Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Cliff Hudder talks about PRETTY ENOUGH FOR YOU, writing while teaching, unrequited love, relatable characters, and so much more

Every once in a while, a writer I admire, in this case David Samuel Levinson (Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence) suggests another writer I might like to host on the blog. I always listen, and I tore through Pretty Enough For You, by Cliff Hudder. I'm thrilled to have him here, and I'm even more delighted that he sent in snaps of his writing spcae (I love seeing how and where writers write!) Thank you so much, Cliff.

What was the spark for this book, the thing that haunted you so much you just had to write about it? 
“Haunted” is such an interesting way to think about it.  I suppose at its core the book tells the story of a man driven by unrequited love.  It’s tawdry love, but that doesn’t make it less of a driver.  Heartbreak often fuels my writing, although it’s more those heart ripped out and eaten in front of me moments that are truly inspirational.  I do try to use humor in my work, too: laughter is so effective when dealing with the serious.  But aside from the haunting pain, lovesickness, and laughs, the book in its present form began to come together in my mind as I was commuting long hours to graduate school.  (I’ve gone back, slowly chipping away at a PhD in my 50’s.)  I decided I’d use that time to catch up on audio versions of great literary classics. Listening to The Scarlet Letter one day I started to daydream: “Geez, this needs updating.  Ought to take place in a law firm.”  Then: “Kind of dragging, right?  I could do better than this.”  Such thinking is, of course 1.) wrong, and 2.) still . . . not a bad attitude to adopt for a big project.  So in my mind Pretty Enough for You is Hawthorne’s novel as twenty-first century office romance: a triangle involving a passionate young woman, a Dimmesdale-like milquetoast who’s the object of her affection, and a manipulative jerk who wants control over them both.  When it struck me how fun it might be for the Chillingworth-character to narrate the whole thing, I was rolling.  As it developed, I don’t think any of the Hawthorne connection is obvious in in the final product, unless it’s in a certain letter of the alphabet artistically rendered by the heroine’s tramp stamp. 

It drives me crazy when people carp about “relatable” or “likable” characters, because I think those can be the most interesting characters of all. You’ve created Bent, who behaves really badly (uh oh, unlikable to some) but still he’s so fascinating we would follow him to the grocery store and back, just to see if he’d have a fainting spell or do something else that was interesting. How do you see him?

I agree with you that “relatable” characters do hold interest.  In fact, the whole anti-hero approach can easily become an overdone cliché.  I worried about that with him, so I’m glad to hear you’re willing to follow him to the store.   I have to admit, I’ve found characters that get things wrong to be very productive in my stories, and I enjoy them in my reading, too.  Figures like Will Self in Martin Amis’s Money, for example: a character I revel in on the page but would never care to meet in the flesh.  I suppose fiction always does its work via conflict of one kind or another, and Bent proved to be a great conflict provider: a representative of the “bad choices make good stories” school of fictional narrative.  An early reader of the manuscript called him a “hot mess,” which I like, but that might be too benign.  Another reader called me out.  “He’s an immigration attorney, but can’t remember if his client is Indian or Pakistani?  Some people might see that as racist.”  I thought: Some people?  Might?  He’s racist, culturally insensitive, a misogynist, a manipulator, lazy, not terribly competent, abuses prescription drugs . . . if there’s a thread that connects him at least tentatively to the world of the likeable and relatable it could be that he appears to have a genuine concern for his autistic son.  That and the fact that he realizes he’s a problem.  He’s as hard on himself as he is on others, hopefully to amusing effect.    

There’s a lot about deportation and immigration. What was the research like?

I was a law student back in the eighties but did not, as they say, “learn to love the law,” so bailed after a semester and a half.  But I don’t think law school is very illuminating about real world legal practice.  Later I worked for an audio-visual firm as a photographer and video editor, and many of our clients were attorneys.  I think some of that experience went into the book: it was a good opportunity to observe without having to take part.  I actually admire lawyers a great deal, good ones at any rate.  I got to experience a taste of the quagmire that is the present state of American immigration policy while obtaining a green card for my Japanese-born wife.  Then I did quite a bit of library research more specifically for the book.  But I encourage my students who want to know about their characters’ careers to go to the source, because none of what I gleaned from printed material proved as valuable as obtaining an appointment and sitting down for forty-five minutes with the managing partner of one of Houston’s larger labor and immigration firms.  He’s interested in writing and when I explained my project he graciously agreed to tell me a lot about the darker aspects of the practice: how things can go wrong.  When I described Bent to him he said he felt like, unfortunately, he knew the guy, so that was gratifying.  Then finally I ran the completed manuscript past a friend who I consider to be one of the city’s premier immigration attorneys to check for gross impossibilities.  She makes a kind of cameo appearance in the novel, the lawyer who works as if she were her clients’ “second mother.”  My friend and the managing partner mentioned above I consider the best in my city, but they filled me in on the worst, and it’s quite grim.  These days, immigrants—documented and undocumented—can fall prey to all kinds of unscrupulous types.   

What kind of writer were you for this particular novel? Did you use the same methods as your debut? What surprised you in the writing?

Whether I’m writing fiction or an article or anything, really, there usually comes a time after research when I go spatial: I arrange my notes and slips of paper and bev naps on some flat surface and begin to rough in the sequence.  For Pretty Enough for You I’m lucky that I work at a college as I was able to spread my scraps across twenty tables in our teaching theater.  It was, like I say, a pretty big project.  From those sequenced parts I knitted together a rough draft over the course of a summer: about 250 pages that were, however, more like a rant than a narrative.  It had no pauses or chapters . . . or even dialogue.  When someone other than Bent spoke I just capitalized the words.  It read like the universe was shouting him down while he screamed back. 

I was still doing coursework towards my PhD at Texas A&M and saw that the novelist Angie Cruz had an advanced fiction workshop I could fit into my requirements, so I went in there with my pages of screed.  That was a fascinating and valuable experience.  I’d been teaching creative writing workshops myself for fifteen years, but promptly began to make all the mistakes and strike all the defensive postures I continually warn my students against.  Once I got my ego set aside, I could see my classmates were right: what the narrative delivered in energy it obscured in incoherence, so I spent the next three years structuring, polishing, plotting, and trying to dial back and organize the voice without losing it completely.  I am pretty satisfied with the results; or, at least it doesn’t make me cringe when I read it.  What surprised me is what always surprises me when a story of whatever length starts to work—those unexpected things the characters seem to come up with themselves.  It’s when an action or a line of dialogue or a plot twist appears that wasn’t in my original conception at all, but that fits perfectly with the rest of the novel’s ecology.  I love it when characters start doing that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Honestly, I’m heading into my graduate comprehensive exams and thinking about my dissertation after that, so am spending a lot of time these days obsessing over place as a geographical, cultural, regional and literary concept.  And the place I’m mainly worrying over is Texas: more specifically Houston.  My dissertation concerns four Houston authors.  I’ve lived in this region all my life, but—like the fish that can’t see its bowl—mostly I ignored my immediate surroundings.  I only recently came to believe that the state even has a literature.  Houston in particular is situated at the peripheries of the American South, the American Southwest, and what Américo Paredes called “Greater Mexico”—the influence of Mexican culture that crosses the political boundary.  That overlap makes it a wonderfully hybrid cultural region—some geographers have called it a “shatter zone”—and my theory is that a willingness to weigh, transgress and mix zones and boundaries of all kinds shows in its authors.  I look at a writer like Tony Diaz, the “Librotraficante” who took a caravan of “contraband” Latino-authored books into Arizona to protest that state’s banning of high school Mexican American Studies, and to me it makes perfect sense that he’d come up with that idea: he’s a Houstonian!  In fact, I think Houstonians who leave and write about other places—Rick Bass would be an example—take some of that hybrid, border transgressing framework with them. 

I could go on and on about this, I’m afraid.  The late Tom Pilkington used to say that Texas writing, like American literature in the mid-nineteenth century, is poised at the cusp of a Renaissance: a turning away from outside models towards some other, new expression, all its own.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I enjoy believing it.  I’m also working on another Bent novel for when the dissertation is finished, this one set nearer the border, and when I say I’m working on it I mean I’m thinking about it.     

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Gosh, those were such good questions, and I really appreciate you asking.  How about this: I work and teach at Lone Star College-Montgomery in Conroe, Texas, and many of my writer friends who teach at four year colleges and universities ask: “How can you teach community college and still have time to write?”  In fact, I have colleagues here at Lone Star who ask the same—the teaching load is rather heavy.  It’s a challenge, but I’ve come to this after many other kinds of jobs.  In addition to the photography mentioned above I’ve been an electrical lineman (apprentice), an air-tool mechanic, an archeological laborer, along with several different kinds of construction work, and none of those gave me summers off, four weeks off at Christmas, a computer, a Xerox machine, access to research databases and interlibrary loans, students who are enthusiastic and full of bright ideas, and colleagues a few paces away eager to talk fiction, poetry, Shakespeare or Dante at the drop of a hat.  Having returned for that PhD I encourage the younger grad students I hang out with to go ahead and aim big if they want research careers or Tier One writer-in-residence gigs, but—the academic market being what it is—not to forget community colleges.  There are far worse places for writers to support themselves, and we’ve all pretty much got to support ourselves.   

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