After local residency, Tinti returns to teach at Aspen Summer Words
June 23, 2015
If You Go …
What: ‘Writing Home’ at Aspen Summer Words
Who: Panelists Richard Russo, Akhil Sharma, Hannah Tinti
When: Tuesday, June 23, 6 p.m.
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
Tickets and more info: http://www.aspenwords.com
If You Go…
What: ‘The Take Away’ at Aspen Summer Words
Who: Panelists Andre Dubus III, Ann Hood, Richard Russo, Dani Shapiro, Hannah Tinti
Where: The Gant
When: Thursday, June 25, 4 p.m.
Tickets and more info: http://www.aspenwords.com
Novelist Hannah Tinti has spent the a month in Woody Creek last summer, attempting to finish a new book – a follow-up to her 2008 bestseller "The Good Thief."
After her stint as writer-in-residence with Aspen Words, Tinti, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine One Story, is back in town this week teaching fiction at the Aspen Summer Words literary retreat.
Editing other writers through her day job at One Story, which publishes a single story by a different author each month, Tinti doesn't often get uninterrupted time to sit and work on her own fiction.
"I just keep being unable to finish it because I haven't had the concentrated time to bring it home," she told me last August over coffee at the Woody Creek Community Center. "I work in bits and pieces. So it's great to have this focused time."
Tinti's readers, no doubt, are grateful for it as well, eagerly awaiting her sophomore novel (she also published a collection of stories, "Animal Crackers," in 2004).
"The Good Thief" is an addictive read with a Dickensian plot and a modern style that proves as entertaining as the Dickens stories that had readers waiting on the docks in New York. It follows Ren, a young and one-handed orphan in 19th-century New England, who is adopted from a Catholic orphanage by a man who claims to be his brother, but turns out to be a con man. Ren is soon among a band of outlaws and grave-robbers, and party to a series of extraordinary events and extraordinarily imagined madcap capers. But for all its fantastical flourishes, the novel is, at its roots, about family and storytelling itself.
A native of Salem, Mass. now based in Brooklyn, Tinti spent her days here writing in three daily shifts — one when she woke up, one in the middle of the day, and one at night.
"There's something about writing in a place that you don't live that kicks open a perspective, or gets your work to open up in ways that it hadn't before," she explained.
She interspersed the writing sessions with walks into the ruggedly wooded National Forest land above Woody Creek, and happily taken a break (mostly) from her duties at One Story.
"I don't see anybody," she says of the walks in the woods. "It's just me, some deer, coyotes — I saw a snake yesterday!"
Disconnecting from a screen-bound 21st-century existence isn't a simple task, though. Tinti said she was grateful not to have cell phone reception at the ranch, and limited herself to checking e-mail once per day, while attending to just a few One Story tasks. Yet checking the digital feed is a hard habit to break.
"When you're in it you're always complaining," she says, "but then it's hard to wean yourself off when you're used to the interruptions."
Over the last year, Tinti has also been drawing to focus her concentration. She taught with cartoonist Linda Barry at a conference in 2013, and heard Barry lecture on drawing's effect on creativity and the brain. Tinti began the exercise by doodling demons, inspired by Barry's graphic novel "One! Hundred! Demons," and has kept the practice going.
Last summer in Woody Creek, she drew the 12 labors of Hercules, because her new novel is loosely inspired by them. The new book, she said, is a contemporary father-daughter story told from two points of view. Instead of 12 labors, the father character has been shot 12 times, and each incident plays out in a chapter that alternates with chapters focused on his daughter.
"The father has always been a mystery to her, and while she's figuring it out, the reader is, too," she explained.
The idea came from Tinti thinking about scars and the stories they tell, a jumping-off point not so unlike "The Good Thief," which begins with Ren being passed over by prospective parents at the orphanage because of his missing hand, and which turns at its climax on the revelation of how he lost the appendage.
Along with teaching this week, Tinti will take part in panel discussions on Tuesday and Thursday at Summer Words.
Tinti has always kept one foot in fiction writing and one in the publishing business. Out of college, she worked as an editorial assistant at the Boston Review, then the Atlantic Monthly. When she went to graduate school in the creative writing program at New York University, she worked a day job at a literary agency. "Ragtime" author E.L. Doctorow was her thesis advisor at NYU and gave her some surprising pointers about writing historical fiction.
"The best advice he ever gave me was to not do any research," she said. "He said, 'We've all seen enough movies to fake a time period.' Otherwise, if you do research first, that drives the narrative and you aren't able to create characters that your readers will care about."
Doctorow advised her to wait to research until she was on a second or third draft, a tactic she used in "The Good Thief."
She co-founded One Story when she got out of school in 2002.
"I've always had a day job somewhere in the business," she explained. "Sometimes I find that very challenging, to break apart and be creative without thinking about the business side of things. I almost know too much. Sometimes a writer needs to be a little but of an ingénue to actually do the work."
But, at the same time, her practical experience on the publishing side has helped her avoid some of the pitfalls writers often fall into, like sending out fiction before it's polished.
"It's like playing poker," she said. "I think it's better to hold and wait until you have a really good hand and then play it."
And yet, Tinti added, she does feel pressure to get her follow-up to "The Good Thief" into readers' hands. In the sped-up media consumption of our time, the seven years since her debut novel can feel like an eternity.
"I feel it and I hear it all the time," she said. "But I'm also running a literary magazine, which takes an enormous amount of creative energy and work. Most people do one or the other. It's difficult to do both."
Plus, she added, "I'm a slow writer. It takes me a long time. And because I'm an editor, I'm really hard on myself. So I'm always writing and deleting and writing and deleting."
After the breakout success of "The Good Thief," she spent a chunk of time working on a sequel, which she's since put aside. She wrote about 200 pages of that book before moving on to the current project.
"A lot of people wanted me to do a sequel and maybe I'll go back to it at some point," she explained. "It probably wasn't what I was supposed to be doing. But I kind of couldn't let it go."