I wanted to try something a little different in my little piece of the internet. I reached out to the author of The Hawkman Jane Rosenberg LaForge to see if she would mind if I interviewed her. As you can tell by the title of my blog post she said YES….Okay I might have squeed a few times….
I am excited today to have the author of one my favorite books of 2018 on the blog. A huge thank you to Jane Rosenberg LaForge for taking the time to answer a few of my questions.
I want to fangirl for just a moment. I loved The Hawkman so much that I messaged Jane through her website at a ridiculous time of night then squealed when she took the time to write back. Since then I have also read Jane’s An Unsuitable Princess, which is part memoir and part fantasy and utterly brilliant. Thanks you, Jane, joining me.
J: This is exciting for me, so thank you!
The Hawkman is an original take on the bearskin fairytale. What inspired you to retell it in the way you did?
J: It is a re-telling of “The Bearskin,”; but there’s also a lot of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Cat Skin” in it too. I read “The Bearskin” in German in graduate school, and the story always stuck with me. I was quite taken by the idea that although The Bearskin has to pay his dues, so to speak, he gets other people to do some of that penance while he cannot, and he pays them to do it. I don’t necessarily think that’s fair, paying people to pray for you. Shouldn’t you pray out of dedication to God, or a spiritual idea or quest? Isn’t paying people to pray for you cheating? The ending of “The Bearskin” kind of addresses that. I’ve always wanted to write about that, and “The Hawkman” was the result. Not that it came out the way I planned, but there it is.
The Hawkman comes across as a labor of love. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
J: Thank you for saying that! I’d say starting is the most difficult part. After that, there’s the problem of discipline. In graduate school I got a lot of criticism about point of view and voice, and those are two things I always have to watch out for. One of my teachers told me it takes discipline to maintain voice, control point of view. So in addition to getting started, I have to really concentrate about whose point of view I’m taking, what that person sounds like, and whether I can make that person sound authentic, and consistent.
What inspired you to write The Hawkman?
J: I’ve always been curious about World War I. I knew a lot more about World War II because my maternal grandfather fought in it (in the Pacific) and my mother and uncle were raised as Army brats. But my other grandfather, who died when I was young, served in the Russian Army in World War I, and all I knew about his experience was that conditions in the trenches were pretty awful. So I had the idea of a soldier (from “The Bearskin”) and I needed somewhere, or some time, in which to place him, and I used what little I knew of my paternal grandfather’s experience, and went from there.
Both The Hawkman and An Unsuitable Princess are takes on fairytales, or have fairytale elements. What draws you to that genre?
J: I very deliberately wanted to use the conventions of the fantasy and fairy tale genres in “An Unsuitable Princess” because I was trying to make a point about life, or should I say, adolescence. Also, there was the setting of the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire to consider, which is fantastical, and fairy tale-like. Many, many Tolkien fans and history buffs and Dungeons and Dragons players wound up at the Renaissance Faire, and the “fantasy” part of the narrative had to be set in a time and place that addressed those elements.
That said, I should point out that I had a difficult time publishing “An Unsuitable Princess” because of its format (the pairing of a “fantasy” story with footnotes which contained the narrative for the memoir). People could accept the fantasy, but they could not deal with the memoir part. And the point of the memoir is that I didn’t necessarily have the most interesting, exciting, instructive life, but it did give rise to this peculiar fantasy. Everyone fantasizes, and those fantasies, no matter how outrageous, are grounded in reality. And the fantasy I wrote up was pretty pedestrian. I wrote it to hit all the bells and whistles of the genre, so without the memoir, it was kind of paint-by-the-numbers. It wasn’t worth as much without the memoir.
But I couldn’t get them published together, so a writer friend said to me that I should just write a fairy tale, and be done with it. So I did.
There’s another advantage to working with fairy tales that I’d be remiss not to point out. and I hope I can explain it. If I told you the real, unexpurgated story of my life, you’d say, “No way!” If I told you that my father was deaf and probably clinically depressed; my mother was institutionalized for mental illness when I was a kid; my sister was a math prodigy-genius who struggled with alcohol, anorexia, and even issues beyond that; and that I grew up around all kinds of movie stars and rock singers and hippies and drug addicts in a famous Los Angeles neighborhood, would you believe it? How can so much be going on at once? Each one of those things is probably a novel (or a lifetime of psychotherapy sessions) by itself. But by using myth and fairy tales, stories that are familiar if not foundational, I can couch all of this stuff in a way that is far more understandable, and believable. I am borrowing the authority of these tales as a way to make my stuff palatable.
Since The Hawkman made me cry it is only fair to ask: what book has made you cry?
J: This is going to sound weird, but Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” made me cry. And I cried hard. This was really more of a personal thing to me, because I read it after my mother died, and there’s a sequence about a married couple who’s broken up, and they get back together again. I don’t think most people would cry about that, but given that my mother was gone, and there was no possibility for my parents to do the same, I cried.
When I was reading The Hawkman I felt that it was geared toward the originality of the story and not pandering to readers. I really appreciate when writers don’t pander. When you’re writing do you try more to be original or deliver to readers what they want?
J: I try to be original in my choice of words, in how I describe settings, people, appearances, emotions—in all my descriptions. I studied with a writer, Kate Braverman, who liked to point out that every oak tree is “gnarled,” and every brook is “babbling,” and that older men always speak in “stentorian” voices. These are not so much clichés as they are shortcuts, easy outs for writers who need to describe something but can’t come up with a way to do it. So I always have Kate Braverman in the back of my head saying, “That’s too easy. Pump it up.” I’ve also learned, from other writers, that descriptions have to be appropriate to the purpose or ethos of the story, so you can’t describe something in psychedelic terms, for example, if it’s a place or item from the 18th century.
I don’t know about pandering; there are so many ways writers pander. You could say that re-telling a fairy tale is pandering, because you are giving readers what they already know. You could say that having a death at the end of a book is pandering, because you’ve written an ending that is so final. I used to teach a class on detective fiction, and a lot of detective fiction could be said to pander; the case is solved, the bad guy gets what he deserves, and the wrongly accused are exonerated and go on to live their lives. But that’s the purpose of comedy, and detective fiction: to turn the world upside down, and show how it can be righted. Only in noir (for the purposes of this argument) do you have an untidy ending; the bad guy might get away, corruption continues, and the basic problems in society are never fixed. And noir is not pandering. But I can’t write that!!!! I’ve tried. I really have. So maybe I am a panderer. (Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone I admitted it.)
You have been in the publishing industry for sometime. Have you noticed any changes in the type of books that are being marketed, or do you think that is more driven by what consumers are buying?
J: It’s probably more of a feedback loop. Someone writes “The Girl on the Train,” and it sells well, and then other authors start writing books with “The Girl Who” in their titles. So, yes, Kate Bernheimer started writing fairy tales and then Michael Cunningham put out an entire book of fairy tales and then Roxanne Gay wrote her fairy tale and Helen Oyeyemi wrote hers and so on. People write this stuff—whatever it is—because they are inspired by something, sometimes another book, and they’re able to sell it to publishers because people are buying it, and so they write some more. When you query agents and publishers, you usually try to say, “This book will appeal to readers of….” and you name previously successful, well-known books or authors. But I can’t say I’m an expert on what’s marketed, purchased, encouraged, discouraged. I just write what I can write, and I’ve written a lot of stuff that will never see the light of day, because it’s just so awful. So I write what I can write. That’s what works for me.
I love how active you are on Twitter! You are very passionate about journalism. What changes have you seen in the journalism industry over the last decade? Do you think that the next decade will see real (newspaper) journalism fly out the window in favor of sites like Buzzfeed?
J: I was a journalist for about a dozen years at some very small newspapers. I had a chance at the big time and sorta blew it; well, let’s just say that I wasn’t able to sustain my position in the big time, and had to surrender it. Any changes I’ve witnessed in journalism are really what anyone else who keeps up with the news has seen, because I haven’t been a journalist since 1995. (I am married to a journalist but we have a non-intervention policy in terms of his telling me every last thing about his job.) But it was my first career, and how I came to writing, and I would hate to see print journalism, or the conventions and ethics of print journalism, disappear in favor of sites like Buzzfeed. And I don’t think that’s going to happen, because even Buzzfeed has produced stories that are based on sources, and research, and interrogation of those sources and research. There may not be a physical newspaper, but there will always be journalists. Maybe they will work for not-for-profits, like the Poynter Center and how it runs the St. Petersburg Times in Florida; or something like The Marshall Project online.
Let’s end on a bit of a silly question. Do you Google yourself? (I’ve Googled you and you are extremely accomplished!)
J: I’m sure if you Googled other writers, you would find some who are far more accomplished, but yes of course I Google myself, isn’t that terrible? I Google myself to look for any reviews that are coming out, or to see how a magazine I was accepted to turned out, or sometimes I Google myself to retrieve dates or publication information that have escaped my brain for some reason. But I do not, I am glad to say, do the same thing with other search engines (are there any others?) for purposes of comparison. So I guess I’m not that much of a narcissist. Just a low-grade one.
Jane, thank you so much for taking the time to drop by my small corner of the Internet today. The Hawkman will be released on June 5th from Amberjack Publishing.
The Hawkman is now available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and I am sure many other fine bookstores.