Where Time Loops and Film School Collide: Talking “The Groundhog Forever” With Henry Hoke

Henry Hoke

Henry Hoke’s new novel The Groundhog Forever tells the story of two film students who find themselves stuck in a time loop on a day when they attend a screening of Groundhog Day. Out of that high concept comes a thoughtful, unpredictable book about life in early-2000s NYC, identity, and art. Of personal interest is the fact that Hoke and I are both graduates of NYU’s film program, and reading this book brought back a host of memories. In advance of Hoke’s book launch at Community Bookstore this evening, we chatted about film school and all things literary.

“This is a family comedy,” you write regarding the fact that, when you examine it, Groundhog Day goes to some very bleak places. When did you first start thinking of the gulf between this film’s reputation and its actual storyline?

There’s a common phenomenon in 80s and 90s mainstream – let’s say kid-accessible, PG or PG-13 – films of my youth where a pretty traumatizing or disturbing element pops up, even for just one scene (a la Phoebe Cates’ monologue in Gremlins). Bill Murray’s utter devastation and multiple suicide attempts stuck with me from first viewing as one of these, really embedding itself in my psyche, even if I wasn’t able to fully process at the time. The film overall has these affirming Buddhist overtones that get discussed a lot, but I think it’s also one a of the sharpest high-concept depictions of depression.

Was there one point where you began thinking of building another narrative around that earlier one?

I feel like a lot of self-torment for artists stems from our constant attempts to dream up original material, brand-new ideas. For this novel I just thought “fuck it, originality is overrated, and probably impossible,” and decided to write a literal sequel. I had some rocket fuel for the writing in that the entire class with Bill Murray is a true story – he did visit my NYU film class in 2004 to screen Groundhog Day and hang out with us – and I wrote it out as close to verbatim as possible. When a friend and I left our time with Bill – following him down the street at a distance – we joked, “what if this day became our Groundhog Day?” One of my professors said all you need to start a project is a what if.  In that way the novel is more influenced by Charlie Kaufman’s work (which was big for film kids in 2004), as a meta-cinematic ouroboros.

As a fellow Tisch alumnus, reading this brought back many a film school memory. How much fealty did you feel like you needed to the actual school, versus fictionalizing things to make for a better story?

I tried to depict the Tisch life as realistically as I could. It was fun and cringe-y to revisit all those idiosyncratic spaces, to capture the headaches of equipment checkouts, Declining Dollars, the snacky foods from the local spots, the weirdness of approximating a “campus” experience in the middle of a giant chaotic city, and the bonding we did in the wake of the September 11th attacks (which happened the second week of my freshman year). I have a lingering fondness for all my classmates, teachers and collaborators from that era, and they each get at least a cameo or a line of dialogue. A few of my dearest were amalgamated into the protagonists, Thing 1 and Thing 2. Oh, and I also just copy-pasted the phone number for the NYU Phonathon in the book. Call it! Sign up! Change your life!

The actual names of Thing 1 and Thing 2 don’t come up until a significant amount of time has passed in the novel. Was that something you had in mind from the outset?

In a way the reveal was organic, as the flashback where they’re referred to as Anna and Sam pre-dates their nicknaming, but it took on more meaning for me after that section. Because they’re queer characters discovering themselves in the big city, they aren’t super tied to their given names and assigned gender identities, and therefore embrace the comradery and ambiguity that these nicknames bring. 

Since we’re talking movies, there were a few points where you used descriptions of conversations rather than dialogue. Was this an homage to Schizopolis? Are there more cinematic Easter eggs in here?

I thought it’d be fun to play with a little form-switching between the “script” approach and the “treatment” approach to dialogue, and wow, I haven’t thought about that movie in decades. But the book is full of little cinematic and musical easter eggs, because those are the worlds Thing 1 and Thing 2 inhabit. I threw in references to Back to the Future and The Shawshank Redemption, and lots of scenes are structurally inspired by experimental video art I was immersed in back then. Since I stuck to the constraint of making Bill and the groundhog movie the only explicitly identified pop-cultural touchstones, the rest are only alluded to or disguised. For fun, I’ll drop a few here: 

-the quote about the death of Homer is something Peter Bogdanovich said to me

-Thing 2 has an encounter with Stefani Germanotta (who would later become Lady Gaga)

-the character May is mostly Cat Power, and her concert is a play-by-play of a Cat Power show I attended that year 

One of your characters mentions that they’re “looking forward to having a new president.” The Groundhog Forever is set in 2004. Do you see the George W. Bush presidency as a kind of time loop narrative unto itself?

Absolutely. The early-2000s backdrop was crucial, in the shadow of the second attack on the World Trade Center, the second Bush presidency, the second Gulf War. All unoriginal sequels, escalated to horrific and ongoing levels. The country had an eerie Groundhog Day feeling. 

Time loop stories are a science fictional staple, and they’ve also achieved a greater prominence as of late — see also, Russian Doll and Palm Springs. Why do you think that sense of repetition has been in the zeitgeist lately? 

Now more than ever, right? At this point, in month 13 of near-quarantine/work-from-home, I can’t even remember a day that didn’t feel near-identical to the day before, where I didn’t feel lost in the perpetual. I think the built-in dissatisfaction and disappointment of life under capitalism breeds this ennui. We have to dive into warped scenarios to imagine any kind of change, any shift, any crack in our career brand hustle death spiral. I’m hoping we emerge from this pandemic transformed, like we’re walking out into fresh powdery snow with Andie MacDowell, but Andie MacDowell is y’know, free fucking healthcare.

Your next book after this novel is nonfiction. How was the shift from one to the other?

The shift was a godsend, and I have Bloomsbury to thank for accepting my pitch for Sticker (a memoir centered around my childhood in Charlottesville, Virginia), and lighting that fire for me to dive back into real life. I never want to write even remotely the same book twice, so the definitive switch helped me get through a very intense year, as I could consistently, directly engage with the greater horror and grief of the world through creativity. Through stickers.


Photo: Myles Pettengill

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