James Hanna on The Siege, A Novel

James Hanna on The Siege, A Novel

 

 

Interviewed by John M. Gist

Date of Interview: March 3, 2014 

 

James Hanna wandered Australia for seven years before settling on a career in criminal justice.  He spent twenty years as a counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and has recently retired from the San Francisco Probation Department, where he was assigned to a domestic violence and stalking unit.  James short stories have appeared in Red Savina Review, Old Crow Review, Sandhills Review, Edge City Review, Eclipse, Fault Zone, The California Writers Club Literary Review, The Literary Review, Zymbol, and The Sand Hill Review (of which he is the fiction editor).  His novelette, Call Me Pomeroy, was published in the inaugural issue of Empty Sink.  The Siege is James’ first published novel.  It has just been released on Kindle and will be available in paperback in June.

bullet holes in metal background

  

 

James Hanna Author

Photo: James Hanna

 

INTERVIEWER 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your novel, The Siege. It was gritty, authentic and carried with it psychological and social implications. With that in mind, do you see Tom Hemmings, the main character, as a kind of antihero caught in industrial forces beyond his control, a kind of Catch-22 where he is damned no matter what he does?

JAMES HANNA

Tom is truly damned no matter what he does.  If he assists the emergency squads by creating a diversion in the dormitory under siege, he is complicit with a system he does not believe in—a system that puts mercantilism over humanity.  If he fails to fulfill this role, more men will die in the attack on the dormitory.  His only deliverance is in the degree to which he chooses to be damned.  By agreeing to create the diversion, he decides that the devils he is championing are more tolerable than the ones waiting to take their place.  He chooses a busted system over pure anarchy.  But Tom is not without consolations.  In his relationships with Chester Mahoney, the leader of the inmate insurrection, and Sarah Baumgardner, the jaded female officer he rescues from the dorm, he finds something a little brighter.  These relationships are analogous to foxfire—you only find it in rotten wood.  But you can read by foxfire.

INTERVIEWER

With the above in mind, why did you write The Siege? Was it primarily to dramatize the plight of the current prison system (privatization) or is Tom Hemmings, in your mind, a kind of everyman caught up in a capitalistic/industrial nightmare? If this is the case, are we all, in a sense, when we resist the powers that be, antiheroes?

JAMES HANNA

I wrote The Siege to dramatize the plight of anyone working in a penal system.  Mismanagement, danger, and the oversights of privatization are only part of the problem.  A bigger problem is that the employee unions are often ineffectual.  Either they are in bed with management or so busy vilifying one another that they have lost sight of their true mission.  I also wrote The Siege as metaphor for America today.  The powers that be are adept at making people act against their best interests.  This extends from the food we eat to the environment we poison to the wars we are told to support.  Are we antiheros when we resist?  That would only be true if the powers that be were heroes.  Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”  In America today, I think we are close to the defeat of the American Revolution.

 INTERVIEWER

As the fiction editor at Sand Hill Review, what are your views on the current state of American Letters? What kind of writing do you see too often? What type of writing would you like to see cross your desk more often?

JAMES HANNA

I think the publishing industry is basically broken.  At least, where the large publishing houses are concerned.  Writers like Faulkner, Joyce, and Melville would probably not be published today—not by the major publishing houses.  Their work would be considered too textured, too layered, and too demanding of the reader.  But there’s hope to be found in the independent and subsidy publishers.  And there is hope to be found in Internet marketing.  The face of publishing is changing so rapidly that writers are no longer at the mercy of our cultural gatekeepers.  Of course, writers must learn to promote themselves.  Otherwise, they will become the equivalent of a musician playing outside a subway station.  No matter how brilliantly a street musician plays, ninety-nine people out of a hundred will walk past him without a second thought.

What kind of writing do I see too often?  Writing that is derivative, clichéd, and in serious need of revision.  Many writers submit their manuscripts far too soon.  This is the kiss of death with most literary journals.  Too many editors are acquisition editors.  As such, they are not inclined to help a writer prune his manuscript.  They don’t have to—there are too many polished manuscripts to pick from.

What kind of writing would I like to see more often?  Writing with a strong sense of presence.  Writing that is fearless.  Writing that compels the reader to keep reading.  I see too little of that.   

 INTERVIEWER

As a follow-up to the above, do you see independent presses and literary journals (as opposed to those sponsored by colleges and universities) carrying the torch of American Letters into the twenty-first century, or has the sheer number of presses and journals transformed American Letters into a Tower of Babel?

JAMES HANNA

I don’t think the problem is too many presses.  The problem, as I see it, is the public’s short attention span.  As writers, we are in competition with Internet spam, pseudo celebrities, and a culture of instant gratification.  We are wooing a public that celebrates icons while its real heroes go unsung.  And I think we may also be hamstrung by university presses.  Much of what is published in the university presses has a sameness about it—as though the same writer wrote each story.  Overall, these presses seem like fraternities with closed memberships.

Do I think the proverbial torch has been passed to independent publishers?  Yes, and I have an example. A while back, I submitted a novelette, Call Me Pomeroy, to several university presses.  It’s a highly irreverent tale about a street musician who joins the Occupy Oakland Movement of 2011.  He does not join for political reasons but because he wants to get on television and become instantly famous.  I received strong compliments from some university presses, but none of them wanted to publish it.  I think if a university press had published it, somebody’s job would have been on the line.  But Empty Sink, an online journal unencumbered by politics, picked up the piece.  Empty Sink published Call Me Pomeroy in its inaugural issue and deemed it the Editor’s Choice.

   INTERVIEWER  

What are you working on now? Can you relate it to your previous responses?

 JAMES HANNA

Right now, I’m writing more Pomeroy stories.  The editors at Empty Sink like the character and want to see more him.  In April, they will be publishing another Pomeroy story—in which Pomeroy and a band of Blac Bloc Anarchists shanghai San Francisco Bay Ferry.  And I’m working on a third Pomeroy story for the October issue.

Do these stories relate to my previous responses?  Yes—because they also comment on the state of America today.  Also, I’ve known some Pomeroy types in my criminal justice career.  He is in and out of prison all the time.

  INTERVIEWER

 What are you reading (aside from your editorial journal)? Why?

 JAMES HANNA

I have recently read Johnny Got His Gun, Drift, Atonement, and Lone Survivor—books that capture the disconnect between war and the polemics of war, which is one of the themes in The Siege.  I’ve also been reading The Blood Meridian—it’s like a nightmare you can’t let go of.  And I’ve been re-reading old favorites: The Catcher in the Rye, Waiting for Godot, The Old Man and the Sea.  These books are as much a part of me as old friends.  

 INTERVIEWER

 Who is your favorite author, living or dead? Why?

 JAMES HANNA

I would have to go with James Joyce and Ulysses.  Not for the story line—the book doesn’t have any—but for its multiplicity of styles.  In reading and re-reading Ulysses, I have found many techniques I can bring to my own writing.  The Cyclops chapter, for example, uses gigantism, where everything is portrayed as larger than life.  It also uses myopia.  The Cyclops character—a fierce anti-Semite called The Citizen—sees everything through a single distorted lens.  I have used hyperbole and myopia in the Pomeroy tales.  Pomeroy, a homeless reprobate, vastly exaggerates his musical talents.  He also believes every woman he meets wants to go to bed with him.  Hence, he has many misadventures.

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