April 2009

Teresa Burns Gunther


An Interview with Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of One Story magazine. Her short story collection, Animal Crackers, has sold in sixteen countries and was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award. Her first novel, The Good Thief, is published by The Dial Press and Headline. The Good Thief is a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, recipient of the American Library Association's Alex Award, and winner of the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. 

Your novel, The Good Thief was just awarded the ALA award, as well as the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, and has been selected for the "Best of 2008" lists by bookstores, newspapers and journals across the country. It has garnered rave reviews from book critics here and abroad. Has this surprised you? Was there one award or review that was particularly meaningful to you?

I’m incredibly grateful that my novel been received so well. All of the reviews and awards have been meaningful. But winning the Sargent Prize might be the most memorable for me, because my parents were able to attend the ceremony, and we had such a wonderful night together.

Your novel seems to pose a number of questions about the human condition. Did you set out to write a novel about redemption? 

I knew that it was going to be a novel about resurrection, of the body and spirit. Redemption is a large part of this, but mostly I wanted to focus on rebirth, particularly of the self, through storytelling.

There are also references to luck and self-determinism. Were you exploring the way people cobble together faith, fact, and superstition to survive, particularly in the darkest hours?

That’s what I do, so it probably makes sense that I approached my characters in the same way. I studied science in college, I was raised Catholic, and I had grandmothers who filled me full of old world superstition. I’ve drawn on each of these things, over the years, to make it through difficult times.

Two books appear in your novel: The Lives of the Saints and The Deerslayer. I believe you said in an earlier interview that you had read and loved the Leatherstocking Tales as a girl. Was there a The Lives of the Saints book in your childhood?

I received a copy of The Lives of the Saints for my first communion, when I was about eight years old. I still have it -- and also bought other versions over the years.
The Lives of The Saints reflects Catholic belief in divine intervention while The Deerslayer involves moralizing and self-determinism. Is Ren’s journey discovering that faith must be balanced with action?

I think Ren’s survival is a combination of these two books -- religious faith and mysticism tempered with the hard facts of the natural world. Ren’s moral outlook may not be as black and white as Deerslayer’s, but he has the same courage and determination of character.

Was this always Ren’s story for you?

Yes. I knew it was Ren’s story from the very first scene.

The men in The Good Thief are so uncivilized, like orphans, lost souls in need of mothering. Even the miners are “lost men, huddled together in the darkness.” Could your novel be read as a cautionary tale of the dangers to men inherent in a life without the civilizing influence of a woman?

Ha! Maybe.

In The Good Thief -- the women -- Mrs. Sands, Sister Agnes, the mousetrap girls, the young barmaid -- are the only characters who do an honest day’s work? Even the monks are relatively idle leaving the cleaning of orphans and orphanage to the nuns and the work of the winemaking to the boys. Was this intentional? 

I do think that women keep the world running. My mother often says that if it were up to men there would be no holidays, no keeping of traditions, and no children.

As you developed the character of Mrs. Sands, what made you decide to have her yell? She is loud, rough and odd; did you draw her this way to be a stark contrast to Ren’s fantasies of a mother?

Some characters simply appear on the page. When I first wrote Mrs. Sands, I didn’t realize that she was going to be such an important figure in Ren’s life. She was simply shouting when she opened the door, and I felt she should keep on shouting. It wasn’t until later drafts that I realized she was the mother Ren had always hoped for.

The epigraph to your novel, the Emerson quote, implies that your novel is also about the power of storytelling.

I looked up that quote after writing the mousetrap factory in to the book. All I remembered was: “If you can build a better mousetrap…” I wanted to see the complete quote and context and add it to my folder of notes for the book. But when I read the entire quote I realized that it actually was more complex: “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” I discovered the quote covered not only mousetraps, but religion (another important element of the book) and storytelling. I put the quote on my wall, as a sort of challenge to myself -- to write a better book. The best I possibly could.
Ren experiences the world as story. Is Ren’s strength derived, in part, from his storyteller’s mind?

I think Ren naturally has a storyteller’s gifts, even at the start of the book, because he is an outsider and therefore an observer. He notices small things that other people overlook, and those details give him power, the only power he really has, and Benjamin teaches him how to use it.

Benjamin Nab is a brilliant storyteller, as is Ren. Do you think that some of us are born storytellers and others born listeners? 

I think everyone has a story. The skill comes in the telling of it. 

The description of Ren falling into the book, body and soul, is so visceral. Is this an experience you had with a first loved book? 

I’ve had that experience with many books. My parents always read to my siblings and myself before we went to bed, and that created a real love of literature among us. Roald Dahl’s books certainly made me feel this way, as did fairy tales, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Brontës.

What did you draw from to create the vivid details of the orphanage? 

I used a combination of things -- my own Catholic school upbringing, monasteries I’ve visited, an orphanage in Rome I saw that had a slot for pushing babies through, the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, MA in 1834 by their Protestant neighbors, and finally Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, that has an enormous, high, sloping brick wall around it, also built for protection from anti-Catholics in the 1800s.

The hospital with its clandestine autopsies and dissections, the body floating in alcohol, the knife hungry doctor… Did you do extensive research to create the doctor and the hospital? 

I read a number of books that helped create Doctor Milton and the hospital. The Knife Man by Wendy Moore, a great biography of the surgeon John Hunter, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls by Guenter B. Risse, a history of hospitals, and Roy Porter’s books Blood & Guts: A Short History of Medicine and The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. I also visited the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia.

Didn’t you resurrect the term “resurrection men” for your novel? Were you in the process of writing the story when you came upon the term, or did the term lead you into the story? 

The term led me to the story. A friend had given me Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English, a book of words that have fallen out of use in the English language, and “Resurrection Men” was one of them. After coming across it I immediately formed a scene in my mind, of a graveyard, and the robbers, and a young boy keeping watch for them. I zeroed in on the boy, and as soon as I discovered he was missing his hand, I knew I had a novel to write.

The Good Thief is rich with religious metaphor and symbolism, particularly the character of Dolly, dressed like St. Francis. He was buried, is resurrected, repents, receives absolution and dies, to be buried again. “Hell?” he says, “I’ve already been there and come back.” Is Dolly the embodiment of the Resurrection, of redemption?

The whole book is a meditation on resurrection. Dolly embodies it in the physical sense -- he is literally resurrected -- and also in a more spiritual way. He is a bit of a Frankenstein, not quite of this world or the next. But returning allows him to have his first (and in my mind, only) connection with another human being, a small boy named Ren. He later saves Ren’s life, and in this way redeems a bit of his murderous past.

In one recent interview you mentioned a ghost story from your childhood about a woman being buried while asleep. Was this the seed for Dolly? 

I didn’t consciously associate this ghost story with Dolly when I created him, but later as I did revisions for the novel I remembered it, and worked the teeth pulling into the story as a result (the woman wakes up when grave robbers try and steal her teeth). It’s incredible how much the unconscious is capable of accessing and transferring into your writing -- all past experiences, memories and tiny moments of thoughts.

I loved the surprise of Dolly as the darner. “My mother taught me.” Did this surprise you as well? 

I wanted Dolly to be able to do something active in the scene with Ren, so I introduced the darning as an unexpected talent for this professional murderer. Although it does make sense that a man who lived alone would know how to darn his own socks in those days. My mother and sister both knit socks. It’s a beautiful thing -- all those separate needles -- so I knew how it should be done. Now, when you buy socks, they sometimes have a different color on the toes and heels. In early days the reason for this was that someone was replacing the areas of the socks that wear out, with whatever yarn was available. It’s funny that socks are still designed this way -- a remnant of the past.

You’ve written stories about “hit men” before. What is it that draws you to these characters? 

Their controlled violence and isolated emotional landscape. It’s a different thing to murder in a skilled way, rather than as an act of madness. I’m interested in people who can separate themselves morally from what they are doing, and continue to live.

What is the significance of the Dwarf to the novel? Is he meant to show that without family one is lost, helpless?

The dwarf magically appeared as I was writing, and I didn’t understand his connection to the book for a long time. In revisions, I came to see that he was an example of how Ren might end up -- disconnected physically from the world. Just as Dolly was another example -- someone who was disconnected emotionally.

Why have the dwarf come through the chimney? Not a door into the attic or simply living in a room upstairs? 

He just arrived that way when I wrote the scene, and it felt right. I grew up in an old house full of chimneys, nearly one in every room -- and it seemed a logical way to travel through the building. At the time I started the novel I was living in an old tenement in the East Village, and I spent a lot of time on the roof. It was a sanctuary from the madness of New York City, and I wanted the dwarf to live there. I was also inspired by Dickens’s stories of chimney sweeper’s apprentices, small boys that would be sent up through the flues to clean them out. Sometimes the boys would get stuck or asphyxiate and die from the smoke.

Did you draw upon the Bible in creating the exhumed family? You made them Sarah and Samuel. In the bible, Sarah is one of the most revered women. A witch with a talisman summoned Samuel’s ghost after his death. (A wishing stone, perhaps?) Why did you dress Sarah in a wedding gown?

Women in this time period were almost always buried in their wedding dresses, because these were the nicest pieces of clothing they owned. I grew up in New England surrounded by old graveyards, and often picnicked and played in them. For this book I went back and spent time there and took many names for characters from the headstones. I also liked the fact that Sarah is such a strong woman in the bible, and Samuel was a judge. Ren’s confrontation with the bodies breaks the distance he’d held from what was really going on behind those gates. There is a moral shifting of his character.  

You suffered an injury to your hand as a child. Was that the impetus for the character of Ren?

I think that this was another act of my unconscious while I was writing, that I didn’t realize until later. When I was about five years old, I was playing in a graveyard and fell. A piece of slate from a broken grave went through my left wrist. I still have a scar there.

The doctor tells Ren, “A scar can take over.” Even though Ren has lost a hand, he seems more competent than most of the other characters in your novel. He never seems to be compromised by his impairment. Was that intentional? 

I think that people who have a deficiency, physical or spiritual, often make up for it in other ways. An alcoholic, for example, will also be extremely magnanimous, or someone who is blind develops an accomplished ear for music. Ren’s deformity is a handicap, but he soon learns how to use it to his advantage.

Why the choice of twins for Ren’s best friends? Twins have such a unique relationship, wouldn’t Ren always be the odd man out?

The twins’ names -- Brom and Ichy -- come from Brom Bones and Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’ve often thought those men were two sides of the same person in conflict with each other. I also wanted Ren to have friends but to still be solitary -- twins made this possible.

Ren is so loveable and pitiable. Was it hard to put him through such difficult trials? At the bleakest moments, did you ever find yourself pulling back, trying unconsciously to protect Ren? 

It was hard, at times. Luckily I knew how the book was going to end, so I could see the light through all of that darkness for him.

Book reviews have called your novel “cinematic.” Do you see a screenplay of The Good Thief in the future? If so, who would you cast in the roles of Benjamin and Ren? 

Richard Russo has optioned the book and is working on the screenplay. I hope that some day it does become a movie. Today I would probably choose Johnny Depp for Benjamin and Dylan Feasier from There Will Be Blood for Ren. But they both might be too old for the roles by the time the movie gets made.

Are you working on a new novel? Would you say you approached your first novel as a short story writer and now, approach your second novel, as a novelist? What has changed? 

I’m playing around with a new novel, but don’t have enough written to decide if it’s workable yet. I’m relieved that I’ve been through the process once already. I hope to bring some of that knowledge to the second project, but I’ve been told by many other authors that each novel presents an entirely different set of problems. My only goal right now is to write another book, and do it well.

You are an acclaimed short story writer and a crusader for the preservation of the short story. Will you continue to write short stories? 

Yes, absolutely!

Teresa Burns Gunther’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Flashquake (Editor's Pick Spring 2008), Peregrine Journal, SOMA Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Thin Air, Lynx Eye Journal, Literary Mama and other literary journals. Her story “Magic Fingers” is forthcoming in the Pen and Brush 2009 Anthology. She teaches writing through Lakeshore Writers in Oakland, California.