An Interview with CJ Hauser, by Celia Johnson
July 14, 2014
Small towns. Cool ocean breezes. It’s the perfect time to visit Maine. And if you can’t head north, I suggest picking up a copy of CJ Hauser’s The From-Aways. Menamon is a town of Hauser’s own invention, a place where lobster boats bob in the water and the locals date back generations. Two women, who are completely unalike, land in the town and find their lives irrevocably reversed. Hauser’s debut novel is not only poignant, but filled with incisive wit. I spoke with her about her fiery characters, her creative process, and what surprised her most about the publishing process. What inspired you to write this novel?
I have been known to get unruly after a few drinks and shout at people: “geography is destiny!” because I think the places we come from, and the places we choose to live in shape us, maybe more than anything else. I started writing this book while I was living in New York, I think in large part because I was homesick for New England and so invented myself an imaginary town to play in. But as I was writing, I realized how much I was romanticizing that New England kind of life I’d grown up in, and the book was only good and truly afoot once I started tackling that: what is the reality of small town living? Of New England? Why do we romanticize certain places, and even people, who we love? What happens when you face up to their realities? Can you then love them better or worse?
The plot in this book pivots around relationships forged and sometimes broken by a group of fierce, stubborn, and passionate characters. How did these relationships evolve as you wrote? Were there any unexpected shifts that you didn’t originally plan?
I am the sort of writer who has very little plan, plot-wise, when I sit down at my desk…and so a lot of what happens in the book was unexpected. I didn’t know that Quinn was going to fall in love with Rosie when I set out…in fact, I didn’t even know she was gay until I started writing their scenes together and I thought: Oh man, Quinn, you totally like this girl! Same goes for the central conflict about the McMansion the Dorians are building. I knew that the house’s construction was going to be part of the story, but the way things escalate wasn’t something I’d planned for. I think it may have been some rainy Sunday when I was watching Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, one of my favorite movies, for the millionth time when it clicked for me: in a small community like this one, a small symbolic problem can escalate into an enormous and very real situation, almost overnight.
Can you describe how you built your town, Menamon? And, really, it is your town, a fictional space you named and plotted on the coast of Maine, with its own local paper, troubled economy, lobster boats, and all.
I think that if you made a map of all the fictional towns in the United States, Maine might have the densest fictional population per capita. Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, John Irving’s Heart’s Rock, Elizabeth Strout’s Crosby, Stephen King’s Castle Rock—these are all places I have loved visiting (and in the case of Castle Rock, feared– yet I always want to go back…) and so I knew I wanted to try my hand at inventing a town instead of setting the book in a real place. Menamon means “somebody’s son” in Penobscot, which seemed like a fitting name for a place full of people searching for family. I scrapped the town together from a dozen different sources. Experiences I’d had in Maine, stories I’d heard, things I wished existed, and my own experience growing up in my hometown of Redding, Connecticut. It was important to me to show the romantic “vacationland” side of the town…but also to shed light on the realities of living in a place like Menamon year-round. I’m really interested in the way so many small towns are being developed and over-developed these days, as well as the impact this has on the fishing industry.
What was your creative process like in writing this book? Did you outline extensively? Revise obsessively?
You know, I admire outliners, but I am not one. Even if I do make an outline the only thing I can assure happening is tossing it out the window a week later when I start to resent the weight of it. Kurt Vonnegut categorizes writers as bashers or swoopers, and I am a swooper of the highest degree. I write a full messy draft first (and when I say messy I mean that it makes no sense to anyone but me and sometimes not even me). Once I’ve done that, I map out what I’ve got, usually with index cards…sometimes yarn and clothespins are involved…like a cartographer documenting the lay of the land. Once I can see the big picture, I revise, begrudgingly but obsessively. I have several lovely and important people in my life who will kick me in the pants and tell me to revise again when a project needs another run-through but I am feeling grumpy and tired and want to yell forever: “It’s finished!” It is important to have people who will kick you in the pants.
Would you describe your writing space?
For the first time in my life I have a little room-of-my-own that is just for writing in my house. I call it the chaos room because there’s usually a ton of papers and books and instruments scattered all over the place. I have a desk, a shelf with some of my favorites books on it, a rocking chair for reading, and a tiny trampoline for wiling out when necessary (I find this is often necessary). Here’s a picture. I removed a lot of the chaos pre-picture so I could pretend it was always tidy…
As a debut author, what surprised you most about the publishing process?
How many people who come to readings have their own stories they’re dying to tell. I met one woman who gave me advice on cooking lobsters that she said she had learned when she was a teenager in Maine. She told me how you have to stroke their tails before you boil them so they “feel soothed” (she did a little dance to demonstrate this, miming the tail stroking and the feeling-soothed both). More than once people told me their histories as a readers, what they grew up reading and what they read now and why. An old woman told me her whole life story, starting with her being born. She focused primarily on wars and boys. Getting to hear people talk about these things was really lovely. Stories attract more stories to them—storytelling is magnetic, I think.
Author photo by Shannon Taggart. CJ Hauser’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, TriQuarterly, Slice, The Kenyon Review, and Esquire. She is the 2010 recipient of McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, and the winner for the 2012 Jaimy Gordon Prize in Fiction. Her debut novel, The From-Aways, a story of family, friend, love and lobsters set in small-town Maine was released in May. Though ever and always a New-Englander in her heart, Hauser currently lives in a little white house, beneath a very mossy oak, in Tallahassee, Florida. Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She is also the author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.