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Describe your path to becoming a published novelist.
Long and rocky. I’d wanted to be a writer as a boy. In fact when I was in my mid-teens, using a manual Royal, I wrote a science fiction novel that was nothing more than a protracted exercise in serial plagiarism. But when I got to Yale I was so terrified by my classmates’ superiority and sophistication that I abandoned the ambition. Fifteen-twenty years later I took a summer writing class—again at Yale, though in a program that no longer exists. Kate Walbert, my teacher, sat me down and told me to take a year off and write a novel. I couldn’t do the former but tried the latter. Awful. It was savaged so badly at a workshop in lower Manhattan that I actually asked the cabdriver on the way back whether he knew of any bars that sold morphine. I never wrote another word in that book, but somehow found the courage to start another, The Rage of Achilles. An agent told me it had no future so I started American Neolithic. While we were initially shopping Am Neo around a small press took a pass on it but asked if I had anything else. So a scant nine years after I finished it, Achilles was published.
How is practicing law similar to writing? How do you balance both, plus running the YWC?
It really isn’t. And the balance becomes progressively harder to maintain. I will add, though, that trial practice was excellent preparation for running the YWC. The average malpractice case lasts around two weeks—like the Conference—and involves lots of parts that need to keep moving.
What’s the best advice a writing teacher or mentor ever gave you?
Don’t quit. And in view of my first answer it was obviously something I sorely needed to hear. In substantive terms, the best advice I ever got was from Tom Perrotta on American Neolithic: “Remember, this is Raleigh’s story.” Oh—right!
What advice would you give other aspiring writers, many of whom have day jobs, families, high-powered careers in other fields, and overloaded lives?
I don’t want to bum anyone out, but while I do think it’s possible to begin to write with a demanding day job, there comes a point where writing ceases to be a hobby and becomes the career. When that point comes, something’s got to give. For that reason I always tell young people who want to write not to go directly to professional school or a high powered job but rather to work on their art for a couple of years. It’s never easy to be broke, but it’s a lot easier in the twenties than the fifties.
What are you most proud of with regards to the YWC?
Collegiality. We have the most congenial, mutually supportive student body I could have hoped for. While we deliberately avoid anything that could foster competitiveness or lead to the development of a caste system, I think that we’ve also been extraordinarily lucky in that we’ve attracted people who are not only very talented but exceptionally nice.
What would you like to improve or add as you further develop the program?
We’re exploring a couple of different things. First is an intensive workshop for students with completed first drafts of novels or memoirs. The class itself would be limited to six people and each would have to submit fifty thousand words three months in advance. There will also be a surcharge to reflect the smaller size and greater faculty workload. Another possibility is online workshops during the academic year. We’re also actively discussing workshops or a sister program overseas.
What I’d like to improve in the present format is the organization of the pitch sessions. Next year I’d like to give our students a lot more information about the agents, editors, and indie presses well before their appearance and have them sign up for appointments.
Describe your writing routine and rituals.
I wish there were one. Both novels were written on Friday and Saturday nights. At home, so I encouraged my unbelievable supportive wife to babysit our nephews and niece out of harm’s way. And I’m ashamed to admit this, but cigars were involved. What I would do is write a couple of paragraphs and take a walk long enough to smoke half a small cigar. I’d then write a few more paragraphs and have the second half.
Revision follows a completely different pattern. I do that in the office from five to seven. Every day. No smokes.
How did you get the idea for American Neolithic and what was its composition process like?
My wife and I were in Boston. Why I’ll never know—she’s forgotten—she asked what I thought Neanderthals would be doing if any were alive today. And why I answered this way I can’t imagine, but I said, “I don’t know—something with rap.”
I started writing it during the second term of the second Bush and so expended a lot of energy lampooning the right and our imperial ambitions. This created a number of problems. First is that political satire doesn’t age very well. Second is that Obama’s election was thought to usher in the millennium, which left many publishers cold to a dystopian very near future. On the first point, I revised to eliminate the overspecific, so that that that very near future became a moving target. As to the second, the current administration obliged by proving to be no more friendly to civil liberties than its predecessor. In addition, for whatever reason there was an explosion of information about our cousin species during the first draft and revisions—the discoveries of the Little People of Flores, the presence of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, and the Denisovans, for example. So up until publication I kept tweaking the manuscript to reflect new science as it emerged.
Similarly, as the writing progressed, I started to take some of the book’s premises more seriously. At the time I began it, it was still far from certain that we had coexisted with Neanderthals. But it seemed to me that if we had, it would explain our inherent xenophobia—a racial memory of a time when we had competed for survival with a similar but different species. The more I thought about it the more evidence I found —or imagined—for that racial memory. For example, every culture has legends of semihuman earth dwellers like trolls, kobolds, or menhune— obvious standins for Neanderthals. And why else would we cling to absurdities like Sasquatch and the Yeti, if there hadn’t been a time when hulking almost-men lurked at the very edges of our settlements? These ideas started out as goofs, but as I worked them I became at least half persuaded they might be right
What are your thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of MFA programs for writers?
I don’t have one, so maybe I’m the wrong guy to ask. My understanding is that it’s almost impossible to teach unless you have one. I’m also told, though, that they’ve become so common that many academic programs are now looking for PhD’s. But two years with nothing to do but write sounds pretty good, and I think there’s a lot to be said for the acquisition of a common vocabulary—I’m still not a hundred per cent sure what an unreliable narrator is.
What are some of your favorite books/who are some of your favorite authors?
Books: Roughing It, A Moveable Feast, Julian, The Succession, Brideshead Revisited, The Big Sleep, Let the Great World Spin, Lush Life, The New Confessions, Joe College, The Alexandria Quartet, Lives of the Monster Dogs. Writers: Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Raymond Chandler, Evelyn Waugh, S. J. Perlman, Colum McCann, William Boyd, Tom Perrotta.
If you could have dinner with one writer, living or dead, who would it be and why? If you could have dinner with one literary character, who it would be and why?
Gore Vidal. I read Julian when I was far too young—twelve or thirteen—and it contributed enormously to my worldview, for good or ill. Later I came to appreciate him as a prose stylist of the first order, not only through his historical novels but through his essays and reviews in the NYRB. I sent him a copy of Achilles through his editor. He died immediately after. Coincidence? Maybe.
Character? Hmm. That would likely vary day to day. Possibly Philip Marlowe, if my liver could take it—he’s among the most distinctive and durable characters in American fiction. And good for some laughs as well. Raleigh owes him a lot.
Do you have a motto or epigram that you strive to live by?
“Fortune Favors the Brave.” From my namesake Terence.
Terence Hawkins’s latest novel is American Neolithic, of which Julia Glass says, “This book will break your heart. . .but read it anyway.”
He was born during an Eisenhower administration he’d rather not specify in Uniontown, PA. Through some inexplicable and never to be repeated series of errors he was not only admitted to, but permitted to graduate from, Yale University.
Not having learned from its mistakes, that institution allowed him to become the founding Director of the Yale Writers’ Conference, which annually brings more than two hundred writers from around the world to New Haven for two weeks of workshops and master classes. Its faculty includes the likes of Colum McCann, Nicholson Baker, and Rick Moody.
His first novel, The Rage of Achilles, is a retelling of the Iliad in modern prose. He’s also the author of many short stories, essays, and editorials. He lives in New Haven with his wife and muse, Sharon Witt.