Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Interview with Terence Hawkins

Terence Hawkins was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Yale. His work has appeared in Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), Keyhole, Pindeldyboz, Ape Culture, Eclectica, Megaera, the Binnacle, and the New Haven Register. It has also appeared on Connecticut Public Radio. He is a trial lawyer in Connecticut. His website can be found at www.terencehawkins.net.

A warm welcome to Terence Hawkins. I'm very excited about hosting you here today. I truly enjoyed your novel with it's "in-your-face" tell it kind of style. I'd like to learn a little more about you and your novel, so thanks for sharing with us.

Welcome, I’m so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. Can you share with my readers the essence of the story you’ve penned?

Thank you for having me. The book is a novelization of the Iliad in modern prose, realistically told. The Trojan War as a real war, fought by real men.

You’ve chosen a very interesting title. What inspired the title? What inspired the book?

The title comes from the first line of the Iliad: “Sing, muse, of the rage of Achilles.” Oddly enough it took me quite a while to come up with that. I thought about calling it “The Battle for Troy,” or simply “Troy” but ultimately I realized that the book----both mine and the original----were about Achilles and not the war. I think I ignored the obvious because for so much of the book he is so supremely repellent.

As to the book itself, I happened to be reading Christopher Logue’s War Music, a loose translation of the Iliad in modern verse, at the same time I saw “Saving Private Ryan” for the first time. I wondered what the Iliad would look like if it were told with the same kind of realism. And of course being a lawyer I was confident that Homer is way too dead to sue me.

The other thing behind the work is Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Real title, real book. Jaynes theorized that true modern consciousness didn’t begin until language was sufficiently complex to make one hemisphere of the brain predominate over the other, and that before that time people were essentially automatons driven by voices in their heads that they believed to be those of the gods. Based on literary and linguistic evidence----including the Iliad itself----Jaynes believed that this transformation in consciousness took place in Homeric times. In my book, the gods appear as hallucinations, which is what Jaynes thought them to have been.

What makes this book special to you?

More than anything else it was an opportunity to rediscover Homer. Or more accurately discover him; my freshman English class was at eight in the morning and I’m not the earliest of risers. There’s a lot there that I’d forgotten or simply hadn’t noticed. What struck me most is that this is a story of brothers-----Agamemnon and Menelaus on one side, Hector and Paris on the other. And while the beef is between the younger----Paris stole Menelaus’ wife--- the war is prosecuted by the older. Though Homer doesn’t mention them I try to address the humiliations and resentments that must have flowed from big brothers fighting little brothers’ battles. Also, there’s a great deal in the original that is deeply, deeply strange and brutal, and far different from what we ordinarily associate with Classical heroism-----human sacrifice, for example.

Speaking of freshman English, it occurred to me long after I’d written the book that it might be some kind of psychic payback. My first paper at Yale was called “Shame and Guilt in the Iliad.” I think. In any event it got a c minus and a tart observation about the difference between literature and sociology. Guess I showed them.

What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

The Iliad is the cornerstone of our literary tradition. This book makes it new. The original story is incredibly rich and deeply human, but I think its form as an epic poem in translation limits its accessibility. I’m not suggesting that my book is a dumbed-down version of the original----at least it’s no dumber than I am-----but rather an attempt to give its readers the same sense of immediacy and reality it must have had to its first audience.

What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

I take notes. If I hear something on the street that strikes me as funny I write it down. If I think something I don’t want to forget I write it down. Usually on 3 x 5’s in a Levenger card holder, by the way, though I also use a Moleskine reporter’s notebook. Every so often I go through the notes in no particular order and that seems to get things moving, perhaps by promoting random connections between otherwise disparate ideas. Couple of pops doesn’t hurt, either.

Speaking of randomness and creativity, I urge everyone to watch “Topsy-Turvey”, a brilliantly written and acted film about the first production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” See it, and you’ll see what I mean.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

I’m a practicing lawyer so time would at first seem to be the most important issue. It is an issue, that’s certain---but worse is having the emotional energy at the end of the day, which is when I have the time, to write. What I’ve done----and I think this only works with a saintly spouse, which I happen to have----is to set aside large blocks of time, like Friday nights, to write. What I’ve also done recently is to set aside an hour to write in the office in the evening after my paralegal’s gone and the phones aren’t ringing. This, though, works better for revisions than first drafts.

Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book?

I had the first chapter printed up as a chapbook which I then distributed around my various local hangouts. Sad to say there isn’t a lot of interest in the classics in Connecticut saloons, and I can show you a photograph of several of them wadded up to level off a wobbly elliptical trainer in the Yale gym. I also circulated a few among defense lawyers on the other side of some of my cases, just to see how they’d respond. One said, “When I got to the point where he threw her off the cliff, I wondered where your mother had gone wrong.”

Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a story.

This book was easier than most for the very good reason that the skeleton of plot and character were provided by somebody else. As to the former I changed what I had to in order to comport with military reality; as to the latter I added characters consistent with that reality.

Ordinarily I start a story with an idea----guy sends an email intended for his girlfriend to his wife by mistake----and start writing. After a while I start having some notion of where it’s going to end and begin to work towards that point. Sometimes I know the words that end the story well in advance, though sometimes they surprise me.

Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?

When working on a substantial project----a novel or long story-----I try to set aside two evenings a week on which my wife is invited to babysit, so I can work at home. I write for about forty minutes at a stretch. Formerly I would break by taking my dog for a quick walk during which I would smoke about half of a small cigar. Since he died I just take a walk and have half of a small cigar. (I only smoke when writing by the way.) When revising I work either at my desk at home in the morning or in the office in the early evening. No cigars in either event. I used to listen to music while working. No longer; it gets in the way of what’s in my head. I always use word for mac to write; I can’t imagine what they did before.

Incidentally, there’s a piece of advice usually attributed to Hemingway that I stick to-----always stop in the middle of a sentence. Finishing it the next day gets you back into the flow.

10. What is your current work in progress?

I’m now revising my second novel, American Neolithic. It’s a political satire set a few years from now, after a bloodless right wing coup has set up a Police State Lite. After the election of 2008 I thought the triumph of virtue meant that political satire was dead, but the right has proven me wrong. Birthers? Tenthers? Teabaggers? Thank you, thank you all.

Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

My writing website is www.terencehawkins.net. and I can be reached at terry@terencehawkins.net.

What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

I like to think the work speaks for itself. As for me, I’ve loved historical fiction since earliest boyhood---when, in fact, I was somewhat improvidently allowed to read Julian at age 12. That book made the past alive for me. I hope this does the same for you.