To celebrate the release of his short story collection, Elegy on Kinderklavier, during Sarabande's twentieth anniversary year, we played a game of Twenty Questions with author Arna Bontemps Hemenway. He was a great sport and shared his thoughts on everything from the best indie bookstores to the floating writers' colonies of 2034 to what single book must survive the apocalypse. Read on for this and more!
SB: Please summarize Elegy on Kinderklavier, in the form of an old-school SAT analogy.
ABH: Elegy on Kinderklavier : quality fiction :: analogies : truth
How did this project get its start—what was the germ?
I was really intimidated when I first came to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; there were suddenly all these other writers around me, and most of them were a lot better than I was at the kind of writing I had been trying to do. So I thought, I have these stories to write for workshop, maybe I can try to do something a little different. The specific titular novella happened when the story of a family’s struggle with a particular kind of pediatric brain tumor combined with the story of a woman leaving her husband while their child was sick.
What’s the most daring thing you put into words while writing Elegy on Kinderklavier?
I don’t know about “daring”. I know I chose to be very honest about the real experiences in the stories I was telling, and that can be upsetting for some people. But, for me, it was always like, well, this is what violence in Iraq (or at home) is like, this is what a child dying of cancer is like, you know, in real life. I felt I had to be honest.
Do you write/edit to music? What’s your record of choice?
No, I actually write to an app that makes it sound like it’s always raining, because I love the rain. Occasionally I will use music to put me in the right emotional space for writing, in which case the composer Max Richter has been useful.
Do you write/edit to booze? What’s your drink of choice?
Due to a variety of reasons (stomach problems, being so old I get three day hangovers) I don’t really drink anymore. Back when I did, I never drank and wrote. A large reason for that was because I write very early in the morning.
Describe the moment you knew you would be a writer.
Everyone talks about being a kid and writing some story, but I’ll just be honest: when my M.F.A. thesis (a novel manuscript) failed miserably, then I got (rightfully) savaged in workshop, and finally I had a nervous breakdown, I stopped writing completely. Six months later, I started again, and thought, well if I can write after that, I guess I’m a writer. But, even now, on days when I don’t work, I feel like an impostor.
Do you have any quirky writing habits? Any lucky charms, rituals, tokens?
I am unbelievably, embarrassingly weird. I’m superstitious about absolutely everything. I have involved theories about the effect of the percentage of zoom in the window view for Word on the quality and feeling of what gets written in that document.
What was your favorite book when you were twenty years old?
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or possibly Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
What is your favorite word?
“L'esprit de l'escalier.” I know that’s cheating, but it’s worth it.
What author would you like to lock in your basement to write you a novel?
Mid-1990s Philip Roth. David Mitchell. Maybe Zadie Smith, although she’s so much smarter than me it seems like she would probably just convince me to let her go.
An ice-cream flavor is named after your book, what does it taste like?
What advice would you give to aspiring authors or someone working on their first manuscript?
Forget about agents, publishing, etcetera. Try to understand that the experience of writing itself day in and day out is the most (read: only) rewarding and enjoyable part.
What’s your research obsession right now? If you were to camp out for a week in the library, where would you pitch your tent?
I’m always going in many directions at once. Illegal desert crossings of the Mexico-US border. The 2008 financial crisis. The Troubles in Northern Ireland. An alternate-universe 2004 presidential election. Closeted Republican political operatives.
If not a writer, what would you be?
Homeless. Single. Sad. Just kidding, I’d be a lawyer.
Shout out to your favorite indie bookstore?
What two authors would you like to see in a celebrity death match?
I would actually love to see the celebrity death match die a quiet death, personally. No offense.
What’s next for your writing? Anything at the tip of your pen?
I’ve been afflicted by a novel manuscript for a while now that I’m trying to finish. From time to time I remember a secret dream I have of publishing one book in every prose genre. Mostly though I’m just trying to write (on anything) every weekday morning.
What do the next 20 years hold for literature? Predict the literary climate in 2034.
In 2034, due to global warming, many novelists will have taken refuge together in a huge ocean-liner that floats the world-sea (meeting up with the library-liner to trade people/books every year). No critics allowed.
If only one book could survive the apocalypse, what should it be?
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, easily.
Compose a haiku in honor of Sarabande’s twentieth anniversary:
Sarabande: a work
of love. Thanks for saving us
from the philistines.