John Freeman on the Perpetual Evolution of “Hit and Run”

John Freeman

It’s always daunting to talk with a writer who’s made a significant impact on you. Given that John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist had a seismic effect on the way that I write about books, the opportunity to talk with Freeman about his new novella Hit and Run was both enticing and imposing. Thankfully, Freeman was a warm and engaging conversationalist, and I was happy to talk to him about this new book, which follows a character not unlike Freeman who witnesses a horrific incident and finds his life shifting in its aftermath.

Was this something that you were approached to write, or did you have Hit and Run written at this length where it’s somewhat in between formats? And was there an appeal to writing something that’s a 55-page literary work as opposed to something shorter or something book-length?

Writing things is mysterious. Sometimes, you understand that a deadline is a very handy way to get things written. But it’s not often the way that they get written in the form that they’re meant to be written in.

I actually wrote this first to give as a talk, a kind of nonfiction story that was really meant to show how two or three threads of things can be pulled together, and how the way that we witness the world, to some degree, makes up our point of view, how we situate ourselves. I had to do it in time to give it as a talk to students. And I wrote it, and then I realized I could never publish it because some of the details in there were not really mine to give away, but it just kept sitting there and churning. And it was long. It was about 60 pages, but I didn’t know what to do. And then gradually over time, it started to feel further and further away from me — as in, less attached to the experience that prompted it. And as a result, I could write towards what John Ashbery used to call the experience of experience. 

Because it was so long and I knew it was kind of in between fiction and nonfiction, I sent it to Amy Grace Loyd, who was with what was then called Byliner. She was up for running it as nonfiction, but she kept it for about a year as we were talking about it. And then I said, ”I want to make a go at trying to really break this away from factuality.”  And so she waited for a year as I changed it around. I’m so glad I did, because for all sorts of reasons, I couldn’t publish what I had originally written. But the further I got from the facts, the closer I got to the truth of experience.

Now I’m happy it wound up in that form. And when it’s something this long, there are very few places that can publish something that’s a little too short to be a book, and it’s way too long to be a story. And so the format, the e-book format, where you can read something in a little over an hour and a half or so, feels perfect for it.

When it began its life as a talk, was it similar in length, or was it more condensed at that time?

It was a little condensed from what it is now, because I had to fit it into an hour. And I have, through lots of failure, learned that the slower you talk, the easier it is for people to listen, unless you’re a stand-up comedian. I think it was almost half of what it is now.

It was interesting reading this and trying to see the point in which the fictionalization took place. When I got to the parts about the Icelandic writer, I was trying to figure out if they corresponded directly to someone in real life. As a reader reading it as fiction, it felt very lived in, but it also didn’t feel like something where the names had been changed and everything else was left unaltered.

I think we’ve entered a society where so much of what is presented to us is fakely real — or real, but fake. There is a pressing temptation to make in creating art into that environment, a game of guessing.

I always felt, except for the very highest practitioners, that it was kind of a shallow thing to pursue. At  least for me, because I couldn’t do it on the level of Philip Roth and The Counterlife — you can name any number of books that do this. What I really wanted was to have a clarity in the voice and an elusiveness of someone trying to almost peer through experience to look at what experience meant.

Because that, to me, rings true of my own life. And I think a lot of people too, where you spend so much time gazing at screens and images and other people’s actions in formats in which your actions are also externalized as in social media, but looking at your own experience and what it means is really hard sometimes, even when it’s right there in front of you.

I love those kinds of stories — not experiences, the experiences themselves can be kind of scary — but the kinds of stories in which the person narrating them is always just a step or two behind them, trying to catch up to what it means. Paul Auster is another person who I thought was really amazing at that. The Invention of Solitude, which is one of the most amazing phrases for the meaning of grief. I definitely was marked by reading that book and some of his other books of vignettes and stories in which unexpected things happen.

Because of course, if we were you and I sitting at a table and talking, we might eventually get to odd things that had happened. And that’s what, to me, is one of the basic origins of the short story. “Look at this strange set of events that happened.”  And I, frankly, love that kind of story.

There’s a great passage about reading books in bars as the gateway to conversations, which resonated deeply with me. But there’s also a mention of Muriel Spark, and I feel like Hit and Run has a lot of aspects of Muriel Spark’s work: questions about destiny, about mortality, about interconnectedness. With a detail like that, how much of that was drawing directly from life versus like putting something in because that works as a more salient detail?

That’s a real life story in the sense that I did have a bartender who is a really wonderful conversationalist, who was a painter, and who behaved a lot like the bartender in the story — and was also a huge fan of Muriel Spark. There’s nothing quite like alleviating your existential depression by talking about Muriel Spark.

There’s also, in her work, something I love: the sense that you can never totally get to the bottom of the meaning of things, of people. And I realized when I was editing it, I looked back and I thought, does this belong here? And I thought, she’s not a kind of a signal or a sign, but she was definitely part of what kept me sane in the period in which I was going to the bar, which I was drawing on.

On the flip side of that, there’s also the detail of the narrator using, a computer program that he learned about from reading — I think you use the phrase “a cyberpunk novel.” You don’t usually see Muriel Spark and cyberpunk showing up referenced in the same work, but I appreciate that this book could include both.

Did you ever go through a cyberpunk phase?

I definitely did.

I feel like it helps you live in cities, to some degree, because I feel like the cyberpunk cities felt like the city of New York I moved to in the mid 90s. It’s funny how not only is the technology of the 80s and 90s coming back in its quaint appeal, but also the fiction about the technology is. To me, it’s really appealing because it’s just beginning to deal with some of the things that have now become so second nature, they can’t be rethought.

And the first sentence of Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” I’ve seen that color sky in New York City so many times. But it’s also a mood where you feel like the world around you is colored in a slightly pixelated definition, and you’re trying to sort it out from your vantage point. And that’s, I think, very much the position that the characters in the story are in.

You’ve talked about the autobiographical roots of this piece, but also the fact that it’s fiction. Was that on your mind as you wrote and revised it — that there would be some readers who would be reading this solely as fiction and some who would be looking at this and trying to figure out what was real and what was not?

Once I committed and decided that this was going to be fiction, I didn’t want the reader to think too much about what did or didn’t happen. I just wanted the reader to feel like it was real, all of it. I kind of love that kind of fiction, when you forget you’re reading and you just take for granted that everything in front of you has happened in some psychic realm or real realm or both.

Two of my other favorite writers of altered states — one is Louise Erdrich. I always read her work and it feels, even when it has elements of what could crudely be called the supernatural, it all feels real to me. It feels like she is telling a story that someone told to her. Whether or not that’s true to me doesn’t in the end matter, because I feel it in my bones when I’m reading her, that what she’s saying is real, is true. 

The other writer is Denis Johnson, where you think that this guy has definitely gone through rehab and dried out, or that this guy has definitely lived on and suffered through a term teaching at a kind of empty college campus and kind of lost his mind. Or — this guy has definitely spent time in Florida and thought it was the end of the world. And there are ways that in Johnson, that kind of behind-the-scenes vibration, it bleeds through like a kind of pulse.

I just wrote it the best I could and hoped that when people read it, that it would sweep them along and they wouldn’t think too much about me as a person, or as a narrator, and would just start to believe and would follow what was happening.

When you were talking earlier about this story in its original iteration as a talk, and the different threads linking up, I was reminded a little of some of John McPhee’s writings about structure. There’s a moment at the very end of Hit and Run when I felt like its structure clicked into place really brilliantly and, in a lot of ways, devastatingly.

That’s a really high compliment. I love McPhee’s work, but when I wrote this, I hadn’t read him on structure. I edited Granta for five years and this mode of moving between overlapping and interlocking stories was something that quite a few of the essayists did. Not a lot, I guess, but the really good ones could pull it off. And that was essential when we were running a long piece.

We ran one piece by Mary Gaitskell called “Lost Cat,” in which she’s describing having a cat with her husband upstate and they lose it and start searching for it. It makes her think of relationships that she had that weren’t reciprocated and how she loved the cat, but the cat didn’t want to be with them. And growing up how she wanted love from her father, I think it was, but he didn’t love her back or give her love in the way that she so clearly wanted. There was a third thread as well, but it was absolutely devastating watching her work through those emotional gears. It was in the first issue I worked on and I never forgot it.

Anthony Shadid could do it really well. Declan Walsh, Herta Muller, the German-Romanian novelist. It became something, when I saw someone doing it, I was drawn to it. Sasha Hemon, the Bosnian-born American writer, does it really well. And I think that’s just the way that life works if you have an associative imagination. It is that strange thing where two seemingly unconnected things can tell you a lot about each other just through juxtaposition.

I mentioned Louise Erdrich earlier, and in Love Medicine, when you watch those characters in an almost orchestral orbit around each other with their lives informing each other, to me, that’s the deep structure of storytelling.  Toni Morrison said that in certain shorter forms, like the essay or the long story, if you can manage to do that, you can create far more space within the form than you actually have and make something feel bigger, almost like a miniature novel. 

It allows the reader to pause and, before they’ve completely come to conclusions, they’re poured into the next narrative lock, if you will. And then that operates on them, and then they’re into the next one. Before long, the cognitive experience is informing itself as well as being provoked. You’re looking back with a small part of your mind towards what you just read, but that’s also bouncing off what you are reading. If you pace well enough, you can keep that going all the way to the very end of a book or a story.

That, to me, is why I think the best forms of autofiction have these swerves. I think of Deborah Levy’s book about writing her first book, where you just think, what in the world is this new section? Where is it coming from? And then suddenly she’s poured you into this whole other part of the book, which makes a lot more sense in context of what you just read. But right away, you feel almost swept along by a current.

In the last few years, there’s been an increasing debate over how policing and the law are depicted in fiction. This is a story in which law enforcement does play a role. I was curious, did any of those debates inform the way that you wrote about that aspect of the aftermath of the accident that’s at the heart of this?

It did quite a bit,  because I had to think, why are these characters comfortable talking to the police? And what allows them to believe that the police would be there to help them? And they’re white. That, in my observation and my experience, rings true. And ultimately, this is becoming part of something longer that I’m working on — and other characters are part of the story who are not white, and they have a very different reaction to being part of the orbit of the hit and run accident where the main character watches someone essentially be killed, and then becomes roped into the investigation in ways that kind of bounce off other things he’s seeing at the time.

To be a witness is important, but it also, to some degree, relies upon a comfortable distance. And the epistemologies of sight tend to groove well with a life that is closer to forms of protection and power. And one of the reasons why I wanted to have various forms of witness up close, and then closer, and then further away in this story was to dilate as much as I possibly could where the narrator felt safe and untouched, and what he felt like he was being provoked to think or do or feel by being a witness to something that was happening to someone near him. Someone  close to him, and then in some situations, totally unrelated to him.

Because of what you just asked me, ultimately, to me, it begged even a longer project, one in which I could think about some of the things that I also care a lot about, and I think our society has to care about. How can we set up a civil society in which as many people as possible feel safe in the same space, so that no one’s safety is at the expense of someone else’s suffering? And that’s what I’m working on right now, essentially, a longer project.


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