“Interview with Annie Hartnett”
by Joe Walters
Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake (Tin House Books, 2017). She is a 2013 graduate of the MFA program at the University of Alabama, a 2011 graduate of the Bread Loaf School of English, and a 2008 graduate of Hamilton College. Annie was the 2013-2014 Writer-in-Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library. She currently teaches classes on the novel and the short story at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. She is currently at work on her second novel. Annie is represented by Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates, Inc. Annie lives in Providence, RI with her husband and their border collie.
Read our book review of Rabbit Cake here, or scroll below for our interview with Annie Hartnett.
Questions Readers Want to Know:
JW: Annie, thank you so much for sharing Rabbit Cake with us. I had an incredible time flying through its pages, urged-on by Elvis’s hilarious voice and the novel’s consistently building storyline. I’m curious though—what was the first idea that made you begin this project?
AH: I’m so thrilled you liked the book! Means so much to hear. The initial idea was to write about a family of sleepwalkers. I love books that are a little bit strange, a little off-kilter from reality, but not too far off. Sleepwalking is one of those things that is an unbelievable true thing. I wanted to explore it as if it was a family disease. That was the initial seed that Rabbit Cake grew from.
JW: Rabbit Cake must have required hours of research. From animal sleeping habits to sleepwalking, Elvis could inform the reader of fun facts galore. It made us wonder: Did you bake or eat any rabbit cakes for your research? If so, how were they?
AH: I did indeed do a ton of research into the animal facts, but I only baked two cakes during the writing process…and not really as research, but to bribe my MFA thesis committee into letting me pass my defense. (Rabbit Cake started out as my MFA thesis at U of Alabama.)
JW: The grieving process looks different to each and every one of your characters in the novel. But one thing that stood out to me is that the females and males respond to grieving in drastically different ways: the females springing to action and the men curling inward. Was this something you set out to do, or did your characters’ singular personalities take over?
AH: I think maybe it’s more accurate, at least in terms of my intentions with the book, to say that it’s a difference between children/adults rather than male/female. Elvis, in particular, as our young narrator, a kid with a scientific mind, thinks the grief is a problem to be solved. The father, Frank, being older and more experienced, understands that there is no real way to solve grief after a terrible loss. It’s just something you ride out…I think that explains Frank’s curling in, or at least my intention with it.
JW: Elvis Babbitt manages to tell the story of her grieving family with humor, clarity, and hope. What do you believe that a reader can learn most from a child narrator that they wouldn’t be able to learn from an adult?
AH: I think the daunting thing about writing any book is accepting that someone else has already told pretty much the same story – so what I like about the child narrator is that even If a story is the same as another, this character hasn’t experienced it before. Elvis has nothing to compare her loss to, she’s the only kid she knows who has a dead mom. It felt like a fresh place to write for me. Plus, Elvis as a character is just so fun to write because I love the weirdness of kids. They can really startle you with their insight and not be aware that they’ve been insightful at all.
JW: What is one thing that you’d like to tell your readers before they start Rabbit Cake?
AH: No rabbits were harmed in the making of the cakes.
Questions Writers Want to Know:
JW: I believe that writers could learn a lot from this novel: voice, structure, description, and way more. It seems like Rabbit Cake came out of your head as an already finished product. But how long did it take for you to complete, and how much did it change before and after Katie Grimm and Masie Cochran got to it?
AH: I’ll take that compliment! The voice did come to me from the first draft, and I knew there was magic in that voice if I stuck with it. The structure was something I had to work towards, on my own and later with Katie and Masie. That’s part of learning how to write a novel versus a short story, I think, learning to build towards something over a long stretch of pages. In terms of how long it took me, I started it in April 2012, Katie sold it to Masie in July 2015. It came out in 2017. It takes a long time.
JW: The characters feel real in Rabbit Cake—and not just the humans. From a dog named Boomer to a parrot named Ernest Hemingway, what advice could you give a writer for creating sympathetic and entertaining animals in fiction?
AH: Oh I love this question and not one I’ve been asked before! I’m an animal freak, and I always have been. Boomer was based entirely on Harvey, my border collie I had while writing the book, so I just put all his little quirks and funny habits in there. For Ernest, I watched a ton of parrot videos to get to his character. Youtube is your friend when observing animal behaviors. One of the few good things about the internet. Animal videos.
So my tips to create lifelike animal characters, I suppose, is to pay attention to their personality quirks. And just like human characters, you don’t want to make your animal characters too perfect. I mean Boomer is nearly perfect, but he does do some naughty things and he also fails, in some way. Ernest can be pretty nasty. That nastiness, or naughtiness, is something that will bring an animal character to life.
JW: Has your writing or your writing process changed since the publication of your first novel?
AH: Yes and no. When it’s going really well, it hasn’t changed: I’m just at my desk (or in my bed!), telling myself a good story. When it’s not going well, I’m thinking too far ahead to the publication process. When you’re writing a novel, you have to try to stay right in the moment, right in the story, so you can really bring the whole thing to life. The work is the best part anyway. Publication is great, but, for me, it is the work that holds the real pleasure.
Thank you for reading “Interview with Annie Hartnett” by Joe Walters! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.