Bookforum talks to Laird Hunt

Laird Hunt

In Laird Hunt’s provocative new novel Kind One, set during the antebellum era, a young woman, Ginny, leaves her family and everything she knows and loves to follow a man, Linus Lancaster, who is not who he claims to be. After moving to his farm, Ginny discovers that Linus is a selfish, abusive husband whose grandiose ideas about himself far exceed his abilities. During her early years of marriage, Ginny befriends Linus’s slaves, Cleome and Zinnia. When Linus’s attentions eventually turn to them, Ginny betrays her only friends and she becomes almost as cruel as her husband. I had the opportunity to talk with Hunt via e-mail about Kind One, and about how he managed to create a novel that upends what we expect from slavery narratives.

Roxane Gay: Where did the story behind Kind One come from? Did you have any concerns about taking on a topic as complex and fraught as slavery?

Laird Hunt: My interest in actual narratives of revolt (as opposed to, say, Hobbits fighting to take back the Shire) got started in a history seminar at Indiana University in the early 1990s led by a professor named Richard Blackett, who is now at Vanderbilt. The course looked at Caribbean history as a whole, and I did a historiographical thesis paper on the causes of the Haitian revolution. I'm fairly certain the paper was ghastly but Blackett was a smart and challenging mentor and I feel like the thinking and research I did in writing it was valuable, and the course as a whole was eye opening to say the least.

This interest got activated, as is so often the case for me, years later when I read The Known World by Edward P. Jones. On the eleventh page of that novel, which is formally stranger I think than it is often given credit for being, Jones describes a situation in which a woman living in the hinterlands of the imaginary Virginia county in which The Known World takes place has the tables turned on her by two female slaves when her husband dies. The anecdote takes up half of page 11, is never mentioned again, but it wouldn't leave me alone. To the extent that some weeks after finishing the novel I wrote a note to myself in a journal I still have wondering what it would be like if a woman in similar but not identical straits told the story of that episode many years later.

On the same page of the journal I wrote a proto-version of what was to become the first line of the longest narrative in the book and also the title, Kind One. (I was in Greece at the time and had been thinking about the furies of ancient legend who were sometimes referred to as "the kindly ones.") What interested me most about the story from the start was the challenge of building a voice that could channel and find shape for the emotional intensity of one of those furies, a kind of accidental fury perhaps (the accident being history), one who by force of circumstance and the makeup of her own character, was both oppressor and victim. More oppressor than victim, it's important to be clear — there is no false equivalency proposed by the narrative — but nonetheless someone who got to sup for a time at the evil table she herself had helped set.

Roxane Gay: The Known World was another book that revealed something unexpected about slavery. What do you mean when you say it is more formally strange than it gets credit for?

Laird Hunt: I'm thinking in particular of the way the book goes rocketing from the time it is set to more or less the time it is being written — at certain junctures characters lives blast forward into futures that Jones can credibly envision for them because he is writing a century and a half later. Giuseppe di Lampedusa does this in his equally great novel The Leopard and I would love to know if Jones was thinking of The Leopard, about the fall of an aristocratic Sicilian family, when he wrote The Known World, which is about another kind of fall. Of course there is a great deal else to consider in The Known World besides this really quite odd inclusion of the future but I would still love to hear that come up beyond mild critique, as I've heard it made, of Jones "puncturing the dream" of the novel — the deep immersion it offers into a world where it made sense to some freed slaves hoping to get ahead to acquire slaves of their own.

Roxane Gay: Are you drawn to formally strange work?

Laird Hunt: I am drawn to books that inventively (and borrowing the right tool at the right time can be a kind of invention) solve problems for themselves. It makes great sense to address the question of legacy, the aftershocks of slavery as it affected individual lives cascading down through time, and Jones might be said to have done this by borrowing or discovering for himself the technique employed in The Leopard.

I'm deliberately not Googling Lampedusa + Edward P. Jones, by the way, because I find I like the not quite knowing of things more and more these days. It seems more and more rare. It feels like the knowing of fiction.

Roxane Gay: A lot of my recent writing has focused on how we know too much and see too much. In what ways do you try and keep what you know from negatively affecting your writing? Do you take pains to keep parts of your life unknown as a writer?

Laird Hunt: This fall, my wife (Eleni Sikelianos) and I went to hear the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui talk about his work. Anatsui makes giant "cloths" out of pressed metal bottle tops. Or sculpture out of driftwood (one of his well-known pieces is about the Danish slave trade). Or pots out of other broken pots. On this occasion Anatsui was being interviewed by a curator and a journalist and I went expecting the talk to be heavily truffled with references to late 20th and early 21st art and artists and especially art theory. Not at all. Anatsui's interlocutors may have tried to move things in that direction but Anatsui spoke without recourse to any theoretical discourse, no clearly delineated and laboriously theorized artistic lineage. Cultural lineage came up, to be sure. Geo-political discourse as well. But the story of Anatsui's artistic production, which is extraordinary, as presented by Anatsui himself, was just that: story. Or bits of story. He found a garbage bag in the bush and because it seemed to rattle. He opened it and found liquor bottle tops and this made him want/need to do something. His work is deeply linked to place, to physical and cultural landscape, and this is what he chose speak of.

I left deeply moved by what he had had to say and how he had said it. No references (to shift over to the literary/academic optic I live in) to Bergson, to Deleuze, to Irigaray. No mention of The Wire, or Deadwood. No Zizek, no DFW, no etc. It wasn't anti-intellectual, there was none of the fake or not aw shucks of Cormac McCarthy slouching down in his chair and not answering Oprah's questions. Anatsui works with things like tin cans (from which he builds mountain ranges) and potsherds (which he reforges) and these things are both banal and deeply fraught (connected to the legacy of colonialism) and while no doubt many are actively enmeshing him in a cultural studies matrix, he doesn't seem likely any time soon to self-present in that way.

We have been self and awareness of self and awareness of that awareness for a long time. The Internet would seem to have stuck the latter portion of that proposition into the middle of two mirrors hung opposite each other: diminishing selves stuck in gadget hunch, sous chefs fine-tuning meals with no meals in front of us. I sometimes wonder if the epidemic of apocalypse in contemporary fiction isn't simply a fantasy about shutting all the routers down. Of course someone has probably already written all about that. Again, I don't want to Google it. We do know too much. But it's an odd knowing. A tired knowing. The disconnect between our eyes and our hands is growing. We can barely be bothered to even click on things anymore. "Liking" is too much work. Kind One, set in the 19th century, is my apocalypse novel.

Roxane Gay: So much of Kind One explores the repercussions of slavery for women—both white and black. Why did you place so much of this story within the lives of women?

Laird Hunt: For a long time Kind One was just Ginny's story, just Ginny's voice. A woman traveling many years later to the dark central portion of her own existence with nothing but her own memory to make the passage. A combination of extreme vulnerability and veiled ferocity, of deep guilt and deeper denial. It's quite possible that I could have found a male character to inhabit that space but it never occurred to me to do so. The opening proposition of the novel "Once I lived in a place where demons dwelled. I was one of them..." was never anyone's but Ginny's. Deep into the draft of the central narrative of the book, I realized that others needed to speak, so Zinnia was given the floor. Some of the other voices then presented themselves. When I was inside the writing I didn't spend time worrying about the gender of the characters I was principally involved with. That came later.

Concerning race, I thought about the paucity of sustained fictional treatments of American slavery in recent years (post Beloved, say) by Caucasian writers. I did a lot of thinking about this, but it came afterwards, as I revised, and this thinking governed some of the choices I made. For example, in earlier drafts Zinnia's and Ginny's voices are more alike: both recreated (and reimagined) 19th century vernacular, as Ginny's remains. Zinnia's voice, and the way I thought of it in revision, was impacted in particular by my encounter with Harriet Jacobs' slave narrative, which is elegant and understated, even as it discusses the utter horror of the situation she was born into.

Roxane Gay: Despite Ginny's culpability in the way Cleome and Zinnia were treated, I felt empathy for her position, and for her own suffering. She is, as you note, more oppressor than victim, but she is a victim nonetheless. Was it difficult to bring out this sense of empathy despite Ginny's shortcomings?

Laird Hunt: When I started writing I didn't know very much about the particulars of Ginny's story, I didn't have it mapped, didn't know where her voice was going to lead me, lead her. All I knew was that she was neither mere victim, nor entirely oppressor and that she had lived a long life since her youth amid the horrors of ante-bellum slavery. My sense of why it is possible to feel empathy for Ginny, one-time wife of a cruel slave owner, is that she herself, through the act of telling her story, comes to feel some small measure of it for her former self. She is horrified by what she did and by what was done to her (not just at the reversal point in the narrative, not just by Cleome and Zinnia, not by any means) but she also comes to understand some of it, understand the fury that was in her, that was in Cleome and Zinnia, the fury that was in the whole surround. Agency exists even in shadow, shadow deep enough to drown us all.

Roxane Gay: I read Kind One as a book about reckoning of all kinds. I don't know that there is any kind of just recompense for the ills of slavery, the legacy, but it was interesting to see these characters try to find some balance. In what ways were you trying to make this a story about reckoning?

Laird Hunt: This question put the final blood-spattered bowling-alley scene of There Will Be Blood into my head, which is interesting because when I think of Kind One and of reckoning it is not Linus Lancaster's demise that comes most quickly to mind, although said demise represents, to be sure, something much more like an Old Testament-inflected reckoning, a savage consideration and settling of accounts. Nor do I think of the weeping scar on Ginny's ankle or the one on Zinnia's cheek or the scarlet drapes Alcofibras finds himself fitted with. I think instead of the kind of self-reckoning each of the narrators finds him or herself called upon to engage in by the that act they are locked into of telling greater or smaller portions of their own stories. Not for nothing do contemporary truth commissions set up panels that allow both victims and victimizers to speak. There is the reckoning in those contexts of the confrontation of the many voices involved in any conflict, but there is also the reckoning of the voices called upon to speak their own stories, to speak and hear themselves. Zinnia's gesture in the “Candle Story” section of the book, the call she feels to return something to Ginny, leads her not just to Ginny's doorstep, but also to that moment in her deep past when having at first abandoned him she returns for her new-born nephew, whom she will carry north across the river in her arms.

Roxane Gay: Do you find it difficult to write about women or people of color? I am often asked, by white writers or male writers, "How do I write the Other right?" While I don't think there is an easy answer to that question, there are stronger and weaker ways of writing difference. What guidelines do you follow when approaching difference in your fiction?

Laird Hunt: I find everything about writing fiction difficult. That’s the first part of my answer. The second is this: years ago I sent myself a postcard — from Kuching, Borneo — with a couple of New Year’s resolutions on it. They were “1: Be Kind. 2: Write More. (repeat).” I still have that card and in honor of the distance it traveled to find me (I was then living in New York) am still attempting to follow its increasingly, it seems, overlapping commands. Those are my guidelines, such as they are, for all my work, whether the characters it contains are like me or they aren’t. I would hope but not expect that by the time my adventures in life and fiction have come to their conclusion I will have lived up to them.

Roxane Gay: Do you think about genre when you write? Is there a genre you are particularly drawn to?

Laird Hunt: I have been a fan of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life Of Puppets since it came out ten or so years ago. Among the many other things it discusses is the phenomenon, in the US, one not seen nearly as acutely in Europe, of genre going underground around the start of the 20th century, and of realism becoming the dominant literary mode, a position it continues rather unbelievably to hold in the mainstream today, 150 plus years after the publication of Madame Bovary, in which the realist method was arguably brought to its apex (can you imagine if visual artists and musicians, along with the status granting forums that celebrate them, had done the same thing in both their form and content: stuck doggedly with the vision of their great-great-great-great-great etc. grandparents: yikes!)

The fact that all the ghosts and witches and detectives and space ships had to operate in the relative shadows for many years brought its own rewards and much brilliant work, some of which is being retroactively anointed (think of the canonizing of Philip K. Dick), but it has also presented us with the strange and distorting notion that there is anything inherently unusual about the inclusion of such elements in writing worthy of being celebrated far and wide.

My first and lasting literary light-ups were European, French in particular, and what we think of as being related to genre is everywhere in writings published by France’s biggest houses. Whether we’re talking de Maupassant or Robbe-Grillet, Jean Echenoz or Marie Ndiaye, S & M, the supernatural and the gangster are all there, unapologized for, and have been for years.

This is a twisty way of getting at the question you pose and the answer I can offer: I don’t particularly think of genre when I write. That doesn’t mean I’m unaware of it, that in revision I don’t put careful thought into what the engine of genre, in the phrase of the writer Greg Howard, can do and is doing to the work at hand. But when I wrote my first novel, The Impossibly, say, I didn’t think something like: “Hmmmn I want to help revalidate the inclusion of criminal operatives and the shadowy networks behind them in literary fiction.” And I thought not for a second when I was drafting Kind One of the fact that I was writing a “historical fiction” or that it would have elements of traditional fable and ghost stories. Of course in the decade or so since I wrote The Impossibly we have seen an ever-increasing number of younger (especially) writers actively taking on, in the wake of Jonathan Lethem and Kelly Link and Cormac McCarthy, among others, genre, and having it published to acclaim by mainstream houses that for years would seem to have held their collective noses at the idea. So the question of genre blurring has pretty quickly lost its punch.

But I have never thought deeply about genre as a thing I was doing, as a kind of project I was engaged in. The books propose themselves and the way they get written derives from that proposal. Ginny’s and Zinnia’s world was full of ghosts and full of horror. There was no way to keep this out of their stories.

Roxane Gay: Who have been some of your creative influences?

Laird Hunt: Huon le roi, Rabelais, Montaigne, Cézanne, Giacommeti, Beckett, Kafka, Cornell, Woolf, David Lynch, anonymous, James Baldwin, Arvo Part, Colin Stetson, Percival Everett, Gertrude Stein, Lydia Davis, Maurice Blanchot, Yasunari Kawabata, Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Thomas Bernhard, Anne Waldman, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Georges Perec, Magdalena Tully, Clarice Lispector, Marie Ndiaye, Marguerite Yourcenar, Jean Toomer, Anne Carson, Ann Quin, Stan Brakhage, Chris Marker, David Lynch, Roland Barthes, Eleni Sikelianos.

Roxane Gay: What was the last great book you read?

Laird Hunt: Alphabet by Inger Christensen. It’s a stunner. Oh, and Memoirs of a Porcupine by Alain Mabanckou.

Roxane Gay: What are you working on now?

Laird Hunt: A book of not-exactly to almost-not-at-all autobiographical stories, some of which have been appearing here and there (I have to say, as someone who has mainly engaged in novel writing for the past decade, that it is awfully nice to have these ten, fifteen, twenty-page shapes to work with and also to send out). And a kind of companion novel to Kind One —part of what I am tentatively thinking of as a dark America quartet — about a woman who disguises herself as a man and fights for the Union during the Civil War. There are a couple of other longer things too. Also, I’m eager in the new year to tackle a translation of a novel by the late Moroccan writer Mohamed Leftah.

Roxane Gay: What do you like most about your writing?

Laird Hunt: I like most how it keeps calling me back to my original writing impulse, which was to try and reach, through writing, deep into the world and deep into the self (which holds the world and is held by it), which is to say deep into mystery. The glittering world is always calling me, and all of us, away from mystery. It’s awfully handsome, awfully hard to resist. The glittering world I mean. I want the whole world to swallow me.

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.