Voices on Writing: Robin Hemley
Robin Hemley is the author of ten books of nonfiction and fiction and the winner of many awards including a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship, The Nelson Algren Award for Fiction from The Chicago Tribune, The Story Magazine Humor Prize, an Independent Press Book Award, two Pushcart Prizes and many others. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been published in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, and he teaches creative writing workshops around the world. He has been widely anthologized and has published his work in such places as The New York Times, The Believer, The Huffington Post, Orion, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, New York Magazine, and literary magazines. The BBC is currently developing a feature film based on his book Invented Eden that tells the story of a purported anthropological hoax in the Philippines. His third collection of short stories, Reply All, is forthcoming in 2012 from Indiana University Press (Break Away Books) and The University of Georgia Press recently published his book A Field Guide For Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, And Travel (reviewed by Steve Weinberg in this month’s What’s in Store column). He is a senior editor of The Iowa Review as well as the editor of a popular online journal, Defunct (Defunctmag.com) that features short essays on everything that’s had its day. He currently directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa and is the founder and organizer of NonfictioNow, a biennal conference that will convene in November 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.
Your CV is intimidating. Have you always been a writer?
I’ve always written, but I haven’t always identified myself as a writer. I come from a literary family: My mother was a short story writer, translator, and novelist, and my father was a publisher, novelist, poet, and translator. So, from an early age, part of my life included writing and reading.
Your focus, for the most part, has been short stories, essays, and memoir. What is it about these genres that grabs you?
It’s true I like the short form—essays and stories—though I’ve gone long several times, as well. My novel, The Last Studebaker, was well-received and reviewed, and I’m only now working on a second novel. I love the novel form, too, but I tend to write in whatever form interests me at the time.
Workshops tend to focus on the short story. When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a young writer, I wrote a lot of stories, some of which made it into my first book of stories. I loved short stories well before that. I used to love to peruse my family library and pull short story collections from the shelves. That’s how I discovered Kafka, Borges, and Isaac Babel, among others.
After graduate school, for a couple of years I taught part-time at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and there I taught “Essay Writing.” This was a basic composition course, but here, I fell in love with the essay, too, largely through an anthology that the poet Donald Hall edited. At the time, hardly anyone in the academy thought of the essay as an art form that held its own against the short story and the poem. That’s all changed now, and I’m glad of it. I think the short form interests me so much because these forms tend to focus on what’s not written as much as what is written. The gaps, what’s left out, what’s left to the reader’s imagination—this is what makes these forms so vibrant to me.
What's the crossover?
Can you repeat the question? I didn't catch that.
Ha, sorry, my silly sense of humor displays itself. Okay, crossover. With my family background, you can see that crossover is inevitable. I’ve never been one to declare genre loyalty. Sure, writers tend to excel at one form, but there are many writers who don’t want to limit their creativity to just one form, and that’s certainly how I feel about my own writing.
Tell me about your new book, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing.
This book arose directly from my book, Do-Over, in which I revisited past embarrassments and failures from my childhood. When I was asked what I’d call this type of writing, I said it was an immersion memoir. The term “immersion” has long been applied to journalism but never before to memoir—when I was speaking to an editor at The University of Georgia Press about this type of writing, she suggested I write a book on it. Over time, I expanded the idea to consider immersion writing in all its forms: memoir, journalism, and finally, travel writing—which of course involves immersion as well.
This book crosses over a little bit with another book of yours, Turning Life
into Fiction, which has sold more than 50,000 copies. I love life-based fiction. What prompted you to write it?
Turning Life into Fiction, likewise, came out of my engagement with the subject and a discussion with an editor, Lois Rosenthal, who founded Story Press and briefly revived Story Magazine. I had been teaching about the transformation process in fiction, the ways in which we turn experience into fiction, and Lois asked me if I’d write a book about this for her. I believe it was the first book that Story Press published. Later, when Lois and her husband Richard sold their publishing enterprise, the book somewhat inexplicably went out of print, though it was selling well. And so, Graywolf Press picked it up and it’s now in its second or third printing with them.
Both A Field Guide and Turning Life into Fiction talk about use what
you're living through and write about it. Is this the main way you find your
I find my subject matter in a lot of different ways. As a writer, I’m fairly eclectic. I’ve written from dreams and I’ve written about people who have nothing to do with what I’m living. One story in my forthcoming collection of short stories is from the point of view of a Portuguese spy on the ship of the explorer Magellan and another takes place outside of Chino, France, in the time of Joan of Arc. Ideas present themselves in many forms, and if they intrigue me enough, I take them on.
Do you believe immersion journalism is a more...valid brand of journalism?
I wouldn’t use the term “valid,” but I do believe that traditional journalists can be blind to their own agendas. I’ve experienced this personally—how a self-righteous journalist can completely muck up a story and still remain self-righteous.
My experience with this comes from my book, Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday. This told the story of a group of 26 people who were “discovered” living in the rainforest in supposed complete isolation in the Southern Philippines in 1971.
For a while they were hailed as the ethnographic find of the century and a 45,000 acre reserve was given to them by the Marcos Administration. For a while they were a world-wide sensation, supposedly living an existence that closely resembled the cave-dwelling lifestyles of our Pleistocene-era ancestors.
Then in 1986, a freelance reporter from Switzerland hiked into the rainforest unannounced and was told through interpreters that the Tasaday were a hoax, that they were simply local farmers who had been coerced into playing Caveman.
Good story, but it wasn’t true. The guy hiked in and out of the rainforest in a couple of days and believed his translator, a local anti-Marcos activist who had an agenda of his own. Now, the world declared that they weren’t the find of the century, but the hoax of the century, and credulous reporters followed, all filing supposedly objective stories that agreed the Tasaday were a hoax, without knowing anything about the complex political and cultural situation of the Philippines at the time.
It’s called “confirmation bias,” the idea that you pay attention to arguments and “facts” that support your theories, and ignore or throw out anything that disagrees with your theories. Everyone is susceptible to it, even supposedly objective journalists. In this case, they created a mess.
I spent five years researching the story, traveling around the world and meeting everyone alive who was a part of the story: journalists, academics, even the Tasaday themselves, and I found out that the story was a lot more complex and that the real hoax was perpetrated by the people who said the Tasaday were a hoax. Yet the conventional wisdom today is still that the Tasaday were a hoax, mostly because of bad reporting that was broadcast on ABC’s 20/20 and taken as gospel.
I simply think it’s good to own up to your biases, to allow the reader to see that a human being, and not a supposedly infallible news organization, has written the story and gathered the information.
When doing immersion journalism or travel writing, I assume it's best to
come across as much like a non-writer as possible?
I wouldn't say that’s always the case; it’s only true of writers who write what I call an “infiltration.” Ted Conover, for instance in New Jack, when he was writing about being a guard at Sing Sing. Or Kevin Roose when he, a liberal student from Brown, infiltrated the conservative Christian Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Short of that kind of infiltration, I think it’s good to be honest about being a writer—and I think that there are ethical considerations involved in the infiltration as well. There’s no rulebook, but I have a chapter of ethical and legal considerations in which I delve into the writer’s responsibility to the subject.
Talk about the marketplace, especially for travel writers.
I think there’s always a market for a well-written travel book. I can’t say for certain because I’m not a marketer, but it seems to be a pretty strong niche.
Quite a few publishers now print disclaimers on an opening page of a memoir that names have been changed. Which makes me wonder: Should a memoir writer allow his or her subjects to vet the manuscript at any point along the way?
That’s a good question. It really depends on what you’re writing about. When I was writing Do-Over, one of the people I wanted to write about said that she didn’t want to be “an incidental character in your adventure.” I liked that. It made me think about my relationship to the people I wrote about. In her case, I showed her what I had written and changed her name, but others didn’t ask that of me. I changed the names of anyone under 18 except for my daughters, but I also gave them the chance to read the manuscript before I sent it to the publisher.
When I wrote Invented Eden, I didn’t have the luxury of changing names, and I needed to make sure that nothing I wrote was actionable.
Traditionally, journalists have resisted showing what they write to their subjects, but in some instances, that’s something worth reconsidering.
Some have said the memoir genre is a crowded one. What do you think?
Every genre is crowded. Thousands of novels are published every year. Thousands of books of poetry. There are plenty of good books and plenty of bad books of every kind.
What's your opinion of the mountains of self-published books, and do you
think they help or hinder the publication and marketing of traditionally
I know of a couple of people who’ve self-published books successfully, but they are definitely the exception. While I don’t think it carries the stigma it used to, there are so many exciting independent presses out there now. Not only is it easier to self-publish, but it’s also easier to publish other people, to start your own press. One start-up, Engine Books in Indianapolis, has published a short story collection and a novel by two friends of mine, both fabulous writers who might be relegated to the mid-list with traditional houses. But they’ve been doing well—this publisher publishes two to three titles a year, and my friend’s short story collection was just reviewed in O: the Oprah Magazine. So why self-publish when there are so many good independent publishers out there?
Many of your books have been published by smaller presses. In other words, not by the Big Six. Talk about the value of smaller presses.
I wouldn’t necessarily call them smaller presses. Three of my books have been published by Graywolf, which isn’t exactly a small press anymore, but a giant of independent presses.
In any case, I’d prefer to call these presses “Independent” rather than “small.” My father was the founder and publisher of just such an Independent Press, the somewhat legendary Noonday, which in the fifties was what Graywolf is today.
One of the biggest strengths of independent presses is that they don’t necessarily have to be as slavish to the bottom line as some of the larger presses are. They can take chances, especially those that are nonprofit, such as Graywolf.
A case in point is Noonday. When my father was first starting it up in the 1950s he and my mother attended a cocktail party given by the owner of The New Yorker Theater, Dan Talbot. In the middle of the party, Talbot shushed everyone and said he wanted to read this great new story that had just appeared in the latest issue of The Partisan Review, an important literary magazine of its day. Can you imagine anyone at a party doing such a thing now? The story in question was a translation by Saul Bellow of a then-unknown Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Talbot read the story and my father asked if Talbot knew Singer. He did and a meeting was arranged. It turned out that Signer was upset by the way that Alfred Knopf had edited his first novel, The Family Moskat. According to Singer, Knopf had butchered the book, and so Singer was amenable to working with my father. Singer and my father were a great match, and my father became Singer’s translator, editor, and trusted friend.
Independent publishers love literature. That can’t always be said for the big corporate houses. Matthew Arnold said that “journalism is literature in a hurry,” but now literature is literature in a hurry. What I mean is that that nurturing spirit is largely absent from large houses: If you don’t succeed right away, you’re out. But independent publishers still nurture their writers for the most part.
Let’s talk about teaching. How do you teach nonfiction writing?
That’s a difficult question to answer—but briefly I do it through a combination of manuscript critique, peer critique, and individual conferencing. But it really depends on the venue: a traditional university, a weekend workshop, or a low-residency distance-learning model. They all demand different approaches. In general, I give students models in the genre in which they’re working, I sometimes use writing exercises (again, depending on the level), and I try to see what the writer is attempting to do and help him or her achieve that goal. I’m working with so many different kinds of nonfiction writers that I have to tailor my approach somewhat to each writer.
How does teaching help or hinder your own work?
Sometimes it helps, sometimes it hinders. It depends on the time of year and the students with whom I’m dealing. I work with some mightily talented students and while I don’t usually find myself directly inspired by their work, I do get a vicarious pleasure in helping them turn their ideas into essays and books.