Aspen Times Weekly: Hannah Tinti’s Final Draft

by Andrew Travers

Who: Hannah Tinti

What: Public reading and talk

Where: Woody Creek Community Center

When: Tuesday, Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

More info:

Novelist Hannah Tinti has spent the last four years toiling on a new book — a follow-up to her 2008 bestseller “The Good Thief” — and she’s hoping to finish it this month in Woody Creek.

Tinti, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine One Story, has been in the valley since late July through the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Writer-in-Residence program, which brings selected writers to Woody Creek for a month-long stay at the Catto family ranch.

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. After a month working in this remote mountain hamlet, she hopes to call the book “done” and hand a manuscript over to her agent.

“I just keep being unable to finish it because I haven’t had the concentrated time to bring it home,” she told me on a recent afternoon on the porch 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” — copies of which are available for free through the Writers’ Foundation’s “Catch and Release” program — 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 graverobbers, 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 has spent her days here writing in three daily shifts — one when she wakes 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 explains.

She’s 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 is grateful not to have cell phone reception at the ranch, and has 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 last year, 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.

She’s currently drawing the 12 labors of Hercules, because her new novel is loosely inspired by them. She was on No. 8 — when Hercules meets the man-eating mares of Diomedes — the afternoon we met, and was planning to sketch some of the horses stabled along Woody Creek Road to get started.

The new book, she says, 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 explains.

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.

She will give a public reading at the Woody Creek Community Center on Tuesday, Aug. 19, which may feature a glimpse of her novel-in-progress.

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 says. “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 explains. “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 says. “I think it’s better to hold and wait until you have a really good hand and then play it.”

And yet, Tinti says, 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 six years since her debut novel can feel like an eternity.

“I feel it and I hear it all the time,” she says. “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 adds, “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 explains. “It probably wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. But I kind of couldn’t let it go.”

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