A week ago, I sat down with famed Princeton creative writing instructor Gabe Hudson. Aside from being loved by his students, he is an Editor-At-Large at McSweeney’s and the author of Dear Mr. President. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, and The Village Voice, among other national publications. In this month’s issue of Esquire, he is labeled one of the “finest new writers in America.” Here’s what he had to say:
Ali Sutherland-Brown: What do you think of Princeton so far?
Gabe Hudson: I love Princeton so far.
ASB: What do you find most striking about its students?
GH: How open and earnest they are. How willing they are to engage with what I consider to be fairly difficult and sophisticated concepts – to really process that and to subsequently produce material that reveals the fact that they’re grappling with the stuff I cover in class. I mean, I just today got my May issue of Harper’s, which has a story in it that my student Tessa Brown, a freshman here at Princeton, wrote in our fall 203 workshop. The best part was, when Tessa told me her story was going to appear in Harper’s, she said what amazed her was that her story wasn’t even the best story written in our class that semester. So the students here have this rare combination of intelligence, desire, and generosity of spirit.
ASB: Do you read any of the student publications?
GH: I’ve read a couple of issues of the Nassau Literary Review and I’ve read the Nassau Weekly and Greenlight Magazine.
ASB: Have you ever even met Toni Morrison?
GH: I have to confess I haven’t.
ASB: What do you try to achieve with your classes?
GH: Honestly, and not to try to sound corny, I’m trying to create a weird revolution in my students’ hearts and minds–in terms of the way that they relate to language and the way they relate to narrative. I feel like there’s this way in which any one of my former students can talk to one another. They have this thing that they share because there are these narratological concepts we cover in class that get – I hope – at the bedrock of their existence. Basically, in the same way they say a great book will change your life, I’m trying to make my class the equivalent of a great book. I’m trying to change my students’ lives a little bit, only because my life was changed at a certain point by really great, enthusiastic instructors.
ASB: T.C. Boyle says every writer needs obsessions. So what are yours?
GH: Human nature and the human condition. And people. People are kind of my obsession in the same way that I feel like my writing is actually better and my life is better as a result of having these students in it who I’m giving to all the time because in some weird way, they’re kind of giving back to me. My other obsession is definitely American culture, in some sort of anthropological or sociological way. The study of mass groups of humans.
ASB: Tell me about how you became a rifleman in the marine reserves and what effect it has had on you as a whole.
GH: About the marines: I was raised as kind of a weird art kid. I played the violin competitively and rigorously. I wasn’t allowed to play with other kids. I had to practice two hours a day and my father read to me starting at an early age, stuff like Wallace Stevens and Moby Dick, and I didn’t really know what he was talking about but I liked the sound of it. And so as a junior in college, I decided to do this radical gesture and go into the marine reserves and to basically make my parents crazy but also because I had been reading this book Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read it like 15 times. I love that book. And as a college kid I went to have this experience for a year in active duty. Once they shave your head and throw you in a uniform and start yelling at you, in a weird way, its sort of like a monastery because you don’t talk, you’re locked in to your head. I was mixing it up with kids I would never meet on a daily basis. Kids who came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Sometimes they were kids who were going to go to jail but instead they came to the Marines. I came to adore a lot of them. Because your locked in so tight with them. It’s really intimate. So the weird irony of going into the marines was that I actually became more humane as a result. Like my sense of generosity just extended to a wider group of people, a group of people from different demographics.
ASB: Did that experience in the marines lead into writing about the Gulf War in your 2002 book Dear Mr. President?
GH: Yeah, except I waited awhile before I wrote that book. I knew there were all of these stories I wanted to tell, but I had to wait for my imagination to catch up with what I knew and what I’d learned from my fellow soldiers. There is a kind of metaphorical quality to the book, like there’s a third ear that grows on a soldier’s torso that comes to stand in for things. So being in the marine reserves had a huge impact on me writing the book. But I had to wait for my imagination to catch up with the facts that I knew. Also, I had this really strong sense that nobody had written a contemporary war story for quite some time and I knew we really, probably needed that. Because we had inherited all of these cultural myths from out Vietnam parents or our World War II grandparents and so you had Platoon, you had The Naked and the Dead, you had Catch-22, but what kind of war story would speak to our media-savvy time? I was really drawn to it because no one had done it. I actually completed the book right around 9/11 but while I was writing it, war was the furthest thing from peoples’ minds. But then it became bizarrely relevant and has continued to become so over time.
ASB: In one sentence, what would follow in a letter that began, ‘Dear Mr. President Bush…’
GH: I did this interview with the fiction editor of the New Yorker, the much loved Deborah Treisman, and in the course of that interview I claimed that I had sent a copy of my book to President Bush and that I said I hope you enjoy it, we’re both from Texas. Then I claimed that he wrote me a letter back saying that the book was ‘unpatriotic and ridiculous’ and ‘just plain bad writing.’ But when I did this interview, it was more like an SNL skit, where you know [that it’s a joke]. But weirdly enough, a bunch of publications ran with the story, and the Washington Post picked it up and Ari Fleischer called the Post to deny existence of this letter. Then the chief legal counsel from my publisher called me at home and said that the White House had been calling him all morning and said that he’d be willing to patch me through to the White House so that I could explain to them what I did was satire and that I did nothing legally wrong. So if I were to write a letter, that’s what I would say – ‘I hope you enjoy it, we’re both from Texas.’
ASB: How and when did you decide to become a writer?
GH: When I was like 4 or 5. I was definitely always writing little stories for my parents and they were always reading to me. I think I knew that I wanted to be involved somehow with that process.
ASB: What are you currently working on?
GH: I am working on a novel for my publisher, Knopf, and it is a war novel and I think it’ll definitely touch on this Gulf War but I’m hoping to do it in a way that’s really original because I feel like we’re about to get a whole glut of new Gulf War novels. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be well done, but I’m trying to do something a little different. Also, I’m continuing to write magazine pieces and I write reviews, like I’m working on this piece for DETAILS right now, I just did a piece for The Village Voice on Jonathan Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and then, of course, I work as an editor at McSweeney’s.
ASB: Tell me more about McSweeney’s and why you’re involved with it, now, as Editor-At-Large.
GH: Dave Eggers is kind of this genius and McSweeney’s is his operation. Eli Horowitz, the managing editor, is also brilliant. They’re great pals, and inspiring people to have in my life. First, I published a bunch of pieces from my book in the journal—and these days I’ll occasionally write something for the journal, if they ask for it. But the reason I took an editorial role with them is that there is an energy there, a kind of exciting energy, that says that books can be really important, that books can be beautiful. As a younger writer, I think it’s important to try and help create a forum and community for other writers, to carve out space for other writers’ work. So as Editor-At-Large I’m always on the look out for new work. Both story submissions for the journal and novel-length manuscripts for the books division. I love trying to find great work by young, unpublished writers, or better-known writers will send me stuff, or I’ll hear someone read something somewhere. Plus I read a bunch of story and novel submissions that are sent to me from McSweeney’s headquarters in San Francisco – 826 Valencia – which also happens to be a wonderful tutoring center for kids of all ages started by Eggers, and a store that sells pirate supplies. For people interested in this stuff, we have links on the Princeton creative writing program’s website, which I’m currently in the process of helping redesign.
ASB: Where do you see contemporary fiction heading?
GH: I think this young writer Salvador [Plascencia] will be really important. His novel, The People of Paper, which will pub in a month or so, is pretty mindblowing. But my idea is that there isn’t just one direction fiction can head. I personally enjoy all sorts of fiction, for different reasons. There’s no one aesthetic I want to push in my classes. Just wherever you want to go, I want to do everything I can to help you get there. And I’d like to think my students here at Princeton will have an impact on the future of fiction, either as writers or enthusiastic readers.
ASB: What’s your best advice for young writers?
GH: Read and write as much as you can – like your life depended on it, because it does. The most important thing, though, is not to be frustrated with yourself. Most people don’t know this, but every single published writer has written some really bad work – they just hopefully haven’t published it! So don’t get too upset if your work is not initially to your taste.