Cara Hoffman’s SO MUCH PRETTY has everything I long for in a good book. For starters, the writing was so good I read the first two chapters out loud just for the pure pleasure of the rhythm and the prose. The story itself is about a chilling crime that happens in a small, rural town. But it’s the issues the book wrestled with that haunted me for weeks after I’d read it: the closed nature of small-town communities, the economic and environmental realities of industrialized farms, and the battle between truth and denial when a crime hits close to home.
I hope you’ll welcome Cara to The Nervous Breakdown, and I dare you to read the first chapter of her book and not keep going.
Talk to me about outsiders in this town. What is so threatening to the locals about them, and why don’t they let the new person feel a part of their community? And the flipside… what do you think the outsiders’ arrogance is about? What is about small towns that seems to create this dynamic?
Small town provincialism is truly repugnant stuff and Haeden is emblematic of this kind of provincialism. I think places that have been heavily impacted by the brain drain and economic shifts have it hard, have a lot of compensating to do. The old families in towns like these are actually the ones that exhibit the most arrogance. Outsiders often come in, like Gene and Claire Piper do in the novel, with high hopes thinking that they’ll be able to integrate or change things. But for all their sophistication they’re missing a bigger picture that is not lost on the locals, especially the poor locals. Each side sees the other as naïve and ignorant. This kind of antagonism has deep roots.
Denial seems to be a way of bringing stability back to the town following Wendy’s disappearance. But denial also creates a seething distrust and rage beneath the surface. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this culture of denial.
I don’t think denial brings stability back to Haeden after Wendy’s disappearance. I don’t really believe denial can in any way create stability. American political culture is steeped in this kind of denial, particularly in regard to environmental issues, gender, class and race. In many ways Haeden is a typical American small town and the things that happened there happen every day in America.
Two young women in the novel put a ripple in this culture when they take the courageous and dangerous step to confront it. Do you think speaking up and confronting denial changes anything?
I do! I think it’s really valuable, as I say in the novel, to pay attention to the obvious. Self-delusion is a dangerous and insidious thing. While I’m generally pessimistic about the possibility of broad political changes, I do think there’s been incredible progress when it comes to gender issues. And that a huge part of that progress is because of people confronting the pervasive culture of misogyny and the denial of violence and brutality that keeps that culture going.
As much as this book is about a mystery unfolding, it’s also about friendship and the creativity that can be born of boredom. I’m thinking of the Bigger/Better game, children braiding their hair together so they’re connected, and the wonderful, Wind in the Willows-inspired afternoons. That aspect of the book seems to get lost in the reviews, but to me it’s at the core of the book, and brings a measure of hope to this story.
I am so glad you mention this because it’s close to my heart and I do think it’s one of the foundations of the novel that can get overshadowed. So Much Pretty is about the life of the mind and a lot of it is brutal. But it’s also about how that life, that inner world, feeds us, how play that is rich and strange can make us smart and brave.
I’d like to end by saying how much I appreciate the poetry and the cadence of your writing. Which authors helped to train your ear?
Thank you. I’ve been influenced by a number of writers. Paul Bowles, David Wojnarowicz, Oscar Wilde. But as far as writing lyrically I think the thing that most trained my ear was my mother reading to me when I was a kid. She read me the entire Norton Anthology, James Joyce, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald. All kinds of crazy stuff you’d never read to a 10 year old. And I’m glad she did it.