Writer Robin Hemley
Robin Hemley agrees to meet me on Sydney’s George Street at the southern end of the Queen Victoria Building. I see him first, watching the people. He stands below an inflated tiger, set up to commemorate Chinese New Year. Nearby, a magician pretends to sit midair – the metal seat holding him aloft invisible under his purple cloak – smiling at passers-by as they slow and stare. A woman wearing court shoes and a firm-fitting suit rushes by, her plume of perfume following. Below the flinty statue of Queen Victoria, a young man with a bare chest and chiselled arms sits with headphones over his ears, oblivious to the roar of traffic, to the bells tolling at the nearby cathedral, to the automated call from the wishing well. A dazed hospital worker, still in her scrubs, wanders through the crowd.
Hemley is meeting me to talk about creative nonfiction, about turning the ordinariness of our daily lives into stories. Upon greeting me, he excuses himself straightaway: “I need to get a photo of the grandmothers.” Facing outward to the traffic, a group of women have formed a line. They wear thick-soled sandals and shorts or leggings, and the same mauve T-shirts. All have hats on: colourful peaked hats, large-brimmed straw hats, floppy gardening-style hats. They chant in unison, “Let them stay! Let them stay!” Hemley steps forward and politely asks for their photo. The women smile, hold forward A4 signs in plastic sleeves: “Grandmothers against detention” and “One grandchild in detention is too many”.
As we walk away, pedestrians pour onto George Street, crossing horizontally and diagonally, lives intersecting for a brief moment in time.
We sit at an open cafe overlooking the harbour. Hemley wears a short-sleeved shirt and trousers with a sharp crease. Nestled in his brown hair is a pair of dark sunglasses, and around his neck his reading glasses hang, held together at the bridge by a magnetic clip. Tied around his right wrist is a plait of red and yellow thread, given to him a few weeks ago at a Hindu temple on the India–Bangladesh border. It was to keep him safe. Now, he’s unsure when to remove it.
Raised in America’s Midwest, Hemley grew up in a literary family. When he was born, Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer visited him in hospital, declaring Hemley would grow up to be “half-editor and half-poet”. Though Hemley’s writing career started with poetry, his body of work now includes collections of short stories, memoirs, essays and writing guides. Considering himself an eclectic writer, Hemley refuses to declare “genre loyalty”.
“I get bored easily and I like to be able to do more than one thing,” he says. “Nonfiction and fiction deliver different things. There is a natural process of moving between them. It’s difficult to create an authentic character in fiction, but there are different difficulties in writing a memoir, too. It’s not just gushing on a page. It’s how you order things, what you leave out, what you put in, the language. The hallmark of a good book – fiction or nonfiction – shouldn’t make a difference if it’s true or not.”
Nonfiction, he says, can be every bit as creative as fiction and poetry. Facts evolve. They can be manipulated. “Every time we’re putting pen to paper we’re fictionalising – it’s always a matter of perspective.” Memory distorts, he tells me, and inadvertent lying is always involved when we’re remembering things.
“Fabrication is unavoidable. There is going to be some slippage. As soon as an event is over, it is gone – no one has total recall … We often remember things differently from someone else who was there. That’s part of the unreliable narrator.” When writing nonfiction, Hemley attempts to render the setting as vividly as possible to the reader, “but it is not a journalistic account. It is a literary account. I am interested in the way we misremember things”.
“Often when we go back, what we find is disappointing, smaller than we remember. If you do something physical, rather than just recalling it, you’ve got the original memory and the re-enactment to write about. That can be fascinating.”
Twenty-five years after the death of his sister, Hemley wrote his memoir, Nola. The book is a postmodern “inventive” memoir, a sort of family scrapbook, made up of journals, artworks, poetry, and perjured documents. Emotionally, it was the most difficult book he has written. “I had to pretend that no one would read it, so that I could be completely honest. When I wrote it I was honest in a way that I couldn’t be now. I just felt at a point where I had nothing to lose by telling the truth. I told things that I had locked inside for a long time.
“I’m not a better person because I wrote my memoir about my sister, I’m probably a worse person in some ways. And I don’t believe in healing. Life is a battle about trying, and often failing, to be your best self, with no discernible reward except being able to live with yourself.”
For 10 years Hemley directed the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa, then in 2013 moved to Singapore to work as creative director at Yale-NUS College. Hemley’s advice to his students is simple: the more you write, the more ideas will come to you. There is no excuse for saying you don’t have any ideas. Just look around. Open a window. Look in the newspaper. Remember a room in the house you grew up in.
What a writer needs to discover, Hemley tells me, is what makes an ordinary life interesting. “You dig into motivations and try to figure out who someone is and why they do the things they do, how they think. No one really is ordinary if you dig deep enough.”
Hemley looks to his right, where a huge cruise liner is docked, the decks empty except for two people standing at the bow. Beyond the ship, Sydney’s brilliant harbour is lit up like a holy thing, alive with the movement of people, with their work and leisure, wealth and success, poverty, celebration, joy and despair.
Why are we so interested in stories about small lives, I wonder?
“Reading a poem, a novel, a memoir, tells us how to live. It shows us how to experience life, how to make sense of it. Sometimes it’s the only thing that ties us to other people, the only chance we have to get into another consciousness, because we’re trapped, pretty hopelessly in our own minds.” He picks up his glass and whirls the sparkling water around and around. “Stories tell us how to live, right?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "Lessons in life". Subscribe here.