Interview: Joyce Hinnefeld
Stories that Slip Sideways: An Interview with Joyce Hinnefeld by Ron MacLean
Joyce Hinnefeld and Ron MacLean met as fellow doctoral students in the English Department at SUNY Albany in the early 1990s. They’ve stayed in touch since then, and have enjoyed some lovely dinners through the years with their beloved professor and mentor Eugene K. Garber, author of Metaphysical Tales, The Historian, Vienna 00, O Amazonas Escuro, The House of Nordquist, and more. Here, they discuss getting older, stories that veer off course, and how they relate to Hinnefeld’s latest short story collection The Beauty of Their Youth, a recent installment in the American Storytellers series published by Wolfson Press (March 2020).
RON MACLEAN: Youth and age are central to each of the stories in The Beauty of Their Youth. To me, the title speaks to each of them—sometimes wistfully, sometimes ironically, sometimes earnestly. How does the book title resonate for you across these stories?
JOYCE HINNEFELD: I hope all readers grasp the irony of the title! There really is an informational placard in the museum at Delos that says something about the Athenians erecting all these structures and monuments to “publicize their divine ancestors and the beauty of their youth in an effort to justify and vindicate their overt imperialism in the Aegean” (I tweaked the language a bit, but this was the general idea). I’m fascinated by this self-regard on the part of the ancient Greeks (“We’re descended from gods and our youth are gorgeous! We deserve to rule everything and everyone!”), and I feel like it continues to echo in our own youth- and beauty-obsessed American culture—including, for instance, in the way we “curate” images of ourselves on social media.
So I want the title to capture all of that—acknowledging the kind of beautiful innocence of youth, but also the ways in which we recall details about our youthful selves pretty selectively. What happens to a number of the characters in the stories in The Beauty of Their Youth, but particularly to Fran in the title story, is that they come up against the fallibility of memory. Their own naivete, yes, but also the naivete—just the silly, undeserved innocence—of the culture that surrounds them.
RM: I was struck, in each of the stories, by a particular human moment, which felt to me like the fulfillment of all the story’s power and promise. In “Benedicta,” it’s Van Lloyd’s final acknowledgement of the “altarpiece” he seeks to create, the “twenty-first century church of the body…images of Benedicta walking, Benedicta dancing, Benedicta sleeping…” Are these moments something you’re aware of from the start, and consciously build to, or are they discoveries along the way? What is the typical seed of a story for you?
JH: These moments are absolutely discoveries along the way (and thank you for noticing and asking about them). I think I write, largely, to discover them, and I know I’m not unique in this way. I suppose they’re epiphanies of a sort, but they feel quieter than that to me—almost a moment of rest and quiet, me recognizing things about my characters at the same time that they’re recognizing things about themselves. Besides Van Lloyd in “Benedicta,” there’s Joan in “Polymorphous” admitting to herself that she hasn’t seen either her mother or her neighbor Richard in their full human complexity; in “The Beauty of Their Youth” there’s Fran coming to a similar sort of recognition about friends from her youth, but also about her daughter and herself.
When I started “Benedicta” I had no idea that the painter Van Lloyd would become someone who is suddenly acutely aware of what it’s meant for him as a male artist to view the female body in a particular way. That story began, honestly, as a kind of experiment—an attempt to imagine the mind of an artist who resents the autobiographical demands of a certain kind of artist’s resume. A lot of things were influencing my thinking back then—like the sense I shared with many women writers that male fiction writers seldom seemed to be asked whether their work was “autobiographical,” whereas women were and still constantly asked this question (this was well before the rise of so-called autofiction). I was also thinking of a couple (male) painters I knew whose work fell mostly within the bounds of “realism,” and the ways in which they felt kind of overlooked by the art world because of this; I know I felt a kind of kinship in this case, as a writer, mostly, of realistic work. It was fun to give Van Lloyd a line like “Realism, in a ridiculous age, is revolutionary”—because I feel that way sometimes. It was also fun to depict a male artist who’s recognizing the failure—on the part of other male artists, but also on his own part—to really see their female subjects. (And wow, this whole question of how to depict the female subject was explored so powerfully in Rachel Cusk’s 2019 article in The New York Times Magazine about artists Celia Paul and Cecily Brown: when you’re talking about the woman artist’s challenges, magnify the difficulty of painting a female subject a thousand times.)
I don’t know about you, Ron, but when I think back to our years in the program at Albany, I feel like our generation’s interest in gender and sexuality seems almost quaint. Young people today—like our daughters—just seem so much more at peace with gender fluidity, nonbinary identity, etc. Which isn’t to say that our daughters aren’t aware of sexism in the world around them, of course. There’s still plenty to say about the male gaze. The trick is finding fresh language for doing that.
RM: It seems to me that in TBOTY, part of what you do is to unsettle language, or at least to unsettle expectations around language. That’s part of what I’d say I like about the stories. They start out feeling like they’re going somewhere familiar, and then they slip (delightfully, importantly) sideways.
JH: It makes me happy to hear you say that. I think I’ve held on to a preference for unexpected movement, or the kind of “sideways” slippage you refer to here—in language, in time, in a story’s movement—for years now, probably since Albany. Probably stubbornly. I can’t seem to follow the rules for telling a story in a straightforward, beginning/middle/end way—just as I can’t seem to adhere to Poe’s call for a “single effect” in a short story. Language just feels too beautifully and wonderfully slippery to me; I’d rather slide down whatever unforeseen path shows up and see where I land. Which is why it delighted me to read Zadie Smith’s “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction” in the October 24, 2019 New York Review of Books, where she writes that “Belief in a novel is, for me, a by-product of a certain kind of sentence. Familiarity, kinship, and compassion will play their part, but if the sentences don’t speak to me, nothing else will.”
But I’m preaching to the choir here, I know, in ranting about the necessity of carefully chosen language in fiction that “works” for me. I know you take decisions about language very seriously as a writer, Ron, and always have. I think of your work as steeped in the bewilderment of contemporary life, and always seeking the words—and the characters and situations—to try to capture that bewilderment. In one of your stories one of a group of middle-aged men who gather regularly for coffee asks, “When did this happen? How did they get here?” That’s a question pretty much every character in each of the stories in The Beauty of Their Youth would surely ask. Definitely Fran in the title story. Also FJ in “A Better Law of Gravity,” Inge in “Everglades City,” Joan in “Polymorphous.” Van Lloyd in “Benedicta” is actually trying to answer that question; he’s just denying that he’s doing so, out of a (failed, in the end) refusal to engage in the construction of an artist’s-resume-as-autobiography.
RM: I do think that bewilderment is often an appropriate (necessary) response to contemporary life. Maybe it always has been to adult life, and now we live in an age where the terms of engagement are rarely universal, and are often changing out from under us. There’s a wonderful kind of freedom—agility—in this, but it also sometimes leaves me, and just about everyone I know, disoriented. Bewildered, at least momentarily.
JH: There’s also a certain bewilderment connected to reaching middle age, don’t you think? A similar feeling of “How did I get here?” That awareness of aging shows up in my story “Polymorphous,” in the scene when Richard catches Joan in the feminine hygiene aisle, and also in “The Beauty of Their Youth,” when Fran thinks about gaining weight and dyeing her hair, and sees herself and her husband as having “settled into something resembling scenes in those prescription drug ads on network television at night, two good buddies at home in their empty nest, eating air-popped popcorn and watching TV.”
RM: I think for me the common ground in all these is human vulnerability. I know for me the only moments worth pursuing for story are those where there are cracks—voluntary or involuntary—in the facades we create and show the world. Most wonderfully in your collection, I think of Janice in “A Better Law of Gravity,” unburdening herself—showing her real self—to FJ, whether FJ wants it or not. I just think it’s in these moments, and maybe only in these moments, where there’s anything really at stake for us as humans.
I was struck, too, by Janice’s need to keep moving, by her desperate take on stop signs: “‘I don’t know about you but there is something about an eighty-eight-sided, fire-engine red stop sign that can almost make me weep. Because I’m just afraid of what might happen [if I stop].’” I can relate to this to a degree that makes me uncomfortable, both as a human and as a writer. So I want to throw it back at you: what’s your own relationship to stop signs, and in what ways is it important for you to keep moving, as a writer?
JH: I think I share your discomfort—to the extent that I’m not sure I want to slow down long enough to even try to answer this question… Of course Janice’s need to keep moving has a very real and frightening source. If we believe what Janice says about her husband (FJ’s brother)—and it’s important, in the context of the story, to realize that FJ does believe her—then we understand her fear of standing still on a very elemental level.
What am I afraid of if I stop moving? The answer probably lies somewhere in my thoughts and questions about aging, about recognizing that I’m middle-aged—that in fact I’m well along in middle age. Stopping to think about that raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions, of course, about all the things I haven’t accomplished that I’d hoped I would, that sort of thing. Better—or so I seem to think sometimes—to just keep busy. Keep moving.
RM: Let’s talk about Gene Garber and his influence. We are each fortunate enough to have had his mentorship. How do you feel his influence, and what have you learned from it?
JH: What Gene has given to me—as my teacher and mentor at SUNY Albany, but also in the years following that time—is something like a still center. A place to pause, and reflect, and feel okay about my own work. That was hard for me, at first, back in grad school at Albany. But to have Gene take my writing—and my thinking about writing, narrative, feminism, critical theory, and more—seriously changed everything for me. He had a kind of quiet faith in me that made me believe I could do this.
Through my years as a faculty member I’ve aspired (and I know I’ve often failed) to convey the same seriousness of purpose but also the same sense of humor, the same deep conviction about language, literature, and art—the same sly irreverence—as Gene in my own teaching and also in my conversations with colleagues. And he’s been a consistent source of inspiration to me as a writer. He makes me want to remain open to new ideas and new ways of thinking about fiction. And, probably most importantly, he makes me want to do what he’s done—which is to just keep doing the work.
It occurs to me now that I’ve used that language—of a still center, of a moment of rest and quiet—several times here. Clearly there’s a part of me that actually wants to stop at the stop sign. This is Quaker language probably, at least in part. But I also think it’s Garber language. Maybe it’s the quiet trace of a Southern accent when he speaks. Slow down, I always think he’s saying. Have a drink, enjoy some food, and let’s talk about what we’re working on. And let’s let that be enough.
JOYCE HINNEFELD is the author of the short story collection Tell Me Everything (1998; winner of the 1997 Bread Loaf Bakeless Prize in Fiction), the novels In Hovering Flight (2008) and Stranger Here Below (2010), and the short story collection The Beauty of Their Youth (2020; a recent title in the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series). She is a Professor of English at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, and the founder and director of the Moravian College Writers’ Conference. Find her online at joycehinnefeld.com.
RON MACLEAN is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something on Fire and Why the Long Face?, and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. His fiction has appeared in GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction, and elsewhere. MacLean is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and teaches at Grub Street in Boston. Learn more at ronmaclean.net.