Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake (Tin House Books, 2017) and Unlikely Animals (Ballantine/Random House, 2022). Annie has been awarded fellowships and residencies from MacDowell, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Associates of the Boston Public Library. She holds degrees from the MFA program at the University of Alabama, Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, and Hamilton College. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and dog.
Rachel Reeher: Unlikely Animals is based in part on an actual town in New Hampshire. What was it like fictionalizing a real place, real people? Was there a pressure to that?
Annie Hartnett: When I’m in the first draft stage where I’m taking things from real life and putting them on the page, I’m not thinking about what it’s going to look like when it’s published, I’m just writing for myself, or some imaginary person I’m entertaining. In the editing process, though, I’m aware that people will be reading it. I don’t ever want to cause any real-world damage, so I’m very careful when I’m using facts and information that could hurt someone.
This iteration of the book started with my obsession with this yellow mansion in Newport, New Hampshire. I was visiting friends in Newport and drove past the mansion one day and was fascinated. It’s enormous and surrounded by all these “No Trespassing” signs. I asked my friends about it, but they didn’t know anything, so I started researching and that was kind of the jumping-off point for creating the fictional town of Everton.
So much of the story is completely imagined, though, and in many ways, Everton is its own place. I also do love the real town of Newport—so I always just hoped that my love of the place came across. The only real-life person I fictionalized was Ernest Harold Baynes, and he’s been dead a long time, so I didn’t worry too much about that. He also had a documented sense of humor and a love of attention, so I think he’d be happy to show up as a ghost in my book, nearly 100 years after his death.
RR: What was your approach to balancing facts and fiction? Did that shift throughout the process?
AH: I was obsessed with the history, but I had to figure out which parts of the history were interesting to other people. In the first versions, I let a lot more history in, which is true for me in any first draft. I follow my obsessions and sometimes I go too far and have to rein it in, figure out how it fits into the main plot. There’s always more that I wish I could cram in there, and I hope someone does write a book about Ernest Harold Baynes someday, because there’s so much left to say—his work in fighting bison extinction, his documentation of the animals used in World War I—there’s so much that can’t fit in my book. I always have to limit myself, both in the neat facts I find and also the humor, even though I think some people would say I go too far anyways—but that’s what I like about my own work, and I think that’s what any fans of mine like best too. I want my books to be a wild ride.
RR: I’ve heard you talk elsewhere about silliness versus humor—what does silliness allow? Did embracing silliness offer a kind of freedom?
AH: In a review of Rabbit Cake, a reader used the term “silly” to describe what I was doing in certain scenes of the book, and I was kind of horrified by it at first. It was something I was self-conscious about, but also something I saw as true. My friend Rufi Thorpe synthesized it in a way I probably never could have, but she said, “What’s great about your writing is that you say, ‘look over here at this silly thing,’ and when people are looking at the silly thing that’s when you slide the knife in. It’s never silly for the sake of it. There’s something beneath the surface.” And I like to think that’s true. I’m always trying to get somewhere. But at the same time, I want people to have fun while they’re reading it. I consider myself more an entertainer than an artist. But the things that entertain me are both humorous and dark. Silliness allows me to access topics I might not be able to talk about otherwise. I’m not a writer who would necessarily start with the idea of writing a book about the opioid crisis. Even having written a book that touches on that topic quite a bit, it’s not the central thing. It’s something I had to access by other means. It’s the seriousness that I have to work towards. The silliness comes much more naturally.
RR: There’s bravery in writing about something like the opioid crisis. There’s so much responsibility attached to how a writer handles it. How far in did you realize that this was what the book was reaching toward, and what was your approach to writing a subject matter like that?
AH: I didn’t know from the beginning. I was inspired by the place, and started spending more time there, asking people about what it was like to live there, and it’s a big part of the town, this kind of shadow that’s been cast over it for decades. The Boston Globe called it a “whistle-stop town,” and it’s been used as a kind of example of small towns affected by drug use in the news. The first place it showed up in the novel is through Crystal’s storyline, but once I realized that Auggie, the brother, was struggling with it too, that’s when it shifted from background to foreground. Auggie kind of snuck up on me as a very complex character, and so the whole topic of the opioid crisis snuck up on me too. The last big scene I wrote for the book was the banquet scene, and it helped me to figure out why all of this was so important, and what I was trying to say. I always knew the book was about caretaking in all its forms, so going back to the knife metaphor, Auggie’s storyline was where the knife first showed up for me—thinking about how Clive, the father, shows up for Auggie throughout that struggle. It’s exactly how I’d want someone to show up for me. Not just in the way that the addiction pamphlet tells you to show up, but in the ways that are authentic to Clive himself, as a father.
RR: You treat your characters with such compassion and love, even when they’re grieving or suffering. Is that something you consciously think about when writing their stories? Does that love affect the way you approach narrative and plot?
AH: I always want everyone to be okay. Both books I’ve written are a journey toward healing, and through that I came to love my characters. I think that love stems from the kind of comedy that I write, too, a kind that feels like it shouldn’t be funny. If you love your characters and you do your best to take care of them and show who they really are, then you can get away with a lot, because you, the author, are never making fun of them, even if they’re making fun of each other. That’s a guiding principle for me. Even when characters do terrible things, I’m more interested in why a good person would do a bad thing, rather than exploring true evil. I’m just not as interested in that.
RR: How did you decide to tell the story from the POV of the cemetery of ghosts? How did that experience differ from your previous novel, which was narrated by a single character?
AH: Elvis, the narrator of Rabbit Cake, was such a strong voice, and I could have written her voice forever; it had just taken over my head. So, when I went to write a second book, I knew that I couldn’t write another first-person narrator because I feared it would just come out as Elvis. I was scared to write a second novel anyway, so I wanted to distance myself from the first one. But the first drafts of Unlikely Animals were told from a third person POV, sometimes omniscient, sometimes not entirely, because I didn’t fully understand true omniscience at that point. But as I showed it to my writing group, a friend said that the narration had too much personality for a third-person perspective. There were all these jokes, but no one knew who was talking. It wasn’t feedback I wanted to hear at first, but when I got to MacDowell for a residency, I decided it was finally time to address who was telling the story. I was scared at first because Lincoln and the Bardo by George Saunders had just come out and was told from the POV of a group of cemetery ghosts. But in the end, it just made sense. I was trying to marry the 2014 present storyline and the early 1900s Ernest Harold Baynes storyline, and I needed a narrator who cared about both, and it made sense that it would be the people in the cemetery—the people who’d been watching the entire time. After I decided that, it felt like the entire book came together.
The cemetery let me have my cake and eat it too. I got to achieve that third-person omniscience, because the ghosts can enter the minds of the different townsfolk, while still playing with the personalities and distinct voices of the different ghosts, too. A book that really helped me was The Mothers by Britt Bennett, which utilizes the church mothers, the we, but later shifts into the traditional third-person. That was the way I ended up using the ghost narrators, so that they didn’t get in the way of the story.
RR: Did you always want to be a writer?
AH: No, I wanted to be a cartoonist. An animator. I had an art teacher in high school who taught me in an art history class, and when I was applying to colleges, she pulled me aside and said, “I’ve read your papers and I have to tell you, you’re a much better writer than you are an artist.” My feelings weren’t really hurt because it was useful to me, but it did alter my direction. I shifted away from art entirely. But even then, I wasn’t aware for most of my college career that I could actually be a writer. I probably would have been surprised to learn that a lot of the authors I read in college were even alive—the idea of a fiction writing career just wasn’t on my radar. But in my senior year, I had a professor who told me he thought I could go on to get an MFA. I didn’t even know what an MFA was at that point, but he believed people got more out of MFAs when they waited a few years after college, so that’s what I did. That was it for me. If he hadn’t had that conversation with me, I don’t know that any of this would have happened. I think I would have ended up in a non-creative profession and been very unhappy.
RR: You write a lot about animals, and they play a key role in both of your books. What can animals do for a story? What do they bring?
AH: I love animals and always have. I was self-conscious of having animals in another novel, and that was something I asked my agent about, and my agent said, “I think people will be disappointed if there aren’t animals in an Annie Hartnett book.” But in the first drafts of this book, the story was more focused on the teaching and the kids. But the animals just kept creeping in until I had the Ernest Harold Baynes thread, which opened the whole story up. At that point I realized there had to be animals.
I love them for their physical comedy, but also for the ways they express joy, and that they wear their hearts on their sleeves, metaphorically. They teach us so much about the world, and so much of novel writing, for me, is about working out your wishes for the world, how you wish things were different. For me, I wish that animal well-being was considered more in our everyday decisions. In my books, I’m just as much attached to the animal characters as the humans.
I’m also thrilled that in this book the dog doesn’t die.
RR: How did the process of writing Unlikely Animals differ from writing Rabbit Cake?
AH: I wrote much of Rabbit Cake in my MFA program, in long stretches in a corner of Starbucks. It wasn’t healthy, but I’d eat nothing and drink three or four lattes and sit there and buzz. I loved it. Elvis, the narrator, was my guide. I always say that anything could have happened in that book, that the plot doesn’t matter. What matters is Elvis working through it. So, I had a million versions of that book where a million different things happened.
But with Unlikely Animals, I wanted a book that wasn’t just voice driven, I wanted a grand novel plot, where every piece fit into place. It was much more planned that Rabbit Cake ever was. There’s a large cast of characters, and I had to keep track of things, or they’d get lost.
But, too, with Rabbit Cake there was the mental freedom of writing a first novel. I didn’t have any reviews; I didn’t know what people thought of my writing. There was no one to disappoint. With a second book, there’s much more at stake in your own mind. It helped me to have an accountability partner—Tessa Fontaine—who I’d check in with each day to say I’d finished my writing; I’d done the work. That’s how I slowly broke down the intimidation of writing a second book.
That process was so helpful to me that Tessa and I are starting a formalized version of an accountability network for other writers. It helps to have someone keeping you on track, especially in the post-MFA writing community. Finding someone that cares about your progress can allow you to get out of your own head, especially in the early stages.
I also loved Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which is about how we need consistent time to be creative. He says people imagine happiness as lying in a hammock on a beach, but people actually report being happiest when they’re working through and solving hard problems. That really helped me because I was able to shift from the mindset of “I’ll be happy when this book is done,” to “I’m happy now because I’m working through this hard thing.” It was especially helpful to me because I was still writing and editing the book six months into having my first child. Part of me wanted to just take a break, but I knew what was keeping me sane and happy was consistently working to solve this problem of the book. It gave me a tangible goal and focus, alongside being a new mother, and I think it was good for me. I probably romanticize that time a lot, too. In reality, I was functioning on very little sleep, but in the same breath I felt creatively on fire. I wouldn’t do it again, but it was fun in some ways.
RR: Hilary Mantel said in a Paris Review interview that “among writers themselves, the question is not who influences you, but which people give you courage.” Are there artists or writers that gave you the courage to write Unlikely Animals?
AH: I’ve said this book is my love letter to John Irving. When Rabbit Cake came out, I had a lot of people tell me I wrote like John Irving. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t read anything by him, so I read The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules, and some others. I was blown away by what a novel could do. I could see where people were coming from who said I wrote like him, because of the play between darkness and light, but he did so much more with it. That’s part of why I wanted to write this grander book, one with lots of moving parts that came together in the end. I love that magic trick of thinking I’m presenting something to you because it’s fun, or it adds to the scene or setting, but then it becomes a crucial hinge for the plot later on. Irving gave me a lot of courage to try that.
RR: Is there another project on the horizon?
AH: I’m writing a novel about an older man and a young boy who go on a road trip with a cat. I’ve been working on it for a little bit, but my mother just told me there’s a movie called Harry and Tonto that won an Oscar in the 70s about an old man who goes on a road trip with a cat, and apparently it was my grandfather’s favorite movie. I love that writing helps me learn something about people in my life, something I might have otherwise never known, even something as simple as a favorite movie. But yes, it’s another comic novel about death and animals. I’ll never get away from death and animals.