I recently had the pleasure of interviewing H.A. Hargreaves, author of North by 2000+ and Growing Up Bronx. Despite his love of real paper and the sound of a pen scratching, of sending and receiving mail through the postal system, he was kind enough to venture into the perilous waters of rapid communication and answer the questions I put to him. I think you will find a fascinating mind revealed here, one worth attending and noting.
Stephens: The stories in your speculative fiction collection, North by 2000+, are very human stories, very character-driven stories, rather than stories about technology or science. Was it a conscious intent upon your part to illuminate how it is humans are affected by technology and social decisions, or was it something else?
Hargreaves: I suppose that I finally began outgrowing my fascination with miraculous things that entered the world in my adolescent years, the marvellous changes they promised and many actually produced, when I glimpsed the uses they would be diverted to. It would be easy, but far from completely true, to claim a great revelation when the tri-motored planes lumbering over our home, to land at La Guardia Field, began changing.
Granted, the newer, faster, sleek planes no longer had windows behind which people could wave at us earthbound innocents. But I, ten years old and spellbound, only wished I could ride in one. Later, when fleets of them flew overhead, ferried empty to England, I was now a mid-teen volunteer in the Civil Air Patrol. I still intended to become an aeronautical engineer. But when our commandant, who was periodically absent from our training sessions, returned one night with his right arm in a cast, and various cuts on his face, a blindfold was lifted. We knew then to what uses those many planes going to England were put, and who intercepted them off the coast of Ireland. At Armonk Airport, though under-aged, we learned to fly in small A5 reconnaissance planes, sent home from the war with visible damage and rough repairs that held our attention. Those of us with wakened but harnessed imagination knew their story.
It was only as we were suddenly engulfed by the stories emerging from a distant war, more and more efficient but less and less deftly removed behind a thin curtain, the mechanical inhumanity of such “progress” was revealed. Was I merely 15? Oh yes; but some individuals knew only a slow lifting of the curtain, if any, much later. I look back and feel blessed that my “blooding” was pretty rapid, accompanied by the unexpected death of my mother. Our doctor was blameless: technology would not yet provide a look inside that heart weakened from birth and then attacked by a lethal staff infection. I could not blind myself to the limitations of medical technology, but achieved a terribly painful realisation that, with the intense concentration of medical science upon war-induced injury, a “minor” civilian puzzle could be set aside. War or no war, I felt then (and still do on unguarded occasions) a great sadness at the apparent and continual misdirection of technology, or of those who control it. Undoubtedly, this has always influenced my creative imagination.
Stephens: Of all the stories in North, the one, for me, with the most profound message and impact is Cainn, which deals with juvenile criminal rehabilitation through a system of mentoring and life-long commitment. Tell us about the genesis of that story, and why you felt it needed to be written.
Hargreaves: Stories have seldom come to me full-blown. They grew slowly in my mind while I tended immediate teaching requirements. Cainn was no exception though the two puzzles contained in it stood stark at once.
I was sitting in the choir one Sunday, listening to a priest who ran a school-institute to rehabilitate youth already verging on the road to criminal behaviour. His method seemed radical but was clearly successful in most cases. This seemed to me distantly related to the story of Cain, the proper Old Testament reading of the day, conveniently read by the priest himself. Surprisingly, he continued past the reading`s end , known and expected by most worshipers. (In that, God places a curse upon Cain, making any of his farming unsuccessful, but provides him protection from murder as he wanders through society. Cain understandably sees this denial as too much to bear. The story apparently ends.) The priest, however, then skipped chapters to Genesis 4, verse 17, in which we`re told Cain took a bride, had a son, and builded a city. This stunned me: I’d never never consciously noted this last, undeveloped statement. I sat there contemplating a great gap between young Cain the fratricide and Cain the city maker. What was the story of his seeming impossible metamorphosis? Over the next two teaching years, I imagined fragments of a society in which he might be salvaged and ‘remoulded’ around unsuspected characteristics, to allow the growth of a truly humanistic man.
Why did I feel I had to write it? In my full career I tried to ‘mentor’ a gang of 5,000 students. There were more than a few who were heading for dark streets. But still they were intelligent people. I tried subtly to give them an alternate view. Most would have had a great deal to give. It was occasionally though a sad drenching in the pool of failure. Another reason I dropped out of Theology. And my gifted students ‘demanded’ my best intentions.
Stephens: I understand from Robert Runte that the stories in this collection were generally written during holiday time every year. Yet there is a stunning level of professionalism and polish to these stories. Surely there must have been time in the day to day to return to these stories to bring them to this level, or were you graced with the ability to have them fall, perfect and complete from brain to page.
Hargreaves: For many years, in late summer, something would catch my eye, emerge from a conversation, beckon out of casual reading, to suggest an interesting story. It would stay at the back of my mind, surfacing at times, or I’d acknowledge it with a half-formed connection to other fragments. Part way through the academic year some pieces would come together, suggesting a worthwhile plot, a character worth developing either into that plot, or worthy of a newly-conceived one. Then would commence what others would call professional assessment, together with building situation, plausibility: the mental sweat and ruthless detachment to turf out anything that didn’t merely fit, but in some way contribute to plot, action, character compulsion, any or all of these.
I stress here the sharp, conscious application of purpose throughout. Sudden enticing revelations must be attuned to the developing whole or be set aside (not necessarily discarded). As strictly as possible, everything must fit the whole.
Yet all this did not really come together till the rigorous demands of teaching were fulfilled for another year. This is not the place to examine those totally self-absorbing demands. Let it suffice to say both teaching and professional writing deserve to get full attention and study.
Stephens: Your other collection of short stories, Growing Up Bronx, is a radical shift in genre, from speculative fiction to memoir. Why write that collection? What was the impetus behind those stories, and over what length of time were they created?
Hargreaves: I must answer this noting first here, as elsewhere, that I`d given up writing speculative (science) fiction by the early nineties. The subgenre had by then seemingly exhausted its sources and venues. The number of good writers had shrunk, and a host of readers had turned to the upstart fantasy. As I retired from teaching I`d turned, as old fogeys do, to retrospection of my previous overfull life. With genuine embarrassment I began to realise that a number of people had influenced me strongly while I was growing up. They had, in effect, often filled the place of my extremely hard-working father, and my short-lived mother. Coupled with an acknowledged, continuing strong pressure to write, I felt I owed a considerable debt to them. The best way to repay that was to preserve them and their clear contribution to my growth into manhood in a memoir.
Stephens: Certainly in reading both collections a person can see how it is life-influences influenced subject matter for fiction. Was this obvious to you as a writer, or was it something unconscious?
Hargreaves: I must be very firm about this. Of the ‘fiction’ in this collection, what there is of it is to prevent hard feelings, if any, on the part of people close to those I’ve delineated. The work was spread over a number of years, but was both difficult and gratifying. I had to provide an accurate picture of their influence, as I’ve already said, but tried to avoid any misunderstanding among those still alive who loved them. Curiously, when I couldn’t find a publisher it was a real relief to store the manuscript under my desk. I had fears that it might be seen as ‘an advertisement for myself .’ Rather, I meant it from its beginning as my Thank You to most of the people depicted.
Stephens: Was there ever a novel in the landscape of Hank Hargreaves’ mind?
Hargreaves: Lurking in the back of my mind for years after writing Dead to the WorldBenjamin Scroop, Spiritual Advisor, smiled at me beatifically, his presence suggesting that he had a lot more character still to be mined. It was actually not that long after he first appeared that I did bring him back to center in Tangled Web. And still the rich, compelling character kept returning to me, demanding fulfillment. When I`d retired I finally said, “All right, Ben, this is your turn to flesh out.” I had a full novel in mind for him, tentatively titled Dry Bones, set after he had once again been called out of retirement by the Continental Computer.
I got two chapters roughed out, but my body over-rode my mind. I got a quadruple bypass to dictate my activities instead. Just the required attention to daily household chores and such kept me pretty busy, and I spent my creative energy on the memoir, Growing Up Bronx. Regrettably, I’ve never gotten back to the compelling old Spiritual Advisor, though he still beckons at odd moments from the shadows of a near-empty mind.