Touch the Bear: Talking with Blair Hurley
In her debut novel, The Devoted, Blair Hurley explores the relationship between a Zen teacher in Boston and his student, Nicole. Nicole spends her twenties emptying her life of almost everything but the practices of her faith and the dictates of this teacher, who is also her lover. The Devoted intelligently explores the psychology of faith, demonstrating the lure of surrendering to something larger or more powerful than yourself, and the ways this can be abused. On the one hand, Nicole sees that people not enlivened by faith can be dull and close minded, but on the other, she begins to see that there is something childish about devotion, as though one lacks a healthy attachment to real life. How earnest and foolish it sometimes seems to seek the truth, but how cynical and sad to abandon that seeking. Hurley’s style is a crisp realism filled with koans and metaphors hinting at something rapturous.
Hurley, who grew up just outside of Boston, completed her MFA at NYU, and her stories have been published in Ninth Letter, West Branch, and Mid-American Review, among others. She is the recipient of a 2018 Pushcart Prize and has been award scholarships from Bread Loaf and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.
Whereas I am a Canadian stranded in Southern California, Hurley now lives near my hometown in Canada. With three hours distance and about a dozen Fahrenheit degrees to separate us, we talked over Skype about faith, abuse, sex, cats, and writing a first novel.
The Rumpus: Some of the most striking passages in The Devoted describe the mental path of meditation. There’s one moment your protagonist Nicole goes into almost a kind of shock; another time you call the mindscape a kind of cave. Were those passages difficult to write?
Blair Hurley: It was difficult. In my very early drafts I really wanted to authentically capture the mental process of meditating. You do enter a different state if you’re good at it, but I found it really hard to describe, especially how boring it can seem from the outside. I had a page-long version of Nicole meditating in a very early draft, and that one page took so much work. I kept working over it and cutting it and try to come up with different metaphors for what it feels like. I would ask my friends who meditate, and I would try doing my own meditating. From the outside it’s kind of boring, but I actually find it a kind of thrilling experience when you are able to enter that deeper state of concentration and focus.
Rumpus: I’m glad to know those passages weren’t easy.
Hurley: It took several layers of work. As with other writing experiences, there are these easy clichés that come to you first, and you have to find a way to push through those, or be patient and wait for more experience to come to you.
Rumpus: There must be a lot of clichés around Zen Buddhist and New Age experiences.
Hurley: There are many common terms and phrases like entering a higher plane and new awareness and all these sorts of terms that have become sort of silly in our culture. People who embrace these things wholeheartedly are often ridiculed. I was sensitive to that, and I felt that Nicole would have been sensitive to that. She’s often taken less seriously than she is. I wanted to fight that, but also show her discomfort with those sorts of stereotypes. So when she meets a sort of hippie-ish character later on, I had her be distrustful of this character because of how easily people can call themselves a Buddhist or say that they’re dabbling in meditation without really understanding how it can be a serious lifelong commitment for some.
Rumpus: Nicole frequently feels frustrated with these tourist-practitioners of Zen Buddhism—people who aren’t serious Buddhists, like she is. On the other hand, she doesn’t have a Japanese or Buddhist background; she’s a lapsed Irish-Catholic Bostonian. I was wondering if you had run into concerns (even if they were just your own concerns) about cultural appropriation?
Hurley: That was something that was definitely on my mind throughout the process of writing this. So many white Americans have expressed an interest in Asian philosophies, and they can so easily be commodified and exploited and turned into products that are sold to Westerners. As I was writing I was noticing how many times I was seeing products using clichés of Buddhism. There was a ginger ale commercial where someone says, “I have reached ginger ale nirvana now”. There was this pressed juice I saw that’s called Buddha juice. I guess because it’s healthy. There are all these cringe-y moments in our culture.
I felt the only way I could legitimately do it as an outsider to the culture was to acknowledge how much I and my character are outsiders. Nicole is uncomfortable with the fact that she doesn’t really belong. To try to adopt a religious belief in adulthood means that she still missed a whole lifetime of culture, tradition, and language that she’s never going to fully belong to. I visited many temples just to kind of get the feeling of what a service would be like, and every time I always felt so self-conscious, because I felt I was intruding on a private ceremony that has so much meaning for so many people and I know I’m an outsider. I was always welcomed, and I was moved by that, but I think it’s something I have to be aware of, as a white person with all that that bears with it. There is still a legitimate and serious way that particularly American women are trying to engage with this spiritual experience, but they’re always going to have to acknowledge that they’re coming to it as newcomers.
Rumpus: In an essay for Guernica, you wrote about how you decided “being curious about religion is its own state of being.” Could you talk a bit about your personal interest in religious experience and practice as a non-believer?
Hurley: I’m not sure why or how, but I’ve had this lifelong curiosity in religious organizations and religious culture. Though I have Irish Catholic roots, I was raised in an entirely secular home. There were friends of mine who were Jewish or Hindu or Christian, and they had a sort of other life that I did not participate in and was so curious about. I wanted to know what aspect of their lives I was missing out on. Apparently, I asked my parents when I was going to have my Bat Mitzvah. I joined Yiddish club in high school and also would attend church with some of my friends. And yet, at the same time, I am wary of officially becoming an initiated member of any institutional religion, because my own education about it tells me that every religion has its problems with power and authority and exploiting that power. I certainly have researched that in Buddhism. Catholicism, of course, has had a terrible ongoing scandal of sexual abuse. I’m of two minds about religion all the time. I really love the beauty and meaning and community it can give people, while at the same time I’m very wary of becoming an initiated member.
Rumpus: The Master in The Devoted uses the language of religion to abuse, and there’s an overlap between sexual and spiritual abuse. At what point in writing the novel did you connect religious curiosity with terrible abuse?
Hurley: It was very early on. I was interested in how religion could completely win someone over and also cause them to throw caution to the wind and submit to someone so fully when in another context they might find that kind of submission intolerable. I was interested in this intersection between sensuality and the joy of living in a human body and the joy of spiritual thinking. Normally these two things are put at odds with one another, but as I was reading and living and experiencing life, I saw that actually those things have a lot in common. The ecstasy of being alive, of using our five senses, of living in our bodies: that was spiritual experience to me. The way Nicole experiences life is very sensual; she feels things very strongly and equates that with a spiritual experience. So, when she’s at a lost point in her life and she’s looking for insight and direction, when this male authority figure in the Master gives her this insight, she gets her lines crossed. She thinks it must be love and physical attraction as well as spiritual attraction. I see her as confusing those two different experiences in life—the sexual and the spiritual—and embodying them in one person. That is very dangerous.
I wanted to make the Master fairly sinister, someone who is really manipulating her, knowing that she desires is spiritual excellence and spiritual insight. He uses that as a kind of gambit that he holds over her. In my readings about the way sexual abuse occurred in Buddhist contexts, I saw how deeply harmful it was for people to be seeking something spiritual and to be taken advantage of in this way, when your whole sense of self-worth is wrapped up in seeking this person’s approval and trying to show them that you have spiritual worth. You’d do anything to show that you had that. That sort of abuse of power is a physical abuse and a spiritual abuse as well.
Rumpus: It is connected to various #MeToo exposures in which a young artist or musician who’s very talented is abused by someone who lords their gatekeeper power over them, which then messes up their ability to love and pursue their art.
Hurley: It’s so awful when the thing you’re most proud of is poisoned by that. You’re pouring yourself into this kind of talent. In Nicole’s case, it’s spiritual excellence, trying to prove that she’s good and to have that be turned and twisted into a sexual relationship is a sort of poison.
Rumpus: And you connected that plot line with the backstory of the Catholic priests and their abuses.
Hurley: I was living in Boston in high school when those scandals first broke wide open. Even though I wasn’t a member of the Catholic church, I was a member of that whole community, and all my family members were part of that community, and when it broke, it was this sort of harsh disillusionment. I had an inherent respect for priests and for the order and beauty and majesty of Catholic churches and to have that so crashed to the ground for many Boston Catholics was a real crisis of identity and of faith.
Rumpus: I want to hear more about your background. Can you tell us more about when you decided to become a writer?
Hurley: When I was eight years old, I was one of those horse girls who loved everything about horses and read tons of books about horses. I sat down and wrote my version of the great horse story, about a horse a girl discovers on a desert island and then she wins the Kentucky Derby, that sort of thing. Once I wrote that story, I was hooked and I never stopped writing. It was only when I got to college that I really started to take it seriously and think about realism and emotional insight. In college, I started to read short stories and fell in love with them and discovered some of my favorite writers today: Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, and Flannery O’Connor. They could show cruelty really well in sort of shocking ways, and I loved how they could do twists and surprises of character.
Rumpus: Your writing style is very descriptive and elegant and controlled, and it honestly reminded me a lot of Alice Munro’s stories.
Hurley: In those years when I was really trying to develop a style, Munro had a huge influence on me. She has very few flashy fireworks sentences; her sentences are very clean and functional and get you where you want to go. I really want precision and clarity above all. I want it to be fairly simple and minimalist. As I was writing The Devoted, I kept thinking about a Zen aesthetic. One thing that is very beautiful about Zen art and imagery is its simplicity and its minimalism. If I was going to be true to the experience of Zen I would have to write in this clean, simple, minimalist way. Kind of chilly sometimes. A little cold.
Rumpus: And you weave those haiku in. As far as your training, after discovering the short story in college, have you found the workshop model useful?
Hurley: I love being a student so I did love the workshop experience. There is a point at which you have to walk away and put yourself down into your own work and avoid criticism while you’re finishing a novel. I do love hearing, though, what people find interesting in an early draft: what are the spiky bits of this? What should I write towards? My teacher, Darin Strauss, at NYU, gave me pieces of advice that stuck. One was sort of a joke, but we should all take this to heart: I gave him an early chapter and he said “yeah, this is good, this is good, but I think you should have more sex and less cats.”[Laughs] So I did bring down the cats, bring up the sex a little bit. There were too many cats in it. Also, I had written a lot of Nicole wandering around the city feeling lonely sort of thing, and he said, “yes, yes, this is good writing but it’s a little bit benign.” That word was really helpful. I realized I was at a point where I now could write competently about the character but I was losing the focus of what was dangerous about her story. I had written a harmless chapter, but it wasn’t really raising the stakes in any way. So even if you can write well, you’ve got to do better than benign.
Rumpus: How do you approach your own classroom?
Hurley: In my own teaching I try to get students to learn the fundamentals: plot, language, story, and character. I think it is important to learn how to manipulate and be skillful about them, because you can have so much more choice as a writer when you know how to use the tools available to you. I’ve lately been trying to push that risky angle more and more. There is a piece of advice I made up myself and I call it my “touch the bear” advice. I was writing this story about a melancholy guy who’s got a bad relationship with his mother. In the story he’s in the woods and he sees a mother bear walking by. In the first draft of the story I just have him looking at the bear, feeling sad, thinking about his mother: that’s the end of the story. Then suddenly I got this idea like what if I get him to touch the bear, just to get the story to an uncomfortable place where he’s inviting danger into the story. I tell my students now to try to touch the bear in some way.
Rumpus: I’ve been reading your writing tips on Twitter. In one post, you wrote that you were at a stage of your new draft where it felt messy and you couldn’t yet figure out how to make it work. This makes me wonder: what kind of things are engrossing you right now? Are you still working with themes of spirituality and sexual abuse? Or are you moving to different terrain?
Hurley: As writers, I think we probably get like two or three big themes that just haunt us for our whole lives, so, yes, I’m still fascinated by religious experience. My new novel is about an apocalyptic cult in the wooded areas of the Midwest of the US. But yes, it is just in shambles. My earlier drafts are all told out of order and in pieces and fragments and it takes a long time for me to get the right order.
Rumpus: You aren’t really an outliner, then?
Hurley: I have to write forward first, in an impressionistic kind of way. Impressions and feelings and moods and scenes. Once I’ve accumulated a bit, then I do look back and ask myself what is emerging. At that point I do think it’s useful to start taking some notes about the eventual story direction. Without that, I think it can fall apart or all you’ll have is a mishmash of impressions. I do try to do a very barebones outline at the halfway mark.
Rumpus: Compared to the conditions under which you wrote The Devoted, is your writing life very different now? Is it harder to find a routine?
Hurley: I definitely feel more pressure now in that I have a relationship with publishing now and that changes things a little bit. I feel that second book panic where I wonder: should I just try to recreate what I did before, because I know it worked, or do I have to do something really different, deliberately not like the first thing. I start to worry and compare which is probably not useful at all. I think writers have a special relationship with their first books. It is that special space where it was just me and the book for so long and I had this private, intimate relationship with my book and my characters. Once it became published the relationship changed. It’s not just mine anymore. It does feel like sending a child off into the world somehow.
Rumpus: And you now have the administrative work of having a public career and having to have a social media presence and all that.
Hurley: I feel like at any time I could be doing useful things for the book. I could be emailing this person or querying that festival: it never ends. At some point you have to segment that time and say now it’s writing time and it’s not promotion time, it’s not connection time. It can be very tiring.
Rumpus: They require absolutely different energies: internally-directed vs. externally-directed energies.
Hurley: Many great women thinkers have talked about this, how women in particular have to guard some part of themselves that’s just for them and their art and their creativity, because there are going to be so many other forces in the world that will steal a little bit from you. You may give it freely, but it’s so easy to lose whatever’s your own private thing.
Photograph of Blair Hurley © Andrea Stenson.