Tina May Hall Interview
The Art of Writing
Tiny May Hall is a very good writer. That’s what I thought when I first read one of her stories. Well, actually, I hadn’t even finished it. I was just a few sentences in. But I instantly got the feeling that she really knew what she was doing. Then I proceeded to read the rest of her book. It was every bit as amazing as the first part. And while she takes the reader on some very strange, humorous, and often unexpected journeys, you get the feeling that Tina May Hall is a born storyteller. It’s what we, as readers, are always searching for—the perfect book.
Winner of the 2010 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, a competition Raymond Carver once judged, Tina May Hall’s outstanding book, The Physics of Imaginary Objects, is a true masterpiece, an instant classic, and a book that should be read by everyone. If you’re a writer, it will make you want to write more. If you’re a graphic designer, it will inspire you to write as well. Even if you’re a politician, it will inspire you to write. This is one of those books that makes everyone want to become a writer.
With so much enthusiasm for her work, I couldn’t help but contact Tina May Hall on behalf of The Writing Disorder. I thought an interview would help readers understand where a person who writes like this comes from, and how she became the writer she is today.
So I used my various resources and came up with an email. I sent off a note to Ms. Hall, and presto, she agreed to be interviewed for our literary journal. Not only was Tina a great person to interview, she also provided us with an example of her work to reprint on our site. With kind permission from the University of Pittsburgh Press, we thank you. And we’d like to thank Tina for taking valuable time away from her writing, teaching, and family, to participate in this interview. Thank you, Tina.
THE WRITING DISORDER: Where did you learn to write?
TINA MAY HALL: I learned to write by reading a lot as a child and then later in a more disciplined fashion at the University of Arizona, Bowling Green State University, and The University of Missouri.
TWD: What books did you read growing up?
TINA: Everything by Jane Austen and the Brontës. Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery, Madeleine L’Engle. It was pretty typical girlhood fare.
TWD: Tell us about your family life growing up. Were there any creative people in your life?
TINA: My father is an electronic engineer who is immensely talented at rigging up all kinds of devices. My mother is an artist who cycled through pottery, painting, stained glass, porcelain dolls and now is back to oil painting. She has always been incredibly, inspiringly creative in all facets of her life. Both of my parents demonstrated on a day-to-day basis how one might cobble together something beautiful and functional out of unlikely materials.
TWD: How do you begin a story or piece?
TINA: I usually start with an image and write from there. It is a bit like walking into a dark cave with only the tiniest light—very fun and a little scary.
TWD: How long is the editing process?
TINA: Probably because the starting is so undirected, the revising takes a long time. I usually take a few months to write a draft of a story and then work for a couple of years on revisions. This is why I usually have two or three projects going at once!
TWD: Do you write at a specific time of day? What do you use to write?
TINA: I used to only like to write in the morning, but now that I have a child, I’m much more pragmatic and I write whenever I have the time to do so. I always write on the computer; if I try to write longhand, everything that comes out is unbearably sentimental for some reason.
TWD: Have you ever published something before you felt it was ready?
TINA: One of the benefits of having a long revision process and being generally reluctant to send work out is that the work normally feels pretty complete by the time it is actually published. That said, I’ve had invaluable help from the editors I’ve worked with who have taken the stories I’ve sent them and refined them with really beautiful suggestions.
TWD: What is your workspace like?
TINA: Cluttered. I like to imagine a clean desk, maybe with a vase of lilacs and a white curtain blowing at the window, but it hasn’t materialized yet.
TWD: Do you have other creative talents – music art, etc.?
TINA: Nope. I’m a one-trick pony.
TWD: What is it like to be a critically-acclaimed author?
TINA: I’m not sure I’d claim this title for myself. It is lovely to have the book as an object and such fun to hear from people who have read it.
TWD: What is your home life like now?
TINA: I have a four-year-old so my home life right now revolves around superheroes, Legos, and Ben 10. That Ben 10 theme song is catchy. I find myself singing it all day long. It is an existence rather steeped in testosterone and myth, for the moment.
TWD: What is a typical writing day for you?
TINA: As I said before, I have to fit the writing in where I can, which is wonderful and aggravating at the same time. A few years ago, my idea of a writing day was a whole uninterrupted day when I would get up, make myself a pot of tea and then sit and contemplate the story, write for a while, contemplate some more, write, repeat. Then I’d pour myself a glass of wine and read until bedtime. Nowadays, a more typical writing day consists of writing for a bit, getting distracted by the desires of the people around me for clean socks and underwear, packing some lunches, teaching a couple of classes, writing a little bit more after class, going to the grocery store, putting my child to bed after telling him multiple completely inaccurate stories about Superman, and then writing a bit more. Writing is a much more organic part of my life now—it really isn’t sacred in the way it used to be.
TWD: What’s the longest time you’ve gone without writing?
TINA: I write in fits and starts. There have definitely been months at a time when I don’t write fiction. So far, I’ve always been relatively secure in the knowledge that the writing will be there when I come back to it. It helps to keep a list or notebook of ideas and snippets of images, just to feel like there are things to prime the pump, need be.
TWD: Do you enjoy editing, or the initial writing process more?
TINA: Editing, by far.
TWD: How much of what you write do you throw away?
TINA: Probably about 80%.
TWD: How do you feel at the end of writing a story?
TINA: Like most writers, I feel ecstatic for about a day and then reality sets in. It always does feel like a bit of a miracle to have the whole thing in front of you, even if you are already starting to see the flaws.
TWD: What are you working on now?
TINA: I’m working on a novel about an encyclopedia entry writer who gets obsessed with Victorian arctic exploration.
TWD: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
TINA: Hike, camp, snowshoe—anything that gets me away from desk and outside. There is something so heartening about nature; it is a relief to just enjoy trees and stones and great drifts of snow after struggling with a story.
TWD: What are the challenges of being a writer today?
TINA: I think we have a lot of very attractive things to do in front of the computer besides write. It can be hard to turn away from the email and the blogs and all that. There are so many enticing ways to spend our time talking about writing rather than actually doing it!
TWD: What do you read now, who do you admire?
TINA: I read Carole Maso, Jayne Anne Phillips, Lydia Davis, Kate Walbert, Kathryn Davis, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Neil Stephenson, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje and a whole bunch of others. I have pretty broad reading tastes and love suggestions. I still make a summer reading list each year.
Tina May Hall is assistant professor of English at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Her stories have appeared in 3rd Bed, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, minnesota review, descant, the Collagist, and Water-Stone Review, among others. She is the author of the chapbook All the Day’s Sad Stories.
For more information, please go to: tinamayhall.com
From The Physics of Imaginary Objects (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)
a story from TINA MAY HALL
Faith Is Three Parts Formaldehyde, One Part Ethyl Alcohol
Rosa keeps her finger in a jar on the nightstand. In the morning, it twists to feel the sunlight. She watches its gentle convulsions and holds her other fingers up to share the warmth. Since she cut off her finger, she has worked in the diocese business office, filing and answering phones. Mostly, she answers questions from parents about the parish schools and fields requests for priestly appearances. While at work, she doesn’t think about her finger too much. It is just her left pinkie finger; she can still type seventy-five words a minute. In fact, some people don’t even notice it is missing. Those who do usually look appalled and ask, almost reverently, how it happened. Then she has to lie, all the while praying for the Lord to forgive her.
She used to carry the finger with her in a large shoulder bag, the jar wrapped carefully in a bath towel. For a while, she needed it with her all the time. She would take it out at work when no one else was around and in restaurant bathrooms to assure herself that it was still there, that it hadn’t dissolved, that the glass of the jar hadn’t cracked, leaving it withered and gray. She never showed it to anyone. This was partly because she didn’t want anybody to know about it. Cutting it off had been enough to make the nuns expel her from the convent, even though she was, by their account, the most promising novice they’d seen in years. If the fathers found out she had kept it, she would probably be excommunicated. The other reason she never showed anyone is because she was afraid that sharing it would diminish its potency. Her severed finger is a miracle, a divine link. Every time she unwrapped it in the darkness under her desk or in the chill of a bathroom stall, it would glow love. It is a piece of her that is always praying, a sign of the preservative power of God’s grace.
She worried so much that she finally stopped carrying it with her. During the day it drifts at the edge of her imagination, two and a half inches of waxy faith suspended in a globe of silvery liquid. At night, she dreams of watery expanses and moons shaped like fingernails.
One Thursday in April, a man in his thirties enters the diocese office a few minutes before closing. He crosses to Rosa’s desk and stands in front of her, apparently studying her name plate. His silence makes her nervous, and she tucks her left hand under her thigh before asking how she can help him. He doesn’t speak, and she wonders whether she should try to get past him to the outside door or dash into the copy room behind her where her most lethal weapon would be a five gallon bottle of toner. Just as she starts to pray to the Lord for divine intervention or at least a little timely guidance, the man pulls a small silver box from his pocket, parts the edges of his collar, and holds the box to the bit of clear tube that protrudes from his throat. “Rosa?”
She thinks it is the most beautiful and terrifying sound she has ever heard. It is a cross between a whisper and a deep bass with overtones of metal, but it is not mechanical. It is a sound she imagines stones make when mating or dying. He repeats, “Rosa?” Again the sound amazes and humbles her, provokes a feeling she has only experienced after praying for hours, late at night, when the other nuns were sleeping and she was alone in the cold arch of the chapel. There is an almost sexual tightening of her abdomen, a powerful contraction deep in her stomach.
“Yes,” she whispers.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you, it’s just that this is the only way…”
He says he has a spiritual problem. His voice still startles her, but she is becoming used to it and its effect on her; however, this question throws her into a panic because all of the priests are out of town for a convention on venial sin except for Father O’Rourke who doesn’t approve of conventions and went to Las Vegas instead for the weekend. The man looks distressed by this.
“Well, then maybe you can help me. I guess it is sort of an administrative matter.”
“I’m not really an expert,” Rosa says. “Don’t you think you’d better wait for the fathers to get back?”
The man plucks at his collar in agitation. “If I don’t resolve this now, I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve.”
She wants to say something reassuring, but her stomach growls and the man smiles and says, “I’m keeping you from your dinner.” He holds out his left hand because he is still clasping the silver box to his throat with the right, and she hesitates but finally gives him her left hand to shake and is surprised when he doesn’t say anything about her missing finger. That’s when she finds herself asking him if he’d like to eat with her at the deli next door so they can talk more about his problem.
Over corned beef and coleslaw he asks about her missing finger, and because he asks so casually, she tells him the truth. He is the first person she has told the story. Everyone else who knows the truth heard it from the nuns who found her in the kitchen, on her knees, her severed finger beside her on the stone floor, her hands clasped, forehead pressed against the avocado metal of the refrigerator. They said she was in rapture; the doctors called it shock. She tells him how it didn’t bleed at all and how this disappointed her, how even at that time, even when she was having the most meaningful religious experience of her life, she felt somehow cheated by the absence of blood. She tells him without prompting, almost shyly, about the voice she heard before it happened, except it wasn’t a voice. It was more a feeling, a shifting of weights and forms around her. That’s how she explains it after the waitress asks if she wants cheesecake—it was as if her perception of everything slipped for a moment and she knew what she was supposed to do. He asks only one question.
“What does it mean?”
“It’s proof, of course.”
It isn’t until she has accepted his offer of a ride back to her apartment that she realizes they haven’t talked at all about his problem. He is quiet when she reminds him of it. The artificial voice box is a moth, still in his cupped palm. Then he says he was wondering if it was possible to bury objects, not a person, just an inanimate thing, in consecrated ground. She thinks for a long time before she has to say she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t think so. He sighs when she tells him this. The noise comes from his mouth, not the box; it is a painful sound that makes her knuckles ache. When they reach her apartment, he asks if he can come in for a moment, says that there’s something he’d like to show her. And because she feels this bond with him, this recognition, she doesn’t even question him, just nods and leads him down the sidewalk to her door.
“Do you have a tape player?”
His voice seems weaker, more metallic than before, and she wonders if he isn’t used to talking so much. So, as if her not speaking could conserve his strength, she simply nods again and points to the corner of the living room. He stands in front of the machine for a while, both hands pressed against it. When he does move, it is to reach into his pocket, but this time he brings out a cassette tape, not the silver box. He places it in the deck and presses play, and for a few minutes the room is quiet except for the murmur of the tape cycling into the machine. Rosa is still standing in the entranceway, the door open behind her, and she can see the dark form of his car in the mirror on the opposite wall, and strangely, she can see another reflection within that image. She recognizes the cold blur of the moon on his windshield as a voice comes out of the speakers and she knows without him telling her, for he is not talking or even looking at her, that this is his voice, was his voice. It is a child singing a song about a spider and a rainstorm, and as the rain starts falling, there is a click where the recording stops.
“May I leave this with you?”
This surprises her but she knows she will say yes, knows she won’t be able to help herself, and the sound of the tape player continuing past the voice, scanning silence, brings back that feeling of praying in the empty chapel and another memory, the rasp of metal against stone tile, the smell of onions, the whine a bone makes when it is lost. Rosa wants to give him something in exchange, to show him the thing she holds secret. She says, “I’ve been keeping something too,” and places her left hand on the coffee table, spreads her fingers until they are shaking with the effort, and uses the forefinger of her right hand to trace the cold transparent space where her pinkie used to be.