Frank Hinton is the editor of the online literary journal Metazen. She’s also the author of the new novel Action, Figure, which follows Frank and Lili, a pair of young Halifax residents numbing themselves over a handful of days. Juxtaposed with their story are a number of sections labeled “Rapunzel,” which focus on a character recuperating from an injury during wartime. The Rapunzel sections are as oblique as the Frank-and-Lili ones are realistic, and the juxtaposition of the two leads to a deeply affecting work. I’d first met Hinton when Metazen published a story of mine; having read with interest her contributions to Josh Spilker’s alt lit discussion, I reached out to her via email with some questions about her novel and her approach as a writer.
In Action, Figure, Frank is obsessed with the Ultimate Warrior. Lili fantasizes about pulling off one of Hulk Hogan’s signature moves. How did images of professional wrestling end up saturating the novel?
That’s a good observation. I think that Frank and Lili are 90s kids and there’s something weird about wrestling and being a kid in the 90s. I think professional wrestling really started to unfold at that time, there was a boom in action figures and posters and playing cards. Professional wrestling was a part of childhood. When I started writing the book I was trying to find some kind of efficacy between action figures/dolls children play with and adulthood. I think 90s kids in some cases might have hundreds of hours of hands-on experience with wrestling figures or dolls and when Lili and Frank play with those toys they start to take on wrestler qualities. When I was playing with toys while writing this novel I started to act like the characters or I would think like the toys they symbolized when in public.
Who was your wrestler of choice growing up?
Growing up I always loved the Undertaker because he seemed to be the first mystical character. It always felt like he was withholding something secret. I know he was a good wrestler, but I think he was very good at mental games. He had gothic entrance music, torches, ominous words in promos. He was a really cerebral entertainer and I remember as a kid fully believing that he killed people when he put them into caskets. Everything though, the pageantry and the persona about him was just kind of awe inspiring.
Where did the idea for the Rapunzel sections come from? Was it always your intention to juxtapose those with the story of Lili and Frank?
The Rapunzel sections were the last parts that I wrote in the first draft and then I worked to smooth them together with the rest of the novel. I sort of envisioned that section as the shared-subconscious of Frank and Lili with an abrupt sense of loss and intense desire to find an other as the focal point. I tried to make a number of gestures connecting the three but I also wanted the Rapunzel narrative to stick out on its own. I thought if I just had Frank and Lili it would be a standard white suburban 1st World sob tale. I feel I tried to add depth and complexity by writing a story with higher stakes than a cheating boyfriend and a sick dad.
Two of the three perspectives in the novel are told from the first person, while Frank’s is told in the third person. What led to this decision?
I wanted to have three narratives with three tenses. Lili is first person present, Frank is third person past, the Rapunzel sections are first person past. I have just always been in love with what Margaret Atwood did in The Edible Woman where she switched the tenses of her narrator halfway through to show loss of sanity. I love how she plays with tenses and time structures in all of her writing and I think my main goal was to find my own play on time, tense and structure. I liked the idea of having two narratives happening in the same time frame told from two different tenses, I thought it brought an immediacy to one and a reflection to the other that complimented both. Lili is also a more impulsive character whereas Frank is laid back so I chose the tenses for that reason. The Rapunzel one was just to be different than the other two, and I wanted it to be the most reflective and choral of the three.
How has your work at Metazen affected your own writing?
I think Metazen has had a huge impact on my writing because I am constantly reading fresh work. We publish stories five or six times a week so part of my reading style has been to read Metazen. The site has no single kind of prose or poetry it looks for so I am constantly inundated by new styles. I get a lot of ideas from the stories we publish and I feel connected to what writing is, or what the roots of writing are when editing. That in turn makes me more playful but also more worried that my own writing might be full on shit.
Where did the image of action figures first come from?
There was a bag action figures my brother owned and he left them at my house and one night my roommates and I started playing with them. At first it was just sort of fun, but then we got kind of deep into it that night and I realized everyone was projecting something of their childhood by simply holding and playing with and manipulating the figures. It was literally like a refracted voodoo. I wrote a little story about it and then thought them a neat totem; I found action figures modern and something everyone can connect to. I wrote the first Frank chapter initially as a short story and then it got bigger and I realized about halfway through the first draft that action figures could be the central object of the whole book and I went on to build it that way. Then I just really liked the words ‘action’ and ‘figure’ and felt that their sound felt like a good title or message of the book.
Though I haven’t visited Halifax, reading Action, Figure left me with a detailed sense of the city, both physically and emotionally. What effect has the city had on your writing as a whole?
I think the city is pretty unique, it is small but also huge, the vestiges of harbour bar life are everywhere and there is a huge drug and alcohol culture. Every scene in the book outside is something that is very Haligonian, the bars and the house parties are there. The downtown shuts down at 2 and everyone flocks to house parties and every weekend there is some party at some house or some after-show at some apartment. Everyone seems to know everyone or know of everyone, people are connected by local bands and musical knowledge is traded as a kind of currency. It is an amazing party city and I sort of set out to touch on that. It can also be a very quiet and lonely city. I can spend an entire day in isolation here at the library or walking through parks or picking along the ocean. There’s something very strange about being alongside this huge harbour, it’s haunted.