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A tangled relationship with longing: An interview with Clane Hayward

By Andie Ryan.

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The term “a life less ordinary” seems to have been invented for Clane Hayward. Her first book, The Hypocrisy of Disco, (Chronicle Books, 2007) was a memoir that explored her unconventional upbringing as a wayward hippie child in 1970′s California.

In Hypocrisy, Hayward’s mother is a hardcore hippie straight out of Haight Ashbury, a self-proclaimed gypsy who rambles haphazardly around northern California with her three young children in tow. A fiercely independent nonconformist, her mother consciously chooses to be unemployed and homeless, and is especially opposed to the idea of landlords. “No one can really own the land,” she tells Clane. “The land abides and we will live on it by the grace of God.” At the age of 12, Clane’s bedroom is a tarp stretched on the ground at the base of a tree. Next, the family relocates to a field near Monte Rio, California, then to an abandoned ranch, and later to a tent just outside a trailer park. Clane has to search for small moments of joy in her chaotic existence, like stolen moments spent watching The Muppet Show in her friend’s trailer and the thrill of scarfing purloined junk food with her brother (their mother is a macrobiotic vegan who forces her kids to follow her rigid diet). Through it all, Clane yearns for a normal life “where everything has a regularness and sameness.” There is not much regularness and sameness to be found in The Hypocrisy of Disco, making it a fascinating, sometimes sad, often funny page-turner. The book ends at Clane’s thirteenth birthday party, a bizarre and hilarious scene in which she opens a gift from her mother that turns out to be a joint decorated in magic marker.

Ms. Hayward is now a middle-school teacher living in Austin, Texas. The question is, how did she get from there to here? Hayward received many accolades for her first book, but many of her readers were curious to know, what happened next? Her new self-published book, Nothing Is Fixed, attempts to answer that question.

Nothing Is Fixed begins with Clane and her brother Haud being shuttled to New Mexico to live with their father. In Albuquerque Clane hangs out with Latina gang members and attends high school intermittently before dropping out to move to a Wyoming ranch with Lee, a lesbian Republican with whom Clane has a confused guardian/lover relationship. Craving structure and order, she enlists in the Navy shortly after her eighteenth birthday. She serves a five-year stint, sailing around the world and visiting ports-of-call ranging from the exotic (Egypt) to the depressing (Norfolk, Virginia). Along the way she carouses with her fellow sailors, gets her heart broken, and takes time out to visit her mother (who has relocated to a sugar cane field in Hawaii).

Clane recently talked to Andie Ryan about her books and the colorful life that inspired them.

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[Pic: Ki Rubin]

3:AM: How did you come to write your first memoir?

Clane Hayward: I had spent five or six years living in the Mission District in San Francisco amongst many artists, musicians and very creative inspiring people, and it was time for me to do something other than just hanging out having drinks and being witty. I started writing about my oldest memories because they were just so strange. I told my friend Ali, a stunningly gifted painter and singer, and a damned fine bartender, how easy it had been to write them and she pointed out that it’s not easy for most people, and that maybe I should try on being a writer, so I said, okay, I’ll pretend to be a writer. And I showed a story I really liked to another friend, and he read it very carefully, and he told me, “That needs to be a book.” I said I didn’t know how to write a book, I wouldn’t be able to do it, and he just said, write it anyway. And I did, and it just fell into place like so many puzzle pieces. It seemed effortless. I mean, it took work, but it was absorbing, easy, wonderful work.

3:AM: In the preface of Nothing Is Fixed, you touch on your misgivings about publishing a second memoir: “…what kind of a jerk – not a child prodigy, not brilliant, not the child of an international diplomat or a famous inventor, not quite tragic, not really heroic – writes two memoirs?” But your life is amazing! I don’t see how a memoir by a brilliant, heroic, tragic child of an international diplomat could be half as interesting as the story of your childhood, your family, your personal and career trajectories. Why did you have so many doubts?

CH: As a Pisces with Scorpio rising and a Capricorn moon, I’m heavily invested in doubt, negativity, and criticism. That’s for starters. Beyond that, if you are a person who devours the written word, as I do, your own shit is never good enough. I mean, try making your way through David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest and then write your own book. It’s best to start from the position that it’s entirely hopeless. Then anything beyond that is a nice surprise.

3:AM: You also mention that your editor seemed to want your second book in a certain way, not the way you would have written it. What were they pushing you to do with it?

CH: My former editor (bless his heart) probably had book club fantasies, and I think he wanted me to write a book that would appeal to a particular audience. I don’t blame him but I wanted to write a very pointillistic, hallucinogenic, messy, heavily descriptive book about the ridiculousness of being in the armed services during peacetime.

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3:AM: So when you started writing Nothing Is Fixed, it was all about your time in the Navy?

CH: Yes. I only wanted to write about clanking machinery and hissing valves and listening to The Style Council in Bahrain and the quality of light in Diego Garcia. Somehow Guantanamo Bay would have fit in, and I wouldn’t have bothered explaining anything. It would have read entirely as fiction. That might have been a much better book. I’d have spent a whole chapter just on, like, particular types of piping and valves or something. Bakelight weld samples. The spectroanalysis machine.

3:AM: What pushed you to complete and publish your second book?

CH: I have certain issues about order and discipline and boundaries; I try very hard to complete something before moving on to the next thing. I was also, before my publisher declined the manuscript, trying to fulfill a contractual item under some kind of deadline. Also, I really like writing and editing. Also, I adore a challenge.

3:AM: What was your editing process like?

CH: Editing Nothing has been one of the hardest, most frustrating, things I’ve ever done voluntarily. It never seemed to shape itself around a particular sentiment the way Hypocrisy did. Nothing is a story about nothing making any goddamned sense, of there being no fucking point. I would be scared to write a book like that. Only, like, Flannery O’Connor did that really well, so far that I know of…

3:AM: Both of your books are so rich in detail. Were you keeping journals?

CH: I have never been able to keep a journal with any regularity, but I have saved years and years’ worth of notebooks scribbled with shopping lists, reminders, menus, mix-tape j-cards, drunken babble, song lyrics, and scraps of all kinds. I see things vividly, that helps one to remember quite a bit.

3:AM: Were you apprehensive about the reaction your family and friends might have upon reading both your memoirs?

CH: I have been slightly apprehensive in the past, and people in my family have reacted how they needed to, and that’s fine. My father and sisters have been very supportive. I do need and want to be respectful of others’ perspectives.

3:AM: You mention in the the disclaimer section of Nothing Is Fixed that your mother insisted that her name be omitted entirely. Has she read your second book? If so, what was her reaction?

CH: Not only has she not read the second one, she has never read the first one. It would take pages and pages to complain adequately about my mother’s habits and peculiarities.

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3:AM: In your first book, you describe the strict macrobiotic diet your mother forced you and your siblings to follow, and how hungry you always were because of it. In Nothing, you discuss your bout with bulimia. Do you think the macrobiotic diet warped your relationship with food?

CH: I wouldn’t blame my screwy relationship with food on the macrobiotic diet, but on the pathological relationship to food as a goal or a reward; and I would say that from very early on, I have enjoyed a tangled relationship with longing.

3:AM: You had an interesting experience as a teen living in Wyoming with right-wing lesbian ranchers. Why on earth do you think that Lee, in particular, was such a staunch Republican?

CH: I think whatever she was exposed to as a child in Wyoming may have shaped her views; and maybe she felt bitter as a college-educated white person who felt resentful of the fact that she could not find a job. I think the Right encourages those feelings.

3:AM: In Nothing, you talk at length about your dislike for Norfolk, Virginia, calling it “the asshole of the world.” In five words or less, sum up your thoughts about the following places:

CH: Italy: Good food, bad fashion
California: Land of the Lotus Eaters
New Mexico: Let it never change
Turkey: Brilliant. Lucent.
Philadelphia: where dreams go to get in barfights
Barbados: pink sand colonial playground
Egypt: dust, fleas, and resignation
Texas: a horrifying American future
France: good fashion, bad music
Wyoming: an endless horizon

3:AM: There are a lot of references to songs and lyrics in your writing. It seems like you drew a lot of inspiration – for better or for worse – from the music that was happening during the time frame that both memoirs took place. What are your thoughts on that?

CH: Music evokes visceral memories. A snatch of a song can instantly relocate you in time and space. Music has always been linked to emotional landscapes for me. Giving in to music, one can be immersed in almost indescribable sensations. Maybe it is the work of writers to arm-wrestle indescribable things.

3:AM: What drew you to teaching?

CH: It was something I thought I could live with, when I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. It has turned out to be considerably more absorbing than that.

3:AM: Have any of your students read your writing?

CH: I don’t encourage them to. Much of it is potentially inappropriate. But I do make it a point to show them my books, and to encourage them to write themselves: last semester I had eight of my students write and publish their personal histories, and they were intensely proud to hold a book they had written in their hands. I think – I hope – it was a powerful moment for them, immigrant students from all over the world, some of whom had never used a computer or read or spoke English before this.

3:AM: Now that you’ve written two memoirs, does fiction writing hold any appeal for you?

CH: The memoirs were just practice for writing fiction. But I haven’t yet been able to narrow it down, what the next book will be. There are too many complicated ideas swirling around right now. I feel like it needs to be something very simple and unexpected, like a story told from the point of view of an inanimate object. I’m already terrified.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andie Ryan lives in Minneapolis where she is a massage therapist by day and a writer the rest of the time. Her work has been featured in Smudge, 360, and The Edge. Her piece about her experience as a phone sex operator (‘Sorry, Wrong Number’) was featured in 3:AM in 2004. Read her blog here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 16th, 2009.