Pretty Sentences Should Add Up To Something: An Interview with Hannah Tennant-Moore
Harvard Book Store's New Voices in Fiction series, presented with GrubStreet, invites hotly anticipated debut novelists to talk about their work and their writing process. Next Wednesday, February 24th, we're welcoming debut author Hannah Tennant-Moore. Her novel, Wreck and Order, follows twenty-something Elsie through her struggle to define herself and her search for meaning in Paris, California, New York, and Sri Lanka. The New Yorker calls it an “astute, restless debut,” and Amy Hempel comments that protagonist Elsie “takes self-discovery to a new level in this very smart, highly quotable novel.”
I caught up with Hannah in advance of her appearance at Harvard Book Store to talk novel craft, internal realism, and unsatisfying sex.
The first thing that struck me about the book was what I perceive to be anxiety about, or interrogation of, the novel form. As early as page 8, you give us an ironic statement about how if you were writing a novel you wouldn’t start off with a political diatribe, which of course is exactly what you do. Is this a challenge to formal conventions?
I love classic nineteenth century novels. Those are my favorite books, but I think of them as a performance, and it’s a very skillful performance, but there is a separation from that fictional world, with carefully curated characters, and the way real life actually feels as it unfolds. That’s not the kind of writing I’m good at—I knew I couldn’t repeat that performance—so I was more interested in portraying real life. And by real life I don’t necessarily mean things that actually happened, but the way that events would feel if they had actually happened. Real life as experienced through thoughts and feelings, how the heart and the mind process events.
An interior realism?
Exactly. I was less interested in creating a fictional world of events than in creating a fictional inner world that came across to the reader as a credible and specific portrayal of one person’s particular experience.
I noticed that you say, in A Conversation with Hogarth, that you didn’t trust yourself for a long time to translate scenes and events into a language worthy of a novel. Translation is central to the novel in certain ways: Elsie’s ambition to translate French novel Fifi and thereby start her career, her difficulties communicating in Paris, and so on. Was this an exploration of the struggle to translate experience into fiction, or perhaps experience into language at all?
Translating experience into specific language is, for me, the main call of fiction: finding specific words for a particular kind of experience, even if that’s a very common experience—the act of brushing your teeth. That’s definitely something I worked very hard on with this novel, rewriting every sentence many times, to make sure that even when I was describing experiences that are common or clichéd, they come across as new. I wanted them to feel immediate, to express somebody in the moment being aware of how something feels as it unfolds.
It’s interesting that you brought up the section where Elsie wants to be a translator. I actually hadn’t thought of that, but it’s true that Elsie has a very hard time with speech, something I can certainly relate to—feeling frustrated with the rush of speech, which doesn’t allow the time to pause and think and feel about something deeply, to really pause and connect with your true feelings about something. For Elsie, translation is appealing because she’s interested in language and communication, and it’s an opportunity to communicate but in a way that she isn’t self-conscious about because she’s communicating somebody else’s feelings. She translates them into her own language, but it takes away the pressure and the self-consciousness of trying to translate her own experience into language.
With Elsie, there’s a desire for self-erasure in the idea of becoming a translator. She says she needed “to use words in a way that would take me outside of myself, exploit my brain as a vehicle of someone else’s expression.” This need to erase or eliminate the self is also connected with her sexuality and her relationship with her boyfriend Jared.
Absolutely. What’s interesting about Elsie is that she’s self-aware to the point of being really limited by it and feeling trapped and claustrophobic by her own head. She does have a strong desire for self-forgetfulness and self-erasure, because she’s so sick of analyzing her experience constantly. That’s just the way her brain works: Interacting with the world on a daily basis is very overwhelming for her. She has so many different thoughts and feelings about every stimulus she receives, and she’s constantly processing them all.
That sounds like a very writerly issue.
Janet Frame had a novel out a couple years ago called Towards Another Summer, about a writer with writer’s block. Very little happens in the book, but it’s so compelling to be privy to this woman’s struggle to do ordinary things like go to the grocery store. Frame’s memoir, An Angel At My Table, was a huge international bestseller, but she didn’t want to publish this novel until after she’d died, because she felt it was too personal.
The fictional is closer to the bone than the memoir.
Exactly. The events of her life were well known, but her internal experience, she felt, was too personal to be published as a memoir—it had to be written about in fiction.
To return to the self-erasure question, certainly, that is Elsie’s draw to sex; it pulls her into a world outside her head. It’s overwhelming enough as a physical experience that it relieves her of the cerebral for a while. The same is true of translating; it allows her to live in somebody else’s mind. They’re both also a means of feeling connected to others, which is a huge deal for Elsie. She finds it really difficult to connect, in a meaningful way, with other people. And so those are two ways that she can feel very close to people without the habitual barriers that everybody builds up just to get by in the world. Elsie is always trying to break down those performative aspects of identity.
In the interview with Hogarth, you said you were frustrated with sex as it was experienced by you and your friends, so now I have to ask what that experience was!
Both in a personal way and in the way sex was being—and is still—talked about in culture, I felt very disturbed by the increase in casualness around sex, an “anything goes” kind of feeling, which wasn’t accompanied by a corresponding increase in intelligence for self-awareness around sex. That combination I found very troublesome, because if something becomes very casual and easy to talk about, easy to engage in, and such an integral part of daily life, but it’s not really being processed emotionally, or even physically to a certain extent, then it becomes completely empty. And that’s a sad phenomenon to me about anything, but particularly about sexuality, because it’s such a potentially rich aspect of being alive.
As a young woman who was very interested in sex as a new kind of experience, a new way of getting to know myself, I started out being very hopeful about sex as a great way to connect with people: How amazing is this, I thought, that I can get to know people in this completely new way. It was really disappointing. The vast majority of my sexual experiences and those of my friends were not physically or emotionally satisfying at all. With Internet porn and an increased presence of sex in movies and TV, sex has become such an image-conscious thing for people, a performance rather than two people letting their experience unfold spontaneously. The kinds of conversations that are so integral to sex being good for both people are just not had most of the time.
I was curious about the BDSM elements of Elsie and Jared’s sex life—is the violence merely performative? Is it pleasurable for Elsie, or just an expression of the self-destructive nature of the relationship?
I wouldn’t use the term BDSM to describe their relationship. Certainly, they play with power dynamics and flirt with violence in their sex life, but I think S&M has become overused—and yeah, I don’t think Fifty Shades of Grey is particularly S&M! If you read the Marquis de Sade’s writing, which is where sadism comes from, it’s all about tying up a young girl to a tree and slicing her to bits while masturbating. It’s really disgusting, dark stuff that I really wish I hadn’t read. So I want to be careful about not using that term to describe Elsie and Jared’s relationship, but Elsie definitely enjoys the violence they play with in their sex life, and it’s a big reason she’s drawn to Jared. It’s a relief for her to be in situations where she feels out of control, but knows she actually does have control. She can say to Jared, stop, at any point in their sex life. In the rest of their life she doesn’t have that control over him at all. When he hurts her emotionally, if he’s on a drug and alcohol binge and doing something entirely unacceptable, she can’t do anything about it, and that is the real violence that he causes her. Their sex is what’s addictive about him, because she gets the thrill of being with a man who feels really powerful and confident and takes control, and so she’s freed from thinking for a little while, but she knows she can control the way that the sex goes, and she knows she’s always going to get pleasure from it, because Jared does care about her pleasure, too.
Unlike some of her other partners.
It’s a sanctioned violence with clear boundaries, as opposed to the emotional violence, which is uncontrollable, something she can’t contain. You mention Fifty Shades of Grey, and I know you wrote about that and Lena Dunham’s Girls in a 2014 article for Dissent magazine. You identified what seems like—and this is my term—a pseudo-feminist tendency towards self-blame. Is this a dynamic you explored with Elsie?
Yes, I loved Bridesmaids and Girls and the like, but I was very frustrated that in these new female-centered shows the protagonist becomes an anti-heroine who blames herself for everything. I was so excited about Girls at first, and then over the course of Season Two and Season Three, Adam morphed into this perfect, wise, loving, tender person, while Hannah becomes more and more of a mess, and I just thought it was interesting that Lena Dunham gave all of her wisest lines, lines she’s writing, to the male character in her show. That really bothered me. The same is true of C. E. Morgan’s book, All the Living. I loved that book, I loved her sentences, I loved her language so much, but she does the same thing. The woman is confused—and she has every right to be confused because she’s in a marriage that is entirely unsatisfying—and yet it ties up together very neatly with two men explaining what’s wrong with her. It comes down to them telling her, you’re just not fully committed to your husband in your heart. If you fully commit to him in your heart, then he’ll be there for you and he’ll make you feel good. To me, that is a very old-fashioned fantasy—it’s a fantasy of control that she can, by being this good woman, keep the love of a man who is appealing but not really available, not really stable.
You say that these shows perpetuate the same gender stereotypes, but now women are now writing them. This seems even more troubling to me. I never connected with Lena Dunham’s work because—and you pointed this out—even though the sex scenes are explicit, they're still lacking an expression of female desire and female pleasure. One of the more compelling things about Wreck and Order is the portrayal of female desire, and a female relationship to sex that doesn’t feel restricted or held back.
Thank you, that’s so nice to hear because that was one of my main goals. A few years ago one of Paris Hilton’s boyfriends said to her, you’re really sexy but you’re not sexual, and that was such a telling formulation for me. I think it applies to a lot of the books and TV shows written by women about sexuality: They’re sexy but they’re not sexual, and the female characters seem to be engaging in sex for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with sex. I definitely wanted to write a book where the female character was interested in sex because she’s interested in sex, not because she’s interested in being sexy.
I'd like to switch focus a little: As a writing center, the workshop is central to our operations, and I wondered if this novel was workshopped and how you feel about the traditional workshop format.
That’s a very good question, and I think it speaks to the MFA debate that’s been going on over the past few years—are MFAs destroying writing?—and my basic feeling about it is that, if anybody’s writing is affected that much by the workshop or the MFA, they’re possibly not meant to be a writer in the first place. I think there are many different ways to write a great book and get feedback that’s effective, and that can be a workshop, if you’re lucky enough to be in a workshop with people who are skilled at giving edits, which is a rare thing. I edited Wreck and Order twenty times on my own, and then I was lucky enough to be connected with a great editor, Alexis Washam, who is a very gifted, hardworking, insightful reader. Every book needs one person like that. It can be somebody you find in a workshop or it can be a friend—my husband and I edit each other’s stuff and that’s very helpful.
I did do an MFA, and I’m really happy that I did it, because it’s just such a privilege to have that much time to focus on your writing and I feel really lucky that I had that opportunity. But it was also clarifying for me because I did the MFA in nonfiction, and I found the workshops really frustrating because most of the work was judged more on the content of the writing—the events—rather than on the quality of the prose, and that’s just not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the sentences and getting to a deeper kind of truth—the truth of how something feels—than the truth of revealing events. For me, the MFA and the workshopping experience helped me decide that I wanted to write fiction, which was useful, but it wasn’t exactly the goal.
I don’t know if the goal of the MFA or the goal of workshop is necessarily defined. There’s a generally accepted idea that the point of workshop is to present your story or your essay and have people tell you how to make it better. I often feel that what I got out of the workshop was actually my editorial eye, which does inform my writing, but I think I learned more from looking at other people’s work than my own.
That’s a really good point. Being in the workshop environment for a couple of years helped me be a better editor of my own work, because it trained me to read something objectively. After you finish a piece, you can print it out and look at it as if you’re looking at someone else’s.
It’s interesting that you talk about your experience of the nonfiction workshop as being frustrated by a focus on content. A lot of the conversations I’m having with fellow fiction writers at the moment are about how the fiction workshop is completely the opposite: A focus on craft to the exclusion of content.
I certainly wanted to write a well-balanced novel, not just a novel of pretty sentences. Pretty sentences should add up to something. So that’s a good point—when you’re workshopping, you’re so focused on the minutia, but you need to keep in mind that the way that a story flows is very important as well.
When we think about the novels that we love, they feel substantive; they say something important.
I wrote about Rachel Cusk’s Outline for Bookforum, and I was so disappointed that I didn’t love it. I wanted to love it so much because I think she’s a beautiful writer and it was such a worthwhile project, but I read it three times, and every time I kept thinking, maybe this time I’ll get what she’s doing, and I finally just had to decide that she’s not really doing anything. It’s just a collection of very well written sentences of interesting snippets from people’s lives.
That brings me to my final and most important question: What are you reading?
I am reading a lot of letters right now—Rilke’s letters and Rodin’s letters, mostly for the second novel that I’m working on.
Can you tell us a little bit about the next book?
The only thing I would feel comfortable saying is that one of the main themes is the mentor-mentee relationship, which is why I’m looking at Rodin and Rilke’s letters. Bisexuality is another theme, and I think that’s as far as I can go.
I also always read a lot of Buddhist books, especially right now as my novel comes out, because it helps me not get caught up in too much of the vagaries of the publishing world and self-consciousness about interviews. It helps me remember what’s important to me.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Hannah Tennant-Moore's work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, n+1, Tin House, Salon, Bookforum, Dissent, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has twice been included in Best Buddhist Writing. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband.
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Colwill is the Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House, Instructor and Consultant at GrubStreet, and Fiction Editor at Pangyrus magazine. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is a recipient of the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, a finalist for the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship, a "Notable Entry" in the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, the James A. Michener Foundation, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center, and GrubStreet. Colwill’s work has appeared in Solstice Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, Poetry and Audience, and other places, and her essays have featured on Dead Darlings and GrubWrites. Along with Pangyrus, she has also served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine and The Conium Review. Colwill is especially proud to call herself a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown