The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is now out in France. Published by Éditions Gallimard and translated by Mona de Pracontal. I am very grateful.
When Writing Is Actually About Waiting
The Atlantic, April 18, 2017
By Joe Fassler
In this episode, Hannah Tinti, the author of The Good Thief, explains what she learned about patience and risk from the T.S. Eliot poem “East Coker.”
Two hundred and fifty pages in, Hannah Tinti finally admitted things weren’t working out with her book. It was supposed to be the follow-up to her acclaimed first novel, The Good Thief, and the manuscript was competent—but didn’t have the most important thing, the ineffable quality that brings a story to life. Then she discovered lines from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” that gave her the courage to toss the whole thing out and start again, and changed her writing process for good.
“East Coker,” which Eliot started writing in 1939 after a four-year drought, is a prayer for creative release: for the ability to remain patient, to find peace inside of doubt, to hear music in the quiet. In a conversation for this series, Tinti explained how the poem taught her to push the outside world away and write for the right reasons—without hope for success or fear of failure—and why she’ll forever keep these lines taped above her desk.
Now, almost nine years after The Good Thief was published, Tinti’s second novel has arrived. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley reimagines the title character’s criminal career as a series of Herculean labors, and his body bears the signs: A dozen pinkish bullet scars pucker his skin, each one from a job gone wrong. The novel begins with Hawley in semi-retirement, traveling with his young daughter, Loo, whose growing fascination with violence is only matched by her curiosity about her mother’s mysterious death. As the story of each bullet wound is revealed in a series of interspersed flashbacks, and as Loo starts to uncover the past Hawley’s running from, the picture darkens, and deepens.
Hannah Tinti’s story collection Animal Crackers was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Prize; The Good Thief won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. She’s also the co-founder and executive editor of One Story, an award-winning magazine that publishes just a single story per issue, and literary commentator for NPR’s Selected Shorts. She spoke to me by phone.
Hannah Tinti: A friend of mine, the writer Mari L’Esperance, used to email a group of us periodically with the text of a poem. It was just a private thing for friends, but I loved it—especially because my background is in fiction, so I was often being introduced to texts I hadn’t read before. One day Mari sent a poem that brought me to tears: an excerpt from “East Coker,” part of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
When a piece of writing strikes me, I’ll print it out and tape it into my journal. This poem I printed out twice: once for my notebook and another copy that I put up right above my desk. At the time, I was going through my own darkness, and it moved me profoundly, this idea of finding a way to wait. I read this poem over and over, each time I looked up from my desk, and learned to be content inside the struggle—understanding that there would be an end to my sadness, even if there was no way for me to know when that end would come. You can find peace within that. In the waiting.
When I first read this poem, I had aspirations of a certain kind of life—personally and professionally—that seemed to hinge on specific goals. If I can just finish this draft. If I can just sell this book. If I can just, if I can just. You think these landmarks are going to solve your problems, or give you some sort of deeper solace. But they don’t. That’s why it’s better to wait without hope. At least, that’s my reading of the line. To let go of the dream that something or someone will come along and magically solve everything. That’s a form of vanity, or a form of fear. It’s the wrong thing to hope for.
I taped these lines over my writing desk because they’re also a powerful reminder about staying in the moment, deep inside the work, without worrying about some future result. That became very important with my new novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, which began with a false start.Hitting bottom gave me the courage to chuck everything I’d written and start from scratch.
After the publication of my last book, The Good Thief, I felt a lot of pressure to begin a new project. I work full-time, but at night and on the weekends I was putting in the hours, sitting at the desk, trying to get the word count in each day. Two years in, I had a few hundred pages but they were full of anxiety. Full of the fear of failure. Full of other people’s expectations. I was trying to write because I felt like I should be writing. But there was no life in those words.
At the same time, the rest of my life wasn’t going so great either. I went through a bad breakup. I was financially unstable. And several members of my family were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. I was spending a lot of time in hospitals, trying to help the people I love go through operations and treatments. It was a tough time.
The breaking point came when I was pretty emotionally low, and decided to rent a cabin on Whidbey Island, which is a place I’d been before that had really helped my writing. I flew across the country and rented a car. Put it all on credit cards. And three blocks from the rental place, I got in a terrible accident: A woman ran through a red light and destroyed the car I was driving. I hadn’t taken the insurance, so that was another $15,000. The police had to pry the doors open with a crowbar. And I just felt, “Dear God, what else could happen? What else could go wrong?”
At the same time, once I sat on the sidewalk, and brushed the broken glass from my hair, I was grateful, deeply grateful, to still be alive. Who knows how much time any of us has? This was on my mind already, as I was worried about losing my family. They were fighting for each new day. In comparison, this accident was nothing. I got to my feet and limped back to the rental car place. I got a second car and continued on.
Somehow, hitting bottom gave me the courage to chuck everything I’d written and start from scratch. But it took getting to a place where I had nothing to lose to write what I wanted to write, simply because I wanted to write it. I wrote with the idea that nobody was going to see the words. Without hope of any kind. And those pages turned into the first chapters of my new novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. Through it all, T.S. Eliot gave me much solace.
The day-to-day writing was still a slog. It’s always a slog. But letting go of expectations enabled me to be much more creative. It’s like the first line of the excerpt: I said to my soul, be still. I dove into a new world and tried to be present for the characters, to just show up for the story I was trying to tell. This allowed me to take risks, too. Because if you’re waiting without hope, if you’re waiting without love, waiting without waiting for the wrong thing, you start to feel brave enough to say, “What the hell? I might as well try this.”
Another thing that helped was that I started to draw. I’d gone to a lecture that Lynda Barry gave about creativity and the human mind, and she spoke about how by doodling or doing little sketches, you can get your brain into a more imaginative space. That was a part of my process, as well, and another kind of creative freedom—the drawings were another thing nobody was going to see. They didn’t add to my word count. But they helped to quiet my mind. That kind of stillness is necessary, if you’re going to try and peel back some of the layers of what it means to be alive.
I don’t write every day. It ebbs and flows. But when I have a project that I’m working intently on, I tend to write at night. I think it gets back to that same word: stillness. The world starts to fall asleep. The emails stop coming in. The phone and texts go quiet. Even social media slows down. It’s almost like there’s more energy in the air for me to access. From 11 p.m. until 2 or 3 in the morning, that’s when I write my best stuff. You feel like you’re doing it in secret. That nobody is watching. All around you, people are dreaming. You can almost get yourself into a dream-like state. That’s much harder to do in the middle of the day.
Writing that way, finding that spark, requires being still in the suffering.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought. For me, that line means accepting that you don’t know the whole story yet, both in your life, and with whatever you’re trying to write. It requires trusting that things are going to make sense eventually, even if you can’t make sense of them now. When I try to force things, get too technical or overthink the plot, the story loses energy. Things go better when I work instinctually and trust my subconscious. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become easier to do this. Because I know it’s worked before.
For example, at one point, when I was writing The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, a whale showed up in a scene. At first I thought, “Dear God, who the hell do you think you are? You’re not a good enough writer to have a whale in your book.” It’s not only because of the giant, looming shadow of Melville—there’s a cheesiness to whales, too, that can easily feel overdone. But when you’re a writer waiting without hope, it doesn’t matter. I told myself that no one was ever going to read about my lame-ass whale. So why not leave it in the book, and instead challenge myself to try and make it work? I’m so glad that I didn’t follow my fears and cut that humpback, because it ended up being a really important part of the story, and wove together many elements about the nature of life and death that I was trying to explore.
It can be hard to learn to tolerate risk that way. But you need to open those doors and take those chances. As an editor, I see a lot of work that’s very polished, but just doesn’t have that spark of life. The writing might be beautiful, but it doesn’t provoke emotion—which is something I’m always looking for. To feel my throat get tight, or be so engrossed that I miss my subway stop. I want to be transported. And often that experience comes from work that’s a little more raw. Maybe the story has some structural problems. Maybe their grammar is messy, or their ending or beginning is weak. As an editor, those are things I can fix. But I cannot inject fire into something when it’s not there.
Writing that way, finding that spark, requires being still in the suffering. Trusting that a reason will reveal itself in the future. Letting go of trying to resolve or understand and just keep going. Keep working. Wait in the unknowingness. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway. I struggle every day, but when I look up from my desk, Eliot’s words are a comfort. That darkness will bring the light. That one day stillness will feel like dancing.
A Heroine Comes of Age With Her Pistol-Packing Father
The engine powering Hannah Tinti’s complex new novel, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” is presented in the very first sentence: “When Loo was 12 years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun.” Bang, bang. Guns are normal in the Hawley household, where Loo (short for Louise) and her father, Samuel, live together. He keeps an assortment of firearms in his room, in closets, in boxes and in duffel bags. He often cleans them at the kitchen table, with the caressing attention of a priest. His daughter is not allowed to touch them. But they are there, and she watches intensely to learn “what she could about their secrets.”
As the book opens, on her 12th birthday, Loo’s father hands her a special gift: a Remington rifle that once belonged to his own father, who brought it home from World War II. A rifle as family heirloom. Samuel Hawley could have let the girl share one of his other guns: the Magnum, the Winchester Model 52, the Colt Python. One of the delicate pearl-handled derringers. The snub-nosed Ruger. But here in the New England woods, near the fictional beach town of Olympus, Mass., he has narrowed the choice.
He leads her into the nearby woods with her grandfather’s rifle hanging across his shoulders. He is in his 40s now, tall and lean, looking younger than his age. When they are alone in a clearing, he gives her a first lesson in shooting. The target is a tree in the woods. Hawley talks her through the moves, including the release of a half-breath just before shooting. She sets herself, aims, then pulls the trigger.
“Everyone misses,” Hawley tells her, scratching his nose. “Your mother missed.”
“The first time,” he says. “Now slide the bolt.”
Loo’s mother, Lily, died accidentally in a lake in distant Wisconsin before the young Loo could truly remember her. That loss provides an emotional anchor for Tinti’s story — and also for Loo herself, who still disappears at least once a day into the bathroom where Hawley has created an improvised shrine to his dead wife. As father and daughter moved around the unfamiliar American countryside, often abruptly, he always took the elements of the shrine with him to the next place. Photographs, a grocery list, the scrawled remnants of a dream. Like visible fragments of memory. The shrine and the guns establish a sense of home, a sense of continuity as Loo grows up. She may not recover her mother, but eventually she will master the holy art of shooting.
The story is bound together by memory as a kind of highlight film. Which is to say, by memory as it actually is and not as a neat, banal narrative or a huge baroque melodrama. Loo’s memories, and her father’s, are often triggered by subtle moments: a snatch of song, the rumble of fireworks, the aroma of food, sudden ripples of offstage laughter. And yes, pictures in a cramped bathroom. Sometimes the sun gleams in those images. But more often they are streaked by deep, threatening shadows. In this portrait, those shadows also obscure the true nature of Samuel Hawley.
The reason: Hawley is an outlaw. Not a gangster, because he retains no membership in a gang. Hawley is a freelancer, using his skill with guns to enforce criminal assignments: picking up certain very valuable cargo, usually in states where he does not live, and delivering it for a fee to the master planners. He steals cars to get around. He does what is necessary to survive his assignment. Hurting strangers. Killing, if that is necessary. He has a few freelance criminal friends, loners shaped by jails and violence. They often work together. In civilian life, Hawley poses as a fisherman or a house painter. He carefully hides his true identity from his daughter.
But he also pays a price. The 12 lives of the novel’s title are represented by 12 bullet wounds in his body, a kind of stations-of-the-cross marker for the scars Hawley has suffered in the living of his shadow life. His body has been punctured by too many bullets, along with the interior wound of losing his wife, and his great fear of harm coming to his daughter. Hawley’s love for Loo is tender and pure, a reprieve from an otherwise sinful existence. It makes Hawley an admirable father, and the novel more than a case for the humanity of gun nuts.
As his own story moves on, Hawley begins to self-medicate against physical pain or mental agony. He teaches his daughter to roll cigarettes for him. And he chooses alcohol as his own most useful medicine. The alcoholic blur pushes away the sharp edges in his mind. It doesn’t matter where father and daughter are. San Francisco. Oklahoma. Massachusetts. What matters is to sleep at night. And for Loo to go to a regular school and make friends. And so they do, in Olympus as in their other homes. But when Hawley digs for clams at the shore, he always has his back to the sea while he watches the people.
The story has a few other important characters. One is Loo’s maternal grandmother, Mabel Ridge, who is severe and wintry, as if convinced that Hawley and Loo are responsible for Lily’s death. There’s an insecure boy named Marshall Hicks, who once got fresh with Loo. Her response: She broke one of his fingers. Later, they fall in love. When Hawley is away, Marshall comes to sleep with Loo. Now they are seeing each other more clearly, as evoked by Tinti’s keen eye:
“Marshall sat up and looked around Loo’s room, his eyes resting on each piece of furniture and item on her bureau. A bowl of shells, a strip of Skee-Ball tickets from the county fair, a pile of comic books, novels and astronomy guides, some half-melted candles from a power outage, a wad of balled-up tissues from her last cold, a small batch of cormorant feathers that she’d found and kept, because she liked their iridescent black color. Loo watched him puzzle over each object. It was as if he was measuring her life.”
There are surprises too. And diversions. And mysteries. There is an extended scene with Hawley’s long absent father, who vanishes again when it ends: A vision? A delusion? We don’t know, but we read on, carried by Tinti’s seductive prose. She has a deep feeling for the passage of time and its effect on character. And when it’s appropriate, she can use her vivid language to express the ripping depth of human pain.
As this strikingly symphonic novel enters its last movement, the final bars remind us that of all the painful wounds that humans can endure, the worst are self-inflicted. The evidence is there in the scar tissue that pebbles the body of Samuel Hawley, and there too in the less visible scars on his heart.
Pete Hamill has written for New York newspapers and magazines since 1960 and has published 22 books, including the novels “Snow in August” and “Forever.” He is a writer in residence at the Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
A thriller with heart:
Hannah Tinti’s ‘The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley’
by Ron Charles
If only I’d had a copy of Hannah Tinti’s terrific new novel, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.” This is the ancient myth of Hercules — the plot of all plots — re-engineered into a modern-day wonder. Tinti, the editor and co-founder of One Story magazine, knows how to cast the old campfire spell. I was so desperate to find out what happened to these characters that I had to keep bargaining with myself to stop from jumping ahead to the end. (Matt Reeves, lined up to direct the next Batman movie, has already optioned the novel for television.)
The story unfolds in Olympus, but not the celestial realm of Zeus and his family. This is Olympus, Mass., a small fishing town, which is typical of the radical transformations Tinti makes to her source material. Having grown up in Salem, she understands the flinty personalities of New England, that baffling tension between self-reliance and community spirit.
Samuel Hawley is a widower who has just moved into town with his 12-year-old daughter, Loo. He’s ruggedly handsome enough to turn heads but gruff enough to keep people at a distance — a conflicted, compromised hero whose lineage stretches all the way from the Old West to the old gods. Loo, meanwhile, is a precocious girl who “had grown strange,” Tinti writes, “the way children will when set apart.” Although Olympus is where Loo’s late mother once lived, the town regards these new neighbors with suspicion. Loo is cruelly teased at school until she beats a few of her tormentors to a bloody pulp. Her father objects only because she got caught.
On one level, this is the tender story of a girl trying to carve out a usable identity for herself while maturing in the shade of her father’s endless grief. Loving as he is, devoted as he is, there’s something coiled and secretive about Hawley that colors his daughter’s sense of the world. (His massive collection of guns suggests that he’s always bracing for something ghastly.) In every home they’ve ever had — and they’ve had many — Hawley immortalizes his late wife with a makeshift shrine of photos and knickknacks in the bathroom. But who was this lost woman, really? As much as Loo idealizes her father, she lives in a constant state of thirst for scraps of information about her mother.
Lovely, richly written but hardly electrifying — so what accounts for this novel’s explosive momentum?
For that, Tinti leads us repeatedly to the surface of Hawley’s taut body. There, etched in scar tissue, are the tales of 12 bullets. Every other chapter of the novel takes us back to some near-deadly adventure in Hawley’s criminal past that started with robbing gas stations and ended with fencing priceless antiques. We see foolhardy break-ins go bad, sure-thing robberies slip into carnage, simple money drops jerk out of control. “Bullets,” Hawley says through gritted teeth, “usually go right through me.” It’s a breathless relay race of missteps, disasters and murder that stretches for years.
It’s also a master class in literary suspense. Hercules himself might feel daunted by the labor of writing tales for 12 bullets, but Tinti is indefatigable. Each one of these stories drops us into a different setting somewhere in the country, establishes a tense situation in progress and then barrels along until slugs start tearing into flesh. Given the repetition, you would think we would come to anticipate Tinti’s methods and grow weary with these near-escapes, but each one is a heart-in-your-throat revelation, a thrilling mix of blood and love. Some of these well-drawn characters exist only for a few pages; others rear up again when you least expect them. And the ingenuity of these tales is matched by a rambunctious range of tones — from macabre comedy to scalding tragedy.
As the novel alternates between Hawley’s violent, itinerant past and his tranquil if lonely present, we come to understand the life that scarred him, shaped him and keeps him so anxious about his daughter’s safety. “The past never leaves you,” Hawley tells Loo. “It’s like a shadow, always trying to catch up.” That’s a mystery that Loo solves along with us until, inevitably, her father’s history and her own life converge.
This would all be empty calories if Tinti weren’t also such a gorgeous writer, if she didn’t have such a profound sense of the complex affections between a man wrecked by sorrow and the daughter he hoped “would not end up like him.” She does end up like him, of course, but only in the best way. She grasps the dimensions of her father’s criminal past while gaining an appreciation for his heroic nature. And in the process, she understands something essential about everyone. “Their hearts were all cycling through the same madness,” she thinks, “the discovery, the bliss, the loss, the despair — like planets taking turns in orbit around the sun.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.
On April 7 at 7 p.m., Hannah Tinti will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.
‘The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley’ review:
Hannah Tinti novel finds humanity in criminal father
March 24, 2017 By Dan Cryer Special to Newsday
Hannah Tinti’s first novel was titled “The Good Thief.” It told the story of a 19th century orphan caught up, against his will, with a ragtag band of con men and grave robbers. Her second, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” depicts a thief in our time who may have goodness in him, but it’s often hard to see.
The novel’s opening line — “When Loo was twelve years old her father taught her how to shoot a gun” — hints at the morally ambiguous territory readers are about to enter. Not that gun ownership is a bad thing, but we quickly learn that Loo’s father, Samuel Hawley, has many guns and has not hesitated to aim them at people. He is a man with many secrets, a man on the run.
Loo (short for Louise) has never known her mother, who died during her infancy. She has spent her young life moving from place to place while her father worked at odd jobs. Now that she’s about to enter her teens, they’ve settled down in her mother’s hometown, the fictional Olympus, Massachusetts, a seaside town of fishermen and waitresses.
Until now, it’s always been just father and daughter, alone in the world. But living in a community reveals Loo’s hot temper and tendency to get into fights. Her brawny father not only earns local celebrity by winning an annual greasy pole competition but arouses suspicion because of all the bullet-wound scars exposed by his shirtless heroics.
In interviews, Tinti has remarked that her novel was inspired by the mythical 12 labors of Hercules, a son of Zeus who killed his wife and children after going insane. To atone for his crimes, he was ordered to perform extraordinary feats of strength against a series of fantastical beasts scattered across the ancient world.
Hawley, too, is a wounded soul, and each of his wounds has a story to tell. His dangerous labors, his “jobs,” are undertaken at the behest of criminals. So, like Hercules, he wanders across the American map from Arizona to Alaska to Wisconsin and so on. The book’s narrative jumps back and forth between these violent scenes and Olympus, where conflict is more prosaic, if still troubling.
Tinti makes each of her crime scenes wildly different yet equally suspenseful. As skillful as she is, she never romanticizes her bad actors. What most deeply interests her is the stumbling, fumbling humanity that results in bad actions.
Hawley is one of those men who can’t fathom how he’s sabotaged his own hopes for a better life. Despite his best intentions — for his wife and daughter — his foolish choices keep tripping him up. “The past is like a shadow,” he laments, always trying to catch up.”
Some observers might brand him a loser. Tinti doesn’t. Like Russell Banks or Richard Russo, she urges us to be open to the humanity beneath the screw-up, the kernel of goodness beneath the lawbreaker. Her ordinary people just want to be loved. A woman who begs Hawley not to kill her husband says, “I’m the only one who knows him.” Of the father who abandoned his family, Loo’s boyfriend grieves, “I don’t think he wanted a family.”
Those yearnings aren’t that different from Loo’s own. Perplexed by the everyday confusions of adolescence, Loo is nonetheless determined to discover the truth about her mother’s death and her father’s past. Along the way, she finds surprising strengths within. Tinti’s own considerable strengths make us care about the outcome. She fuses urgent, vibrant storytelling with a keen understanding of broken people desperate to be whole.
THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY
by Hannah Tinti
$27, 400 pages
Audio, ebook available
Who has more lives than a cat and the bullet scars to prove it? That would be Samuel Hawley, the fascinatingly complicated and morally dubious titular character of Hannah Tinti’s gorgeous and gut-wrenching new novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. Having escaped more than his fair share of criminal capers by little more than the skin of his teeth, Hawley has spent most of his life on the lam, pulling up stakes and starting over with his daughter, Loo, whenever a job goes poorly. But when Loo turns 12, Hawley decides a little stability might serve her well and moves them to Olympus, Massachusetts, the small coastal village where Loo’s dead mother spent her girlhood. As the two perennial outsiders cautiously become part of a community, the past that Hawley has spent so long running from begins to close in on them. Loo’s adolescent misadventures are interspersed with histories of the dozen bullet wounds that decorate Hawley’s body, the narrative nimbly flitting between past and present day until the two timelines merge in a deadly and devastating climax. Cinematic in its scope, this expansive novel confidently dwells in the murky liminal spaces of human morality while exploring enduring topics of time, death, love and grief. Tinti has creating a darkly daring (yet oddly uplifting) book that severs as a beguiling study in contrasts and contradictions, one that will leave readers pondering the conundrum of whether her protagonist is a good man who had done bad things or a bad man who has done good things. Expertly infusing old-fashioned storytelling with a modern sensibility, Tinti blends spaghetti Western, literary suspense and mythology to great success. –Stephenie Harrison