A Conversation with Mary Hamilton

While Vievee and Roxane and Mary were here, I got a chance to sit down with each of them and talk a little bit about their work. Below is the first of these interviews. You can read a transcript of my conversation with Mary below, or click here to hear the full interview as an mp3.

Mary Hamilton: Hi, I’m Mary Hamilton [laughs].

Rachel Lyon: How would you describe yourself as a writer?

MH: I like to write short-short pieces, pieces that sort of take reality and twist it a little bit.

RL: Have you always written like that, or is that sort of a development that’s happened over time?

MH: I think I always had that sensibility, but the end of my first year of grad school I think I sort of discovered that and embraced it and found that there was a lot of possibility within it that I could go with, so I think a lot of times you start grad school you think that you have to be a certain kind of writer, you go in and you think you’re going to be like Alice Munro, and then you discover that Alice Munro is Alice Munro, and you figure out what you really want to do.

RL: So what’s that process like, then? Sort of refining your voice, or allowing your voice to come through?

MH: Um, I think for me when it happened was I had an instructor so I had to be confident with what I was writing. We had one-on-one meetings, so I had to be really confident when I went into that meeting of what I was bringing to him, so that anything he said back to me I could back it up, and believe in it. So I think after that experience happened, if I put something out into the world I have to believe in it, so I think that’s a big part of developing that so-called voice: knowing that it’s yours. And then when you put it out, even if someone rejects it, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s me.’ So you move on a little bit.

RL: At this point, where do you say you are in your writing career?

MH: I’m pretty chill about it, actually. I love writing, I love putting my work out, I love the prospect of collections coming along the line in the future, which I think is good. I’m not one of those writers whose great ambition is to be in the New York Times. My goal is just to have people read my work and like it. To me, that’s success.

RL: What do you hope people will take away from reading your work?

MH: Um, something. [Laughs.] For me it’s more of a conversation with the reader than anything else. As long as somebody got something out of it I’m happy. Because the stories are really short; there’s not a lot of certain details in them, I guess, there’s not a lot of, like, this is what this means, and this is what this means. So if someone thinks the story means one thing to them, and another person thinks it means something to them, I’m cool with that.

RL: Your stories do kind of resist interpretation. Can you talk a little bit about that? The directness, I guess.

MH: For me, I know exactly what it’s about, I know exactly what it looks like, I know everything about it, but I get a lot more out of talking to poets about writing than I do, I guess, to fiction writers, because my perspective on it I guess  is similar to a poet’s perspective, where it is like a conversation, so you say something to someone and they hear it and they say something back to you. With poetry you’re more open, it’s more obvious that the reader’s going to interpret it in the way they want to read it, and with fiction you’re expected to tell them, ‘This is what’s up,’ and I kind of like playing that line with fiction, and saying, ‘Well, I’m going to write a story that you’re going to interpret the story the way you want to.’

RL: So why fiction, then? Why do you write fiction?

MH: Because it’s what I am, you know? I’m a terrible poet [laughs]. And I really like playing that line in fiction.

RL: Well, how are your stories not poems?

MH: ‘Cause I say they’re not. [Laughs.] That’s it. If someone wants to call it a poem, they can call it a poem, but for me they’re stories.

RL: You were talking a little bit about this group of writers that you send work back and forth to and from. This is a community that you met in grad school?

MH: Oh, that was a project I did in grad school with two of my friends. We had similar sensibilities, but very different writing styles, and so just for a couple of months we got together and just did a little project, where we sent pieces to each other that connected to each other in a way, just to get some writing done, and out of that I got some pieces that I really liked, which, one I’ll read today.

RL: Yeah, let’s go ahead and do that.

MH: Okay. So the project was that my friend Kate would write a very short piece and she’d send it to Patrick, Patrick would write a short piece to follow that, and send his piece to me, and I would write a short piece to follow Patrick’s, and I’d send my piece to Kate. So there was that gap in between where something unexpected would happen. So we had this main character whose name is Thomas and he’s an elf, and you would write what you think happened to Thomas, and by the time it got back to you it had totally evolved and you’d have to rethink the character a little bit. So this is one of the pieces I wrote. It’s called “Never Ever.”

It’s one of those things like how a riddle works its way into the notches in your sinus cavity and lingers and infects and wakes you at night and you try every possible path to resolution, and still you can’t figure the answer. And still you are awake at four a.m. And still you are debating the right moment to ask if you can move your hand from the place where she has situated it so your finger could hold tight the wrapped ribbon while she fixed a bow of multiplying loops over your purple now blue finger and she doesn’t notice the colors changing because she is worrying over the color of the ribbon. The pink sage color of the ribbon and it seems to be clashing with the paper and while she is fretting over ribbon versus paper you are sniffling back any mucus that is attempting to escape your nose and you are considering the impact of asking her if it is time to let go because that is a question that you never ever want to ask. Never ever never ever never.

RL: To what extent are the characters in your work… like, how personal is your work?

MH: Very. Yeah. That’s what helps with fiction, ‘cause you can hide behind a character. Yeah.

RL: The idea of the mask that both limits you and frees you to talk about certain things.

MH: Mm-hm.

RL: How does that work for you?

MH: I think it allows you to go where you wouldn’t go yourself, in a way, like you can make the character do something that you weren’t brave enough to do, or say what you weren’t brave enough to say. In the last year I’ve written a couple sort of nonfiction pieces that I got really honest with, and that’s really scary, to be like, ‘This is me!’ Super scary. Much easier to do if it’s an elf named Thomas, like, he can do whatever. It’s much easier to be honest within a character than to be honest within yourself. But I’m getting older. [Laughs.] Time to get real.

RL: Yeah, it’s time for sincerity.

MH: You hit your thirties, and you’re like, ‘There’s no turning back.’

RL: What does it mean to you to be a woman writer right now?

MH: I think the biggest part is just putting out real work, and strong work, making sure people read it, you know? I mean I’ve had some conversations with a couple friends of mine who are male editors, and they’re like—and I know that they mean this—they don’t choose what they’re going to put into their journals based on the name, they totally do it based on the work, but it’s also like, you’re coming at it from a male sensibility of what you like, so you kind of need to open your brain up a little bit and think about all sensibilities when you put together a journal. But as far as feedback, I think, for me anyway, men and women have responded to my work equally, which I like. So, just as long as I’m getting my voice out there.

RL: You’re not a writer by day.

MH: Right.

RL: Your day job is…

MH: I’m an optician! [Laughs.] I love it. I love being an optician. For those that don’t know, an optician doesn’t do the eye exam. I like to say we’re sort of like the pharmacists for glasses. But the work I do is sort of a blend between that and also it’s eyewear itself. The product itself has a lot of different categories, a lot of different levels, and I work with very small, independent designers, handmade glasses, so a lot of what I do is looking at faces, and fitting faces to glasses.

RL: So you’re the person who says, ‘Oh you shouldn’t have square glasses, you should have round glasses,’ or.

MH: It’s even more detailed than broad shapes like that. We have about nine hundred frames in our store for optical glasses, and then we have another two or three hundred sunglasses. It’s looking at a person’s eyes, nose, brow line, jaw, cheekbones, and then thinking about the exact frame we have that would fit that person, so it’s a whole other part of the brain that I use at work than I do when I’m writing.

RL: There’s a lot of math involved, right?

MH: Yes. I love math.

RL: What’s that balance like, then? You spend your day figuring out these equations or whatever, and then you go home and you write. What is that like, that transition?

MH: Well, it’s sort of freeing, because you get home and you still have all this creative energy. I mean, it’s work, you know. There are days when you’re really tired and you get home and you just want a beer. But it doesn’t suck away that creative energy that goes into writing, so I feel like I don’t use up any words, you know, like I don’t use up anything. And it’s sort of this constant discovery, because you never know who you’re going to meet in that job, you know, because everyone wears glasses. I could meet an airline pilot, I could meet a ballroom dancer, I could meet a heart surgeon, you know, in the same day, and have conversations with them. It informs my work quite a bit, because I like to find inspiration in all kinds of places. It feeds it, I think, having that.

RL: Do those characters make their way into your work?

MH: No, but it’s sort of like understanding the world is bigger than you, on a personal level. I’m a very independent writer, in a way, like I go home and I write a story, and I don’t really think of it in a broader sense than that, they’re very personal and they’re very small. It’s more of understanding the world on a one-to-one level, and the store I work at, it’s very one-to-one. Someone comes in and you work solely with them for about an hour.

RL: So it’s a very intimate experience.

MH: Yeah.

RL: That seems like it would foster a kind of serenity or something.

MH: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s a great experience for most people. They feel loved.

RL: I guess I’m curious about your background, where you come from, your life.

MH:  Well, I grew up in Minnesota, youngest of five kids. And I went to school in upstate New York. I actually went to school for video production and radio production, and I thought I was going to be a video editor. And I went out to LA and I did some internships, and I decided I didn’t want to be a video editor. And so I spent my whole senior year of college taking English courses and writing courses. I bummed around Boston for three years, which was, I highly suggest it. And then I decided to do it, and I went to grad school for writing. It was something I always knew that I wanted to do, and never could admit that I wanted to do. So finally admitted it, and then stumbled into opticianry while I was in Chicago. And then I recently moved to LA, back to LA, for an optician job, but it’s sort of funny that I landed back there.

RL: How do these different places or different cities work into your work? What does LA mean to you that Minnesota doesn’t mean?

MH: I think I have a lot of Minnesota still going on in my work, just the physical space of it. A lot of the stories are still set in forests, and a lot of the times when I’m writing I’m still think about the way the sky looks there at night, and trees, and it’s definitely still more informative to my work than any other place I’ve lived. A lot of my stories, even though they don’t have strong physical descriptions, I see the place in my mind really clearly, and usually what I’m seeing is Minnesota.

RL: So then how does LA work itself in, if at all?

MH: Um, I’m still so new there, that it hasn’t yet, actually. It’s still too new to have done anything yet.

RL: Where do you see your work going now?

MH: I can definitely see it evolving, and it’s sort of fun to see that. I’ve been playing with shifting the narrator, and sort of finding ways to end stories with almost a little surprise. Kind of like I did with one of the stories in IR, the bird story. When I had that ending I felt like I made a discovery in my writing, that I could do that. It was a really freeing way of ending a story for me.

RL: What exactly was it doing?

MH: Not resolving anything, but resolving. You know, it’s like the way that story ends, it’s like a shrug. And it was really freeing to be able to end a story without having that beautiful final line that everybody wants to have at the end of a story. It’s just a sort of ‘well, there it is’ kind of story, and that was really freeing to me to be able to do that, and I’ve sort of been incorporating that feeling almost earlier into stories now, and shifting what a narrator can be, and what a main character can be. So I’m working on a story right now where the main character is actually light, the idea of light. And it’s fun playing with that, saying, like, ‘I can do this. Who’s gonna stop me?’ You know? It’s fun to see your work evolving, and being okay with taking chances.

RL: It seems like there’s something kind of existential about that shrug.

MH: Yeah it’s great, it’s freeing.

RL: Are you putting together another collection right now? What are you working on?

MH: I have a collection coming up with the LitPub, later this year. It’s been done for alittle over a year, and so I’m figuring out these new stories, and working toward, I think, another project, another collection.

RL: What do you think are some misconceptions about short fiction?

MH: Oh, there are so many. There are so many. It’s getting more respect lately, but I think a lot of people look at it as practice for a novel, like, ‘Oh you put out a short story collection, the next thing you have to do is put out that novel,’ or, ‘You’re not really a writer until you’ve written a novel, ‘cause the novel is the big thing you have to do as a writer.’ I think a lot of people look at short stories as practice, or as, ‘Isn’t that cute, look, they’re having fun with that.’ And I think that’s a misconception because for me, short story writing, like, you can’t slack off at all. The shorter the story is, the more is at stake with every single word, every single image that you choose, and there’s really no room to take a breather. You have to be on your game with every single word when you’re writing short-short stories, so for me it’s much more difficult. [Laughs.] I’ve never tried to write a novel. I don’t want to try to write a novel. But I think it’s just as hard.

RL: Who are some writers that you admire?

MH: Like, living writers?

RL: No, not necessarily.

MH: Okay. I love Langston Hughes. Probably the most influential writer for me. I like Jack Kerouac a lot—I know a lot of women don’t like him, but I love him. And I read this book called Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett, which is probably the most influential book for me in the last year or two. It’s a nonfiction book—he’s a linguist—and Mary Roach. I love her. And it’s not about language; it’s about topic with her. Well, it’s about language; she knows what language to use to convey these topics.

RL: So two out of four of those are nonfiction writers.

MH: Yeah. I read more nonfiction than fiction.

RL: How’s that reflected in your work?

MH: When I read nonfiction, even if it’s written poorly, I’m discovering something and it’s opening the world up and showing me more of the world, which I know a lot of people find through fiction, but I get really picky, and I get really angry if I’m reading fiction and it’s not good. I’m like, ‘Well, I’m giving you this time of my life, and you’re not feeding it.’ Whereas with nonfiction if it’s a fascinating topic, it’s like, ‘Well, you can’t write, but, wow, that’s fascinating that there’s a patron saint of ugly people. Who knew?’ I’m very impatient when I read fiction. If I don’t like a book, I’ll just stop reading it. If I don’t like a short story, it doesn’t matter how long it is, I’ll stop reading it. If I’m giving my time to something I want it to reward me. And I listen to a lot of music, like I just sit and stare at the wall and listen to music a lot. It’s hard for writing to compete with really good music. You can’t compete with a really good song.

RL: It’s not apples and oranges?

MH: No. [Laughs.] I mean, you want to have some sort of response to art. I had a great conversation with a friend of mine once about Jack Kerouac’s book Mexico City Blues, and how he was really trying to create music with his writing. Langston Hughes has a lot of music in his writing. And I don’t mean like literally referencing music, but imitating the rhythm and the feel of music, and I think that’s why I respond to those two writers so much, because there is that musicality to their work.

RL: Is there anything else you want to say before we wrap things up?

MH: Thanks for having me!

RL: Thanks for coming in.