Artist Profile — James Hanna
by E. Branden Hart
James Hanna’s story, Call Me Pomeroy, was the Editor’s Choice in the first issue of Empty Sink Publishing. Since then, he’s been on quite a roll, publishing stories in The Red Savina Review, The Literary Review, and Zymbol. He’s also been busy preparing for the release of his novel, The Siege (Sand Hill Review Press), out now on Kindle and in paperback later this year. Mr. Hanna, a former probation officer, took some time to sit with us and discuss his writing, his work and, of course, Pomeroy.
Call Me Pomeroy was, quite honestly, one of my favorite short stories of all time. What was the inspiration of the story?
One of the inspirations was all of the clients I’ve known in my criminal justice career, particularly from my time as a probation officer in San Francisco. Some of them are narcissists–they have narcissistic personality disorders–and a few of them are rappers that do pretty well. Some of these rappers will electrify a whole cell block when they get going. So, that was one of the sources.
Another one of the sources was the locker room humor that I shared with some of my fellow probation officers. We worked a domestic violence and stalking unit, and it’s pretty high stakes in there. You have each others’ backs and you get pretty close, and locker room humor is a part of the bonding experience. There’s a lot of that humor attached to Pomeroy.
And then, I think what finally triggered it was a poem by William Butler Yeats: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; and then it finishes: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Pomeroy to me is Yeats’s rough beast whose hour has come. He’s been embraced as a hero of the counter-culture. So I owe a big debt to that poem, because it really triggered the story. I started thinking, how can I put together a rough beast and then Pomeroy came to mind. And then the story just about wrote itself.
Yeah, it feels like a very natural story. Nothing is forced, and I think that’s one of the things I enjoyed most about it: it felt natural, all the more because it’s written in the first person.
His misadventures continue in a new story called Pomeroy and the Rights of Man [Which will be published in our next issue. –Ed.]. In the new one, Pomeroy and his cohorts shanghai a ferry boat, sail it to Sacramento to join the protest movements there. He ends up saving his parole officer, Jessica Jimenez, from a pack of angry Tea Partiers.
What about Pomeroy—was he inspired by your career in law enforcement?
The character is a composite of several clients I knew. Some of them do have CDs and their raps are pretty good. So even though they’re on the wrong side of the law, on a musical level, they’re doing pretty well.
So these were men that were able to get out of jail and pursue a career?
Their music is pretty much contemporaneous with their life of crime. The interesting thing about criminal justice clients is they’re not all bad. A lot of them have strengths, a lot of them have aptitudes and you get to know them on different levels. And some of them, you pretty much becomes friends with, even though you may have to slip the cuffs on them and take them to jail. A bond develops with a lot of them.
That comes through in Pomeroy and your novel, The Siege—these characters who share a bond with the correctional officers. In a lot of your stories, there is a measure of sympathy with the characters that is kind of relieving—no one in your stories is good or bad—there are a lot of blurred lines. Is that a fair thing to say about your characters?
Yeah, because a lot of the staff members have bad qualities. So you can be more attached to an inmate than you would to a staff member. So the lines are very blurred. One of the themes of The Siege is when you enter the Void, you can lose your identity. Tom Hemmings from The Siege no longer knows where his loyalties belong, because he goes very deep into the Void. As Nietzsche says, look into the Void, the Void will look into you. And if you have a weakness, the Void will find it, and the Void will use you for its purposes.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about the Void. It’s a theme brought up many times in The Siege. What is your definition of the Void?
The Void is a shadow-land. It has pitfalls, it has seductions, and if you delve too deep in it, it is a shadow-land from which you never completely return. And having spent thirty-four years in criminal justice, I’ve been deep into the Void many times, and it changes you profoundly.
So even though you’re where you are today, you’ve never returned?
Not entirely, no. I’m out of criminal justice now, but I’m still being impacted by all the things I saw in that time. You can start to form a Stockholm attachment to some of the clients, and at that point, the administration looks like the bad guys. It’s as if they’re mismanaging things so badly that they’re putting everybody at risk who’s on the front line.
That’s a big theme in The Siege: the question of whether authority for the sake of authority is good. The tension between the top brass, the inmates, the commissary, and the unions: it makes you wonder how anyone in that position could do a job. Is that a tension you’re familiar with from your time in law enforcement?
Yes, a common theme working in almost any institution is that there is a great deal of disconnect and mismanagement above you. You’re asked to implement policies that are frequently exploitive, and after a while, you do start to question where your loyalties belong. So I did struggle with that while I was a counselor in the Indiana department of corrections. And the theme pretty much carried over to the San Francisco probation department. It was sometimes very hard to feel in allegiance with the management there.
Your short story, Another Will Take Your Place, was recently published in the Red Savina Review. It is a very different type of story than Pomeroy. It largely took place at a phone booth in a jail. What inspired you to write that story?
I was at a training session, and it was conducted by a woman who had been raped, and we got some startling revelations from her. It was also inspired by some sociopaths that I knew while working in criminal justice, people who are dead where their conscience should be. So I thought it would be fascinating to create an encounter between these two people. And I worked some ironies in there: where the sociopath is often nicer and more polite than the victim’s family. And then it’s also a political metaphor: to what degree do we marry the devil to combat larger evils? It’s obvious that the rapist is going to skate on many of his charges, because the authorities find him useful. So it’s kind of a metaphor for what the government may be doing following 9/11. How many of our rights are we going to have to forfeit so that we can combat greater evils? What devils are we going to bargain with so as to combat greater devils?
That’s also a theme from several of your stories. In The Siege, Tom often refers to the devil you have to marry. Is a lot of your writing shaped by a belief that we are often forced to choose the lesser of two evils in life?
Yes, because Tom, he’s a centurion, he protects the social comedy, but he doesn’t love the social comedy. He just knows that the devils he’s protecting are maybe a little bit more artful than the ones waiting to take their place. So it’s almost by forfeit that he allows himself to become an agent of the attack force, the commissioner, all that.
Let me ask you a few questions about writing in general. How did you first begin writing fiction, and when?
I wandered Australia for seven years. I was a cattle drover in the Northern Territory, I worked the barge runs, the crayfish boats in Tasmania, so that kind of cultivated it. I did a whole lot of reading, a lot of it by campfire at night, and then ultimately, I retired to a small fishing village in Tasmania, and that’s when I started to write seriously. I was twenty-four years old, and I’ve been writing pretty consistently since then. A lot of the writing I did was when I was sleep-deprived, I was worn out from the job, so it was kind of like writing with one hand behind your back, but the compulsion has always been strong for me. And I’ve been able to put together about four books now. And I’ve got a good publisher with Sand Hill Review Press, and I think they’re going to help me put them all together.
What’s your favorite story that you’ve written?
Favorite thing? It’s hard to say—that depends on when you ask me. Right now, I’m on a Pomeroy roll. I’m also very attached to The Siege, and I’ve written an epic poem on the Vietnam era—fifteen thousand words in anapestic pentameter with a varied rhyme scheme. It’s written in the tradition of Paradise Lost, and presents the paradox of the Vietnam era.
I’ve got another book entitled The Outback, and it’s going to need some polishing. I’ve got a two-book deal with the publisher: after The Siege, we’ll be putting together an anthology of my short stories. I think the third thing will the The Outback. And then The Exile—that’s the epic poem—I’m going to probably publish that last because it’s very hard to market epic poems today. But I’ve gotten some top flight rejections on the epic poem: James Fallows, Washington Editor of The Atlantic, liked it, and Robert Gottlieb, former editor of the New Yorker liked it. At some point I think it’s going to be timely to publish that.
Where do you write?
Right now, I write in my den, in our home in San Carlos. Before that, I stole time wherever I could I could steal it. It’s a luxury to be retired right now, and I’m writing twice as fast as I’ve ever written in my life.
Do you write in spurts, or all at once? Every day? How many words a day?
I write and edit four to six hours a day. I’m a board member of the California Writer’s Club, a writer’s group, and we review each other’s stuff, and I’m fiction editor with a small online journal called The Sand Hill Review, and I do some editing there. So writing and editing pretty much makes up my whole life right now.
Who are three writers you admire most?
I’m kind of a renaissance man. I’m not sure the greatest writing’s been done in this century. The three writers I most admire would be: Shakespeare, and the piece I admire most is King Lear. I greatly admire Milton, really loved Paradise Lost. I think Milton’s Damned Angel served as a prototype for many characters to come. I would also go with Joyce’s Ulysses. I loved the different styles he used in Ulysses. In fact, I’ve used a couple of his styles. In the Cyclops chapter [from Ulysses], everything is presented as larger than life—and I’ve used the Cyclops chapter in Pomeroy, where he exaggerates everything. I’ve also used the Cyclops chapter for another character. I’ve written a trilogy of stories about him. He’s a street thug—he’s not pro-social, like Pomeroy. He’s antisocial, but he also exaggerates everything. And the Siren chapter where everything is giving an allure and a sentimentality that it doesn’t really have—I used that in Honey Bunny [a short story recently published by The Literary Review], where the stalker sees everything in a romantic light that it doesn’t really possess. So my strongest influences are writers who wrote a long time ago, who are classics today.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could take one book with you, what would it be?
I would take the complete works of Shakespeare.
How do you celebrate when you find out your work has been accepted?
Every time a story is accepted, I’m walking about three feet off the ground for a week, and I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, because I’ve been placing a lot of stories. And what’s interesting is I’ve placed a few stories in the mainstream presses, but a lot of times, with the mainstream presses, they really like the work and they rave about it, but they don’t publish it. That happened to Pomeroy: it went to The Missouri Review, and I got a glowing letter from one of their editors, and I wondered—if they like it so much, why didn’t they publish it? Had The Missouri Review published Pomeroy, I think someone would have gone to the carpet with his job on the line.
So I’m really glad to see these new journals like Empty Sink, Red Savina Review, and Crack the Spine, that are unencumbered and don’t have to consider politics when they publish a piece of writing. And I think what you’re doing at Empty Sink is a terrific job. I know a lot of writers who get published [by smaller presses] who wouldn’t get published by the mainstream presses not because their work isn’t original, but because their work is too cutting edge and doesn’t fit the politics of the journal. Sadly, with a lot of university presses, each story looks like it was written by the same author.
Now let’s get to the reason why we’re here: tell me a little bit about your new novel, The Siege.
The Siege developed from my twenty years as a counselor and a program coordinator at the Indiana Department of Corrections. I spent most of that time in a medium-security facility and got to know inmates and staff members pretty intimately. The disconnect between the line staff and upper management—it was an attitude of distrust, and the distrust extended not only between management and line staff, but between the rival unions as well. I noticed there was a parallel between these and the inmate gangs, so I really got immersed in the personalities, the line staff, and the blurred lines between them, the Stockholm syndrome—which you developed towards the inmates. The struggle I had to keep my identity in an environment in which I began to wonder where my loyalties really belonged. Based on all this, I put together The Siege—it was a ten-year effort, and I had some great editors to help bring it to fruition. And I think I also have, in The Siege, a microcosm of some of the alienations that are developing in America today. So I think the book can be read on a number of different levels.
The politics in the book are very intricate, and to an outsider, it seems ridiculous how much prison rules and activities are governed by bureaucracy and unions. Is that hyperbole, or is that an accurate depiction of what certain prison environments can be like?
That’s pretty much what it was like. There were fierce rivalries between the unions, there were fist fights, there were attacks by staff on officers, there were attacks of inmates on other inmates. There were anti-government philosophies among not only the inmates—particularly the Devil’s Disciples and Muslims, who saw themselves as political prisoners to a great extent—but also among staff members. You’d see things on the bulletin boards saying, “The government’s going to take away our guns—are we going to let them do this?” or “They’re making us piss into cups—are we going to put up with this?” It was basically a pretty toxic environment—an environment of fear, distrust, anger—and probably it’s not that different from a lot of other criminal justice institutions.
I came to the probation department in San Francisco thinking it was going to be a change, and it was pretty good at first, but then the management changed, and it also became an atmosphere of distrust in which you pretty much have each other’s back—you rely on your partner, your partner relies on you, and you have a code of silence. And that’s pretty much how you function. I’m glad to be out of it. I went to the probation department last Thursday to collect my retirement badge, because I value that, and when I walked into the probation department, I just felt the negativity sucking the life out of me, because everyone who was there was frustrated with management. They were angry, and they weren’t happy to be there. And they were obviously envious of me—they were saying, “Boy, Jim, you’re lucky to be out of here.”
You mention the need for a partner, and I think I’m going to get the lingo right, but is that your road dog?
Road dog—yup, that’s what we call each other.
So that was obviously an important part of The Siege—the very strained relationship between Tom and Yoakum that seemed like, at points, neither of them wanted to be involved in, but it almost seemed like they almost just didn’t have anyone else that they could rely on. Is that something you’re familiar with from your work—only feeling you could rely on your partner?
You form a network of partners, and you get really close to your partners, because ultimately you have your partner’s back and he has your back. And you’re not sure who else you can even trust. It is an anti-human environment, but you find your humanity in your relationship with you road dogs, and that’s pretty common, probably, in any law enforcement organization. There’s a very tight bonding among the staff and pretty much a distrust of upper-level management, distrust of the clients, distrust of the public. So you form a very secular club among yourselves. I’m not sure that’s good or bad, but it does keep you sane—it does keep you going—and it does keep you safe.
Tell us a little bit about the main character of The Siege, Tom Hemmings. He’s a somewhat flawed protagonist. Any of Jim Hanna in Tom?
[Laughs.] There’s a whole lot of Jim Hanna in Tom, but I think it’s more than what it used to be. The way I am now, committed husband and pillar of society, isn’t nearly as interesting as the way I used to be.
The rewards are much different though, aren’t they?
Yeah. I really was a commitment-phobic at one time, was a bit of a rogue. And I lived narrowly on the surface of life. But that made a pretty good protagonist for The Siege, because we were able to have Tom transcend himself somewhat when he forms his attachment to [fellow officer] Sarah Baumgardner. This may be the first really serious attachment of his life, and he doesn’t even see it coming. And he finds it uncomfortable. Tom is entering a no-man’s land, in a sense, in his relationship with Sarah. So, yeah, there’s a lot of the old Jim Hanna in there, and thankfully, my editor gave me a kick in the pants and said, “Let’s let this guy evolve a little bit.”
And I like the foxfire metaphor: You only find foxfire in rotten wood, but sometimes it’s bright enough to read by. So Tom’s relationship with Sarah is kind of a foxfire, because they’re both deeply flawed, like cave dwellers huddling from a storm, but something genuine is growing between them, and something bright is bringing them together. And the foxfire metaphor extends to some of the other characters—Tom’s relationship, metaphorically speaking, with Chester Mahoney, Henry Yoakum, they’re kind of like rotten wood, but foxfire is emanating from them, and the foxfire describes what draws Tom to them—there’s something bright, something illuminating, between them, even though it’s emanating from rotten wood.
What about Chester? Chester plays a very central role in the story—it’s sometimes difficult to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Very silver-tongued. Was he modeled after someone you had experience with?
Yes—I’ve known Chesters. A lot of inmates have extremely good interpersonal skills—that doesn’t mean they always use them well. Chester has remarkable charisma—remarkable interpersonal skills, but he’s also conflicted—he’s tackling roles that he may not be completely equipped to handle. So he vacillates a great deal. His articulation is both a blessing and a curse. And in one of his comments he says to Tom, “I would rather I were mute Mr. Hemmings, but because I am articulate, I am lost. That which I would embrace today, I would too easily talk myself out of tomorrow.”
So he’s a man of many faces, and Tom is never sure which face is going to come up. When they go into the dormitory, and Chester makes this inflammatory speech, Tom is caught off guard, because Chester’s slipped into another mode. But then, he’s also a snitch, he also betrays the cause for private gain to get a plum assignment. So he vacillates a great deal, you never quite know where you stand with Chester. And I don’t think Chester always knows where he stands with himself. But I didn’t want to make him a demagogue, I didn’t want to make him a two-dimensional character. I wanted to get all these nuances and facets within him, because that’s what it takes to create a character that sticks to the minds of the readers.
That’s what I like about him. Were this a Hollywood movie—and it would make a great movie—Chester would be a one-dimensional, snake oil salesman type of character. As you’ve written him, you can see the struggle he has not only with the people around him, but with himself. It makes you wary of him, but it makes you care for him as well, and it’s a unique way to feel about someone you don’t trust much.
Chester is like a lot of child molesters that I’ve known in my line of work. They do exploit children, and yet they’re are pro-social individuals—they tend to be highly personable. In the penal farm, a lot of skilled jobs were performed by child molesters: they were the law clerks, they were tradesmen, plumbers, electricians, because they had jobs in society, they were just desensitized to their own behavior when it came to their obsession with children. So yes, Chester is a criminal, but he’s also a pro-social individual, just like Pomeroy.
How long did it take you to write the novel?
I worked on it for ten years, but I also took breaks, and while I was writing it, I also wrote nine short stories and have published seven of them. But it did take me a decade to put it together, and it went through four or five edits, and I had two editors working on it with me. It is a joy and a relief to finally have it written and to know it is going to be out on the market shortly.
When it comes out, where can people get it?
It’ll be in hard copy, but I think most of the purchases will be done on Kindle. It’s my experience that the face of publishing is changing, and changing very rapidly, and I think the day is going to come when bookstores become obsolete. Unless maybe you want to go there and buy a dusty classic or something.
Tell us a little bit about the Sand Hill Review, where you’re the fiction editor.
It used to be hardback, but it’s gone online, and I think it’s been swept up in the shift of how publications are done. It’s only an annual journal, and I think we’re going to need to change that, to make it biannual at some point.
What kind of literature are you looking for at the Sand Hill Review?
Pretty much the same that you’d be looking for at the Red Savina Review or Empty Sink—I consider us a rogue journal. And we publish the really good stuff that the mainstream presses tend to shy away from.
So what’s next? Any projects in the works that we should know about?
After The Siege, there’ll be an anthology of my short stories that’s probably three to six months down the road. Probably I’m going to revise The Outback—that’ll be coming down the road. Probably my epic poem, The Exile, I’ll probably try to publish that again; and I’m going to be continuing with Pomeroy. I asked my literary group if they could come up with some more plot lines—I’d like to send him to England or something in the next story.
Yeah—Pomeroy in the UK sounds like a match made in heaven.
I’ll be working steadily throughout my entire retirement.
James Hanna is a published writer, a three-time Pushcart nominee, and the fiction editor of The Sand Hill Review. He has recently retired from the San Francisco Probation Department where he was assigned to a domestic violence and stalking unit. James’ profile and some of his stories may be found at Will Write For Food. Another of his stories, “Another Will Take Your Place,” is available online at Red Savina Review. His short story, “Call Me Pomeroy,” was Editor’s Choice in the first issue of Empty Sink Publishing.
E. Branden Hart is Executive Editor of EmptySinkPublishing.com. He lives and works in San Antonio. His fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Down in the Dirt Literary Magazine, and Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology, which is available on Kindle and in paperback by XChyler Publishing.