Interview with MFA in Creative Writing Graduate Cara Hoffman
RP: Before we get into your time at Goddard, why don't you let us know what the current situation is with the book?
CH: I have just signed my contract with Shaye Areheart Books at Random House and the book finally has a title, So Much Pretty. In October Creative Artists picked up the manuscript for film and since then we've had a couple of requests from production companies for film and television. As far as the novel itself goes my editor Sarah Knight is currently line editing and I'll get all that stuff back shortly then mess around with it until January. In spring 2010 it will go to auction in Europe and the UK, then come out in North America in spring 2011.
RP: How did all this come about? Tell us a little about the process of finding an agent and then a publisher.
CH: I was very lucky to get introduced to Rebecca Friedman at Sterling Lord Literistic last spring by my friend and colleague Annia Ciezadlo. Annia is a war corespondent based in Beirut and the author of Day of Honey which is forthcoming in 2011 from Free Press. She and I started out at the same community newspaper covering city politics, housing, homelessness and environmental issues. I had been talking with Annia about So Much Pretty since the inception of the idea, and we talked a lot in general about how to write something concerning violence against women that transcends the clichés of victimhood and retribution and revenge. How to write ethically about violence and political violence. (This was a dialog that I would continue with you, Rachel, for the next two years.) When I was done with the manuscript last March I sent it to Annia who sent it to Rebecca Friedman. Rebecca called and said she wanted to represent me. The book didn't sell right away though, the economy was bad and the manuscript was considered controversial or tricky by a lot of editors who were reading it. It took about five months before we heard from Sarah at Random House. She asked for changes in the backstory, which I was highly motivated to turn around in a couple of weeks, and then Shaye Areheart bought the book over labor day weekend. So it was really this very longstanding friendship that resulted in the book getting to the right folks.
RP: And now the book itself. What can you tell us about the idea, the theme, what you were trying to say? Did it change in the writing?
CH: Unfortunately I am no longer allowed to talk about the content of the book other than to say it is timely and that it's about a hard boiled reporter who moves to a small town, ends up dealing with an abduction case, and finds herself the catalyst for....something I can't tell you about. The themes and subtext of the book remain the same. The book required a lot of research.
RP: What made you apply to Goddard? When you joined the program was it what you expected? What surprised you?
CH: I learned about Goddard in 2006. I came to the campus for a conference where I was giving a lecture on environmental journalism and existentialism. Then I just kept thinking about the place. I loved the campus because it was so weird and like something out of a fairy tale. I thought if I was ever to get a degree this would be the place to do it. I had been guest lecturing at Cornell and Tompkins Cortland Community College (where I now teach) but I was uncredentialed and tired of working in media, and wanted to apply my interests in journalism, philosophy and literature in a more integrated way. I thought I could have a bigger impact on social change, and be happier if I was teaching instead of reporting or working in PR. Goddard, because it is essentially anti-authoritarian, allowed me to make those transitions completely on my own terms.
RP: How did the Goddard process affect the writing of the book? Were there ways in which working with advisors, and the other work--the critical writing, the teaching practicum--fed into the book?
CH: The process of working with an advisor was the biggest surprise, because I thought it would suck, and instead it turned out to be a pivotal experience. Rachel, you brought up all the hard questions right away and made me examine my responsibility as an author. You also really busted me when the prose got didactic, and it was great because you would be genuinely annoyed--like What the Hell is this? or Who talks like this? The biggest fight I had with you over the manuscript was the backstory--which you said should be cut and made into a separate book. I was really adamant about how important it was and you just shrugged and said 'okay, you'll see, I'm completely right.' And you were. Jan introduced me to some of the best writing I have known and was an incredible close reader and comrade. I felt the whole time I was working with my advisors and in workshop with other instructors that we were part of the same struggle.
RP: Let's look back a bit. Tell us about your background, especially your work in journalism, and how it led to writing fiction. You commented once that in 1940 this kind of arc would be well known but not any more. What did you mean by that?
CH: I started writing stories when I was a kid. In my late teens I lived and worked in a hotel in Athens, Greece. That's where I first started writing long prose and taking notes for my first book. When I came back to the states I waitressed, had a baby, and took a job at a newspaper; dropping off bundles of papers, doing office work, running errands, giving my editor rides, picking up his kids from school, eating dinner with him and his wife. In a lot of ways I was kind of a punk who just wanted to learn about what was going on around town and had fantasies of breaking a major story. I really thought there was no better job in the world than being an investigative reporter. I worked at the paper during the day and at night when Eli was sleeping I would work on my first novel. These were hard times financially. I made no money, and we were living on foodstamps and WIC. I was able to take Eli to work with me and he'd hangout in the production room napping or playing leggos. If I had to go out on assignment I'd put him in the baby backpack and take him with me. My editor was extremely cool to let me do this. Eventually I was given a few assignments, and then a regular beat and finally editorial responsibility. When I left that paper I was able to get other jobs based on my clips and the stories I'd covered, instead of having studied journalism or English. This is what I meant by a traditional 1940s career trajectory. In the past it wasn't at all unusual for a person to work their way up at a newspaper and to be writing a book in their spare time, then to move on to other papers or other beats. Now these skills are specialized and learned outside the newsroom where nothing is at stake. You don't get fired and lose your income from handing in a paper late. And there is also the obligation to the reader, to make sure they are informed enough to function in their community as more than a consumer. None of those things are at stake in an academic setting, you are instead trained to be a careerist from the get go--my grade, my GPA, my class standing, my job prospects, all that stuff. I was lucky to be able to learn to write the way I did, with a broader goal in mind, feeling like I had an obligation to uncover things.
RP: What would you like to say to writers considering Goddard, or even, for that matter, the very question of whether to get an MFA?
CH: Goddard College gives writers a kind of freedom they can't get in any other program in the country, and the kind of close reading and objective inquiry you can't get doing it alone. It may be the perfect balance for developing craft. I am convinced that a Goddard education can actually undo the pedagogical disasters that most of us have experienced throughout our lives. I don't really believe an MFA is essential for succeeding as a novelist. As teacher absolutely, but as a writer no. I think those things can happen in many different ways, and subjecting yourself to an institutional approach in a creative discipline is nothing I would advise. The advantage of going to Goddard is that the progressive system is well established, the faculty and staff are brilliant, and the student body is incredibly diverse in terms of age, race, ideology, class, gender and gender expression. In other words Goddard closely resembles the real world and the real world is the best place to learn how to write.
RP: What's next for you? What are you writing, how would you like your work to develop?
CH: I have 80 pages of the next novel completed and the next three books outlined (two more novels and a memoir that I am still on the fence about writing.) I see my work as a part of a broader social and political dialog concerning violence and anti-social masculinity. I don't see it as a singular artistic expression or anything like that. I don't think my situation or my experiences are all that unusual. Being a novelist is a job. I am just happy to have found this great new job, and to be able to support my kid.