. It feels like life and death in the drama of youth and absolutes. It's an impossible situation, until Evie graduates.
That summer, Evie and Rourke rent a cottage in Montauk. Summer, when all things seem possible and time is infinite, yet she knows that summer is not endless, and perfection is not sustainable; even though their age difference is only five years, it's a gap that Evie understands is unbreachable. "Each day there was a new day, with nothing carrying over from the previous one--when morning came through the window, it came as if by surprise. The sun would advance upon my skin, reminding me to be grateful, and his arms would take me tighter.... Had I been sentenced to death, I could not have interpreted time with a fiercer consciousness--every twilight seemed to be the last, every rain the final rain, every kiss the conclusive aroma of a rose, gliding just once past your lips."
She goes to New York University, studies art and takes up with Mark, the older brother of a classmate and an acquaintance of Rourke, eventually moving in with him. He provides luxury, money, a high-rise, vacations in Jamaica. "We drink Stolichnaya at Café Luxembourg, and we lament the decline of America. We blame groups.... When I say 'we' I do not mean me, though I cannot exempt myself insofar as I am present. When a pack of wolves mangles a carcass, it doesn't matter which one's not eating that much."
Life with Mark and his friends is '80s shallow, filled with coke and heroin and trust funds and women who prefer to capture men after they have settled down, as if "they can't trust themselves to determine on their own the worthiness of a partner." Evie sets herself as far apart as she can, remaining indifferent; only her continuing heartbreak keeps her alive. Rourke's best friend, Rob, looks out for her, a sustaining presence in her apathetic life. Rob is an anchor, a safe place for a girl adrift.
Throughout the novel, Evie's musings are laced with tart observations. She describes Montauk as a place where locals grow pot and celebrities hide like game in the cliffs. Contrasting the physical conceit of jocks with their intellectual timidity, she says, "Since it's unethical to turn them loose on society, they get sent to college to be kept out of the mix until their frontal lobes develop fully." A woman walking through a bar has a "ravishing ass ticking like a metronome set high." And "being female is always somewhat indelicate and extreme, like operating heavy machinery. Every woman knows the feeling of being a stack of roving flesh. Sometimes all you've accomplished at the end of the day is to have maneuvered through space without grave incident."
Thayer's prose is elegant and sumptuous, her eye for detail exquisite. Her depiction of snow: "Flurries were falling faster, toppling like butterflies shot from the sky. In the distance they fell fast, but near the house they scrolled and slowly scrambled, acquiring alarming new dimension." Or a fireplace: "The fire jumped irritably, carping and stuttering before hurling itself into an empire of nothingness." Or the darkly handsome Rourke: "He stepped forward, his body soaking emphatically through space like an inky spill." Her manner paints the story of Evie, Rourke, Jack, Mark and Rob with emphatic and tender strokes.
At one point Evie says: "I was an American girl; I possessed what our culture values most--independence and blind courage." Her life is not easy, it's not effortless, but love and friendship help steer her passage from girl to woman. She resists, she gives up, then finds her strength again. Sometimes the wisdom is hard-won, sometimes it springs from Evie's soul. In Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann has written a glorious and epic novel about integrity, heroism and abiding love.