After being invited to serve on a panel for the Virginia Festival of the Book, I offered to interview another presenter. One book that particularly stood out was Sticker (Object Lessons) by Henry Hoke, a memoir of growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, told through essays about stickers! Yes, stickers.
Lisa: Who would think that you could tell a story of a childhood and a hometown’s history through stickers and that it would capture so much in such a wonderfully weird way! Where did the idea for Sticker first come from? Did you have a vision from the beginning or how did it emerge and evolve?
Henry: Every time I attempted to write all my varied memories and feelings about Charlottesville, especially post-2017, I felt overwhelmed by the scope. Conceptualizing the project as an addition to Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series (book-length essays by a tremendous variety of authors engaging in-depth with a single object) helped me sharpen my focus. Of course, I chose an object that would let me explore 20 demi-objects, because constraints are great but so is cheating.
Lisa: You have such a fresh voice. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. You capture that kid think and the conflated and funny associations we can have as kids, while at the same time integrating the adult perspective looking back on the experience. Did it take time to cultivate that voice or did it just come out like that? Do you have any advice about finding or capturing your voice for a book?
Henry: I’ve most often found myself fusing a children’s book writing style with a jaded adult literary voice. What hit me after a few stories and books was how similar these approaches are, and that helped me trust and follow it each time. Voice is my favorite aspect of art, so maybe just appreciating that in all the wild things I encountered helped me collage and cultivate my own?
Lisa: Along those lines, I’m writing a book right now and the voice keeps changing. Does that ever happen to you and, if so, how do you deal with that?
Henry: Absolutely. All of my books so far have been engineered a little to include multiple voices, genres, or perspective/paradigm shifts. This allows for a little of that flux to end up in the finished product. But my next novel is all in one very exacting, ferocious, and unbroken animal voice, and that required a more meditative practice. Literally, in that I meditated for 20 silent minutes each time I sat down to write, and then played the same music and got in the same headspace/heart space/space space daily.
Lisa: That sounds like a perfect writing ritual to cultivate voice and also get into a state of flow with ease. I love how you name these characters from your childhood “Ponytail” and “Blond Boy.” For me, it speaks to how people who have a powerful negative impact at one point in our lives can both continue to have an impact for one aspect of our personality while at the same time they become less influential, so important that you can’t even remember their names. Did writing about them in that way change how you felt about them? Or did it more reflect how you already felt about them? If the former, how much was writing Sticker an act of healing?
Henry: The nicknaming, aside from being about anonymity – and yes, that in some cases I’ve forgotten their names – was another way to point to the unreliability of memoir, the way life-writing creates its own fictional universe. The more they became characters, the more distance I had from the actual experience. As storyteller I’m cushioned from the memories, and able to transfer them cleanly from my own mess to the mind of the reader.
Lisa: Brilliant–because it’s easy to get stuck in one’s own mess! I was so curious about the story where Blond Boy dares you to cut off Ponytail’s ponytail. It’s a tense moment for me and I expect to find out how she reacted. Can you tell me about your decision to leave out the details of her response, beyond just driving a curious person a little crazy?
Henry: To be honest, I’ve repressed the fallout. My young life has ellipses the size of black holes. Now my book does too!
Lisa: Ah, well, that’s a great tip for our readers as well: It’s okay not to remember all the parts of a scene (in a memoir). You can always find creative solutions for the absence. In Sticker, you explore white privilege, ancestral racism, children’s homophobic taunting, having a parent with a disability and so much more. And yet it’s a short book with short chapters. It seems like so much is said “between the words.” Did you do a lot of pruning or do you just write succinctly? Any advice on tightening one’s writing?
Henry: I exorcised that voracious, daily-writing relentlessness from the ages of 8 to 12. Since then, I write seldomly, and always succinctly. My role now is mainly collagist: first selecting a fitting manuscript container, then magpie-gathering and assembling snatches of memory and jotted-down gems that have come to me across long swaths of time (some passages of Sticker are from 10, 20, even 30 years ago, and appear unaltered). I arrange, juxtapose, and fill in rather than trim down. All ikebana, no topiary.
Lisa: Wow, that is amazing! Inspiration to hold onto one’s old journals, even when downsizing. Or at least to read and take notes before getting rid of them. Readers can hear Henry share more about Sticker, his writing and publishing experience and advice as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book on March 17 from 2 pm to 3 pm ET. The Emotional Pull of Home is a three author panel, free and open to the public with Joanna Eleftheriou (This Way Back), Henry Hoke (Sticker), and Jennifer Niesslein (Dreadful Sorry). The authors will share their place-centered essays and memoirs, addressing questions of class, history, family, gender, and home. In conversation with Jay Varner. Book sales and signing will follow.
While it is an in-person event it will also be livestreamed for those of us in other parts of the country. More info here.
Henry Hoke is the author of five books of fiction, memoir, and poetry, most recently Sticker from Bloomsbury. Open Throat, a novel, is forthcoming in 2023 from MCD/FSG and Picador. He edits humor at The Offing, and lives in New York City. You can also find Henry on Twitter and Instagram.