Excavating The Soul; an interview with Anthropology Of An American Girl Author Hilary Hamann
Hilary Hamann’s new novel is at once lyrical, filmic, confounding, poignant, anachronistic, and timeless. It blurs the boundaries of semi-autobiography and lucid fiction. The Protagonist, Eveline Auerbach is a container for personal and historical experience, a template upon which Hamann draws a history of the process of maturation of a young women rooted in a particular time, the late 70’s, and a place, Long Island, but does not limit the impact of this history, this templated experience, to that time and place. It’s a universal story in a unique container. The best kind of story in fact.
Hamann’s novel has exposed the engines of maturational angst; immaturity, sexual confusion, the false sense of immortality that dopamine- soaked teenage brains revel in, and not least, the toxic self-righteousness of youth. Hamann does a masterful job in creating characters that radiate truth while not being the least bit cloyingly likeable. This is part of the strength and genius of the story. You don’t need to be Spielberged or Ronnie Howarded into some false emotional experience with these young people. Their struggle and blindness is palpable, and beautiful. It is a synthesis of teenage maturational experience writ large. You just accept the reality, and that can be uncomfortable. Hubert Selby-like uncomfortable without the gratuitous sex, violence and utter spiritual decay.
In the following interview we talk about the novel, but also about the process and context of remaining human and artistic in the present environment, as well as the motivational context and fabric of her upbringing.
PH The title of your novel, “Anthropology of An American Girl” is evocative, not only of the search for meaning, the soul-mining and exploration of one girl, Eveline, but of a process of potential discovery that may be resonant with every or anyone. How did you write this character to be so much an individual while remaining so recognizable?
HH I didn’t try to write the character necessarily. I tried to speak in as small a voice as possible, and that particular character [Eveline] is what emerged. Not “small” meaning powerless, but “small” as in near and known. For me, writing is a matter of proximity. I don’t try to write from someone’s perspective so much as from beneath their skin, behind their eyes. In Anthropology, I tried to juxtapose the narrowness of Eveline’s voice and the near-sightedness of her vision against the “vastness” of culture and the “infinity” of the environment. For a while I studied acting in Manhattan. I had this teacher who would advise us to focus on “small moments of truth” when striving for a genuine performance. I thought of this a lot while writing. I didn’t want to deny the specificity of who the character was—a middle-class, heterosexual, white girl in the 1980s. Nor did I want to resort to generalities or stereotypes to make the work more accessible to many. The more specific those moments of truth are, the greater the chance that people from diverse backgrounds will share them. It’s funny, but, often generalities serve us least. Also, the novel covers ground with which many are familiar. Many share feelings of being lost, lonely, and confused, of being non-essential components of some unfeeling socio-economic machine with tremendous reach and endurance. Many know what it’s like to have identities that are evolving and in flux, or to be unfairly judged based on looks, backgrounds, education, values. I wanted to examine stereotypes and the degrees to which we participate in them.
PH I’m very interested in scene and setting being used as a character in film, books, and songs. The Hamptons are an entity unto themselves in this book. How were you able to create a personality of the Hamptons so strongly without veering into the rocky terrain of cliché?
HH Because I worked so hard to avoid clichés! Ultimately, clichés are just time-saving devices used to communicate efficiently—though not effectively. My hope was to look at known things as though encountering them for the first time. Every time I confronted a potential stereotype I tried to soften into it. No matter how much it is discussed, there is still a surplus of art out there—literature, film, music—that treats humans inhumanely, as though they exist in some fixed state, without possibility for growth or need for compassion. I tried not to contribute to that. I share your interest in setting as character. Of course, having the Hamptons as a primary location presented its share of challenges. Most people are familiar with the “Hamptons” of media hype, a Frankenstein hybrid of sensational parts—parties and pools, shoes and cars, real estate and restaurants, celebrities and magnates—sewn together and paraded about as though it refers to an actual entity. I looked between the seams to see what had been cut out—all the concessions and compromises that were made in the selling/trading off of the East End. The “Hamptons” as a phrase has become synonymous with luxury and leisure, but the physical environment out here is complicated and divine, and very much at risk. Obviously it is to everyone‘s benefit if it is treated respectfully, if development decisions are made with extreme caution, if public and political discourse centered on environmental sustainability rather than on a celebration of personal profit. But that’s not the case. I refer to that in my writing.
PH Your novel is immanently musical. So much so that I have taken to constructing a soundtrack to it in my head that is coming together quite nicely! I shudder a bit when I think of what the typical Hollywood musical director will do to the inevitable film. How do you hear a soundtrack to the work if you do hear one? What songs are evocative of the time and feeling of the novel? Were you listening to any particular artists during the creation of the book?
HH Thank you for saying that it’s musical. When writing, I always use music for pleasure and for research. Not just the songs I like or the character might like, but ones that represent the moment, ones that the character might have encountered. For Anthropology, I secured the rights to include a few lines from the lyrics to 26 songs in the book. Here is the list:
Follow you, Follow me, Genesis
Can’t Find My Way Home, Traffic
You’re All I’ve Got Tonight, The Cars
Cow Cow Boogie, Ella Fitzgerald
Here I Am, Come and Take Me, Al Green
Who’s Gonna Be Your Sweet Man When I’m Gone? Muddy Waters
Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Allman Brothers
Turn the Page, Bob Seger
Jesus Met the Woman at the Well, Peter, Paul, and Mary
Rock On, David Essex
Bernadette, The Four Tops
Tell Me Something Good, Chaka Kahn and Rufus
Bennie and the Jets, Elton John
Mainstreet, Bob Seger
What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye
Hey You, Pink Floyd
Let the Sunshine In, the Fifth Dimension
Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, Four Seasons
Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits
Point Blank, Bruce Springsteen
She’s the One, Bruce Springsteen
The Cisco Kid, War
My Cherie Amour, Stevie Wonder
How Soon is Now? The Smiths
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Bob Dylan
Of course, if the book were ever to become a movie, it would have to have an independent soundtrack because the inclusion of these songs would cost too much money. In this case, I like the ethereal and melodic piano scores and vocal minimalism of French New Wave films. I would need something nostalgic, something that speaks to a time that has “already been.” And you wrote a piece inspired by your reading that is just lovely. You should put a link to it here!
PH So much of our high school experience was a blur to me, but you seem to have captured the essence of that transition from HS to young adulthood in your characters. Maybe that’s an element of feeling free to be present, which I did not have, with my church and sports impositions….Did you journal a lot during that time? How eclectic was your social group?
HH My social group was extremely eclectic. I was class president for the first three years, and instead of having the traditional president, vice-president, and treasurer, we elected to have a class “congress” to give fair representation to kids from all the different feeder districts. It was really great. But by senior year, kids with competitive families began to compete for power, all that democracy went by the wayside, and the traditional political roles were restored. In the end, three kids out of 200 got to sweeten their school resume without doing any major work since it was senior year and there was not a whole lot to legislate. It was all very Reagan-esque. An indicator of things to come. I abstained from running. I guess I’m observant by nature, and I’m interested in people and their stories. I like the way everyone is the protagonist of their own account, and the way their personal concerns are of central importance when people tell their own story. I even like the way people act bored when listening to each other’s stories, but become animated when speaking of themselves. Of course, it’s obnoxious, but honest. The emphasis people bring to their own stories is impossible to predict. If you choose to work realistically—in filming, writing, acting, recording—that kind of unpredictability is priceless. Look at the work of the monologist Anna Deavere Smith, or I should say her art—it’s difficult to know which to call it, “art” or “work,” when it’s both, and yet, to call it “artwork” is somehow insufficient. She brings new life to the stories she hears simply by recounting them with their original emphasis, by honoring the first release or issue of the words, so to speak. She is a genius of capturing essences, the perfume between the bodies, the story between the words. I was fortunate enough to have had her as an acting teacher when I studied at NYU.
I did journal a lot in school, but not in the typical sense. I mostly recorded details. Clothes, sports, weather, television, things people said. I didn’t write about feelings. I still record details and sometimes feel quite boring, but the boring details end up being the triggers that work best for me. I also hate to use a journal to be negative or secretive. It feels like bad luck. That doesn’t mean I won’t think or write critically, but to me there’s a difference between deconstructing and destroying. Regarding differences in memories, church and sports are great reasons for distraction, and can actually be indicators of a balanced life! I’m more concerned with those who say they remember nothing.
PH I feel that Anthropology of An American Girl is a work that perfectly hits the seams of commercial viability and intense, individualistic artistry, much like The Corrections, or The Emperors Children, or, most notably Elliot Perlman’s amazing 7 Types of Ambiguity. Some work is too good to be denied by both the public at large, and the literary intelligentsia.
HH Again, thank you for the compliment. It sure would be nice if you’re right. To tell the truth, it felt good to have done it. I wrote the book to tell a story, to extract it from my mind and memory, to get it on paper. At the time, I didn’t intend for it to be widely published, so the story unwound more organically than it might have if had I been thinking of the target needs or a target audience. It was a luxury I no longer have. It wasn’t until after it came out in the original “self-published” version that I “met” my audience. I had no preconception of readers while writing. That’s not to say I never imagined anyone reading and enjoying it, just that I didn’t exactly write for a “market.” Maybe that is the individualistic stamp you’re referring to. With this recent release, I’m meeting a whole new audience, and it’s been even better than it was the first time. I am meeting a lot of older women this time around, and that has been a pleasure.
PH You had the interesting experience of splitting your time between East Hampton and The Bronx when you were growing up. Some might not see that as a potentially strange bifurcation of time, but I do. East Hampton and Manhattan sort of makes sense, but the Bronx? What were the benefits of growing up in both of these places?
HH I was born in Manhattan. When my parents divorced in 1965, my father went to live with his family, who had moved from New York City to the Bronx. Four years later, my mother left the city for the East End of Long Island. Though the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s is remembered as a culturally rich time, it was actually an impoverished time for New York City in terms of resources, jobs, services, and safety. Each of my parents, being poor and young, did what they had to do to survive and live sustainably.
My life in the Bronx felt idyllic, though we carved out our existence on acres of concrete divided by strips of broken asphalt. It was pretty much a dead zone. The tiny street we lived on was a turn-around point on a garbage truck and city bus route. If you Google map my old street, there is this massive fan of lines on the end of block. It looks like a lunatic pitchfork with hundreds of tines. In fact, it’s a train lot for subway cars. We used to call it “The Lots.” It was sort of the equivalent of Boo Radley’s house in “To Kill a Mockingbird”—a place that weighed heavily on our imaginations if not on our practical realities. We avoided it at all costs. Though it extended for as far as the eye could see, I never knew how far it went until about a week ago. I’m still shocked.
By comparison, my life in the vivid, fragrant, living landscape of Long Island was terrifying. In the Bronx I had extended family and a net of friends. It was fun and funny, safe and exciting. We played cards and dice, rode bikes, had water fights and watched television together. It was the place to be—everything was vital and real. The film “Dog Day Afternoon” with Al Pacino and John Cazale is how I remember childhood to be. But on Long Island, things were private and protective, lonely and secluded. There was a lot more alcoholism and drug abuse close up. You needed a car to get around, and you still do today; so if you’re young, there are limits to what you can experience. Love and loving are harder to find. Subsequently, I’m in respectful awe of nature as experienced on Long Island, and most confident with character as experienced in the Bronx. It might seem hard to believe given its reputation, but I found people in the city to be more accepting of diversity. There was more tolerance of difference, a “seen it all, done it all” quality to life. Though things could be divisive racially, people of differing ethnicities had to manage on a practical level, working together, shopping and commuting together. I’m not suggesting it was paradise—far from it; but too often people of lesser means—of all races—bear the brunt of racism and or being referred to as racist, when basically they’re trying to survive while competing for scant resources. Togetherness is a day-to-day reality they face, for better or worse, not some theoretical abstract. They are in the trenches together. That’s what it felt like then.
PH The publishing industry, like the music industry, is in a state of decline, and the existing paradigms of commerce, as well as artistry, are not serving artists or the industry. The magic of the internet has not harnessed the promised results, and consumers increasingly see the fruits of an artist’s work (their recordings, writing, etc.) as being able to be had for free. What are your thoughts about doing your work in this environment? How should the artist respond to these challenges?
HH Whether or not change is inevitable, I regret the often reported suggestion that it’s consumer-driven, that corporations are simply trying to meet the demands of new generations of consumers. There is a false populism to all this. Corporations are in the business of making profit, and what’s profitable at the moment is supplying people with a constant stream of disposable devices—and the applications to make those devices addictive. In turn, these devices shape taste and tolerance. It’s like a closed circle with little or no room in the system for the cultivation of originality or the protection of ideas and ideals. Creative content hasn’t even entered the race yet, and in the interim, the focus is on “reality.” Reality material fills the airwaves and the shelves while the deep, rich story stuff struggles to get up to speed—though perhaps it never will.
So, the wholesale conversion to digital information systems might be a given, but at the moment, the transition is not occurring responsibly. Quality is being sacrificed and many quality content providers—large and small—are at a loss for how to make a living. As a culture, we are being somewhat short-sighted. Consumers still demand great stories, but they are withdrawing their support, consciously or not, from the systems that provide long-term support to story-tellers. Journalism is a prime example. How can tomorrow’s journalists possibly break Watergate without someone, somewhere making an investment in mature, career reporters? I always tell people to watch Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) for a primer in old school journalism. I mean, two journalists with the backing of a good publisher, take down a presidency. No faxes, no cell phones, no internet, no Fed Ex—just instinct, determination, teamwork. Sweat.
I worry about public access to properly vetted, balanced information. The public has greater access to information, but not “greater access to great information.” So much of what is shared is sloppy. Somehow when I get my news online, I am always about three clicks away from a Beyonce video. Consumers are distracted, our time is wasted, our relationships begin to disintegrate, and to what end? Ultimately, we are less informed. Going a step further, a distracted, uninformed public is ripe for all sorts of abuse. We’re like guinea pigs for the new technology. Sadly, we won’t know what we lost or gained until the experiment is over. One last thing. I think the general reporting on the changes has been too soft, too tongue-in-cheek. There tends to be a lot of talk on networks about friendship and networking, etc. The conversation is limited to “the new ways we get the news.” Few people are talking about what is at stake for the public in terms of loss of political power and potential abuse of rights.
PH I was pleased to see, in my view, that the sexuality in your novel is not political sexuality, is not a plasticized iteration of what young women of Eveline’s “type” are supposed to experience, but deeply personal and individualistic, and in that, oddly enough, becomes universal….was this process purposeful?
HH Absolutely. I tried to cross a minefield of familiar tropes. I tried not to romanticize sex, or to resort to violence. I tried not to be too graphic, but not to be too symbolic either. I tried to provide a new perspective to something well known. I tried to be very personal, but not too intimate. Lots of times when you read what’s written about sex, it seems too detail-oriented. I tried to remain impressionistic. There is a rape scene, though, which is very minute-to-minute detail oriented. I like that scene.
PH What are you working on next?
HH Two different novels. One is based on my childhood in the Bronx in the 1960s and the other is based on a woman in contemporary culture who experiences a major reversal. I want this to be like a Russian novel. Or like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, when the guy (Gregor Samsa) wakes up as a giant bug. One take on this is that, one day you wake and everything’s completely different. Another take is that one day you wake up and everything’s exactly the same, and you WISH it could be different—so different that you’d even elect to be an insect. I am hoping for a quick turn-around on the next work. The paperback version of Anthropology is due out next spring, and I am working on the screenplay this fall.