Donkey Wayside Mortuary — An Interview with Ofelia Hunt
Ofelia Hunt is the author of the novel Today & Tomorrow, recently published by Magic Helicopter Press, as well as several poems and short stories scattered around the internet. The following interview was conducted via a series of emails.
Adam Wood: For the most part I’m going to pretend I didn’t see the copyright page in the front of the book, though I kind of had to look after that line on your blog that says ‘Ofelia Hunt may not be 100% real.’ Is that the first thing everybody asks? Do you think people get too hung up on the pseudonym thing?
Ofelia Hunt: I don’t know. The name Ofelia Hunt sounds (to me) like a fake name (it was based originally on an old Police drama, Hunter—I had recurring thoughts of the show, was wondering how it had disappeared). I do fear somebody will get pissed at me and start shouting, like, ‘authenticity’ and try to slap me with an oar or throw kittens, at a reading, perhaps. I could have a depressive breakdown at the microphone, and begin sobbing about alcoholism and the patriarchy.
AW: This is your first novel, but you’ve published a bunch of poetry and some short stories with Bear Parade before now. Did you find it different writing a novel, and how did the decision to do that come about?
OH: I hate when people say something ‘occurred organically’, or whatever. So I’ll say this: I’ve always wanted to write novels. I’ve written three and half other novel/novella type things that weren’t very good or which lost their energy part way through. I felt like the stories in Bear Parade were a great way to prepare for a novel. In my head, the stories and the novel all have the same narrator. She may have different names or live in different places, but she’s the same person. Her style of narration evolved, in terms of sentence structure, paragraphing, etc… as I edited T&T. But I feel like My Eventual Bloodless Coup could be read in conjunction. Or as a footnote or something. To some degree, the poems I wrote around that time are the same character as well. I’ve read that some writers map out, outline, or even write out character histories. I don’t, but the short stories and poems formed a sort of foundation for T&T.
AW: I’ve read in interviews that you wrote most of the short stories that make up My Eventual Bloodless Coup in one sitting. How did you approach writing when it came to the novel: a chapter at a time?
OH: All the stories in My Eventual Bloodless Coup are maybe 300-900 words long. This is about the maximum I can write in one sitting, while still having time to edit and come up with something I will like (at least in the moment).
For the first draft I wrote straight through, chapter by chapter. I had this conception there would be two parts of twelve chapters, for twenty-four total, maybe representing an hour for each chapter, but only loosely. I wrote every day, about 500 words a day. I edited everything I had written before writing the next 500 words until this began to take too long, then I edited only the previous day’s work before writing new words. I also edited while writing. And then edited straight through several times. According to my Word document properties dialog box, the final version I have was revised 159 times with a total revision time of 65,230 minutes. I don’t know what that means.
AW: Your characters–and especially your narrator–seem to latch onto thoughts or words or sounds, and those things come up again and again. Does that come from an interest in how language works, or how certain people think? What’s behind that?
OH: I’m very interested in how language works, how people work, how people work with language. Sometimes I imagine words on a tape (think 1950s computer technology) being fed into a person, by way of ear or mouth, in a sort of programming, and wonder what happens to the people after that. In a way, this is how I interact with people. Constant testing. I have difficulty communicating with other humans, especially when I first meet someone. It’s like I have to test, test, test, and find a new method each time. And in my head I often hear recurring words or phrases. I’m prone to repeating them over and over, as though the phrase itself is a joke. For example: “dollar dollar bills.” I used to walk up to friends I knew and repeat these phrases aloud and then walk away. I woke up this morning thinking, “donkey wayside mortuary.” Perhaps this is garbage language. Maybe I’m interested in garbage language. Where it comes from, where it goes.
AW: I think there’s certainly a heavy reliance on ‘naturalism’ in popular literature, and that comes at the expense of exploring other ideas of how people actually think and speak. Dialogue (internal and otherwise) like yours strikes the ear as authentic precisely because it contains all of these little loops and flaws.
OH: Yeah, realism/naturalism seem very concerned with creating a digestible whole, where each image/dialog/thought fits together all puzzle-like and calculated. Like a little machine you wind up and ride to epiphany. I feel ashamed to have typed that, a little, as I generally avoid similes. But maybe language, or garbage language can work machine-like also, or like dozens of machines, crawling from little round mouths.
AW: There’s a moment in the novel when the narrator says “I push piano-keys in a rhythmic way but with no regard for sound or beauty” (p.52). That kind of unlocked the novel for me, I think. There’s all this repetition and the writing pulls the reader along really powerfully, but without regard for traditional plot or narrative arcs. Would you say you’re more interested in how it ‘feels’ to read your writing as opposed to what it ‘means’?
OH: Yes. The idea that a ‘text’ could be easily interpreted into ‘meaning’ has always bothered me. Traditional narrative arcs are very predictable. By way of television, schooling, ‘genre’ (whatever that means), news media, we (or at least I) are/was indoctrinated into this very basic structure. I feel infuriated when a news report takes a very complex issue and turns into a digestible narrative arc: the US economy has slowed because of X or Y. Now we can ‘like’ it or not. Now we know who to blame. I hate the feeling of knowing what will happen next. I want to be surprised at every moment.
AW: That’s increasingly true of every sphere of life, I think: that binary reductivism. Do you think it’s your wish to be surprised that leads you to reject traditional plotting?
OH: I think that’s part of it. Traditional plotting also involves a lot of planning. A lot of reshaping the text to fit the constraint of the narrative arc. I’m not interested in it enough to do it well. I’m more interested in writing sentences that sound how I think sentences should sound (at least mine), and assembling those sentences together in a way that pleases me. This leads me towards surprise (a lot of humor for me is surprise) and perhaps emotion.
AW: I’ve been describing the novel to people as kind of Kmart realism but with particular tendencies towards violence. Does that seem fair? How do you think of the book if you think of it in those terms at all?
OH: When I was small, my parents took me to Kmart to buy shoes. I don’t think in those terms, but I do admire the ‘Kmart Realists’. Anne Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver. Maybe Sartre can fall into this type of category in terms of stylistic representation of ‘reality’. Marguerite Duras? Robbe-Grillet? I know that in writing T&T, I was very focused on attempting to represent how a mind works. I was reading a lot of Jean Rhys. I was thinking about the realism of Stephen Dixon’s writing. Stephen Dixon is probably the best I’ve read at representing a mind at work. Particularly in Interstate, which is a horrifically close third person. I wanted to write horrifically close first person. I want to experience ‘reality’ as an other.
AW: Have you read Nicholson Baker also? He’s very interested in the intimate details, but the language is less spontaneous, more studied, almost essayistic.
OH: I haven’t, though I just now read a little from The Mezzanine online. I like the singular focus on details, and the way they seem to swarm together, as though each little detail is more important than any character.
AW: I read about this thing at Stanford called the Lit Lab, where they built a piece of software that analyses writing. They feed in all of these novels and plays and poems and this thing is slowly learning how to categorise literature on a purely empirical basis, instead of cognitively or emotionally, like a human might.
OH: I like that idea. I think T&T might get categorized as a YA novel maybe, because of the fairly simple sentence structures, and maybe elementary school level word choice.
AW: You know Pirooz Kalayeh and Tao Lin, right? Are you involved at all with the film they’re making of Tao’s novella Shoplifting from American Apparel?
OH: I’m not involved with that, but I am excited to see the film. And also to see The Human War, another Pirooz Kalayeh film based on the novel by Noah Cicero.
AW: Seems like Today & Tomorrow would be almost impossible to film because so much of it is internal to the narrator’s experience. It would make a great audiobook though; is there a Hollywood actress you would like to record an audiobook version?
OH: I agree. Any film of T&T would probably be doomed by its lack of plotting. Not much happens that’s filmable and there’d have to be a ton of voiceover. I think the audiobook could be read very effectively by many actors: Frances McDormand (Blood Simple), Joan Chen (Twin Peaks), Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation), Felicia Pearson (The Wire).
AW: What’s next for you? I assume you’re someone for whom writing is an almost daily part of life, regardless of whether you’ve got a ‘project’ in mind, but is there anything particular you’re working towards?
OH: I’m working on something that might be a novella, currently titled Voltron which might be about trailer parks. I’m also writing a series of short stories called Horrorcore. So far these have been stories written in about one hour that feature creepy imagery. Maybe they’re related to Horrorcore rap/hip hop.
AW: Ofelia, thanks for talking to me about all this.
OH: Dude, thank you.