Q&A: Author Annie Hartnett

Author Annie Hartnett’s came to Avid Bookshop on April 6 during the tour for her recent book, “Rabbit Cake”. At Avid, Hartnett read from and spoke about the book. “It’s a book about grief but it’s a funny-sad book. You should laugh more than you cry but you probably are going to cry too,” Hartnett said. “Someone described it as ‘hilariously sad’ which I thought was the best description of it so I would probably steal that.” Photo by Katie Grace Upchurch.


Staff writer Elena Gilbertson Hall and Web Master Katie Grace Upchurch talk to author Annie Hartnett who stopped at Avid Bookshop on April 6 during her book tour for her novel, “Rabbit Cake”.

Web Master Katie Grace Upchurch: You’ve done some short stories and essays in the past, but how does it feel to be a published novelist?

Author Annie Hartnett: It’s a whole different ball game. Stories are great, essays are great, but a book is a different thing. You talk to a lot more people who have read it. It’s been fun, I didn’t know what to expect because you have no idea. I worked at a bookstore for several years when I was writing the book, books come out and you never know how people are going to respond to them. I would get an advanced copy of something and I would love it and then nobody would want it, or I would not like a book and everyone would want it, but the response to “Rabbit Cake” has been really nice. People seem to like (the main character), Elvis, and it’s been fun. I like events so it’s a big tour that I’m doing which would be miserable for someone who didn’t like doing events. I’ve actually never been to Athens, I’ve been to Atlanta a lot so it’s cool to come to a new place and see what it’s like and it’s just been a pretty fun experience for me.

Staff writer Elena Gilbertson Hall: If you were a bookseller, how would you describe “Rabbit Cake” to a customer?

AH: It’s a book about grief but it’s a funny-sad book. You should laugh more than you cry but you probably are going to cry too. Someone described it as “hilariously sad” which I thought was the best description of it so I would probably steal that.

KGU: What inspired the book? Was it any events from your life or people you knew?

AH: Sleepwalking is not something that is in my family, although I did sleepwalk once into a frat party when I was in college when I was wearing plaid pajamas. I teach fiction writing now, so the way I come up with ideas for stories is asking “What if?” questions. Stories, novels, whatever. I say, “What if this?” and then you end up with a crazy idea. My “What if” for “Rabbit Cake” was “What if someone drowned while sleepwalking?” And since I knew sleepwalking was genetic, so “What if someone else in the family is also a sleepwalker and it becomes a dangerous thing?” That was the beginning of the story. The mom was always dead, the older sister was always a sleepwalker. And then the parts I stole from my own life were, I was always obsessed with Elvis Presley as a kid. People always ask me, “How did you come up with the name Elvis for a girl?” and since I was obsessed with Elvis as a girl, it made perfect sense. That’s how things add up in my brain. The dog in the book, Boomer, is pretty much the dog that I had up until he died in November. There are some things that are completely true and other things where you just ask yourself the “What if?” questions and let your imagination flow and go crazy.

EGH: How does your passion for animals factor into your writing?

AH: It’s things that are interesting to me. I love animals, so if you’re going to work on a book for years and ideally you want to write about things that are interesting to you. I don’t know all of those animal facts off the top of my head that are crammed in the book but I enjoy looking them up and I did work at an exotic animal center when I was in college because I was looking for an internship to fill my summer. I didn’t know I wanted to do after college, and when I was working on the book I got a job at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston as a camp counselor. As a camp counselor I didn’t do anything with animals — except the human children animals. But I was in the zoo seeing the daily operations and the layout of the zoo and that helped me a lot to think about where they put certain animals and how they organize the zoo. So in my mind that was the most intensive research I did, the animal stuff.

KGU: How was the process of writing and publishing a full length book different from other writing you’ve done in the past?

AH: Stories you edit over and over but it’s nowhere near the level (of a novel). I remember starting the book in April 2012, I was sitting in a Starbucks in Alabama right before my birthday and I started writing a story called “Rabbit Cake” which was about this mother who slept-walked into the water and the sister. It was always called “Rabbit Cake” which is funny because it is such a thread that runs through the book but might look like something that I added later because it’s not part of the original “What if?” question but for some reason it was always “Rabbit Cake”. I got an agent in 2014 and we sold it in 2015, so it took several years and then it came out last month, in 2017, so it’s a long process. You work with yourself on editing and you work with your agent on editing, and you work with your editor on editing. There’s a lot of different pieces to writing a book.

EGH: Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?

AH: Not at all. I wanted to be a cartoonist, that was my dream. When I was growing up, there were the regular Disney cartoons, and then Toy Story came out and they sort of got rid of the classic animation, and I was never really good enough to be an animator. So I thought that Disney was doing away with that, and I wasn’t that good, so I just went to a liberal arts college and majored in philosophy. I took every class, I liked environmental studies. It was my last semester of college and I sort of randomly took this creative writing class — I had taken other creative writing classes, so it wasn’t completely random — and I ended up in this one class where this professor who was visiting the college, Hamilton College, he just gave me the right stories and once I saw those stories that were sort of strange, but also literary that’s all I would want to do. So as soon as he gave me the things that he gave me, I never wanted to do anything else after that.

KGU: Is there anything that you know now that you would tell your younger self?

AH: I teach adults as GrubStreet, in Boston — it’s an adult writing ed writing center — so a lot of my students are older than me, so I don’t think of this as something that I would tell someone younger than me, but something that I have learned is that I share with people is that, I think that the best way to have fun with your writing is to share it, and to get used to sharing it. Because it’s scary at first, but it’s the only way to have fun with it, and once you start sharing it you realize that there’s fun at every step in the editing process. Otherwise you’re just going to sit in a dark room and torture yourself, and that really isn’t the way to be a writer. So that’s what I would say to my younger self.

EGH: What are some of your favorite books?

AH: Some of my favorite books are “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn is a very weird, very good book, “The Quick and the Dead” by Joy Williams, very weird, very good book, “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell, I love that one, there’s a new book that I think might be one of my favorite books, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Holly” by Hannah Tinti and I also love her first book called, “The Good Thief”. I think she’s a very imaginative writer and I feel like she’s a creator of worlds. I like her alot.

KGU: What are your all-time favorite authors, or people that you look up to?

AH: Some of them are the same people who I listed with their books. Like Karen Russell, I love (Laura) van den Berg a lot, I love Joy Williams a lot, I love a lot of really short stuff, too, I love Amy Hempel and I love Lydia Davis. I like Jim Shepperd. I like Flannery O’Connor.

EGH: What’s your perfect writing environment?

AH: I like writing in places where stuff is going on. I like a Starbucks, or a coffee shop. I like that for a couple reasons, I like other activity around me, and it also helps me not waste time. If I’m at home, I’ll look at Facebook, or some dumb website, and if I’m in a coffee shop, I’m too self conscious to do that. Yeah, so I get so much more work done.

KGU: What’s your writing process?

AH: Some things I can write — I can write corny little essays really quickly, I wrote this essay about reading out loud that they published at The Millions in an afternoon. I can write things that are from the heart really easily, about my own life, but fiction takes me a little longer. I’m thinking more about the different things that I can do. It’s honestly easier and more fun to write fiction, but it’s quicker and more easy to write an essay, if that makes any sense.

EGH: Why do you write?

AH: Because I like doing it. That’s it — it’s fun for me. I totally get that for some people it’s not fun and they still feel like they need to do it, but if I didn’t think it was fun, I would do something else.

KGU: What advice do you have for high school students who aspire to be writers?

AH: Just to read as much as they can. And write as much as they can. Those are the two things — keep writing, imitation is good, it’s fine, and writing about your own life — don’t feel like because it’s partially fiction that it’s not true. All fiction I think is partially true. And just read, and read, and read. That’s another thing, I was spending too much time in college reading books that I thought were, “serious literature,” and there was so much also, “serious literature,” that I didn’t know about because I was only reading big books, and there were so many great books that I discovered after that one class.

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