Welcome to our new interview series, “Contributors’ Corner,” where we open the floor each week to one of our contributors to the journal. This week, we hear from Justin Hamm, whose three stories appear in HFR 3.3.
Justin Hamm is the founding editor of the museum of americana and the author of the chapbooks Illinois, My Apologies (RockSaw Press, 2011) and The Everyday Parade/Alone With Turntable, Old Records (Crisis Chronicles Press, 2013). His work, fiction and poetry, has appeared in Nimrod, Hobart, Cream City Review, The Rumpus, Punchnel’s, and a host of other publications. Recent work also won The Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Award from the St. Louis Poetry Center.
Since this Q&A was conducted a few months ago, Justin’s full-length collection Lessons in Ruin was picked up by Aldrich Press. It will be released September 1st and will be available for preorder through his website July 1st.
Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
The point at which the Midwest began to matter to me as a person and, eventually, as a writer continues to be an important shift. This change came about probably five, six, seven years ago now. I don’t know if I could pinpoint a precise catalyst, if it was losing my mom or having our first child or the long commute through the ragged heart of rural Missouri every morning and afternoon, but something made me want to look more closely at my home region. I was surprised to learn that I loved it and had always loved it, imperfections and all, which made it far easier to embrace my natural voice instead of overcompensating and forcing the fireworks as I might have done in the past.
What are you reading?
I always have a number of books in different genres going at the same time. One thing I’m deep into right now is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. I’m a late comer to comics and graphic novels, so I’ve been tearing through everything with speech balloons for about six or seven months now. For the record, Sandman is incredible, as good as every word that’s been written about it.
I’m also rereading a book by Rob Young called Electric Eden, which is about the English folk revival and its evolution into the psychedelic folk of bands like The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention in the late sixties and early seventies. It took me four months to read this one the first time around back in 2012 because I kept stopping to listen to music I’d never heard. And I’m rereading it now because there are still bands I missed on that first pass. I’m really interested in how these groups like Fairport and Steeleye Span combined the archaic with the contemporary to varying degrees—it’s something I’d like to do in my stories and poems.
Speaking of poems, my current poetry pick is Speculative Music by Jeff Dolven. I’m still trying to decide what I think.
Oh, and I’m a school librarian for kids K-12, too, and have a five-year-old and a nine-month-old of my own at home. So at any given time I might be reading the latest Mike Lupica book or Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie or the next adventure of Pinkalicious. Maybe a little Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? for the baby.
Can you tell us what prompted your stories in HFR?
I have three small stories in Heavy Feather Review. “Big Pink” is a story that came about because there really is, or at least was, a house not far from mine that looked exactly like Big Pink. Whoever owns it has since repainted, but whenever I’d drive by, I’d imagine Dylan and the band in that basement garage inventing the music genre we call Americana. The rest of the story, the philosophy, the language, the character and his particular issues—all of these grew up out of the dirt of that initial image. I felt like there were things here I knew but didn’t know I knew, and in the process of invention, the progression of sentences taught me where and how I might say them.
“Birthday” was another piece that started with a strange image. I kept imagining a typical birthday party populated by a typical dysfunctional family, only a resurrected James Fenimore Cooper was there, sort of just hanging out, sheepishly, on the outskirts of the festivities. Which I doubt is something the real Fenimore Cooper would have done, since he was known to be arrogant. Who knows, maybe death tempers the ego? Anyway, calling Fenimore Cooper Fenimore Cooper comes from Mark Twain’s famous essay in which he rips his literary predecessor apart for lack of verisimilitude.
Come to think of it, it probably isn’t even correct to say his name that way. I don’t think we refer to Lee Harvey Oswald as Harvey Oswald, right? But I liked how the name sounded, as Twain no doubt did even as he was hurling hand grenades at Fenimore Cooper’s reputation.
“One Day My Heart Filled Up with Missouri” sat a little longer than the others, so I don’t remember exactly where it came from. When I finally got ready to send it out, I do remember liking for a minute that it unfolded in a Ulysses-type way, wandering from place to place. I wish I could say I did that on purpose. It would make me look a lot smarter.
What’s next? What are you working on?
Right now, I’m sending around two new chapbook manuscripts—one stories and one poems—and trying to get my full-length poetry collection into shape. There are other projects I’ve begun early work on but I’m afraid speaking them aloud might curse them.
Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
Honestly, I’ve probably gone on too long as it is. So I’ll just list some awesome things and put multiple exclamation marks after them to indicate my fanaticism. Maurice Manning poems!!!!Dunkin’ Donuts coffee!!!!Prairie Wind by Neil Young!!!!dilapidated barns!!!!tater tot casserole!!!!respecting public school teachers!!!!the Mississippi River!!!!reading to your children!!!!social media fasting!!!!the number 34!!!!not spying on the public!!!!