Aspen Summer Words: Hannah Tinti returns with new novel ‘The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley’ |

Aspen Summer Words: Hannah Tinti returns with new novel ‘The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley’

Hannah Tinti at an Aspen Words event in New York City last year.
Erin Baiano |

If You Go …

What: ‘We All Start Somewhere’ with Dani Shapiro and Hannah Tinti

Where: Aspen Summer Words, The Gant

When: Monday, June 19, 3:30 p.m.

How much: $25

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

What: ‘The Take Away’ with Hannah Tinti, Carole DeSanti, Jane Hamilton, Jericho Brown and Jess Walter

Where: Aspen Summer Words, The Gant

When: Thursday, June 22, 4 p.m.

How much: $25

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

During her month-long stay in Woody Creek as an Aspen Writers’ Foundation writer-in-residence in August 2014, Hannah Tinti told locals about the book she was trying to finish here, a contemporary father-daughter story based in part on the 12 labors of Hercules, telling the dad’s story through a dozen bullet scars on his body.

This spring, that remarkable book — “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” — finally arrived between two hard covers. And this week, Tinti returns to teach a fiction workshop at Aspen Summer Words.

The novel opens as Hawley and his 12-year-old daughter, Loo, settle in Olympus, Massachusetts. Loo tries to figure out who her father is, while piecing together her mother’s mysterious death. In interspersed flashbacks to Hawley’s criminal past, the reader fills in the gaps along with Loo.

It’s the rare kind of novel that’s a masterful suspense story and page-turning mystery that’s thick with plot and action, but also a work of depth and weight exploring questions of parenthood, familial love and identity.

“I often tell my students, ‘If you’re bored writing it, the reader will be bored reading it,’” Tinti said in a recent phone interview. “I often inject action and movement just to keep myself engaged.”

Tinti is the co-founder and editor of the literary magazine One Story, and also the author of the 2008 bestseller “The Good Thief.”

The new book has an unlikely origin in a Tinti visit to the annual “greasy pole contest” in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where greased-up tough guys attempt to walk to the end of a slippery pole above the ocean in the coastal town.

“It’s this really crazy, gladiator type of event,” she recalled. “These guys are stripped down and covered in grease and very macho. But it’s also a lot of fun. So I was trying to sketch out a scene and I took a closer look at one of the men stepping onto the pole and realized his body had these scars on it. … That scene was the kernel that everything was built out of.”

Hawley’s trip down the pole ended up as a set piece in the opening pages of the new book. And those scars became the engine that powered “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.”

“I thought about how these physical scars on our body can tell the story of our lives — those can be great stories, like ‘This is where I learned to ride a bike with my dad,’” she recalled. “Other times if can be from an operation or something bad.”

In call-and-response fashion, the novel’s chapters alternate between the stories of Hawley’s scars and chapters centered on Loo as she comes of age. The father-daughter story takes on an epic scale as we flash back to Hawely’s violent past of fencing jobs and robberies gone wrong — from Massachusetts to northern Wisconsin to Alaska — until their two narratives collide.

Woody Creek didn’t make it directly into the novel, but she picked up a few key details here. The setting of the book’s climax, on a boat during a dark starlit New England night, was inspired by Tinti’s stargazing sessions during her residency on the Catto-Shaw family property: “a stunning multitude of galaxies and satellites and distant suns so bright she could not find the North Star among them.” And a bear rug — one of a few totemic objects that run through the narrative, both in Hawley’s violent past and in the book’s present — took shape in Woody Creek, where Tinti had several friendly run-ins with local black bears.

By the time she left Woody Creek, Tinti had a first draft of the book in hand.

“Bringing the book to a close was one of the hardest things, and that’s what I was doing when I was there,” she recalled. “I had all these bits and pieces that needed to be woven together and I was working on polishing a draft.”

Summer Words’ public panels begin Monday, with Tinti and memoirist Dani Shapiro on a panel titled “We All Start Somewhere” at The Gant. Featured festival authors include Jericho Brown, Caroloe DeSanti, Ben Fountain, Jane Hamilton, George Hodgman, Chinelo Okparanta, Said Sayrafiezadeh, Margot Lee Shetterly and Jess Walter. Events run through Thursday afternoon.

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