A Dazzling Ghost Tale From Samantha Hunt
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Samantha Hunt
Columnist Anna Roins
by Samantha Hunt
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Samantha Hunt received critical acclaim for her first novel, The Seas (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 8 November 2004) capturing a National Book Foundation’s ‘Five Under Thirty-Five’ award. Her follow-up, The Invention of Everything Else (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 7 February 2008) was a finalist for the Orange Prize and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize.
In Mr. Splitfoot, she dazzles us with a contemporary ghost tale with fresh, vivid language and an equally brilliant and daring plot.
|“I have never discounted fiction as untrue. I have never not believed in fiction. To me, fiction bears the greatest truths.”
AUTHORLINK: Ms Hunt, thank you so much for sharing your time with Authorlink today. Mr Splitfoot touches on the mysticism of the supernatural. The story begins in a foster home for forgotten, physically challenged children called the ‘Love of Christ!’ run by a man called Father, an aging, religious fanatic. Young Ruth, disfigured and reflective ever since her elder sister, El, abandoned her, has a deep bond with a gentle boy called Nat who has a gift. He channels the departed through the intervention of a spirit guide, the eloquent Mr. Splitfoot. Soon after, the best-friends meet Mr. Bell, a travelling con-man.
You once said, ‘I have great respect for con artists everywhere, particularly those who use their conning skills for good: artists, writers, moviemakers, even these Spiritualist mediums.’ Would you kindly expand on this?
HUNT: I visited a medium in hopes of getting a blurb from Charlotte Brontë. I felt a bit guilty, deceitful, since I don’t really believe in mediums. But what happened was, that right there on the spot, the medium produced a Charlotte Brontë blurb (it’s a bit rambling and less eloquent than Bronte was in life) and she also spontaneously told me that I was Emily Brontë in a past life. Imagine that? In that moment, I realized that, like me, the medium is a storyteller, a dealer in fiction. I have never discounted fiction as untrue. I have never not believed in fiction. To me, fiction bears the greatest truths. I quickly developed a great respect for the work mediums do and began to appreciate my role as a con artist. All art has a relationship to the con and there is something noble in this pursuit. Not necessarily a deception but a notion that in created worlds we expand our thoughts and our understanding of the other.
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting, thank you. There is a split narrative structure in your book; it switches between past and present and then comes together in the end. One tries to prove that magic exists, while the other tries to prove that it doesn’t. At one stage, you wished for them to be bound back-to-back, which would have been a fascinating departure from the traditional alternating chapter style. What inspired you to write Mr. Splitfoot in this way?
HUNT: I wrote Mr. Splitfoot as a split narrative because the argument between the belief and disbelief is one that exist in my own thoughts. I wanted to be able to argue both sides without ever feeling didactic. The truth is I believe in ghosts and I don’t believe in ghosts. I also know that my favorite kind of mysteries are the mysteries that remain unsolved. The structure I’d once imagined–the books bound back to back–made sense to me as both narratives are climbing a mountain and reveal one another where they meet in the middle. But perhaps in integrating the books I’ve illustrated an idea that we might find unity after argument. My hope.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, good point. You once said, ‘I love the research part. It’s so much easier than the writing part for me… It’s a lot less painful than writing books.’ Would you elaborate on this? What was your favourite subject matter when researching Mr. Splitfoot?
HUNT: The most interesting research I did for Mr. Splitfoot was looking at how so many religions formed in upstate New York. The Mormons started 15 miles away from the Spiritualists. I spent a good deal of time visiting these sites and others. I went to the LDS pageant at Hill Cumorah where each summer hundreds of Mormons in costume perform the Book of Mormon. I visited the Oneida mansion, site of John Humprey Noyes’s utopian, socialist, free love community. I stayed at Lily Dale the Spiritualist summer camp in upstate New York where everyone talks to the dead. I visited the Shakers. And loved learning about the rich history of the burnt-over district. I loved spending time in the city of Troy and uncovering the small histories of the Erie Canal. The research that I did up at Tahawus in the Adirondacks, was also wonderful. Finding a ghost town in the dead of winter, in the middle of nowhere was really inspiring.
|“I wrote most of Mr. Splitfoot parked in my truck down by the Hudson River. I had to in order to escape the distractions of the Internet!”
AUTHORLINK: That sounds fascinating. You usually like to walk as part of your research. There is science between thinking and walking. Ferris Jabr from The New Yorker explores this in his article, ‘Why Walking Helps Us Think (3 September 2014) which states that “Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons, and transmit messages between them.” Do you find you are at your most creative after a walk? What other activities do you enjoy to help your creative flow?
HUNT: Yes, a good walk can be one of the most creative prompts. At the time I was writing Mr. Splitfoot I was pregnant with twins. I could not go very far on foot and so a lot of my “walking” had to happen in my imagination. And even some on Google Earth. Another practice I find to be very inspiring is going on long drives by myself. I do a lot of writing in the car using a recorder. I also do a lot of writing in parked cars. Indeed, I wrote most of Mr. Splitfoot parked in my truck down by the Hudson River. I had to in order to escape the distractions of the Internet!
AUTHORLINK: That’s amazing, good on you. Do you usually plot out your novels before you begin or do you just go wherever the story takes you? How long does it take you to write a novel from that first spark of inspiration to the final edit before sending it to your agent and how many hours do you try to write each day while raising your three daughters?
HUNT: I do not work with a plot in mind. I sometimes feel that once a plot is set, the book seems a bit dead to me. Usually, I just start writing and see where life leads me. I like to be able to throw whatever I want into a book and something too tightly plotted from the start might not allow for that. Mr. Splitfoot took me six years to write because my children were so young. The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas took less time, probably two or three years. And I’m hoping that the book I’m working on now will be even faster as my children get older and I have more time for writing. I squeeze writing in at all random moments these days. I’d love to be able to grab four or five hours to write each day—I have so many projects I want to do—but my life right now does not often allow for that luxurious schedule. So, it’s a moment here, a moment there and a lot of insomniac nights where ideas begin to percolate.
|“. . . even more than belief, I am interested in why the living need the dead. What role are they serving in our lives?”
AUTHORLINK: You once said, ‘I believe the dead continue to affect the lives of the living in a way that can feel like a haunting,’ which is such an astute observation. While you don’t believe in the supernatural, we wondered if you believed in stories about sleep paralysis accompanied by terrifying hallucinations (possible visitations) or out-of-body experiences?
HUNT: Yes. My father is dead and yet he affects my life everyday. And I absolutely believe people who believe in ghosts. My daughter has seen a dead boy and talked to him. My own grandmother had sleep paralysis and was visited by ghosts in the night time. Of course, I believe her. But even more than belief, I am interested in why the living need the dead. What role are they serving in our lives? Many. So it’s not that I don’t believe in the supernatural I just wonder when will we recognize the supernatural as simply natural?
AUTHORLINK: What a dynamic answer! What three authors, or anyone from history, for that matter, would you invite to dinner and why and what one question would you ask them each?
HUNT: Perhaps this is egotistical, but the three people I’d most like to have dinner with are my grandfathers Elmer and Walter and my grandmother Marcella. I did not get the chance to meet them or didn’t get to know them well enough before they were gone. I would want to know what their lives were, how they lived and what they knew. I am most interested in micro histories of individuals because it turns out these are the largest stories.
|“I am always working on multiple projects. That way, when I think something is rotten, I can switch to another project.”
AUTHORLINK: Yes, agreed. The idea of meeting people in our bloodline is a fascinating one. What are you currently working on, now? Can you tell us a bit about it?
HUNT: I am always working on multiple projects. That way, when I think something is rotten, I can switch to another project. There is a collection of essays in the works that looks at some of the things that haunt us: hoarding, hormones, songs, houses, etc. I am working on a new novel about garbage women and a children’s book about Nikola Tesla.
AUTHORLINK: That all sounds wonderful. The idea of ‘haunting hormones’ sounds compelling. Ms Hunt, it was so great to talk to you today. Thank you for your time given the holiday season. We wish you every success for Mr. Splitfoot and your future works.
HUNT: Thank you.
|About the Author:
Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was a finalist for the Orange Prize and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, The Seas, won the National Book Foundation’s Five Under Thirty-Five prize.
Samantha’s work has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Cabinet, Blind Spot, the London Times and a number of other fine publications. Her books have been translated into ten languages.
She lives in Tivoli, New York, and teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
You can find out more about Samantha Hunt at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100006628067643, https://twitter.com/samanthajhunt
|About Anna Roins:
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.