June 2009

Drew Toal

features

An Interview with James Hannaham

James Hannaham’s debut novel, God Says No, just published by McSweeney’s, is the heartbreaking story of Gary Gray -- a young, overweight, gay, Jesus-loving black man in the midst of an understandable identity crisis. As Gary fights against his nature to please both his family and a vengeful god, he finds himself at first cultivating a double life (under the name of August Valentine), and later rehabbing from his homosexual affliction at a special de-gaying facility. As he alternates between public rest stops and churches, Gary must come to accept or reject his flamboyant inner demons.

Hannaham, formerly an editor at Salon and an erstwhile member of the performance troupe, Elevator Repair Service, creates a memorable character to be simultaneously admired and pitied. I sat down with Hannaham at the Smoke Joint in Brooklyn to talk about his book over a few beers (although technically, he ordered wine).

How’s it going?

It’s funny. I know so much more about what your job is than what mine is now.

Yeah, how is it being on the other end?

Well, it’s nice not having to pay. Oh, and I’m happy to not have to transcribe.

Can’t trust interns.

Yeah, I wouldn’t either. What if I made some strange face? Your intern wouldn’t understand that.

Yeah. I get embarrassed listening to myself on tape. I don’t want anyone else hearing that. Anyway, it took me a little while to read your book, because they sent me the big, unwieldy unbound version.

Oh, you got one directly from McSweeney’s. Did that effect your enjoyment of the book?

I don’t think so. I couldn’t really carry it on the train, but looked forward to reading it when I got home, although I had to juggle it with other books.

I try to read one thing that I’m either obligated to read or that I want to read at a time.

There’s so many of them though!

Yeah I know. Last year I had the good fortune to be employed to do that a lot of the time, because I was looking at Salon. It was wonderful and nerve-wracking. I was in the “culture department,” which meant that I had to stay on top of absolutely everything, and people in that business have a way of talking to one another that assumes that you are on top of everything. So if you’re not, you’re acutely aware that you’re not. Sacha Frere-Jones does this a lot. He could mention any fucking band; he could even make bands up, just sort of throw them out to you and use some crazy adjective. “It’s such a juicy record. Like, have you heard the new Goofus? It’s so juicy.”

Yeah, you have to be careful.

[Laughs] Fortunately, most people aren’t asshole enough to do that. I do have a good solution, conversationally, if somebody mentions a name that they expect you to know but you don’t. Without breaking, you just ask, “The sculptor?” And they will explain to you who they are talking about without that moment, [in snotty voice] “You don’t know who that is?” that is so embarrassing and humiliating.

What’re you reading now?

I’m reading Matthew Aaron Goodman’s novel, Hold Love Strong.

The sculptor!

It’s about a black kid in the projects, based on the story of Abraham. I like his writing a lot, actually. It sounds like it could be heavy, but he’s got a cheeky sense of humor that can undercut that stuff so it doesn’t land so heavily. I saw him at an event at Bookcourt and he was really good.

How would you describe your reading style?

Well, you know, I’m part performer. But actually, reading my work in public is sort of ideal for me, because I hate memorizing lines. I’m really bad at it. I can remember monologues I did in 1991, but I can’t remember lines from the night of the show.

How old are you again?

You neva ask a lady her age. 40.

Not younger than Jesus.

No, I’m older than Jesus. I’m like dead Jesus at this point.

This is your first book. What was the holdup?

What was the holdup? I didn’t learn to read until 1990. What the fuck do you mean what was the holdup? Actually, I don’t know if this is true, but somebody once told me that the average age for the publication of a first novel is 49. I don’t know if it’s true, but I love that statistic. Annie Proulx didn’t start writing until she was in her fifties. But for this neighborhood, I’m so far behind. Everybody I know is working on their third book. But I think a lot of those people knew that they wanted to write novels before I did.

So has this book been kicking around in your head for a while?

Well, the very first incarnation of it was in the fall of 2001. And then I stopped writing it, and then I started it again in the middle of graduate school some time. A very early draft was my thesis.

Changed much?

Oh god. I’ve been through 29 drafts, I think. Every time you think you’re finished, you’re not. That’s the way it goes, I think. I finished a draft in 2005. My two first readers are a friend of mine who is very well read and reads incredibly fast, and the second person I sent it to is someone who pretty much praises every thing that I do. [Laughs] And then I’ll make some changes based on what they said, and then send it to more hard-assed people in increments. I try to wait to show it to my boyfriend for a long time. He has this quality that is really interesting. He doesn’t realize how harsh and true some of the things he says are. He’ll just toss out something really devastating without even realizing it.

Backhanded devastation!

Yes. So then I was looking for an agent, and the first few people who saw it said things that made me want to change it. And once it got sold, McSweeney’s had changes they wanted to make.

Was that Eli Horowitz? I hear he’s pretty good.

Yeah, he is really good. Not only is he the editor of copy, but he’s also the art director. He’s like the Shiva of McSweeney’s. Or maybe the Cerberus.

The multi-headed dog thing?

Yeah. Cerberus doesn’t get as much done, I don’t think.

Gatekeeper.

Eli, Cerberus. Doesn’t really work.

Your book is about a gay, black, fat kid having identity issues.

Yeah, I was looking through Junot Diaz’s computer one day. No, I had no idea he was Oscar Waoing at all. I mean, I love that book, but, I mean, I started in 2001…

The similarities are fairly superficial.

I know, but don’t we love superficial similarities in journalism? Isn’t that our business? I think there are certain superficial similarities that we take for granted.

Does the black writer label work for you?

You know, you’re trying to give me my answer by sneering as you say that.

Just curious.

I don’t know. It’s really not for me to do in the first place. I don’t feel like I can control that, and people are going to do it anyway. It’s like, as long as it sells a few books, call me whatever you want. Part of the mission of this book is to turn identity politics in a different direction. Not exactly a critique of identity politics, but a spoof, maybe. Which is what I do better than critique. Spoof is a kind of critique, though, right? But it’s a little more fun than a straight up critique, and often a little more memorable. I mean, I can’t say you’re wrong about that.

I don’t know if I really said anything.

I know, you were sort of like, “How do you feel about that black writer label?”

You don’t have to feel anything about my non-question.

You know, I think it’s fine. It’s certainly something that sets a lot of people apart in the publishing industry. By being black, which is sad.

My bookshelf, through no fault of my own, is too white I think.

Why is it not your fault?

Well, I guess it is, but it wasn’t what I set out to do.

Isn’t it funny how that works? You’re not even trying, and yet, somehow… It’s probably just because you’re not thinking about it. And that’s what privilege is. Not thinking about it. There is a lot of shame involved in thinking about whiteness, I think.

Sure is.

And that’s part of the reason white people don’t want to think about it, and that’s part of the reason that it gets tabled for such a long time. And then somebody is like, “Oh. We’re all white here!” Now, I’ve never been in a room when this happens, but I’ve always wanted to. This is how the diversity crisis happened.

Man, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room where there has been an overt acknowledgment of collective whiteness.

[Laughs] Well, it [publishing] is a business where the salaries are so low, that it’s people who need to make more money than publishing can give them are not attracted to it. But people who have lots of money and don’t need the salary necessarily are more attracted to it. That’s not to say that this is 100% of the problem, but it exacerbates what’s already going on.

Well, your book looks really good, anyway.

Yeah, McSweeney’s did a really nice job. I think I might have broken the color line there. I’m not sure. For full lengths, anyway. You should go back and find old letters written to the Voice. Whenever I’d write about black people, someone would write in and say “Who does this Irish guy think he is?”

Hah! Irish. How’d you research the book?

I didn’t do any research.

Really?

No, not really. Who do you think I am? Edward P. Jones? You mistook me for Edward P. Jones. You are like, “I’m interviewing that black writer. Must be Edward P. Jones.” Either him or Colson Whitehead. I could be not joking.

Is that you, Colson? Do you do research?

It depends on what section of the book, really. I did research by just listening to my gay friends. Parts were researched by reading about and talking to people who had been to reparative therapy clinics.

That part interests me.

Oh that bit. Well, it was a lot of reading about people who had been to those places. I joined a listserve of ex-ex-gays. One of the ways the novel came to be, stylistically anyway, was that every few years this ex-gay thing pops up again, and I think it was around 2003 that it popped up again, and I started reading these testimonials of people who claimed to be ex-gays. I was struck by how plain the prose was, compared to how bizarre the story was. A lot of these were like two page biographies, and I felt like the dots weren’t being connected. And all these bizarre things would happen. Like there was this lesbian in a club, and she was saying that everybody’s face is melted, and Jesus came forward and said, [in scary Jesus voice] THIS IS NOT THE LIFE I WANT FOR YOU, CHILD.

Whoa. Jesus is scary.

Yes, so I wondered if it’d be possible to connect all the dots in a life like that and turn it into a book. Like, would people stand for that? So my slightly clunky style in the book is based on that.

What kind of success rate do you think they have at those facilities?

Oh it’s really low. And they admit it too. But I don’t think it’s even a success rate. It’s not fair to call it that. I think the success rate is based on how many people are bisexual. Because if you’re in a monogamous relationship and you’re bisexual, you have to have a negotiation about monogamy itself, if you want to have partners of both sexes.

What about the rest stop sex?

Oh, you mean have I done any of that? I claim that I haven’t. No I haven’t. But I’ve always been fascinated by it.

I go into lots of bathrooms, and I’ve never walked in on anything like that.

You sound disappointed. Well, I can tell you the website to go to.

I’m sure it would be a quick Google.

No, but there are some that are better than others. In fact, I met up with somebody who was interviewing me, and we met at the Paramount Hotel, which has this crazy bathroom that is all mirrored. The walls, the ceilings. Everything.

Like that Bruce Lee movie.

Or at the end of The Lady from Shanghai. And the urinals are like these troughs, where you have to stand back from it. Apparently it’s very cruisy there.

I would get total stage fright, doing my business in a place like that. So not too much personal experience on the public bathroom sex front, then?

[Laughs] Yeah. Sadly, I make stuff up. But for some reason that’s really threatening. People often ask how much research I do. Well, uh, I made a lot up, actually.

How do you get inside Gary’s head?

One of the things a novel teaches you to do is write it. I didn’t realize that until I was way into it. Once you know how to write it, you know how to write it. You just know what his voice sounds like. That’s kind of how I ended up editing a lot of it. You just start to hear voices in your head. When I read this book, I start out trying to use my own voice, and I start sliding into a southern accent.

I hear no traces of a southern accent.

Well, there shouldn’t be, because I don’t have one.

When you were writing it, did you have a hard time separating your voice from Gary’s?

I think early drafts have much more of me. A lot of the drafting process was trying to remove myself from the book.

I saw you thanked Gary Gray in the acknowledgements.

Oh right. That. That’s a little inside joke with myself. But originally there was an introduction and an epilogue. But in the introduction, Gary thanked me. And I thought it would be my little joke to thank my fictional characters. Because you spend so much time with these people that you’ve made up in your head. It has taken me the better part of a decade to finish writing this book, and some of them feel more real than people I know.

Ten years is a long time.

It’s longer than some of the relationships I’ve been in. All of them, actually. At least you can control the relationships with your characters.

Can you, though? Did Gary turn into something you didn’t originally envision?

Well, he took over the book. It was supposed to be about something completely different originally. The very first germ of it was going to be about a theater group that was actually a terrorist organization.

You kind of got away from that.

Yeah, it really did. Although it’s still in there. The vestiges of it are still way in the background. The whole thing about the theater company was the book.

Were you raised Christian?

Not at all. Gary is like the negative image of me. I think I’m much more like August Valentine than Gary. I feel like I haven’t had the normal experience, having been raised in the northeast by people who were artistically inclined, and progressive to a fault. I’m not saying it was hard, because I’ve had it pretty easy compared to a lot of people I know. So I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s experience of blackness and gayness, because I haven’t had it as bad as a lot of people. But I do feel that I’m in a position to compile and process a lot of what I’ve heard. It’s hard not to know all of that Christian stuff just by osmosis in this country, which is what’s really scary. You can ignore it all you want, but it somehow trickles down to you.

Gary writes a letter to his dead father. Powerful stuff.

That could my relationship with my father turned up to 11. Or actually, his relationship with his father, which I only know the basics about. In some ways, I feel like I’m trying to purge my father’s generation’s angst. I don’t know how I got it. I think I’m still carrying some of that baggage somehow. This is my father’s neighborhood, and my cousins still live in the house that my grandfather bought.

If you could start a second life, what would you be doing?

Probably making money. I have no idea how, but it would have to be more money than I’m making now.

Is the goal to write full time?

Buy the book. I don’t even care if people read it. No, I would love that. There are ten million other writers who would like that too. [In megalomaniacal voice] And I will crush them!

That’s a good attitude.

My strategy is basically to let people drop off.