A CONVERSATION WITH HANNAH TINTI
Tinti: I studied science in college, and only by chance took a creative writing class with the wonderful author Blanche Boyd. That class changed my life. I started out writing short fiction. Eventually I went to New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, where I wrote some more stories, some of which eventually made their way into my first collection, Animal Crackers.
W&B: What writers served as your earliest influences? Who or what were your non-literary influences as a child? It might be assumed that you were early on captivated by adventure tales….
Tinti: My mother was a librarian, so books were very important in our house. I started with the classics: Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Seuss, Jules Verne, the Bronte Sisters, Louisa May Alcott, Howard Pyle. I also read comic books and series such as C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe and Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. Non-literary influences were definitely movies: Star Wars, the original 1933 King Kong, Gary Cooper in High Noon, Japanese television shows like Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato) and anything by the Marx Brothers.
W&B: How important was storytelling when you were growing up? Have you appropriated any of your family stories for your fiction?
Tinti: I don’t like to use anything too personal in my fiction. The only true-life family story I’ve used was in “Talk Turkey,” which is based on something that my mother once told me about some kids she went to high school with, who stole a car and drove to California.
W&B: In what ways has your upbringing in Salem, Massachusetts, influenced your life as a writer or a reader? Also, how has that rich cultural and historical background helped to form the person you are beyond the literary world? I read that one of your first jobs was at a witch dungeon.
Tinti: In Salem, Massachusetts, it is pretty much Halloween 365 days of the year. The city itself is very historical, but there is also a great deal of kitsch. The dichotomy of these two things side by side—tourists in witch hats getting their fortunes told, right next to Gallows Hill, where 18 innocent people were hanged for colluding with the devil—definitely influenced my writing and formed my personality, made me temper the dark with a sense of humor.
W&B: Your novel The Good Thief (and much of your other work) takes place in New England, where you grew up. How many elements stem from actual places you know and/or from real events?
Tinti: I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, best known for the witch trials and as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many of the homes there were built in the 1700s or 1800s and there are parts of the city that are unchanged. If you ignore the cars and the occasional Dunkin’ Donuts, you can really get a feel for the time period. It was helpful to know how everything should look for The Good Thief. I hardly had to do any research. There were a lot of elements, probably many unconscious, that I mined for the book.
W&B: What research about the era and locale did you do before (or during) the writing of The Good Thief? What was your most interesting discovery? The specifics of graverobbing and the practice of anatomical science in that era are also vividly realized in the book. From what did you cull those details?
Tinti: One of the best bits of advice I ever got about writing fiction was from E.L. Doctorow. He said to do as little research as possible in your first draft. “We’ve all seen enough movies to fake a time period,” he said. “Otherwise your research will end up driving the narrative, instead of your characters.” So I tried not to research until I had the story together. Then I went back and added the details, after reading books such as Stiff by Mary Roach, The Knife Man by Wendy Moore and The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise and going to places such as the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and The College of Physicians’ Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Probably the most interesting discovery I made was how “Resurrection Men” would steal bodies from cemeteries to sell to the medical schools as cadavers. I had imagined something out of Frankenstein, with the men shoveling at night, then lifting the coffin out of the ground, prying the lid and removing the body. But to save time, they would only dig around the head of a gravesite, then break the coffin with a long-handled shovel and “fish” the body out with two long hooks attached to chains. This allowed them to steal twice as many bodies in half the time.
Tinti: One interesting fact I took away was that African American graveyards were often the most frequently pillaged by resurrectionists. However, there was also a strong group of African American citizens in Philadelphia who formed their own watch group to stop this from happening. One night they surprised a group of resurrection men—among them were the prominent heads of several medical schools! In the end this event is one of many that led to laws being put in place to protect graveyards and also to legally distribute the unclaimed bodies of the dead. Another interesting aspect of the museum is a wall of skulls, all with name, age, occupation and cause of death listed. Each one felt like a mini-story: “Mary Smith, Age 19, Prostitute, Small Pox.” The skulls were part of a study of phrenology, which is the idea that someone’s personality can be determined by the shape of their head.
W&B: What particular aspects of this era or time period particularly appeal to you?
Tinti: The time period for The Good Thief was set by the subject matter of the novel. In the 1800s, medical schools started to gain a foothold across the country, and there was a need for cadavers. This provided the opportunity and the black market trade for the resurrectionists.
W&B: The title of the book has direct biblical connotations, with the “Good Thief” suggestive of the man who was crucified next to Jesus at Golgotha (the thief who was redeemed at the last moment and became Saint Dismas). When did you come to this title and how did it affect your views of the narrative?
Tinti: Originally I had planned to call the book Resurrection Men. Then, for a number of reasons, I had to change it. I was at a loss for a long time, and nothing seemed appropriate. Finally, I gave an early draft of the novel to my mother, who worked for many years as a librarian and has read more books than anyone else I know. She came up with The Good Thief, and as soon as she said it I knew it was the right title. There is a lot of stealing going on throughout the book, with mixed intentions and results. I also liked the biblical reference of the Good Thief (Saint Dismas). His story of redemption at the very last minute suits this novel perfectly.
W&B: The narrative of The Good Thief has often been compared to those of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. One interviewer wrote that the novel is “a noir fairytale with a Dickens meets (Roald) Dahl meets Lemony Snicket style.” It has also been called “Tim Burtonesque.” How do you respond to those comparisons? Who are your literary ancestors?
Tinti: I’m flattered to be compared to these great artists. I certainly strive for that style—an exploration of the dark side of human nature, peppered with enough humor and humanity to make it enjoyable reading. If I had to choose literary “ancestors” they would be Dickens, Stevenson, [James Fenimore] Cooper, [Raymond] Carver, [Edgar Allan] Poe and the Brontë sisters.
W&B: One reviewer commented that Benjamin is Bill Sykes to Ren’s Oliver Twist and Tom is Fagin. Did you have these Dickens characters in mind when you were fleshing out your characters?
Tinti: I don’t think Benjamin is anywhere near as bad as Bill Sykes or Fagin (in the book version, at least—in the musical Fagin is sort of loveable, but in Dickens’s novel Fagin is an unfortunate caricature and very anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish peddler. Dickens later regretted this, and publicly apologized). I was definitely inspired by Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, both great orphan tales—but I consider Benjamin and Tom to be their own people.
W&B: There are so many young boys who make up the central characters in classic novels of the past, including Huck Finn, Oliver Twist and David Balfour in Kidnapped, but these were written by male writers. What made you, as a female writer, choose a male protagonist as your main character?
Tinti: I was inspired by the classic boy’s adventure tales that I grew up with, but mostly I chose Ren as the main character because it made sense that the lookout for these resurrection men would be a young boy, and not a girl. A girl would have raised a lot of sexual issues if she was running with this gang of criminals. Issues I did not want to bring into play for this particular story.
W&B: There are many orphans in literature and many figures in classical religious stories who grew up without one or both parents. What do you think makes the stories of orphans so compelling?
Tinti: For a child to have a proper adventure, you need to remove the parents or teachers from the equation. Anyone who would normally protect them from danger. Think of Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan or Harry Potter. As soon as the parents leave the room, that’s when the really exciting things begin to happen.
W&B: Why is it important to the narrative that Ren has such a mysterious past?
Tinti: I wanted the story to be part adventure, part detective novel, part coming-of-age story. By the end of the book, Ren knows who he truly is, and also what he is capable of.
W&B: The book includes several talismans including books and wishing stones. Where did the idea of the wishing stones come from? Do you still give away one wishing stone at every reading you do? Do readers send you wishing stones that they have found to replenish your stock?
Tinti: A wishing stone is a rock, usually found near water, with an unbroken white line circling it completely. It is good for one wish to come true. When I was a child I would collect them. Later, I was reintroduced to them at an important time in my life. At the beginning of The Good Thief, Ren comes into possession of one. It is his golden ticket, and this wish reverberates throughout the rest of the book, as do the stones themselves. I’ve given one away at every reading, to pass on some of the good luck that has come my way. Some readers have sent me wishing stones as well.
W&B: How did you settle on the two books that Ren steals and reads in the novel, The Lives of the Saints and The Deerslayer? Were these books important to you?
Tinti: I was raised Catholic and received The Lives of the Saints for my first communion. It’s a great book—full of adventure and violence. I loved reading about the different saints and how they were martyred. For Ren, it is the first exposure he has to storytelling, which ends up being very important in the book. I used The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper because I wanted to showcase an American author who would have been popular and published in the time period that Ren was living. This is his first “fictional” experience—which is a very different kind of storytelling.
W&B: You took the names Brom and Ichy from the classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but Dolly is rather a feminine and diminutive name for such a large professional murderer while other characters have overtly Biblical names (Joseph, Sarah, Samuel). How much consideration do you give to the names of your characters?
Tinti: I give great consideration to the names of my characters. I chose Dolly on purpose to subvert his physical presence, and to mark the emotional bond I knew was going to develop between him and Ren. I knew that it would be both humorous and heartbreaking to have this boy, who had never owned a toy in his life, calling out for his Dolly.
W&B: The role of men and women are quite different in the novel, with the latter often being more practical and, dare I say, legitimately hardworking, although not at the forefront of the physical action. Where did the characters of the mousetrap girls and Mrs. Sands and Sister Agnes originate?
Tinti: The mousetrap girls were inspired by the female textile workers of Lowell, Massachusetts. I wanted Ren to travel to a factory town, and it made sense that it would be populated by girls. In many ways the mousetrap factory becomes a counterpoint to the all-boys orphanage that appears earlier in the book. As I said earlier, I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, where I was taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Sister Agnes is a send up to the wonderful nuns who taught me—powerful women who chose a different path. Mrs. Sands is the only character based somewhat on real people—a few women in my family who had really hard lives, and as a result were extremely tough and loud and brash. I was scared of them, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized they were real
W&B: Speaking of religion, The Good Thief has a strong element of faith, of characters exploring religion and morality. What is your familial or personal relation to this kind of searching?
Tinti: Religion has always influenced my work. It was certainly helpful when writing The Good Thief, especially when it came to describing Ren’s spirituality. My relationship with God was very close when I was young, and grew more complicated as I got older. Children think of right and wrong in very literal terms—and they also respond viscerally to parables and storytelling in religious texts. For me, tales of the martyrs and saints always held great weight, and I tried to draw on them as I wrote Ren’s character. Saint Anthony, in particular, caught my imagination. In 2000, I had visited his basilica in Padua and read a history of his life. Not only was he a famous storyteller, like Benjamin—he was the saint prayed to for lost things, which fit with Ren’s missing hand. He was also involved in resurrection: one of his miracles was raising a boy from the dead. In the last days of his life, Saint Anthony lived in a tree house, wanting to be closer to heaven. It’s a poignant image—this desire to be rid of earthly life. As I wrote The Good Thief, Saint Anthony became my touchstone, and I consider him the patron saint of this book.
W&B: Benjamin tells Ren that when you hear the story that you don’t want to hear, then you know it is the truth. We recently organized a community read of Tim O’Brien’s collection of stories, The Things They Carried, in which the narrator explains that if you care whether a story is true or not, then it isn’t true. Characters in that book claim that true war stories are obscene and without morality. What is your view of the relationship of fiction, truth and morality?
Tinti: I think all of this speaks to the power of storytelling. How tales unfold, or what facts are included or twisted, influence everything. It’s like [Akira] Kurosawa’s famous movie Rashomon. The story all depends on the point of view. What I was trying to get at in The Good Thief is that storytelling can also be a weapon. Benjamin teaches Ren how to tell a story, and in the end, it saves his life.
W&B: The Good Thief was written as an adult novel but is popular with young adult readers and you are often asked to speak to school groups. Was this consequence surprising to you?
Tinti: When I was working on The Good Thief, I wasn’t really thinking of the audience—I was just trying to write the best book I could. But after it was published, the novel won the Alex Award, which is given each year by the American Library Association to books that are written for adults but can be recommended for younger readers. After that, it started to catch on in schools across the country. I now get many requests from teachers to come and talk to their classes. I am grateful that the audience has expanded in this way and I hope that younger readers enjoy their time with Ren.
W&B: In what ways are the responses and curiosities of younger readers different from those of adult readers? What is most enjoyable for you about exploring the book with that demographic of readers?
Tinti: Students often ask the most surprising questions. They also share personal stories. One boy pulled me aside and told me that his mother had died, and that my book was the first thing he’d read that made him feel understood, that addressed the feelings of loss he had been going through. This meant a great deal to me. For The Good Thief to provide some kind of solace, especially for a young person, is incredibly gratifying.
W&B: I have read that you find inspiration when you are writing from visual images, especially photographs. How do these images help to nurture your creative writing practice?
Tinti: There is something about photographs and the way they capture a single instant in time that I find very appealing. Having them pinned over my desk helps me to maintain the world I’m creating.
W&B: Perhaps as a result, the novel is quite visual and cinematic, as many reviewers and readers have noted. Do you envision scenes throughout the process as you did the scene with Ren holding the horse in the graveyard, the mental image that inspired the whole book?
Tinti: I do think of scenes cinematically, but mostly I just try to follow my intuition—sitting quietly and letting things come. It’s a bit like using a divining rod. Often I don’t realize what I’m doing until after the words are on the page. Later, I go back and try to make sense of it. The editing process is where most of the work is done, but I discovered long ago that I need to be open and trust my subconscious. When I was a little girl, I went net-casting on a fishing boat. The men threw a net overboard, then dragged it a hundred yards, then pulled up what they caught into a big tank onboard. Then they tossed things over that they didn’t want, and kept the fish they did. I remember that the water seemed so clear and empty, but when the fishermen pulled the net on board, it was full of the weirdest things I’d ever seen. Bizarre creatures from the bottom of the sea. Novels seem to be like this—casting a net through a writers’ mind and pulling the unexpected into the light.
W&B: The Good Thief is ripe for cinematic interpretation and I understand that the film rights to the book have been optioned by novelist Richard Russo. Is there an update on the progress of the screenplay? And do you have ideas or preferences for any film version (now that Johnny Depp might soon be too old to play the part of Benjamin)?
Tinti: The screenplay for The Good Thief has been written by Richard Russo. This is exciting, because I have been a fan of his work for many years. As for the movie, I would love to have Johnny Depp take on the role of Benjamin! But I can’t speak yet about the status of the movie. I can only keep my fingers crossed and hope it all comes together.
W&B: You started out as a short-story writer [Tinti’s short-story collection from 2005, Animal Crackers, explores the interrelatedness of human and animal lives and their symbolic and metaphoric possibilities]. What is the difference for you between writing short stories and a novel?
Tinti: In a short story, many ideas and characters have to be cut so that the piece can stay on point. But a novel allows for a greater unearthing of subjects. The sentences are looser, too. By that I mean that a short story is more like a poem—every sentence has to be leading to the next and have a reason for being there. In a novel, there is more freedom to explore.
W&B: What is your strategy for teaching writing? To what extent do you believe good writing can be taught?
Tinti: I’m currently teaching at Columbia University’s MFA program. I have a very hands-on approach. A great deal can be taught technically about writing. What can’t be taught is good ideas. Or the inner drive that it takes to make it as a writer.
W&B: How does teaching feed your writing practice or vice versa?
Tinti: It’s inspiring to meet writers who are not jaded by the process of publishing, people who get excited about really good sentences. I also find it helpful in my own writing to work on lectures that explain aspects of literature. This past fall, for example, I taught a class about the relationship between writers and editors, and read the letters of [the famous American editor] Maxwell Perkins, which were very illuminating.
W&B: Tell us about your literary journal One Story. What current trends are you seeing in American writing? How does the process of editing others’ writing affect your own writing or revision process?
Tinti: One Story is an independent, award-winning literary magazine that publishes one short story every three weeks. I am co-founder and editor-in-chief. We started the magazine in 2002, and now have over 10,000 subscribers. I see a great deal of surreal writing, in the style of [Jorge Luis] Borges or [George] Saunders. The war has also influenced work. We ran a story by Andrea Barrett called “Archangel” that was inspired by veterans. Also, an upcoming issue by Karl Taro Greenfield, “Partisans,” explores the psychological lives of soldiers.
W&B: How does the process of editing others’ writing affect your own writing or revision process?
Tinti: I’m grateful for all the time I’ve spent editing. It makes me a lot harder on myself as a writer. But it also gives me a greater insight into the mechanics—how to create a proper structure and pacing and most important, to never lose sight of the reader’s experience of my work.
W&B: In closing, what words of wisdom would you give to young writers?
Tinti: Write something that you would like to read.