In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Alice Hatcher
Your poem “Before the First Incision” in Volume 23 includes a speaker contemplating an impending surgical procedure while walking on the beach. Can you tell us a little bit about how this poem came into existence? What inspired it?
The poem is definitely autobiographical. It recounts the days before a surgery, a moment when profound fear and dread gave way to hope and defiance. I had been through a few rough few years, from a medical standpoint, and my mood was pretty bleak when I took a late-evening walk along a beach in the Pacific Northwest. The sky was uniformly overcast, and, in the muted twilight, the sky and sand, the mist along the shore, and the fog blurring the horizon had a silvery, almost otherworldly cast. Between massive pieces of driftwood that looked like human bones and the washed-up remains of a seal that had likely been gutted by a shark, I seemed to be surrounded by intimations of death. At some point, my fingers and feet went numb from the cold, and yet I didn’t want to button my coat or leave the beach. After weeks of feeling depleted, I finally felt alive. The sting of wind on my face felt like a gift. I didn’t stop walking until the tide forced me from the beach, and when it did, I accepted the icy water nipping at my heels as part of a natural cycle I had to honor and, as much as possible, meet on my own terms.
You have an extensive list of publications across genres which includes your novel The Wonder That Was Ours from Dzanc Books. I’m always curious how multi-genre writers come to the page. Can you tell us about your writing process? How do you know when a piece of writing should be in the genre you choose? Does your revision process differ or stay the same depending on the genre?
Others will have different takes, but I’m inclined to write poetry when I’m dealing with bewildering emotions that defy, at least in my mind, entirely rational analysis: grief, trauma, or fear. Essays usually allow me to draw upon my training as a segue-obsessed academic historian with a penchant for over-explaining. It’s impossible to generalize about short stories because there’s a huge difference between flash fiction and novellas, though I’m drawn to writing short stories when I want to explore a dynamic involving only two or three people. Novels allow for sustained attention to the complexity and broader social contexts of difficult moral choices. Whatever the case, no one should feel compelled by the clamor of literary cliques to extol one genre over another. I’ve heard a startling number of writers and editors argue that a certain genre represents the “highest,” or “most demanding” form of expression. (It’s usually the genre they work in.) In my view, every genre has value, and the choice of genre depends on the story. It would be absurd to explore the ideas at the center of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a flash piece, though I’m sure some would dispute this. Ideally, open-mindedness and flexibility define the artistic process, and I try to start with a process, rather than a product, in mind.
My revision process is somewhat constant across genres. In the early stages of drafting, I put everything on the page—whatever images come to mind, fragments of dialogue with potential, and soon-to-be indecipherable notes to myself. Then, in alternating states of paralyzing anxiety and dogged determination, I group ideas, sequence paragraphs/stanzas, and write full sentences/lines. I always struggle to accept the slowness of the process. It’s so easy to give in to cravings for external validation, to rush to call something done and submit it, sometimes prematurely, in the vain hopes of stifling the intolerable insecurity that plagues most artists. I’m working on patience.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
Standing in the narrow aisle of a bookstore and reaching for the same book, at the same moment, as another person, and instead of growing annoyed, smiling in the spirit of kinship. Sitting inside a café and staring out the window during a rainstorm. Small talk with strangers. Hell, at this point, going to the dentist.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
“Before the Incision” doesn’t reveal this, but much of my writing reflects a preoccupation with father-daughter relationships. Though there are notable exceptions—Shirley Jackson and Sylvia Plath, to name two great examples—few authors focus on father-daughter relationships. Most novels about parent/child relationships focus on overbearing mothers and bristling daughters bickering with each other, or fathers and sons locked in battle over who will reign as the alpha chimp. The occasional stories centered on mothers and sons usually rely on a father having walked out on his family, as if a son can’t have a powerful relationship with his mother if a man is in the house. Father/daughter stories seem to be the rarest, the assumption perhaps being that a woman’s primary parental relationship is always going to be with her mother. Having grown up in a patriarchal household, I’m profoundly aware of how much fathers can shine, or loom, in women’s psyches. I keep returning to the complex dynamics between daughters and fathers, and, specifically, to daughters rejecting the versions of masculinity modeled by their fathers.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
I am most inspired and impressed by poets and prose writers who can write from multiple perspectives and employ a range of narrative voices, artists who have the versatility and empathy needed to inhabit the minds of radically diverse people. James Baldwin was a genius in this regard. He could write beautifully about straight and gay characters, about men and women, and about people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. His ability to render even the most unsympathetic characters in three dimensions is a testament to his sophistication and humanity. I have similar admiration for authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, whose first-person narrators range from an English butler in the 1930s to clone orphans cultivated for organ donations. In the age of selfies, these writers seem possessed of a rare and refreshing curiosity about the lives of people who aren’t mirror reflections of themselves. There’s an assurance of human connection in that.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I was an academic historian in a former life, and when I started writing fiction and poetry, I had to break certain academic habits. Mainly, I had to let go of my compulsion to over-explain, provide extensive backstory for every character, and shoehorn ham-handed segues between every paragraph. A few years ago, I detailed my rocky transition from footnotes to fiction in an essay [for Writers Studio newsletter] called “The Metamorphosis of Graham Greene.” Years later, I am still learning to trust my readers, and to embrace a practice familiar to seasoned poets—the practice of evoking rather than explaining. Ongoing experimentation of the sort described in my essay usually limbers me up. Granted, some of my rough drafts still read like legal briefs and VCR manuals, but I’m slowly recovering.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’m currently drafting my second novel. Maintaining focus during the pandemic and a period of political turmoil has been a challenge, and I’m relieved that I’m working on my novel’s messy first draft, blocking scenes and sketching characters and basically throwing lots of soggy spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Fine-tuning would be a challenge at this point. I’ve also been sketching ideas for new poems and stories and looking forward to the end of the pandemic and the return of my wayward brain.
Alice Hatcher is the author of The Wonder That Was Ours, winner of Dzanc Books’ 2017 Fiction Prize and the recipient of recognitions from The Center for Fiction, Friends of American Writers, and the Eric Hoffer Foundation. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Cagibi, Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, The Beloit Fiction Journal, and The Lascaux Review. Her nonfiction received a special mention in the 2020 Pushcart Anthology. She currently lives in Tucson, Arizona. Listen to Alice read “Before the First Incision” on our YouTube Page. You can learn more about Alice and her work at her website.