Interview by Mary Lenoir Bond
I met Hannah Pass in January of 2011 at a Best Western in Seaside, Oregon, during the very first day of a 2-year MFA Creative Writing low-residency program via Pacific University of Oregon. It was cold, wet, and stormy much of those initial, intimate workshop residency days where we shared lectures, lunches, dinners, and free time together, often in the company of other writers pursuing a degree along with us. Pass and I were studying different genres at the time, but we quickly bonded, and even served on each other's thesis committees. We've been sharing works in progress, local readings, and a solid friendship ever since. Suffice it to say, part of our friendship is a genuine and enthusiastic appreciation of each other’s work, on an academic as well as purely entertainment level. I'd definitely be reading anything and everything Pass publishes, despite our personal associations. I have a deep respect for her as well as her work. And yet, as much time as I've spent with Hannah, I'd say there's still a very private and somewhat shy side to her and I wonder if perhaps that seemingly impenetrable layer is part of what shines through in her enchanting work. I wonder if these little sparkles are even largely unknown to Pass. I hope to uncover some of what makes her so enigmatic.
1. A subtle but prominent theme that I noticed throughout these short stories is the desire for human touch. This is especially apparent in "Palmistry," although it is a seemingly common theme throughout this thoughtful collection. I'm wondering if this is perhaps a reaction to our current society's technology. People seem endlessly plagued by depression and anxiety and yet we continue to distance ourselves from human contact. I'm sure in the 1950's, household convenience machines were shocking. And prior to that, the telephone and the car. Nowadays, we can text other countries for free and Skype access the world. We can also order our groceries online. I can press a button on my cell phone or computer and voice activate answers to questions without ever even needing to type the words. The need for other humans decreases as technology advances. We can buy robot pets for companionship. Electronic advancement is brilliant and astounding, but at what cost our potential dismissal of contact and touch?
Thank you for the intro, Mary! Oh robot pets, they don’t sound so cute. I often think about what it would be like to go back to the old flip phone, something I can’t escape into. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to not resort to my devices, to be okay with waiting, sitting, looking around a room by myself. It certainly feels uncomfortable at times.
The inspiration for “Palmistry” came from my tendencies to develop crushes on yoga teachers, specifically the teachers who going around touching you, guiding you a little deeper into a stretch and so on. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but it feels comforting to have a human care for you in that way. Intimacy is thrilling between strangers, and yoga happens to be one of the places where that experience is most palpable for me. The teacher and you are both agreeing to sit there and be in each other's space, to experience one another. We need those interactions, and I'm not so convinced that technology is going to help us there. I recently read a quote in the New Yorker by Esther Perel, how people literally go to bed with their phones at night, that “The last thing they stroke is their phone. The first thing they stroke is their phone.” Although it may seem petty, I really think these habits are slowly chipping away at us.
2. Where do you get the inspiration for the people that you write about? You create such memorable characters in a short space of time. Are they sometimes based off of people that you know? Or would you say they're all dimensions of yourself? I can definitely see some of your own unique personality in certain moments we live through with your characters, but often these personalities will then shift and sometimes become a bit sinister. Is writing from so many varying perspectives and traits a fun exercise in living through another's eyes? A bit like acting, where an actor may tackle several roles of very different personalities: a hero, a villain, an innocent, a seducer, a monster. Are your characters a way to put yourself into other perspectives and play around? Act like you wouldn’t normally dare or have an opportunity to in real life?
Humans are so complex, yes? We all have these light and dark qualities that are fun to indulge in at times. I think in a general sense, every time you create a character, you are acting in a way. You are going to that place, imagining what it would be like to be that character, putting yourself in that scene, attempting to feel what they feel and so on. And surely there is a part of me in each of my narrators that I explore. I think artists, whether we are aware of it or not, bring our own unique experiences to everything we create. People have a filter for how they experience the world, so everything comes through our own lens. And crafting characters can be a cathartic process and, in a way, a form of confession. Some of my characters are often inspired by people I know. I like to capture their mannerisms, put them on the page, people say so much just by how they look and move.
3. You studied with the late, great Katherine Dunn. What was that like? What sort of specific advice or direction did she give you? I met Dunn a couple of times. She and I once had a brief conversation about you where she amusingly summarized your personality, behind her darkly shaded glasses and smoky voice, as "a real peach." I'd say that’s pretty accurate, having known you from grad school and developing a long-term friendship with you during and afterwards. You're a compelling mix of like 4 parts sweet, 3 parts flirty, 2 parts reserved and mysterious, with a few dashes of sass and plenty of smarts and determination. You're also incredibly loyal, trustworthy, and reliable, which can be rare traits to find. Which ties back into my 2rd question, regarding how much of who you are bleeds into the characters you write? Your short story characters obviously only visit us briefly, but they leave lasting impressions. Besides letting us know what it was like to study with Dunn, can you tell us what you hope to be remembered for, as an artist? What do you want readers to know about you, if anything?
Those are really kind things to say, thank you. I remember the first time Katherine and I sat down together for tea to discuss my critical essay. I was very nervous. I clammed up. She was so incredibly wise and wore those dark glasses! She had asked me to explain my essay idea and my brain went to mush. I felt insecure, not smart enough and basically almost broke down into tears before her. I mean, to me that would have been a nightmare! But she encouraged me to sit there, to get over it, to try and explain myself. This was the first time an adult had broken down my personal wall like that. She mentioned that she'd frozen many times in her own work, that when she got to thinking the topic was too big or if the editor she knew looking at it was some grand “pooh-bah,” she'd likely convince herself she couldn't do it. The only way she found around that was to decide that she couldn't do it well, but that she had to do it, so she'd do it badly. Then by dint of persistence she stumble upon a way to do it decently. I looked forward to receiving Katherine's letters. She had so much personality, even in her critiques. The advice I remember most was when she stressed the importance of clear and concrete prose, especially for the fantastic writers. To use the right words to mean what you say. She recommended I read Charlotte’s Webb and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Classics. I am grateful I got the chance to spend some time in her world. And as for me, I would say that many of my characters embody traits and thoughts that might be my own secret embarrassments, and people tend to remember characters who peel back their layers. But to be honest, I’m not sure if being remembered is that important to me. To be able to give a person an experience, something emotionally resonant, and to have the opportunity to share my imagination with someone feels like a privilege.
4. How do you feel getting an MFA advanced your skill? Your individual voice as a writer? Do you think it’s possible to be a successful writer without an MFA? It is of course, but how does an MFA help?
I'm convinced that a person can pretty much do anything they want with persistence and discipline. I think an MFA helps to motivate, build community and point out the tricks that writers use. I learned a bunch of great tools, I think the most useful being how to get rid of the unnecessary in my writing. A few weeks ago I stumbled across that quote by Picasso, “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary,” and it struck me. School helped me do just that, but I didn’t find my voice until after I graduated. I think it takes a good chunk of time to find your voice. In school, you’re encouraged to emulate authors, to write that traditionally arched 12-page story. Learning the rules—it’s a great way to grow, and at the same time, maybe you felt this way too, I think it can be crippling. It wasn't until I spent a month away writing in Vermont that I finally felt the freedom I needed. I think finding your voice comes from reading everything, from filtering out the bits you like and don't like and then, eventually, you start to create the things you want to see.
5. Does your environment have a huge impact on your writing? We live in a rather lush and green area of the world. The PNW is such a verdant wonderland. We're a city and yet we can drive 15-20 minutes and be completely immersed in nature. How does this influence your work?
To be honest, the PNW environment is beautiful but does not inspire me all that much. It could be that it is no longer otherworldly to me. And you're probably thinking, who is this person? But I'm more influenced by environments that I am experiencing for the first time. I will say that being out in a rural area for a few weeks is really freeing. I spent a month last year in the countryside of Portugal and being away from everyday distractions was a magical thing. I found myself writing about the wild hogs at night, who I could hear snorting in the grasses. The solitude, and this other world completely changed the way I wrote.
6. And how did growing up in Wisconsin influence your work as well? What sort of environment or mindsets did it instill in you to either merge into your work or cause you to push against? Did your early childhood influence how and what you write about now?
I do find myself wanting to include Wisconsin into my writing. The Midwest is a comfortable place and people are so real and family is big there and political correctness sort of goes out the window in some conversations. It can have a very unrefined feel, which makes for some honest material. My childhood is a huge influencer. I was a shy kid, and spent a lot of time in fairy dresses and bushes and didn’t know how to verbally express myself. So, I think I didn’t have a whole lot of super close relationships with the people in my life until recently. Maybe that’s why I’m obsessed with writing these intimate stories, with creating characters who long to connect. It’s a challenge for me and it’s a scary thing to explore what things feel like. But it’s also the most exhilarating.
7. When working with the surreal or magical/fantastical aspects of your stories, have you intentionally made efforts to ground them in relatable circumstances or do you find that just comes naturally by using solid character structures and realistic scenarios? There's a definite quirkiness about these characters or situations. They're instantly charming and I love the way you sprinkle little bits of magic into the mundane. Do you often start with a character in mind first? Or is a story more often based off of a situation or a setting you want to explore first?
I’m happy to hear they are charming in some way. Most of the time I try to find inspiration in fantastic scenarios or rich settings. It’s like constructing a dream, my mind gets to play, and as a writer you really have the power to do whatever you want! And at the same time, I love pointing out the oddities of everyday experiences, the very basic things that we struggle with day to day. And maybe that’s what those fantastic elements help to do, they’re just enough to get your attention and say, Hey! Look at this crazy thing over here, when really, that crazy thing is disguised as something that has always been there, right beneath your nose, on a very mundane level.
I have found, however, that when I know what I want to explore emotionally in a story, that is when the writing really clicks for me, fantastic or not, and a lot of the time I can take that emotion and build a world around it. It’s more of an intuitive process. I do make intentional efforts to ground my stories, make them relatable, because those are the stories I like to read, those are the ones that feel most honest to me.
8. When reading through this debut collection, I was struck by your ability to so skillfully create casual reflection on basic human nature and our relationships. Disagreements, annoyances, arguments, drama, love, lust, grief, caring, vulnerability, and every possible twist and turn we experience as sentient beings is a common thread weaving throughout all of humanity and time. It seems there always has been and will always be many of the same disagreements and struggles within our interpersonal relationships as well as within ourselves for all time. These themes knit themselves throughout your stories and I believe that is what makes the characters so enticing. They're people I wonder about, every so often, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to wonder about a fictional story whose story has ended. Just in the context of, gee, I wonder whatever happened to _____, much like we may occasionally wonder about an old junior high school friend or playmate, your characters live and breathe in our minds and become real. Moreover, I love your use of the elements (ice, pollen, stars, the sun, etc.) and how they parallel emotions and circumstances. For example, the cold and casual relationship going on during "Exhibit" and the birds-eye Ferris wheel view of some bizarrely loose and threatening bison invading a fair as a character contemplates whether it's worth taking back a deceptive lover in "High Heat." And an ocean-potion evoking mystical recollections in "Remedy." These little tweaks on the world are believable and yet just left of center. I totally want to believe there actually is a woman somewhere who teaches a class about how to communicate with our loved ones who have died but been reincarnated, and then what sort of philosophical and societal questions/challenges these pairings could bring. There's a quiet commentary here to what's been going on in society for decades: judgement of those who are "other" or do not follow traditions deemed by some imaginary populace as "the norm." And just when I adore what the teacher in "Our Reincarnated" is doing to aid the grieving, I learn she may have multiple ulterior motives and I somewhat start to despise her. And yet part of me loves her authority and reversal of stereotypical gender power and control. But all of your characters do that, evoke strong emotion and feel relatable. And it's so easy to fall in love with your earnest and honest imagination. How do you not get too lost and float away with the character? How do you keep them grounded?
“Ocean-potion” has such a great sound! One of my writing teachers once gave this helpful piece of advice, it was to create a claustrophobic space for my characters, to shrink a story down conceptually, get rid of all of that backstory you don’t need, get rid of everything that is going on outside the room your characters are in, to really trap them in a space and not let them leave. I think this advice helped me to ground my characters and refrain from getting swept up into their world. If you think about it, stories really capture how people behave when you put them into a room together. It's in this claustrophobic space where we really see true colors.
9. Lastly, if you were a dessert, what would you be? Would you be more sweet or savory?
Mary, thank you for your wonderfully fun and challenging questions. Without a second guess, I would be a chocolate chip cookie, straight from the oven.
Mary Lenoir Bond graduated from University of Southern California with a BA in English/Creative Writing and Theatre, and holds a MFA from Pacific University in Writing/Poetry. She has published online journalistic pieces about silent films and fairy tales, and serves as a fiction co-editor for The Molotov Cocktail and poetry co-editor for Phantom Drift. Mary is also a winner of The Virginia Middleton Award for poetry and has work published in Prairie Schooner, december Magazine, The Johns Hopkins University Project MUSE site, Phantom Drift, Rust + Moth, and Silk Road. More info at: www.marylenoirbond.com.