“I’m going to try something new,” announced Hannah Tinti to the small audience assembled at her public reading event in Ernst on April 17. Her statement left the crowd with a cliffhanger that would go unresolved until the end of her reading. Tinti ’94, a Conn alumna and an award-winning author with a new novel titled The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, proceeded to explain the inspiration behind her latest novel.
Earlier in the evening Tinti and Professor Blanche Boyd held a public conversation that introduced Tinti’s book. Boyd, an award-winning professor of English and writer-in-residence at Conn, has recently submitted the draft for her latest novel. Both writers, though at different points in their lives and careers, were ready to share their similar advice and experiences with writing at the event aptly titled “Writers Helping Writers.” The audience seated in Ernst Common Room was indeed eager to learn, yet sat away from each other, hesitant.
“Everyone who moves up one seat gets a tattoo,” said Tinti, waving a stack of custom-designed temporary tattoos in her hand. It was black and white, featuring a hand-drawn whale with an arched back under a sky of stars and “TINTI WAS HERE” written down its spine. Students quickly got up. Even Boyd offered her arm.
The tattoo references a whale that makes a sudden appearance in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. Worried that the whale would seem like a cliché, Tinti said she had temporarily removed the whale from her story, at first thinking: “You’re not a good enough writer to have a whale in your book; you’re not Herman Melville.” But she realized she could disrupt expectations and fix the cliché by having the main character shoot the whale with a handgun, ending its appearance.
“Keep the whale,” Tinti told the crowd, smiling.
At Conn, Tinti similarly trusted her impulses by featuring taxidermy animals in her short stories. She is a former student of Boyd’s, though at first she had been on track to becoming a biology major. “But then I signed up for [Boyd’s] class, and realized [writing] was the coolest thing you could do… I wouldn’t be here without Blanche.”
Since her graduation from Connecticut College, Tinti has made significant achievements in the writing world. She co-founded the groundbreaking literary magazine One Story eight years after leaving New London. The magazine boasts more than 15,000 print subscribers, making it one of the largest circulating literary magazines in the country.
“[The founders of One Story] wanted something fun and easy and not intimidating to read, something you can tuck in your pocket and read anytime,” explained Tinti. “Someone said to me, ‘It’s the only literary magazine I end up reading.’”
The modest paper magazine publishes only one short story a month. Once an author is published, he or she can’t be in the magazine again. This “puts the focus on short fiction” and lets new voices get their chance to be heard in the challenging field of writing.
“A reader is just trying is get all of their thoughts down,” explained Tinti. “Add road signs so readers won’t get lost in the story, but can just enjoy the scenery.”
Due to her experience at The Village Voice newspaper, Boyd takes a different approach: “Write for the smartest people in the room, and everyone else will follow.”
Tinti also gained valuable insight after she interned at Boston Review. After realizing that their headquarters was less top-notch than expected, she was assigned to dig through “the slush pile” of mailed-in manuscripts to decide which of them was worth another shot at consideration, which made for depressing work. “I learned a lot by seeing what not to do,” she said, “I even rejected famous people, which was nerve-wracking.”
Tinti claims that now the writing business is no longer the shark tank it used to be. People can cobble together their own writing program, or swap work with other writers for feedback. “It’s a lot of trial and error. Instead of competing, it’s just better to surround yourself with other good writers. It is catching – like a cold, you can catch good writing.”
“If your writing gets weak,” she suggested, “put the binoculars on – put in enough detail that it’s real to you. Get so close to it that you make yourself believe.”
During the public reading, Tinti explained how she literally took out the binoculars at the place where the idea for The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was born. She witnessed the “greasy pole” contest that takes place every year in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Drunk men get on a slicked pole and try to get the flag tied at the end to win. As Tinti watched, one of the men took off his shirt, and she saw that he had multiple physical scars on his body. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be bullet wounds. It was here that she realized a body could be a map of life. Her fictional character Samuel Hawley has twelve bullet holes – each with its own story – that he carries in his life.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley took Tinti almost ten years to write. At its inception, the author said she was in a “dark place… Everything I wrote felt dead and not alive.” Several of her family members were diagnosed with cancer at the same time, and Tinti herself had just gone through a bad breakup. She was working multiple low-paying jobs and was ultimately T-boned in a rented car, a life-threatening accident that caused her to “wake up.”
During the Q&A portion of the event, a question arose on the importance of prizes. Tinti admitted that she thinks differently about them now after working in the writing business. Once she was on the committee for the PEN Literary Awards and realized how biased judges can be in selecting an author to award. “Don’t take it seriously when you get rejected,” she said.
Boyd stressed, “If you get the award, you deserved it. If you don’t get it, you might have deserved it… You’re the one to decide if you’re getting any better. If it’s good writing, they will find you.”
As the public reading concluded, Tinti revealed her big surprise. She stood up and explained that she had taught herself how to play the ukulele, which she usually brings out during these events, yet because of the small group size, she’d go solo this time.
“Can you guys do this for me?” she asked, snapping with a slow, steady rhythm. The audience imitated her. The sounds pierced the air of Ernst Common Room.
“My love, my love is a mountain side / So firm, so firm it can calm the tide.” It was Little Willie John’s soulful 1960 song “My Love Is.” Tinti easily kept up with the rolling notes: “My love for you is a mountain side / Stand so firm it can calm the tide / That’s why my love, my love is a mountain side.”
At the end everyone applauded, surprised and slightly stunned. Tinti sat down, relieved. She admitted to being terrified because it had been the first time she had sung a cappella at a reading event, which was precisely why she had done it.