Interview with Jen Hirt

Conducted by the students of English 115: Honors Academic Writing, fall 2013.

“Hour Thirteen”:

Q: Do you believe in premonitions or precognition?

A: When we have premonitions, I think what’s happening is that we’re just amassing a lot of observations on the conscious and subconscious level. When the whole mess of observations coalesces into the outcome you feared or “had a feeling about,” it feels like sometime extrasensory has happened. But, most likely, it’s not supernatural extrasensory, it’s just your senses working more like animal senses (acute, attuned) rather than human senses (dull, misused).

Q: Why, assuming you believe it was just a coincidence and not a premonition, did you feel satisfied then guilty when learning the Challenger exploded?

A: I was an egotistical child who was also governed by an overactive superego (sense of right and wrong…for example, I was a complete tattle-tale – if anyone did something wrong, I told the teacher right away). So, ego=satisfied; superego=guilt.

Q: Is this essay a metaphor for writing? More specifically, is the essay about the craft of showing opposed to telling? Why don’t you want to tell anyone anything?

A: I wasn’t thinking of it that way. The concept of premonitions is so complicated to explain that I didn’t want to add any meta-layers, so, no, there’s no intentional underlying commentary on writing. On a technique level, the last line, about not wanting to tell anyone anything, is there partly to circle back to the opening scene. On a topical level (premonitions) it’s just an acceptance of the reality that if I were to have another premonition I certainly would not tell anyone about it.

Q: Do you feel you betrayed your younger self by telling people about your Challenger premonition?  Why tell now? 

A: No feeling of betrayal. I told it now because it was like the puzzle piece that found its puzzle.

Q: Have you not left Paul because you are 100% still in love with him or because deep down you have to prove Pete wrong? After Paul remembered Pete’s “prediction” almost verbatim, and you said he wasn’t right, what did Paul mean by “Pete wasn’t entirely wrong either?” Or what do you think Paul meant?

A: Wow, this is a Dr. Phil kind of question. It’s funny, because as The Colorado Review editor and I were editing the piece this month, she basically asked the same set of questions and we had a back-and-forth debate about whether I needed to add a few sentences explaining how Paul and I are still together. We decided against any additions. What Paul meant was…when someone leaves a relationship, they have made up their mind before they get to the “we need to have a talk” moment of the break-up. He meant it in a global sense (all relationships, not ours specifically). (I hope.)

“Monster Magnificent”:

Q: What qualities make something a monster?

A: It think it has to be somewhat abject, definitely sublime, recognizeable but also mutated in some way. It has to acknowledge your presence.

Q: What does the dash mean to you?

A: I love the dash. I think of it as a little arrow pointing to a key part of the sentence. I use it when I’m thinking/writing/typing quickly and I don’t want to mess around with the most proper of punctuations. I edit out a lot of my dashes in revisions.

Q: Why do insects teach a man to be anonymous and a woman to look closer, and why do you differentiate between the sexes at the end of the essay? Do you think women still have a disadvantage in the literary world?

A: Insects teach a man to be anonymous because insects don’t need us. We are sort of nothing to them, all our egos don’t matter. Our names don’t matter. Hence, we’re anonymous. And for early American female naturalists/biologists/ecologists, the backyard insect was the most accessible (and acceptable) thing to study. Most women at that time weren’t going to get to go on a big game safari or a jungle excursion, because society said that women had a moral obligation to raise the children…and the children are at home. And insects are at home. And you have all the time in the world to look closer. Also, some insects just sit there. You can actually look closely at them, for a long time, and you don’t have to risk your life trapping them. You don’t have to shot them to study them.

As far as women having a disadvantage in the literary world, yes and no. Obviously, a young female poet in Afghanistan has tremendous disadvantages facing her in 2013. Personally, I’ve never felt I was at a disadvantage. In fact, I think at this point I have more publications than most of my male peers from grad school (about 30 essays, poems, or stories published since 1998, plus a book). On the other hand, I know of three male peers from grad school who have not published a book and they already have tenure, whereas I’m still four years away from tenure, and since I published my book before I got on the tenure-track job, the book doesn’t “count” toward earning tenure as much as a second book (which I would have to publish before 2017) will “count” toward tenure. I’m not sure what to make of that whole scenario. My job is great, my salary is great, and I have more opportunities then many male writers I know because I work at Penn State. Overall, I can’t complain.

Q: How did you decide on the essay’s structure? Did you want the structure of the essay to be monstrous?  

A: The essay’s structure came out of a draft where I suddenly had the idea to call the essay “Three Monsters” and then it was just going to be three sections, labeled “Monster One, Monster Two” etc. I had a friend read it and she said the headings weren’t necessary at all. So I took them out, but kept the rest of the structure in place (you probably saw the references to “my second monster” and “marked it as my third monster.” It might also be helpful to know that early (and terrible) versions of the essay involved sections on monstrous things in Italo Calvino stories, as well as monstrously annoying signs around the city. I cut all that stuff out. It was too much. Which brings me to the second question: No, I did not want the essay’s structure to be monstrous. That’s a crummy thing to do to readers! I’m finding value in making my essays as readable as possible (as opposed to the long and complicate workshop essay from my grad school days). Read the book Writing as Craft and Magic by Carl Sessions Stepp. He’s a journalist. He’s all about clarity but also about play and magic in writing.

Q: If we hadn’t yet read “Monster Magnificent,” what would you say to help us prepare for it?  Can you offer any advice to help us become always prepared?

A: Here’s how to always be prepared: Go for a walk and look at stuff. Carry a journal and something to write with. Put your devices away and don’t take pictures, write about it instead. Never think that nothing is happening. Something is always happening. You have to learn to watch for the story, the narrative. This advice is actually from the anthropologist Margaret Mead.

“Hour Thirteen” and “Monster Magnificent”:

Q: In both essays, you incorporate a lot of factual information alongside vivid imagery that carries significant metaphorical weight.  Why do you use this type of contrast?

A: It’s interesting. It’s research. It gets good reactions from editors and publishers. I like to research things. I’m always on the library’s site, always getting crazy things through interlibrary loan. It’s one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to stay in contact with a university (as a student, as a professor, or whatever) – the access to free academic material through the library (much of it online) has made a tremendous difference in my writing.

Q: Do you like “Hour Thirteen” or “Magnificent Monster” better?  Was one of them easier than the other to write?  How long after all the revisions and publications processes did it take to complete each essay?

A: I like “Monster Magnificent” better. It was much easier to explain things in that essay. I had some dark moments trying to put “Hour Thirteen” together (days of total frustration), whereas “Monster Magnificent’ was more fun to write.

I started “Monster Magnificent” in 2009 and wrote the final version in 2012, but please note that I really only work on my writing intensely over the summer (not enough time while teaching during the semester). TriQuarterly accepted it in the Fall of 2012 and it was published, online, in 2013. So, about four years from start to finish.

I started “Hour Thirteen” in 2011 and finished it in 2013. The Colorado Review accepted it in July; it was fact-checked exhaustively in September (I had to provide copies of all the research behind the whole thing and I also had to justify some of my interpretations, and there were two or three sentences I had to change because my interpretations were too whimsical, I think); it will be published in the next issue.

On average, it has in the past taken me 2-3 years of summertime writing (and rest-of-the-year tinkering and submitting and dealing with rejections) to get an essay right. I’m trying to speed things up. This summer, I wrote a new piece in July, revised it in August, and it was accepted last week.  That’s the first time that’s ever happened, in literally 18 years of serious writing.

The Writing Life:

Q: Do you mold the events in your life to fit what you want to write about?  And if so, can you explain how this shaping of events doesn’t betray the conventions of nonfiction?

A: No, I seriously let things play out as they will. The world, I find, is strange enough as is. There’s no need to mold events. However, I do go looking for adventure. And I’m a hopeless voyeur and eavesdropper. I watch for narrative all the time. Every little event in my life gets retold, in my head (or to Paul, who now just says, when he gets home, “Tell me a story from today…”) I hold on to the good stuff for real essays.

Q: Where do you draw the line between fiction and nonfiction? Have you ever written an actual event in such a creative way that it made you uncomfortable calling it nonfiction?

A: I allow myself to conflate or collapse time, cut facts and events that don’t factor in to the conclusion, emphasize details that need to be remembered (by the reader) if the ending is going to pay off, and I change details about people to protect their privacy. I never never never add details or events or facts that didn’t happen – and that’s where I draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. I’ve never felt uncomfortable calling what I do nonfiction; however, if you’re going to write nonfiction, you really need to read up on the limitations of memory and perceptions (we create false memories all the time, or we don’t see things that way someone standing next to us sees things), and you need to choose your words carefully when writing about perception and memory.

Q: Why did you start writing? What drives you to write?

A: I’ve always liked writing. When I was a kid, I thought it was challenging and I liked hearing all the words in my head. I still like that. I was a geeky dork who loved diagramming sentences. I would volunteer to diagram the hardest sentence, on the board, in front of everyone. Today, I don’t think I could actually diagram a sentence correctly, but the grammar lesson stuck – I know how to write a compound-complex sentence, no problem. So now, I really like how I feel when I’m writing – I lose track of time, I’m totally focused, and everything becomes this big cycle swirling around whatever it is I’m writing. And I guess that’s where the drive comes from too. Yet, on a practical level, I’m in a position at Penn State Harrisburg where I have to publish in order to keep my job, which means I have to write in order to publish. I can’t deny that that’s a huge part of the drive at the moment.

Q: Please explain your writing process.  How to you choose your topics?  Do you ever have trouble finding a topic? Do you begin writing an essay already knowing what point you want to make? How much of this process is spent to researching your topic, and how much of this research actually makes it into the essays?

A: For my writing process, it might be helpful if you all knew my writing process in college compared to what it is now. In college, I usually wrote the paper the night before it was due. Revision was a foreign concept. I was a good writer and a good student, so I could get away with such things. Nowadays, here’s my writing process:

  1. Handwrite ideas in a journal. I have to see my own handwriting. It’s a touchstone.
  2. Compose a few scenes on the computer.
  3. From the scenes, come up with a list of things I need to research and read.
  4. Get the sources, read them, and go back to step 1.
  5. Do steps 1 through 4 over and over and over, sometimes for months. I read lots of material and only a tiny bit of it makes it into the essay. That’s OK! Not a waste of time!
  6. When I have about 2,000 words of material, I start reading it out loud to myself.
  7. I also go for long walks or short runs (two miles) where all I do is think about the essay. Moving through the landscape = moving through the essay. I’m a peripatetic writer (which means I think of things to write when I walk…or run).
  8. Within the last year, I, at this point, read some Cormac McCarthy, because his sentence structures are brilliant and I unabashedly want to absorb his style. I have McCarthy sentences on post-its all around my monitor.
  9. When I’m close to a somewhat final version, I print out a copy and carry it around with me, with a pen. It’s like a letter to myself. I handwrite edits on it. I also at this point look for boring words and find better words in my thesaurus.
  10. Eventually I have Paul or Tina or someone critique it.
  11. Revise it a few more times, letting a few days pass between each revision. For clarity.
  12. Then I send it out to five or six magazines at a time. After ten rejections, I often go back to the drawing board and rethink the essay, try to spot what might be wrong with it. Usually it’s too long and too complicated. It’s easier to cut material after a year of rejections has piled up. Then I revise and keep sending it out.

I pick topics based on what intrigues me – the things I see or hear and can’t stop thinking about. I have not yet had any trouble picking topics. I think when students say “I don’t know what to write about,” they are just really saying, “I haven’t started thinking about a topic yet.” I spend more time researching and thinking than I do writing. Sometimes, less than half of what I research makes it in to the essay. Think of it this way – if you are cooking dinner, are you going to use every food item in the cupboards and fridge? Hell no. The meal would be terrible. But you need those things to be there. And you use them selectively. It’s not a problem if I have a bag of rice for six months and only cook it now and then. It’s not a problem if I read Salvador Dali’s memoir chapters about bats and don’t “use” it right away in a bat essay. Patience!

Q: Who is your favorite author, and what is your favorite color and word?

A: My favorite author right now is Cormac McCarthy. I realize he’s a fiction writer who dwells on horrific violence and brutality. I realize that’s not my genre, not my topics. But he writes absolutely brilliant sentences, in terms of syntax and vocabulary. And to paraphrase Dillard, you have to like sentences if you want to be a writer. You all need to read Cormac McCarthy (and then read his favorite author, Faulkner). Favorite color is black. Hard to pick a favorite word. I made one up this summer, for an essay: tinywild. You use it to describe blueberries in Maine. I also made up a word for “Hour Thirteen,” which was “premoneurs,” (meaning people who have premonitions), and the fact-checker at the Colorado Review kind of went crazy trying to find that word in a dictionary (it doesn’t exist). He wanted to know what dictionary I use. I think he was not amused when I revealed that I made up the word. (Meanwhile, I was super entertained by the whole exchange.) It’s been cut from the published version, but, if the essays ends up in a book, I’ll lobby again for “premoneurs.” I enjoy making up words for Urban Dictionary – look up unforsequins, hamping, and marzipanic. Those are mine (username is Jenszi).

Thank you for these questions! I wish I could come meet all of you and go on a big nature writing hike through the swamp.

Best regard,