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An interview with Laird Hunt

Anne-Julie Debare et Anne-Laure Tissut

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Over the years Laird Hunt has always made time to meet with and talk to students, critics, academics and readers at large. In June 2021 again he generously agreed to answer Anne-Julie’s and Anne-Laure’s questions via email.

Credit: Eva Sikelianos Hunt

Anne-Julie and Anne-Laure: The diversity of your work is often pointed out by critics, while its extreme coherence also comes to the fore, through its returning figures, motifs and concerns, or the continued vision it gives shape to. How does that relate―if at all―to your always working on several texts simultaneously. Could you tell us more about the process of mutual influence between stories or books developing concurrently?

Laird Hunt: For a longer time than was pleasing I couldn’t interest anyone in publishing my books and so, determined scribbler (read budding obsessive) that I was, the manuscripts began piling up. Meaning that my first-written, second-published novel, Indiana, Indiana, and then my first and third-published novels, The Impossibly and The Exquisite, were all in play during a period of 5 or 6 years, roughly from the time I left Paris in 1996 through the years I lived in New York (1996-2002). Recently I found 100 pages or so of a never finished novel called The Education of Max Bean that I actually started in Paris while I was writing the short works that would become The Paris Stories, and so you could argue that it, with its inflections of Truffaut, Varda and Godard, was in and on my mind during this period as well.

I started Indiana, Indiana in our 12th street (between 6th and 7th avenues) rental in Brooklyn, after immersing myself in the work of Paul Auster, whom one might sometimes glimpse in the neighborhood, though I would only get to know him later. This may seem odd given the tone and texture of that “rural” book, but there was something about the careful prose and Auster’s willingness in the early books of his I was reading to leap away from what I was expecting, that helps it make sense to me. There was certainly some Austerian after-effect at work when, after adding Gertrude Stein and signal members of the Oulipo to the mix, and remembering one of my great first literary loves, Samuel Beckett, I wrote the first draft of The Impossibly. And no one would argue that there wasn’t any Auster in the mix in The Exquisite, in fact one kind reviewer suggested that I needed to “murder my mentors” if I was to have any chance of advancing. So it goes. And, regardless, down through the years—even after I started to have some luck with publishing—I have continued both to have different manuscripts in play (e.g. Kind One, Neverhome and The Evening Road were all manuscripts together) and to look to signal precursors and contemporaries for ever-needed inspiration as I soldier on.

This cocktail, whether shaken or stirred, works. Questions that come up in one manuscript very often find their answers in another. It was grappling, for example, with what felt to me like an imperative to play clear witness to the rural landscape in Indiana (rather than writing it off with a nod and a wink à la Voltaire’s quip about Canada, “quelques arpents de neige”) that informed my careful attention to the landscape of New York’s East Village. Elsewhere, reading Flannery O’Connor to solve certain problems around tone in The Evening Road helped tremendously with representations of the grotesque in In the House in the Dark of the Woods.

A.J. and A.L.: After your fifth novel, Kind One, your work transitioned from genre-bending experimental “noiresque” narratives, as The Impossibly or The Exquisite, into more realistically textured novels: what sparked this sudden inflation of this aspect in your writing, an aspect that was already palpable in your first book, Indiana, Indiana?

L.H.: So you are right that this part of my work was there for better or worse from the start. Indeed, I actually started my most recent novel, Zorrie, just as Indiana, Indiana was being prepared for publication in 2003. It was originally my thought that I would perhaps alternate between modes, but for a while my urban, dare I say it continental, inclinations had the upper hand (my youth and young adulthood were equal parts urban and rural in setting). The central, longest narrative in what was to become Kind One, Ginny’s narrative, marked the pendulum swing back into my interest in the rural and historical. I wrote it in a rush and felt it was the best and truest thing I’d done. At the same time, I was nervous because the story was written in the voice of a woman and everything in my writerly training, and well beyond the current taboo around lane swerving and telling stories that aren’t one’s to tell, at least for writers like me, instructed me to proceed with extreme caution. Timing here was important. I took my first notes on Kind One just after Barack Obama became the democratic nominee for President. The history that he both represented and embodied seemed to call for all of us, no matter who we were, to at the very least take another look at prevailing narratives, and to perhaps call into question what we had imagined was essential. I felt both like I was returning to earlier preoccupations and breaking fresh ground, and that seemed like a productive place to get some work done.

A.J. and A.L.: You pointed out a shift from urban settings to rural landscapes for your plots. More than a change of scenery, this seems to have also affected your preoccupation with form and language: would you care to develop that point?

L.H.: It’s true that even if Indiana, Indiana has a rural setting, it was still constructed within a larger investigative matrix in which form and textures of language were dominant. The shift that occurs with Kind One and is sustained, with variations, through Zorrie, felt like it came out of necessity. Because Kind One took up the subject of slavery, it seemed very clear to me early on that narrative sleight of hand and formal play—a certain exuberance around structure and material—would have to be set aside. I don’t mean to say that one can’t innovate in the space of atrocity (see a work like John Keene’s brilliant Counternarratives for example), but for all sorts of reasons I wasn’t well-placed to be the one to do it. Roberto Benigni may have thought it was a good idea to combine slapstick and the horror of Auschwitz in Life is Beautiful, but I wasn’t going to go for jokes or play postmodern games with 400 years of violent history, which as we have seen in instance after glaring instance these last years is far from being over in this country. I had long looked at the mechanisms of realism with admiration (A Sentimental Education is one of my favorite novels) and suspicion (we’re talking about techniques pioneered more than 150 years ago), and with Kind One it seemed like some sort of personal reckoning with the realist template was in order. Returning to my response to your first question, I still had no interest in “murdering my mentors” (what a dumb thing to say), but I registered that to go where I felt I had to write—with sincerity though not naivety—in the voice of a woman in the 1850s about the institution of slavery I needed to draw more deeply on the work of fresh writers that had begun to mark me. These included Edward P. Jones and Amos Tutuola and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. My thought was that by metabolizing these new works and others I might find a way to move forward and through.

A.J. and A.L.: The historical dimension has become prominent in the last five books, from Kind One to Zorrie. Would you relate that trend to a singular form of realism that you developed in your writing? Or magic realism? Would you say that delving into the archives of the History of the United States has met some deep concerns and urges in your creative process and spurred on your imagination?

L.H.: I nibbled around the edges of this earlier by evoking the extraordinary election of Barack Obama in 2008. I suppose in quietly answering what felt to me then like a call to writerly arms, I might as easily have taken up the question of race in the then current moment, but instead my mind went straight to the past. No doubt it was steered there in good part by my reading of The Known World by the just-mentioned Jones. A desire to do something with a certain set of circumstances described in passing near the beginning of that novel is what set in motion the more than 1000 pages over four books (and that’s not counting Zorrie) that I would spend trying to look at tough moments and/or issues in American history. The novels take up slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow Indiana, and the Republic’s founding mythology, which was saturated in violence, religion and magic. I started In the House in the Dark of the Woods last but in my mind it serves as a kind of overture to the other three books. And here we come to your mention of magical realism. It was in reading not so much the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez but that of Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison and, especially, Amos Tutuola, while also thinking about fairy tales and American tall tales, that I saw as a way to encompass or at least point to some of the enormity of the American dispensation. The magic in the books tends to be the magic of minds placed under severe duress, minds that have for the most part rejected or been left out of the typical framing narratives—standard education, governmental and/or societal structure and religion—available. Morrison was particularly helpful in thinking of ways not so much to graft the magical onto otherwise realist stories but to have the necessary extra-natural motifs bloom up organically from the page.

A.J. and A.L.: Your novels are often anchored in specific historical time periods—colonial America in In the House in the Dark of the Woods, the Civil War in Neverhome, the times of the abolition of slavery in Kind One, or the aftermaths of 9/11 in The Exquisite. All novels offer an oblique account of historical events and of the way the latter leave their marks on individual consciousness, sometimes reviving individual traumas. Do you consider this way of writing history, that is, from the viewpoint of individual affects and desires, as a way to complete—without competing with—historical discourse, which is necessarily more generalising and whose approach to facts is more frontal?

L.H.: An interview conducted by Georges Charbonnier with Raymond Queneau comes to mind here. In it, Queneau lays out his informal theory of the two large currents in world literature: individual-dominant Odysseys and context-dominant Iliads. For a long time it seemed to me that, like the majority of the examples he cites, I was writing works in the tradition of the Odyssey, works that track an individual like the unnamed narrator in The Impossibly, Henry in The Exquisite or Harry in Ray of the Star through a series of personal challenges that may or may not be directly impacted by controlling contexts like transnational organized crime or the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th. Recently it has taken me to wonder if the four books that make up my informal dark America quartet don’t, in their totality, represent something more like an Iliad—with a large cast of characters (some of the books have more than one first-person narrator) confronting systemic obstacles underscored across their not-inconsiderable canvas by the shifting but accumulating import of motifs (wells, pigs, knives, betrayals etc). Your question was aimed elsewhere though and I would say that whether or not placing Bachelard’s magnifying lens on the individual helps to complete historical discourse, it certainly brings the immensely important texture of particularity to the table. My being all in on that importance might help to explain just why I was so much more taken by Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou than by works like Le Goff’s Un long Moyen Âge. Or perhaps, to put it more starkly, why I was always so much more engaged with Aristotle than I was with Plato.

A.J. and A.L.: In the House in the Dark of the Woods is situated in the beginnings of the United States; still it can read as conveying a criticism of current times, as well as a larger reflection on women’s place. Could the history of the country be marked by continuity as much or as well as change? Or, to put it differently, do you feel that the U.S. has inherited persistent issues from their origins? Would you agree with Derek Attridge who argued in The Singularity of Literature that exploring the gaps within the culture is the source of genuine creation as against sheer imitation?

L.H.: I’ve been cultivating a waterlily in a converted stock tank in our back yard. I’m no stranger to rhizomes, having read my Deleuze and Guattari, not to mention having lived for years on a farm, but it has been fascinating to see fresh lily pads as they prepare to rise up through the water, and to think now, with that image in mind, about the various traumas that have risen up out of those clusters of first contact between Europeans and this continent between four and five hundred years ago. God’s mandate, patriarchal structures, white supremacy made for a terrifyingly handy toolbox of oppression and demonization of the other. As I said above, we’ve seen over and over again, despite distracting narratives of progress, that it is all very much—very much indeed—still with us.

The second part of your question brings to mind a paraphrase of Susan Howe, whose explorations of history were important to me early on… Howe was and is a great champion of the margins (see her groundbreaking My Emily Dickinson and her poem “Melville’s Marginalia”) and of the detritus of language (see the word piles in Singularities). There is no question that I consider cracks and crevices, those places where things hide by choice or necessity, to be full of energy. Energy I can work with. America has only ever been interesting to me in its individual instances, and never for in most heroic, most grandiose, hieratic ones.

A.J. and A.L.: Your novels are teeming with Greek and West African myths, religious narratives, parables, and folktales, whether as matrixes for your plots or echoing chambers for thematic and narrative elements. Your use of myths quite varies from writers labelled as “postmodern,” such as Robert Coover for instance, who played with, or subverted American myths in carnivalesque myth-breaking novels. Would you say that you question myths, while also using their imaginative possibilities and evocative power?

L.H.: I suddenly got this image of all the protagonists of fables, myths and fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Artemis, Hera, Zeus, Odin, Thor, Freya, Coyote, Spider, Beauty as well as the Beast, Snow White and the thousand others turning as one to face the world of the postmodern and post-postmodern page with identical eyebrows raised. When I think of writers like Coover, Barth, Angela Carter and her great The Bloody Chamber, Rikki Ducornet with her butcher’s tales and so many contemporary figures in the US like Kelly Link and George Saunders, I’m hard pressed to see past the screen of so much delicious irony and madcap, often agenda-driven hijinks (e.g., what if Little Red Riding Hood didn’t just kill the wolf herself but her grandmother and the woodsman and her parents and everyone in her town and the whole world while she’s at it, and why don’t we make it all take place on a gigantic spaceship the size of the solar system where the only music available is lite rock from the 70s, etc.) to my first encounters with such material. But thinking about your observation, and considering what can be found in my books, I realize that without giving it conscious consideration, it is to the more or less earnest shards of stories in D’Aulaire’s Greek and Norse myths, my encounters with Grimm and Andersen and Aesop and La Fontaine, my readings of Tutuola and different accounts of Japanese folklore that my writing mind has kept coming back to, has kept wanting to work with, to gnaw on. I’m no stranger to writing with my eyebrow raised, but it’s hard to keep it high (just like it’s hard to hold a smile) and given just how many people have done it and are still doing it, I suppose it has seemed possible, and ultimately for me more interesting, to think about these bits and pieces of stories, some of them monstrously old, in different ways. In a sense I’ve developed too much respect for the old stories to yuck it up too much with them.

A.J. and A.L.: Your work shows great storytellers, mothers especially. How do you relate to traditions of the tale, in the U.S and other cultures?

L.H.: I don’t come from a tradition of strong storytellers and, in fact, have known relatively few people who are good at it. My grandparents were for the most part absolutely full of the past but not much interested in narrating it. They would offer up shards, scraps, fragments, bits, chunks and squibs. For example, I think of my paternal grandfather talking about the first time he saw an airplane, when he was quite small in rural Indiana. Really the entirety of the story was that his mother picked him up and pointed at the sky. Or the first time he saw a radio... It really was just seeing it because the boy who had built it, using an old oatmeal box, wasn’t there to make it work. My mother is a great one for evoking an isolated flavor or a smell or a sound. For example she loves to tell of being in Indonesia, at night, when I was a baby, and the driver stopping the car because there were elephants nearby. Nobody saw the elephants but they were audible as they moved through the nearby jungle.

I tend to do the same thing. I can string a few sentences together at a dinner party but I am much better when I’m firing off the verbal equivalent of a flare gun. I have a very good friend who is great at storytelling. He’s magnetic and generous and resourceful and inventive, without overdoing it (I’m not talking about time-hogging head of the table raconteurs/teuses we’ve all known far too many of). But I’m just really not very good at this mode of expression. This may explain why the majority of my books have been built out of smaller pieces. Kind One, with its multiple sections, each with its own voice, is a good example. It may also explain, in the other direction, why I find people who can tell stories and like to do it so interesting, and frequently write them into my books.

A.J. and A.L.: One seems to trace a recurring pattern of narrators delving into their distant past, while they are still alive (as in Neverhome), or maybe dead yet (Kind One), or at last dead to the world (as the female character’s son takes up the narrative at the end of In the House in the Dark of the Woods). Not only does that confer on the narrative voice a sort of out of time quality, but it also sets the pilgrimage as a crucial motif in your work. Would you say that your work is partly concerned with returning to places of trauma?

L.H.: I was just reading an online conversation about America’s obsession with origin events—things like the arrival in the Americas of Columbus, the docking of the first ship carrying enslaved people, the emphatic middle-finger-raising of the Declaration of Independence and, reaching a tiny bit farther back, the thing about the snake and the apple—and how reductive and distorting that mode of thinking can be. History as a series of context-free flashpoints, forever Big-Banging itself afresh into meaning… You would think we would long since be over this sort of mechanistic thinking, but it is everywhere across the political spectrum and of course we encounter it again and again in science fiction: if we could just travel back to the moment before Hitler’s parents lay down together we could, etc. My novels, and I’m thinking in particular of the ones set in the past, have without question centers of consequential gravity for their protagonists. For Noah, in Indiana, Indiana, it is the day that his beloved, troubled wife, Opal, sets fire to their house and won’t leave it; in Kind One, it is probably the day Ginny first hears her husband’s boots going down the hallway to a room that wasn’t hers; in Neverhome it is the moment when Ash Thompson, returned from war, fires knowingly on her husband. I think, in this context, of Roberto Bolano’s novella Amulet, in which the center of the main character’s consciousness is the day at UNAM in Mexico City when she stayed hidden in the university toilets as the military moved in murderously on student protesters. She is telling her story much later but it is to those toilets on that day that her mind returns. The books I hope to have written acknowledge the enormity of such moments/images while implicitly arguing against the idea that there isn’t any context for them, that they aren’t part of a continuum, that they bloom up out of nothing. Those moments/images have enormous significance but they are anything but the whole story is perhaps what I’m trying to get at. The story is the story and the critical factor is but one of its elements, no matter how many times a day our minds make us return to it, or how much energy we expend in trying to keep it at bay.

A.J. and A.L.: Most of your novels are first-person, sometimes fragmentary, narratives delivered by a character that seems both urged by a desire to tell a story while simultaneously, and perhaps subconsciously, avoiding some darker truth. Do those narratives somehow echo your own conception of language, in their forms, functions, and limitations?

L.H.: Two things come to mind here; “I can’t go on I’ll go on” in Beckett’s The Unnamable and Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” Language is awfully good at saying sort of what we mean. And that’s just on the good days. I learn this again every time I sit down to write.

A.J. and A.L.: You started writing female voices at a time when few male writers of your stature chose to do it, and these forcefully characterized women are endowed with shifting gender traits and complex desires. Can you think of a number of actors that may have given rise to those female voices in your work?

L.H.: On the one hand there are major fueling literary influences like Marguerite Yourcenar, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Notley, Eileen Myles and Anne Carson (many of whom take up queer themes or otherwise interrogate standard received notions around gender). On the other I have lived most of my life surrounded by iron-willed women, many of whom are/were of relatively small physical stature. In a sense it would have been odd to write only books about or narrated by men. It’s just weird that it’s weird to do serious work that takes up a gender that is not your own. Of course we live in a moment, in the Unites States, where if it isn’t 100 percent verifiably autobiographical, for some kinds of writers at least, then it’s counter-indicated. My persistence, pushing well into our current moment with these “lane swerving” books, has without question negatively impacted on the works’ reception and circulation.

A.J. and A.L.: A recurring concern for being weak or strong runs throughout your recent work. How does that relate to your artistic representation of gender issues? Is the danger in the values attached to either one of them?

L.H.: It’s true that this is one of the vectors of interrogation that run through the entirety of the dark America quartet, whether it be the physically imposing Linus Lancaster in Kind One or the physically imposing mother in In the House in the Dark of the Woods or, for that matter, the opening lines of Neverhome spoken by Ash Thompson (“I was strong and he was not…”). One of the many hopes I had for the recurring motifs of physical stature that run through the four books was that something was being said through their very accumulation, something to undercut the traditional orthodoxies and enlarge rather than foreclose a sense of possibility. Since there wasn’t ever much of a sense outside my imagination of the books being linked, many will have encountered them as individual representations and perhaps drew conclusions that while not necessarily what I had in mind—say, assertions that strength is always contextual and also that it has very little to do with gender—might still be interesting.

A.J. and A.L.: While male characters are often only delineated from the outside (as the husband and son in In the House in the Dark of the Woods, the husbands in Kind One and Neverhome), the portrayal of female narrators is only achieved progressively, as their memories return to them. In all cases, the portrait is nuanced, and increasingly highlights the character’s tortured or at least torn mind. Indeed many of your main characters shed light on the human potential for savagery, cruelty and ambivalence. Would you say that one aspect of your work tells stories of characters finding evil in themselves? Does coming into oneself imply acknowledging the otherness within oneself, the confrontation of otherness standing as a crucial step in the characters’ course, as a kind of rite of passage?

L.H.: I like this and it makes me think of coming into oneself as a process of coming out of oneself into that “I” we all have been instructed to think of as “an other”. In all of these books the characters move toward an articulation of their questionable/highly questionable actions and attitudes and in most cases we leave them soon after they have revealed the depth of their complexity, rather than say some mechanism of rationalization or mitigation. Ash Thompson, suffering badly from what we would now call PTSD, knowingly shoots her husband. Ginny Lancaster on the one hand kills her own husband, thus setting in motion her own short term enslavement and on the other goes to great lengths to let us know exactly what she means by aligning herself with demons at the start of the novel. It was important to me, with the history novels in particular, that whatever revelation the speaking voice(s) comes to by novel’s end not be read as definitively redemptive or restorative: I’ve described my crime and now all will be well or at least better. I’m not convinced anything works that way.

A.J. and A.L.: Would you agree that you are consistently writing about otherness, even when apparently writing about what is familiar, such as childhood scenes and sceneries?

L.H.: Yes.

A.J. and A.L.: Isolation seems to be a pregnant topic in your work, straddling the fragile line between madness and poetic vision, as with the narrator in In the House in the Dark of the Woods showing her son the world of tiny creatures living underwater inside the jug of flowers. A subtle play on points of view and dramatic irony allows or even encourages the reader to ceaselessly adjust scales and perspective while questioning her value judgements. For instance in In the House in the Dark of the Woods, the character’s beliefs may look naïve at first, before her darker impulses are revealed progressively. Does that correspond to a wish on your part to bring the reader to question her prejudice or at least her expectations?

L.H.: I’ve always liked that moment in the novel so I’m glad you signal it. I also appreciate your recognition of the constant shifts that make it hard to settle into one of those narratives that simply yank us along as the character moves toward goodness or evil (or any easily binaried term one might choose) which so many novels I encounter still consider it their most sacred duty to do. It seems to me one might as well stream some old episodes of Battlestar Galactica and wait for the sentimental Celtic music to let them know when and how to feel about whatever completely unambiguous thing is happening. I recently chanced on a 1981 collaboration between Brian Eno and David Byrne called, after Amos Tutuola, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The whole album, but particularly “Mea Culpa,” is an exercise in jarring unpredictability that undercut my expectations in multiple ways, without simply short-circuiting any connection to reality. This is the sort of thing I’ve aspired to in novels like In the House in the Dark of the Woods. There is more than a hint of David Lynch—his Twin Peaks in particular—in this approach.

A.J. and A.L.: An ethical question runs throughout your work, staging torn characters, often not fully conscious of their motivations, and the reader finds herself set in disquieting positions, between desire and repulsion. For instance in The Evening Road, the lynching is never shown, thus exposing the reader’s voyeurism. Is there a specific power attached to fiction in the ethical field?

L.H.: The question of ethics has without question been a part of my thinking around novels like The Evening Road. I went back and forth around the question of inclusion of the lynching and, indeed, even tried to write it a few different ways, but in the end this seemed like a step too far, a move I wasn’t comfortable with. The lynching is the vortex around which the entire novel swirls and its echoes and proxies are everywhere in the book. That seemed reasonable. That seemed ethical. The echoes (eyes full of ropes) and proxies (an old man who hangs a crutch; a young woman who lynches a mop) and indications of perilous complicity (Ottie Lee who can’t resist setting off to see the “great event”) were in many ways what this book hoped to take up. But to have artfully construed what was long ago turned into a poem and then a song because it was photographed and sold as a postcard, one you can find in a few seconds on the internet, felt wrong. I would hope that someone carefully reading that novel might think about what was left out and wonder about it and, if nothing else, ask themselves if they would have dramatized that scene and perhaps how they would have done it.

There are events throughout all of the history novels—I think here of Kind One especially—that other writers, perhaps writers with different positionalities, might have chosen to dramatize and that I, without ignoring them either, chose to leave out. Ginny Lancaster, for example, confesses near the end of her section of that novel to having killed her husband, Linus Lancaster, but she does so within the tight confines of a sentence “and gristled every speck of it into his neck,” rather than over the course of an ethically murky scene. One of the key propositions of Kind One is that Ginny’s suffering, when the tables are turned on her, no matter how intensely she lives it, is quite simply insignificant compared to the suffering of those who were truly enslaved on the small farm in Kentucky she finds herself on. She wrestles with this over the 100 or so pages it takes her to say what she has to say. Her voice, as I was discovering it, had no place for any kind of false ennobling of its travails. Her voice was not interested in cheapness for the sake of drama. The only ethical thing, her voice seemed to be saying, was that her unquestionable guilt must be made resoundingly clear, even if it came at the expensive of narrative elegance.

A.J. and A.L.: As said earlier, your novels are often told from the points of view or through the voices of young women, slaves, and mentally ill characters. How do you take on those voices, thus operating what Rancière call “subjectivization” (or giving a voice, hence a form of political subjectivity, to those who had remained invisible individuals up to then) without conversely appropriating these voices as “material” for your fictions? Do you relate to this vision of fiction as the locus of an authentic solicitude towards such individuals?

L.H.: My fictions have without question centered the stories of women over the last decade. They have also largely been populated by orphans or individuals who have in some way been abandoned or neglected. And the specter of mental illness has haunted my writing since the start. While I might point to having stopped living with my parents, and not by choice, by the age of 13, or having been raised in close proximity to serious mental illness, such “credentials” or claims to legitimacy are rarely very persuasive, and, indeed, tend to be greeted on these shores at least with suspicion and/or disdain (Well just how mentally ill was your family member? Just how abandoned were you? etc). I can remember an unusual moment when I was on a panel at the America festival in Vincennes some years ago that both speaks to my approach and to the perils therein. I was asked a question along these lines, as I always am, and I noted that for years my personal mantra had been to speak of but never for (though perhaps, if you had gotten it right, with) people who were unlike you. I said this, in French, and it is not a hard thing to say, but it was mistranslated to the panelist next to me (I could hear what the translator was saying even as I spoke in French, which was distracting to say the least) in a kind of summary of my remarks that presented my position as if I thought it was essential to speak for those who might not otherwise have a voice. Absolutely not what I had said and I noted that this was the case but my correction fell on deaf ears: the American writer reacted in his subsequent remarks with quiet fury that we must never ever speak for others, that to do so was a trespass of the most severe variety. This writer, who by his own earlier and still then friendly admission had never read anything I’d written, was markedly cold toward me for the rest of the festival and I’ve never heard from him since. It does seem to me that while fiction is indeed an extraordinarily supple tool for exploring the kind of complexity these questions can raise, it tends to be in the often purely reactive (and imprecise) discussion around it that the mines get set off.

A.J. and A.L.: Your writing is particularly attentive to sounds and rhythms, for instance in the expansive, tendril-like, one-chapter-long-sentences in the urban gothic Ray of the Star, as well as in the tale-like syntax quality of In the House in the Dark of the Woods, or in the imagery-saturated vernacular language of the narrators in Kind One and Neverhome. Alongside this work on the materiality of language, you also submit language and narratives to extreme conditions, giving way to something one might want to call “the impossible,” thinking of the post-surrealists, or “the figural,” after Jean-François Lyotard’s concept, or what Lacan called “the real.” Does that reflect a drive towards blurring the boundaries between prose and poetry?

L.H.: All the writers I have cared deeply about have eschewed the transparent idiom. And even if I have bent the note, in the Jazz sense of it, a little less with Zorrie and some of the other recent things I’ve done, I’ve never for a moment thought it worth writing something that didn’t aspire in some way to the condition of poetry (or birdsong).

A.J. and A.L.: The unique language used in each of your novels seems to tap an older variety of American English, a rural variety, maybe inspired by rural Indiana. It is a highly creative, poetic language, allowing great space to plants, trees and animals, the lore of rural life. There is also an acute awareness and attention to small details and apparently insignificant objects in your novels. What were some of the motivations for creating those languages―which may also have partly imposed themselves?

L.H.: For a long time I had a cassette tape onto which I had recorded my early attempts, at around the age of 13, at approximating an Indiana accent. I was fresh from London and hoping to integrate with my new fellows and so I practiced with a tape recorder. The results were not convincing. But over the subsequent years I lived in rural Indiana something sank in. The most resonant practitioners of the rural idiom were the old women who lived nearby, with the “loudest” being my grandmother and her sister who lived on the next farm, my great-aunt Wilma. My grandmother’s given name was Fairy and I love thinking of a world in which names like Fairy and Wilma—and also Myrtle, Mabel, Goldie, Ethel, Angel, Mildred, Bonita, Dorothea, Ilena, Zorada and Phyllis—were heard every day. By the time I got to Indiana in the early 1980s, the favored name palette had changed to insufferably dull things like Michelle, Kim, Jane, Susan and Stacy. And even then, even as a callow 13-year old, I felt there was a certain mystery and poetry inherent in those older appellations. And of course, the language the bearers of those names spoke had been forged in a world of different priorities, one in which the immediate and to a certain extent the local (the township, the county) was accorded tremendous importance. So that even if many of them had prospered enough to travel in their silver years, and were at their tv sets every night to watch game shows hosted by city slickers of all stripes, they were still marvelously attentive in their speech to ostensibly small, local details. Their heads were full of plant names, Bible verses and more than a little poetry (always of the rhymed variety). When you have in your head someone named Wilma, who is out planting zinnias, so she can brag about them to her friend Angel at church, your work is almost done.

A.J. and A.L.: About your relationship to the sentence: do you have a global conception of paragraphs, coming at one go as when one pulls the thread so to speak, or do you conceive of individual sentences, each being self-contained, endowed with its own necessity in sounds and rhythms; or a blend of both, or some other way altogether?

L.H.: My first few drafts are about the paragraphs and the following ones are about the sentences. In the last drafts (my books typically have 9 or 10 drafts each) I think about both. I tend to know a writing session is going well when I can feel the whole paragraph. This was true even with Ray of the Star where each sentence was a chapter (or, one might say, a long paragraph). When things were firing with that book I would write each sentence in one shot. Then I would start the next sentence, find its first few words and stop. It was very satisfying when it went that way. It didn’t always but that was the ideal.

A.J. and A.L.: Does the network of echoes running through each book―as well as between books―emerge as you write, or do you sometimes build from a preexisting notion of given words that will have to be taken up so as to shed light on or shift their meanings?

L.H.: An early essential reading experience was W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, which builds a significant portion of its many satisfactions from the echoes that run all through its curious pages: whether it’s the Nabokov-inspired butterfly man who keeps popping up or the motif of caravans crossing the desert or a photograph that recalls one used a hundred pages earlier in the text. This method of creating emphatic resonance was even more present in The Rings of Saturn. And as in The Emigrants the play of echoes was far more important than anything in the work that might have been construed as a plot (part of the reason I prefer the earlier books to Austerlitz is that plot has stepped, in that nonetheless admirable book, much more markedly, legibly, loudly into the foreground). Vertigo, the first of the longer narrative works, uses repetition and reprise as well, but to my mind Sebald hasn’t yet fully figured it out in the book and every now and again it’s as if he is striking a gong (especially around the Kafka stuff) rather than tapping a bell.

All this to say that I have aspired in many of my works since first contact with Sebald to privilege alternate solutions to narrative in the way that he did. Obviously, in books like Kind One and Neverhome, there are the mechanisms of plot at work but what I found interesting in writing them and in moving from book to book was nurturing the “network of echoes,” always hoping to err on the side of subtlety (not so easy to do when one of the key motifs is pigs) rather than comical gong banging.

A.J. and A.L.: How do you conceive of your use of pictures in Kind One, The Exquisite, and In the House in the Dark of the Woods?

L.H.: I fear this has a good deal to do with Sebald as well. Many of my books went through incarnations that included photographs and other bits and pieces of ephemera, only to have them removed before publication. There is a single image in The Exquisite, a detail from Holbein’s The Dance of Death woodcut series which—apart from my desire to center the sort of death that dances, which is the death that can be found in art and maybe in eternity—was meant to make it clear to potential readers that, even if I didn’t want to truffle up my book with grainy black and white photos as so many at that moment were doing, the echoes throughout of The Rings of Saturn were deliberate.

A.J. and A.L.: Writing sometimes appears as dangerous in In the House in the Dark of the Woods: do you write with an awareness of writing subversive literature?

L.H.: It is my deepest belief that any book worth writing breaks with or simply breaks something.

A.J. and A.L.: Do you sometimes write with a specific audience in mind?

L.H.: I sometimes wonder, these last years, if I’m not trying to write books that my very smart teenage daughter might someday admire. Whether I have succeeded remains to be seen.

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Laird Hunt_In the House in the Dark of the Woods (chapter 1)
Crédits : Laird Hunt

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Table des illustrations

Crédits Credit: Eva Sikelianos Hunt
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Anne-Julie Debare et Anne-Laure Tissut, « An interview with Laird Hunt »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2021, consulté le 28 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Julie Debare

Université de Rouen, ERIAC, EA 4705

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Anne-Laure Tissut

Université de Rouen, ERIAC, EA 4705

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