Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hannah Lillith Assadi talks about Sonora, coming of age in both the desert and New York City, love, sex, and so much more

“A lyrical meditation on the confusion and awe of growing up that is made beautifully strange by the desert’s haunting presence . . . both typical and painfully, relatably fresh . . . Lyrical, raw, and moving.”
—Kirkus Reviews

See the high praise above from the notoriously cranky Kirkus? Sonora is a fever dream about coming of age, that moves from the desert to New York City. About fleeing the past, finding your present, and change, it's a remarkable narrative that frankly keeps haunting me.

Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She was raised in Arizona by her Jewish mother and Palestinian father

I always want to know what was specifically haunting you that led you to write this luminous novel?
The origin of this novel is in a final assignment for a seminar I took during my MFA years with Rivka Galchen themed around James Joyce’s gorgeous story “The Dead”.  I had known many people who passed away tragically at my high school and wrote a piece about those we lost in those years as a backdrop to a story of a failed relationship with a man I loved then. I finished that very short piece in one night. The next morning I received a message from a friend from high school informing me that an old classmate of ours had been killed in a car accident (the accident happened at the same time I was writing the piece). It was eerie and that’s when I knew I had an obligation to the material. From that kernel, it developed into a fuller length narrative which I submitted as my MFA thesis. Six months after submitting my thesis, the man I mentioned (the love object of the original piece) passed away suddenly. And then I tore the thesis apart and began to shape it into more or less the form it holds now. All to say, there are a lot of ghosts contained in the novel’s pages, though none appearing as they did in life!
What kind of writer are you? Was there ever a moment when you felt you couldn't keep writing, or you had taken a wrong turn? And if so, how did you deal with it?
Aside from every day? HA. But seriously, I have just arrived into the book writing career, and if I am fortunate that career will be long, and Sonora is only my debut. Definitely, though, I was more assured writing it than I have been say in the new novel I am working on now. I am more hesitant, more doubtful. As for process I tend to write very quickly and then go back over my work many times over. There are hundreds of drafts of Sonora.
So much of this gorgeous novel is about coming of age even as you are haunted by the past.  Can you talk about the dangers of coming of age, what we lose sometimes in doing so?

I think youth, if we are open to its experiences, is absolutely terrifying. Thankfully when we are young we don’t know how dangerous and vulnerable we are. This novel happens to take place in the narrator’s life between her childhood and her early 20s, but in my own life it was in my early 20s that I took the most risks. Coming of age is in most cases a necessity. The alternative is early death? But it saddens me that as we age we lose our brazen ability to fall in love, walk into a night with passion and excitement. We lose a lot growing up. We also gain a lot, and I wouldn’t exchange the calmness and wisdom accompanying it for all the wild days in my past.

Your language is so strikingly poetic. Which comes first for you--the words or the character? 

Thank you! Actually dreams come first for me. I need to have a visual in mind to write anything at all. I’m very reliant on my night time imagination and dreams have this way of communicating our emotions into such vivid pictures. Once I have a scene in mind, then I use the best words I can find to describe it. For instance much of the inspiration for the prose in Sonora revolves around a dream I had as a child of a girl hanging upside down from a cactus in the middle of a monsoon. In the book, I wrote that as a vision the narrator has of Laura on the mountains. That visual became the seed I relied on when I didn’t know where to go next.

What's obsessing you now and why?
Like many others right now, I am pretty consumed by the state of this country, and trying to combat feelings of imminent doom. But in my writing life, I’m working on something set by the ocean which surprise-surprise has an end of the world vibe. It delves a little further into magical territory. So once I’m done with a few of the book engagements I have for Sonora, I am very much looking forward to getting back to working on it and being in its watery realm.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Maybe what advice would I give to other writers trying to get their first books published?
My answer would be never give up, and never compromise (too much) on your vision!
Caroline, such an honor to chat with you. Thank you.

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