The Rumpus Interview with Jeremy Hawkins

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Jeremy Hawkins’s debut novel, The Last Days of Video (2015, Counterpoint Press), chronicles the descent of a locally owned video store in town where the characters are as varied as the films stocked by the shop’s forlorn owner. Seen through his eyes and those of his two most dedicated employees, Last Days is the idiosyncratic swan song of an era not even one decade past. Throughout, Hawkins proves that while not everything is meant to last, endings do not always mean defeat.

And that’s the thing: this is less a story of changing technology and more of the human response to it. In the present world it seems that there’s an ever-present update for our cell phones or social media, and a barrage of complaints amidst few praises. We all know how to adapt once a change has been made—we might just drag our feet a little, but in the end it’s just another point from which to move on.

For Hawkins, who worked for ten years at a video store in North Carolina’s Carrboro, there could be no better topic of exploration. He is a master of developing characters who not only stand on their own, but also thrive in their inter-personal interactions and allow the readers to break down the fourth wall for a peek inside their director’s-cut perspective. Like the dying shop in which they work, these individuals are each on the threshold of their own major turning points.

Over biscuits, barbecue, and a driving tour of Chapel Hill, Hawkins talks of the importance of independence, finding place within a community, and allowing nostalgia to have presence but not precedence in one’s life.

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The Rumpus: Chapel Hill feels like something of a writer’s paradise, being that there’s this gigantic focus upon the arts within a community-oriented setting.

Jeremy Hawkins: It does. And working in a bookstore is ridiculous: all of these well known writers like Lee Smith and Alan Gurganus and Daniel Wallace will come in to Flyleaf Books and just ask how you’re doing. It’s definitely a good place for connections, but it’s also quite a small town and I wish I could see even more people sometimes… there’s smart people, too. You go to the Food Lion and you can strike up a conversation with a shabbily dressed person and they turn out to be a physicist or something. Anyone could be the most brilliant person you’ll ever meet.

Rumpus: That feeling comes across in your book, that in a place like this you can really begin to understand the root of your relationships and why you form them with certain people. You never know what situations you’re going to step into or what interactions you’re going to have. Beyond your work at the bookshop, are you involved in the local writing scene?

Hawkins: I was teaching at the Carrboro Arts Center, which is an adult education place. It was really fun to work with folks who would come in for a weekly workshop; I did a short story class and novel class, which was about ten weeks with a really great group. I also do freelance proofreading and copyediting, but less of that now.

Rumpus: Being that you’re originally from Durham and are continuing to live in this area, would you consider yourself a southern writer?

Hawkins: I don’t know if those distinctions make any sense any more, so it’s not something I’ve put much thought into. I grew up in what I’d consider the New South; it was a small neighborhood and it wasn’t like we had a lot of money, but I lived close to Research Triangle Park and there was this international flavor. It didn’t feel very traditionally southern.

Rumpus: But southern literature is deeply rooted in place, and you certainly utilize that in your book.

Hawkins: I think that my book could be set anywhere, though I set it in North Carolina because it’s where I’m from. The book is a love letter to this particular type of town, southern or not. This is definitely home for me. Of all the things I think about when I sit down to write, though, the setting of the South isn’t something that I think about too much.

Rumpus: Do you find it hard to strike a balance in maintaining the life of an artist?

Hawkins: Oh yeah. I work full time and didn’t take any time off for my book tour, but I get to be around books all day long. That fuels the writing and lets me meet a lot of other writers while talking about books. The independent bookstore scene has also really adopted me—my book has out there because I work in an independent store.

Rumpus: Your publisher, Soft Skull/Counterpoint, is also independent. How does that align with your principles as a writer?

Hawkins: I try to be an independent person, and that extends to my work at Flyleaf and to my publisher, Counterpoint. There’s something that doesn’t exist so much in larger publishing anymore, which is the editorial process. You work with an editor for a long time and shine a piece to make it as good as it can be; the advantage of working with a publisher like Counterpoint is that I was able to have that experience. I worked with Dan Smetanka and it was an idyllic, creative process, which was a dream come true. I’ve really been taken care of by my publisher and especially by my editor, so if anything good happens with the book it’s because they worked really hard on it with me. I mean, look at this book. It’s gorgeous!

Rumpus: Plus the design is iconic, so it’s going to be widely recognized by more potential readers.

Hawkins: That idea came from the broadside for my MFA thesis reading [at the University of North Carolina Wilmington]. A fellow student named Kiki Vera Johnson had the idea of doing a VHS tape, and I thought it was a great idea. So when Counterpoint asked if I had any ideas for a cover, this was it. The best part is the accuracy: they even placed the FBI warning on there and included all of the minor details that you’d see on a tape.

Rumpus: It seems like working as a writer in both your own work and here at Flyleaf has helped shape your work to be oriented toward the inner-workings of a community.

Hawkins: This store definitely has more of a community feel around it than the video store where I worked ever did. I think people really care about books. We have so many regulars and everybody’s always asking us how business is. The store’s only been here for five years and we’re doing really well. There’s a resurgence in the independent bookstore industry, with more stores opening every year and doing really well. It’s awesome work there.

Rumpus: Indie stores have been a constant in most scenes, but that’s being challenged in cinema and music. Going from records to cassettes to CDs and MP3s, you lose the person-to-person connection. But you honor that in Last Days of Video.

Hawkins: The way I think about it, what’s really being lost is this cultural base of knowledge in the video store itself. There were all these nerds there who knew their stuff, and that’s just gone. The algorithm online doesn’t make up for that. There’s this huge field of cinephiles who don’t really have a home anymore, and that’s sad but I get it. The bookstore industry is just totally different. Video stores were only open for about twenty-five years, from the mid-80s to the 2000s. There are now movies that you just can’t get. If you want to watch some weird, obscure movie, Netflix or YouTube won’t have it because of the laws around copyrighting. It’s kind of scary in a way, that we once had access to all cinema and now we don’t.

Rumpus: Do you think we’re heading that way with books, as the medium changes hard copies to e-readers?

Hawkins: We might, but I think it’s going to go a lot slower. Looking at the numbers, it seems like e-book and print book sales have stabilized. There was this incredible growth of the e-book and it’s still growing, but people just aren’t reading e-books with as much force anymore. There was a study that focused on college students and they found that students preferred reading hard books to e-books because it helped them remember better. Based on that, hard books are a superior technology to the e-book. We’re just used to writing off an old technology no matter what comes along, but I don’t think that applies to print books.

Rumpus: We as a generation have issues with change, but we adapt. Your book really captured this feeling of nostalgia, especially the grittiness that surrounded the decline of video stores.

Hawkins: What’s funny is that I always meant for it to be nostalgic. When I started the book, it was nostalgic for a time that was still going on and it didn’t quite make any sense. Maybe one reason that it found a home is that it became something that you could actually be nostalgic for, even though it was only six or seven years ago. Walking into a video store isn’t an experience you can have any more.

Rumpus: It’s being in New York City and looking for a Tower Records—they’re gone.

Hawkins: Right. I loved it and I moved on, but I had all of these other ideas. I was even going to open a running store, but I always kept a shift at the video store because I couldn’t give it up. I loved the free rentals and being around the other cinephiles and the regulars. It was a Sunday shift, 4 p.m. to midnight. I wanted to capture all of the great things about it… I really miss it. I don’t think it translates to everybody though. There are some people who have read the book and say so?

Rumpus: Who would you say your ideal audience is?

Hawkins: It’s this weird combination of people from graduate school, my peers and my advisors. Obviously I’m appealing to movie nerds. I’m trying to write something where they’re going to get the references.

Rumpus: There are so many in there! All the films that are mentioned in there and the way it’s deconstructed. It must have been a painstaking process.

Hawkins: That’s the years of work. My editor was great, I thought I had a lot in there and he kept asking for more. Part of that is that normally in fiction writing, it’s a rule that you don’t make too many pop culture references because it’ll make your work seem really dated. You don’t want to write literary fiction to be lowbrow, which would be a sin. This is a great excuse to throw everything in and let the floodgates open.

Rumpus: It’s structured like a film, the way we pan into certain shots and witness characters walking in and out of scenes. There’s a lot of movement.

Hawkins: As far as going into a scene with an establishing shot, a lot of that came in the final draft. I wanted to start with dialogue and let the reader figure things out, but my editor stressed that in a book like this you really have to establish a scene. Otherwise it’ll become too meta.

Rumpus: Though in a way when one is initially conceiving a book, it might play out mentally like a film. Do you think that affects the present scope of writing?

Hawkins: I think we do more of that now than in previous generations, because we’re so visually based in how we think about things. I don’t think writing was always as visual as it is now. Saying something is cinematic can be either a complement or a complaint, which can be true of almost anything. It just depends on how you’re looking at it.


Stephanie Trott is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she serves as poetry editor for Ecotone. Her work appears in Cleaver Magazine, Buffalo Almanack, and Polaris. More from this author →