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"On the Way from Kidhood to Independence": An Interview with Henry Hoke

Henry Hoke wrote The Book of Endless Sleepovers (out in October from Civil Coping Mechanisms) and Genevieves (winner of the Subito Press prose contest, forthcoming 2017). Some of his stories appear in The Fanzine, Entropy, Gigantic and PANK. He co-created and directs Enter>text, a living literary journal in Los Angeles. His website is henry-hoke.com, and his twitter is @ennuiperkins.

His story, "Surprise Island," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Henry Hoke talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about setting, family dynamics, and turning memory into fiction.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Surprise Island”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

The origin was a real night with my brother and cousins on our dock in Alabama, back in the day. It was a very potent moment, on the way from kidhood to independence. A lot of the dialogue is pulled from that evening, though the story is fiction. When I freed myself from the memories and mapped out how the plot would go, the actual writing started.

The four central characters of this story have nicknames only—Older Bro, Cuz, Weeza, and Little Bro. Why was it important to you that the narrator not use their real names? Did you think of them more as archetypes or as individuals when you were writing them?

They’re definitely individuals, but I tend to avoid real names in my stories. I’m more interested in how characters are positioned in relation to one another, the dynamics, family or otherwise, that their titles represent. It keeps things a little more open and elusive, allows me to shift their shapes.

The first paragraph stands out from the rest of the story, italicized and using a second-person voice that does not reappear. How did you decide this outlier was a necessary part of the story? What effect did you intend it to have on the reader?

This is one of the nine stories in my forthcoming book Genevieves, and each begins with an italicized intro, often in a distinct voice.

The first paragraph in “Surprise Island” is the voice of the parents, a voice that is likely echoing in the heads of the characters. The voice of the parents is the voice of expectation and history, so it’s something for the kids to butt up against. The intro also functions as a kind of aerial shot that we zoom in from, both spatially and chronologically.

Setting plays a crucial role in this story. The kids belong so much to the lake, the dock, the disappearing island, they almost feel like a result or an extension of the place. How do you describe a place in such a way that it seems recognizable yet unique? How do you make setting into an essential, living part of the story?

I’m into the idea of the perpetual quality of short fiction, how it preserves characters in a place and moment, so I love the idea of the kids as extension of their surroundings.

I think the family’s idiosyncratic signifiers for various elements of the lake, titles and tales that get passed down into myth, gives an odd fictional quality to the broader reference points of dock, woods, house, water. I wanted to make the world the cousins inhabit alive with potential, each area around them activated with story or danger, because I think this plays such a huge role in how we order the world in childhood. Many elements of the setting are taken directly from life and could’ve evolved into plot points. Surprise Island, as my family has called it for a long time, became the center because it connects to all the kids’ impulses (the boys’ competitive scheming and Weeza’s desire for mystery).

This setting’s been at the heart of a lot of almost-stories over the past couple years, a screenplay, even. I finally had to jump in. Since I’ve been there in life, I just go back in my head.

What writing projects are you working on now?

My first two short story collections are due out in the next year, so come spring and summer I’ll get down to business with the publishers. Between now and then I’m writing my first novel, although to overcome the daunt I’m trying to think of it more like a sprawling prose-poetry collection, and approach the writing that way. It’s about immortal film students.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Last year I chiefly purchased new work by friends and acquaintances, and it was a fantastic year of reading. The poetry debuts I was most anticipating were Ansel Elkins’ Blue Yodel and Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus, and both were revelations. Essential. For fiction, Katherine Faw Morris’ Young God wrecked me, and for memoir Janice Lee’s Reconsolidation wields critical vitality and creation in the face of real-life wreckage. The most fun I had was probably with Sawako Nakayasu’s The Ants. I have a big new bedside stack of stuff to devour now and it makes me happy. I spent a sleepless night last week reading Saeed Jones’ phenomenal Prelude to Bruise. The longer prose piece “History, According to Boy” near the end is an absolute supernova.

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