Steven Hendricks is the author of Little is Left to Tell, first published by Starcherone Books in 2014, then reissued by Campanile Books in 2016.
His forthcoming novel, Now Beacon, Now Sea, will be out with Kernpunkt Press in March, 2024. Hendricks was born in Omaha, Ne. He moved out west to attend The Evergreen State College, then completed his MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has been a professor of writing, literature, and books arts at Evergreen since 2002.
little is left to tell
When did you start writing? And how long have you been writing fiction?
I've thought of myself as a writer since I was very young. I was trying to imitate Edgar Allan Poe in middle school and James Joyce in high school. In college, at Evergreen, I got serious about how to put words together well and how to enrich my writing with knowledge from other disciplines, and I delved into the history and theory of literature. It was always about fiction, never poetry or journalism, and I only ever really imagined working in long form.
What inspires you to write?
I get excited about writing that can escape what I know or think—I try to write my way into formal or narrative situations that I couldn't have predicted. I'm also really motivated to write by discovering relationships between texts or between literary and historical figures. Fundamentally, though, I'm concerned with the potential beauty of language, the meaning that erupts from the artful combination of words—even when it doesn't quite make sense.
What is your writing process like?
I begin with fragments, branching possibilities, and as I write I make discoveries about new narrative tensions or relations among characters. I took a very long time to work through different versions of Little is Left to Tell. I hope not to be so slow with my next book. In any case, it's a process of building from fragments, notecards, and narrative swatches into something that starts to take on a form that I couldn't have predicted. Once that form begins to coalesce, then I become part writer, part reader to my work, and I see where the interpretive process leads.
Do you have a favorite book, (or genre of book) that you like to read and reread over again? Tell us about one of your favorite works.
As a teacher, I do a lot of re-reading by assigning the same books. Some I never get tired of are works by Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Borges. On the more contemporary end of things, I adore Kazuo Ishiguro's novels and read David Mitchell for something light and fun. I like to think there's something in each of these authors that's identifiable as an aspiration in my work.
As a writer, what kind of books do you like to read?
I love to read French literary theory, the poems of Mallarmé, biographies, works like Sebald's and Calasso's that overwhelm with a combination of narrative breadth and encyclopedic inventions and scholarship (real or invented). I'm also inspired by the work of the Oulipo.
Little is Left to Tell weaves together fables, dreamlike images, and fairytale references. What do you find intriguing about these types of stories?
Freedom and play. The familiarity of such stories allows me to quilt them together into something unfamiliar without leaving the reader with nothing to hold onto. By creating stories that mirror and diverge from each other, I can construct a kind of fugue structure of narrative movements. Thematically, familiar stories of these types are the narrative structures that are pervasive in our thinking about our experience, especially our less-examined pasts. Playing with them in a literary text allows me to problematize narrative continuity and identity as part of the same ideological reality-consecrating processes.
How did the idea of this book come to you?
Many pieces came together over the course of a decade (or two). The central narrative of Mr Fin and David was first, but it was missing something. I wanted to avoid giving them a tidy back-story, and I needed Mr Fin to confront the tension between story and the "blooming, buzzing" confusion of experience. I was leaning heavily on the confusion, and needed the presence of story to make the tension real. That's where the rabbits came in.
You are a professor at the Evergreen State College. What inspires you in the classroom?
When students discover the truly enormous possibilities of human thought and creativity, the radical expanse of world literature that extends so far beyond the market-structured genre flavors pushed at them as teens, I see their minds open, their sense of hope increase, and their capacity to perceive the world in new ways expand. Creating the space in which they can achieve that is always the goal.
Do you have any personal experience of family members with dementia or hallucinations? Are their personal connections in this book that you can tell us about?
These aspects of the novel come from my interest in my mother's family. I met my mother's mother when she was already incommunicative and nearly immobilized by alzheimer's. I also met her books, in which she'd made copious notes. Learning about her and through her books and eventually about her son, David, was part of the inspiration for the novel—a rifling through their lives and all the quiet legacies I couldn't quite grasp but that I knew were there.
How did rabbits become such a central part of the storytelling here?
I started the rabbit story as a separate piece, based on the odd pictures and storyline in a 1950s era French language primer for children. Presumably for no other reason than our fascination with Alice in Wonderland, Watership Down, Beatrix Potter, Goodnight Moon, and other such iconic rabbits, rabbits occupy a special place in our collective image of childhood fancy. And of course, some of the characters emerged from bedtime stories I made up for my kids.
Along with being an author, you are also a printmaker. How do you weave together these two art forms?
I came to letterpress printing and bookbinding as an extension of my writing. I wanted to experiment with full visual and tactile control of what writing could be, to explore the range of forms that the object that contains language could take—beyond the conventional codex book form, and how other physical dimensions of the reading experience can become part of how we make meaning.