Photo by Gary Isaacs.
Women who fight in disguise alongside men in the Civil War; slave sisters that shackle their dead master’s wife; a woman in Jim Crow-era Indiana planning to watch a lynching the same way she might plan a picnic—these alarming and fascinating characters are the stars of Naropa graduate Laird Hunt’s last three novels. Part of what Hunt refers to as “a dark America quartet,” all three novels have received rave reviews, and one is slated to become a movie in the near future. His latest work, The Evening Road (Little Brown and Company, 2017), is based on the lynching that inspired the poem and song “Strange Fruit.” The story masterfully addresses a particularly dark part of American history while exploring the internal lives of some extraordinary characters, and somehow manages to come off as quite humorous. Hunt currently teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Denver and edits the Denver Quarterly. He received an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa, and was previously core faculty here, and he continues to serve as guest faculty for our Summer Writing Program.
We took a few minutes to talk with Hunt about his experiences at Naropa—as both student and faculty—his writing, and where his inspiration behind exploring America in dark, often horrific scenes and events comes from.
Billy Thieme Can you tell us about your experience at Naropa, as a student, and as core faculty for the Kerouac School?
Laird Hunt There was a great sense of intimacy and openness during my time as a student. The faculty communicated a sense of investment in what we were doing or trying to do in our work and my cohort all felt a charge of engagement to get outside of ourselves. We translated and started a reading series and launched small staple-bound magazines and presses. The vibe was one of connection to the world and of attending to it even as we read and wrote. Hoc opus hic labor est: this is the work, this is the labor. Robert Creeley, channeling the Cumaean Sybil, wrote that into his poem “Heroes,” and I have always connected it with my time at Naropa. When I was on faculty, I did my best to extend the transmission and the excitement of going deep with your life and your project. Be of the world and do the work. Repeat.
BT What did you find were the most valuable and long-lasting teachings or experiences from the MFA in Writing and Poetics Program at Naropa as a student, faculty member, and someone who’s probably got more than twenty SWP’s under his belt?
LH Build community and build on the lineage you come out of, the writing and ideas of the people who have shaped you. I am still referencing work I was first handed in classrooms run by Anselm Hollo and Bobbie Louise Hawkins in the early ‘90s and won’t stop any time soon. This doesn’t mean stay trapped in time or aesthetic. Even then those of us who demonstrated a lack of interest in anyone besides, say, Ginsberg or Kerouac, were encouraged to, ahem, broaden our field of reference.
BT Your latest novel, The Evening Road, deals with huge issues around race and violence in our culture, as well as personal perceptions and values around them. How did your personal background, research, and writing practice help you identify and develop your beliefs around these issues?
LH In 2007–8, around the time that Obama was coming to prominence, and deeply moved by that circumstance, I began to engage in my writing more fiercely with American history and American stories, as I think many in that initial hopeful period—which now seems so terribly distant—did. I had read enough William Faulkner to know the value of extended investigations into a specific place, and was fresh from devouring Edward P. Jones novel The Known World, based on the true phenomenon of certain former slaves who purchased slaves of their own when they began to prosper in the ante-bellum south. So with that particular inspiration on my mind I began exploring aspects of Indiana (where my family is from) history and thinking about ways to see its darker aspects and episodes from fresh perspectives. Kind One was born out of that initial still unfulfilled desire to understand what America was and is and will be, and it was followed first by Neverhome, my look at the women who fought in disguise during the Civil War, and then The Evening Road. In late 2018 a novel called Red Boy will be published, and though it goes back to colonial times it takes up similar themes of oppression and suppression, though this time in the context of witchcraft. I think of these books as a dark America quartet. Even if the years I spent with my paternal grandmother on an eighty-acre farm were largely happy ones, something is clearly bubbling up out of those small towns and those chemicalladen fields (and their counterparts around the country) that has to be seen and understood. “Write what you know,” goes the old saw. I say, “Write what you want to know, what you must know better.”
BT You use the euphemisms “cornsilk” and “cornflower” to refer to white and black people in the novel, rather than using the vernacular of a racist 1930s Indiana town. What was your motivation for that choice, and how do you feel using these words may have affected the story?
LH Critical appraisal of that choice careened back and forth between admiration and approval and disapproval and disdain. I would have been happy if it had lived somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and indeed I didn’t imagine at all that it would be a large part of the conversation about the book, but there you go and there it is. The raw, violent language of the past and of the present is everywhere in books, on television, and in film. And I know all the arguments—have of course had some of them made at me—about period authenticity, which tend to imagine that people never stopped, even long enough to breathe and swallow, swearing at each other, à la Deadwood, and couldn’t ever mention someone from another race without using an epithet. We have long since put to bed the notion that experience only manifests on the page in its extremes but the notion lingers. All that to say that in The Evening Road I wanted the emphasis to be elsewhere, for other aspects of the story of the day it describes to be fully seen. And in truth it wasn’t at all clear to me that 1) I could see past the outsized impact of racial epithets on the page well enough to dig as deeply as the subject required and 2) that a reader could. During this period when there are ferocious arguments playing out about cultural appropriation and who should be writing what, I believed that whatever small contribution I had to make to the national conversation about our fraught history lay elsewhere, in other granular textures of being, and I still think that’s true. Everything around the words “cornflower” and “cornsilk” take on additional relief in the world of The Evening Road and other work gets done. That was and is the hope anyway.
BT You seem to be focusing on historical fiction now—at least for your last two books. Why do you find that genre so appealing?
LH I was a history major as an undergraduate and so this could be seen, simply enough, as my past predilections coming back to bite me. I recently heard the Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrigue say about Sudden Death, his own book set largely in the past, that he wanted to avoid writing “pop-up history books” at all costs though, and I’m right there with him. I think even as you write about the past you also have to be speaking loudly about now for it to be really interesting: not just high-fiving Napoleon or Marie-Antoinette.
BT What would you tell a prospective Naropa/ Kerouac School student about the MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics, and/or the low-res program, to help them make their decision about coming here?
LH If you will allow me to bend and slightly paraphrase Kafka: Naropa and the Kerouac School were the axe that broke up the frozen sea inside me. Everything I’ve done of any artistic merit comes out of the experience I had during my MFA. I wouldn’t trade my time at Naropa, where I met Brenda Coultas, and Michael Ondaatje, and Lucia Berlin, and my nowwife Eleni Sikelianos for anything.
BT How do you feel the SWP adds to the unique nature of Naropa’s MFA program?
LH I know of no other MFA program that offers a world-class literary festival/conference/classroom as its yearly centerpiece. It lights you up for the rest of the year. That was my experience, at any rate.
BT The television and film rights for your fantastic book Neverhome were optioned in 2014 by Element Pictures—any news on the progress of the adaptation?
LH Still moving full-speed ahead. The script is in its second draft and I have heard personally from the director and others involved that there is great enthusiasm for it and the project more generally. Keep your fingers crossed!
BT What are you working on now?
LH I have the revisions of Red Boy, the witch novel I mentioned above, waiting for me this summer. I continue to work on a long series of semi-autobiographical stories and am researching a new longer project around the subject of the “radium girls” of the 1920s. In other words: quite a bit…