Stephanie Barbe Hammer’s Rescue Plan is a complex little novella. I have gone back to it a number of times over the ensuing months since I first read it. The characters that inhabit the book are complex, the reveal in the small minute and most of them do not do nor go where you would expect they might. Barbe Hammer describes her style as magical realism. As one who abhors genres for all that is lost in their simple definition, I can think of no two better words to describe Rescue Plan. Like writers Richard Ford or Lucia Berlin, there is something otherworldly at play in this seemingly small town coming of age story. The slow motion dissolves that push backgrounds to the fore only to themselves decay, ebb and reveal other secrets is just one of the magic tricks that I have been able to pinpoint upon repeated readings. I caught up with Stephanie to discuss her new book, her poetry and her fantastic blog on the eve of her new book being published. The book is available February 10th directly from us at Bamboo Dart Press as well as your favorite independent bookstores, Revolver USA, Grapefruit, Barnes & Noble, Amazon and more.
It strikes me that the first four books on Bamboo Dart press are all short stories written by writers that also write poetry. Your short stories are, from my perspective, as musical as your poems, which is not to say that you follow a form, but the that the divide between the two is thin. Have some of your poem extended themselves to the point of being short stories in the past?
The dividing line for me between prose and poem is very thin, and when I started writing fiction (I was a poet first) that line was extremely fuzzy and hard to manage — which is why my first book of poems was a collection of prose-poems, that quintessential “I get to have it both ways” hybrid. But now, I can tell early on when I’m writing when something is going to be a story (and therefore in prose, at least at this point), and when it’s going to be a poem. Poems are about images and deepening those sensations, plunging you into the moment and staying there as long as we can, before having to come up for air. A story and a novel are — just about inevitably it seems to me — about a journey from one space to another. Either geographically, psychologically, or both. I am remembering though, that there were longer lyrical moments in RESCUE PLAN, which is about — among other things — the joy of swimming. So that poetic dive into the water and trying to stay there for a long time…. that was there in the first set of drafts. So, I just deconstructed my own answer. The dividing line remains pretty thin.
So many of your poems are about neighbors, community, the day to day goings on that they could fit into the imaginary town Narrow Interior that you write of in some of your short stories. Readers of your work may not puzzle in the fact that so many of your stories, including your latest book “Rescue Plan” take place within the same city limits. What was the origin of this town? Will this place continue to populate stories for you?
I love this question! Narrow Interior started off as a riff on the New England town, Northampton, which is where I went to college (and near to where I went to summer camp). But it very quickly became something else. Narrow Interior has got layers of Southampton Long Island, as well as various college towns that I’ve visited as a professor. There is some Claremont California in Narrow Interior, and there’s some Bellingham Washington thrown in and some Olympia as well. There’s even a touch of Goshen Indiana, where I went for a summer when I was 17. My first novel takes place in Narrow Interior and my second novel — which I’m seeking a home for — sets out from there. But above all Narrow Interior is a fairy-tale town that — like all towns in America — has a history of atrocity that it has not come to grips with. As a result, it is both a potentially dangerous and deeply wondrous place in ways that I’ll unveil for readers bit by bit in my forthcoming books.
The longing and pining by so many characters in “Rescue Plan” struck me, Gomer, the main character, is colored in and revealed by all that is unsaid between his lover, his father, his friends and even his coach in a manner that rewards on repeated readings. Hand in hand, so much of the readers expectations of where the characters might land never materializes. So many attributes that would be the defining characteristic of these characters in even a longer novel, do not come to define those in your new book. It is structurally fascinating to me. Was this story written that way, or carved out in the editing process to stand in this manner?
Funny that you should mention longing. I’m reading Proust right now, and it’s such a pleasure, because Proust insists on being very leisurely and taking us through all of the wanting of his characters in all of their nuanced permutations. Few of us have the leisure and the financial wherewithal to write like, let alone read, Proust. But in a concentrated way, I try to invite my readers to join in with the complexity of Gomer’s longings, because what we want matters. The story was always about that. And I guess in the gaps of what the characters say to each other, I’m trying to create even more space, for them to want other things, and for us to want things for them. Those gaps got more spacious in the final edits.
I love your Blog Writing (un) real and what is reveals about your creative life and your waking life. You wrote a beautiful piece about the imagined life of your and your husband’s mothers that brought me to tears on your blog recently. There is a lot of blur between realism and fantasy that runs throughout your work. It reads like you are utilizing whatever is necessary to reveal something of greater worth than simply a well written story. I wonder if you arrive here consciously or unconsciously as you create.
Here’s how my brain works. When I was 4 I was playing Romeo and Juliet with my doll. I had never seen the play of course. I knew only that there was a balcony scene and that Romeo was down on 67th street (I’m a former New Yorker), and that Juliet was upstairs saying “Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo?” I remember thinking something like “what the heck is Juliet doing up here? She needs to get DOWN to Romeo.” So I threw my doll out the window. because I was thinking “They need to be together! So, we’ll just have to change the story.” As luck would have it my doll fell onto the window sill of my grandfather’s workroom in the basement of the apartment building where we lived. My mother was talking to him and she SAW the doll on the sill. Oh man, was she mad that I’d been so careless with my toys!But to this day, I stand by my decision to have Juliet jump from the balcony, just like, in my most recent “true” story, I move my mother and mother in law to Paris. I am always thinking “How do we change this story? How do we get out and have love and adventure and togetherness?” That’s my whole project in a nutshell. I’ve been a magical realist from the get-go, I guess.