June 2010

Hilary Thayer Hamann

Looking through the eyes of an “American girl”
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Self-published in 2003, Hilary Thayer Hamann’s re-released Anthropology of an American Girl is a coming-of-age story rich with visual descriptions and commentary on life in the 1980s. Through high school in East Hampton and early adulthood in New York City, protagonist Eveline Auerbach confronts the cultural expectations of an “American girl”—along with death, love and the nature of friendship.

Readers have compared Hamann to Henry James and J.D. Salinger, and those evocations are fitting. But ultimately, Anthropology of an American Girl feels entirely fresh, as Hamann addresses—with lovely, intimate language—the contradictions we all face: obsessive love versus a desire for independence, or skepticism of an institution alongside pleasure in our daily participation.

At more than 600 pages, Hamann’s debut is no quick read, but it’s well worth the investment of time. To give you an idea of the themes and plot of the novel, BookPage asked the author to elaborate on her writing, from the choice to include song lyrics in the text, to whether her narrator is a feminist.

Anthropology of an American Girl was self-published in 2003, then sold to Spiegel & Grau in 2007 and “significantly re-edited.” How did the novel change from the original version? Are there significant differences in plot? New characters? A different tone?
There were no changes to the characters or to the plot, but it feels like a different book. It feels lighter, cleaner, and as a result, stronger. Since Anthropology has a legacy—the self-published version got strong reviews and it developed a significant fan base—there was an effort to preserve the essence of the original. Cindy Spiegel, my editor, combed through the novel carefully and cleared away the extraneous material so that the characters and their motivations became more vivid. The revised edition has a freshness and a vitality that the former lacked.

Music and song lyrics factor prominently in the story. How did you choose which songs to excerpt? Is your musical taste the same as Evie’s?
The music that figures into the book doesn’t refer to Evie’s taste or mine, though there are songs in there that I loveand ones that she loves, too! Since the premise of the book is an “anthropology,” I tried to document the music of the time, noting the songs she might have heard or been influenced by. You know, if Evie walks into a deli, for instance, what might have been playing on the radio? Or, if she is standing on the streets in Brooklyn, what might have been playing on someone’s car stereo? There are selections from funk, pop, rock, R&B, classic blues, bossa nova and even opera in there. I realize that some of the songs might be obscure to readers of different generations, which is why simply naming them was not an option. The inclusion of the lyrics allows readers to get a sense of the songwriters’ poetry. And it’s interesting, because even if you are familiar with the music, it looks entirely new to see it written out in the midst of text like that.

In one scene in the novelduring a eulogya priest speaks about the necessity and struggle of seeing “the essence of what we admire.” Of all your characters, whom do you most admire? How would you describe the “essence” of that character?
In the eulogy, the speaker is referring predominantly to the problem of viewing friendship as an all or nothing state of affairs. Between wholesale acceptance and wholesale rejection of a friend there should be a sustainable place of responsible engagement. Friendships with high standards and long-term commitments demand more work than the casual, disposal kind, but the rewards are great. When we forsake a friend in need, or when we are forsaken, it’s a terrible thing. There may be nothing worse.

There are some people who would never, who could never forsake a friend. Many of the characters in Anthropology possess this quality to varying degrees, but no one so much as Rob Cirillo. Rob is loving, but beyond that, his love is authentic. As he himself might say, it gets through. It reads as honest because he is fearless, and by that I mean, transparent in expressing affection. He is not secretive or self-protective; he doesn’t hide anything or have anything over on anyone. He is unafraid of being hurt by rejection, because in his mind, his love is enough. It’s a matter of confidence.

What is the essence of a character? There are myriad ways to reply, but to continue on this theme, let’s say confidence. I don’t just mean confidence as a character living out his or her life in the text, but as he or she relates to the writer outside the text. The characters I like best are the ones I have confidence in, the reliable ones, the ones that can help me do my job of conveying meaning, moving the story. Ironically, if they can remain true to the convictions you have assigned, they become less predictable, more interesting. They write themselves. In my novel, I would say Evie, Jack and Rob wrote themselves.

Are you skeptical of the American high school experience? Evie describes how school spirit, sports spirit and America spirit “got totally mixed up.” While participating in high school programs, she sometimes feels like “part of a giant out-of-control science experiment.” Was this true for you in high school? Is it the same for kids in high school today?
High school is a necessity for individuals, families and the nation, and receiving an education is a right and a privilege that American citizens deserve. But at the same time, these constructs I just named—individual, family, nation, education, right, privilege, America and citizenship—are not hollow. They need to be as meaningful in practice as in theory. The “out-of-control science experiment” phrase relates in part to the institutional lip service that gets paid to these concepts, whereas very little of it trickles down to the kids. It’s no secret to say that high school experiences are mixed at best. Many young people feel desperation, shame, anxiety, etc. while attending school. One main reason for this is that definitions of “success” in high school are too narrow. Typically, they relate to academics, sports or beauty. I was very fortunate to have had serious and meaningful experiences in the arts while in high school. Through the arts, my friends and I were able to cultivate, maintain and share the dignity, pride, faith, hope and political mindfulness that came naturally to us, and that come naturally to most teenagers. Unfortunately, such alternatives are not always available.

Who do you see as the audience for your book? Is it overwhelmingly female? Do you think men will be interested in this story?
I see Anthropology as a literary novel, and as such, accessible to both men and women. However, I am aware of the fact that more women will read it than men. Having said that, many of the book’s strongest fans have been men, so I believe that if they give it a try, they’ll love it. It contains an examination of men in this culture as well as one of women, and I tried to be sensitive in my approach to the social pressures placed upon men. The male characters in the book—Jack, Denny, Rob, Rourke, even Mark—are not two-dimensional devices. They are fully-realized. Of course male readers might feel self-conscious about carrying around a book with the title Anthropology of an American Girl, but I think it’s a great way to impress women!

Evie frequently considers the unique experience of being female. For example, “Every woman knows the feeling of being a stack of roving flesh.” Or, an “American girl” should possess “independence and blind courage.” Is Evie’s love foreven obsession withcertain men at odds with her social commentary? Is Evie a feminist?
Well, the book is not so polemical as that, and Evie is a very democratic protagonist. Through her, I was able to write around issues, more or less, rather than travel from one position to another. Perhaps I’d say she is a “feminist in training,” or to be more accurate, a “good citizen in training”—which incorporates feminism. She matures from that “stack of roving flesh” competing with the girls around her to a young woman who is genuinely concerned with others, and with women in particular. As the story progresses, Evie becomes mindful of the abuses women sometimes suffer, but she also comes to understand the abuses they level against themselves. She does this by living, observing, asking questions. She uses her internal time well. Thinking things through is a skill, I believe, that many of the best people cultivate.

And I think her love for men is accurate. I think the number and range of men she connects with is accurate. I think the vacillating negligence, absence, allegiance, cruelty, adoration, etc. of the men, and her willingness to love them despite it all, is accurate. There would have been no way for me to comment on the slippery slope women experience without demanding that Evie pass through it. Many girls waste their time on men. I certainly did!

In Anthropology of an American Girl, I was struck by your frequent use of italics to give certain phrases emphasis. What do italics add to the tone of your book? When you were writing, were you conscious of this technique?
This is very much a story about voice. It felt right to me that the words would be “heard” by the reader in a certain way. How Eveline hears, processes and speaks, are expressive of intention, direction and state of mind. It aided authenticity.

A notable characteristic of your writing is the use of simile: “The sun set . . . returning to us slow, like honey from an overturned jar.” “Some people exist quite well in injury. It’s like having gills to breathe underwater.” “The first time I saw you . . . it was like seeing a river.” How do these analogies serve your descriptions? Why do you so often describe what something is like?
First of all, I was writing from the point of view of a 17-year-old artist. I wrote as I thought she would see. If, instead, I’d written, “We watched the sunset,” or “Some people refuse to get over their own pain,” the words would have been stripped of her softness. They would have seemed too absolute. She does not know things so absolutely. Also, the similes make for a scenic space inside her head. I feel Eveline comes across as self-contained—unusual and content with that. Her inner vision is her defense. It’s like whistling or singing or breathing deeply when you are upset. She “paints” a place. At times, her interior image is at odds with her surroundings, and that interests me.

Secondly, I do happen to think and write visually, and I often see things before I can say them. So, I see the sunset like spilling honey. I see people existing well in injury as having special survival tools for their own special environment. Just this morning I was thinking of people who are oppressively cheerful as being secretly depressed. You know, those sorts who are happy to the point of evading the practical and emotional reality of others, themselves, the world at large. But before being able to articulate what I meant, I could see a sheer drinking glass full to the brim, lapping over its own edge. My impression was of something fragile, fluid and full to its own capacity. Something that had no room to let anything else in.

Why did you set Anthropology of an American Girl in the 1970s and 1980s? I couldn’t help but think of placing blame for our current financial crisis when Evie thinks: “blaming groups shows that you yourself are not involved but that you are intellectually connected.” Do you think your book has contemporary relevance?
I set it in the time I came of age because it felt more authentic to follow my own path. But I also believe the transformations of that time require exploration, and that they hold lessons for the present. One underlying question was: What happened to the idealism of the 1960s? Obviously, it was replaced by neo-conservatism, but why? I wanted to look at both the left and the right and try to understand the ways in which individual Americans are manipulated.

As teenagers who had been children in the 1960s, we were all too aware in the early and mid 1970s of corporate, political and environmental inequities. We were outspoken, and our conversations were deep and free. We were concerned about excessive deregulation of corporations (of the sort that has almost certainly led to the oil spill in the Gulf), environmental destruction, human rights. We had lived through the gas crisis. We were ready for solar power. It would have been a good time for increased sacrifice. But instead, the opposite happened. By the early 1980s, personal pleasure became the mode. Topics of consequence vanished; it became unpopular to be anti-establishment. It got to the point where you were mocked for thinking or speaking too seriously. Remember the old television show “Family Ties” with Michael J. Fox? The liberal, hippie parents were nice but irrelevant fodder for jokes, and the conservative son was the lead, the center, the star, the protagonist. It was a strange and depressing transition, and certainly, the “art” of the time bears this out. It reflects the pervasive selfishness, inwardness, markets—television, film, popular music. It all dated badly. It didn’t think beyond itself.

What is your next book about? Will you continue to work with a major publishing house?
I am currently writing a story about an extended family set in the Bronx in the 1960s. My idea is to write about a Vietnam veteran who returns home emotionally and physically ruined by his experience, but is eventually reconstituted through his relationship with a strange and extraordinary woman. It’s going to be another romance set over another cultural exploration. I think it will have something for everyone. And, I would love to continue working with Speigel & Grau. I feel as though I have found home.

Author photo by Doug Young.

Get the Book

Anthropology of an American Girl

Anthropology of an American Girl

By Hilary Thayer Hamann
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN 9780385527149

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