The PEN Ten: An Interview with Genevieve Hudson
1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
There are different truths in writing. There is the truth that really happened as a personal or world event––the truth that writers are attempting to recount and approximate as best as we can through words, sentences, and story. There is capital T truth that is less about the specifics of an event and more about uncovering that slippery beating heart at the center of feeling and experience. The facts as they happened can be skewed, the characters imagined, but the Truth of the experience is palpable. As a reader, you feel it, you are there—the writing is uncovering something about humanity that we relate to and see laid bare before us.
I am much more interested, both as a reader and as a writer, in how fiction grapples with capital T truth. I am in awe of writers who can illuminate an experience with such living and specific detail that it reverberates in a way that feels universal. That is the kind of work I hope to do every time I sit down to write. I want to channel my experience in such a way that the bigger, more expansive Truth is felt.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
My creative process is grounded in routine. When I’m in a writing phase, I try to write most days, even if it’s just 500 words. I just try to get in there and be with the story. That helps me stay in the world of what I’m working on. Like many writers, I have day jobs that need my attention. There is always an excuse to not write. But making space for it most days of the week centers me and gives me purpose. I’ve also found that engaging with a project every day helps build and sustain momentum.
Of course, I welcome inspired days where I feel like the words are flowing. But that is not how the process works for me much of the time. Writing often feels like slow and steady plodding through the dark. But that makes the moments of inspiration even sweeter. I’ve found that if I show up to do the work every day, I’ll be there when the inspiration decides to strike. And by writing every day, the work gets better. It just does.
I said “in a writing phase” at the beginning of this answer, because it’s important for me to have times where I am not writing. These are restorative and necessary phases where I am gathering information and cultivating ideas that will most likely appear in later writing. It’s like filling up a cup after it’s been emptied. I need time away from the page and into the world, immersed in relationship and tactile experience.
“There are different truths in writing. There is the truth that really happened as a personal or world event––the truth that writers are attempting to recount and approximate as best as we can through words, sentences, and story. There is capital T truth that is less about the specifics of an event and more about uncovering that slippery beating heart at the center of feeling and experience.”
3. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
I love the poetry collection Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird. A friend gave me this collection while I was living in Amsterdam, and I read it one sitting. Her poems are heartbreaking, hilarious, and compulsively readable. They are strange and feel so “right now” in terms of language, aesthetics, and cultural reference. Big Familia by Tomas Moniz is fantastic. He’s a wonderful writer who I think people should be reading.
4. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I just finished Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which is an epic retelling of the myth of Achilles through the perspective of his lover, Patroclus. Next, I’m reading Circe, the latest book by Madeline Miller, which people tell me is even better than Song of Achilles. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine how that’s possible!
Before my Miller kick, I read Normal People and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney back-to-back. Maybe I am in a phase of reading multiple books by the same author before moving on.
5. What advice do you have for young writers?
Louise Bourgeois said, “Tell your own story, and you will be interesting.” For me, this doesn’t mean that you have to write autobiographically, but it does mean that as writers, we have particular voices, idiosyncrasies, and observations that feel unique to us—urgent and personal. We must work to refine the tools we need to tell our own stories in ways that are singular, challenging, and emotionally resonant.
I believe being a writer is about more than learning the mechanisms of syntax, grammar, and traditional craft—it is about cultivating a precise and unique way of seeing and observing the world. It’s important for us to fine tune our act of noticing. Make lists of obsessions and develop practices that will expand our imaginations—things like keeping a notebook, spending time disconnected from technology, engaging in dreamwork, and practicing the art of listening. I believe each of us has a unique consciousness and a singular ability to observe specifics in the world. What we see is fundamental to who we are as writers. By zeroing in on what our eye catches, or what our dreams bring to the surface of our non-waking worlds, we can learn the language of our imagination and cultivate a new landscape of images unique to each of us. This is how we can learn to “tell our own story” in a way that will make us and our work most interesting and uniquely ours.
Most importantly: read, read, read. When I’m teaching, I encourage my students to read widely and across genres and take what they can from poetics, essays, and hybrid-forms.
“By zeroing in on what our eye catches, or what our dreams bring to the surface of our non-waking worlds, we can learn the language of our imagination and cultivate a new landscape of images unique to each of us. This is how we can learn to ‘tell our own story’ in a way that will make us and our work most interesting and uniquely ours.”
6. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
We are lucky to be living in a time of exceptional writing. I am excited and inspired by so many writers today. Especially Maggie Nelson, Eileen Myles, Brian Blanchfield, T Kira Madden, Ocean Vuong, Justin Torres, Kristin Dombek, Alexander Chee, Garth Greenwell, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Melissa Febos. I recently read Cyrus Dunham’s Year Without a Name. That book is still with me. It’s a tender and captivating investigation of gender, queerness, and identity. I just reread Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Kimberly King Parson’s Black Light, and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls because I assigned them to my graduate students. Those three books have a lot to teach us about sentences and craft. They offer up magic.
For writers with books coming out right now: Chelsea Bieker just published a novel called Godshot, and it is exquisite. If you read one book this year, it should be this one. I think she is one of the best writers working today. Peter Kispert’s story collection, I Know You Know Who I Am, had me laughing through an entire plane ride. I’m excited for Later by Paul Lisicky, Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels, The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe, and A Burning by Megha Majumdar.
7. Why do you think people need stories?
Stories are necessary for many different reasons. They offer escape. They give us entertainment. They transport us to other places and other worlds. They shape our culture. At their best, stories reveal the truth. They help us see the impact we have on ourselves, on our society, and on our planet. They tell us about who we are, for better or worse. They lift up hidden lives. They make us confront both individually, and as a society, what we’ve done. Much has been written on how reading fiction increases empathy, and that feels true to my experience of reading. The best stories ask us to relate deeply and profoundly to other people. There’s a lot of power in that.
8. Your debut novel, Boys of Alabama, opens with a queer teenager from Germany arriving to the hyper-masculine, football-loving, God-fearing South—that is, Alabama. How does cultural displacement set the foundation for the novel?
It was important for me to have Max arrive in Alabama as a stranger in a strange land. This sense of cultural displacement emphasizes the deeper sense of displacement Max feels within himself, inside his own body. Max, even before he left Germany, felt at odds with who he was—strange to the world, queer and nursing a magic power that he kept hidden away from almost everyone in his life. After arriving in Alabama, his longing to belong is externalized. His difference is tied to the fact that he’s arrived from Europe, not the fact that he’s a peculiar boy who has a hard time fitting in.
On another level, the fact that Max is bringing fresh eyes to Alabama allowed me to defamiliarize the land, language, and habits that felt ordinary to me as someone who grew up in a place similar to Delilah. I was able to imbue the lens through which Max was looking with a fresh set of strangeness.
“Stories are necessary for many different reasons. They offer escape. They give us entertainment. They transport us to other places and other worlds. They shape our culture. At their best, stories reveal the truth. They help us see the impact we have on ourselves, on our society, and on our planet.”
9. The novel’s protagonist, Max, has a supernatural power that allows him to resurrect the dead. The gift feels less like fantasy and more like magical realism. What was your approach in integrating this aspect of Max’s character and making it feel natural?
I think that establishing the world before introducing an element of magic realism helps to make the introduction of magic seem more natural. It was important to me that Max had a complete and whole personality that existed outside of his power. My approach was to take care to construct the world and Max’s personality, so that before readers know Max has a supernatural power, they are already firmly in the story, which is grounded in realism. The rules of Max’s world are the same as ours, for the most part. His magic stands alone in its strangeness. The power he possesses is the exception, not the rule.
10. Death lingers in the novel not only because of Max’s powers, but also from the loss of a dead classmate he loved, Nils. How does the past both haunt and influence Max’s present?
What a great question. Death is very much alive in this novel. On many levels, Max cannot escape the past. He is haunted by Nils’s death in a way that paralyzes him with guilt and influences the way he moves through the world and how he trusts himself. Max is drawn to death, while at the same time, being deeply afraid of it. This fear/intrigue dichotomy is present in his relationship with his power and in his relationship with place and with the new people in his life that he is learning to love. Maybe Max is drawn to the religion he encounters in Alabama, because it offers redemption through death, and that is something he understands. There is something dark about the practices that the churches around him are engaged in, but there is the promise of light.
Both of the places that Max lives—Germany and the American South—are haunted by their pasts, which are wrapped up in the death and oppression of other people. There is one part in the book where Max has a nightmare and believes he is seeing ghosts from German concentration camps coming back to life and digging their way out of Alabama graves. In another scene, Max and his new friends in Alabama visit a haunted spot where they believe they can see the ghosts of traumatized people. This is another example of how death continues to live among the living and haunt them, never letting them go, drawing them in. As a white man inhabiting places where there is a lineage of oppression enacted by white men, Max is implicated in the story. He cannot turn away from the trauma that is still alive and haunting the present, because it is part of the collective past of his people that he must contend with.
Genevieve Hudson is the author of Boys of Alabama: a novel (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2020), which Oprah Magazine selected as a recommended book to read in 2020. Her other books include the memoir-hybrid A Little in Love with Everyone (Fiction Advocate, 2018) and Pretend We Live Here: Stories (Future Tense Books, 2018), which was a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist and named a Best Book of 2018 by Entropy.
She holds an MFA in fiction from Portland State University. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, selected by them for The Best Queer Internet Writing of 2017, and appears in McSweeney’s, Catapult, Tin House Online, No Tokens, Joyland, Bitch Magazine, The Rumpus, and other places. She has received fellowships from the Fulbright Program, The MacDowell Colony, Caldera Arts, and The Vermont Studio Center. You can find her on Instagram @gkhudson and on Twitter @genhudson. She is a freelance writer and visiting fiction faculty member at Antioch University-Los Angeles’s MFA Program and lives in Portland, Oregon.