The Dallas Morning News has referred to James Hoggard as one of the most versatile writers in Texas. He has captured readers all over the world with his powerful command of language and insight into humanity. Here we talk with the author about his career, his methods, and his new book, Patterns of Illusion.
texasmonthly.com: Your work comes in many forms: novels, plays, poems, translations. What is your favorite mode of expression? Do you consider yourself first and foremost an author, a poet, or a translator?
James Hoggard: I started writing poetry, fiction, and plays all in the same period, so I’ve always felt comfortable doing all of those. I would say the poetry is probably central. In fact, sometimes my prose has been called poetic. I think the intense language that is often associated with poetry creeps into the prose. Basically, I look on it all as storytelling. And I would say that is the central point of concern much more than a difference in idiom.
texasmonthly.com: When you are creating a piece, what is your process?
JH: Usually, I start out with the idea that it’s time to write a poem, and then I discover what it’s about. When I’m doing a novel though, I do outline the work before I begin. I have some shape. Often, I will change directions, but at least I would have a pattern to either go along with or to resist. After that, there is a very long process of revision. I have found that the more I write, the more I rewrite. And I rewrite much more thoroughly than I did years ago. I make many more demands on myself now than I did then.
texasmonthly.com: So how long does the writing and revision process take you?
JH: It depends. There have been poems and stories that were done in one sitting. On the other hand, I can think of a particular poem that took me ten years to do. I just couldn’t get it right.
texasmonthly.com: After that long, how did you know it was done?
JH: Well, I totally reconceived it. I realized I was trying to make it something that it didn’t want to be. And, all of a sudden, I realized what it really needed to be. The spirit and the mood were the same. Some of the imagery was the same. But the story line was radically different. Finally, it just worked. So, sometimes I take a long time, sometimes a short time. I’d say the ultimate sense of quality doesn’t really have anything to do with the amount of time they take.
texasmonthly.com: Most of your translations are of Chilean poet Oscar Hahn’s work. Do you collaborate with the original author when translating?
JH: When I have finished, I will send it to him, and he will make certain suggestions. We’ll discuss different ways in which I could translate a certain passage. I really like translation because you’re always seeing your own language on a comparative basis. It keeps alive your understanding of your own language. For instance, English has a tremendous sense of flexibility that Spanish does not have. Also, English has more muscular rhythms as opposed to that classical fluid quality that the romance languages have.
texasmonthly.com: What do mean by “muscular rhythms?”
JH: A kind of angularity or hardness, a briskness of tone. For instance, English is a lot less polysyllabic than Spanish and the other romance languages. With fewer syllables expressing ideas, there is an angularity of tone when compared with Spanish. I find it helpful to be reminded of that. I have learned to emphasize or mute the angularity in conjunction with the linguistic spirit and mood of the piece in its original language. So you’re talking about much more than getting across literal or idiomatic meaning. You’re talking about the texture of language.
texasmonthly.com: In poetry each word is so important. Sound quality often plays a huge role. How much do you feel is lost when a poem is translated?
JH: Well, it depends. In my latest collection of Oscar Hahn poems, Stolen Verses and Other Poems, there are a number of sonnets that I translated into sonnets in English. And when you do that, you’ve got a couple problems facing you. Mainly, what worked in one form in one language is not going to come easily in English. For example, in Spanish, it’s very easy to rhyme because they have very few word endings. All the words end in -ia or -io. If you make a grocery list, it’s going to rhyme. You don’t pay much attention to it. Whereas, English has numberless endings. Rhymes are seldom found in normal conversation, so they are highly noticeable when they do occur. Therefore, English translations of Spanish poetry can come across as sing-songy. So I’ve found it necessary to mute the rhyme by using enjambment, which means allowing the rhythm to continue into the next line rather than ending the line at the rhyming point. That helps to soften the rhyme and preserve the integrity of the original.
texasmonthly.com: In 2000 you served as poet laureate of Texas. What did this job entail?
JH: Well, officially, it involved nothing. In reality, it involved a great deal. I got a lot of requests to write things. For instance, after it was announced, the op-ed editor of the Fort Worth Star Telegram asked me to write something about poetry for the op-ed section. Things like that. There were interviews from various states. An NPR affiliate in Kansas interviewed me twice and used me in its fundraising campaign. Then various groups from around the state asked me to give talks and readings. I gave close to fifty talks that year.
texasmonthly.com: Moving on to your fiction work, you have a collection of stories and a novella, Patterns of Illusion, that came out in October and will be featured at the Texas Book Festival. Tell us about this piece.
JH: It’s a collection of stories and of course the novella. For the most part, it talks about family life. A number of the stories have children in them. You get a sometimes lyrical, sometimes jagged presentation of what goes on in families and relationships.
texasmonthly.com: John Nichols wrote in response to Patterns: “Hoggard knows as much as anyone on earth about the small tender mercies and brutalities of people, whether intimately together or breaking apart. He describes the human heart with a poignant lyricism and sometimes brutal hurting—and he understands well the demon soul.” How did you develop your keen understanding of people?
JH: I’ve been listening to people and observing them ever since childhood. Also, for one reason or another, I have always thought in dialogue form. I’m practicing dialogue every time I think. It’s just always been that way. I think in terms of relationships. Years ago, one person made the comment, “I really think your characters are as real to you as the people who are literally around you.”
texasmonthly.com: Are the people around you often inspiration for your characters?
JH: Oh, yeah. I’ll take anything I can use—a remark, a gesture. It may end up being expressed by a character who is radically different from the person I got the idea from, and sometimes it’s not radically different.
texasmonthly.com: Do you ever get response from people recognizing themselves in your work?
JH: Oh, yeah. One time, someone said, “Why do you always make me seem like a bitch?” There are points of recognition, but I would say it’s more identification. People can relate to what my characters experience. So it doesn’t necessarily come across as autobiography. I remember an old friend of mine told me that a number of people had figured out who this particular woman was in my novel Trotter Ross. She was a shady character and totally invented. I got her body type from person a, and her attitude toward the world from a combination of c and d. I took another characteristic from someone I’d heard about, but never met in my life. I kind of enjoyed that. They thought it sounded real and were trying to identify who it was. Well, it was just somebody I made up. That kind of thing often happens, not just with me but with other writers. Sometimes the thing that seems so real is something that’s invented.