The Sauna Series — Judson Hamilton

Judson Hamilton is a Wroclaw-based American writer. He has published a couple of chapbooks (No Rainbow and Black Box) with Greying Ghost Press, a novella with Black Scat Press and has a book of short stories entitled Gross in Feather, Loud in Voice out now from Dostoevsky Wannabe. He can be found on Twitter @judson_hamilton. This interview was conducted in a steamed-up sauna in Berlin, Germany, where we met by chance.


Fernando Sdrigotti: I recently finished reading your collection of short stories, Gross in Feather, Loud in Voice. It might only be my impression — so correct me if I’m wrong — but my feeling was that the stories in this book are greatly influenced by the American Usual Suspects of short story writing — I’m thinking of Carver, Shepard, Straubb, perhaps Hemingway. And for me this is generally a reason to worry! That said that’s not only what’s going on here. The book as a whole feels like an intervention of this school of writing, a re-appropriation or subversion perhaps. Because although this stories depart from those places, quite common in American storytelling, they end up — almost without exception — somewhere unexpected, surreal, mad. Could you comment on this and perhaps tell us the rationale behind Gross in Feather, Loud in Voice.

Judson Hamilton: Of the authors you mentioned I’ve only read a bit of Hemingway, and I’m not a fan. In fact, truth be told, I detest that whole abrupt declarative sentence scene. I’m far more interested in books that are more idiosyncratic and have long winding sentences or baroque structures. I didn’t set out to subvert anything – there wasn’t any real rationale behind them per se — I just took one story at a time and allowed it to take me where it wanted to go. The process was largely an intuitive, organic one. Ultimately, I’m trying to write stories that I myself would like to read.

FS: So I was corrected! I guess we all try to second guess influences and this is not always illuminating in a relevant way. I find it quite striking that you say the stories weren’t thought of as a whole. Because there certainly are recurring themes. One of these, off the top of my head, are family relationships, particularly as seen from a distance. Is this a topic that you arrived at unconsciously? 

JH: I seem to have arrived at everything unconsciously. I wrote the collection over several years so I wasn’t viewing them as a whole at the time I was working on them.  But as they started to pick up steam (the bulk of the collection was written over a two- to three-year period) I did notice a common tone or voice and since I was usually working on several at once I tried to keep them from sounding the same. I guess the theme of family relationships is one that I naturally gravitated toward, as I started a family of my own and, perhaps subconsciously, I was putting my own past in order as well. And the stories are a bit out there so they needed an emotional grounding or else they wouldn’t be very interesting to read (or write). But, again, that is something that’s just come to me now as I’m thinking back on them.

Ultimately, I’m trying to write stories that I myself would like to read.

FS: You have been living in Poland for like twenty years now. How did you end up in Poland? How does this inform your writing? Are you connected in any way to the local scene? Is there anything remotely like a scene of American writers in Poland, or even writers in English? 

JH: I’ve been here coming up on fifteen years this August and every year this question gets harder to answer. I suppose the short answer is just that I was looking to get out of the US, was fascinated by Europe and wanted to live here. I’d had the opportunity to visit a couple of times before: once after finishing university and once again a few years after that. Paris, Montpellier, Prague, Berlin and Budapest were hubs I frequented on both trips and I just preferred the style of life here. I realise it is terribly American to lump all European countries together as though they were all just different states in a Union, but there was a commonality to them (or at least it seemed that way to me at the time) the least of all being the layout of the cities with their knit together squares which is quite different from the highway culture of the US. Additionally you’ve got all of the history, the possibility of learning other languages and experiencing other cultures all just a short flight away.

I was living in Seattle before I decided to move and why Poland — I don’t know. All signs seemed to be pointing this way. I didn’t know a word or a soul when I got here. I was offered a residency card which, as an American, was of value to me in terms of stability. I live in a city called Wrocław which was part of Germany before the war. It is a lively, youthful and exciting place to be with several universities, lots of cultural events and a good nightlife. I’m very happy here.

As for informing my writing I think the energy of the city and the possibility of discovering something new might serve as background radiation to what I do. I hope to one day write about the city itself but haven’t really yet.

I am not in any way connected to the local scene of writers here. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been connected to a group of writers or a scene. I’m just… scribbling away on my own out here.

FS: And the American literary scene? Do you feel any connection with it? And by the way, do you mind if I throw more water on the stones? It’s getting a bit dry… 

JH: No, go ahead… I don’t feel connected really to the American lit scene. I have chatted with people on Twitter and reviewed several books by US authors over at Queen Mob’s Teahouse but other than that no.

FS: How do you feel being a displaced American informs your work as a writer? How to avoid the pitfalls and common-places of this position? I’m thinking of that typical observational kind of writing, that most often than not ends up rehashing all the usual stereotypes. I ask because this is a danger I face myself, being a displaced Argentine writer in London.

JH: Well I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it (I think we may have had a Twitter exchange about this in the past). One thing I have no interest in is writing an ‘ex-pat’ novel. You know just a straight-forward, coming-of-age-abroad type of book. One difficulty that comes to mind is: where do you place the action and who is the protagonist? Do you write about the past and the place you’re from? With time that seems to be almost too distant of a topic as the country moves on in your absence. Do I make my characters Polish? Although I’ve lived here for a long time, and think I know contemporary Poland well, I would be terrified of wrestling with the complexities of Polish history. So that puts you back to square one and the dreaded ex-pat book. How have you found a way out of it? 

I have no interest in is writing an ‘ex-pat’ novel. You know just a straight-forward, coming-of-age-abroad type of book.

FS: I see what you say… But I don’t think there is a way out of this, really. The only way I have found to keep this from destroying my ability to write is to make it a self-conscious part of my writing. In other words: my writing is aware of the complexities of writing in-between spaces, and I want the reader to be aware of this too. I need to feel a connection to my work that sometimes isn’t met if I make my characters say English. Other times this is possible. I guess it depends on the kind of thing I’m working on. Do I make any sense? 

JH: God it’s hot in here. It’s like even my pores have pores… Yeah that makes sense. I think you are right to focus on those in-between spaces as you say and certainly making the reader aware would be key to pulling that off I would think. And I can certainly relate to needing to feel a connection to characters who are not (necessarily) from your adopted country. But…does this mean that you are not going to write an English novel of manners à la Jane Austen, but set in modern-day Hackney?

God it’s hot in here. It’s like even my pores have pores…

FS: Yes, no need for me to do that!Changing tack, your collection was published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, a small independent press with a very peculiar ethos. Could you tell us about how you ended up working with them? How was the experience? Are you interested in indie publishing?

JH: I had been shopping the collection around for a while then Grant Maierhofer put me on to them. I sent them the book and they got in touch right away saying they’d like to publish it. Both Victoria and Richard have been a joy to work with. I’ve felt from the very beginning like we had a similar aesthetic and cultural touchstones so the whole process has been a smooth one. I’ve got a book of poems forthcoming this autumn with them called The New Make Believe and I couldn’t be more excited. 

From my point of view, as someone who has never had an agent and lives outside of the English-language publishing centres of the world (those being NYC and London), indie publishing has served as my gateway into print. It is a lot more accessible than big publishers and certainly more interesting in terms of the content they are willing to take a chance on. It feels more like being part of a family than a ‘client’ or an ‘asset’.

From my point of view, as someone who has never had an agent and lives outside of the English-language publishing centres of the world (those being NYC and London), indie publishing has served as my gateway into print.

FS: Where do you go to in order to be in contact with current writing (if you do)?

JH: I solicit books for review and that keeps me reading a lot of current, mostly indie writing. I read Berfois and MinorLits, Queen Mob‘s and magazines like Fence and Bomb when I find the time.

FS: Who are you reading right now?

JH: I’m trying to read more in Polish so I’m working my way through a copy of Przekrój which is a cultural quarterly with essays, articles, interviews, cartoons and poems. It takes me forever cause they’re long so I’m still reading the winter issue. I’m also reading a comic book series called the Manhattan Projects. How about you?

FS: Oh, I don’t read; I barely have the time to hang around in saunas and talk to writers these days. Have you ever thought of writing in Polish? I know it’s a motherfucker of a language. But is this something you’d like to do? 

JH:  I’ve toyed around with the idea of writing some short pieces in Polish. It would be interesting to see the end result of that process as I’d imagine that my writing would be pared down tremendously. The thought terrifies me frankly … so maybe it’s worth trying.

FS: Do you have any other projects going on at the moment? 

JH: I was working on a novel (sorry Papa) but life got in the way and I started writing poems on my phone as that’s all I had time for. Then several ideas for short stories came to me and so I’ve been jotting those down as quickly as I can so I can circle back around to the novel. I like working on several things at once that way I don’t get too mired down in any one thing. When are you going to write that novel Papa?

FS: Why is everyone so obsessed with novels? I’ll write one when Will Self stops proclaiming its death on a daily basis. 

JH: Sadly, I don’t think there is any chance of that in the near future. As much as I love Will Self’s work he needs to stop beating that particular drum.

Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London. @f_sd

About the Sauna Series: Wherever there is a sauna there is a writer plotting a master piece. In this series we travel the world’s saunas and steam rooms talking to people of letters. The phrase ‘mutual backscratching’ is a cliché in the literary scene, but it has rarely been used so literally.