Jim Hanas on "Why They Cried"

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Jim Hanas lives in New York City, where for several years he worked as editor of the website adcritic.com. Now he's managing editor at NYCgo.com, the city's tourism site.

In the past several years, he's also contributed nonfiction and humor pieces to Slate, Radar, Print, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post, and his short stories have landed in McSweeney's, Fence, One Story, Land-Grant College Review, and Joyland. Now he's the author of Why They Cried (ECW Press), a collection of short stories available in e-book form since last October.

But back in the 1980s and '90s, Hanas went from Erlanger, Kentucky (outside Cincinnati), to Miami University in Ohio, to philosophy grad student at the University of Memphis, then to staff writer at the Memphis Flyer. He moved to New York in 2000.

For more on the author, go to jimhanas.com. For Why They Cried, go to whytheycried.com. And for the Flyer's recent column on him, go here. For a fuller version of what Hanas had to say in a January phone interview, read on.

What's been the critical reception so far for "Why They Cried"?
There's a bit of a "barrier," because it's available as an e-book. But it's been reviewed a bit — a nice review at the Rumpus, an influential online literary magazine, and that's got the ball rolling. But here's the reality: Even though e-books are getting more popular, I'm fortunate to get the book reviewed at all.

How did the collection come together?
The earliest story was "The Adventures of Bad Badger," which appeared in McSweeney's in 1999. I was still in Memphis then. But how the collection came together ...

I'm not particularly prolific. I was writing stories, sending them to good journals. And when e-books came on the scene, I got interested. I thought, I've got these stories. They've already been "gate-kept" by the editors at those journals. I thought, Why don't I zip them up into a collection so people who come to my blog can get them? So I did that with two e-books: Single: Two Stories in 2006 and Cassingle: Five Stories in 2009.

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The turning point was in 2009. I met the people who run Joyland, a literary site out of Toronto, and one of the founders, Brian Joseph Davis, was the book reviewer for Toronto's Eye Weekly. He'd read my e-book Single and reviewed it. I was shocked, surprised. When he had an opportunity to start an imprint of his own — to release three e-book short-story collections per year — he came to me.

I had about seven stories from the two previous collections. I knocked two out of that and added five more that had been published since the last thing I did or were brand-new.

I'm a sucker for symmetry. I wanted 10 stories.

And how would you describe them?
All 10 are my idea of a story. This isn't "flash fiction." I had shorter things that were more like gags or scenes, which I didn't include ... except for the last piece in the collection, the story called "Why They Cried," where I indulged myself.

Have you tried your hand at a longer form? A novel?
I have, in fact. It's a "dead" novel, set entirely in Memphis, in my drawer.

Are we going to see it someday?
I don't think so. It may never see the light of day. I was writing a novel, because I thought I was supposed to. It wasn't my most spontaneous action. I'd built a plot, but it didn't "speak" to me.

You've been interviewed for an article on e-books in "The New York Times" and for Media Bistro, but are you being asked about the stories themselves?
A little bit. But at this point, it does get mixed up with the process, the form ... the most interesting case being my story "The Arab Bank." It started as a serial, then as a series of 12 vignettes. That exercise forced me to edit it and sharpen it, and now that it's devoid of those elements, it's the the story my editor liked the best. A reviewer called it out as the best.

Do you think the stories in "Why They Cried" are linked thematically? Did you have a theme in mind? Or are you only now discovering one?
I wasn't overly concerned about that. But I am delighted when people do see a theme, and I don't necessarily disagree. One reviewer said the stories are about characters not having access to their own motives.

Years ago, when I was writing that novel, I was in a writers' group, and they kept asking about "motivation." That was a major complaint. And I never had an answer. I like stories where people are themselves surprised by their own motivations, the archetypal story of mine being "Pangaea."

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And your story "The Cryerer," about an actor who can be relied on to cry on camera?
When I first came to New York, I was 30, and it was a shock to my suburban sensibility. The lack of privacy is amazing. You see people doing things you wouldn't normally see. I saw a lot of people cry. So I started writing a series of vignettes about people crying but often for nonemotional reasons. I wanted to de-sentimentalize it. That whole project died, but the strongest of those vignettes was about somebody who cried for a living. That was his expertise. I still think it's funny. It tickles me: A cryer is one who cries in real life; a cryerer is a person who plays the cryer.

You're a confirmed iPhone reader?
I am. I'm more comfortable reading off the iPhone than most people. And the iPad. It may have to do with the daily commute.

Do you eventually want to see your book in hardcover?
Not hardcover. I would not want to market a hardcover. Its significance is waning. It'd be hard to deliver the sales you expected.

That said, I still have the print rights to Why They Cried. As a kind of canary in the coal mine, I'm interested in seeing if you can break something out electronically and then go with a print run if it makes sense to.

Here's the fact of the matter: From the publisher's standpoint, this is a way to test out a collection. They can cast and see if something gains momentum

Do you have a set time to write each day?
I haven't been writing lately. I need to get back to it. For Why They Cried, I've had to do a lot of outreach myself. But when I am writing, I try to work a little bit every day, half an hour maybe in the morning.

I can't write all day or for even four hours a day. For good or ill, I'm not a writer who fantasizes about being left alone on a desert island. I like to write, but I like blogging too — Twitter, Facebook, all that stuff.

You received a master's in philosophy from the University of Memphis. Does that academic background enter into your fiction?
I'm sure it does, but except for some cultural references — I learned enough Derrida to drop his name twice in this collection — I can't think of places it does.

Grad school did push me into the arms of reading more, made me fall in love with fiction writing. What postmodernism was trying to get at was the ineffable, the unsayable nature of consciousness, perhaps? I like those odd moments in my fiction where I feel I've gotten at that.

But I'm still not a voracious reader. I can't say I delight in reading. I'm not a "pure" reader. If I avoid contemporary fiction, it's for psychological reasons. I find I tend to argue with it. I've written blog posts on David Foster Wallace, probably the one writer of my generation that you've got to deal with. He looms large.

You have new stories in mind, finished?
I have a serialized novella I'd like to do. It's kind of sci-fi, but I don't want to leave it at that. It's about a world in which people abuse somnambulant anesthesia, an idea I had before Michael Jackson died. I have to get on it, though. This will be a reality soon ... people turn off their senses and record everything, so they can speed through it later.

You live in Brooklyn with your wife, Alexandra Ringe. She's a writer too?
She's managing editor for a reproductive-rights advocacy group, and yes, she's a writer. When I get to a stage where something's ready to leave the apartment, I run it by her.

How's this project of yours going: to read the 1961 finalists in fiction for the National Book Award?
You assume if you're a National Book Award finalist that you "live" on forever. But the first title on the list for 1961 — The House of Five Talents by Louis Auchincloss — is out of print.

The books on that list are actually hard to come by. If I ever thought, Gosh, if I could ever be an NBA finalist, I'd have made it ... well, apparently, the jury is still out.

"Why They Cried" is easy-on-the-eye onscreen. The layout's nice. Did you have a hand in the design too?
ECW Press deserves the complete credit. The book looks good across all platforms. They've done a great job. The presentation's solid. I'm happy.

You're in New York? Or you will be on February 13th? To hear Jim Hanas read from Why They Cried, be here.

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