by Steven Paul Lansky
I met Shane Hinton a few years back, when I began visiting Tampa, Florida. Then, I participated in a writing seminar where Hinton had a leadership role as a facilitator. He asked each of us to write on the board the title and author of a book that had moved us. His choice was Today I wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Danil Kharms, and it was only book listed that I had read — I heard the translator, Matvei Yankelvich, read from it at a regional reading affiliated with AWP Chicago, in 2012. Later, Yankelvich visited Miami University where I was teaching at the time, and I bought the book after a brief conversation with him. The next year, in Florida, I heard Mr. Hinton give a brief peripatetic discourse on Kharms. I was charmed.
Shane Hinton holds an MFA from the University of Tampa, and lives in the winter strawberry capital of the world, South Florida. His debut story collection Pinkies will be available June 16, 2015 from Burrow Press. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Nervous Breakdown, Fiction Advocate, storySouth, Clackamas Literary Review, Word Riot, The Butter & elsewhere.
Pinkies is a collection of short stories that often feature Shane Hinton as the main character. This is clearly a fictional Shane Hinton, following the model of Richard Powers in Galatea 2.2, or Steve Erickson in several of his science fiction novels. But, Pinkies is not science fiction, per se.
Cosmonaut’s Avenue: A curious list of publications has provided homes for your stories. I want to know how you found them. I haven’t heard of any of them. Is it because I am frightfully unaware of places to read stories that are strange, interesting, and laced with absurdist neural plumage? I know I am, but still, with all the journals out there, how did you connect with these?
Shane Hinton: Mostly these publication credits come from small online journals. I love that the rise of online publishing has allowed readers access to voices and styles that have been unrepresented or underrepresented, and I think these journals are publishing some of the most interesting contemporary writers. Pinkies is being published by Burrow Press, a young small press out of Central Florida, and I’m honored to be a part of their growing catalogue. It’s important that writers, particularly of strange or uncomfortable pieces, contribute their best work to the small presses and journals that are willing to take risks in terms of what they publish. We have to support the independents if we want thriving spaces to read things that challenge us and that might not be marketable or profitable on a large scale.
CA: I’ve just looked over the notes I wrote as I read Pinkies, and not only is my handwriting indecipherable, the quotations and remarks that were supposed to generate questions only generate a feeling of unease. Where did my conscious mind go as I read? Are there any rules in the world you have generated here?
SH: I’m glad the stories had that effect on you. I think one of the impulses behind working in the tradition I do is hopefully to allow the reader to get lost inside the fiction in ways they don’t expect. To your question, no, I don’t consider that there are any rules in the universe of Pinkies, and that’s one of the things that attracted me to it. I write for the sense of discovery when I turn over some particularly interesting line or piece of information or plot development. It’s all about getting to a space in my head where I can surprise myself. I hope the reader is able to come along with me.
CA: My collapsible blue nylon bag is tucked in the chest pocket of my duster. I like to walk in the rain. Do you?
SH: I actually have a deep aversion to the feeling of wet shoes, so no, not especially. Maybe if I owned some tall rubber boots like I had when I was a kid on the farm I would like it better, although that kind of footwear isn’t very good for walking. I love walking and I love the rain, but I can’t say I’m a fan of the combination.
CA: My reading glasses sit on the tabletop. Pinkies rests next to them–its cover art depicts strange salmon baby mice troubled in a ball with scaly green snake shapes. Was this illustration part of your process? Did you see those shapes when you crafted the title story?
SH: I have to give credit to the cover artist John Hurst, who produced something even more incredible than I could have imagined, and came up with a perfectly unsettling emblem for the collection. I had a python when I was a child and I never forgot how gross those little mice looked, particularly when you consider how they’ll behave when they grow up– sneaking through walls, eating food out of cupboards until someone gets to the bottom of a bag of rice and sees the little hole and realizes they’ve been sharing their food with a rodent. Yuck.
CA: How do you expect the reader to relate to the character Shane Hinton? Who is this Shane Hinton? Who traps pythons with fingerling mice? Have you ever seen long fat snake tracks?
SH: The soil on the strawberry farm where I grew up is notoriously sandy and nutrient-poor, and it makes a perfect surface for observing animal tracks. I have, in fact, seen long, fat snake tracks in that loose sand, leading from the tall grass to the tree line. It’s another one of these images that stick with you until you dig it up in the process of writing a story, thinking about everything you know about snakes, and it just fits right in.
I don’t know who this Shane Hinton is. I’m constantly discovering new things about him that I didn’t expect. He seems to be me, but I’m not sure that I’m him.
CA: In the story, “Low Octane,” the main character, Sunoco, huffs gasoline. Is there something about what motivates the character Sunoco that you can explain?
SH: The story you’re referencing came out of an experience very similar to the opening scene: a woman in a gas station in the middle of nowhere trying to get a clerk to hug her. I think the woman was probably on methamphetamines, but that struck me as a much less interesting than huffing gas. I never have huffed anything, but I’ve always been fascinated by people who do, because it denotes a certain willingness toward self-destruction that even at my lowest moments I was never able to approach. Sunoco is the kind of character that I love, in a shitty situation with no real chance to get out, but making it day by day somehow. When I saw that woman in the gas station I couldn’t stop thinking about what her life was like. There was an expensive car waiting for her in the parking lot. Where was she going and with whom? There’s heroism to getting through life, even more so for people who suffer deeply and consistently. I had to rewrite the ending to that story a dozen times before I figured out the right move for that character. At the end of the process, it felt best to give her agency over her environment, to let her self-destruction be the vehicle that overwhelms this fucked up little town that is literally killing her.
CA: Are these absurd stories serious? I think they are. I think the absurdism adds up — it accumulates as some kind of mass — in a physical sense. In a material sense. The mentions of habits — “crippling addictions to nicotine and caffeine.” These stories are about addictions, compulsions, madness, impaired judgment, and a world where it’s permissible to stab a cyst. I have friends who have performed minor surgeries on themselves. Can you unearth for me a little bit about the roots of this? Does a boastful urge come over writers when they craft stories that are bizarre? You have a range here that puts you in great company, but the writer’s motivation is not the same as the character’s. In “Never Trust the Weather Man,” a strawberry farmer listens to a weather broadcast while bleeding out under a crashed tractor. How is the character Shane Hinton a little bit like you?
SH: When I was a kid I watched my cousin remove sea urchin spines from my uncle’s foot with a filet knife. Ever since then I’ve harbored the idea that I can fix most bodily problems by stabbing them. There’s something very attractive to me about dragging the things that ail us out from underneath the skin, even if that process isn’t exactly sanitary or terribly safe.
We have to examine our impulses for writing strange stories. I find realism almost impossible to write. I don’t feel like I interact with the world in a way that lets me impose narrative onto things that could actually happen. Not artfully, anyhow. But I think you’re onto something. The impulse to write the bizarre does seem at least a little bit proud, as though you have the ability to wrestle meaning from thin air. That being said, I think the same is true of other types of fiction as well. There’s absolutely an assumption at the core of storytelling that the writer is able to say something worth hearing. As we know, that’s often not the case.
Shane Hinton is a lot like me. Every story in this book represents a very real fear of mine, pulled out into the daylight so that I had to think about it. I have the bad habit of locking my fears away until they ball up in my gut and I don’t know how to make even the most minor decisions. I hope that by writing about things that make me physically uncomfortable I can make the reader consider the fragility of their own bodies. That’s a fact I think many of us are not well enough acquainted with. We’re walking around like little balloons full of viscera, waiting to be popped.
CA: Do you have any thoughts you could share on influences that may have inspired you on subject matter, style, or process?
SH: Stylistically, I look to writers like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Daniil Kharms, and Harry Crews for strange, dark, funny, plot-driven fiction that aims to make the reader uncomfortable. I think every writer has books they discover that become formative moments in their careers, and Journey to the End of the Night, Today I Wrote Nothing, andCar were some of the most important for me. As for subject matter, I really respect what Rebecca Curtis is doing right now, writing about more-or-less normal life in a way that is alienating and hilarious. Her work has been a major source of inspiration.
CA: And last, could you describe your development as a writer? How did you come to the process and/or approach which you have used so effectively in Pinkies?
SH: As a writer, I’m constantly trying to take on projects that I feel I will be bad at. The process of writing to me is about probing the edges of my abilities and bending and stretching in ways that I thought I wouldn’t be able to. I don’t want to be someone who writes the same thing over and over for my entire career. I try to approach each project with fresh eyes, with new paradigms, and new goals. For Pinkies, I challenged myself to write about my own life, in the suburbs, with a family and a job, in a way that I found interesting. I wanted to take the banality of suburban life and make something out of it that captured my imagination. Pinkies was an important project for me. It’s about coming to terms with my life as a husband and father, and making that lifestyle feel personal and removed from the overwhelming cultural narratives around those roles. Putting myself into the fiction helped me accept a lot of things I was struggling with. Acceptance is something I hope readers find at the core of the book: acceptance of the strange and uncomfortable, of the misunderstood, of the self as imperfect and perfect and disgusting and desirable all at once.
Shane Hinton is the author of Pinkies, a collection of short stories from the Orlando-based Burrow Press. In his debut story collection, gritty Florida realism collides with the absurd, and fears of fatherhood materialize in surreal scenarios. In one story, Shane Hinton struggles to protect his frightened family from cars that keep crashing into their home, while in another he’s imagined as a vehicular menace. Father-to-be Shane Hinton combats roving pythons in the suburbs. Shane Hinton loves trash more than his own family. Shane Hinton throws a barbeque for all the Shane Hintons he’s met on the Internet and fears he might lose his wife to one. A sharp commentary on the mundanity and absurdity of modern life, the world of Pinkies is a terrifying and hilarious introduction to an unflinching new voice.
Steven Paul Lansky is the author of Main St. (2002) and Eleven Word Title for Confessional Political Poetry Originally Composed for Radio (2009). His audionovel Jack Acid (2004) is available as a digital download. An excerpt of citizen appears in The Brooklyn Rail. His work appears BlackClock Issue 20 and is forthcoming The St. Petersburg Review, Issue 8. He lives in Cincinnati and is a recent graduate of the University of Tampa Low-Residency MFA. Be gentle with him.