Alice Hatcher’s debut novel, The Wonder that Was Ours, was published by Dzanc on September 4. I interviewed Alice for the Masters Review about her book, asking all sorts of burning questions I had about it. However, we got a little carried away, talking to each other, and some of the questions and answers had to be trimmed for space. I post them here for anyone who wants to dive a little deeper into Alice’s perspective as a writer.
I noticed early on that the cockroaches who narrate the novel are not intended to be Disneyfied, anthropomorphized critters. Tell me about how you achieved this. The Disney posture toward talking animals is such a default at this point that it must have been a challenge to avoid it.
Now, we’re getting into the murky depths of my psyche. I went to Disneyland once when I was four, and I had a complete meltdown. One of my earliest memories is having a five-foot Donald Duck stepping into my path to talk to me about my ice cream cone. The duck’s skin-tight sailor jacket and the bulge of feathers beneath it just emphasized that he wasn’t wearing pants. I started screaming and crying, and even my dad couldn’t get control of the situation. Donald Duck’s expression never changed. His massive plastic eyes just drove home my helplessness in a perverse reality where my terror meant nothing.
This is probably more than you wanted to know about how Disneyland screwed with my earliest ideas about sexuality and male figures flashing their feathery junk. But really, the Disney version of reality is so twisted and creepy, and it doesn’t do much to instruct people about real feelings or reality, or for that matter, the importance of wearing pants in a public place frequented by young children.
My mother would certainly agree with you. She hates Disney.
I already like your mother. To get to your question, I wanted to make the roaches likeable, but not cute or human. If I anthropomorphized them too much, I would have undercut their ability to serve as a foil to humans, and to provide pointed commentary on human greed and violence. I tried to think like a roach and focus on what roaches would notice. My cockroaches are most preoccupied with food and with the ongoing struggle to survive the onslaught of humans. That said, they also appreciate good literature, music, and air conditioning.
But no, they aren’t Disney creatures. They don’t walk around half-dressed, strolling through parks in the top-halves of sailor outfits, freaking out kids who might be interested in real bugs and ducks if they were more in touch with nature. My novel is partly about our abuse of the natural world, which we seem happy to pave over for so many Disneylands.
You mentioned in the interview that even after getting a Ph.D., and knowing that you wanted to write a novel, you felt like you needed more structured education in the craft of writing. This is part of why I got an MA, even though an MFA is so much more common. I felt like I needed an academic foundation, not just practice at writing.
I considered getting an MFA, but the thought of returning to school after graduating from 28th grade was more than I could handle. So, I formed a literary fiction book club specifically for writers who weren’t interested in cheese cubes and wine. Its members were all aspiring novelists without MFAs, and we were desperate to learn craft. No snacks were allowed, so we could stay focused. We had homework. We wrote essays about novels. We even drew up an elaborate manifesto detailing our aims and protocols. A few people felt overwhelmed and dropped out because the “whole operation” was “run by dictators.” They were probably right. The only thing we didn’t have was uniforms.
Can I join this? Please?
If you move to Tucson, I’ll show you the secret handshake. A friend and I started the whole thing by advertising online, and the group quickly got so large that we had to interview people who wanted to join. We took the book club, and probably ourselves, way too seriously, maybe, but we learned a lot. The goal was to find out what was working or not in every book we read. No one was allowed to say “I couldn’t get through it,” or “I liked it because it reminded me of this cousin of mine.” We had to figure out what the author was trying to do, and how the author used craft to accomplish a goal.
What kinds of books did you read?
Everyone in the book club decided we needed to train like athletes and maintain a strict diet. We read really challenging work. The authors that most spoke to me and certainly set an impossible bar include James Baldwin, Richard Flanagan, Toni Morrison and Albert Camus. I’d read them before the group formed, but I finally had a chance to read their works from a writer’s perspective.
They provided daunting examples of how to address moral and ethical questions without losing sight of the story. James Baldwin was the king of managing a diverse ensemble cast. Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish proved that anything is possible on the page. Camus reminded me that a moral stance is possible in a world filled with uncertainty and absurdity. Toni Morrison? What can I say?
When I talk about a high bar, I feel like the short kid who keeps jumping up to grab hold of a bar on the playground and never even feels metal brushing her fingertips.
All we can do is nourish ourselves with great work and hope to grow taller.