Robin Hemley interview:
Inscape: What do you write with?
Hemley: I write on my laptop usually. It depends though. I carry around a small notebook and that’s the only time I put pen to paper and I take pretty quick notes, but I do most of my actual composing on the computer. I take notes for specific things. If I’m doing a non fiction project that requires me to remember a lot of details then I use the notebook. I sometimes write ideas for stories in those notebooks, but I tend to compose, more often than not, right on the computer.
Inscape: Who or what are some of your muses?
Hemley: Books I’ve read tend to be important to me. There were some formative writers like Kafka and Jorge Loius Borges. Funny thing about them is that I don’t think you’d see their influence overtly in my work, but they really inspired me in a lot of ways. I think a lot about their work.
My parents in some ways were muses to me. My father was a poet primarily and my mother was a short story writer, and so they provided a lot of inspiration for me as well.
What is hard to answer. There are different things that trigger my writer, but there is nothing specifically that I could say I go to all the time. I don’t really rely on muses for inspiration, I rely on a pratical feeling that I have to spend a certain amount of time writing every day. I make my habit of writing my muse.
Inscape: Do you mean that same sense of wonder an essayist would have, being able to be inspired by anything and everything? (author name and quote)
Hemley: I think the more you write and the more you read the more chances you have for inspiration, the more opportunities you have for inspiration, because that sense of wonder comes not from being in wonderous places, but from being observant, from noticing the world around you, and that’s one thing that writers tend to do. They spend a lot of time thinking about the world, not necessarily ruminating about the world in a philisophical way though sometimes that’s the case, but they have to be good observers and train their minds that way. The more you observe the more opportunities for wonder there are.
Inscape: Why or how is creative non-fiction important today?
Hemley: Well, we could ask the same thing about art in general. What’s the importance of poetry. What’s the importance of fiction? What’s the importance of visual art? It’s a hard question because it has all the importance of all the other arts. It’s another art form that serves the same kind of function in society that other art forms do, which is to enlighten, entertain, be part of an ongoing conversation about the human condition. It’s mission is the same as all the other arts.
Inscape: More particularly, what does it do for you?
Hemley: It’s a different mode of writing. There are certain things that are better written as novels or short stories and some things that are better written as essays or memoirs. When I was writing my memoir about my sister Nola I had tried to write it as fiction before and it hadn’t really worked and I came to the conclusion that I needed to write about it without that veil of fiction. I didn’t want to have to worry about some of the narractive elements that I would have to worry about in a novel. I didn’t want to have to worry about those things in the memoir. It fulfilled a different kind of aesthetic function for me. It’s like the difference between modern dance and ballet. Modern dance might seem a little more free form, I suppose, and ballet has a lot more (I don’t want to get too deep into an are I know nothing about) it’s been theorized as having a lot more structure. The thing that I love about what you might call creative non fiction is that it hasn’t been overly theorized yet. It’s not something where someone says, “Well, this isn’t an essay.” Some people do, actually, and Patrick Madden has a really set idea of what an essay is, but my sense of the essay is perhaps a little different, although I completely respect his opinion. I feel that there is more latittude than you can have in the essay form than in the short story form. There’s thing that you can do as an essayist that I feel that you can’t do as a fiction writer, and vice versa. There are times when I feel like I have been too hamstrung by events as they happen that I have to stick to things as they happen, whereas when I am writing a piece of fiction I wouldn’t have to. For instance in my book about the purported anthropological hoax in the Phillipines I had to stick to the facts as I found them, even if it made the story a little less or confusing. I have these two characters, these two women from this tribe. One was named Dul and one was named Dula, and it was confusing to have these two people with almost exactly the same name. Had I been writing fiction I would have combined the two, but I couldn’t. There are large differences and small differences between these two genres, and sometimes when I’m writing one, I wish I were writing the other.
Inscape: So, sometimes you want the structure, and other times you find it inhibitive?
Hemley: It really depends on the kind of non fiction I’m writing or the kind of fiction. There’s some non fiction where there is more latittude. For instance, memoir, where you have more lattitude to change things to a certain degree, small details. But in literary journalism, or some kind of form like that there’s a lot less latittude.
Inscape: Do you think writers need to be able to write poetry, fiction and non fiction, to be able to express the ideas in the appropriate medium?
Hemley: It might not be right for everyone. It’s right for me in that I feel that I love to go between genres. I write fiction, poetry and non fiction and I think that’s exactly so that there are some things that can be expressed better in one medium over another, but there have certainly been many artists that have been narrowly focused and have done brilliantly. I think we have to be careful about making blanket statements about art. I think when we say, “an artist should” we should substitute “I should,” because it’s too presumptuous to say “an artist should.” I think that we need to be concerned with our own art. Some people feel “Look, don’t spread yourself too thin. You should become real good at one thing.” That’s the best way to become an expert in something, is to focus narrowly. For other people that’s not the right thing for.
I started my career writing poetry and then went to fiction and then went to non fiction and now I’m going back to poetry. I love them all. I do think that everyone should be familiar with all the genres. I do think that people who say that they don’t like poetry should give poetry a chance because, to me, good poetry can’t be beat. I love to read good contemporary and classical poetry. That doesn’t mean I’ll be known so much as a poet. I publish occasionally in poetry, but my appreciation of poetry is high, and I do think that everyone should be well read in all the genres.