Arna Bontemps Hemenway

Alumnus, 2004

Arna Bontemps Hemenway attended the Workshop in fiction in 2004. He is the author of Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books), winner of the 2015 PEN/Hemingway Award, finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.

Where are you living and what brought you there?

I live in Iowa City, with my wife and baby daughter. I came here a few years ago to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I received my MFA in Fiction.

Where are you working and what do you enjoy about it?

I work as an Instructor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. I especially enjoy teaching creative writing because it is so different from what most undergraduate students experience in the classroom. Creative writing–and particularly fiction writing, which is my specialty–is an essentially empathetic exercise, and it’s rewarding to see my students open up to and invest themselves in something so humane, something that has absolutely nothing to do with what job you can get or how much money you can make. Not to sound too cheesy, but writing and studying fiction really is about being alive, about being a human trying to connect with other humans in the somewhat bewildering and inhumane 21st century. And that’s really buoying to see happen for my students.

What do you find yourself most often reading/listening to lately and why?

I always read a lot of different things. Most recently I’ve been making my way through Hilary Mantel’s first two Cromwell books    (Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies), both of which won the Man Booker prize. I really resisted those books–I thought they sounded kind of boring, and took most of the positive press to be just more anglophilia–but I’m glad I gave them a second chance. I read nowadays for two main reasons: enjoyment and demonstration (in that order). AndWolf Hall is really quite remarkable in its unique structure, in the way it moves from scene to scene and renders such a deeply imagined and felt consciousness. There’s also lots of blood and guts, which is always entertaining. As far as music goes, I mostly listen to whatever my infant daughter likes dancing to in the bath–lately it’s been “Rill Rill” by Sleigh Bells, “Mouth Full of Diamonds” by Phantogram, “Don’t Bring Me Down” by ELO, and “The Animal Party” by The King Khan & BBQ Show. I’ve been trying to get her interested in “Porgy and Bess” but she’s not having it.

What are you working on right now and what does it represent in the larger body of your artistic accomplishments?

Right now I’m working on a novel manuscript about the rise and fall of a prominent Midwestern political family, as seen by their young, closeted ward. I don’t know about what it represents “in the larger body of my artistic accomplishments”, exactly. I know that, before this, I spent four years writing a failed novel manuscript before I really knew what I was doing. I know I learned a lot about how to do better from that experience (and also a lot about how to fail hard and get back up), and I just hope I can apply that to a good end.

What are your publications, performances, albums, and/or achievements that seem most important to you at this point in time?

I should probably say that my most important publication is my forthcoming short story collection, tentatively titled Elegy on Kinderklavier (2014, Sarabande Books). But I also really enjoyed seeing the novella that gives the book its title named as a Distinguished/Notable Story of the Year in both the Best American Short Stories 2012 and Best American Non-Required Reading 2012 anthologies. It’s one of my life goals to get a story published in the BASS series–hopefully I can make the march from the honorable mentions in the back to the list in the front. I am also very grateful for the editors who’ve published my stories in their magazines–The Missouri Review, Meridian Literary Review, The Seattle Review, Bat City Review, and They Magazine–and of course more than anything to the people who’ve read or taught them. 

How would you characterize the value of your YWW teaching experience in the larger context of who you are as a writer/artist?

I loved the YWW. I can remember almost everything that happened very vividly. I got a lot of good writing instruction, for sure, but I would say that something that mattered more to me in the end was just the feeling of being around a group of other people my age who really wanted to write, and who cared about doing it well. Most of the people from my year have gone on now to grow up and do other things, but for me at least, that feeling was like catching a glimpse of the possible future. This could be what you make your life about, I think was the lesson I got from it. There are other people out there who don’t want to be lawyers, and who will sweat their unmentionables off in the un-airconditioned bowels of Tuttle dorm just to read a good story, or maybe learn how to write one. I understand that the YWW has moved into some more habitable digs, but I doubt that the feeling I had is lost for the participants. 

What’s the best advice you can give a Young Writer (in general or in your specific genre)?

Well, the first thing is to understand that you have to fail, and fail hard, and fail over and over and over, if you want to write anything good. You know, we get a lot of “famous” authors speaking here at Iowa, and when I was a student, I always used to ask them this exact question. The funny thing was, almost all of their answers were horrible. It’s like asking someone who just got out of WWII and has shell-shock what their advice is for a kid who wants to go into the army. But it’s a question I’ve thought a lot about, and something I still struggle with. For me personally, I think the best advice I can give is a little unorthodox (and I’m no authority or anything): I think the best way to become a better writer is to become a more cultivated person, actually. It’s very true that you have to work hard etcetera, but it’s also true that if you want to be a good writer, you need to work on cultivating your taste, cultivating your perspective, cultivating a stable and fair idea of yourself. Most of the advice people give young writers is derivative of these things (taste = read a lot, as much as you can // perspective = be very open to a variety of experiences, people, characters, stories, etcetera // stable idea of yourself = don’t worry about trying to develop a voice or a style, or writing in ways that are popular right now; all the best writing comes from the peculiar qualities of the writer’s relationship with herself–that’s what’s human and interesting to a reader, in the end, if you ask me). But I think maybe the best advice is that there’s no advice, really, to be given. It’s not something that anybody can figure out. Everybody has to find their own way through, and you’ll have to as well.

Where can we find you online?

www.arnabontempshemenway.com 

Submitted December 2012. Updated September 2017.