By Linda Mahal
Cara Hoffman is the author of Running, a New York Times Editor's Choice, an Esquire Magazine Best Book of 2017, and an Autostraddle Best Queer and Feminist Book of 2017. She first received national attention in 2011 with the publication of So Much Pretty, which sparked a national dialogue on violence and retribution and was named Best Suspense Novel of the year by the New York Times Book Review. Her second novel, Be Safe I Love You, was nominated for a Folio Prize, named one of the Five Best Modern War Novels by the Telegraph UK, and won a Sundance Institute Global Film Making Award. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Paris Review, Bookforum, Rolling Stone, Salon and NPR, and she has been a visiting writer at Columbia, St. John’s, and Oxford University. She is the recipient of a number of awards and accolades, including a MacDowell Fellowship, an Edward Albee Fellowship, and a Cill Rialaig Fellowship. She is the author of the classic children’s novel Bernard Pepperlin.
When and how did you first start to take yourself seriously as a writer? What enabled you to make this shift, and what marked the change?
I began to think of myself as a writer through reading and listening and recognizing things I loved about language and character and this happened early in my life. I studied music, so the choice for me was whether to finish high school and go on to conservatory or to live in the world and write. I dropped out, left the country, traveled for a few years and wrote a novel. Dropping out was the turning point that made everything else possible—I could focus on reading and writing, and experience things I wanted to think more deeply about; things I wanted to write about. I was able to do all this because I'd had a full time job at a bookstore and saved money, and worked while I was travelling. When I returned home I found a job at a newspaper. I had deadlines and a by line and editorial meetings. At twenty-three I had no formal education, had a toddler, was a working journalist, and had a manuscript for a novel. But it would be years before I published a book.
Your three novels, So Much Pretty, Be Safe I Love You, and Running have very different settings and stories, but they each seem to invite the reader to imagine some nascent reality: revolutionary violence enacted against misogyny; a female warrior and provider attended to by compassionate men; lives lived beyond “borders and nations and pride; family and loyalty; retribution.” Could you talk about your practice of writing as it relates to your activism—if you see it as such—and about fiction or the novel practiced as a revolutionary form? Are certain texts inspirations for you in this regard?
My work is part of a tradition of transgressive literature and writing by outsiders, and I'd recommend students read David Wojnarowicz, Virginie Despentes, Margurite Duras, and also the children's author Tove Jansson.
Your most recent novel, Running, follows the lives of three characters who “had left behind . . . the straight world.” The novel not only centers queer characters, but also represents the world queerly. The language seems to be birthing a queer vision and way of being, one that privileges beauty and desire over domination, into a world that is still constrained by the “ruins” of straightness. Could you say something about how you conceived of this novel, or your process of composing it, to produce its unique aesthetic?
Thank you for that description of Running. The book is in part a love story between three people and a love letter to two cities. Running was how I taught myself to write a novel. I wrote some of it when I was a teenager working in a hotel in the red light district of Athens, Greece. And it's partly a record of that time. I lived with some other ex-pat kids in one room on the top floor. There was a large scene of people who were working their way around the world; who had under-the-table jobs or scams to make money so they could get to the next beautiful place, see the next thing; hitch hiking or stowing on a boat or taking trains. And there was an understanding that we were living in the wreckage of a political and cultural system that didn't work, that had no ethical foundation, and certainly no moral authority over our lives. The second narrative voice and timeline in the book was written twenty years after the first. It takes place in Manhattan, and it deals in part with the disaster of queer assimilation. I published two books before Running came out—but it was the first and it's closest to the bone.
At one point you tether the story in Running to something very concrete in the real world in a surprising way, by citing Marc Lepson and his portrait series in an otherwise fictional Wikipedia entry. What led you to this decision?
The character of Milo's lover—whom he meets after the tumultuous events of his youth and then leaves—is the painter Marc Lepson. My partner is the painter Marc Lepson. So it's an element of auto-fiction. Because we share a studio, I was surrounded by Marc's paintings while working on Running. Part of the choice was to anchor Milo in a specific time, place and scene in New York City which Marc's work does well.
You’ve recently moved to Athens from New York. What motivated you, as an artist, to make this change? How does living in Greece nurture or spark your creativity?
I'd been traveling back and forth between Athens and Manhattan for about five years, and began working on some collaborative projects with writers and translators here. Living outside the US feels like a necessity right now and I've never felt tied to a national identity. The literary scene in Greece is deeply rooted in the work itself—and not the demands or trends of the market. There are bookstores everywhere in the city, and many of them house small presses. It's vibrant; the food and the sun and the music. So much of life there is lived outside. You see the history of the city all at once; forested mountains, the Acropolis, byzantine churches, modern buildings—all these things exist side by side, walking distance from my house.
Your middle grade fantasy, Bernard Pepperlin, was published by Harper Collins in September 2019 to rave reviews. Kirkus chose it as a Best Book of the Year. What prompted you to branch out from realistic fiction in this way, and what has the experience meant for you as a writer?
I think children's literature is some of the most interesting stuff out there. And I especially love talking animals—that kind of work is foundational—I think it's at the heart of human story telling. So I loved writing Bernard. I've always read a great deal of children's lit and mythology and folktales, returning to that stuff constantly. So I think writing Bernard Pepperlin was less about branching out and more about returning. It was great to write comedy and adventure and wonderful to read the book to kids and see how it makes them happy and laugh.
What do you feel you can offer students as a mentor that they would have difficulty learning by themselves?
I think my approach to revision, because it's informed by journalism, can be helpful to students. My editor used to keep our egos in check by saying things like: "your story is gonna be lining a bird cage by tomorrow night." I think sometimes it's hard for all of us to understand that the book we're writing is not the work; we can set it on fire; we can write a different version, or write something else entirely. It's not some sacred manuscript or object. The work is what's in your head. Being able to access that with ease, flexibility, and without self-consciousness so that imagining and writing are happening simultaneously in a state of flow—that’s the goal—not tricks of craft—though they can be useful. Risk is the goal, beauty is the goal. Crossing boundaries is the goal.
What do you enjoy most about mentoring MFA students and why?
I love nearly everything about mentoring students. I love the powerful, unwieldy things people write in their drafts. I love the depth of concentration people have in workshop, I love revision. I love being in a community of people who are watching the world so intently. I love having conversations about specific words and sentences and how they work. I love the low residency model because you work with people of all ages, coming from different disciplines. I love how you can see, through the work, the concerns and preoccupations of the present moment. I love being among people who are dedicating their time to this internal, often solitary practice. I like it when we're all thinking quietly in the same room. I love the moment of breakthrough. I love when we destroy our drafts as much as I love hearing that a student is getting published.
What are you reading?
Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police which is beautiful. I'm reading some texts books on Eastern Mediterranean Archeology, I recently read Garth Greenwell's Cleanness which is stunning.
What are you working on?
I'm working on a new novel about drugs and AIDS in alphabet city; a non-fiction book about the anarchist occupation of Exarchia; and a children's book about a frog who consults an oracle on the impending destruction of his home. I'm also teaching at The Athens Workshop for artists and writers.
For more information about Cara Hoffman, visit her faculty bio.