Interview with Laird Hunt

Posted at 12:00 on Feb 28th
By Duncan Barlow
Laird Hunt has emerged as one of the most captivating and unique American writers of his generation. His prose transforms from book to book to serve the purpose of the content but still possesses a Huntian quality that is rich, dialogic, and captivating. Once passed over because of the purported "difficulty" of his style, the world has finally caught up with him. With his fourth novel, Ray of the Star, Hunt is now mentioned in league with some of the greatest authors and with good reason...Laird Hunt's writing is simply that good.

I first met Laird Hunt in the first part of 2000 when I was working on my MFA at the Naropa University, an MFA program that Hunt himself attended. What struck me most about Hunt was his approachability and kindness. It was soon after that his first novel The Impossibly was released by Coffee House Press. The book, an expertly crafted and beautifully told take on the Noir, received strong critical reviews but made little waves commercially as it was lost in shipping during the chaos of the attacks of September 11th. After the attack and the upcoming wars, the American public was not looking for a stylistic meta-noir. Their Loss. For me, reading The Impossibly was an incredibly influential experience. I read it twice back to back because I was not ready to leave the shape shifting world Hunt created. I studied his sentences, his sequencing, his transitions. I learned much from that book.

Laird Hunt is a generous writer, who dedicates his time to his family, students, and friends alike. At times it's a mystery how he manages to give so much. If there's one thing writers could learn from Hunt (outside of how to write an amazing complex sentence) it's that the writing world is very small and no good deed goes unnoticed. When I teach any of Hunt's books in my classes, my students are captivated. Laird is a kind soul and a brilliant writer. With my blatant flattery out of the way, please let me allow
Hunt to speak for himself. Below is a brief interview with the man.

Ray of the Star has three parts that are divide into smaller sections composed of two to four page sentences. In these sentences, you use several techniques to avoid ending the sentence. One of these techniques is an unusual use of the colon. What was the reasoning behind writing a book out of long sentences? Did you find yourself in a corner where you had to review punctuation styles or change the direction of the sentence? Did you actively break punctuation rules?

I borrowed the long sentence/chapter device from the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who uses it in his murder mystery, The Assignment. Unlike, say, your average Proustian, Faulknerian, or Jamesian long sentence (and I don’t mean to imply that they are all alike), Dürrenmatt’s are incredibly propulsive. You find yourself almost hurtling toward the end of each chapter. I read about half a dozen of his chapter sentences then shut the book, knowing I wanted to do something with it. Then I got the idea to write about someone reeling from a horrible personal tragedy. My sense of it was that this person would have had a sentence imposed upon him by this event. A sentence that could not be escaped, something that he would be trapped in, something that, just as soon as it seemed to be finished, would start up again. The mechanism also allows for a reader, who has bought in, so to speak, to feel trapped in a similar way. So there is an element of the tortuous to it – in both a humorous and not humorous sense. I did break rules of punctuation, but I tried not to do it systematically. In a sense, I wanted someone to be able to diagram these sentences, even if this hypothetical individual would have to set a few words or phrases off to the side with each chapter.

What was the genesis for this book? You often work on a couple projects at once, did you do that with Ray of the Star or did you primarily focus on it alone?

I took a trip to Barcelona when my daughter was a baby and spent a great deal of time wandering around. Two things struck me as singular in that city of numerous marvels – the unusually elaborate “living statues” who ply their trade on the central pedestrian boulevard, Las Ramblas, and the space warping, mind-bending architecture of Antoni Gaudi. So those elements, as a kind of combine, were the third piece of the puzzle (along with the sentences and the idea of a personal tragedy). You are right that I generally am working on more than one project at a time, but as it turned out Ray of the Star was the first in a new series of projects that followed the first volley I dreamed up and wrestled interminably with during the past decade or so (The Paris Stories, The Impossibly, Indiana, Indiana and The Exquisite). When I wrote the draft of Ray of the Star, very quickly as it turned out, I didn’t know that it would be followed, in the next couple of years by two other book-length (though not yet published) manuscripts. So even as I was getting Ray ready for publication, I was drafting these new projects and preparing to once again juggle sharp, heavy objects.

You are an Associate Professor at the University of Denver; Did you write this on sabbatical or during a break? As a professor, your time is very limited, did you write in small parts or did you need to reserve writing time to concentrate on writing these very long and lovely wandering lines?

I had a sabbatical during which I worked on Ray, but it followed the first drafting and was devoted to revision (and to mapping out and planning the other two aforementioned projects). So I wrote Ray mostly in the evenings, over a six-week period, in the Fall of 2007. I must have been ready to work because the sentences came out much the way I later kept them. I generally wrote a sentence or a sentence and a little bit (something to prime the next evening’s pump) per session. I have never written so quickly or with quite such abandon. I hope it happens again.

Your use of Restless Leg Syndrome is very interesting in this book, considering that the protagonist, Ray, aspires to become a living statue at one point. Did you use this syndrome as a way to show his dedication to meeting Solange?

Well, I’m a sufferer, and have been for years, and over time, as it gets worse, as it tends to, despite the various medications available, the mind starts to play out nasty little scenarios: what would it be like to be trapped in a tunnel, how could you get through an MRI, what if you were obliged to become a living statue and stand there for hours… RLS, as the syndrome has been acronymized, was thought of and still gets thought of, as a joke, part of the hypochondriac’s arsenal, but it is quite real and quite diabolical (something Dante could have cooked up to bedevil one of his enemies in the afterlife). You can imagine my delight, as I was reading Speak Memory, to discover that Nabokov suffered from what was then more generally called Ekborn Syndrome. I don’t mean I was happy that Nabokov had this nightmare of a condition, just that to know that a hero, someone who had also been obliged, by his chosen vocation, to sit still for long periods of time, was a fellow sufferer, has been a source of courage. It was not very nice of me to give RLS to Harry in Ray but it certainly seemed/seems fitting that after so many years of spiritual immobility he would be forced not just to let his heart beat again, but to frequently, vigorously shake his legs.

In an earlier conversation we had, you had mentioned that you often struggle with coming up with what you feel is the right title for your books, did Ray of the Star offer the same trouble or did it just hit you?

I borrowed this title from Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster. It was just one of those gifts. I was writing about a disaster and then there was this line. I felt like I had to use it. Fortunately, it was there from the start. Interestingly, that has been the case for the two other unpublished manuscripts I have in the hopper. So maybe, for better or worse, some of my title trouble is over. If there was wood nearby I would knock on it. Likely, I just jinxed myself.

Keep Track with Laird Hunt at his website
Laird Hunt | duncan b. barlow | Coffee House Press | Ray of the Star

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