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A Conversation with Hilary Thayer Hamann

Posted on 04 June 2010


By Marissa Maier

Sag Harbor-based author Hilary Thayer Hamann’s novel “Anthropology of an American Girl” was self-published in 2003 but a re-edited version published by Random House was released on May 25. Hamann is a former student of Sag Harbor Elementary and East Hampton High School, and the East End area plays a prominent role in her semi-autobiographical novel. “Anthropology” follows the story of Evie, from her teenage experiences growing up on the East End through adulthood. The Express sat down with Hamann to discuss the journey of her book.

You have a background in film and print. What prompted you to start writing a book?
I attended graduate school at NYU for Cinema Studies. After I earned my masters degree, I received funding to study visual anthropology in a program co-sponsored by the Cinema and Anthropology departments. The program was amazing—life changing. It was like a finely-tuned course of study that corresponded to everything I felt to be true on the inside.
What kept coming up in the course of my studies was the problem of identity. How does an individual construct his or her own identity? And the question of how a filmmaker makes a film that represents identity.
I decided to produce documentary films. I applied to the grad film making program at NYU. I was accepted. But my daughter was still too little. I ended up staying home with her. Every time she was asleep I would start to cull material from journals and my personal library. I used the time to do a lot of thinking and I decided to write a book. I still had a child to raise but I worked pretty consistently in my down time. Writing seemed to be the best possible world. It became not just a good outlet but the obvious outlet.
I am proudest of this time well spent. [The book] didn’t come up by accident. This happened because I was an educated woman who applied my thoughts to a creative enterprise.
I started with myself as a girl. I remember riding my bike and being thoughtful, conscientious and good. I tried to trace her footsteps forward. I looked at the narrowing of doorways as we age. How does this happen? Lets try to isolate the moments when the doorways get narrower. People care about the protagonist and it hurts when she sells out. At the end of book there is a reversal. Sustainability wins over upward mobility.
I think as a reader I wasn’t finding a lot of books that were speaking to those issues. I felt like women tended to be trivialized. We are the victims and the perpetrators of our own demise. [People say the book is too long]. It takes that many pages not to resort to stereotype. I tried to make this authentic to women who know this voice.

Vernacular Press, an independent publishing company you founded and co-owned, originally published the book in 2003. Why did you self-publish?
There are two answers. First because I could. I had a print and design company. We [my ex-husband and I] made books for other people. We wanted to do something really beautiful. That drove us. I never sent the book out to agents or publishers at that time. I was happy with the work. I could withstand an alternative journey for it.
There is also another side to it. The super structure to the book is a cultural investigation. I borrowed loosely from methods of social science. I tried to do something observational. There are a lot of details and also the discovery of the truth is very digressive. There are twists and turns. There isn’t a predictable linear plot.
The substructure of my story is in there too. There are relationships not only to people but to places that had always been privately held to a certain degree.
When I was done writing I felt done. I didn’t necessarily feel that I needed to be very public. I didn’t feel ‘if I don’t get this out to publishers then I am a failure.’ I know you can’t pay the rent that way. I also feel uniquely poised to tell struggling artists and writers that you need to not stop when you don’t get encouraging feedback from these anonymous entities.

The book became somewhat of a cult hit especially among women. What was the journey of this book from when you first published it to now?
Mostly women started to quote it on their blogs. It gained speed that way.
We sent it out for press to every newspaper. It received really good reviews but it didn’t get national press. We couldn’t get wide distribution.. . . We could tell that it was popular among women at really good schools who were concerned about the excess of privilege that they were encountering in their lives. As I suspected a lot of these women were being left out of contemporary culture. They were not being spoken to.
In 2007 I closed the publishing company. I still had fans of Anthropology, but there were no more books to sell. I received a query for the film rights from a substantial company and producer. It ended up not working out at the time. However this producer said ‘you should send this thing out.’ I sent it to a handful of agents and my agent called me immediately. I sent the book out in July and we had a publishing deal in September of 2007.

In an interview you said, “the difference between an autobiography and an anthropology is the difference between the story of one and the story of many.” How is Evie’s story the story of many?
I think she is a very roomy protagonist. It is supposedly the story of this one girl but actually it is the story of readers and she has room for all readers to fit inside her. When we talk about the book being autobiographical it is only in certain ways. I attended some of the same schools. Some of her footsteps I walked in. Many of those feelings I felt but possibly these feelings have been felt by you or many other women. It is autobiographical in the sense of having been a young woman who came of age in this culture.

You have a reading coming up on Saturday at BookHampton in East Hampton. Does it feel a bit more personal to hold a public reading of this work because portions of it take place in the area?
It is like preaching to the converted. Many are knowledgeable about the transition that has happened in the community from the time the book takes place. This is a place where people would come to hide out. It was a resort in the classic sense. You went away to a landscape that allowed for that. It wasn’t manicured privacy. It was overrun privacy and it would be nice to go back to that. This is where wild people retreated.

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