Hannah Tinti's second novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, arriving nine years after her first novel, The Good Thief, was worth the wait. As his beloved daughter, Loo, hits adolescence, longtime criminal Samuel Hawley forswears life on the run and moves with her to the coastal Massachusetts town where her late mother Lily was raised. Alternating chapters chronicle Samuel’s past—traced through the 12 bullet wounds that scar his body—and Loo’s attempts to find an authentic self and a future. Tinti talks to her editor, Noah Eaker, about bringing the novel to life.
Eaker: We talk a lot in the publishing industry about the excitement of discovering a great first novel, but I think there is an even greater excitement: the thrill of a great second novel. Second novels are famously fraught, and as an editor it can be a little nervy waiting for an author’s next book. As your publisher, we had a nice little wait between your first novel, the amazing The Good Thief, and your second: about seven years. That’s hardly unprecedented, but it was sure enough time to build a sense of suspense about just what you were working on. I remember how exciting it was the day you were finally ready for us to read the manuscript of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. For me, as an editor, that’s as good as it gets: the new book by a writer I know I love, but I have literally no clue what it’s about and the rest of the world doesn’t even know it exists yet. That’s a good day at the office. Was it important to you to keep your novel close to you until it was done? Do you ever have to resist the impulse to show your publisher work before you have a draft done?
Tinti: Because my day job is working as an editor too, I tend to be quite tough on my own first drafts. I feel no desire to share them. In my experience, they’re just litter on the surface of things. A place for me to play around and see what is possible. Only during revision do I dig in and find the layers and roots of what I’m really writing about. With The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, it took even longer. I started with two characters: Samuel Hawley and his teenaged daughter, Loo, and began to build a story around them—two misfits trying to make a home. But when I realized I’d be jumping back and forth in time and using two different point of views, things got more complicated. I had to put the blinders on and focus on one chapter (and character) at a time. Then I had to find the threads and weave them together, so the experience of reading the novel would feel seamless.
When it’s been a long time between books, it puts more pressure on what you’re about to turn in. I was nervous as hell when I finally sent it to you. But I had also taken the book as far as I could on my own. I knew some parts still weren’t working and I was eager for feedback. I remember you gave me some really good ideas for Hawley’s wife, Lily, and helped me work out a hard timeline, so that all the skips would line up.
Eaker: I am willing to take your word for it, but I find that I almost never remember the specific editorial path a book has taken. Hopefully that means whatever changes were made to a manuscript were always fated to be there. In the case of Twelve Lives, I do recall that it was clear that the work that needed to be done was the kind that could largely be accomplished in one draft. I always like that situation because you can start to think about how and when you will publish a book at the same moment as you’re still working with the author. But going back to the fact that your day job is as an editor: How specifically do you think that shapes your process? Do you find you actually have to turn that side of your brain off sometimes?
Tinti: I love editing. Discussing commas and semicolons is my idea of fun, and I enjoy helping other authors find shape and structure in their work. Editing uses the more mathematical side of my brain, creating order from chaos. But on the weekend, when I try to write myself, I have to face the fact that the act of writing is chaos. So I don’t outline at first—I figure out the story sentence by sentence, feeling around in the dark, figuring out what kind of furniture is in the room by stumbling over it. Then, once I’ve found all the corners and know where the chairs and tables are, I turn on the lights for a closer look. That’s when the editor side comes out, and I start re-arranging the furniture and throwing away things that don’t belong. For this novel, I made a giant chart on my apartment wall with cards and string so that I could visualize all the pieces of the puzzle.
I remember writing an early draft of the chapter set on Whidbey Island. Hawley’s making his escape on a boat and a whale suddenly rises out of the water. It surprised me, tripping over something that big, and I wondered if I should cut it. A whale felt way too cliché. But eventually, in editor mode, I found a way to subvert the cheesiness. I’m glad I trusted it was there for a reason and came up with a way for it to work, because other whales started popping up unexpectedly and became integral to the novel.
Eaker: I refuse to play any part in divulging anything further about the role of whales! But I am curious about how you begin to reign in that chaos and impose a sense of order on the manuscript, which you certainly did. In a way, this book has a kind of ruthless precision. It alternates between a present-day narrative concerning Loo, whom we meet as a high school girl in a New England fishing town as she is struggling with the mystery of her parents’ lives before she was born. Every other chapter goes back into the past, to her father Hawley’s criminal career. The two threads have to tell one story, even though the Loo scenes are rooted in one small town and the Hawley scenes span the United States. You also imposed another kind of restraint on the novel: each of the Hawley flashback scenes resolve around a clock and a woman. When did that element of the storytelling come together for you, and why was it important to the novel?
Tinti: The idea of jumping back in time to tell snippets of Hawley’s life came to me when I was writing about the greasy pole. The greasy pole is a real contest that takes place each summer in Gloucester, MA. I grew up nearby and would go to it every year. Fishermen set a telephone pole horizontally across the water and cover it with grease. A flag is nailed to the end. The first guy to make it to the end of the pole and capture the flag wins. I wanted to include the greasy pole in my story, so I put the character Samuel Hawley into the contest. As he prepared to step onto the pole, he removed his shirt, and I realized his skin was covered in scars. It made me think about how our bodies can be read like maps, revealing our past. I wanted to tell the story of a man’s entire life that way, zeroing in on these marks. Once I figured out the scars came from bullet wounds, it upped the ante, and turned Hawley’s chapters into miniature thrillers. The chart I made on my apartment wall then helped me to integrate Hawley’s stories from the past with his daughter’s own coming of age. In this way, they grow up together. I used different colored string to track the movement through time, whose POV we were with, and how the story itself was being told.
Eaker: I hadn’t actually seen that chart until you just showed it to me. I love it! Classics majors and budding astrologers might quickly cotton on the significance of the number "twelve" in this novel’s title and in the fact that there are twelve “bullet” chapters that give the reader insight into Samuel Hawley’s past. There are twelve signs in the zodiac, and twelve famous labors of Hercules. Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say the Hercules parallels are not accidental. Are you a longtime lover of Greek mythology? Was that an element of the book that fused early or late in your process?
Tinti: I made the connection to Hercules about 100 pages in, after I’d started fleshing out the story and understood that Hawley was a reluctant hero on a search for love, and that his adventures in each “Bullet” chapter were trials of a sort, testing his mettle, the same way that Hercules’s labors tested him. Twelve also ties into the zodiac, and that is his daughter Loo’s territory. She’s spent her life on the road, moving from place to place, and astronomy becomes a way for her to find her place in the world. One of the reasons why I love the cover for The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, which was beautifully designed by Greg Mollica (with lettering by Isabel Urbina Peña), is that it melded these two characters together so perfectly. Hawley is the moody outer jacket with the holes, and Loo is the star map inside, that peeks through the dark world of her father. When the covers are put together, it looks like planets in a night sky. And of course, there are twelve of them!