by Pamme Boutselis
JoeAnn Hart is the award-winning author of the novels “Float” and “Addled,” and her short fiction and essays have been widely published. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, but she can be easily found on Facebook, Twitter and joeannhart.com.
Others seemed to understand that you are a writer far before you did. How much of a surprise was it for you to realize this yourself?
A big surprise. I had to be told twice, because the first time came from a psychic and it’s sort of hard to bank on a career suggestion from someone who’s consulting with your angels. It wasn’t until a few months later, when Maxine Rodburg, an expository writing instructor at Harvard Extension, called me into her office and told me that I should be writing fiction, that I thought, well, I guess. The following semester I took a fiction class, and discovered maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. But I was within reach of a social sciences degree at that point, and couldn’t take anymore electives. Instead, Maxine got me into a writers group in Cambridge, where I learned the ropes. When I finally graduated from the Extension, I went to Bennington College and got a Master of Arts in Writing and Literature. Now I have a piece of paper telling me I’m a writer, so it must be true.
Once you began writing in earnest, what opportunities did you first pursue professionally?
When Maxine told me I should be writing fiction, she also loaded me down with anthologies off her shelves and said I was to subscribe to Poet & Writers magazine, so I would know where to submit. I didn’t know what she meant, submit, so I bought an issue right there in Harvard Square, and read the classifieds. The only entry that seemed at all familiar was a call for submissions for a Barbie anthology. I knew Barbie, so I wrote a short piece, sent it in, and it got accepted. Unfortunately, the anthology never got published, but it was a thrill and a confirmation. Since then, I’ve found that submitting to literary magazines gives me goals and deadlines, and when a piece gets accepted it’s a morale boost. It’s also a way to connect with the literary world and see what others are writing. Professionally, I’ve found it helps to write more than fiction. At Bennington, I did a non-fiction semester switch with George Packer, where I wrote an essay about Virgin Marys living in bathtubs in Gloucester, and how they act as social indicators that mark the changing nature of the city. I submitted it to the Boston Globe Magazine and they took it (eleven months later, as it moved up the slush pile). The essay brought the attention of other editors, and I have been writing articles, mostly home & garden, for them and others ever since.
How does character development work for you? Do the characters come to you almost fully fleshed or do you have a specific process for bringing them to life?
My characters usually first appear on the page all vague and wobbly, but not in my head. In my head, I know exactly who they are in their core, but the trick is to get them to the page in one piece. I don’t rush that. In the first draft, I’ll let them develop organically as I work on their inner lives, such as what they think about while waiting on line at the take-out counter, or what they notice when they look out a window. In subsequent drafts I refine their lives with exterior details, such as how they talk or what they drive. I wonder how often they call their mother, what kind of dog they have, if any, even what kind of beer they drink. It’s important for me to have other people read a manuscript, so I can hear them talk about my characters and confirm they are the same ones in my head. It’s nice when they understand more about the characters than I thought I was able to tease out.
Did the subject matter of your books, “Addled” and “Float,” both stem from interests in your own life or did something else drive the storyline?
With “Addled,” I’d look at Canada geese swarming golf courses, and wonder if they ever got hit by golf balls. I don’t play golf, but we’ve had geese and other rescue livestock over the years, and because of that, animal rights and food choices move Addled’s story along. There are animals in “Float” too, where seagulls and jellyfish play roles in highlighting my concerns about marine plastics and the health of the oceans. But in the end, all novels are about people, the most fascinating animal of all. Humans are such a hoot. Most animals are the same inside as the animal they present to the world. That would be a rare human. It’s why we read novels, to find out what’s really going on inside of other people.
What challenges you the most when you’re writing a novel?
Maintaining the confidence that I’m going in the right direction, and the ability to admit defeat when I’m not. It’s so costly to make a mistake. You can follow a story line for months only to realize one bleak morning at your computer that it’s a dead end. It’s like knitting a sweater with three arms and having to go back and rip it all out to the armpits when you see the result. No matter how brilliant a three-armed sweater seemed when you began (it’s never been done!) if no one has a use for it, or if it’s just plain ugly, it’s got to go. There’s a lot of back-tracking in writing a novel.
What do you know now that you wish you knew back when you started writing?
Since I knew nothing when I started, and just sort of rambled about, writing page after page as if fiction were all about filling up white space with lovely sentences, it would have been nice to know what plot was all about. No matter how much I read about plot (hello John Gardner), I could not seem to match my knowledge with my action. The result was that I would work on projects I called novels, but they weren’t novels because they had no plot. In other words, no point. Then one day, out of nowhere, plot descended upon me in a moment of grace when I opened a new document and started Addled. I didn’t know the particulars, but as soon as I started writing I saw the whole shape of the book. I saw a distinct beginning, with one scene leading to the next, then the next, up to an ending that made some sense of what went before, instead of just coming to a sudden halt.
You’re housebound all winter with no access to the outside world and only one book to read or re-read—what would it be?
“In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust, formerly translated as “Remembrance of Things Past.” The complete seven volumes of the novel runs to 4500 pages, so like a bushel of rutabagas, it’ll last right through the winter and into spring. I read “Swann’s Way,” the first volume, years ago for a class, and found it beautiful, intelligent and very wry. I always wanted to go long with Proust, but I’ve been waiting for that housebound winter.