Photo credit: Dani Shapiro
Describe your latest book.
Part coming-of-age story, part literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
is a father-daughter story that explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most. After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and begins to unravel clues about her mother’s mysterious death. Woven in between Loo’s adventures are tales from her father’s criminal past, spanning across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks. Inspired by the myth of Hercules’s twelve labors, Samuel Hawley’s “twelve lives” are the twelve scars he carries on his body — each from a different bullet that nearly took his life. Eventually Hawley’s past and his daughter’s present collide, exposing dark secrets and moments of unexpected tenderness that bind these unforgettable characters to each other and the universe around them.
What was your favorite book as a child?
My mother was a librarian, so I had many. A few were: Go, Dog. Go!
by Dr. Seuss. Bread and Jam for Frances
by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban. James Marshall’s George and Martha
series. And when I got a little older, all of Beverly Cleary
, Roald Dahl
, and Andrew Lang’s "Coloured" Fairy Books
When did you know you were a writer?
Not until I was in college. I was a science major, then signed up for a creative writing class with the author Blanche Boyd
on a lark. It was the first time I’d ever read books by people who were still alive. Blanche made being a writer seem like the best thing you could do with your life. One class, and I was hooked.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I live in a small apartment, so my workspace is a table jammed into a corner of my living room/dining room/kitchen. In front of me is a bulletin board where I clip poems, pictures, anything inspiring. To the left is a complicated chart with string and cards that outlines the weaving plot structure of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
. Behind me is a blue Morpho butterfly, a print of a punching skull, and a large piece of brown paper with an outline of my body that was drawn by the writers Ruth Ozeki
and Dani Shapiro
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Short stories. In 2002, I founded One Story
magazine with Maribeth Batcha, and for 14 years I was the editor in chief. I recently stepped into the role of executive editor, but I’m committed to the magazine and our mission to celebrate the art form of the short story and support the writers who write them, through publication, education, and mentorship.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
When I was on tour for my last novel, The Good Thief
, I met a wonderful woman who was so taken by the book that she re-created an object from the story — a scrap of cloth needlepointed with the letters R-E-N. It’s the thing that gives Ren, the young orphan who is the hero of the tale, his name. She re-created the item perfectly, and framed the needlepoint and gave it to me after a reading. It was so magical to see something from my imagination come to life.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
When I started writing The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
, I was in love.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
. Reading her work has changed the way I approach all of my projects. To start, I’d recommend her beautiful art/collage/how-to/memoir/cartoon/guidebook What It Is
, which asks important questions like: What is an idea made of? And: What is an image?
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
When I was a kid, I worked at the Salem Witch Dungeon in Salem, Massachusetts (where I grew up). I dressed in rags and a rubber mask and jumped out and scared people while they looked at dioramas.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I visited Hermann Hesse
’s home in Switzerland and touched his typewriter. And I went to Charles Dickens
’s house in London and touched the lectern he traveled with across America. But the most exciting thing I ever saw was a handwritten draft of Jane Eyre
by Charlotte Brontë, which I didn’t touch — only stared at for a very long time. I haven’t made it to the Parsonage in West Yorkshire yet. But it is next on my list.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Beginning. You don’t know what you’re writing yet, and you don’t have any characters to hold on to. All you have is fear and self-doubt.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Tinti Was Here: A Literary Life.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
“The darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
– T. S. Eliot (Four Quartets
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“He could feel God’s eye upon him, like a pointed stick at the back of his neck.”
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I have collected wishing stones (rocks with an unbroken circle of white around them) from all over the world. I also own a number of ukuleles.
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable nightmare.
A giant tsunami is bearing down on the city and there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide and I stand and watch it coming. Also: zombies.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
The incorrect use of “breath” vs. “breathe.”
Do you have any phobias?
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Comic books. I used to read them as a kid and then returned to them when One Story
author Scott Snyder launched American Vampire
. Now a large part of my library consists of graphic novels, monthly serials, and manga. I’ve developed an enormous appreciation for the artists and writers and their unique form of storytelling.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Write something that you would like to read.
Who was your first TV crush?
Five Books About Cape Ann (in no particular order):
I set most of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
in a fictional town named Olympus, which I put between Gloucester and Rockport on Cape Ann — the lesser-known Cape of Massachusetts. (Cape Cod is south of Boston, Cape Ann is north.) The water is cold there and the ocean is rough and the people are very colorful. These books will give a good sense of the area, which is peppered with an interesting history.
1. Captains Courageous
by Rudyard Kipling
A coming-of-age story about a spoiled rich kid who is washed overboard and picked up by a fishing schooner from Gloucester. The boy becomes a member of the crew and learns about hard work, sacrifice, and self-reliance. Most people have only seen the 1937 movie starring Spencer Tracey, but the book is also excellent.
2. The Perfect Storm
by Sebastian Junger
Junger's book explores the Gloucester fishing industry, the science of storms, and the search for The Andrea Gail
, a fishing boat that went down in the storm and lost all hands. Again, most people have only seen the movie starring George Clooney. The book is much, much better.
3. Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town
by Elyssa East
A nature book wrapped in a ghost story wrapped in a page-turning true-crime thriller. It explores one of my favorite parts of Gloucester (Dogtown) and the Babson Boulders, which appear in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
4. Leaving Lucy Pear
by Anna Solomon
A wonderful historical novel by a writer who grew up in Gloucester, featuring powerful women, rum-runners, and life-changing secrets, set against the rocky shores of Cape Ann.
5. Lone Voyager
by Joseph Garland
Garland was a local character and wrote many books about the history of Cape Ann. This one tells the story of Howard Blackburn, including his famous survival in an open dory, where he rowed across the North Atlantic for five days without food or water, his hands frozen to the oars. He lost his fingers, but went on to set the record for solo sailing across the Atlantic.