ONE OF AMERICA'S premier prose stylists, Edward Hoagland is warm (who else gives you real coffee these days?) and bright (his apartment is awash with books), but mainly Hoagland conveys youth. Well set up, erect and lithe, he moves as deftly as a red ant. His books --three novels, five volumes of essays, and two travel books--all reflect these characteristics: they stand and they move.
RS:Why do you live here in Lower Manhattan?
EH: I live on the waterfront at the mouth of a great river, where life opens out. There are gulls and geese in the sky. Even egrets on the dock, eating flies. And New York is the world's center-city, besides--dying though it may be. This is Melville and Whitman country, both still alive for me. Also, this is New York's wholesale meat market district. So there's a bit of Chicago's spirit around here. A writer has three choices of where to live, really. He can live in Hackberry, Louisiana (or wherever his original roots are). He can live in Elephant's Graveyard, Long Island, with all the successful novelists who did their best writing 20, 30 years ago. Or he can live some place like this which he chooses for what it means to him individually. I love the waterfront. Then I go up to the Green Mountains in the summer.
RS: Is there anything incongruent about dividing your life nowadays between the flux of New York City and a cabin with no electricity in Vermont? Do you burn kerosene, by the way?
EH: Yes. But I have a feeling of being at home in either place. I was born in New York City, lived here till I was 8, and, after Harvard, returned at 22. So I'm completely at home here--a fish in this ocean. Then, though, as much as I love the city, I have to have the country too. I grew up in Connecticut. So I spend a third or a half of my year outside New York City. In January and February I often go down to Cajun country in southwest Louisiana; Vermont is not my only retreat.
RS: I find it difficult to square your background, Harvard and all, with the circus experience which resulted in your novel Cat Man. How were you able to mesh with those less than genteel circus people sufficiently to get their confidence and to get inside them?
EH: Well, I worked in the circus on summer vacations while I was going to Harvard, but my background didn't prevent my getting on pretty well with them. Circus people are limber, observant, sympathetic folk, exceptionally adjustable and tolerant. And then I stammer anyway and couldn't talk. That kept me from shooting my mouth off; so I was able to write the book without being noticed. When I became confident enough and had learned what I needed to know, then I let my secret out, so to speak. At first I was someone who loved the animals and loved the work, didn't drink, and was dependable. I understood what they wanted done and so they didn't mind the fact that I didn't talk. It was useful to them that I kept my eyes and ears open, and, later, they thought the college-boy part of it was all right, too.
But there is a long tradition at Harvard of people who roamed or worked around. I wrote my first book in three years at Harvard, and my only recreation during that time was walking the streets of Boston and gorging on the sights. Another college might have held that against me. But at Harvard they liked me for wanting so hard to be a novelist at 18 or so. They liked that and understood something of what I was doing when I was out roaming in South or East Boston. I got to know it like the palm of my hand. It's a small, luscious city. I'll never know another city like I came to know Boston.
RS: How literal are you in your essays? Orwell's recent biographers question whether he ever actually shot an elephant.
EH: If I were writing "Shooting an Elephant," I would have shot the poor elephant, yes. Probably Orwell did. I'd change some details but not such a central event. That's what short stories are for--though autobiographical fiction is sometimes more accurate in that absolute sort of sense than personal essays are, particularly when a young writer is writing the fiction. Essays are much more the province of middle-aged writers. And middle-aged writers are cannier, less truthful.
RS: There's a lot of sex in modern writing; is there too much?
EH: Not necessarily. It depends on how it's handled. That's the problem. I have lots to say about sex that I haven't said yet. The trick is to handle it carefully.
RS: What's your personal view of homosexuality?
EH: I still think homosexuality is a deviation, a natural outgrowth of the breakdown of society, by which I mean it's a result of the over-efflorescence of fashion and leisure, the splintering of common assumptions, and possibly of overpopulation. I don't think homosexuals are a minority who should be equated with racial and other minorities--I think that's a false analogy. They're a handicapped minority, but we're in for a period now when my view may be highly unpopular. Besides, they do cut down the population. And we're going to be drowning in people.
RS: What are you working on now?
>EH:>> A novel, but I don't want to say much about it.
RS: When you were younger you hitchhiked in something like 43 states. I can see parts of the experience in your novels, especially The Circle Home, but you never addressed it directly.
EH: No, that was back in the early 1950s. I didn't write it up because it happened before I could deal with it. It wasn't as succinct and rich a subject as the circus. You couldn't lose with the circus. But there are other larger experiences I haven't dealt with. I lived in Europe for 21/2 years, and I've never written of that. More important, I've never written about my hometown in Connecticut. I've still got plenty to draw on.
RS: I know what you write but how do you write? Do you sit down like Flannery O'Connor at 8 a.m. to a bare desk and a sheaf of blank paper and quit about noon? I ask this not to trivialize but because work habits can sometimes tell much about a writer.
EH: Sure. I work for eight hours a day but I'll work different time stretches or even stagger them to get my eight hours. I do aim for three pages a day and then revise later on other days so that the whole effort nets about 50 or 100 words an hour. On my first three books I averaged 10 words an hour; now it may be 10 times that. So I'm finding it easier to write--some writers don't--as I get older. I don't have to throw as much away or waste as much time as I used to. Oh, I still do but not as much.
RS: I can see the discipline and rigor you attach to the job even in your little narrow desk here. Just room enough for your typewriter.
EH: Yes, I've worked at this desk for about 14 years. But did you ever see Faulkner's desk down in Oxford, Mississippi? It was smaller--half this size. Just space for the words!
RS: Do you type your drafts?
EH: I wrote the first three books by hand, but begining with the fourth book, about 1967, I've been typing ever since.
RS: Some writers are so private with their work that they seem to resent even the publisher reading it. Do you show your manuscript to anyone?
EH: Yes, but it wouldn't be in the first draft--maybe the third or fourth. I'll show my new book to several people after the third draft. Last time it was two of each sex. This helps a lot.
RS: What books have been important in your life? As a child what did you read?
EH: As a youngster I enjoyed books such as Doctor Doolittle and Babar and Kipling's Jungle Books. Later, Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches was important to me, as were Melville and Mark Twain and such people as Chekhov, Joyce, Dreiser, and Bellow, later on. An enormous number of writers may have influenced somebody starting out--in my case all the way from Caldwell, Saroyan, Wolfe, and Steinbeck to Isaac Singer. Not to speak of Dickens and Tolstoy. Not to speak of Homer and Shakespeare.
RS:Do you follow politics?
EH: Very closely
RS: Does Reagan's economic program have a chance?
EH: Well, for all our sakes, I hope so. On the other hand, we may need another Depression to bring us back to being a nation again, and back to our senses, our values.
RS: You enjoy boxing and The Circle Home was praised by some critics as the best boxing novel ever. Why do you like it?
EH: Boxing to me is the purest sport because it is simply two naked men fighting each other without all the overlay of disguises that football, hockey, and other violent sports have. But it's not accurate to say I enjoy it. More, that it interests me.
RS: Could your interest in it have sprung from your inability to speak easily?
EH: Yes, it may have had something to do with my frustration on that score. Because of my stutter, I have bottled-up violence that can't get out as easily as in the case of somebody who can "talk nasty." But, apart from that, I like the direct simplicity of boxing: two men get into a ring for three minutes and try to knock each other down. . . . My stutter has more important aspects, relative to my writing, than having made me a boxing fan. "From my great pains come little songs," said Heine. And Gide said something about the "wound which we must never allow to heal but which must remain always painful and bleeding."
RS: What other significance does it have for you as a writer?
EH: I suppose it's a bit like Tom Wolfe's white suit. An idiosyncrasy, a point of recognition. My stutter is all spots, all vulnerability, pain and discomfort--in a sense, openness. And just as old-fashioned as a white suit. It handicaps me in some ways and doesn't in others.
RS: Some of your most attractive writing concerns hunters. Here again there's pain but, unlike boxing, it's not of the animals choosing and it's mortal. Does this cause you concern?
EH: Of course it does. I hate hunting but I like many hunters. It's an eternal dilemma. I recognize that a good hunter's atavism in the woods corresponds to my atavism, even though I'm not hunting. People in the woods using only their eyes or their cameras are predators too in their manner, their urgency, their delight, their reactions. Finding game. I find hunting and trapping personally very painful--and not at all like boxing. But I like many hunters and trappers, if only because they are still participating in the experience of the frontier.
RS: Are you happy?
EH: Yes on the whole; I'd say 75 percent. Mainly through my work, though I wish, in the first place, that it would take one year instead of three years to write a book. It takes so long that one gets awfully impatient. Halfway through one gets discouraged.
RS: Did you ever have a satori?
EH: I don't know. What is it.
RS: It's what Zen monks meditate for--you know, the awakening, the shift of consciousness which for a moment brings a feeling of bliss and unity. It's only a moment, but we remember it always.
EH: Put that way, yes. Riding the flatcars of the circus train; finally seeing an elusive mountain lion in Alberta; a time or two in the Louisiana swamps; and driving between friends' houses in Vermont--I'd put all these in that category (though I tend to leave Eastern religions to Easterners). These are points of happiness telling us life is good. I do think life is good, yes, and we make it bad, we screw it up; we don't have to screw it up but we do, with our hurrying and worrying and scurrying. The fiddler crabs may inherit the earth.
RS: You've made a success of the dream of being a writer you had at 15. Readers and critics like and respect you. I know something of how you write but let me end by asking why you write?
EH: I write to live. Alfred Kazin once wrote that he suspected I'd die if I didn't write. And he may have been correct. I might die from hurrying, worrying, and scurrying, if I didn't have something so worth hurrying about. I love life and believe in its goodness and rightness, but I seem not to be terribly fitted for it --that is, not without writing. Writing is my rod and staff. It saves me, exults me.