An Interview with Daniel Hayes
There's something very creepy about the characters in Daniel Hayes's books. Lonely and anxious, they seek out connections with others in unconventional ways. In his book of short stories, Kissing You, the narrator of "Twenty-six Hours, Twenty-Five Minutes" justifies stalking his romantic interests before getting up the nerve to ask them out:
Stalking has the advantage of allowing you to find out a lot, Bob, without opening things up. Otherwise, it's like handing over a blank check: you tell the woman of your interest, you lay it on out there like you were nodding your head at your own evisceration. Go ahead, here, take the knife. And now she knows so much more about you than you could ever hope to know about her, and there's no telling what's going to happen next, but it's probably, you know, Good-bye, Mr. Fuckboy.
In his novel Tearjerker, Evan Ulmer is a frustrated writer who kidnaps high-profile editor Robert Partnow and keeps him in a cage in his basement. Unfortunately, Ulmer never really worked out in his head what he would do with Partnow once he had him, and he struggles to make Portnow like him and understand why he did what he did. Tearjerker is not the thriller the basic premise makes it sound like. Instead, it's a fascinating character study of two men in surprisingly similar situations, a criticism of the New York publishing industry, and a meditation on writing.
I talked to Daniel Hayes from San Francisco.
So I went about Googling your name and found another Daniel Hayes, the Trouble with Lemon writer.
I gave a reading up at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, and the woman who introduced me asked if there was anything special, and I said, “No, go ahead and say whatever you want to say,” and she introduced me as that writer. Only I had broadened my horizons, I wasn’t only writing children’s books any longer. And it was horrifying, but I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt her, so I just let her go.
Well, at least they didn’t market the event as being a children’s book writer. That would have been a little bit awkward.
There was another time in Wisconsin when they did that. I actually had the poster with my name on it, my picture on it, and all this information about children’s books. They caught it at the last minute and put up a correct poster.
So you never had to read your stories with all the swear words in front of a group of children.
I know! It’s a problem.
What I noticed most about your books Kissing You and Tearjerker is the free floating anxiety surrounding the characters and events. Most of your narrators tend to be very tense.
Did you say tense or intense?
Tense. Although both actually.
I think I am drawn to that kind of character, but I think that’s just more of who I am, so I end up, I hope I end up writing more than about people just like me, but in that sense it’s kind of hard to get away from that. I think I’m both tense and intense, so that comes across.
Also in your books, in Kissing You you had a story about stalking, and in Tearjerker you have an abduction. Your characters seem to be trying to force intimacy with others…
That’s a great way of putting it. I think it’s true. I thought of that before with the stalking and the kidnapping, and something just about going over a line, doing something you’re not supposed to do. And then trying to make it reasonable to yourself or to the outside world. I like that idea. I’m not the type of person who goes over lines, but I like imagining myself as somebody who does. In both cases, it’s somebody who is trying very hard and yearning for an intimacy. Evan is yearning for an audience. He’s yearning to be a writer and be successful, but on the other hand he ends up not knowing what he’s doing with Bob and ends up wanting to be closer to him. He wants to get closer to Promise, too, but it’s just an odd way of wanting to be close to someone.
Also in Tearjerker, Evan has a lot of criticism for the New York publishing scene, and you ended up publishing with Graywolf (a small press in Minneapolis), far away from New York. What have been your interactions with the New York publishing scene?
I think my interactions with the New York houses have been totally negative. [Laughs.] I don’t think anything has ever come out of any of those interactions. I have been trying for a long time. It took a long time to get those stories published. There were other stories that would be dropped out as newer stories came in, but I’ve got a zillion rejections from New York houses. Inevitably your book, your manuscript is like your child almost. You want the best for it. And so I figured they can do the best, they can give me the best exposure. It might not always be as kind as a small publisher, but they have more money, they have more clout. I’ve tried with them, and it hasn’t worked. I don’t know what it is. It’s been a long road, and it’s been a lot of thinking of, “What’s wrong? What am I doing wrong?” Besides the obvious questions about talent. And then trying to figure out what the publishing world is like, has it changed, do I need connections, do I have the right agent? It’s such a headache. I’ve gotten very nice letters of rejection from publishers in New York, but obviously they didn’t take either book, and I can say they don’t like me. And there’s a way when people don’t like me I end up trying to make them like me. I try to be more mature now and say, well, if they don’t like me then I don’t like them.
How has your experience with Graywolf been?
Graywolf is amazing. I’ve been to Minneapolis or St. Paul twice now to visit, and they’ve been very good to me. You just go into their offices and it’s wide open and things are pretty democratic there. There are only eight people who work there and all of them are nice. My editor’s been great, and I’ve asked for things… sometimes I’ve had disagreements with them, but they’ve always been very gracious. It’s been wonderful.
Your first book was published, by Zadie Smith standards, kind of late in your life.
How long have you been writing?
I’d like to say I was a lawyer for fifteen years and then I decided to be a writer, but I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Basically, out of college there was a point when I thought about going to graduate school in sociology or political theory, but I decided against that. From that point on – what, I’m like 23 years old – I want to be a writer. And I have been out of graduate school, I have an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and I’ve been out of graduate school for fifteen years. I can remember getting out of graduate school and having a collection of stories which eventually turned into Kissing You and thinking this might take some time. Like a couple of years. But Kissing You came out last year, fourteen years after getting the MFA. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid and I went off in different directions for a while, but basically since I graduated from college.
And how is your writing situation now?
I don’t have a day job now. My wife supports us. We have a little girl who is two and a half, so for the past two and a half years I’ve been taking care of her. That’s my job. It’s been a little rough getting writing done, but I’ve been pretty lucky not to have a day job. Before that, Tearjerker was written while I was in Seattle and I just had a lot of time to work. It’s wonderful. Before that, I taught at UCLA for eight years. It’s been wonderful to at least either write full time or write in between taking care of my daughter. It’s a lot better than having a full time job.
On Sharpwriter.com, you said “Writers and readers are typically strangers.” Are you the type of writer who enjoys doing readings and meeting your readers, or do you hate it?
I just got back from going to North Carolina and New York City and Seattle, Minneapolis, so I’m in a good position to answer that question. I like it and not. It makes me nervous and there’s a sort of performance to it. There’s a rush. I can remember this from teaching, that walking into a classroom and talking to students can be very nerve-wracking but also exciting. There’s something about reading the stories or reading the novel and seeing people’s reactions, seeing people there, having the audience right in front of you that I like. But what I don’t like is, I don’t like small crowds because it feels awkward, and there have been many occasions where there were small crowds. But it makes me realize that I didn’t become a writer to perform orally. The way you end up feeling bad, you go to your reading and there are like five people there and you think, well, I guess I must not be a very good writer if there are only five people here. And then I think that this doesn’t really have anything to do with my writing. It says something about popularity. Fundamentally I want to write and be this anonymous person and have anonymous relationship with readers. The idea of meeting readers doesn’t really interest me that much.
You also wrote that writing is a form of exhibitionism. So anonymous exhibitionism?
[Laughs.] I guess so. That’s been with me for a long time, and I think I feel that way more than ever, that it’s sort of a way… Thinking about what you were saying before about intimacy, with Evan Ulmer in Tearjerker, he wants to make a connection with people. He basically wants to talk, he wants to write, and he wants to say, “Here, look at this. Please look at this, please deem this important enough to put your eyes on.” I think that’s what I feel like all of the time. In that way, writing seems very primitive. It seems like what you’re trying to do is say, hey, I have these fantasies and I think you might be interested in them. It’s incredibly presumptuous. It’s also very child-like. It reminds me now of my little daughter and the way she’ll want to tell me stories about her stuffed animals, and it’s extremely important that I’m there and that I’m listening. I think that kind of yearning for an audience or some form of recognition continues when you’re an adult. Something about things being so difficult for me in the publishing industry has made me isolate that yearning more. It looks like of weird. It feels weird. Why do I want to do this? Why do I want people to listen to my fantasies? Or read them.
The character of Evan goes in a completely different direction than where I expected him to go when I first started reading it. I expected more of a revenge fantasy. Did the situation or the character come first for you?
Well, the situation of the abduction and Evan Ulmer came at the same time. For the most part, I think it’s this character. He’s this guy. He’s a loser. He’s a loser and wants to be a winner and doesn’t know what to do about it. What do you do when you dream about something and it doesn’t happen? But I knew that what happened in this case was that he’d abduct somebody, Bob Partnow. From that, what exactly happened out of that I had no idea. I just wanted to wind up the characters, let them talk to each other and see what happened.
In the end of the book, when all of his work is destroyed… that seems like such a painful thing for a writer to have to write. Just the idea of everything this person has written to be completely gone.
Yeah. I’ve had some accidents with computers. Nothing on that order, but yeah, there’s nothing worse. It’s just this feeling… I think you realize that what you’ve written is more you than you, so if that gets taken away or lost, I don’t know what I would do. I hope in the book I bring up that moment of Evan’s life of just horrible. There couldn’t have been a worse retaliation.
There was a lot of sex in Kissing You, and I was just wondering if you have a difficult time writing sex scenes. They’re not your typical who-did-what-to-who scenes.
There came a point when a prior agent said that maybe we need these stories to have a theme. And I thought, oh, that’s nice since I’ve already written them, what is the theme going to be? The title came out of that. I found that almost every story had a kiss in it. It kind of got me thinking about kisses and just how strange they are. I must have an obsession with it because in Tearjerker there’s this whole thing on kissing as well. I don’t know. In the more kind of graphic scenes, I can’t really remember. It never feels like anything to me. That’s the thing about the exhibitionism business, you can actually just say this is me. These are my fantasies or dreams or whatever, and then I just feel completely free of them. It’s impossible for me to feel judged in terms of the material. I can feel judged like crazy in the terms of the quality of it, am I a good writer or whatever, but just in terms of, God, aren’t you embarrassed by that fantasy or that sex scene or whatever, no, never. I think I’m interested in it for the same reason I’m interested in the kissing, or kissing as a form of sex that brings us out the most, that it just seems kind of made up. It’s weird. It’s weird to even think about what a kiss is. And then it’s between these two people and it’s very intimate. But how do you do it exactly, and what does it mean? I’ve always had this feeling that if you kiss somebody then your entire relationship has changed. Your life has changed. There are these people who just kind of kiss people, right? I’ve never understood that. There’s something again about intimacy and getting closer, and how much closer can you get than sexually?
Was it difficult for you to be shopping around a book of short stories as your first book?
Yes. That’s definitely difficult. What you hear is “We love these stories, we’d love to publish them, but it’s difficult is, you know how stories don’t really sell.” Then you go to the bookstore and you see endless piles of short story collections. Or you read something about how stories are more in vogue. So I don’t know. They go in vogue, out of vogue, I don’t really understand it. I do know that there was a pressure to write a novel. I don’t mean a pressure from anybody or any agent, but just in my own head I could see it was something I needed to do. I don’t think it came naturally. Now it feels like it because now I’m at work on another and it seems like the right way to go. I haven’t written a story in a long time.
Was Tearjerker the first novel that you had written?
No, second novel. First novel was called Squishy and never went anywhere. That was a whole other publishing fiasco. I still like the book. I still don’t understand what exactly happened with it. But that was my first attempt to write a novel. I wrote it in a year. I told my agent at the time that in exactly one year I am going to give you a novel. A year later, I gave her a novel. Tearjerker took longer for me.
Was it a more difficult novel to write, or was the situation…
The situation was actually better so I think Tearjerker was more complicated for me. It’s got all those fragments. They become very difficult to work with after a while, because what I’m interested in are the juxtapositions where one thing ends and another begins. Inevitably what I do is write a bunch of things and then cut them out, put them down on the rug like a jigsaw puzzle. Then I start looking at places where there’s a juxtaposition that’s not really working, so I have to insert something there and write something new. That’s kind of how I go from 50 pages to 250 pages. Just trying to get all of those juxtapositions right. The other novel didn’t exactly work that way. It was a more clear narrative.
Tearjerker seemed to be reviewed pretty well on websites. Do you know if your publisher pushed harder for a web presence for this novel?
In fact I hired some people who just do Internet marketing of books to try to… what I wanted to do was hire an independent publicist because Graywolf only has so much time and so much money. Once again, I just wanted to do the book right and give it the best shot. But that didn’t work out and my agent suggested I hire these people who just do Internet publicity. So I pursued that. There were some Internet reviews that got things wrong in the book. That was disturbing to me. It just seemed as though they were written very quickly or something. But for the most part, I just think the more, the merrier. You still end up wishing, where’s the New York Times, why can’t they do one of their little reviews in the Sunday thing. What about the LA Times? Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I’m craving for those kinds of things. It’s also wonderful just to read responses to my book. That’s also a good thing, sometimes at these readings if they come up and tell me what they thought of the book. That’s always nice. You don’t really get that that often.
On your website you mention that you’re a fan of John Banville. As he’s one of my favorite writers, I was wondering what it is about his books that appeals to you.
I like monologues. I really like monologues where there’s just somebody talking at you, and there’s something of a relationship between you the reader and this person. His narrators are hard to take. They make me uncomfortable. And yet I feel I’m in a room with them, talking to them and they’re talking to me. I just love that situation, and I was thinking about, what’s the one, The Untouchable? Have you read that?
It’s just so twisted. It’s somebody talking to you and they’re trying to convince you they’re a good person and you know they’re not a good person, but nevertheless you still like them. The weird thing about Banville is he’s able to create these characters you really like even though they’re really fucked up.