Today, I’m thrilled and honored to welcome Ernest Hebert to the blog! Not only is he the author of several wonderful New-England-set novels–The Old American and The Dogs of March are two of my favorites–but he’s a professor of English & Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.
(Yup, that’s where I went to school. Yup, he was my professor. Yup, he read all the short stories I wrote at age 19 and even my first stab at a novel…and miraculously, he still wants to associate with me. This man is a gem!)
Hebert’s homespun storytelling is a wonder to behold; the author’s measured prose, tender language, and universal themes of atonement and the bittersweet lessons of maturity shine through. (read the full review here)
Ernie graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions about his new book, traditional and self-publishing, genre-jumping, and writing in general. If you are a writer at any stage in your career, you want to read this interview–think of it as a free 10-minute master class. 🙂
And if you’re a reader, I’m sure you want to get your hands on a copy of Never Back Down! You can find out how to win a copy at the end of this post, or jump straight to purchasing one online at the following places:
On to the interview!
Ernest Hebert: More than “a bit,” but here goes.
A few years back, I wrote a not-for-publication memoir for my children. I tried to be thorough and honest. The experience awakened in me memories from childhood and youth–growing up in a working-class family; speaking only French (not France French or Canadian French, but New Hampshire patois French) until I started Kindergarten; working in the textile mill (where my dad slaved for 45 years, 55 hours a week) for one summer and other jobs such as taxi driver and attendant in a psychiatric hospital; my first love; my relationship with various “best” friends; a one-night stand with a woman twice my age; my ambitions for a career as a baseball pitcher, crushed when I severely broke my wrist.
My life changed when I started college at the age of 23.
I asked myself what would my life have been like if I had never gone to college. That’s that question that launched Never Back Down, my first novel where I consciously used myself as a character. The result is a book that is half memoir, half invention. Isn’t that how most good novels get done? For inspiration and for a book structure I looked to The Life of a Simple Man by Emile Guillaumin, a book published in the early 1800’s that today probably would be categorized as creative nonfiction. It covers the life a French peasant. My goal with Never Back Down was to cover the life of a Franco-American working man, whose years spanned my own.
I set out to write an anti-Gatsby novel. The Great Gatsby is a good, but it’s a false idea to raise it to the level of the great American novel, because Fitzgerald ignores or demeans working people. Myrtle’s a slut, her husband’s a dope, Jay Gatsby’s father a bore, and Nick’s housekeeper doesn’t even have a name. If The Great Gatsby is a great American novel, then 90% of Americans of the so-called Jazz Age don’t matter. If anything, working people today matter less than ever–the people who build the skyscrapers, fix the cars, serve the burgers, and wipe the asses in the nursing homes. It’s been my mission in most of my work to write about these people who “don’t matter” without idealizing or demeaning them and without standing them up against the wall to represent some political ideology of the author. I’m especially interested in their interior lives, a territory ignored by most writers.
I named my protagonist Jacques “Jack” Landry after a name in my ancestry. Landry (like Hebert) is an name out of old Acadia, present day Nova Scotia. In 1755, the English and New Englanders forcibly removed some 20,000 Acadians from their land, where they had lived more than 100 years. (My North American ancestors go back to 1632 in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia.) Today we would call such a removal “ethnic cleansing.” The Acadians–the ones who didn’t escape into the woods–were dispersed throughout the New World, just dropped to fend for themselves. Most died, but a few found their way to present-day Louisiana, where they are known today as Cajuns. When I lived in New Orleans way back when, people would say, “Hebert [pronounced ‘Abare’], that’s a fine south Louisiana name.”
The Acadians’ story was symbolically retold by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his long poem, Evangeline. A young couple are separated on their wedding day by “Le Grand Derangement” and spend the rest of their lives looking for each other. Never Back Down follows that plot. Jack and his lover, Alouette Williams, a half-Cajun girl of 15 when they first meet, are separated after Jack makes a biiiig mistake. To punish himself for his mistake, Jack–a promising baseball pitcher who was raised Catholic–confesses his sin and with the complicity of a crazy priest, who reappears throughout the 50 years that the novel covers, Jack contrives his own penance. He renounces the idea of success (which for Jack is baseball) and dooms himself to a life of menial labor. How Jack finds meaning in such a life and eventually gets the girl (45+ years later) is the core of this novel.
TD: Last year, you released a science fiction novel, I Love u, as a Kindle ebook. What made you decide to go the self-publishing route for that project? Did you work with an editor before publishing it? And how would you say the experience turned out for you?
EH: I Love u is actually a kinda sequel to Mad Boys, which I published in 1993, a book I loved writing; it even won a prize. However, sales were poor and I actually got hate mail and sideways glances from fans of my New England “hick lit” novels. Publishers hate to see writers jump out of the genres that publishers designate for them. My agent could not find a publisher for I Love u at about the same time Amazon released the Kindle. I was one of the first adopters. Today I keep my library on my iPod, iPad, and Kindles that I have passed to my wife and daughters. Because I’m always reading five or six or even a dozen books at the same time, my work area and bedroom were littered with books. These days everything is at hand. So I’m a big fan of electronic reading. It’s no surprise, then, that I would jump into electronic publishing.
I paid a copy editor a hundred bucks to copy edit the book. I’ve always done graphics and it was great fun to design my own cover, though I did make a big mistake. You can’t read the subhead of I Love u in the thumbnail, which says “Adam and Eve for the Future or no Future at all.” I reformatted the book into HTML (formatting for websites) and the book sailed through Amazon’s vetting process on the first try. They pay 70% royalties. Try to get that from a book publisher. Later, I put Mad Boys on the Kindle. I’m so happy to see these companion books together.
Let me add the I have no pity for the big-time publishers. The major publishers today are parts of huge international conglomerates. They colluded with Apple to keep their prices artificially high. All they care about is making money. Those of us who write literary prose barely appear on their radar. I can understand how young writers such as yourself want to publish with a big house to make money, and more importantly to establish yourselves as published writers, but I’ve been through that. I have the luxury of owning all the electronic rights to my back list. What to do with it? I haven’t decided, but I know that as a so-called mid-list regional writer that I’m in a lot better position with the option of electronic publication than I would be without it.
TD: Throughout your career, you’ve written in a variety of fiction genres–historical, sci-fi, realism, magical realism. I know that your writing process usually consists of coming up with a main character first and a plot second, so at what point do you know what genre you’re working in? And do you have a favorite genre to write?
EH: I know the instant I start a book, or just conceive of a book in my head, which genre it’s going to be, but I wish I didn’t. Any thoughts about what the book will be like after it’s done gets in the way of its creation. I think writers should strive to remain or become naive at the same time that they’re developing Darwinian coping mechanism to create reputations as authors. In other words, writers have to split themselves in two. That necessary split factors into my views about what a novel should do: dramatize these splits in human experience. I think the great drama is conflict between the demands of the outside world and the inner life. Movies, poems, stage plays, short stories can hint at that inner life, but the novel is the best arena to display the inner life.
TD: One of my most vivid memories from my first creative writing class with you is that you took a whole session to teach your students about how fiction publishing “works”–what an agent does, how you go about submitting your work to publishers. My understanding is that most creative writing teachers don’t do that. Why do you think it’s important?
EH: I have two reasons for lecturing on publishing:
1) Most students have no clue so it’s good teaching to give them this brand new information. Writing prose fiction has business as well as artistic and entertainment components. Except for people who keep secret diaries, all writers want to publish their works. Us writers ought to tell them what we know.
2) The main reason is more subtle. I want my students to think of themselves as writers. Such a mindset will (I hope) inspire them, give them a measure of confidence and a feeling of fraternity with their fellow writers in the class. What I try to trigger with my lecture on publishing is a thought: So that’s how you do it; gee, I could be published. My goal is less to teach writing than to empower students to teach themselves the craft.
Thank you so much, Ernie, for sharing your hard-earned wisdom–both back in your classes in the early 2000’s, and today. 😀
Also, I’m so excited about the release of Never Back Down that I’m going to give a copy away to one lucky commenter! (In fact, I’m probably going to see Ernie during my east coast trip in July, so if you’re willing to wait that long, it can even be an autographed copy.)
So please share your thoughts below, and I’ll draw a winner randomly next week. You have until midnight, EST, on Wednesday, June 6, to enter. And if you Tweet or Facebook about this interview/giveaway and include the link in your comment, I’ll give you an extra entry!