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James Hannaham:'No' and tell
2009-07-01

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by Sarah Terez Rosenblum

Writer James Hannaham's buzz-generating novel God Says No tells the story of Gary, a young, God-fearing Floridian who finds himself George Michael-ing it up in a rest stop just before his wedding. What follows is a funny, heartbreaking quest for redemption, as Gary struggles to alter rather than accept himself.

Hannaham spoke recently with Windy City Times about everything from possible future projects to why Barack Obama would make a bad fictional character.

Windy City Times: God Says No was published by McSweeney's, a small press. Is that something you'd recommend to other writers?

James Hannaham: I wouldn't recommend it to someone trying to write the next Da Vinci Code, you know, who wants to see their book advertised in the subway. You have to find the right person at the right house, that's really the trick. The book kind of suited a smaller press mentality; it just worked a lot better than looking for agents. That's sort of my motto: Whatever works.

WCT: What does your writing process look like?

JH: It's mostly procrastination—I mean it looks like procrastination, anyway. I think writers don't give themselves credit for the part of writing that is thinking. I used to think that playing Tetris was actually procrastinating because I wasn't generating pages, but I've realized that sometimes paying a videogame sort of changes my consciousness. It changes your level of concentration, although I shouldn't speak for everyone. You play for a little bit and hopefully, if you're not just a complete addict, you stop at a certain point because you're totally sick of yourself, and at that point you'll be in a different frame of mind, a more concentrated state of consciousness. I feel like I'm beginning to sound like some sort of guru.

WCT: A videogame guru?

JH: Yes, in order to write you must play video games. I find that a good game of Scrabble, as long as I can limit it to one, is also a good way of focusing my concentration, because I'm thinking about words already, and I can think about what I'm about to do before I actually get to the part where I write.

WCT: It seems as if all of the reviews of your book have been positive. Have you dealt with any negative ones?

JH: Actually, I thought the Austin American Statesman was a kind of mixed review; I'm glad you didn't find it. It accused me of moralizing, which I sort of went out of my way not to do. I think what the reviewer was really responding to, and perhaps legitimately, was that there were not so many positive role models for young gay men in the book. I think that's probably because I find positive role models a little dull, and they don't make good fictional characters because of that—unless they're people who are about to fall from their lofty perches. The idea of the fictional character as a positive role model is sort of empty for me. Although I love positive role models in real life. Love Barack Obama, but he'd make the worst fictional character ever. Hey, what's gonna happen to this guy? Oh, he's just gonna keep doing great things and oh look, he became president. His life is gorgeous. Nobody wants to read that book.

WCT: Speaking of role modeling, as a gay writer—if indeed that's how you identify—do feel any sort of responsibility to represent in a certain way?

JH: Well, I mean, take your pick. I could be representing as a Black writer too, couldn't I? I could be representing as a left-handed writer. It could be anything. It doesn't particularly matter to me. It's really for other people to worry about. And they do. I think all of those categories and definitions are being blurred by lots of different talented people and that just opens doors for everyone to do what they want and that's what artists should be able to do, whatever they want—within reason, obviously.

WCT: In terms of salability, do you worry about getting pigeonholed as a gay or a Black writer?

JH: That's such a marketing question. I'm trying not to worry about that. I have at least the advantage of being sort of dually pigeonholeable and that confuses things a little bit. Black? Gay? What the heck is this? If it turns people off, that's a shame. But if it actually gets people to read who wouldn't necessarily have read, I'm happy with that.

WCT: Promoting your book has probably swallowed your life for the moment, but do you have any new ideas germinating?

JH: I have a couple of things that I'm working on. One of them may actually end up being a thing that I want other people to see. I'm being very secretive. Apparently I'm keeping it a secret from myself, too.


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