A Conversation with Cara Hoffman

Cara Hoffman is the author of So Much Pretty, a novel about the disappearance of a young woman in a sleepy small town in upstate New York. The townspeople of Haeden insist a stranger is responsible for her abduction, but journalist Stacy Flynn suspects otherwise, and she refuses to keep her speculations to herself. Told from the perspective of multiple characters, So Much Pretty is an insightful and beautifully-written meditation on violence against women disguised as a sharply-plotted thriller.

As someone who also grew up in a small town, I found myself recognizing many of the characters and the setting in So Much Pretty. (I always think of that Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes talks about how rural areas are the site of so many more terrifying crimes than urban places: "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.") Was setting the book in upstate New York something that came out of your background and your research, or do were you intentionally trying to write against the very American narrative of small towns as intrinsically safe, community-based, and "family-friendly" places? How do you think the book would have been different if you'd set it in a city?

I love that Arthur Conan Doyle quote. The answer to your questions is yes. I was intentionally writing a pastoral, one that would be more accurate than the literature with which we are inundated. The sleepy little town is not what we think it is, and never has been--especially for women. The book also came out of work and research I had done as a reporter and is about a place I know intimately.There's so much nonsense written about small town life and getting back to the land it's almost unbearable. The values in these places often embody the very worst of humanity; provincialism and monoculture and ignorance. There is a particular kind of misogyny that plays out as wholesome in these places and it's beyond contempt. So Much Pretty could not have been set in a city.

I think it's enormously difficult, even for writers whose work and politics are explicitly feminist, to write about sexualized violence against women without falling into the trap of sensationalizing it--as you say, "it becomes something that drives our aesthetics, becomes entertaining." How did you avoid doing that in So Much Pretty ?

It's not easy. We are so acclimated to being entertained by stories and images of dead or brutalized women. Whole genres now exist that actually focus on forensically examining--literally taking apart--women who have been sexually assaulted and murdered. It's very hard to get away from objectification. Even in death a woman's body is made sexual, objectified, must submit to meticulous picking apart. I think the obvious way to avoid this kind of necrophilic misogyny that dominates our culture is simply to have realistic portrayals of men and women. To focus on the perpetrator instead of the victim. And to reveal the banality of violence against women. The common everyday brutality that is anything but unusual, scandalous or sexy. The main way I avoided making Wendy White's death sensationalistic is through events that happen later in the novel involving other men and women.

How do you balance hope and anger in your everyday life?

That's the million-dollar question. I don't know that I do. I read Celine. I swim a lot. Swimming a mile a day helps. Any time I spend with my kid sets things straight. He's a very funny guy and he's a composer. I listen to his music and learn interesting things about theory from him and that certainly helps mitigate the darkness. I teach in the Bronx a couple days a week, and being up there with my students makes me feel more at home in the world. I don't know if these things make me hopeful really. But they're necessary.

Can you talk about what you're working on next?

I just finished a new novel, called Be Safe I Love You, due out in 2013. It's about a woman coming home from a tour of duty in Iraq and adjusting to life after the war. It's set in Watertown, New York. It's about Irish working-class families upstate, sibling relationships, climate change, and holy minimalism.

Some books you've read lately and loved?

Cynthia Carr's biography of Daid Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly, is excellent. I love Elizabeth Hand's writing. Daniel Woodrell's novels and short stories should be required reading, as should Gerard Donovan's Schopenhauer's Telescope.