Hannah Tinti joined the literary exodus from Manhattan to Brooklyn nine years ago, after being evicted from a rent-controlled East Village apartment. Now she can walk to work across the Gowanus Canal to postindustrial Third Street, where a can factory has been transformed into an artsy commercial complex whose “curated tenants” include One Story magazine, founded by Tinti and Maribeth Batcha in 2002.
We talk in the Old American Can Factory’s communal dining room, although Tinti is currently on sabbatical from One Story as she prepares for the April publication of her second novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. Dial Press is sending her on her first-ever author tour, which seems appropriate for a book that roams across America with the titular character, who ends up with 12 bullet holes in his body.
Tinti’s dark tale of a career criminal (partly) redeemed by his love for his daughter Loo came from “a dark place” in her own life, she says. “Several members of my family were going through cancer treatments. I was in debt, really scraping month to month to pay my rent and buy groceries. I’d gone through a bad breakup, and my writing wasn’t going well; I had 250 pages of a book that wasn’t working.”
Tinti was headed for a quiet cabin on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington State when a driver ran a red light and slammed into the side of her rental car. “I was fine,” she says, “but if there had been someone in the passenger seat they would have been killed. I feel like my unfinished novel was in that seat, because I brushed the broken glass from my hair, got another rental car, drove to the cabin, had a stiff drink, and threw everything I’d been writing out the window. The next day I started The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.”
Whidbey Island became the setting for “Bullet Number Three,” a chapter that lays the groundwork for Hawley’s past catching up with him later in the novel. Following a violent confrontation on the island, Hawley and an accomplice embark across Puget Sound and encounter a whale; the scene’s unnervingly uncanny atmosphere will be familiar to readers of Tinti’s story collection, Animal Crackers, and her first novel, The Good Thief.
“I was reading Moby-Dick at the time,” Tinti says. “For me, the whale coming to the surface is like those things that come up in your life out of left field, like being in a car accident, or someone dying, or Trump getting elected. You’re just going along with your life, dealing with daily stuff like paying your bills, and then suddenly a whale rises to the surface, this dark, crusted thing of doom, and now you’re suddenly thinking about the giant things in the universe: Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why are we all living?”
It takes guts to appropriate a metaphor so famously explored in one of the greatest American novels, and Tinti’s wide-ranging conversation displays a low-key yet solid artistic confidence. She says she needed to explore an image that had strong personal significance. “When I was a kid I didn’t want to be a writer, I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau. I was actually a marine biology major in college. I’ve been on whale watches, and when you see a whale, there’s a feeling of absolute wonder at nature and the world; you can’t believe there are these huge creatures whose existence has nothing to do with you. That sense of magic, those moments that separate us from normal life, is what I was trying to touch on in this book.”
A second whale appears in the novel’s climactic chapter, and cetacean imagery suffuses the narrative. “There was what I call the serial killer wall in my apartment, with lots of strings and cards connecting everything” Tinti says, laughing. “My friends would say, ‘You shouldn’t bring your dates back here, because they’ll think you’re going to murder them!’ I was keeping track of the objects threaded throughout the book, because I was trying to have the chapters have conversations with each other: for example, when Lily [Loo’s mother] and Hawley fall in love, it’s right after the chapter where Loo starts to fall in love as a teenager.”
Tinti tries to give each chapter in her novels a complete arc, something she attributes to her background as a short story writer and editor. She and Batcha, who both hold M.F.A.s in creative writing, founded One Story to fill the void left when Story magazine folded.
“Story was where you could get your foot in the door,” Tinti explains. “There were top-tier places, like the New Yorker and the Atlantic, and then there were the university journals that came out maybe once a year and had very small circulations. There weren’t any in-between places then—now we have Tin House, Zoetrope, and McSweeney’s—and we wanted to occupy that spot.”
“We asked ourselves, why do literary magazines fail?” Tinti continues. “Partly it’s infrequency of publication. You notice when you don’t get your New Yorker every week, but you might not notice when your Kenyon Review doesn’t show up. So we decided to publish frequently, so we could create a relationship with our subscribers. Also, I love publications like Ploughshares and Granta, but they’re like books; they end up piling up, and you never get to them, or you flip through and just read the writers you know. We wanted to make reading easy, portable, fun.”
Tinti gestures to a diminutive One Story issue on the table. “That doesn’t seem like a big commitment, does it? You can stick in your pocket and read it on the subway or while you’re waiting on line. It takes the pressure off. And publishing one story per issue makes every writer equal. One week we have an Ann Patchett story, the next week it’s someone who’s never been published before, and they get treated exactly the same.”
Hannah Tinti the editor makes life difficult for Hannah Tinti the writer, she admits ruefully. “One reason The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley took seven years to write is that it’s hard for me to turn off the editorial side. In order to write you have to open the floodgates and let your subconscious go crazy; you have to get the words down before you can start shaping them into something. But the editor in you can be really judgmental: you put down a sentence, and then you’re tweaking that sentence and tweaking it again, and there goes your morning writing time and you’ve written one sentence. I always feel these two sides are struggling against each other.”
Tinti adds: “Because I’m an editor, I’m very focused in my revisions on what the reader’s experience is going to be like moving through a book. I want there to be forward motion, I want them to be pulled through it, and then at the same time there will always be an undercurrent, a gathering of things they’re not even noticing but that are building towards some more emotional place—and then the whale comes up!”