CJ Hauser teaches creative writing and literature at Colgate University. Her most recent novel, Family of Origin, was published by Doubleday in July 2019. She is also the author of the novel The From-Aways and her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Narrative Magazine, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, Esquire, Third Coast, and The Kenyon Review. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and a PhD from Florida State University. She lives in Hamilton, NY.
If you were in anywhere near literary Twitter this summer, you read “The Crane Wife,” CJ Hauser’s personal essay about calling off her engagement, tracking whooping cranes in the wild and how there is nothing more humiliating than her own desires. “I need you to know: I hated that I needed more than this from him,” Hauser writes. “If there were a kind of rehab for people ashamed to have needs, maybe this was it. You will go to the gulf. You will count every wolfberry. You will measure the depth of each puddle.”
The same week her essay was shared by every living writer on earth, Hauser released her second novel, Family of Origin. It’s the story of two young adults who set off for a remote island of scientists attempting to prove evolution has reversed to find out if their brilliant dead father ever loved them and whether there is still hope for the future in our troubled world. Hauser teaches literature and creative writing at Colgate University. I spoke to her by phone in Connecticut, where she was prepping for the fall semester by reading every book on the 2019 Booker Prize Longlist. We discussed the aftermath of releasing such a personal essay, who gave her permission to be a weird animal girl and the technique she used to blend the present and past in her new novel.
Amy Reardon: “The Crane Wife” is about someone deciding to stop being small, to ask for what she needs. How did you develop the voice that connected with so many readers?
CJ Hauser: I’m not a person who writes a ton of nonfiction. Every once in a while, I feel like I can’t do the next fiction project until I get something off my chest. Perhaps that is what was going on here. I came up as a writer idolizing the voices I was told were good and powerful. I’m a Salinger freak, I will never stop being a Salinger freak. I’ll love Salinger forever. I definitely had a really grim writing-knock-off-Carver-stories period, as well, when I was 23 and a baby MFA student. It took me a long time to realize that voices that did not sound like those voice could also be acceptable. A book that was really important to me was Amanda Davis’s Wonder When You’ll Miss Me. It was a flagrantly strange and girlish—there are tattoos of chickens and lost best friends, someone joins the circus—it was so undignified, and I mean this in the best possible way. It was like, this is what the texture of my life looks like, and it’s something that’s worth talking about. It made me think, can I do that? Not so long after that, a teacher of mine, it may have been Michael Cunningham, showed us the original versions of [Raymond] Carver’s stories before they got edited by [Gordon] Lish. Even Carver didn’t sound like Carver. Carver was full of sweetness and kindness to the world and people are eating cinnamon buns. I guess the long road has been, in part, finding new role models to read and understanding there is not one kind of voice that is serious literary fiction.
AR: Is there a bigger question in your work about who gets to take up space, and on what terms?
CJH: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I think that women are encouraged in a lot of ways to make themselves smaller. I had this student who is a brilliant poet, and I will name her, Lauren Sanderson. Her book is now out. She was an undergrad, and I had the privilege of working with her on her honors thesis, which became her first poetry collection. At one point she was writing this long poem—with the much more expert help of Peter Balakian—who I teach with and is a Pulitzer Prize winner— and we were talking about it in my office, and she said, “I don’t know, who’s going to listen to me for eight pages?” And I sort of flipped my lid. I started pulling shit off of my shelves. Here’s Infinite Jest. Here’s Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Here are all these epic, huge books by men, and I plopped them on the floor and said, “People listen to them for thousands of pages. You can take up eight pages. Just take up that space.” She didn’t really need me to tell her that, but to see a young poet who is so ferociously talented ask that question at all just enraged me. Because I think women do ask themselves that question more often than men.
AR: Which question?
CJH: “Am I allowed to take up that much room?” I think the other thing I was trying to figure out for myself in the essay was, where did these ideas come from? It’s very easy to be mad, and I do it all the time, and be like, the patriarchy did it. Yes, it did, but also there’s a way in which the kind of feminism that I experience in 2019 is one that encourages me to be self-sufficient and strong and not necessarily need a lot of things from other people, especially from men. That was the harder part to look at and to think about. In what ways have I done this to myself? This narrative of what it means to look like a strong woman needs to be wider and more inclusive. There are some things that we want, and we wish we didn’t want them, but we do, and to deny that we want them would be crazy. They’re not going to go away just because they seem inconvenient or unflattering.
AR: You make a connection between women, desire, and shame. “Who was I to be choosy? To say that this nice thing she was offering wasn’t a thing I wanted?”
CJH: Oh, sure. I think a lot of that is training in culture. It’s the ways in which we see women who want things, and that need is the butt of the joke. I’m thinking of sit-com television. The dynamic of sit-coms that I grew up with is always the man is fun and mischievous, the one who does fun things with the kids or comes up with the pranks. And the woman is like, “But I actually needed you to do X today, because I did literally everything else.” His response is ha-ha, and he’s the delightful and mischievous human being, and everyone goes, there she is, being a buzzkill again. Wouldn’t you rather be this mischievous man who gets to do all the fun jobs, instead of the person who nags and does the horrible jobs? That kind of training made me grow up to think that’s what being a woman was. That to have needs and desires was to be the burdensome killjoy. And not to be the point of the story, either. The woman is the person to come in to set up the jokes and the characters for the true protagonist, who’s the person who does whatever they want. I think I grew up afraid of becoming a person like that, and I hitched that to the idea of asserting my own needs. The idea of speaking those sentences out loud, until very recently, was just not a possibility in my mind because it would have changed my sense of my identity into that unflattering, one-dimensional stereotypical female that I was so intent on not becoming.
AR: Can you talk about the essay’s structure? There’s an addicting pull to it. I couldn’t stop reading. How did you architect that experience?
CJH: There are a lot of beautiful essays that have that braided structures with multiple strands. I think Eula Biss is perhaps the person who does it best. I teach with a wonderful non-fiction writer Jennifer Brice. She’s the one that sang me enough songs about Eula Biss that I came to read and embrace that structure. But the way that it happened when I was writing it was pretty organic because I thought of it almost like a mystery. Like that David Byrne song, “Once in a Lifetime.” How did I get here? This was not supposed to be my life. The notion of being in the present moment but always being sucked back into the past. The engine behind that motion was the question, was this the moment, or was this the moment I messed it up? Of course the answer, both in the novel and in the essay, is there is never just one moment. It’s always already there, but if you investigate it enough, maybe you can get some clarity. The more interesting story was how I was complicit. I’m very interested in how I’m able to run myself in mental loops and in trying to break away from them.
AR: One of my favorite scenes in the essay is when the narrator agonizes over which Beatrix Potter character will represent her on a Christmas stocking. Can you talk about the development of this idea?
CJH: What I’d actually like is to issue a public apology to all the Beatrix Potter fans who came for me on Twitter. I have had a very supportive, wonderful time engaging with people who have read the essay on Twitter, but the Beatrix Potter fans told me Hunca Munca is actually very badass. So I feel like now I have to be a Hunca Munca apologist. The optics were still pretty bad, but I feel like I have maybe done Hunca Munca a disservice.
AR: How long did it take you to write, from start to finish? Did you write the essay before or after the novel?
CJH: After the novel. I worked on it on and off for about six months. I would get blocked and not be able to write anymore. Then I would need to go figure stuff out and come back to it. What I love about the fact that this is the thing that I have written has found an audience is that I wrote this piece at a weekly writers’ meetup I run for undergrads at Colgate. It’s called the Write-In. I started it for them, to have a writing community and to have a place that was not a classroom space to work on and talk about writing. But it’s been wonderful for me because we show up and we all write for half an hour, and we kvetch about things, and we eat snacks. Until the revisions I got from editors, I wrote all of it during the Write-In, during this student club. That makes me happy.
AR: What’s the aftermath of telling such a personal story for the first time, and then having it go big?
CJH: It’s been wild. It was unexpected. I did a lot of thinking about the issues in the essay in order to write it. It was the lowest I’ve ever been, the worst I’ve ever felt. Then the way that people have responded has made me have to do even more thinking about it, in a different way. The fact that this very personal, specific, sad time for me is something that so many are people are like, Yes, I also have felt this way. It makes me very sad that this many people feel this way. I don’t ever want to feel that way again.
AR: Let’s talk about the novel, which is about the hope and promise of the Millennial generation, and the challenges handed down to them by their parents. What moved you to write this book?
CJH: The novel is fiction, of course, but lot of it has to do with being a teacher, with some of the ideas, some of the needs and wants and feelings that come from my own life. The way that Elsa struggles with teaching the next generation and asking, what are we sending you out in the world for, and the guilt of that. It’s pretty doom and gloom these days in terms of the news and the state of affairs. It’s very dark, and I got pretty low thinking about it all obsessively and consuming the news obsessively. If I’m holding a poster board in Utica after the election that says, “You Are Welcome Here,” is that a good use of my time or a bad use of my time? Am I making myself feel better, or am I actually making someone else feel better? It’s hard to know what kind of work is good work and bad work. And this may not be true, but I felt like my parents, who are Boomers—my dad wore a black armband and skipped class to protest the Vietnam War on the National Mall. That seems like a pretty clear, good thing to do. For my generation—I was born in 1983—we struggle to find causes and forms of action that seem as good as the ones we were told used to exist. What are we supposed to do with that? I wanted to write about how a person can live ethically and happily in the world without ignoring all of its larger problems.
AR: There is a unique weight on this generation of adults who are coming up to form the largest voting block alive, and we’re living in a world destroyed by greed. How do see this manifest in your students?
CJH: My students are politically savvy, tuned into social justice issues. There is a rainbow of ways that is true for all of them. They feel a lot of pressure to think about their lives after graduation, to balance what’s going to make them happy and secure and safe as they graduate with doing some good in the world because we seriously need some people to do good work. At the risk of being very cheesy, when I was an undergrad, I showed up at Georgetown to our convocation as a freshman. Normally I’m not moved by things like speeches—I’m kind of a punky grump—but it made a big impression on me. We had these stickers underneath our seats, and the president gave this speech where he was like, Stand up based on the color of your sticker. When we stood, he said things like, You are the percentage of the world who has access to fresh drinking water. You are the percentage of the world who has access to the Internet. There was all this standing up and sitting down, and then he called this color sticker and only one person stood up and he said, You are the percentage of people in the world who have access to the privilege that you now have because you are here right now. And that just blew me away. Even in my grumpy where-am-I-going-to-find-a-party-later freshman brain, it sunk in. I think that the sense of the privilege that my students have by going to a place like Colgate is something they’re aware of, and the sense that they need to do something with that privilege is something that they wrestle with a lot.
AR: In the novel, you call your two main characters, Elsa and Nolan, “children,” even though they’re adults, why?
CJH: Right. They don’t want to be adults because if they are adults, they are both responsible for their own actions and for taking care of larger problems in the world. Children don’t have to do those things. So even though they are 29 and 35, when people on the island start calling them children, it’s reassuring to them. It makes them feel like, This isn’t our job, this is someone else’s job. It’s also important because at this point of the book, they don’t know who they are to each other.
AR: The character Nolan contemplates giving up. He says, “If such a thing as the Moment It All Went Wrong did exist, it was a moment you made for yourself. It was having the audacity to leave the ballpark before the game was through because you thought you knew what the next innings held. It was the moment you decided to give up and spend the rest of your life explaining why you were giving up, instead of just playing the goddamn game.” Can you talk about why exploring this idea is so important?
CJH: It was an idea that I went into the book with. The ways in which we tell stories about our lives, and the shapes of the kinds of stories that we tell about our lives is something that I think about all the time, personally and as a writer. The Reversalist stories (in the novel) are all about how Nolan is defining himself. It’s his explanation for why everything is shit, and he’s not going to do anything, anymore, full stop, period, that’s it. I understand that so well. It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t helping myself. There’s a way in which you do yourself a disservice if you try to resolve the story of your life in that way, especially if you are young, but even if you are old. Because it’s never over. It’s only over if you make that personal, psychological narrative decision. So when I wrote about Nolan and Elsa—and this has to do with the structure of the book too—I wanted to show characters who were struggling with how messy the narratives of their lives were. At the beginning of the book, they’re looking for their Reversalist origin story, for their bad moment, to say here’s how we got fucked up. I’d like to think the book leaves it open-ended, and they’re still trying to redefine that story.
AR: Is this a conversation you have with your students?
CJH: I teach a class called the Dysfunctional Family Novel. Its contemporary fiction, so it’s all novels that have been published in the last couple of years. This comes up a lot in that class because it encourages them to think about their own lives and roles within families. A family has a story. This is who we are, and this is where we come from, and this is what we believe in. What happens if you don’t fit inside that and you have to write a new narrative?
AR: Can you talk about your strategy for blending the present and the backstory in the novel, how you build that structure to create the suspenseful experience for the reader?
CJH: I’d only been writing the draft for a couple of months when I realized—and I was probably cackling to myself at my computer—I am in so much trouble. This book is going to go forward and backward, and that’s how it has to work. I don’t know how to do that. (Laughs) This is a great, terrible idea. I figured out that the story I wanted to tell has to work this way, then I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pull it off. But that’s what made writing it exciting for me. It always felt like I was about to fail. Even until other people read it, I didn’t know if it worked. It’s a book about people looking backward constantly, and how what they really need to do is live in the present. So for the book to have the tension of moving in both those directions at once felt important. And I knew I had more material than I could possibly deal with elegantly in flashback. I wanted to give the past material its own chapters so that it could really live in-scene as a full moment that I hoped the reader could exist in and not feel like, OK, when are we getting back to the scene we were in?
AR: So I’m picturing a timeline on your walls or something?
CJH: I believe this is what the “youngs” would call a murder board. I have a crazy index card matrix hanging up in my office. I did this for my first novel as well, though this one was a little more intense. There were two different colors of index cards because I’m a visual person, for the present and for the past. The front of the card says what is actually happening in the physical world of the scene: choices that are made, actions taken, information that is revealed. The flip side says why the scene is earning its keep, the emotional imperative movement from that scene. The wonderful, awful thing about mapping things out this way is that sometimes the cards all say the same thing, which is how you know you’re in trouble. If every card says, Elsa worries about this one thing, that’s how you know the book isn’t moving. I yelled and ripped up cards many times over the writing of this book.
AR: You doled out the stories of each of the scientists on Leap’s Island, slowly, throughout the novel, right up until the end. Where did you get permission to do that?
CJH: I love how you use the word permission. I tried to write a dystopian novel before this, and it was bad. Many dystopian novels are great, but this was not. I was trying to write something good and successful. It was going to be my second book, and I felt a lot of pressure. And when that book died, I was just sort of out of fucks to give. I just decided to write the thing I wanted to write, the way I wanted to write it, you know? Like, I’m going to write about weird animals and creepy family relationships, and it’s going to be sometimes omniscient and sometimes close, and I’m going to introduce a cult of scientists. I mean, some choices I made gleefully for my own amusement had to go, because they were very bad, but I like that you use the word permission because for me, this book was about everything being on the table. You have all these tools available to you as a storyteller. Don’t exclude any of them. Also, I grew up reading a lot of Agatha Christie. There’s something about going to each of the people on the island that’s a bit And Then There Were None.
AR: Were there authors who influenced this book?
CJH: Yes. Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang. I loved it. I was teaching it and thinking a lot about his structure. It’s so funny and so sad at the same time about family and siblings. I am deeply indebted to his work for this book specifically. The way Lauren Groff writes about the natural world. Does someone want to read three sentences about leaves and panthers? Yes, I do. She gave me permission to be my own kind of weird animal girl. I will never get over Virginia Woolf, particularly To The Lighthouse, and the way time works in that book.
AR: How long did it take to write the book?
CJH: Four years. It took a year to draft it, a year to revise mostly on my own, a year to do more revision with other people’s feedback, like a real serious come-to-Jesus kind of revision. Then a year more for professional edits from my agents and my editor. I would not have been able to do that without my writing group. There are four of us. We have a weekly check-in email thread and a group text. I joined them just as I was about to start writing this novel. We were friends before, but we’ve become way closer through that process.
AR: Do you have any writing rituals before you sit down to work?
CJH: Just a metric fuck-ton of coffee while I am writing. I learned with my first book that if I was going to be precious about how and when I wrote, I was never going to finish anything. I have five jobs, so I got a shitty secondhand Chromebook and I was writing on trains, on my lunch break in weird bodegas.
When students graduate my workshop, I give them a little chicken, and whenever they put it on their desk, that is their writing desk, whether it’s a flip-tray on an airplane or a library or whatever. I think we do a lot of damage when we tell people they have to create these ideal conditions under which to write. I really think that’s garbage. No one ever finished anything by being precious about when or how to write.
AR: What’s the central obsession of your work?
CJH: What do we do with the past, and what do we do with change? As Ingrid says in the book, “The past is no reason not to eat sandwiches.”