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.