This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

What it feels like for a girl

When Hilary Hamann’s “Anthropology of an American Girl” first came out in 2003, it seemed natural that this monster of a book — more than 600 pages, all chronicling a few years in the life of a teenage girl in the 1970s — would come from a tiny, unknown publisher. Epics about teenage girls had not at this point become a marketable category. And despite the odds, over the years the book found an audience, through word of mouth and breathless reviews. The people who read it seemed captivated by it, and wanted others to know.

When Vernacular Press shut down, a publishing company that was co-owned by Hamann herself, the book found a second home with Spiegel & Grau. It’s now being re-released in a slightly rewritten format, and hopefully it will now find an even larger devoted following. Hamann agreed to speak with me about the perils of micropublishing, the rewriting process and the epic lives of 17-year-old girls.

How did you originally come to publish “Anthropology of an American Girl” with the publisher you co-owned?

The decision was largely circumstantial. My ex-husband has a print and design company, and my background is in the arts. When the manuscript was complete, we decided, somewhat naively, to combine interests and talents and make the production company more artistic. My novel was the trial product, so I never actually sent it out to publishers or agents until much later. I say “naively” because the venture wasn’t sustainable. We had great ideas but not a lot of money. We were unable to do what commercial publishing entities do best; that is, invest in writers.

And to a certain degree, it’s a personal story — about the nature of family, love, home. When I wrote it I was driven to commit my ideas and my vision to paper. Then when I was done, I felt done. For a while I had no desire to go further. Ultimately, I had faith that the book would find its way.

Can you tell us about the origins of Vernacular?

The idea behind Vernacular was to create a space in which artists and writers could work, share ideas, test voices — first with each other, and then, hopefully, in concentric circles going outwards. It was an ambitious idea that wound up costing me a lot, not just in terms of money, but energy. Ironically, as hard as money is to come by, it’s often easier to come by than faith, optimism and courage. I spent a lot of precious time rallying people.

I suppose we succeeded best at helping visual artists, by providing them with a space in which to show their work. It was harder with writers, who tend to follow a different path to legitimacy — manuscript to agent to publisher to sellers to marketplace. It’s a matter of form. It takes a lot of time to write a book, and then of course you are asking a reader to read it. So there’s sound reason for the existence of a professional vetting system. One thing I learned from the whole process is that if that established system isn’t working for a writer, you know, if they’re sending out work and getting form-letter rejections, they might want to consider an alternate route that allows them to develop their voice in stages. Every artist needs feedback. Performance-based art — songs, dance, paintings, plays — can make deep impressions at a single event. There’s an immediacy of delivery and a directness of connection between artist and audience that books lack. Writers have to do all this advance work in solitude without any idea of possible reaction. Of course, self-publishing is much easier and more affordable now than it was even a few years ago.

What was the experience of playing all of the roles like publisher, writer, publicist, etc? Did you enjoy it, or were you gritting your teeth?

Well, there were other people involved besides me, and we were friends, so it was often a lot of fun. I enjoyed marketing: It’s like a puzzle, you know, trying to figure out people, their needs and desires. I also really liked editing, especially developing projects that I felt were meaningful, like a physics and art book I concepted. To be frank, the money part was scary; I was under pressure to mind expenses and keep people gainfully employed. I developed a huge respect for small business owners who have to sweat out those demands every day. It’s like navigating big ships through narrow channels. Worrying about the security of your own family is one thing; worrying about the families of others is altogether different.

The book is being re-released, not in paperback, but back in hardback by a major publisher. How did this decision come about? And how was the publishing process different this time?

When I closed Vernacular, the book was still very popular. I thought maybe it needed a second life. So I sent it out to a few agents whose names I found online. One of them, my current agent, Kirby Kim (WME), responded immediately and within two months the novel had been sold to Spiegel & Grau. It all went very fast, actually. I think the work I did self-publishing probably helped in that “Anthropology” had a loyal fan base and good reviews.

The experience with Spiegel & Grau has been overwhelmingly positive. Though it’s a major publisher, the group is intimate and hands on. I mean, basically these big companies are filled with people who love books, the same sorts of people you find across the board in publishing — from writers to agents to publishers to critics to sellers to readers.

The editing process was intense but collaborative. There was quite a bit of give and take. My editor, Cindy Spiegel, wanted to preserve the essence of the original while clearing up some of its density in terms of language. It had never been edited in this way, so when she got it, it was a little bit like the raw material of the imagination. And I am very happy with the results. I think the plot and the characters are much clearer.

I’m kind of hoping this deal with Spiegel & Grau is for two books. Any followups being scheduled?

I have every hope that we will work together again. I suppose the burden is on me to produce something they will be interested in publishing and the public will be interested in reading! I’m working on a novel that takes place in the Bronx in the 1960s and 1970s, where I spent much of my childhood. After all the natural beauty of the East End of Long Island, it’s been interesting to write about a landscape that’s essentially barren. Also, it’s partly about a Vietnam veteran, so writing from that perspective will be new to me.

I wanted to ask about the “American” part of the title, rather than just the “Girl” part. It seems from the bars to the music to the cars they were driving, the cliques and so forth, very rooted in an American town. But can you explain why you used the word “anthropology”?

I studied anthropology after graduate school, and naturally, there was a lot of discussion about people of others cultures, but not a lot of self-investigation. Americans were sort of uniformly written off as privileged, wealthy and oblivious to the ways in which their freedoms restrict others. My own life experience suggested otherwise, as did the experiences of my parents, grandparents and even great grandparents. Statistics show otherwise too. I mean, there are a lot of struggling and idealistic people in this country. And there are millions who live below the poverty line. I wanted to look into that contradiction in depth, and in a new way.

Cars and cliques and music and movies provide the architecture of the American experience. It would be impossible to describe a psychological coming of age without referring to these influences, because in America these things constitute all the missing pieces: family, religion, culture, history, political ideology. They reach us exactly when we express the greatest desire to be reached. We allow them entry at a time when we are most open and vulnerable. These are our borders, boundaries and alignments.

Though I was writing specifically of my own youth, the same holds true for every age. For my parents, the music of the ’50s and the ’60s shaped them, but their desire to be shaped was comparable to my own desire, which in turn, should be comparable to the desires of readers of all ages.

What made you choose the epic scope of the novel?

I wanted to take a long hard view of personal development in American culture. I decided to go back to the girl I’d been, and to other girls I’d known, in order to tease everything apart to find the ways in which we resisted stereotype or conformed to it. I wanted to study the idea of freedom and its applications and misapplications on a daily basis, and that took time.

I loved the way you wrote about the friendship of Evie and Kate. I’m a little tepid on broken relationship stories, but stories about break ups between friends slay me. Of the shifting relationships in the book  17 is obviously a very transitory time in a girl’s life — which was the most resonant for you?

I’m glad you mention that. I started the description of the relationship between girls exactly at moment in which it’s most threatened — when the expert intimacy best friends have cultivated with each other gets transferred to boys. Nothing more tragic than that transfer of intimacy “resources” has to happen between women. Though obviously there are exceptions, it’s safe to say that the pattern is the rule. Friendships between girls don’t crash and burn, they tend to disintegrate. Men are the beneficiaries of all that work!

Regarding my most resonant age, I’d have to say every year brings its own blessings and setbacks, comforts and terrors. But at 17 everything shifted for me. Exactly at the moment I was stepping out into adulthood, I fell in love, and that love sealed me in a way, and inured me to much of the chaos that ensues in the next phase of life. In a way, the experience helped me keep myself.