A Barrelhouse Interview with DANIEL HOYT
Tom McAllister, BH Editor:
The first time we met Daniel Hoyt was at AWP Los Angeles, when he walked over to our table early one grim morning and offered us cookies. The next time we met him, he was buying us a beer. We’ve liked him ever since.
Dzanc Books will publish his first novel, THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR YOU, on November 7, 2017. It’s a wild book told from the perspective of a semi-homeless former skinhead who gets caught up in a murder investigation and runs afoul of just about everybody in the Kansas underground. There are ghosts. There is a bomb. There are knives. And there is a surprisingly likable—or at least not unlikable—protagonist trying to make his life mean something.
We sent him a few questions about writing, publishing, and Patrick Swayze.
Tom McAllister: Beginning with the title, and then through the opening chapters, this novel has a confrontational tone. The narrator, Neptune, makes it clear that he's uncomfortable with writing a book, and he thinks his reader isn't really prepared to handle his story. Plus there's a full chapter that just says, "If you don't like profanity, then fuck you." I have a two-part question about this:
a) What appealed to you about writing a prickly, difficult-to-love narrator like this?
b) Did you have any similar narrators in mind as you were developing Neptune's voice?
DH: Well, Tom, I normally write on the living-room couch with my laptop! Oh, oh, shit, these are real questions that require sustained thought. Hold on, let me gulp some coffee. I’m back. I think all people are prickly on some level, but that’s an evasion, so I need to start by saying that I love Neptune. He’s lived inside my head for, I don’t know, maybe 14 years now. He’s a punk, and that’s part of his aesthetic, and in earlier versions of the book, he was even more abrasive and confrontational with the reader. Some part of me sees reading as a form of argument or at least heated conversation between reader and book (and, implicitly, writer), although at its core it’s a collaboration. On some level, Neptune’s edge is a defense mechanism: He was abandoned two days after his birth by his parents, and his life is full of similar betrayals. He’s been homeless. He has addiction issues, intimacy issues. He himself doesn’t know how to write the book and/or doesn’t want to write it: the continuous Chapter Ones, to me, are both his attempt to start anew but also a sign of how difficult it is for him to open up. I think the psychology of that is interesting (at least it was to write — I hope it is to read too). Holden Caulfield’s voice certainly influenced Neptune’s, but I also thought about the aesthetics of Victorian narrators and confrontational rock and rollers. Maybe I didn’t think about them actually: Maybe I’m just thinking of them now.
TM: Neptune spends a lot of time reading in this book. There are even some gaps in the narrative which are explained by him noting that he was busy reading Huckleberry Finn. He's otherwise a pretty rough character, a petty criminal who runs with anarchists and skinheads. So I'm interested in hearing how this more thoughtful part of his character developed.
DH: This was part of Neptune before he had the name Neptune, and I mean that on two levels: this aspect of his character was part of the book from the first sentences I wrote, when I didn’t even really know the dude (I always thought the book, even though it’s a lot of things, was a book about reading, about the pages flying by), but that aspect has also always been part of Neptune’s DNA, his make-up and inner life — his act of naming himself might represent this. We all have the capacity to engage in stories, to live rich lives of the imagination, and Neptune clearly finds escape and possibility and meaning in reading. He sees aspects of his life through it. It matters to him, and, of course, I wish it mattered to more people on an everyday basis. It does matter. It can matter. It does. We fucking need the words, the images in our head, the conflation of both, the energy to sustain our attention, and, hey, Huck’s a pretty rough character too.
TM: The first story of yours that I ever read was "Here I Am" (originally in The Cincinnati Review), in which a manager at Burger King is decapitated by axe-wielding maniacs, so then he just picks his own head up and starts walking home. In This Book is Not For You, nobody is decapitated, but there are ghosts, anarchists with a sack full of dynamite, violent gangs of skinheads, and some supernatural plot twists. You're also one of the friendliest, most seemingly well-adjusted people I've met in the indie lit world. So where does the fascination with the supernatural and the violent fringe come from? How does it find its way into your work like this?
DH: On some level, my interest in the supernatural and perhaps even the violent stems from the first stories that really lit my brain on fire: the Greek myths that I read in all kinds of bowdlerized versions when I was, I don’t know, seven or six or eight. When Hercules chopped a head off, god-damn, two more grew back, and he had to keep chopping until he could think of some way out of that mess. Those stories are part of my writerly blood. I write realistic fiction sometimes too, and it’s not all violent, but I suppose all of my work has an element of threat. I don’t think you can have a real story without something being truly jeopardized. I hope the supernatural heightens our sense of the everyday. Neptune is haunted by a ghost and by an enchanted Sony Walkman, but he’s also haunted by his cell phone, like so many of us are these days. I want the mystical and the magical to scrape against the real in real ways, and I think too that we need to investigate the violence of American life. Neptune has been a violent anti-racist skinhead since I started the book in 2003. In 2017, a year without any fucking grace at all, people like Neptune are fighting the good fight: Cue the YouTube video of Richard Spencer getting punched in the head. (Hey, and, Tom, my mom is going to be real happy to hear that you think I’m well-adjusted.)
TM: You live and work in Kansas, and this book is set in Kansas. At one point, Neptune talks about how tired he is of hearing out-of-towners reference The Wizard of Oz. So what Kansas pop culture should we be reading? What books, movies, etc. really convey what Kansas is all about?
DH: Man, I’ve got to tell you — those Wizard of Oz jokes are bad. So many people associate that immediately with Kansas, and, of course, that makes sense: It’s a vast seemingly homogenous and flat state in the middle of the country that people often drive through as fast as they can, and Kansas is one of these “bad news” states, where we only make the national news for something horrible (Google “Kansas” and “budget” or “taxes.”). But, like any place, with nearly 3 million inhabitants, Kansas isn’t homogenous. Western Kansas is indeed pretty flat, but the Flint Hills area, where I live has beautiful hills, and Wichita and Topeka and Kansas City, Kansas, are urban areas, and the suburbs south of Kansas City are huge and have broken out in Paneras, and Lawrence, where This Book Is Not for You is set has “liberal, hippie college town" tattooed up and down its arms. So I’m going to recommend a chorus of Kansas voices, writers who do live or have lived or grew up in Kansas: Kevin Young, Ed Skoog, Megan Kaminski, Andrew Malan Milward, Elizabeth Dodd, Kevin Rabas, Darren Defrain, Tasha Haas.
TM: This book won the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, and your story collection Then We Saw the Flames won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. As someone who is generally wary of entering contests, and also finds the numbers game daunting, I'd love to know more about how this process went for you. Why contests? How many contests have you entered? What black magic enables you to keep winning them?
DH: I’m pretty wary of contests too, but I believe in the good ones, and I’ve been lucky in all kinds of ways — including by being able to afford submission fees. For purposes that are no longer entirely clear to me, when I started sending short stories out into the world, I began a list of what I sent out and when it came back and such, so here are my (at least 99 percent accurate) figures for my book-contest entries: For my first book, Then We Saw the Flames (which, as a manuscript, had all kinds of different names over the years: A Sort of Family, A Book Full of Typos, The World Requires Coping Mechanisms), I entered some version of the manuscript in 24 contests total over the course of three-plus years (such as the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, the Drue Heinz Prize, etc.) before it won the Juniper Prize at UMass Press. Noy Holland was the judge that year; she is awesome. (Read her story in the new Best American Short Stories!) For This Book Is Not For You, I entered four contests total, and it won one of them: the Dzanc Fiction Prize, and I’m so grateful to Dzanc and the people behind the press and the prize. My agent sent out This Book Is Not for You too, so my actual shooting percentage for the book is certainly not 25 percent. My only black magic is that I believe in my work and I believe in the literary world, in its people. For almost all of my career, I’ve been a slush-pile writer: both of my books were pulled out of the pile; most of my stories were too. I’m so fucking grateful. The people who run magazines and small and indie presses are my people: I love them. I love how they love words.
TM: Let's end on the Barrelhouse standard: What's your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
DH: This is going to do irreparable harm to my relationship with the Barrelhousefamily, but I’ve never seen a Patrick Swayze movie in its entirety. I’ve seen clips of them: I’ve seen that Ghost clay scene and at least one parody of it, and I know that nobody puts Barrelhouse in a corner. But did you know Swayze was in an episode of “M*A*S*H”? I probably saw it when I was a kid. I bet Hawkeye was a real dick to him.