June 2004

Michael Schaub

features

An Interview with James Hynes

It's somewhat appropriate that James Hynes has spent the last decade in Austin, Texas, the home of America's biggest public university and most ineffectual state government. Hynes' last three books have variously mocked (and celebrated) both academia and state-run bureaucracy, both in the American Midwest and in the Lone Star State. Although his first book, The Wild Colonial Boy, dealt with political intrigue in Northern Ireland, his next two (the novella collection Publish and Perish and the novel The Lecturer's Tale) were biting, but somewhat loving, satires of academics and the state of modern higher education. His most recent novel, Kings of Infinite Space, reprises a character from Publish and Perish, who moves to Texas and gets a temp job in a state agency, all the while haunted by his ex-girlfriend's dead cat. It's one of the funniest, creepiest books to come around in a long while, and perhaps the best novel to be set in Texas to appear in years. Bookslut interviewed James Hynes at a coffee shop in The People's Republic of South Austin, during the final episode of Friends. We all make sacrifices for our work.

How long have you lived in Austin?

Since May of '95. Going on ten years. Before that, I lived mostly in the upper Midwest. I was born and raised in Michigan. I lived there until my early 30s, then I went to Iowa for three years, where I was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I moved back to Michigan, lived there until I was almost 40, and then moved down to Austin.

Did you like Iowa City?

Yeah, I liked Iowa City a lot. I'm going back there in January. I got asked to teach at the Workshop. It's a nice gig.

How did you get your start writing fiction? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?

Oh, yeah. Since I was in junior high, basically. When I was as young as 17 and 18, I was fearlessly sending stories off to The New Yorker, thinking it was just going to be a matter of weeks or months before I was discovered, and I could be John Updike. But it didn't quite work out that way. I'd send stories, and they'd send them back about two days later. So I learned that lesson pretty quick.

Did you ever write nonfiction? I know you do book reviews sometimes.

I do book reviews. The only other nonfiction I used to do seriously was television criticism for a couple of different places. Originally I started writing TV criticism for a magazine called The Michigan Voice, which was the magazine put out by Michael
Moore in Flint, Michigan, before he became a well-known filmmaker and gadfly. I wrote for him for about a year, then he left Michigan, got a job as the editor of Mother Jones, which he only had for like three or four months before they fired him. I was his TV critic there for about two issues. He was fired, and in a fit of ill-considered solidarity, I quit. Not that anybody at Mother Jones even cared. Then I used to write TV criticism for another year or two for a small lefty magazine out of Chicago called In These Times. I'll write longer literary essays every once in a while for a magazine out of Boston called The Boston Review. They let me do long, five thousand word essays on writers I like. I just finished one on the English writer Pat Barker. In terms of the nonfiction, I do at most three or four pieces a year. Mostly I write fiction now.

I remember reading about Michael Moore's stint at Mother Jones...

Yeah, it was kind of a culture clash, because Michael's kind of a double-edged sword. You know, I like his politics, and I like the fact that he says things nobody else will say. But I don't think it's any secret that he can be difficult. He kind of blew into Mother Jones and kind of pissed off a lot of people right away, and they didn't like it, so they canned him. And since he was the date that brung me, I figured I owed it to him to send a letter to resignation. But like I say, I don't think anyone at Mother Jones really cared whether I resigned or not.

So it's safe to say you haven't written anything for them since then.

Oh, I don't think they know I exist.

Are you able to watch TV normally now?

Oh, I always did. It wasn't like I was a professional TV critic. The other thing about Michael is that he swore that he would pay me, and I think he paid me once for 10 or 15 articles. Which was OK. At that point, I was just happy to get published. So I think I made like 30 bucks off it. So I always felt I was an amateur. I never watched anything just to review it. I was writing about shows I was watching anyway. I would write about Hill Street Blues and Tiger baseball out of Detroit. That was the early days of MTV, I remember I wrote a piece about Madonna's "Material Girl" video, which ages me, I know. That must have been 20 years ago now.

Have you been keeping up with the controversy with Disney and Fahrenheit 9/11?

Oh, yeah, I've been following that. I wouldn't call myself friends with Michael. I'd be really amazed if he even remembered me. I did know him slightly for a little while.

What are you currently working on for The Boston Review?

Just this week I finished a piece form them on Pat Barker. It's kind of a career retrospective. Her first three books are these modern-day working class novels about women in the north of England, then she did the World War I books, and she's got three more recent novels that are set in the present day, but more middle-class. I wrote about all nine or ten. It was really fun, because I really like her a lot. It was a great excuse to sit down and read her entire body of work straight through, and then write about it.

Your first novel was The Wild Colonial Boy, which gets described by a lot of critics as a political novel. Is that accurate?

Oh, yeah. I wanted to write a political story. Back then, my favorite writers were people like John le Carre and Robert Stone. These are still favorite writers of mine, but they don't have quite the hold on me that they did when I was younger. I wanted to write something like Dog Soldiers or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Joseph Conrad is still probably my single favorite writer, and he wrote some semi-satirical political thrillers toward the middle or end of his career, like The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, and I wanted to write a book like that. I very much wanted to write something that was on the one hand a thriller, but also kind of a serious novel about the politics of Northern Ireland.

How did you come to be interested in Irish politics?

Totally by accident. I had been working since I was 22 or 23 on the semi-obligatory, semi-autobiographical novel that every young writer writes. It was a really long, painstakingly detailed, and ultimately incredibly boring novel about a sensitive kid from a small town in Michigan who moves to a college town, and discovers love and literature. It was really tedious, but I worked on it for about five years. Then I broke up with the girl I was seeing at the time, and like a lot of people, decided to go backpacking and walk off the heartbreak. While I was backpacking in England, there was an election going on in Northern Ireland, and that always heats up the violence. And since I was 28 and young and stupid and thought that I wouldn't get hurt, I decided to go to Northern Ireland and see what was going on. That's where I got the idea for the book, when I was walking around the streets of Belfast. And at the time, I thought I'd spend a year and write a really commercial novel, make myself a lot of money, then I'll go back to my quote-unquote more serious small-town, sensitive kid novel. But I spent six years writing The Wild Colonial Boy, and by the time I finished it, I realized the other one was just crap anyway. So that'll never see the light of day, which is probably just as well. But I ended up taking The Wild Colonial Boy a lot more seriously then I thought I was going to.

Did it require a lot of research?

Yeah. I spent maybe not as much time on the ground in Northern Ireland as I should -- I spent about a week in Northern Ireland, and about two weeks in the Republic. Just taking notes, walking around. But then I did a lot of reading -- a lot of Irish history, Irish politics, the history of the IRA. Most of which I've forgotten, I have to say. I feel kind of callous saying this, but once I finished the book, I lost all interest in the politics.

Do you keep up much with American politics?

Oh, you know, I listen to NPR and read the Times every morning, watch Peter Jennings and watch my blood pressure go up every time I see George Bush on the tube. I'm a good Austin Yankee-transplant Midwestern liberal. I follow it, though I can't imagine writing about it. It takes at least two years to finish a novel, and who knows what the world will be like two years from now.

That's true. Bush might not even be president.

God willing.

I always feel a little guilty, being from Texas. I feel like we inflicted this guy on the world.

Wasn't he actually born in Connecticut?

Yes, he was.

Then you're off the hook. You've got Ann Richards and Willie Nelson and Kinky Friedman and Jim Hightower to cling to.

I just read "Queen of the Jungle" [a novella in Publish and Perish, in which the protagonist ends up drowning his girlfriend's cat, Charlotte]. Charlotte is such a great character. Did you base her on a real cat?

She was based a little bit on a cat my wife and I used to have. He was named Mr. Alp. Before that, I wasn't a cat lover. I used to laugh at all the cat killing jokes on Monty Python and stuff. I didn't get cats. Mr. Alp kind of converted me to be a stone cat lover. Part of the reason I liked Mr. Alp was because he was really neurotic and difficult and complicated. The cats I have now are both just marshmallows. They're really lovely, terribly affectionate. But something about the perversity of Mr. Alp really captured my imagination. I ended up loving that cat desperately. Charlotte was based a little bit on him, but in a way, she's kind of a different cat. Alp was never vengeful. Once he decided he liked you, he was really sweet.

As a cat lover, was it hard for you to write the cat killing scene?

Yes and no. I mean, it was in the sense that I would personally murder anybody who ever did that to a cat. I certainly don't approve of that kind of behavior. On the other hand, cat owners are probably like parents. Every once in a while, you're just so fucking frustrated. There's times when you say, "I want to kill that goddamn cat." I never contemplated literally doing it. The way I had Paul murder the cat in the book actually did come to me once when I was living in Iowa City. I had a really nice second-floor apartment, and this squirrel kept getting into it. Finally we caught it one day in one of those Havahart live traps, and my landlady was going to come by and take it to the woods and set it loose -- which is ultimately what happened. But I hated that squirrel so much for the damage it was doing to my apartment and the nights it was keeping me awake, and I thought, "What if it just set it in the bathtub, and turned the tap on, and walked away and let it drown?" And the thing is, it's frightening, because I've never even been in a shoving match in my life. I'm about as nonviolent and nerdy a guy as you could find. But like a lot of people of my generation who grew up watching violent movies, I have an incredibly violent imagination. So it kind of alarmed me. That, and the end of The Wild Colonial Boy, where I had somebody plant a bomb in an art museum and then had the bomb go off. After I wrote that scene, I was shaking. I was so terrified, sickened by what I'd done. It was almost as if I'd set a bomb off myself. But I was kind of put off by the violence myself in "Queen of the Jungle." I thought it was hideous. But I don't know -- you always read interviews with great actors, and they talk about how much fun it is playing the violent guys, the sick bastards. Take Christopher Walken, who's played one sick bastard after another. And then you read profiles of him, and he's just the nicest guy. He's evidently a really soft-spoken, sweet, generous gentle man. But presumably he kind of vents this stuff in his performances. So I kind of hope it works that way for me. Instead of actually screaming at people, or doing something violent, I can imagine it, and go home and cuddle up on the couch with my cats and watch Sex
and the City
.

When you finished writing "Queen of the Jungle," did you have any idea you'd be bringing Paul and Charlotte back?

No, no, no. I thought that was a one-off. I didn't even think about it. It didn't occur to me that they'd ever come back.

How did you decide to bring them back?

I had the idea for the new novel when I was temping at TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation). I'd never worked in an office before. I had my second book out, I was getting wonderful reviews, and I ran out of money. And I ended up working as an eight-dollar-an-hour Manpower typist at TxDOT. It could have been kind of humiliating, but a lot of writers are used to doing that kind of thing. Your book goes out there, and gets read by a lot of people, and actually has a better social life than do you. Meanwhile, you're sitting in some cube, reading boring technical documents. But I'd never worked in an office before. It was kind of exotic to me. And I had this epiphany the first or second week I worked there. I stood up in my cube to stretch, and the cube wall came up to about my nose when I stood up. The office was really underlit, really dim. And I could hear all these people around me, people talking on the phone, typing, all that kind of stuff. And I did a complete 360 -- I could hear all this activity around me, but I couldn't see another living soul. It struck me as a really Gothic situation, like I was the only one alive in a room full of ghosts. And right then, the idea for the book came to me. I'd already written Publish and Perish, where I kind of reimagined academia as a Gothic setting. And I thought, hell, it looks like the world of ordinary cube life is Gothic, too. And I sat right down and I wrote all this stuff down. I needed a character who was a fish out of water, a guy who'd been in academia. I didn't want to make it myself. And it just occurred to me: "Wait a minute, I got somebody. I got a washed-up academic I can use. I got Paul. His career's over."

What kind of reaction, if any, did you get from people in academia about Publish and Perish and The Lecturer's Tale? Was there any hostility?

I've never gotten anything personally, in the sense that no one's ever called me up drunk and angry in the middle of the night. Like every other writer who's drawn breath these days, I've Googled myself. I run across reviews or essays where people seemed a little ticked off at some of the stuff I had to say. The thing you have to remember about academic satire is that the target demographic for it is basically academics. The people who read it and love it the most are the very people I'm making fun of, which is kind of interesting. Upon occasion, I've run into people who seem to be upset at the things I say. But most people take it in good humor. They're in on the joke. A lot of them agree with what I had to say. The most perceptive reviews of the books seem to recognize that I have a love-hate relationship with academia. I'm not really an academic -- I don't have a Ph.D. and I never studied for one. But I've been in and around academia most of my life. My father was a college professor. It's the world I know and the world I love. It just seems to be par for the course for satire. If I didn't care about academia so much, I wouldn't have spent four years of my life writing two books about it. If I thought it was completely silly and a waste of time, I would have walked away from it and never given it a second chance, and kept writing books like The Wild Colonial Boy. But it's because I'm passionate about literature, and passionate about how it's taught, and about the disjunction between what academia claims to be -- which is a disinterested realm where people can have this life of the mind -- and what it really is, which is kind of scorpions in a bottle fighting over diminishing resources. I get angry about it, and I vent it in my books. So I have a complicated relationship with academia, and I think for the most part, insofar as academics even know who I am, they have a complicated reaction to me.

Have you read many of the other academic satires, like Randall Jarrell's Letters from an Institution?

The only time I've ever read academic satire was years before I ever knew I was going to be doing it. When I was at the Writers' Workshop at Iowa, I read a couple of David Lodge novels. I read Changing Places, and I read Nice Work, back when it was a brand new book. I enjoyed them. And then I didn't read any academic satire for a long time. Then when I realized I was writing them, I made a conscious decision not to read any of them. I didn't want it to leech into my own work. So I'm sure there's some David Lodge in my book, but it was like six or seven years between the time I actually read one of his books and when I actually sat down and tried to write an academic satire. So I've never read Randall Jarrell; I've never read Mary McCarthy's book; I've never read Moo or Straight Man. Since my books have come out, I've been sent some satires to review, so I read Philip Roth's The Human Stain, which I probably wouldn't have read unless they sent it to me. I reviewed that for the Washington Post. I reviewed J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace for the Post. After I finished The Lecturer's Tale, I read Francine Prose's Blue Angel, because I'd heard good things about it. My favorite academic novels, actually, are ones that don't get talked about very much. One is Swan by Carol Shields, the Canadian novelist who just passed away. That's a wonderful book. It's my favorite academic novel. My other favorite is Pnin by Nabokov. This is a terrific book as well.

Moo and Blue Angel were pretty brutal, I thought. It didn't seem like they had the love-hate thing so much as just pure hate. I mean, they're great books, but...

Well, Francine Prose has a pretty jaundiced idea of what the academic life is like. I don't blame her. That life will make you jaundiced. I think she writes more from the point of view of an outsider. Most writers who teach in academia aren't really academics. The majority of people who teach in MFA programs, I think, tend to be working writers who just need the gig. And I continue to apply for them and not get jobs, and I don't know if that's because I've pissed off so many people with my books, or because it's just a really, really bad job market. I know there are other writers who are sort of at my level, kind of mid-list people with a lot of books out and a fairly decent reputation who can't get jobs either. I have no burning desire to be in academia; it's just that of all the things I know how to do, it's the most congenial way I know of to make a living. And I really do enjoy the teaching. The other stuff that goes on around it, I could do without, but you're going to get that with any job. There's going to be stuff you don't like. A job in academia at the very least allows me to talk about something I love, and gives me a lot of time to write.

And you like interacting with the students?

I do. The nice thing about teaching, from a purely selfish point of view, is that it forces a teacher, a writer, to articulate things that he may know instinctively, but has never actually said out loud before. Somebody, in another interview just a few days ago, asked "How do you build suspense? What are your techniques?" And I was kind of taken aback. I mean, I just do it. But that's the kind of thing that comes up in a classroom. And I think that would be really helpful for me as a writer to have to codify that. And in talking with a younger writer or a student, I would be forced to actually think about that. How do I make something suspenseful? What are the actual, literal, technical, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, scene-by-scene things that I do to make something suspenseful? Anything that you can do that makes you look at your craft a little more self-consciously is probably a good thing overall. It's possible to be too self-conscious about it. But it's just fun. You get kind of a contact high from young writers who are still excited, and they're not necessarily jaded and burnt out about the publishing process, or cynical about all that stuff.

Was there any particular reason you chose to set Kings of Infinite Space in "Lamar," as opposed to Austin?

Well, I had used Lamar, Texas in an earlier novella in Publish and Perish, and I think I did it because all the other settings in that book were fictional. Like the one in "Queen of the Jungle" was kind of a fictional version of Iowa City, and the one in "99" was a fictional version of an English village in Wiltshire. So I just decided to make it this fictional Texas college town. It kind of frees you up a little bit, in that you can move the geography around. You can be a little more sarcastic and snide without pissing anybody off. But it's still recognizably Austin. So I decided I'd set this novel in Lamar for all the same reasons. I could make Enchanted Rock [near Fredericksburg, Texas] Lonesome Knob, and I could move it closer to Austin. The book I'm working on now is set in Austin, and I'm calling it Austin.

Is the book you're working on now also going to deal with academia?

No. The main character is a staff worker at a university, but he's not an academic himself. But it's not about academia. That's all I can say about it. I'm really superstitious about that stuff.

Fair enough. Do you ever write short stories?

I used to. In fact, the novellas in Publish and Perish were supposed to be short stories. And that's what happen when I try to write a short story. Then end up being 30,000 words. I've written like two short stories in the past ten years. It's not a medium I'm comfortable with. I'm just too long-winded.

Well, I'm sorry to make you miss the final episode of Friends.

I'm taping it.

Me too.

It's stupid, because i haven't actually watched the show in five years. So I don't know what's happened between the time I stopped watching it and now. But you know, 90 percent of the viewing public is going to be watching it, and I figure as the former TV critic and sometime cultural anthropologist, I probably ought to pay attention.