A Conversation with Laird Hunt
A criminal operative helps a woman fill her shelves with mundane objects. A gentleman with psychic powers reflects on the days before his wife went insane. A connoisseur of herring lures a young thief into a plot to stage a murder. A grieving widower gets seduced by a troupe of professional statues. These are the worlds that Laird Hunt's characters inhabit, where the surfaces are familiar, but that which lies beneath is seldom what it seems.
After reviewing The Exquisite, Hunt's third novel, for the Village Voice, I received a gracious note from the author that led to an email exchange, and we agreed to meet for coffee the next time he came to Los Angeles. In the winter of 2006 we met at the Wonder Bakery in L.A.'s Chinatown and talked about a number of things, including a project he was working on involving a novel comprising one sentence texts. The project became his latest book from Coffee House Press, Ray of the Star. The morning after his appearance at Vermin on the Mount last August, we met again at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to continue our conversation.
FROM C.I.A. TO M.F.A.
Jim Ruland: You have a very colorful background. How did you come to move around so much?
Laird Hunt: I was born in Singapore in 1968. I followed my father around for a while so that meant London, the Netherlands, and then got shipped off to a farm in rural Indiana where I went to high school and ended up going to college.
Ruland: What do you mean by "shipped?"
Hunt: My parents split up and both of them had different types of life issues going on. So it seemed best to have me go elsewhere. I lived with my grandmother.
Ruland: What was your father doing that took him around the world?
Hunt: He's a banker. He's still a banker. He was with Bank of America for years. He left the States when he was 25 and has never lived in the States since. But he comes back. He's still an American citizen. He's lived in Hong Kong for close to 25 years. When I lived in rural Indiana, I'd spend my summers with him in Hong Kong. So it was going from living on a farm in central Indiana to living in mid-levels in Hong Kong during the summertime with my father. It was a very odd split existence.
Ruland: We may have been in Hong Kong around the same time. I visited when I was in the Navy in the summer of '87.
Hunt: Oh yeah, I was there. I would have been there the summer of '87. Funny!
Ruland: I was on one of those ships anchored in Kowloon Harbor.
Hunt: Yeah, yeah. And spending some time in Wan Chai. Hitting some of the bars...
Ruland: Suzy Wong's.
Hunt: Oh yeah, yeah. My dad's business friend gave me that novel when I was 15 or something.Here's the real Hong Kong (laughs), or some fantasy of it anyway.
Ruland: How does someone with that experience get involved in literature?
Hunt: I guess it was kind of always bubbling in the back of my mind. Living in rural Indiana and going to a high school where none of the teachers ever asked me to say something about where I'd been during the summer, for example. They knew I was going overseas but for some of them that just meant elsewhere. So I would get questions. How was London? How was Germany? How was Japan? And sometimes how was Hong Kong, even though it was always Hong Kong. It was odd. They were bright people, they just weren't curious. I guess there was something maybe about that that pushed me to start playing scenarios in my head, and creating realities that were slightly different where teachers might be interested.
Ruland: You feel like you have a story to share and no one's interested.
Hunt: I have to say that on the Hong Kong side they weren't at all interested in Indiana. Maybe that seems more intuitive, but it was still curious to me being someone who inhabited both worlds. So there was that and also my grandmother had a great library. She was an English teacher and she had copies of William Gaddis on her shelf and certainly tons of Faulkner. She once made a road trip to visit Thomas Wolfe's brother, this was after Thomas Wolfe had died, to go and do research with some other people. She wasn't a writer, but she was always reading. So she encouraged me to be a reader, which in those days wasn't Gaddis, but John Carter of Mars and Tarzan.
Hunt: Oh, you read those? I read all the Elric books for sure. My cousin and I had a race to see who could get through them. I think it was #7 that he hid somewhere because he didn't want me to get ahead of him. I found it.
Ruland: Would you say that you were already developing a Midwestern aesthetic?
Hunt: I was pretty oblivious. For me it was just the Edgar Rice Burroughs books and stuff set in fantasy lands. Everything I was reading then was fantasy. I wasn't really aware of what was going on in the Midwest, or anywhere else for that matter. The first time I felt this idea that I could take stabs at creating scenarios was when I was in college and did a year abroad in France and I started reading stuff that I felt I could somehow resonate with as a writer. So French fiction was big for me and that's what I studied as an undergraduate, French literature.
Ruland: What novels in particular?
Hunt: First it was the great 19th century Realist novels like Flaubert. And then the Naturalist stuff like Zola. I often think about this because I was immersed in that — Balzac and all that — Realism in the 19th century. And when I started writing one hundred years later, the gold standard was still pretty much Flaubertian Realism with contemporary concerns. It has always seemed really odd to me. Thinking about all these other art forms that had gone crazy and berserk in the 20th century and, despite Modernism, you end up with a literature that says this is what you must have or you don't get a review in the New York Times.
Ruland: It's a bit like trying to write the 450th adventure of Conan.
Hunt: Yes! That's right. When I really started thinking I might be able to write, I thought, Okay Flaubert was doing this in 1857. What's going on now? That's when I started getting intrigued by experimental possibilities in American literature.
Ruland: How did you come to study at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University?
Hunt: I went to Indiana University. After graduation, I spent a year in a recruitment thing for the C.I.A. I was really naïve. They came and did tests and I did interviews in Indianapolis hotel rooms with C.I.A. recruiters. Everything was going well. But it took so long. In the meantime, I was reading about the C.I.A., getting informed. So when the call came all I had to do was pass a lie detector test and a physical at Langley. They arranged for a plane ticket. I said, You know what? I'm gonna wait. They said, Okay, that's fine and gave me a number to call when I was ready to follow through.
Ruland: What did you do?
Hunt: I went off to Japan to teach English for a year and it was there that I really started writing in this really serious way. So from afar I started investigating MFA programs and I actually got into Nebraska's PhD program. I went out to visit when I got back from Japan, and it was Indiana all over again. The first thing I saw was huge football players. Anyway, it didn't excite me. In a moment of desperation, I actually called the number the C.I.A. gave me and it was a dead number.
Ruland: Of course it was!
Hunt: Whether or not it was a mistake, it seemed like a clear message: Don't do that. So I was visiting my sister in Boulder and I'd seen this reference to this crazy school, the Kerouac school, and I thought I'd go check it out. And they were great. I'd visited Memphis State's Program, Duke's program. And no one had time for me. I talked to three or four faculty members that first day at Naropa and that's how they kind of seduced me.
Ruland: That kind of openness is essential. It's an inkling of what your experience will be like on a daily basis.
Hunt: It wasn't like I wanted people to tell me I was amazing, I just wanted a conversation. It took me a while. I was there and I got this idea that I wanted to go do graduate work in France. I did that for a while and was going back and forth and I ended up with an MFA from the Kerouac school but not a graduate degree from France. But I had a couple of great years in Paris.
Ruland: I find that people who take unconventional paths to their education bring more to the experience, even though it may not feel that way at the time.
Hunt: If I think of my early fiction, and it's probably still continuing, that idea of a central line of experience of one who has gone from this goal to that goal isn't present. My experience has been very much about asides and digressions, the periphery and et cetera. And that seems to be mirrored in what I'm doing, rather than having that great realist arc where first this has to happen and then this...
Ruland: A grandiosity of purpose, clearly delineated.
Hunt: Which I love reading. I've always been a great admirer of that kind of work, I just can't do it. I've never had a chip on my shoulder that because I don't do something no one else should either. I've never understood that. I guess I like driven people who believe in their manifestos and all that, but it doesn't work for me.
Ruland: It's carving out a turf. And really we're all just poachers.
Hunt: Aren't we? The magpie scholar. All the bright bits we want to stick in our nests.
WOEFUL OR NOT
Ruland: It's fascinating to hear about the details of your background. There's a neo-noir influence at work. And the bureaucratic absurdity, a structured menace lurking in the background...
Hunt: And then working for the U.N. for five years, which is this huge international bureaucracy with multiple offices where there's no one in the office at all, or someone's dozing, or someone's doing something incredibly intense. Yeah, all of that stuff.
Ruland: What did you do at the U.N.?
Hunt: I was a press officer. I did coverage of the General Assembly and its subsidiary committees. I wrote press releases that gave a sense to the journalists who couldn't be in the room what had happened that they could use to help fill out their stories. Also they served as documents for the members and delegations to show to their home countries. See, I said what I was supposed to say. And they came out an hour after the meeting ended or less. So they were timely in a way. Unlike the summary records, where everything was transcribed. I did that until 2002.
Ruland: And what did you do in 2002?
Hunt: I went to teach in Boulder at the Kerouac school. My wife and I were hired to share a position and we were just sick enough of New York and our noisy neighbor with her trampoline and p.a. system who wanted to be a white rapper and practiced at 2am, to take a stab at Colorado. Out friends still say, If you hadn't had that neighbor.... She was Morgan Spurlock's ex-wife, the Super Size Meguy. He lived upstairs for a while. He did a tap dance production one summer. That was sort of manageable because we were gone most of the time. But their performance space was our ceiling. Can you imagine? Pretty standard New York story.
Ruland: Boulder must have seemed very attractive...
Hunt: We accepted the position and got ourselves into terrible financial trouble trying to live in Boulder on one salary. But a year or so into it, these two jobs opened up at the University of Denver. One wasBrian Evenson's old job and the other was the poet Cole Swenson's. So we both got jobs in the creative writing department and my wife is directing it right now. So we've been there for five years and been in Boulder for seven.
Ruland: A serendipitous move...
Hunt: It's a great program. It's one of the few PhD programs in the country that is open to, in fact, warmly embraces experimental fiction. So fiction that's moving between poetry and prose. It's not so much about the content really, but the form, and they way people are playing with form. More and more of our students are that kind of prose writer. Attentive to language, yet narrative is always there. So it's been pretty exciting and they give us free reign to pick the books we want to teach. We're not getting rich or anything but it's a pretty good deal to have that kind of freedom and it feeds what I'm doing and working on.
Ruland: Let's talk about your books. Ray of the Star is your...
Hunt: Fourth novel. There's The Impossibly; Indiana, Indiana; The Exquisite; and Ray of the Star. And then there's a book of stories that looks like it's going to be reissued next year. It's called The Paris Stories. Smokeproof, a very small press did it, and it's been pretty much out of print since it came out. So I guess its five books.
Ruland: The Impossibly was the first?
Hunt: Indiana, Indiana was the first one that I started and wrote a chunk of. The Impossiblyhappened and kind of took over. So even though Indiana, Indiana was the second published it was the first started. For a while the first three books were all in play. I was working on all of them for a while. I don't know if you do this, but I have all these manuscripts that I juggle and try to fool myself into thinking I can learn something by working on this other thing.
Hunt: All kinds of diversions. I'm doing that now. The same thing with a different group of manuscripts. Woeful or not.
Ruland: What are you working on now?
Hunt: Two things. One is a historical novel set in California, Colorado and New York. I call it the Colorado book. It's set in the '20s and '30s and very loosely based on my grandfather's life. He left home when he was 16 to go work on skyscrapers in New York then drifted west and married my grandmother in sort of unusual circumstances. Then the other one is a novella that's set in Kentucky and Indiana both before and after the Civil War. A slave story but told from this elderly white woman's perspective who was in Kentucky but is now in Indiana, a free state, and the place where I have come from in a certain way. A dark story and I'm really excited about it. It's also my most narrative thing. It's her telling what happened in Kentucky and what was so evil about it. She doesn't present herself as victim or the perpetrator of these actions but something in between. Risky. I'm asking for it, for sure.
At this point in our conversation, a gentleman with a leaf blower intruded. We gathered our things and continued the conversation on the other side of the museum. My device recorded Laird saying, Everything's being constructed and deconstructed, which perfectly captures the conundrum that is the leaf blower.
CONTINUED NEXT MONTH