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“That’s right where I want you to be.”

An Interview with Jere Hoar

by Robert L. Hall

 
 



After thirty-six years experience teaching journalism at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, educating future writers, Jere Hoar, at age 73, has published his first novel, The Hit.

Talk about your expectation levels. Mine was pumped. I grabbed the first copy I could on the book counter at Burke’s Book Store, bought it, and waited for the man to take his seat at the signing so I could hear what he would have to say.

To be honest, I expected some name-dropping, some anecdotes, perhaps an exchange of war stories with members of the audience about the ‘good ol’ times’ at the university. After all, this is a former teacher from Old Miss: that bastion of literary excellence and promulgator of Southern thought and taste—home to Barry Hannah, Steve Yarbrough and Ace Atkins, among others.

What I got was a humbling experience instead: a fastidiously neat, trim man with white hair and a perfect mustache, sharing his thoughts about his book in a modest way…a teacher’s way, precisely as he must have addressed his classroom of journalism students in decades past. He read passages from his novel and patiently dissected some portions for us, the listeners.

First, he made a classy statement:

“At these things I read the sexy parts of my book when my granddaughter is not in attendance, and the murder parts when she is…”

She was, so we got the murder scene. I mean, c’mon—you gotta love a guy like that!

I called him on the telephone for an interview a day after he had participated on a panel and given a reading at the Yoknopatawpha Writing Workshop in Oxford.

Can you tell us a little about your background and education, Jere? I understand that you were in the newspaper business and remember the old presses banging away.

I did feel the rumble of newspaper presses through the soles of my shoes when I was a boy.

I grew up in the newspaper business during the Depression. My dad served as a lieutenant in the Civilian Conservation Corps whenever he could, which was whenever the War Department activated his commission and assigned him a camp, oh…every few years. At other times he worked in the newspaper business. Just before WWII he signed a contract that led to his becoming part owner of a successful publication, The Southern Farmer. I began working for The Southern Farmer during the summers of World War II. I was about fourteen when I began. The old building shook when the big web-perfecting press pounded back and forth. I remember old-time letterpress printers who did the final justifying—that was a term for locking type into a chase—with wedges they carved from cigar boxes, and itinerant linotype operators who traveled from newspaper to newspaper, always able to get a job if they could set a galley of hot type an hour. Growing up that way, I have a strong affinity for old methods, and the feeling that was engendered in independent newspapers in those days.

Before I got out of high school I attended thirteen schools scattered through Utah, California, and every state in the South except Louisiana. That was thirteen schools, not towns; we lived in more than thirteen towns. Sometimes we only stayed a month or two. Although there are similarities state-to-state, moving about gave me an appreciation for the diversity of the South. Mississippi itself is diverse. Our hills, Delta, and coast could be, say, three countries or three provinces that share a language, but have powerful individual identities, different typography, and differing proportions of races.

To summarize the rest of my formal education, I earned a bachelor’s degree at Auburn, went into the service during the Korean War; volunteered. I got a master’s degree at Old Miss while working as news editor of the Oxford Eagle and the Journal of Southern Commerce. The University of Iowa offered an assistantship in return for my editing The Iowa Publisher magazine, so I had the opportunity to earn my doctorate in the first mass communications doctoral program in the world. Then Sam Talbert asked me to return to Old Miss to teach.

My greatest intellectual challenge was still ahead, and that was studying law under Mississippi’s old preceptorship program (in a law office) and passing the thirteen sections of the state bar exam. My work as a clerk for two years in a law office was fun, but the bar exam was a monster. At that time it was exclusionary. Ole Miss law school graduates didn’t have to take it, but graduates of every other law school in the nation had to pass all parts if they wanted to practice in Mississippi. In the twenty years the preceptorship program was in existence, about 370 students studied law by clerking and reading law. Sixteen passed the bar and were admitted to practice.


What are some of your thoughts about your teaching career at the University of Mississippi?

It was very rewarding to see the progress students made, to see their aspirations grow, and watch them go on to success. One of my students earned a Rhodes Scholarship. More than a few have shared in Pulitzer Prizes. They have worked for Time, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, New York Times, L.A.Times, Newsday, The Washington Post, Miami Herald, Boston Globe and many of the other major newspapers and magazines in America. They have held a great many influential jobs. One was a spokesperson for two Presidents of the United States. But I am equally proud of people who quietly do good work in small places.


What about your collection of short stories, Body Parts, and your first unsuccessful novel, Levitation? Do you have a story about that?

Levitation was a novel I wrote about an itinerant Mississippi evangelist, partially a fraud but also a chosen man of God, It was Southern in every sense, with a touch of the mystical. After it won the Deep South Writing Competition with Ernest Gaines as judge, I offered it to Flannery O’Connor’s old agent. She accepted it and was so convinced of its worth she offered it at auction. What she got back instead of bids were compliments about the writing. The marketing people in seven publishing houses apparently thought they couldn’t sell Levitation. Having had that experience, I resolved that the ideas in my next novel would be wrapped in a compelling and exciting yarn.


What about Body Parts?

Body Parts was a story collection. With great enthusiasm and interest I wrote and published short stories in a variety of quarterlies, because in the old days that was the way you got started. I didn’t know that some people leapt immediately to collections and novels, so I proceeded step by step.


So, these were done piecemeal?

Yes. I published about thirty stories in maybe twenty different quarterlies. During the year I was ill with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and the year in recovery, I entered unpublished stories in contests because I didn’t have the energy to write new ones. Having won some contests helped when I offered my collection and novels to agents.

I took three short stories out of Levitation--created three short stories, I should say, because chapters in novels are not written in short story form. One was co-winner of the William Faulkner Prize in short fiction with Alan Gurganus as judge, and it was published in Double Dealer Redux. One was published in Southern Review, and later included in a limited anthology edited by Barry Hannah. They both reappeared in Body Parts. The third story was published in Descant, a good quarterly.


How do you approach your work? Do you have messages you wish to ingrain into it, and what type of format or style characterizes your writing?

I’ll start with “style.” Some writers find a method, style maybe, or a theme they like, and their stories thereafter show similarity. I’m not interested in doing that. Everything I’ve written has been different because the challenge is to learn craft and grow through work. If I can give you an example: a craftsman in wood may learn to make a handsome and useful Chippendale chair. A demand develops, or he enjoys making Chippendale chairs, or he feels compelled to make Chippendale chairs to meet market requirements, so he specializes in them. If I were a craftsman in wood, that would bore me. I’d like to make a Chippendale chair, and then a Hepplewhite table, and then an Empire sofa.

The second part of your question was about message. I don’t hang a sign on a story saying what it means. In fact, readers perceive ideas in stories that the writer wasn’t aware of because the writer was working, in part, from the subconscious. I like to leave the possibility of discovery open. The major theme, as I see it, of The Hit is the disintegration of a man’s moral code. The themes meaningful to readers seem to be the fantasy of finding a lost love, and the fantasy of committing the perfect crime.

You asked how I approach work. I find excuses to put off starting. Once I get into a story and it pleases me, I can hardly stop working. Thackeray is said to have begun a new novel the same day he finished one. I certainly don’t do that!  But, when I have a story moving, my enthusiasm builds and it’s hard to think of anything else.


What about the characters of The Hit? For instance, I’m two-thirds way through the book, and I can’t tell if the woman in the book is going to betray the main character or if she is sincere? This intrigues me.

That’s exactly where you’re supposed to be at that stage of the novel! As I told you earlier, I wrote the book three times. The last time around I hit upon the device of Luke’s writing notebooks when in the Veterans’ Hospital. That enables me to do something one can’t do often in a fast-paced book: have flashbacks. I can use flashbacks because Luke is talking from memory, and a memory brings up another memory. My goal in The Hit is to speak clearly and directly. I want readers to look through the page to events and action, as they would look through a clear windowpane.

Confusion at this stage about Kinnerly (the lost love) is exactly what I wanted. I’m so pleased you feel it. That’s right where I want you to be.


The use of the device of writing in notebooks also tends to reduce chapter length. I’m already past thirty chapters and not finished yet. Did you use it because of the modern-day audience? They tend to have short attention spans due to sound-bite television and the need for instant gratification.

I like short chapters. If properly constructed they make a reader feel the story is moving fast. Some reviewers have written, and some friends have told me, that in The Hit the short chapters push the book along.

Attention spans have been shrinking. I do think, however, that different kinds of books act upon different readers in different ways. I’m rereading a novella by Tom Franklin titled Poachers. It has only section heads throughout, as speakers change or topics change, but I have no difficulty at all maintaining attention. The ultimate question is, what is the reward? Wilber Schramm years ago was talking about the ‘fraction of selection’ as it controls how we utilize mass media offerings. He defined fraction of selection as the expectation of reward divided by effort required. That means that if a story about a faculty sex scandal appeared in pig Latin in The Daily Mississippian the entire student readership would learn pig Latin. If it was in Spanish, they would find someone to translate. On the other hand, if the story was about storing clothes for winter, no one would make an effort.


What else would you like to impart to us that is memorable and that you can repeat to our Southern Scribe audience?

I would like talk a bit about my friendship with a man on the Ole Miss faculty who was important to me. Evans Harrington, a writer himself, befriended a great many writers, now established. I met him in the early ‘50s when he was teaching at University High School. Later we were colleagues at the university. He was end-less-ly patient. He would read beginners’ manuscripts and nurse along unpromising people.

When I wrote Levitation, I asked if he would read it. He gently criticized some of it, and as a result I rewrote several chapters. To my surprise he said, “Now, send it back.” I sent back the parts I had rewritten. He called to say, “Jere, I want to read it all.” So, he reread the entire novel. He was an amazing man.

After Evans died, I received calls from strangers who would say, “Dr. Hoar, I was a friend of Evans Harrington’s, and I know you were. He read my fiction. I wonder if you would be willing to do it, too.”  Each time, I realized afresh how great was his reach. . .how many people he had helped.


What are you working on now?

. . .a new novel, a mystery. And, rather than being driven by the puzzle, as most mysteries are, it is character-driven. As a reader I am most interested in books that provide a full reading experience. I’m not interested in formula. An article on writing mysteries in one of the prominent books on the field says the rules for writing a mystery are as formulaic as the rules for writing a sonnet. If that’s true it makes clear to me why I haven’t found many mysteries interesting I decided to see what would happen if I ignored formula.
 

What advice would you give to new writers?

The most formidable barrier some beginners face is timidity. What they feel is, “This is too private to share. I don’t even want people to know I think this. I’m afraid of what my mother will say, or my friends. I’m not sure that I want anybody to read this because I can’t stand to be criticized.”

A number of people tell me they are writing, and add, “I couldn’t show my work to anyone, of course!” Well…why are they writing? People have to overcome that reluctance.

Secondly, they must be persistent. I’m a firm believer in rewriting. To be effective a beginner has to allow time between the completion of a work and the rewrite. Everything is not on the page at first try…part is still in the writer’s head.

Third, they must study markets, study them thoroughly. It’s a waste of everyone’s time to for work to be sent to a publication that has no possible use for it.

Networking is important. People who attend a good MFA writing program have an advantage in networking. Many of the students will become writers. The teachers are writers. That combination results in a ready-made list of contacts.

It helps all beginners to participate in conferences and workshops. There, new writers have an opportunity to meet agents, publishers, and editors in addition to getting useful tips and instruction.


Mississippi Writers Page: Jere Hoar
http://www.olemiss.edu/mwp/dir/hoar_jere/
 
The Jere Hoar Scholarship has been established in the University of Mississippi College of Journalism.  To contribute to the Hoar Scholarship fund, contact the University Foundation at 662-915-5944.
 
 
 
The Hit
By Jere Hoar
Context Books, 2003
Hardcover, $24.95 (292 pages)
ISBN: 1-893956-34-2

      Southern Scribe Review

 

 


Body Parts
by Jere Hoar
University Press of Mississippi, 1997
Hardcover (286 pages)
ISBN: 1578060192

 

 

 

 

© 2003, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved