By Mark McNease
I recently had the pleasure of featuring Robert Hill’s newest book, The Remnants, a story of two near-centenarians preparing to observe their annual birthday tea and a town at the end of its days. His previous, debut novel, When All Is Said and Done, was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Awards for Fiction. A longtime resident of Portland, Oregon, Robert writes in an engaging style compared by one reviewer to James Joyce. It was a delight to have a chance to ask him ‘6 Questions’ and share his answers with you. – Mark McNease/Editor
MM: We’ll get to your new book The Remnants in a moment, but can you tell us first about yourself? I know you’re a New Englander by birth and a West Coaster by choice. How did that happen?
RH: I was born in Manhattan, grew up in Weston, Connecticut, went to college in Boston, and following graduation in 1980, moved to Los Angeles for graduate school, which I left after six months. Los Angeles before the 1984 Summer Olympics was still a big small town, and with its growing gay population, a great place to come out. It was the start of the whole gay gym culture, which I dove into; my body was changing, I felt strong and healthy, I was making money, having sex, life was good. And then came AIDS. And right away, friends of friends started dying off, and then friends started dying off, and then boyfriends starting dying off, here today, dead tomorrow, and in a very short while I found myself at funeral after funeral wondering about the crowd in attendance, and who was not there that I had already forgotten about, and when would it be my turn to be among the dearly forgotten. Life became about death, and I didn’t want to live that way. So after twelve years, thousands of deaths, hundreds of funerals, my own uncertain health, three earthquakes, and the riots of 1992, I drove up to Portland and Seattle with the thought of relocating to one of them. I hit Portland on a postcard perfect afternoon: crisp blue sky, golden sun, brilliant greens, glittering high-rises and adorable bungalows, and best of all, no traffic. It was like a European jewel of a city. Then I went up to Seattle. After getting a speeding ticket on the way, I arrived in downtown at the height of rush hour traffic, in a downpour, got off the freeway and onto a one-way street going the wrong way, and had to turn around under an enormous pink elephant. Unfair as it sounds now, I hated Seattle from that first impression on, and got my ass back down to postcard perfect Portland as fast I could without getting a second speeding ticket. I moved there (here) three months later. The day after I moved in, the crisp blue sky and golden sun went away, and neither came back for eleven and a half months. I thought I would blow my brains out. But… I made great friends right away. People who are among my closest friends to this day. And among them, a writing community of friends who are irreplaceable. It’s those friendships that secured me to this place and made it home, and still do.
MM: You’ve worked as a writer in the corporate and educational worlds. How did you move from that to fiction, and/or were you doing it all along?
RH: I began my career in Los Angeles writing advertising for movies– the lines on the posters, trailer narrations, TV commercials, things like that – which I did for over 25 years. My first trailer was for “The Big Chill,” so you get an idea of how far back I go. During that time, I also worked on a number of children’s “edutainment” software programs, creating the characters and writing the narratives. And, like just about everyone else during much of that time, since it was Los Angeles, with a writing partner I wrote a few screenplays and a bunch of film treatments, a few of which were optioned and none of which were ever made into more than future shredding material. My writing partner, however, unshackled from me, went on to become a very good writer and producer of smart independent films and documentaries.
Writing ad copy after many years left me feeling pretty unfulfilled creatively. After my move to Portland, writer friends who attended the very well-known “Dangerous Writers” workshop run by the novelist Tom Spanbauer, staged what I called a creative intervention and convinced me to enroll in his 3-day intensive and see if I had anything. Well, I was petrified. I hadn’t written any fictional prose since college (and even then it was scant) and I felt I was probably too locked into advertising copywriting and the prison of the three-word headline to produce anything worthwhile. Tom is the godfather of the writing community in Portland. He studied with Gordon Lish and is a Pulitzer nominee with The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon. Chuck Palahniuk, whom I knew as just another friendly muscle head at the gym, had just burst out of that workshop with Fight Club. So going into his basement classroom with other very earnest writers scared the hell out of me. But, we rise to the occasion, right? I came out of that weekend with the kernel of what would become my first novel.
MM: Your debut novel, When All Is Said and Done, was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Awards for Fiction. Please tell us about that book and if there was any particular inspiration for it.
RH: After the weekend intensive, Tom asked me to join his weekly workshop, which is a huge honor. For the first month or so of being there, you sit on the outskirts of the action – literally. You’re not at the table. You’re on a chair or couch off to the side of the room, not contributing, not speaking. You’re just a shadow. Then one day Tom looks at you and says: “next week, bring pages.” It’s like God issuing you homework.
At the three day intensive, the exercise we were to do was to write about a moment that changed our lives. I wrote about the last night my father was alive. I’d never thought about writing about it (I was ten when he died), but there it was coming out of me. So when the order came down from on high to “bring pages,” I went back to that exercise and started to flesh it out.
I decided to write about my parents, and the first few pages that I brought in were all in first person from me, and it didn’t seem to work. It felt like I was writing at my parents and not about them, from inside of them. So I changed it. I thought, “this is their story, so let them tell it.” That opened everything up. They each became a first person narrator telling the story of their marriage, a kind of “he said, she said” that advances through the years while exploring themes in their marriage: her career, his illness, children, suburbia, the past, longing…
MM: A writer’s question: do you have a writing routine? If so, what is it?
RH: My only consistent writing routine is to procrastinate long enough until I feel so worthless that I just have to sit down and write… or else. I liken it to a dog circling its food bowl until committing to eating something new. I circle the keyboard until I’m ready to dig in. Once I dig in, I have to stay with what I’m working on until I feel I’ve completed an arc, and that arc could be a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter, and it can take fifteen minutes or fifteen hours, but I have to complete whatever that arc is, or the time spent writing is completely wasted. I know: twisted.
Also, I write out loud. As I’m typing, I’m sounding out the words. Much of my writing is rhythm and texture, and I have to hear it outside of my head to get it to work in whatever way my brain thinks it should work. Kind of an OCD thing. Inflection plays a big part in it. So the way I might say a word will dictate what the next word to rub up against it is, which then has ripples of influence on the sentence structure, which flows into how a paragraph might rise and fall and land, and the accumulation of it all landing the chapter in harmony with the way that very first word started everything off. It’s a very slow process, but to me, very satisfying when it works well, because like with music, when I hit that perfect sequence of notes I feel it in my bloodstream. It’s not anything I can map out ahead of time. I build word-by-word, beat-by-beat. It’s very slow going.
MM: The Remnants has been compared to James Joyce. I’m curious about your writing style – has it changed, and why did you choose to write in a narrative style that might be unfamiliar to many?
RH: Life, to me, is a run-on sentence, and my narratives bear that out. My first novel was more voice-specific to the two alternating narrators, with past and future and present sometimes all joining forces in a single sentence. With The Remnants, the language is intentionally formal and a bit old-fashioned, with bits of vernacular thrown in to give the world of the novel its own specificity. As I said, I write out loud, and part of that is so that the prose can be read out loud, and it has its own special sound that way, not just words on a page. (At least, that’s what I tell myself.) My parents were both great raconteurs. My father had a Boston accent and my mother had a New York accent. Their voices and storytelling style obviously had a huge impact on me enjoying the way a story sounds.
MM: What do you hope people will take away from, or engage with, reading your books?
RH: First, I hope people enjoy my work and feel the effort necessary to read it is time well spent. I write about people who do the best they can with their lot in life, how they go after their dreams and how they live on when those dreams don’t come to be. And how the past is always present with us, even as we try to deny it. The Remnants may seem like a fairy tale, a dark and funny fairy tale, but I believe one can easily identify with the characters and their emotional journeys, especially with the character of Hunko Minton who never gives up hope for having his dream come true.
MM: Part 2: what’s in the future for author Robert Hill?
RH: The new novel I am working on is one big jumbled mess right now, as I am playing with tone and points of view and keep changing my mind on both. What I can tell you is that it is about a middle aged man who gets a call one day telling him that the mother he thought was executed in prison for murder when he was a child is in fact alive and being paroled to his custody, and he must some how come to terms with her absence in his life prior, her existence now, and the fact that she doesn’t have long to live. The working title of the novel, aptly, is Unfinished.
More about Robert Hill
Robert Hill is a New Englander by birth, a West Coaster by choice, and an Oregonian by osmosis. As a writer, he has worked in advertising, entertainment, educational software, and not-for-profit fundraising. He is a recipient of a Literary Arts Walt Morey Fellowship and a Breadloaf Writers Conference Fellowship. His debut novel, When All is Said and Done (Graywolf Press), was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction.