Far Off the Band: A Q&A with Scott Hutchins and Octavio Solis

Octavio Solis
Octavio Solis

I met Scott Hutchins and Octavio Solis at a writers conference in Pebble Beach, in the center of what must soon be on record as the longest summer in California’s long, hot history. Hutchins is the author of the novel A Working Theory of Love. He is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, where he currently teaches, and his work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Five Chapters, The Rumpus, the New York Times, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Esquire, among other places. And Solis is a playwright and director. His work has been mounted at many major theaters across the U.S., including the Mark Taper Forum, the Yale Repertory Theater, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He is recipient of the 2014 PEN Center USA Award for Drama and is a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony. His work has been published in ZYZZYVA, most recently his story “Retablos,” which appeared in Issue No. 102.

What began as a professional engagement with both writers has blossomed into a genuine friendship. I had intended to interview each separately for ZYZZYVA, but the more I considered it, the more I thought how much more rewarding a three-way conversation might be. Over the course of several hours, we discussed the social aspects of writing, the use of lyricism (and non-lyricism), and our early teachers.

Scott Hutchins
Scott Hutchins

ZYZZYVA: Scott, we’ve talked before about your tenure as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, but not much about what that actually meant to you in your development as a writer. What did you pull from that experience, and how does it show up in the work you’ve done since? Is it about technique or relationships or experiences or all of the above?

Scott Hutchins: The Stegner Fellowship was a very intense time. In my bones I was sure they had made some sort of mistake in selecting me. I struggled with a great feeling of unworthiness. It was a very congenial workshop, but I usually felt like I’d been through the ringer. Ten ferociously intelligent reads would dig into a story that I didn’t really understand myself.

Z: Did you learn a bunch of technique from those readers?

SH: I wouldn’t say I learned much technique in the Stegner. It wasn’t a craft-based program, and I already had an MFA. Tobias Wolff, one of the professors, likened the Stegner to a junior artist-in-residency. That was the feel. A deep commitment to your work, but also nearly complete independence. But I did raise the bar for myself—or began raising the bar. I finally came to understand what finished work looked like. What the process of actually finishing something felt like. I entered the Stegner hating revision and left it…maybe not liking it but having made my peace with it. Now I can barely wait to get to revision. It’s absolutely my favorite part of writing.

Z: Do you feel like you came out of that program finally “a writer,” or can you identify an earlier moment when you feel like you came into your work?

SH: I became a writer in the Michigan MFA program, but not because I came into my work so much as I acquired the habit of writing, of looking, all that. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve come into my work even now, but if I have this transition happened in the years after the Stegner, when I experienced a lot of failure and had to work through that. I had to reconnect to what made writing important to me—and enjoyable. Part of my learning process was to squeeze all of the joy out of writing, then have to rediscover it. I actually think I had to go through that process, due to some hereditary bullheadedness. If only I were a more nimble spirit!

Z: Octavio, for whatever reason I imagine your development as a playwright might be different from that of a novelist. How did you get involved in that world?

Octavio Solis: I started as an actor. I was always writing as a kid in El Paso, Texas, always crafting stories and poems in my spare time, but once I was “stage-bit” by my experience in a high school production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” I was determined to become an actor. So my entire college career was directed toward the theatre. The thing is I was drawn to the plays that mattered, the ones that were more than frivolous entertainments or silly comedies. Something happened when I came across the works of Harold Pinter, for example. I saw that they were more than plays, that the text on the page had a poetic integrity about it and that he was saying something special and true about the human condition. After that, I wasn’t reading plays to see which part I could play; I was reading them to see how they were crafted. I found myself imitating him in my playwriting classes, and also emulating Mamet and Fornes, too. Once I was in the “real world,” I started doing my own little plays to showcase my acting, but the word from my friends was that they were more interested in my writing than in my acting. So I made the switch then.

Making that transition was easier than I had thought. I realized I was always the writer, always finding words to put on paper with a style and vision unique to me. It was delicious to be empowered in that way, that I could write an entire world with its own language and physics, and people were ready to stage it. But even more remarkable was the power I had to give expression to the voices of my culture and shed some light into my own little corner of Americana. Because I’m a product of the Theatre, I write plays, but I’ve been recently given room for the kind of writing that doesn’t quite fit in a play. Stories and poems. That’s been an immensely freeing and deeply personal experience as well.

Z: It’s got to be very different for you to not have that immediate social aspect to your work, the social aspect that live theatre supplies. As novelists, Scott and I spent a lot of time alone.

SH: It’s true. Toward the end of a novel I get major cabin fever. I currently have serious jitters.

OS: Jitters about what?

SH: I like to work in isolation for a long time. And I’ve done that. But now I have this lump of pages and no sense of how to get it to a finished shape.

This is how I prefer to work, but it still drives me crazy.

Always get the last word.

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OS: That’s when I know it’s time to bring actors in the room. I always think I’m done when I’ve finished a play, like it’s found its final form. But then the words land in actors’ mouths and I realize that it’s only the beginning.

Do you ever read your own works aloud? I mean, to yourselves.

Z: Every single word. Every word of every draft of everything. My big obsession is musicality of language and line, so I’m reading aloud for that alone—never for character or plot or anything else.

SH: Yes, definitely. All the time. I also read to my wife. I hear the problems better when I read it aloud to someone else.

OS: That’s exactly how it works for me, too, Scott. The stutters and stumbles in the reading are usually indications that something is amiss.

SH: So you hear the problem in the acting—or in the spoken text? Maybe there’s no difference.

OS: Well, both really. But sometimes good actors can mask the flaws. Average performers immediately hit the speed bumps. I’m after the same musicality that Christian mentioned earlier. It’s important that sonically there be some flow and lyricism in the work.

 Z: I can see that in your dialogue, Octavio. It isn’t strictly “realistic” in the sense of, say, Mamet. There is a sense of dream-language that comes through—at least in your recent play, Lydia.

OS: With that work, I had to give myself over to a different voice. That idiom helped create the world in my dream 1970s Chicano household.

SH: Not to play devil’s advocate, but I’m also interested in non-lyricism. Or at least in the way that we read silently and experience most novels silently. I think about poets like Anne Carson or Jorie Graham. They don’t participate in a bardic tradition like Yeats. For example, sometimes Anne Carson includes a typographical symbol—something unpronounceable. It gives a shimmer.

Z: Is that separate from what we do with narrative forms? Or can something be gleaned from the shimmer?

SH: I certainly think the artifact communicates nearly as much as the words. The placement on the page, for example. That’s really a visual component, not an aural component.

OS: Yes. I’m trying to do that in the play I’m currently working on. It’s not quite communicating. I’m trying to work with the placement of text on the page. Breaking the form of traditional dialogue. The play is a riff on The Grapes of Wrath, taking the notion that the only living descendant of Tom Joad happens to be a Mexican migrant worker. He’s the heir to the current Joad farm back in Sallisaw, and he’s on the road there. There’s the chorus in it, and their text is more formal, and I want the voices to have play in the same poetic way that words of a poem work on the page. The placement, the use of blank space, etc. Here’s what it looks like:

They take the ramp and make a left
And ride into deeper deep

Double yellow lines fading to nothing
Shoulder of the road slumped in despair

The musty smell of cow shit in the air
And soon the only wheels on earth

Are theirs

Sailing through the ooze of the lowlands
And the moan of the wind bears the weight of many sorrows
Many pains ancient and eternal

Stripped bare of the bark of all existence
And even the radio plays a dirge on a fiddle
Cut to pieces by frequencies

Far off the band.

I’m trying to do something like the Greek chorus, except they do everything. They change the set, they put on a hat or coat and become an incidental character, and they paint the picture of the road trip. They create the world through language.

Z: That’s a great way to incorporate Steinbeck’s philosophizing inter-chapters in The Grapes of Wrath, too. He almost has a Greek chorus in that book, although narrative in scope: the turtle on the road, the “monster” on the tractor, the car salesmen, etc.

OS: Those interstitial chapters determined my decision to use the Chorus! So you landed on it right!

Z: This brings up an interesting question for us all, which has to do with content versus form. On the one hand, Scott and I have written pretty much “traditional” books, in that we’re not breaking any major structural rules of any kind, but we’re both interested in experimental forms and techniques. What can make us (the reader/the listener/us) listen? The content of what you’re doing, Octavio, is helping dictate that form.

OS: The forms are all traditional, really.

SH: The old novels always pretended to be letters or journals or reports from the field. They needed to draw on what Colbert would call “truthiness.” When I was a Stegner Fellow, Tobias Wolff came out with Old School. An awesome novel. I assumed it was autobiographical, because he places the story right next to what we know about his life through his two memoirs. But the story is made up! He wanted to lower our skepticism. I like that.

Z: This is similar to Tim O’Brien dedicating The Things They Carried to his own fictional characters. It’s a fake memoir. My friend the novelist Jesse Goolsby asked him how much of that book was true and he said something like 5 percent.

SH: I don’t believe that for a second. Maybe 5 percent straight truth—but the rest is all snarled in there, right?

Z: Well, as we know, the stuff about the human heart is always true. The rest of it is (often, mostly, sometimes) made-up. That was right after a craft lecture O’Brien gave on not revealing the trick, or rather not explaining every last thing about the narrative—the whole point of his book In the Lake of the Woods, a masterful novel.

This brings up another question for you two. I’ve been wondering lately about the use of the word “craft” in conferences and such. Craft talks. I feel like there’s some kind of push (or pull) to describe what we do as akin to carpentry. I mean “wright” is even in your job title, Octavio. I’m wondering if we have any opinion about this as an idea. It takes practice to be a writer, to be sure, but it’s also so different (to me) from a traditional physical “craft.” Sometimes I feel like craft talks are the enemy of writing. Otherwise, especially when talking with students, it feels like craft is really what we should be focused on. What’s the answer for you? Is writing really a “craft”?

SH: I’m pretty anti-craft, but I can’t say writing isn’t a craft. It’s just that craft is never at the heart of what we do.

Z: Never?

SH: Not for me, at least. I admire well-crafted sentences, for example, but it’s the intersection of a great sentence and the art it’s evoking that moves me.

OS: No. It’s an art. There’s alchemy in the process by which we go from a blank page to something that has its own reality. A world made of words. There’s mystery in it.

SH: I want to be moved much more than I want to be impressed by feats of technical skill.

OS: At the same time, we work at it. It takes a huge amount of hard labor, man, to harness the forces that we are using to make our stories. They may emerge whole cloth out of our need to know how we operate as humans, but they’re often clumsy unfinished beasts.

SH: I mean, I’m probably contradicting myself here (cue Whitman quote) but I do think all works of art are ultimately about that type of art.

Z: The form is necessarily “about” the form?

SH: Novels are about fiction writing. Poems are about poetry. Plays are about playwriting.

OS: In a sense, that’s true. We’re always aware of the prior forms, prior works, and we’re either emulating them or trying to be a conduit for them.

SH: And art is at some deep level about art. I think that’s what Duchamp proved to us. Though go back further—think about how often Shakespeare evokes stagecraft and theater in his plays.

I should add that I say I don’t care about technical decisions, but I spend my days cracking my head over technical decisions.

Z: I’m the same way. I tell people I don’t care about plot and such, but that’s what I think the most about because it comes least organically to me.

It’s always a struggle getting the dominoes to fall in the right order (or at all). I’m sure some of what I know about that stuff came from my early reading and my earliest teachers. In my case those people included the poet Gary Snyder and, a bit later, David St. John and T.C. Boyle, my first real writing teachers. Who were yours?

SH: The first writers I saw were in college, at the University of Arkansas. Strange beasts that roamed the English department. After my sophomore year, Jim Whitehead, all 6-foot-6 of him, came up to me at a final class. This was at his house. Everyone had just discussed a couple of my poems as if they weren’t nonsensical and leaden, which they honestly were. Jim was a tough reader, but he took us seriously. In some ways that was the first time I’d ever been taken seriously.

OS: My mentor was Maria Irene Fornes, with whom I studied back in the late ‘80s. She’s the one who set me on the path.

I was taking her writing workshop, where we’d sit in a circle and write according to her prompts. And I was so high on myself, I thought I’d impress her and my peers with some whiz-bang writing. I had something to prove. When we read our works aloud, I was stunned to find such immediate “living” writing coming from the others, while my own just sat dead on the page like a slug. Two weeks of this, and finally she said, “Who are you trying to impress? I’m not impressed. We’re not impressed.” She tried to get me to write from a true place, but I didn’t know how to go about it. Then one day, I wrote a scene in which I visualized an actual person whom I could not control. I wrote a scene in which I interviewed her and she took the interview to places that I couldn’t predict. When I read the work aloud to the class, they applauded. I told them it was the worst piece of shit I’d ever done and that I’d lost my voice. Ms. Fornes said, “Good. Maybe now you’ll be quiet and listen to your characters and let them speak for themselves.” It was my “Aha” moment. It was then that I realized that I had to let the reins go.

Many of those in that workshop are my peers today. They’ve hung on and we share war stories about our time with her. Irene was a formidable presence that changed all of us.

SH: Very useful, too. My teachers were Southern bard types, but the routine (however genuine) did get in the way of writing sometimes.

OS: That’s what it takes. But the first steps are fearsome.

Z: But so are the last steps. And all the steps in between.

Christian Kiefer is a ZYZZYVA contributing editor. His most recent novel is “The Animals” (Liveright/Norton) and his story “Muzzleloader” appeared in Issue No. 103.

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