Transformations: A Conversation with Genevieve Hudson

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Genevieve Hudson is a writer who defies borders. The physical. The geographical. The definitions of genre. Think Denis Johnson meets Joy Williams. Think southern lit by way of Alabama, but mixed with the European sensibilities of Amsterdam and the grit of the Pacific Northwest wilderness.

Genevieve delivered two books this year. The first is an essay on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home called A Little in Love with Everyone, out from Fiction Advocate. In it, Genevieve switches between personal memoir and review to analyze the influence Fun Home and the work other queer writers had on her life. Genevieve’s second book is her debut story collection, Pretend We Live Here, out from Future Tense Books. It’s a slender volume chock-full of beautiful sentences, haunting images, and queerness. It’s a book that’s archeological in its explorations of home, place, and the relationships that define us. It’s a book that begs for a second and third reading.

Genevieve and I met in Amsterdam some years ago when she joined the staff of Versal, the international art and literary journal, where I was the Managing Editor. It was clear from the start that Genevieve was serious about literature, and our friendship grew out of a mutual love of writing and craft.

Recently, we discussed Pretend We Live Here, exploring the idea of home, writing from a reflective space, and more.

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The Rumpus: You’re currently living in Portland after a long time abroad. What was it like working as a writer in Amsterdam? Do you think you would have been the same writer, with a similar authorial voice, if you’d stuck around in Portland after your studies?

Genevieve Hudson: No, I don’t think I would have been the same writer. I mean, with the Internet it’s easy to follow the writing happening in America. I didn’t have the same sense of dislocation that people have had in the past. From my perch in Amsterdam, I could read the same magazines, newspapers, literary journals, Twitter feeds. Yet I did feel a sense of remove from America, and I used that sense of remove in my writing. In Amsterdam, I was confronted with new architecture, new selves, new ways of talking, new ways of being in relationships, new dynamics. The pace is slower. I didn’t feel the same pressure for speed. I felt like I could slide down the wall a bit and disappear.

Rumpus: There are a few jumps between Alabama and Amsterdam in your collection Pretend We Live Here. I get the feeling that you’re exploring what home and alienation might mean to you and your characters.

Hudson: You’re right. I’m interested in the idea of home and have been for a long time. I was recently looking at old journals of mine from high school and college, and I was writing about home even then. What does home mean? Where is home? Is it where you are physically? Is it a state? Is it a place? Can you find it? I’ve moved a lot, and I’ve been affected by being in those different physical spaces. I found myself drawn back to them in my writing.

Rumpus: There seems to be a thematic focus on bodies. In “God Hospital,” a character is attempting to get a tooth pulled. In “Too Much Is Never Enough,” a character dreams she has the body of a boy. Were you also exploring themes of home in one’s body?

Hudson: It’s funny. Today I would say yes, because I look back on the stories and see the theme has clearly emerged. But I wouldn’t say I was conscious of it at the time. I didn’t go into the stories hoping to surface a specific idea. I just wrote toward the truth of what it felt like to be in my characters’ bodies. I wanted to know what stories their bodies told.

Rumpus: You have an epigraph at the beginning of the collection from Joy Williams that says, “She wanted to be extraordinary, to possess a savage glitter.” Another embodiment. I see one of the great tensions of this book being that between inner life, the desires of that inner life, and how one is perceived. Is this a tension you see in this work?

Hudson: I chose the Joy Williams epigraph because it speaks to the theme of wanting more—of wanting and needing to be different in a way that’s extraordinary. The characters in this book are too big for themselves and the worlds they find themselves in. They want, savagely, to shine. They want to glitter in a way that’s almost sinister. I love that line by Joy Williams, and I find it articulates something about the collection I can’t capture in any other way. I hoped it would set a tone that carried through to the very last line. If it directs a light on any particular tension, I hope it’s the tension of wanting to be someone so bad that it hurts, that it makes you shine.

Rumpus: I noticed throughout the book that attention is given to the power of first lines. In “God Hospital,” it’s “My tooth has gone black.” In “Too Much Is Never Enough,” it’s “When I was young, I dreamt I was a boy.” These beginnings seem reflective. Where do you begin the process of creating a short story? Do they all come from a reflective space?

Hudson: I guess all writing comes from a reflective space, doesn’t it? At least mine does. For me, writing is a process of reflecting, refining, reflecting again, and trying to distill thoughts into truth. First lines are important to me because they are the reader’s initial touch point with the story. It’s the first encounter, so it’s got to matter. A first line should hook the reader. Get its claws in them. It should stir something up, intrigue them, beg them to read the next line. But first lines are rarely the first thing I write. When I “finish” a draft of a story, I go back to the beginning. I can’t know how something begins unless I know its full arc, unless I know the denouement. So, reaching the end lets me find the beginning. That’s a lot like life. Endings are easier to define than beginnings. Where something begins is often unknown. We create beginnings in retrospect.

Rumpus: In “Bad Dangerous,” there seems to be glee in describing the body and its fluids. Semen. The smell of armpits. Is there a part of you that revels in this exposure of what we sometimes try to hide, or mask, or doll up for others?

Hudson: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m gleeful in describing semen. But I do find the body to be rich territory for description, and I appreciate it as a site where feelings and desire can be registered. And yes, I take pleasure in unmasking. I like to expose those things we often hide, and I find it joyfully transgressive to bring hidden or taboo things into the light of story where they can be exposed and seen and even normalized.

Rumpus: Alongside the stories about Amsterdam, there’s also some focus on the Pacific Northwest in the book. Do you find the voice you chose for these stories to be different? “Date Book,” for example, has a poetic, clipped voice. Almost icy.

Hudson: Place definitely affects the tonal register of my stories, but not in a conscious way. I don’t sit down to write a story set in the Pacific Northwest and think, Okay, how do I make this icy? The voice finds itself as I put myself in the landscape I’m writing about. In “Date Book,” it is the landscape as well as the subject matter that lends itself to this fast-moving, clipped tone. That story chronicles a relationship over the course of a year. I wanted to convey a sense of fragmented memory. It’s written in splintered lines to mimic half-formed recollections or vague impressions, the wreckage of remembering. Think of it as looking back over the course of a year and having snippets of memories unfurl across your consciousness, not wholly there in recollection but wholly there in the feelings they summon forth.

Rumpus: Besides the characters’ longing for home in this collection, there’s also longing for others. However, the characters seem to have an inability to completely achieve satisfaction for that longing. In some of the Amsterdam stories, there’s a longing to communicate something, but there’s a barrier because of language. For Connie in “Dance!” it’s her longing to communicate with her Pink Dolphin, which she does through song, that ruins her solitude. I’m wondering: is this somehow a reflection of your own feelings towards communicating in the world? Is writing a way to break down that barrier?

Hudson: Longing is a fundamental part of the human condition. If we, as humans, are able to communicate what we want or need, to ourselves much less to others, I think we’re doing all right. But I like to think of longing as more of an insatiable state than a fixed desire for one particular object. This is maybe what you’re referring to when you talk about the characters in my stories never being able to quell their longings. I think that’s right. My characters never banish their desire. Their longings trail them from story to story insatiably.

In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes talks about “the lover” as being the one “who waits.” The lover archetype is in a constant state of waiting and wanting—longing, in other words. I am intrigued by this state of perpetual want and projected longing. We often want an idea of what could be more than we want whomever or whatever it is we’re pining over. Longing is elusive and because of this elusiveness, it becomes the perfect thing for me to explore in writing. I’ll never figure it out, so I can write about it obsessively.

To your last question, I wouldn’t say this recurrent theme of longing is a reflection of my own feelings about communicating in the world. I’m not sure what message that would be sending or what the commentary would even be. I do think writing can break down barriers between writers and the greater world but that seems like a separate thought and not connected to the theme of longing and thwarted communication that runs through the collection.

Rumpus: With your first collection, Pretend We Live Here, out in the world, you’ve been doing a lot of interviews and readings. What’s it like engaging with the US lit scene?

Hudson: It’s an exciting part of the process. I enjoyed the transition from working on this thing intensely and in solace to being out in the world engaging with readers. On my book tour, I loved getting to talk with people who’d read the book. That’s been a really special part of the process for me. One I didn’t know would mean so much to me.

Rumpus: Does knowing who your audience is creep into your writing at all?

Hudson: I try not to think about my audience when I write. If I imagine them I begin to censor, or adapt, or write towards something specific. That doesn’t feel like the right move for me.

Rumpus: Were there any surprises when engaging with your audience? Perhaps, someone you weren’t expecting being really engaged with your book?

Hudson: My story collection was taught in a few college classrooms this year—which is something that was surprising and fun to hear. I wasn’t expecting that. A couple of weeks ago, I gave a reading at Lewis and Clark College as part of their visiting writing series, and there were young queer people in the audience. A few students who self-identified as queer came up afterward and expressed a connection to the stories and mentioned how important it was for them to read about queerness. That meant a lot to me.

Rumpus: Do you remember what some of the queer stories were that formed you as a writer?

Hudson: When I was young, I was a voracious reader, but I wasn’t reading queer narratives because I wasn’t encountering them. But literature was connecting me to something bigger than myself. I’d read something, some observation or description of a bodily sensation, and be like, wow, I thought I was the only person in the world that felt that or experienced that. And yet, here it is rendered in such a beautiful way by someone else.

Some of the first books I loved were The Outsiders, Tex, Go Ask Alice, and the Goosebumps series. I just raced through those. I couldn’t put them down. There was also an old sports series my dad had from the 50s about these kids on baseball teams or soccer teams. So good. Books like those made me fall in love with reading.

Rumpus: What are you reading now?

Hudson: I’m re-reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Things Fall Apart for a class I’m teaching. And I am reading a book of poems I’m obsessed with called Hera Lindsay Byrd by the author of the same name. I’m reading Speedboat by Renata Adler, which I borrowed from you.

Rumpus: Don’t you love it?

Hudson: I do. I’m also reading through Aristotle’s Poetics.

Rumpus: Why Poetics?

Hudson: I’ve been thinking lately about structure. I took a workshop with Alexander Chee a few years ago at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, and he mentioned using Aristotle’s Poetics as a guide for thinking about structure and building plot and narrative.

Rumpus: I never thought of reading Poetics as a guide for plot.

Hudson: Yeah. I mean, it’s where many of our ideas about narrative originate.

Rumpus: Do you see your work as being built on traditional narratives?

Hudson: Not particularly. No.

Rumpus: But for you, the building blocks are important?

Hudson: Well, it’s something I struggle with. I tend to forget about plot and leave it behind. I am more interested in image and character and emotional tension and the sentence. But plot matters, or it can. I want to learn more about the mechanics of it, so I can break the rules around it on purpose.

Rumpus: I sometimes equate the writer to a surgeon, but instead of the body, the writer must study the anatomy of fiction. Once the writer has all this knowledge, she can apply it to a body of text, cutting and suturing it all together—sometimes in an improvisational manner—with the hope that the hatchet job is good enough so that no one sees the scars and the glue.

Hudson: It’s good that we have these ways to get into the text even if it’s just for us, even if readers never know.

Rumpus: What are some of the ways you enter a text? Do you have any tricks or methods you keep coming back to?

Hudson: I usually start with an image. An image comes to me—maybe two girls are walking toward a lake under a hot pink sky. It’s dusk and the end of summer, and one girl reaches for the other’s hand. They go and sit by the water and turn to face each other. What’s all that about? I have to know. I have to write to figure it out. When I’m editing, I enter the text where it feels weak. I reread what I wrote the day before, and I find what’s flabby. I cut and tighten. I keep moving over each line until its hard and fast.

Rumpus: Do you see transformation, or the desire to transform, as being a big part of your work?

Hudson: I do. Transformations intrigue me. The movement from one thing to the next is fascinating. I like to think of us all in constant flux. As humans, we are always dying and being reborn. We recreate ourselves a thousand times over our lives. These transformations, both the big ones and the small ones, are the stuff of story. I’ll always be drawn to writing about transformation, the movement of one thing into the next. We regenerate on a cellular level every seven to fifteen years. Our body is replaced by another body. How amazing is that? Think of all the other subtle ways we are changing and becoming entirely differently people. There’s a lot there to explore.


Daniel J. Cecil is a writer living in Seattle, WA. His work has appeared in The Stranger, The Heavy Feather Review, HTML Giant, Bookslut, The Plant, Rock and Sling, and The Rumpus, among others. He was recently awarded the Arteles Enter Text Residency in Finland, where he will complete a novel in progress. More from this author →