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IN A STRANGE HOUSE AT DAWN: An Interview of Author Braden Hepner

Author Braden Hepner with son

Author Braden Hepner with son

Idaho-based Braden Hepner is this year’s 15 Bytes Book Award winner in fiction for his debut novel Pale Harvest (Torrey House Press). With a setting inspired largely by Cache Valley, Utah, the book is a lyrical recounting of young Jack Selvedge and a coterie of family and friends on a dairy farm that, putting it lightly, have seen better days.

In cooperation with 15 Bytes and the Utah Humanities Book Festival, Hepner will be reading from his book at 6:00 pm on Monday, Oct. 5, at Weller Book Works (607 Trolley Square, Salt Lake City) along with poet Natasha Saje (winner for Vivarium) and finalists in poetry Raphael Dagold (Bastard Heart) and Laura Stott (In the Museum of Coming and Going). All books will be available for purchase and signing. The event is free and open to the public.

This interview was conducted via email by 15 Bytes Literary Editor David Pace and regular literary contributor and writer Larry Menlove who wrote the 15 Bytes Book Review of Pale Harvest.

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15B: Your prose is being compared to Cormac McCarthy’s. What’s the McCarthy landscape right now of imitators vs. what might be called the McCarthy school of writing which seems much bigger and more enduring. Is there a difference?

BH: There is a problem with making comparisons like this, because whenever you start comparing one writer to another, you should do full service to the comparison by tracing styles, etc., all the way up the family tree, as far as is relevant, which people often fail to do, demonstrating a propensity for a kind of Chronocentrism and shortsightedness that somewhat retards the conversation. It’s not that you will be able to trace a clear progressive line of influence, but that you will see, for example, if you’ve read only McCarthy, a McCarthian presence in both Faulkner and Melville–which of course means that it’s the other way around. It helps me to take note of the larger picture, as large as I can make it, when making comparisons of this sort. So when we talk about a McCarthy school of writing, we have to make sure we shouldn’t include earlier, directly connected schools, which I think we should.

With this larger picture in mind, there would be a difference between imitation and influence. It doesn’t detract from McCarthy that you can see Faulkner’s influence in his work, because he hasn’t allowed the influence to dominate his own style to the point of mere imitation. He is influenced by Faulkner, but has become his own writer, with his own unique style. To move beyond mere imitation, which I think is usually used derogatorily, you have to create something uniquely your own, even if the influence of others can be seen in it.

Time seems to do a decent if imperfect job of sorting things out. Imitators will be forgotten as creators of pastiche, while those who do as other greats have done and allowed other great writers to influence them will have staying power.

15B:  Sounds like a very fluid view of how writers/artists all drink from the same source as they create new work—somewhat reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s musings in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” You talk about the limitations, or even the dangers (especially for authors), of critics talking about schools of writing. In this world of post-structuralism, is it useful to talk about traditions (plural) in an attempt to chart the literary landscape?

BH: I think it is useful to talk about traditions in an attempt to chart the literary landscape. If for no other reason, it’s interesting to see traditions and influences at work in the larger context. But it might also help readers understand the literature better, depending on how heavy the influence is, as they understand tradition and influence.

15B: You’re a graduate of the most celebrated creative writing program in the country. How did being at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop help you shape this story that, for all intents and purposes, seems to have its origins in your youth as a resident of Cache Valley?

BH: The story had been collecting in my mind and notebook during the year leading up to Iowa. It’s fulmination onto the drafted page happened, fortunately and conveniently, after I had moved into the place we rented and I had a week before classes started with nothing to do. I wrote incessantly on it during the two years I was there, and carried that head of steam to my next place of residence. What the Workshop gave me that was invaluable to the writing process was time. Any good program should do this. They took our writing seriously enough that, for those of us who were teaching, they offered the option of calling the main English Dept. and getting our classes covered or canceled, should we ever find ourselves in too much of a trance to quit for something as relatively trivial as teaching lit or composition. I never needed that measure, but it felt like a solid vote of confidence.

If Iowa shaped the story at all, besides giving me that resource of time, it was in geographical distance from northern Utah. Somehow that deepened my nostalgia and allowed me to view my youth in Cache Valley through a more artistically objective lens. Even when it was happening, I remember feeling a very pleasant bird’s-eye view of the natural setting I was trying to replicate, the events I placed there, so much so that it felt almost exotic when I returned home and toured the places I had grown up in and was writing about. A program like that is going to be a melting pot anyway–many varieties of people and writers coming together for a bizarre and blessed two years. That kind of cultural exposure somehow helps hone one’s view of where one comes from.

15B:  So practically speaking, what advice would you give an emerging writer on how to prepare for a writing program? What advice would you give regarding how to engage it once she/he is there? 

BH: My advice is to take advantage of the time you have there, which means working hard on your writing, maintaining a habit of curiosity and participation in opportunities afforded by the program, university, and community, and socializing in order to meet good people and make lasting friends (not in order to network, as the term is used nowadays, which suggests something disingenuous) to express genuine interest in the lives and works of others, which allows you to reap the organic benefits that comes along with sincere human relationships.)

15B:  Good literature explores and sometimes explodes notions embedded in political correctness. In Pale Harvest, we’re thinking in terms of male sexuality which is a prominent theme as embodied especially in the sagebrush philosopher Hyrum who is rhapsodic about the universe and his place as a young man in it. Can you talk about Hyrum and his role as an archetype? He’s compelling but he’s also dangerous, even criminal at one point. What are we to think of him in this age of feminism or, depending on whom you ask, post-feminism? 

BH: I won’t touch the feminist question, but I think Heber is one of the novel’s larger successes. If he is a realistic fictitious character, it may not matter what we think of him in today’s world of feminism and post-feminism, at least any more than we evaluate any human being ill-fit for society. He’s an enigma even I never quite figured out, and that might be why he seems successful to me. I would say this, as far as his ideologies go: he’s wrong about a lot of things, but he’s right about enough to make a deliberate audience uncomfortable. He can’t be wholly dismissed, and I don’t see his ultimate fate as some divinely orchestrated comeuppance. That’s a misreading. There are other ways to read his story than as a cautionary tale.

15B:  We agree that Heber is the most interesting of characters. Because Heber was the only one of the group of boys who had been to college, were you inferring that he may have come by his disjointed ideology because of his newfound higher knowledge being at odds in such a pastoral setting? Or was Heber just plain mad? 

BH: Heber having attended and dropped out of college seems to work on several levels. In one way it serves to justify his semi-formal ambition for ideas, and his need to express them. I don’t see him as feeling at odds with his rural environment because of it, but that’s not to say he doesn’t. If anything, he feels fuller because he has brought this back. What would he be on a college campus? What is he in his small, dying town?

15B:  The meteorite stands out as a brilliant object that the protagonist Jack Selvedge has heretofore not really witnessed in his life on a dying dairy farm. In the 15 Bytes’ review Larry Menlove used the metaphor of Sisyphus because of Jack’s mundane repetitive life AND the meteorite that he tries to move without great success. What role do you feel the meteorite plays in the story?

BH: The meteorite. I’m probably asked more about that than any other element in the novel. I shy away from offering my own direct interpretations on the book, but I liked Larry’s comparison to Sisyphus when I read it, which had also crossed my mind at one point, though I didn’t deliberately write it to correspond with that. I see it as symbolic on a few different levels. I think you’re onto something when you point out the meteorite’s exotic, alien nature, literally fallen into Jack’s life, an ambiguous sign from the heavens, or no sign at all, an immovable object he is hell-bent on moving. And of course there’s the connection to the epigram. Jack’s foray into the greater desert came in a later draft. When I thought of it, it seemed to be just what was needed–like a bridge in a song. We needed to move away from the farm, from the darkness and angst there, the “unsuccess,” and the meteorite provided significant punctuation for those few troubled weeks in Jack’s life. It gives him purpose wandering around out there, and ultimately, somehow, allows him to get whatever he needs in order to return back home.

15B:  A particular shading of Pale Harvest that we enjoy is the splendor resonating in all the grotesque: “The skull’s teeth showed beneath its eaten lips.” “To feast on her thighs, to relish her plump flesh and wipe his chin clean of the juice.” All the manure, the fetid milk, the scent of cattle ever present. It is relentless. Yet there is real heartbreaking beauty in all of it. This beauty is a product of your carefully crafted prose. In discussing the book with David, Larry thought your novel must have been like a river stone in early form, and that you took it up and rubbed it with grit ever finer until it shined and could be shined no more. Were your early drafts of the novel made up of such careful detail or was this a product of your editing? Could you describe your writing and editing process for this novel?

BH: Definitely a product of editing. The first draft was written beginning to end in one 3-month push, and it sat proudly on my desk like something miscarried and waiting to be put in a jar. I knew it was far, far from finished, but it was a draft. It was important for me to get through it like that, because the key elements of a compelling story were there in my head. I was diligent, persistent, and long-suffering in the revisions. In one way, I wrote the book in 3 months and spent nearly 7 years revising it–but really revision is just as much writing as drafting is. Larry’s river-stone analogy is a good way to describe it. He’s read it well to note the beauty among the grotesque. The novel became richer and better imagined with each revision, whether it was on the single-word level, or in refining the ideas, or anything in between.

Revision is like being in a strange house as dawn comes on. In the dark, you can feel your way around and get some sense of your surroundings–a hallway here, a piece of furniture, a stair. But as the house gradually lightens, you begin to see that there are pictures hanging in the hallways, and wallpaper, that the furniture you touched is an old Mission dresser and that there is a shelf of interesting things above it, that the stairs are intricately built and made of polished cherry wood, that the balustrade is made of brass. The more the house lightens, the more you take note of, until the place is familiar in all its detail and richness. This is imagination. Bad books go to press before the light has fully come on. Good books have been revised in full daylight, maybe the light of many days, painstakingly crafted all the way through.

15B: What is your next project? Are you a short story writer? Is there somewhere an interested party could go to find other publications?

BH: Because I’ve been working on novels since 2007, I have put almost no time into writing short stories. Any idea that would have once formed a short story I usually find a place for in the novel I’m writing. I did publish one that I had written as an undergraduate and revised a little in graduate school. It’s called “The Glory of Ned Wiley,” and it can be found in the archives of Terrain.org. It’s not great, but I’m not embarrassed by it.

I’m writing a novel right now about an impetuous kidnapping that sends all involved into the more remote reaches of the Great Basin, where they become separately stranded.  The man whose daughter has been kidnapped takes a horse and a rifle and goes out to find her.

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Braden Hepner graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Idaho with his wife and son. He appears at the 6 p.m. reading at Weller Book Works in Trolley Square, Salt Lake City, on Oct. 5 courtesy of 15 Bytes and the Utah Humanities Book Festival. 

 

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The annual Utah Humanities Book Festival is Utah’s oldest and only statewide book festival and has become Utah’s signature literary event.

Each year, the festival is a chance for book lovers of all types to enjoy some great, free-of-charge literary events at locations throughout Utah.

David Pace is a writer and literary editor of 15 Bytes. Author of the novel “Dream House on Golan Drive,” (Signature Books), his creative work has also appeared in Quarterly West, ellipsis…literature and art, Alligator Juniper, Sunstone, Dialogue and reprinted/posted in Phone Fiction. His by-line has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Theatre, Huffington Post and elsewhere. www.davidgpace.com

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