Interview with Jim Heynen

You've written poetry, short stories, young adult novels, and a nonfiction book on centenarians. Which form comes most naturally to you?

JH: The short-short stories. There's a groove in my head for them. I often polish them the way I would a poem, but they come quickly, effortlessly. I hope to write more novels, but they don't come effortlessly. I suppose they don't for anyone--except maybe John Updike.

Those effortless short-shorts you're referring to are your stories about "the boys'--that group of farm boys who inhabit the pages of The Man Who Kept Cigars in his Cap, You Know What is Right, The One-Room Schoolhouse, and your most recent selected collection, The Boys' House.

JH: Yes, those little guys. But many of the stories about the boys were published as poems--or as prose poems. An editor might take some of them and I'd assume they were going to appear in the fiction section--and, surprise: I'd find them squatting there among the skinny poems. This has happened lots of times.

So if editors don't know what they are, what do you think they are?

JH: Some of them are cross-dressers, especially the ones that are lyrical rather than narrative moments. I don't blame editors for putting these in the poetry section of a magazine. It just surprises me, catches me off guard and makes me have a second look at them. The label I prefer for most of these little stories, though, is tales, like telling. When I am writing these stories, it's as if I am hearing the voice passed down to me through an oral tradition. A really good story that has been passed down orally glistens in a pure and simple language, yet sounds natural, sounds easy--as if anybody could have written or told it.

Is that the effect you want? Stories, or tales, that sound as if anybody could have written them?

JH: Yes. I like that illusion.

But not anybody could have written them.

JH: No, but I think part of the pleasure for an audience is in the assumption that they could have. And part of the pleasure for the writer is in granting the audience that assumption. The art is in the illusion.

But, speaking of art, don't you think part of the craft in the short-shorts, or tales, is a poet's craft? Didn't you start out as a poet?

JH: Yes, and I do suspect that anybody who starts out as a poet, with so much attention to sound, to rhythm, and to condensation, is bound to retain the habits of the poet while writing fiction. And I like what the poet William Stafford said when somebody asked him what the difference was between poetry and prose. He said, "Well, you know, when prose is really good people say it's poetry."

You say that your stories about the boys come out of an oral story-telling tradition, but could you name any particular influences?

JH: I'd have to give credit first to the story tellers of my own rural Iowa background, especially one old farmer named Bill Rickers who told stories to anyone who'd listen to him talk while he washed eggs at night in a little shed behind his house. Bill Rickers was a real character of the neighborhood--and he kept his cigars in his cap. He inspired the title story in The Man Who Kept Cigars in his Cap.

Any literary influences?

JH: Certainly Chaucer, whom I loved as an undergraduate and then later as a graduate student. But also fairy tales. I read fairy tales even today--and now we have them in English from many different sources: Korean, Russian, Scottish, Italian, Native American. The list goes on. But I would name one book in particular that was really the triggering influence for me--Howard Norman's Born Tying Knots: Swampy Cree Naming Stories, published by a small press that existed at the time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Bear Claw Press. When I read that small book--and the naming stories were actually translated into lines, like poetry--I was reminded of the story-telling voice of my own rural tradition. Norman's book sent me home. The very first story about the boys that I wrote was the title story for The Man Who Kept Cigars in his Cap. I wrote the first version in the manner of Norman's Swampy Cree translations--that is, in lines, like a poem. But this didn't feel like the right form. So I rewrote it in paragraphs, in a version that is very much like the one that appeared in the book. After that, I couldn't stop writing others in a similar manner. I must have written hundreds of these tales about the boys in the years that followed. Just when I thought I was through with them, that I simply didn't have another story about the boys in me, a whole new litter would present itself. I think that story-groove in my mind is there to stay.

How much autobiography is there in the boy stories? How many of the stories are rooted in actual fact?

JH: They are more fiction than fact, though many of them have a grain of truth in them. Let's say, they're spin-offs from the truth. There actually was a dwarf shoe repairman in my home town, for example, and there was a goose lady who kept geese in her house. I always think that every interesting character from real life is like a dormant seed. Good stories from the imagination are waiting to be born from the good characters of our experience.

You never name the boys. Why not?

JH: The King had three daughters, one very proud, one very beautiful, and one very kind. To know that the king's name was Rutherford the Bold and that the daughters' names were Emily, Jennifer, and Kimberly would mess up this kind of story, right? I think to have characters with a nameless but clear presence is part of the oral story-telling tradition. There are some situations, some staging grounds of the imagination, in which certain particularities derail the story, take it out of focus or something, get the readers' or listeners' minds arcing in the wrong direction--away from the story. I tried writing a few in which I gave the boys names. It was like putting make-up on a face that was meant to go into the world in its own natural splendor. The names had nuances that invited localization and hence a diminishing.

You don't say how many boys there are either, but you do refer to an oldest boy and youngest. Are you the youngest?

JH: Yep. The picked-on. The ignored. The dreamer. The prematurely wise. And, of course, the smart-alek. I guess it's no surprise that the youngest boy in the stories is usually the voice of innocent wisdom. But, of course, I'm all of the boys. The oldest boy is closest to adult perceptions--and usually these are to be trusted the least in the tales.

Does it bother any readers that there aren't any--or at least not very many--girls in the stories?

JH. Girls are major characters in my two novels--Being Youngest and Cosmos Coyote and William the Nice--but I tried to keep the focus on boy-consciousness in the tales. I got some criticism for that in the late 70s and early 80s, a few even suggesting that the stories are hard on women. Which is not true at all. The stories are hard on men--almost too hard on them, I think--but I followed the impulse to contrast the boys' more innocent perspective against the harsher perspective of the men. But times have changed. Now some of the most enthusiastic readers of the boy stories are women who are trying to find something their pubescent boys might like to read.

Could you talk a little bit about your other books? First, about your nonfiction book on centenarians and then a little about your novels and most recent collection of poetry.

JH: I wrote One Hundred Over 100, the book profiling one hundred American centenarians, at a difficult transitional time in my life. Poems weren't coming, stories weren't coming, and I was stuck in an historical novel that I have never finished. The idea for this book came to me in a flash while I was jogging. Some of my literary friends said it would be a mistake to change my image like this, to write something that wasn't in line with other things that I had already published. I guess the implied argument was that a writer who has published a few things should forever thereafter conform to reader expectations of what they write. Good grief, I thought: if you dedicate yourself to the life of the imagination, shouldn't the imagination be allowed to do some fence-jumping, even switch genres if it is so inclined?! Why on earth would artists of any kind first unbind themselves from petty notions of predictability and then submit to somebody else's idea of what they should or should not produce? Where does that come from, a marketing sensibility? Wherever it comes from, I didn't buy into it. I got together with my photographer friend Paul Boyer and we traveled around the country interviewing and photographing people over one hundred. The book is out of print now after a good sales life. I sometimes jokingly call it my "social services" book, but it's been a very encouraging, comforting, even healing book for many people, including myself. Those centenarians were terrific people, showing all of us how to face those deep wrinkles which, after all, are reserved for those fortunate enough to grow into them. Statistically, over half the people who reach one hundred die within the next year. Only two people in the book died within a year after I interviewed them. I'm convinced that waiting for publication of the book gave them something to look forward to and kept them alive. And I know, from the letters I received, that the book with Paul's photographs gave many older people hope for their futures. I feel wonderful about this book, even though it was a real departure for me.

That was published in 1990. Then your biggest collection of boy-stories, The One-Room Schoolhouse, came out in '93. Is that when you started writing novels? Being Youngest was published in '97 and Cosmos Coyote and William the Nice in 2,000. Could you talk about those two novels a little bit?

JH: They're both young adult novels, although I didn't realize they were going to be labeled YA novels when I wrote them. Marc Aronson at Henry Holt, who for years was one of the most-respected young-adult editors around, has an eye for what might be called "bridge" books, ones that can bridge the border between adult and young adult readers. He was my editor for both books and an excellent coach--especially on such matters as pacing. Both books rely heavily on my rural Iowa background, but Being Youngest is aimed at a younger audience than is Cosmos Coyote, which is appropriate, I'd say, for mature teens.

And what about current work? The millennium started with three new books in 2001. How many new books?

JH: Actually four. If I go back to June of 2000, it would be five. Somebody said it's because I'm a Golden Dragon, turning 60 in the Year of the Dragon. They say Golden Dragons have a powerful year. Maybe so. I like to give credit to my wife's Knight Fellowship to Stanford in '99-2000. I had all the same privileges that she had on that wonderful campus. It was an exceptionally productive year. One of those young-adult novels, Cosmos Coyote and William the Nice, came out in May, 2,000. The summer and early fall of 2001 added three more books: The Boys? House: New and Selected Stories; Standing Naked: New and Selected Poems; and Fishing For Chickens: Stories about Rural Youth. The last of these is a collection of short stories that I edited. It is being marketed primarily to young-adult readers. And then, late in 2001, a limited-edition chapbook of little stories came out titled Why Would a Woman Pour Boiling Water on her Head?

Your new and selected is the first collection of poems since A Suitable Church in 1981. Does this mean you'll be writing more poetry again?

JH: The poems never stop. They just haven't been the primary focus of my writing life, though I sense that is changing. I've been writing more poems lately. Many of the new ones in the collection are centered on human relationships. Children. Man and woman. Love, especially love in middle age.

What next?

JH: I'm in the middle of a new collection of short-shorts that's tentatively titled Ordinary Sins. Some of the short-shorts from that recent chapbook will be in it. The farm boys are not in these stories. These stories are much more urban, filled, I would say, with urban neuroses, the ordinary sins of contemporary living.