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Exclusive: Hannah Tinti on Junot Diaz, Wishing Stones and Her Favorite Short Story

Behind the Book is a literacy nonprofit that works with kids to get them excited about reading by bringing books and authors into classrooms. They also host a free, monthly reading series at KGB Bar where everyone from Adam Rapp to Ricky Moody to Jennifer Egan has taken to the podium on the first Thursday of the month to promote their worthy cause. “We hope hope to introduce new people to the organization who are already interested in literature,” explains Executive Director Jo Umans. “It’s also a way to get our name out there. With the political and economic climate what they are, it’s very hard to raise money, and so we’re trying to build up our mailing list. It gives us more credibility — we get such great people to read.”

After the jump find our interview with one of those great people, the fantastic Hannah Tinti.

Flavorwire: How did you first get hooked up with Behind the Book?

Hannah Tinti: I think I came to an event. It was a couple of years ago when my first book Animal Crackers came out. I did a reading for them here at KGB, and then afterward I did a school visit. I have to tell you it was amazing. It was up in the Bronx, and they bring in writers to work on projects with the most at risk kids in the New York City area. Schools that can’t afford extra stuff. It was a tough place. I had to go through a metal detector — although I guess you have to go through those at most schools now. The majority of the kids were immigrant families, first generation. Their English teacher facilitated the whole thing. The questions I got from those students were  better than the questions I’ve received at any event. They were so smart and excited. It was very wonderful. In New York City there’s a wealth of talent; we’re the publishing capital, with more writers per square inch than anywhere else in the world. We should take advantage of that to bring literature to these kids who are so smart. All they need is a chance. Someone to give them that spark of “this is something I could do.”

FW: Have you ever formally taught?

HT: I have at the college level and Continuing Ed. It’s always hard at first. Standing up in front of people and talking for hours is hard. But after a while you get used to it. And it gets easier every time you do it. A lot of teaching a creative writing class is about managing personalities. Learning how to workshop something so that everyone leaves a room feeling inspired, rather than depressed. I think I’ve gotten better and better at it.

FW: When Junot Diaz blurbed The Good Thief, he compared you to Robert Louis Stevenson. Who would you compare him to?

HT: I think he would have to be a mix of a couple of different people because his writing and what he’s doing is so unique. It would be some sort of combination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and like David Foster Wallace, or something like that — particularly with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, with all the footnotes and asides. But the rich sense of history. The way with Marquez novels, you’re reading it and there’s a current drama, but you’re getting so much information about the country, and the history.

FW: A lot of people stay up all night to finish your book. When’s the last time you experienced that?

HT: That hasn’t happened to me in a really long time. With a novel? Short stories are different. With a short story, you almost want to savor it. A lot of times I don’t want to start another one. I just want to take a moment and digest the story before launching into the next one. The last novel was a book that’s coming out next year, by a guy named Jedediah Berry. It’s amazing. It’s called The Manual of Detection, and it’s a page turner. It’s postmodernist Italo Calvino mixed with a potboiler detective novel. He works as an assistant editor of Small Beer Press in Northhampton, Mass. People chase each other through dreams in this. It’s hard to pull that stuff off, but he writes using very controlled, strong language and it really glides.

FW: At the beginning of The Good Thief Ren comes into possession of a wishing stone, and we saw on your Web site that you collect them. Where do you keep them?

HT: I have a big bowl in my house. I also keep them on my window sills. I have so many of them because whenever I find one I bring it home. I’ve found three beaches that have them. One is in New Zealand, one is in Italy, and one is Swampscott, Mass. I know it has to do with rock formations or some such things, but they’re the only ones that I’ve found. I have to constantly replenish my stash because I give one away at every reading. I should have kept track of how many, but I haven’t.

FW: Your mom is a retired librarian. Who are her favorite authors?

HT: She’s a huge Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy fan. She rereads those books every year. She loves murder mysteries, too. She’s a combination of commercial with classic. My dad is the one who loves the adventure books: Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper. He pushed those on me from an early age.

FW: What’s your favorite short story right now?

HT: Oh, that’s really hard. For me, it’s really hard to choose. It’s always the current issue of One Story, which right now is a story called “Archangel” by Andrea Barrett. It takes place in Russia in 1917, but it parallels with what is happening in Iraq now. I cried. Another favorite would be “Stations West” by Allison Amend, which was published as One Story Issue #13. It inspired her first novel, which she just sold the manuscript for today. It’s about Jews in the Old West. Who knew?

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