Sandra Hunter’s “Angel in Glasgow” (Hunger & Thirst, Vol. 57.1) was a finalist for the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, and her “Finger Popping” (Awards 39, Vol. 61.1) won second place in 2017. Her recent fiction collection, Trip Wires (http://www.leapfrogpress.com/available-books/fiction/Trip_Wires.htm), was co-winner of the 2017 Leapfrog Fiction Contest and a Foreword Reviews Book of the Day on June 13, 2018. Associate Editor Cassidy McCants spoke with Hunter about the collection upon its publication this summer.
McCants: Trip Wires takes us all across the globe. Did you plan this in putting together the collection, or did the stories just happen to lead you all over?
Hunter: The stories originated from responses to news reports and articles. So, I’m driving along and listening to a report about Voces del Secuestro in Bogota, Colombia, a radio station specifically for the kidnapped (https://thecitypaperbogota.com/features/herbin-hoyos-behind-the-voices-of-hope/18446).
And that sparks something: what is it like to be kidnapped? One minute you are walking along a road, buying groceries, coming home from dropping the kids off, and the next moment all of that is wrenched away, and you don’t know if you will ever return to the life you once had. And that leads to other questions: what is this life we have? Are we entirely determined by environment? Adaptation is frequently non-volitional: does that change the essence of the person or merely bring fortitude, etc., to the surface?
I worked in Kenya for two years, from 1983-85. It changed my outlook forever: I realized I wasn’t British. I realized I was capable of recovering from being very ill. I realized I had no idea what poverty really looked like. I realized I didn’t need most of the material things I’d taken for granted. I realized I DID need good batteries—and Mars Bars! For many years afterward I was deeply affected by this two-year contract. But over time some things have changed: I have far more shoes than I need. Is this laziness or forgetfulness or adaptation to a material culture? On the other hand, I still know I’m not British—and not from any one culture or country. I’m still deeply affected by poverty and social injustice. One of my more recent stories addresses the rape crisis of young girls in India.
Sometimes stories spring from rage. For example, I read a story on the civil war in Southern Sudan, and I can’t fathom the losses of those internally displaced and the stampede of refugees as a result of abusive counterinsurgency responses, often unlawful.
That resulted in two stories: “Brother’s Keeper” and “Angel in Glasgow.” You’ll note that the stories range from 2006 to 2015. I gradually recognized that I tended to write from the viewpoint of a child or young person. Voilà—a theme, hence the collection!
Maybe I’m drawn to international stories since I am also international: Anglo-Indian, Sri Lankan, Portuguese, Dutch, Scots. The stories that compel me are usually on the edge, in a liminal space where tension exists. That’s the most exciting place for me: this tiny evanescent moment when anything can happen.
Writing about these characters is a small response to social injustice—but it’s something. And I feel compelled to do it.
McCants: Speaking of “Angel in Glasgow” and “Brother’s Keeper”—both stories are very dialogue-heavy. Is dialogue something that comes to you immediately when you’re developing a story idea, or do you discover it as you go, after getting to know your characters?
Hunter: Dialogue: this is probably the first story element that arrives. The characters start talking to each other, or the protag starts talking to herself—or the reader—and the story develops from there. This technique often propels plot, tension, conflict, etc. However, there have been times when dialogue doesn’t work this way.
In March I was at a residency (Hawthornden Castle in Scotland) working on a novel. The characters did nothing BUT talk. They were engaging and lovely but I became quite exasperated with them—why couldn’t they do something? They were at college, after all—there were so many things for them to do. I suggested a few ideas: dancing, pizza party, getting locked out, playing beer pong. They just weren’t interested. I was about to throw the 185-page manuscript out and start again when we had a round-table reading at the castle and people seemed to like it. So I dialed back on being so damn pushy, and the characters came up with a swim meet, learning how to rap, visiting Watts Towers, going to an art gallery in Camarillo, engaging in a street beautification project, etc.
Ultimately, I’m at the mercy of the characters to begin with.
With short stories, the arc must be firmly and rapidly established. Even if the story is dialogue-driven, there must be a clear sense of progress. However, dialogue-driven novel chapters can, as I’ve mentioned, lead into the Slough of Endless Dialogue. I haven’t yet worked out how to quickly extricate everyone from that, but I’m working on it!
I also love stage and film for dialogue—and the silence around dialogue (which good writers provide). I learned about the space around actors from Ann Bogart’s SITI Company. I went through their Suzuki and Viewpoints training in L.A. many years ago, and they taught me how language shouldn’t be impeded by the tendency for the body to be self-conscious. I was writing plays at the time, and that impacted me considerably.
McCants: Do you have any characters who’ve lived at length in your mind, who won’t leave you alone, but either haven’t made it to the page or are too mysterious or flighty to capture? Or, focusing on this new collection in particular, any characters that particularly frustrate or excite you?
Hunter: There is one character who made it into a short story—her name is Gul and she was 13 at the time of the story. I loved her to bits. Her voice still rattles around my head. I tried writing a sequel where she takes her father around the racetrack on her motorbike, but somehow it didn’t work. Perhaps one day I’ll know how to write it.
In Trip Wires, the stories tend to stop without definitive endings. That’s how life is and how the stories work best, I feel. But that doesn’t stop me wondering about what happens to the characters. I love Hunri-Howri in “Where the Birds Are,” but he’s so elusive. I know he’s not going to make it, but I so hope he does. Will Elijah make it back to the Southern Sudan and will he find his brother (“Brother’s Keeper”)? What will Asal do now that she knows her husband is dead and she’s alone in Los Angeles with her small son, Nima (“15 Minutes”)? Will Minoo make her way in Glasgow (“Angel in Glasgow”)? And will Marta and her family (“Borderland”) survive? And what kind of heartless person writes characters into such horrible situations and then leaves them there?!
One character who I actually loathe is in a novel-in-progress. Her name is Aunt Glory and she’s a monster. I can’t wait to get back to her once I’ve finished the next novel.
McCants: How does your process for novel-writing differ from that for story-writing?
Hunter: Short stories usually come quickly. They jump out of the gate and I do my best to keep up. The stories do occasionally “stick” and I leave them alone for a day or so. Various things will bring me back: a dream, an overheard conversation (I’m a shameless stealer of dialogue), a billboard, a book title. Very often poetry will lead me in, so I have a stack of chapbooks and collections on my desk: Ilya Kaminsky, Mila Cuda (youth poet laureate for L.A.), Adam Zagajewksi, Safia Elhillo and—new to me—Donna Stonecipher. Dipping into these is like suddenly swimming in a new current. I’m forced to slow down (or sometimes speed up) and turn language over so that I’m hearing it differently. Rhythm is vital—sometimes more so than content.
Novels, however, are a different beast. I’m not a plotter but I do need to know the shape of the piece: Where are we going to end up? What’s the most important conflict/s for this/these character/s and is it/are they resolved (and they don’t have to be)? Sometimes I have the answers clearly—and sometimes those answers are wrong! Even so, it helps to have that focus; otherwise it can be like the hundred-meters race for those with no sense of direction. My wonderful mentor and friend, Mark Sarvas, taught me to review each chapter for plot, tension, conflict, character. Now I keep a table and review those points for each chapter. This works best after the first draft—although I have to admit, I’ve become a compulsive checker.
Novels are also more physical for me. At some stage (usually going into the second draft), I’ll print everything out and spread it around my workspace, with yellow stickies containing two-line synopses on every chapter. I’ll print out and pin up my table as well so I can check as I go. I’ll walk around the chapters and see if they might be reordered/removed. At this point the through-line of the novel becomes a lot cleaner.
By the way, Scrivener, an excellent writers’ software, is invaluable for an editor, too. Because you write in scenes, not chapters, you’re forced to stay focused.
McCants: What about fiction is most valuable to you—and what about it is important for our world today?
Hunter: The core interest that drives both my short and long fiction is social injustice. Sadly, history has repeatedly proved that we can rarely look to government to redress these wrongs, and governments can only be galvanized into action after exhausting efforts—Martin Luther King’s fight for social justice and the decades-long struggle to end apartheid in South Africa are two examples.
Also, in today’s Western world, many consider gaming and social media essential parts of daily life. Real-world life can be displaced by maintaining a social media presence or developing second-world avatars. We’re becoming socially blinkered.
We can argue that fiction does the same thing. Some fiction provides pure escapism—also necessary for beach or “downtime” reading. But, for me, literary fiction is an incredibly important medium for raising the visibility of social justice abuses. Some choose activism, philanthropy, and volunteer work. I raise my voice in stories.
It isn’t enough to report these issues: We have journalists to do that. The point is to get people to think about social injustice, to discuss it and, perhaps, be inspired to work towards change.
I look for writers who do that and who also take risks, like Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Jo Ann Beard, Meliza Bañales, Marisa Silver, and Lidia Yuknavitch. These writers are fearless. They also draw on the heritage of the courageous writers before them: Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima—and, standing on their shoulders, create something vital and compelling, just as our daughters and sons will stand on our shoulders and do the same. Just as I hope my daughter will do—and already does in her Gender Studies major at college.
Sandra Hunter’s fiction won the 2017 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest, the 2016 Gold Line Press Chapbook Prize, the October 2014 Africa Book Club Award, and the 2014 H.E. Francis Fiction Award, and has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. She is a 2018 Hawthornden Castle Fellow and was the 2017 Charlotte Sheedy Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Her books include Losing Touch, a novel (July 2014), Small Change, a fiction chapbook (June 2016), and Trip Wires, a short story collection (June 2018). She teaches English and Creative Writing and runs writing workshops in Ventura and Los Angeles, California. Favorite dessert: Salted Caramel Insanity (that’s not its name but it should be) from Donut Friend.
Featured photo: https://www.sandrajhunter.com