The Butcher’s Sons
(Lethe Press, 2015)
Scott Alexander Hess earned his MFA in creative writing from The New School, in New York City. He blogs for the Huffington Post, and his writing has appeared in Genre Magazine, The Fix, and elsewhere. Hess co-wrote Tom in America, an award-winning short film starring Sally Kirkland and Burt Young. The Butcher’s Sons is his third novel and was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2015. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Hess now lives in Manhattan. He spoke with The Brooklyn Rail’s Books editor Joseph Salvatore in Hell’s Kitchen, the setting for The Butcher’s Sons.
The brothers were dirt of the same road, but a road casting out in so many directions, lost with so much gunk and otherness, that it was like once good earth now overwhelmed with strangling and poisonous vines. They might have been like blood should be, sharing a sameness, but there was never any heart-tether marrying them. Their same-dirt was like that of a ruined and flood-washed path, stung with nature’s hate and strewn with ripped and wretched limbs. From the start, the brothers were flailing, blind and incomplete, like bastard pups thrown off in the river, lost to one another, gulping survival, thinking there was no one near. They had no chance, since they were never brought together by their father. He held no interest in them. They were his burden to love. —(Prologue) The Butcher’s Sons.
Joseph Salvatore (Rail): That prologue was such a pleasure to read. Each word is so delicious. In preparation for this conversation, I read not only your most recent novel, The Butcher’s Sons, but I read also your first two books. Having read your entire oeuvre, I noticed that your language in that excerpt above is such a shift, such a stylistic leap from your earlier work. Can you tell us about what brought you to this powerful new work and specifically this new book?
Scott Alexander Hess: I started writing when I was very young and then I moved into journalism. I also wrote some screenplays. I returned to prose, to fiction, when I went to The New School, where I earned my MFA in creative writing. I’ve always loved language. My idols are William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy; their language is just genius. So I went into The New School wanting to learn how to really work with language and how to use stream of consciousness, like the writers who I most admire. By the end of the program, I had fallen in love with language again and realized that this was the path for me. It reawakened my life. The big accomplishment with my first book was simply finishing the book—keeping track of the characters, what lives I was living through their points of view, etcetera. Once I wrote that first book, I realized the novel was the form that I wanted to work in. The Butcher’s Sons has now guided me into the type of stream-of-consciousness language that I would like to continue cultivating in my work.
Rail: I was talking to one of your classmates from The New School’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and we were marveling at your productivity. The new work seems more in control, tighter, more structured. I was taken by the swiftness of the narrative pace in The Butcher’s Sons. The chapters are very short, moving from a little bits of smartly evoked exposition to a full-blown scene followed by another even more dramatic scene. Now with such productivity, can you talk about the work and planning that went at this new project? There’s quite a plot going on in The Butcher’s Sons—it’s suspenseful, fast-paced, and tightly structured. Can you talk about the actual composition of this book? What did each workday look like?
Hess: Once an idea comes to me and I start writing, I become immersed in that voice, that other life. So the world of the book is always in my mind from the start of it until its completion, which usually takes a year to a year and a half. It’s like a muse takes over me, and I feel driven to keep writing and to get to the next scene and then the next. It’s exciting! Before I get into a book, it can be a struggle, but once I’m in it, I’m moving in that rhythm, just flowing along. I think language is almost like music—it’s rhythmical. Faulkner has single sentences that go on for two pages, and I love it! I don’t know if anybody else does, but I love it. His words are so fulfilling. When I write I tend to be driven by that rhythm, and then it stops, when it stops.
Rail: You’ve mentioned Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. I teach a course at The New School on the literature of New York City, and I very much see the tradition of the city writer in all your books. Each one has an incredible attention to urban detail and an awareness of the history of the areas they set the drama in. The Butcher’s Sons is set in the 1930s in Hell’s Kitchen. That’s not Faulkner’s terrain. That’s not McCarthy’s terrain. It’s an urban terrain. I see your work also in the tradition of the the work of James T. Farrell, especially the Studs Lonigan trilogy; there’s a kind of city sense, as in Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. You’re very aware of the city as a space and as a character, a force acting upon your characters. How much research did you have to do? Are you a New Yorker? How did you come to know so much about the city and write so well about it?
Hess: I grew up in St. Louis, but I’ve lived here for thirty years. So I’m a New Yorker now. I’ve always been drawn to city life and to New York City in particular—it’s always been in my blood. But I do a lot of research. The research is what feeds me. For The Butcher’s Sons, I read books set in the ‘30s, watched films, and studied photographs, consuming anything that might fill my mind with that time period. I don’t want my writing to be stopped by the fact that I don’t know enough about a certain time, so I do research as I go, around every corner that the story turns.
Rail: There’s something else happening in terms of the time period that I wanted to ask you about. My parents were born in the 1920s, and I remember they used to say things like: “Oh, there’s the Irish kid from down the street, or the Lithuanian kid over there.” You have sections where characters are simply referred to as: “the Italian,” “the Pollack,” or “the Negro.” That seems very much in keeping with that time period. Was that a conscious decision on your part? There’s a tricky line you’re walking by characterizing people by their ethnicity and race.
Hess: Having been an actor, when I write characters, I try to inhabit their minds, so I write as I believe they would think about things and talk about things. At The New School, I read Mary Gaitskill and Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, and I liked the idea that writers could push you further than you wanted to go, offending you and thereby intriguing you. But I once read that to pull this off, you have to have really great language or really interesting characters because if it’s just offensive, nobody’s going to care.
Rail: In the first love scene between Adlai and Ed in the car—I know you can write sex really well because I’ve read your other books [laughter]—in which you’re so restrained. You pull back on all of the earlier transgressive tendencies shown in your previous work. Can you talk about the sensitivity you show toward Ed and Adlai and their relationship? You’re very smart and careful with the development of their romance and all of its nuances. I think you pay more attention to their emotional lives than to any of the other characters’ in the book. Why are you so restrained in their scenes, and why did you cover them the way you did? You’re so tender with them and respectful of them—it’s not transgressive. It’s romantic.
Hess: I am Adlai. The book is inspired by my wonderful brothers, but not; it’s inspired by an image of who I think they might be, but it’s not really them, and I’m not really Adlai. But I was a frail, young gay man, so I’m most connected to Adlai. The reason for the graphic sex in Diary of a Sex Addict is to numb the reader; there’s so much of it that it becomes passé. You get so used to all of this wild stuff that your mind turns into the mind of a sex addict where sex has become unimportant. Now with Ed and Adlai, it’s the ’30s—it’s the ’30s! And you’re gay, and you’re going to have a love affair with a man. They’ll kill you. To me, it was so romantic. It’s a love story; a sixteen-year old having an elicit affair with this big thug. They had to be so secretive, and I felt that when they were both experiencing lovemaking for the first time, it would have been very different from somebody having that experience now. I wanted it to be about emotional awakenings and poetic tenderness, not about the sex, so I did restrain.
Rail: I’ve been throwing around a lot of heavy-hitting literary comparisons in this interview, and alas I must invoke one more. The family structure you’ve rendered here reminded me of The Brothers Karamazov in the sense that we have this father figure, Pat, who is indeed a bit like Fyodor; and we have three brothers—we have Dickie, a bit like Dmitri; we have Walt, the middle brother, a bit like Vanya; and we have Adlai, a bit like Alyosha. Could you talk about the strong theme of family that runs through here. In addition to being one of the freshest love stories I’ve read in a while, I think it’s one of the freshest takes on family relationships, particularly how masculinities in families is performed throughout the different generations. Can you talk about your interest in these themes and ideas?
Hess: I love family stories. I think family histories and relationships are the richest in the world. I was the youngest and felt most unconnected to my father, who wasn’t anything like the father in the book. It was such a masculine world; we had a restaurant equipment company, and my father and older brothers even built our home. At the time, I didn’t understand how they did it, but I’ve since become more interested in understanding that world of masculinity. What did it smell like? Look like? Sound like? I wanted to explore that world through this family living in very close quarters above a butcher shop in Hell’s Kitchen. They’re blood relatives and rely on each other to make a living and take care of their father, but in some ways, they know nothing about each other because each of them is hiding a secret. Also, I was inspired by The Wettest County in the World, about three brothers living during Prohibition, which got me thinking about the relationship between brothers. The bloodline has always been fascinating to me.
Rail: There are love relationships. There are family relationships. All so freshly and smartly drawn, but at the core of this book, one finds not philosophical explorations of these ideas, rather one encounters a hell of a story, a terrific plot, if you’re okay with my saying that. There are secrets and questions. And suspense! Who’s going to survive? And who’s going to make it? How will they pull it off? Can you tell us about how the book’s story came to you? What came first—the characters, or this intense plot?
Hess: The characters always come first. They’re the people of the world I create, and they lead the story. Once I begin writing, inspiration comes from all around and gets into my head. I really open myself up during the writing process to everything I can see in the world—the trees, the smells, anything, because it all feeds the story. Once I started writing about these three brothers, I moved along in a stream-of-consciousness way. Suddenly I’m Dickie and driving down the street— it all starts swirling.
Rail: How do you know so much about butcher shops? You see everything! The pink lights, the glass cases, the dim, stale refrigerators—all of the strange colors surrounding death and food.
Hess: Ha! I come from the Hess Meat Machines. That’s the name of the company that my father started. It’s a very successful restaurant equipment business in Missouri. I grew up with that. We had a big freezer with meat in it—I mean, like a whole cow! The Hess Meat Machines is a very big, masculine place filled with giant saws and choppers. I had to go to work there, but I would hide in the back and write poetry. My brother Dick would tell me to clean these big machines with old meat in them. “Put some elbow grease into it,” he’d say, and I would just run away. But I experienced the sounds, the smells, the sights, the whole world of it. As an adult and in writing The Butcher’s Sons, I’ve been able to look back and try to understand each brother and why one might be attracted to that world, while it didn’t make sense to someone like me, or Adlai. So I have all of that rich history from my youth.
*Scott Alexander Hess will be reading with the Brooklyn Rail’s Books editor Joseph Salvatore, along with the author Joe Okonkwo, at Bluestockings Bookstore, Café, & Activist Center (172 Allen Street, New York) on Tuesday, March 15 2016, from 7 – 9 pm.
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. @jasalvatore