Five Questions for Richard Hoffman: On Memory, Race and Family

Richard HoffmanThe following is a conversation between SolLit Editor in Chief Lee Hope and Nonfiction Editor Richard Hoffman. Richard  is author of the Half the House: a Memoir, and the poetry collections, Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club, and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. His new memoir, Love & Fury, came out from Beacon Press in 2014. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.

1.  You have written collections of fiction and of poetry, yet recently your focus has been on the memoir. It is so impressive to have two books appearing in the last twelve months–your new memoir Love & Fury by Beacon Press, and the reissue in paperback of your acclaimed earlier memoir Half the House by New Rivers Press. What motivated you to write the second memoir, Love & Fury?  Why did you wish to carry forward the story of your family and its cultural context?

The truth is that it wasn’t my intention to write another memoir. Not at all. When my father died, I felt all sorts of questions about him percolate to the surface, questions about his life, his values, his contradictions, his early and intense influence on me. I realized that without ever acknowledging it to myself I had declared a moratorium on writing about him after Half the House. That book was a challenge for him, and he met it with grace and courage. But now I felt he had left me with a tangled and confusing bequest I needed to try to understand.

I thought that what I was doing was writing an essay about him — that’s what I set out to do, anyway. I had eulogized him at his funeral, now a scene in Love & Fury, but I didn’t feel I’d done him justice. So I tried to write an essay, using James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son as a kind of model, but besides losing him, I had just become a grandfather, my son had flunked out of college and was back home struggling with the family illness of alcoholism, my daughter and her boyfriend and their infant were living with us, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my grandson’s father was sent to prison. So, suddenly questions of race, class, gender, violence, and certain spiritual and philosophical questions were part of my life more acutely, or at least more apparently, than ever, and I saw that examining my father’s life and my relationship to him was the key to addressing all the rest of it. I just couldn’t deal with all that in an essay; I needed more room.

2.  Can you comment on the narrative structure of the two memoirs. Neither is strictly chronological. Each jumps forward and back in time, as we see in recent examples, ranging from the literary novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, to the new genre thriller The Accident by Chris Pavone.  Yet a decade ago, you had used this time-hopping technique in Half the House.  How did you come to employ this structure of time?  What are its advantages for you as a writer?

I think of it more as a representation of the mind at work, as in an essay. In both of those books, I am not so much telling you what happened to me — although of course I am doing that — as I am portraying an encounter with memory. That seems to me to be what honesty requires. There is no right way to represent the structure of either time or memory; in fact, finding a way to do so, not relying on convention, is part of the inquiry I’m making. I’m looking for meaning, for insight, for understanding. In Half the House, I dated short chapters so the reader could place herself in time, like the arrow on a trail map that says YOU ARE HERE. Love & Fury is a more reflective book, so I wanted to create a structure that had, throughout, quiet eddies of reflection. The profluence in that book, what I hope keeps you turning the pages, is not so much what happens next as it is following the unfolding search for understanding. As you point out, citing Doerr and Pavone as just two examples, readers are by now pretty comfortable with departures from conventional narrative. Films have also accustomed us to multiple time-frames and story lines. You just have to be sure the reader is sufficiently oriented.

lovefuryweb3.  Has your view of writing nonfiction changed in the years between Half the House and Love & Fury?

Half the House was written in a minimalist style, understating emotion and letting the content itself sort of pressurize the sentences. The dictum “show, don’t tell” was foremost in my mind, reinforced by the generous mentoring of Donald Hall. He convinced me to strip the work of nearly all commentary and let the people and events be seen as if through a prose clear as glass. That was of course right for that story, for that book. Besides, my commentary was mostly that of a young man trying to look smart. But Love & Fury is a grandfather’s book, and there was a different sort of urgency animating me when I wrote it. I wanted to be able to meditate on events and what they might tell us about where we are as a society. I was less a poet than an essayist in that book; I wanted to be able to trace the connections between events and the ideas and assumptions that shape how we view ourselves and our choices.

I think my view of nonfiction has changed simply because I have read much more of it now. I’m very enthusiastic about its potential to be at once poetic, incisive, meditative, dramatic, and politically challenging. I believe that when we look back on this time we’ll see that memoirists and essayists were in the forefront of the era’s important literature.

4. In what ways do you find that racial issues have affected your family?  Do you see the prison system as racially biased?  

In America, racial issues affect every family. Racism affects every family. It’s a question of how much one is aware of it. As white people, we can choose to ignore the racism that history has baked into the structures of life in the U.S. But then we have to deny that we have any relation to other Americans, and as soon as you do that, you have cut yourself off and are operating on false premises. So I just want to make that point, that every family in America has “racial issues”.

But it’s true that because of my grandson’s birth and his father’s situation as one of the one million black men incarcerated in the U.S., all of this has become very personal. In fact, one of the most important inquiries in Love & Fury is my attempt to look at the ways racism was passed down to me as part of my identity. In order to extricate myself from that indoctrination I have to remain aware of it as such, all the time.

As for the prison system being racially biased, the percentages speak for themselves. We have, white people have, created a gulag, a systematic way to protect our economic and political privilege. A system that was created for the purposes of public safety has been turned into an instrument of oppression, what Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.” I can’t see how anyone can deny that.

It makes the issue of personal responsibility a tricky one, doesn’t it? People do stupid things, make poor decisions, indulge themselves, make mistakes — but they do so within a set of circumstances and choices that are decidedly different depending on your skin color and class, and the costs of those mistakes, especially for young people, are massively and indefensibly unequal.

5. Did you find a difficulty in writing Love & Fury because it is more about your children’s lives as opposed to the focus in Half the House which is more on your own childhood, your father, and your abusive baseball coach? Now, for instance, you write about your daughter and her partner, the incarcerated father of your grandchild, even while their lives develop.  In what ways is it limiting or liberating to write about lives as they are unfolding, as opposed to a life, such as your father’s, that has come to closure?

In a word, yes. I told myself throughout the writing of Love & Fury that I would write as honestly and compassionately as I could, searching for understanding, and that when I was finished, the people who are portrayed would get the chance to read it before I went ahead with publication, not while I was writing it — that would have inhibited me and kept the story from finding its shape — but after I had a full draft. It certainly helped that I was writing about people I love and respect. My family members were very supportive of the work. I think that if you represent a person’s struggles honestly, with compassion for their suffering and respect for their identity, for the way they see themselves not only the way you see them, then you honor them.

I think you put your finger on something here: the story of my father’s life that I tell in Love & Fury is a done deal, so to speak. And that allowed me to begin the book with his illness and end it at his grave. So even though the other lives portrayed in the memoir, including my own, are still unfolding and have no final shape, a reader will come away with the sense that a whole story has been told. For the living there are only provisional resolutions, so I tried to have the stories of each of the people I portray, including myself, come to rest in a moment pointed forward.

 

 


2 Responses to “Five Questions for Richard Hoffman: On Memory, Race and Family”

  1. Mardith Louisell

    This is a wonderful interview. I like that a white woman is interviewing a white man about race issues and how they influence him and everyone. This Hoffman quote is great: “It makes the issue of personal responsibility a tricky one, doesn’t it? People do stupid things, make poor decisions, indulge themselves, make mistakes — but they do so within a set of circumstances and choices that are decidedly different depending on your skin color and class, and the costs of those mistakes, especially for young people, are massively and indefensibly unequal.” Lee, I would like to see a white person interview one of your African American contributors, and an African-American interview a white person, touching on race issues. Maybe you’ve already done so and I missed it. Thanks for a wonderful interview.

  2. Tom Mallouk

    I found this interview very illuminating, not just with respect to Richard’s process but also with respect to what might be called the moral requirements of the memoir. When Richard says “I think that if you represent a person’s struggles honestly, with compassion for their suffering and respect for their identity, for the way they see themselves not only the way you see them, then you honor them.” he is answering an important question about our responsibility to those we include in our stories.

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