Hilarious Reads, Beautiful Literary Gems, Master Entertainer Author James Hanna Speaks
James Hanna is the author of three wonderful books that have been described with superlative adjectives such as electrifying, compelling, highly entertaining, and hilarious. James Hanna wandered Australia for seven years before settling on a career in Criminal Justice. He spent twenty years as a counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and has recently retired from the San Francisco Probation Department, where he was assigned to a domestic violence and stalking unit.
James’ background has provided fodder for his remarkable books. His debut novel, The Siege, depicts a hostage standoff in a penal facility. Call Me Pomeroy chronicles the madcap tales of a street musician on parole who joins Occupy Oakland, a hilarious story that will have readers rolling off their seats with laughter. A Second, Less Capable Head is Hanna’s third book, a gorgeous collection of short stories featuring a variety of themes, genres, and very compelling characters.
This week we caught up with James for a literary chat. The author is laid back, and even off his writing, the keen sense of humor doesn’t slacken a bit. Without getting into formalities and pleasantries, below is the interview with this gifted author.
YDA: You have written both short stories and a fun, hilarious, and gripping thriller. You have crafted beautiful characters. Please tell me which of these characters is your favorite child? Which mirrors your creative genius more?
James Hanna: I’d have to go with Pomeroy. He’s a thoroughly tawdry character—narcissistic, explosive, and antisocial—yet there is something pure inside him that wants to get out. He protects women, he loves art for art’s sake, and he is uncompromising in his the battle with “The New World Order.” E. Brandon Hart, Executive Editor of Empty Sink Publishing, wrote, “Pomeroy is truly a character, and in creating him, James Hanna has introduced an anti-hero for the twenty-first century…He’s an icon we didn’t know we needed, and he’s arrived right on time.”
Call Me Pomeroy was inspired by Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” To me, Pomeroy is Yeats’ rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
YDA: I love the reference to Yeats’ famous poem, which I also read several times without losing any of its freshness. This very poem inspired Chinua Achebe’s title Things Fall Apart. Which genre do you feel most comfortable writing in and how do you create your characters?
James Hanna: I find all genres useful. It comes down to what I want to do with the story. Some tales are better suited to science fantasy while others merit a more grounded style. Many writers, once they have achieved recognition, rewrite the same book over and over. In doing so, they become prisoners of their own success and cease to grow as artists. I don’t want to fall into that trap.
My characters, for the most part, are composites. I take the personalities of several people and combine them into a single fictional entity. Pomeroy, for example, is based upon a few clients I supervised when I was a probation officer. Clients with antisocial personalities, narcissistic disorders, and musical ambitions. Chester Mahoney in The Siege, was inspired by a couple of the inmate preachers I met in the Indiana Department of Corrections. Inmates who were part sage, part con man. In creating a character, I strive for dichotomy. I don’t feel a character is fully-fleshed unless he has some internal contradictions.
YDA: When did you start writing and who has been the author one would find you reading today? Is there a writer whose style has always haunted you?
James Hanna: I started writing at the age of twenty-four. I rented a cottage in a tiny fishing village in Tasmania and wrote throughout the day. When I needed money, I worked on the crayfish and shark boats. I have been writing steadily since, but it was years before I got anything published.
The writers you are most likely to find me reading today include Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. I like their rugged, sensual prose and the starkness of their stories. I’ve also been re-reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Faulkner, and Mailer. Their books are as much a part of me as old friends.
The writer who had most influenced me is probably James Joyce. He uses many stylistic techniques in Ulysses, some of which I have applied to my own work. The Cyclops chapter, for example, employs gigantism where everything is portrayed as larger than life. It also uses myopia. The Cyclops character, a fierce anti-Semite called the Citizen, sees the world through a huge but solitary lens. I have used both techniques to develop Pomeroy, who exaggerates everything he encounters and thinks all women want to hop into bed with him.
In the Princess Nausicaa chapter, Joyce presents the world through the eyes of a very young and romantic girl. A girl who sees a stranger (Bloom) in a loving, unreflective light. I used this technique in “Honey Bunny,” one of the stories in A Second, Less Capable Head. The story is told through the point of view of Rebecca, a homicidal stalker. Rebecca believes that Annabelle, a woman she barely knows, is the love of her life.
YDA: Which are the most recurrent themes in your work?
James Hanna: Both Call Me Pomeroy and The Siege have anti-establishment themes. Pomeroy bravely battles “The New World Order” while Tom Hemmings fights the privatization of prison services, which has sparked a riot by prioritizing private wealth over inmate care. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.” In America today, I think we are close to the defeat of the American Revolution.
YDA: Reading your short stories, one feels that you are a master in showing how ordinary men and women react to extraordinary situations. Could this be an accurate assessment or is there something more you want to share?
James Hanna: I think my stories can be read at different levels. “The Guest,” a tale about a playboy who befriends a woman no larger than his thumb, might be viewed as metaphor for American consumerism. “Another Will Take Your Place,” which depicts the trauma of a rape victim, raises a larger issue when she confronts her assailant in a state prison. She finds out her assailant is a valued informant, and we are left to wonder: What devils will our government marry to combat larger devils? In writing a short story, my goal is to entertain the reader while enabling him to swim at different depths.
YDA: Your work is laced with a rare sense of wit and all too natural, intelligent dialogue. You inject life into your work with a lot of humor without sacrificing other stylistic points. If you were to share a quote from your work, which would immediately come to your mind?
James Hanna: How about something perky yet dark? Like the ditty Pomeroy composed after desecrating a shrine in Ireland and alienating “The New World Order.” Although he is once again on the lam, his spirit remains unvanquished.
The New World Order’s got us covered
They say our future will be bright
If we give ’em all our money
And we give ’em all our rights.
If we let ’em grab the planet
If we let ’em sell their wars
But they ain’t a jivin’ Pomeroy
Cause my pecker’s twice as large.
Another Pomeroyism I rather like is, “Write yourself a poem—even a fucked-up poem—and women are gonna mob you.”
YDA: [Laughs.] What advice would you give to young writers?
James Hanna: Read like the wolf feeds. Read everything: the classics, contemporary literature, the newspapers, the literary journals. Set up a writing schedule and stick to it. This means you will have to give something up. Revise, revise, and revise. And know that you cannot do it alone. Solicit feedback from editors and other writers.