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Powell's Q&A

Samantha Hunt

Describe your latest project.
The Invention of Everything Else is a fictional account of the last days of the real-life inventor Nikola Tesla. The choice to make it fiction was an easy one as the details of Tesla's life were already so odd, so magnificent and sad, that no one would believe they were true. He invented AC electricity and radio, thought he was married to a pigeon, created an engine powered by insects, and lived the last ten years of his life at the Hotel New Yorker.

The hotel — still in operation today — was my favorite site to conduct research, as the chief engineer there, Joe Kinney, has become the hotel's unofficial historian. He took me on tours of many of the closed parts of the hotel. Old ballrooms, bank vaults, and secret tunnels. Dusty and dark, these rooms still hold a glimmer of their 1943 grandeur.

Many of Tesla's invention are fantastic, dream-like — for example, wireless. I started to wonder where all of today's artist/inventors were. I know many people who are writing books of poems, painting masterpieces, and making movies in their non-wage-earning hours, but I don't know anyone who is trying to graft human DNA with that of the great blue heron's.

The book mixes the story of Tesla's life with the fictional account of Louisa. She works as a chambermaid at the Hotel New Yorker and befriends the inventor during the last week of his life. She gets mixed up with some people who are building a time machine in Far Rockaway. This device forces a question about the singularity of the future. Is there only one future, or perhaps many? Louisa wonders if there might be "another version of our future. The one he'd [Tesla] intended for us, the path we didn't take....The future where human beings have wings and electricity is miraculous and free."

  1. The Invention of Everything Else: A Novel
    $4.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Oddly charming and pleasantly peculiar, Hunt's novel offers a unique perspective on hope and imagining life's possibilities." Booklist
  2. The Seas: A Novel
    $18.00 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Seas: A Novel

    Samantha Hunt
    "[A] ravishing, utterly unique read." Elle.com

    "Samantha Hunt has written a layered debut novel, part fairy tale, part bildungsroman, and part meditation on the imprecision of language." Alexis Smith, Powells.com

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I did data entry — normally a very boring job— for a raptor center, which made it a lot more interesting. I had to hike up a hill to my tiny office, which seemed part tree house, part trailer. Every day people brought in injured birds they'd found. Not just raptors, but bluebirds, swallows, sparrows, chimney swifts, all manner of simple songbirds that had been hit by cars, fallen out of nests, tasted by the family pet. The center tried to heal any injured birds, particularly raptors. It was also a museum, so the public could come in and see the birds that couldn't be released back into the wild: a blind snowy owl or a hawk that had had a wing blown off by a hunter. One baby kestrel liked to perch on top of my computer. I brought her an old facecloth from home, and with it, she made a nest.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
Well, I am. I'm an excellent liar. I'm able to convince myself of the reality, or at least the justice, behind my lies. I started young. As a girl, I'd become inordinately attached to Boardwalk and Park Place when playing Monopoly. They seemed like a secret passage back to glamour, back to Fred Astaire. I was able to convince myself that I was the savior of some imagined good old days and my brother was an evil developer from the 1980s who would ruin it all. So, if I had to nip a hundred or two from the bank, it was because that was the right thing to do.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.

And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not.
—William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I was in a small town upstate where if you paid a dollar you'd be admitted into the Book Barn behind the library. It was fantastic. The barn was bursting with used books and records, organized only by genre. This is for the best as I had to look at each title instead of being able to zero in on the books I was looking for. I came across Joy Williams's Breaking and Entering. In school I'd loved Williams's stories and had not read her since. She's a lyrical, dreamy writer. She gives Florida the treatment that such a strange land deserves. I've always felt that Florida is extraordinary because it is so young geologically. I think that's what draws in all the old folks and oddballs. It makes for good reading. I love books about the far, far north and Florida.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
When I lived in Vermont I would make pilgrimages all the time, small ones. I was a waitress and worked strange hours. I didn't have much to do on my days off, so I made a lot of local literary pilgrimages. Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley, J. D. Salinger (I never caught a glimpse). I went once to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, and more recently I was at the Faulkner House in New Orleans. Something always feels a bit hokey about making literary pilgrimages. When my husband was a college student he slept on Kerouac's grave, and I still tease him about it because I wonder what it is we're thinking: "If I sit at Faulkner's desk, lie on Kerouac's grave, I'll write as he does"?

Still, I enjoy this sort of sightseeing. There is one trip I dream of making. I'd like to go to Hokkaido, Japan, to see the land where so many of Haruki Murakami's books wind up. I'm less interested in meeting authors I admire, as I would be too nervous to say much. I'd rather see the landscapes that inspired their books.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
Nikola Tesla! He influenced my writing so much that I wrote a whole novel about him. I borrow much from the world of science for my fiction. The nonfiction of science often seems like the most wonderfully unreal thing to me. I wrote a suite of stories based on astronauts: John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. I've also been influenced by the biologist Rupert Sheldrake. He said, "Scientific theories come from the dream realm." His experiments investigate phenomena that we most often dismiss as coincidence, such as how we know when someone is staring at us; why, when we think of a long lost friend, they often call; and how pets know when their masters are about to return home. Something in his theories resonates with my fiction.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I take much from music. I recently wrote a number of stories where the initial impulse was a song. Bonnie Prince Billy's "Beast for Thee" and Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" were behind my stories "Beast" (Tin House) and "Three Days" (New Yorker). The visual artist who has inspired me most is Canadian Janet Cardiff. A few years back she had a project in Central Park — one of her walks. She had found a number of photos in a thrift store. The photos showed a young woman with long black hair posed in different locations in Central Park. Cardiff found all the places where the photos were taken. She then recreated this women's path through the park and then walked the path herself, recording her thoughts along the way: memory, history, Eurydice. This recording was then made available to the public, and so, with a headset, I walked through Central Park, following Cardiff's instructions. I walked where both Cardiff and the stranger with black hair had walked. Through the headset I could hear Cardiff's feet striking the asphalt path. At that very moment she commanded me, "Don't turn around." It was a very spooky moment. The piece, to me, is all about narrative and the layering of time, geology. What these layers do to our consciousness, how swampy time is. It is one of the most unforgettable walks I've ever taken.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Cold places I'd like to visit:

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
An early masterpiece by my favorite living writer.

A Dream in Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu
An Arctic adventure story. John MacLennan, a Canadian, loses his hands and so gets left behind by his ship and is stranded in Siberia. It's the story of how the Chukchi people take him in and how slowly he becomes one of them.

The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago
The story of Kristian Birkeland, the man who, through much struggle, demonstrated the scientific truth behind the aurora borealis.

In Fond Remembrance of Me by Howard Norman
This is a fantastic memoir detailing the time Norman spent in Churchill, Manitoba recording the Inuits' many versions of the Noah story. Their versions are quite different than any Western version: starvation, greed, wasted animal flesh and fuel. It is also the story of the last hours of Norman's friendship with the Japanese translator Helen Tanizaki.

We Took to the Woods by Louise Rich
This is an account of a woman homesteader, who, with her family, went to live in the wilds of Maine, existing without roads, electricity, running water, etc., in the year 1942.

Other Electricities by Ander Monson
A wonderfully odd collection of stories linked by two of my favorite topics: snow and electricity.

÷ ÷ ÷

Samantha Hunt has spent four years researching Nikola Tesla, in the course of which she has appeared in several Tesla-related documentaries, visited Tesla fanatics across the country, and explored the five subterranean floors of the still-standing Hotel New Yorker. She is the author of the acclaimed first novel The Seas, and her short fiction has appeared in the New Yorker and McSweeneys and on This American Life. She recently received the first-ever "5 under 35" award from the National Book Foundation.

(Read Dave's 2004 interview with Samantha Hunt as part of the First Fiction Tour.)


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