Thursday, March 8, 2018

Interview: Hannah Howard

Meet Hannah Howard, author of FEAST!

Dear friends, writers and undercover creatives,
There was a moment many, many years ago, when I was wondering about becoming a writer. I walked into Books Inc. in Palo Alto and was overcome by the sheer volume of books. They were piled on tables, they were shelved on floating A-frame carts, they climbed the walls all the way to the ceiling. It wasn't my best day, and I thought to myself, "Really, does the world need another book?" 

Fastforward to 2018, halfway through my MFA and my perspective has been turned inside out. Back then, even in the face of my overwhelm I loved books. But I love them now more than I ever have. Now I know people who write books. Their children get sick. The pipes in their homes blow. Sometimes their relationships fall apart. Their bills pile up. And still. They write. They revise. They submit. Maybe their work finds a kindred spirit who wants to represent the work, who wants to publish the work. That any book exists at all is a collaboration of miracles and a testament to human persistence. 

I take more pleasure in books than ever. Especially books written by friends and colleagues. As a celebration of what I'm learning about writing and especially what I'm learning about women who write, I am launching an interview series of women writers. Today I kick the series off with my friend Hannah Howard, whose book, FEAST has just arrived in the world. 

In FEAST, Hannah shares the story of her life with food. As a Columbia undergrad she lands a job at Picholine (cheese cart anyone?!) and begins to explore the inner workings of the New York City food world. Meanwhile, she wrestles privately with an eating disorder, reckoning with body image, craving, and the universal need we all have for comfort and connection. Her writing is alive on the page, at times sparkling (a cheese never read so yummy) and at other times searing (her descriptions of body dysphoria chilling and unsettlingly familiar). 

Hannah, congratulations on the publication of your first book! Talk a bit about the process of getting from your first flicker of an idea to producing the book. When did you start writing it? What were the hurdles? Who and what helped provide the momentum to make it to a finished product? What has been most gratifying for you as a writer?

I’ve always loved to write. More than loved to write—needed to write. When I started interning for Serious Eats in college, I wrote a column called Served about waiting tables at Casellula. That was not my first time turning my day-to-day experiences into stories and sharing those stories with the world; when I was in middle and high school, I published a ‘zine called Power Dreams about my adventures with my friends and the horror of moving from Baltimore to New Jersey. (Back issues 1, 2 and 3 are still available from my parents’ closet.) 

There was something instantly wonderful, addictive, and deeply gratifying about the whole process. I want to make meaning out of my life, and I want to share that meaning…and stories, silliness, revelations, heartache, messiness, and all the rest. I wrote columns, essays, and reviews, and at some point I realized that these anecdotes were adding up to something bigger. FEAST was born! I’ve been working on FEAST for the last five years.

So many people believed in FEAST along the way. My agent Andrea Somberg helped me turn a mess of ideas into a book proposal; Morgan Parker, my first editor at Little A, helped me transform the proposal into an actual manuscript; and Laura van der Veer, editor number two, helped polish and refine that manuscript into something I’m proud of. And I’ve had the added luck of insightful help and edits from the whole family at the Bennington MFA. And my mom. And my writer’s group. It takes a village. 

As for the hurdles: publishing a book is a long road and patience is not something that comes naturally to me. Going back into the weeds of the hardest, darkest part of my life was incredibly challenging. I started seeing a therapist again.  Sharing my most vulnerable stuff with the world is terrifying—but I’m hoping ultimately rewarding. 

I cried last week when I got my first copy of the finished book. Holding FEAST, with a cover and an author photo and all of that, felt unreal and magical. Talk about gratifying! 

What does it mean to you to be a working artist? Did you always take your own art seriously? Was there a moment you decided to "go pro"?

My mom told me that I could call myself a writer when I first got paid to write something, and I think she’s right. We writers and artists have a hard time owning what we do. I can’t think a lawyer who abashedly says, “Oh, I’m just practicing some law.” 

For many years, I’ve worked on a mix of projects like copywriting and marketing writing to pay the bills, and the “fun stuff,” writing that brings me gratification like personal essays and restaurant reviews. But I do get a certain satisfaction from copywriting. And I like making money, too. It feels like a crazy puzzle I’m constantly trying to fit together with varying success. I am lucky to have the privilege to create this working artist life. 

Tell me about your routine as a working artist. What are your artistic habits? What do you do if you ever find yourself stuck? 

Some days I work from my “bed office” with a giant mug of coffee and a big pile of pillows. As a former cubicle person, I feel lucky and a little bit naughty for getting to do this. If I’m having a writing day, I like to take a lunchtime break and go to a class at my gym, go for a walk, and make myself something to eat. I’ll get antsy and relocate to a coffee shop.

I’m writing this from Ground Support in Soho, a great coffee shop with excellent people watching opportunities. (There’s an incredibly stylish woman with two gigantic poodles shouting in a language I cannot identify into her phone by the door…) The change of scenery sparks something. My brain works best in the morning, so I try to schedule my meetings for the afternoons and save my sharpest focus for early writing time.

Other days I am absorbed in non-writing work and projects. I go for weeks where I write every day, but there are weeks where I hardly write at all. I like to think of these times as opportunities to soak up inspiration and recharge. I’ve been letting myself take breaks when I feel stuck and revisit something in a few hours, or in a few days. Deadlines are great cure for stuck-ness.  

Talk to us about your intuition and your intuitive habits. How is your intuitive self alive in your writing? Feast is a book fueled by obsession. What role does obsession play in your writing life? What are you learning that is surprising to you about your own obsessions, if we can use that word in a friendly way between writers :-) ? How (if at all) do you think obsession and intuition are related?

I love this question! I think of obsession as two-headed. There is a negative, destructive part of obsession that, if indulged, spirals into a dark, fucked up place. My eating disorder was fueled by this kind of obsession. But there is also obsession in a more positive light, a deep creative fixation that can spark the best kind of writing. I think to write a book, any book, you must be at least a little bit obsessed with your subject, your characters, and your story. You’re going to spend a whole lot of time and emotional energy there. Maybe this juicy, generative obsession is intuition. 

Success in the arts is measured very differently than in other endeavors. As an artist, how do you define success for yourself? Making art often seems to me like an act of faith. What inspires you to continue doing your work?

I’ve thought so much about this. I’m an ambitious person. My goal has always been to write a book. And my greatest hope is that people read FEAST and feel less alone. Now that I’ve written a book…well, I’d love to write another one. I’d love to make a career as a writer. That would be a huge success.

Making art is such an act of faith. Starting with a blank page. That stupid cursor on a white screen, blinking as if taunting you. And harder yet, sometimes—sharing that work with the world. I’m inspired by an amazing group of talented artist friends like you who are fighting the good fight. I am inspired by people who take risks and show up. By writers, artists, and readers. 

What, if anything, has writing taught you that carries over into other aspects of your life? Are there any habits or routines you keep as an artist that support you in your life in general? In what ways does pursuing your art impact your well-being?

Dinah Lenney, one of my wonderful Bennington MFA professors, said this in an essay at the TriQuarterly Review: “You have to get naked first. Moreover, it’s not enough to get naked (this is what I used to tell my own students), you have stand up naked and turn around slowly.” Sometimes I think, oh my God, why would anyone want to do that? Maybe I’ll quit writing and learn to be an accountant. But the good, important stuff is often the vulnerable stuff. The getting naked and turning around slowly stuff. When I’m feeling that fear of being seen, really seen, I’m probably onto something real and worthwhile. 

Whose work is inspiring you right now? Feel free to range wildly and not limit yourself to literary art!

Some writers I’m loving: Mary Karr, James Baldwin, Ariel Levy, Meghan Daum, Ruth Reichl, Alice Munro, Donna Tartt. I’m always inspired by food and flavors. I’ve been watching some brilliant TV lately—Orange is the New Black, Transparent, The Handmaid’s Tale. And some movies that have really stayed with me, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and of course Black Panther. 

Thanks Hannah! FEAST is available on Amazon today. Don't miss it!

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