Charlottesville native Henry Hoke remembers writing stories and poems while a student at Venable Elementary. “I think I always made things up,” he says. “I always came from places of imagination.” He left the city at age 18 to study film at NYU. After living in the world of film, first in New York and then in his current home of Los Angeles, where he writes and teaches, Hoke says, “I found my way back to literary writing.”
This month marks the release of his second book, Genevieves, a collection of short stories, just in time for his return to his hometown to teach writing at UVA’s Young Writers Workshop this summer.
The funny thing, he says, about moving away from film is that “in getting away from it, it became very central to my work.”
One of the stories, “Genevieve Exists,” is told entirely through a movie production assistant’s notes on a script, a job Hoke once held. Another, “Wilmington,” is simply a narrative in dialogue, the conversation between two parents on a train stopped at the site of an accident. “The Host in the Dark of the Crowd” follows a character who finds his state of mind being reflected back to him in a film, as he prepares to leave an indifferent city.
The stories are strange and beautiful, with surprising elements that begin at the micro-level of language as the narrative unfolds. Sometimes this has a humorous effect, as in the beginning of “Wentz”: “No mother should ever have to bury her chicken.” (Yes, chicken.) But there is an underlying melancholy when the joke is revealed to be no joke at all, like in “Surprise Island” when competition between children has dire consequences.
In “MoNa,” what seems surreal becomes real within the story when a weapon of mass destruction evades control by humans. Hoke considered the elements of ghost stories when writing this collection. “When there’s something haunted that anchors a story, it doesn’t have to fill in the plot too much,” he says. “It can remain mysterious. A short story can do that. It can be something fleeting and direct.”
The surreal quality of his work flows from the source. “Largely my inspirations for these stories were very personal and dream-based,” says Hoke. “Especially the idea of Genevieve. The name has always been important to me and I always dream that name. Many of these stories were both dreams and ideas for movies,” he says.
And within that dream world exists Hoke’s female alter-ego. He describes his debut, The Book of Endless Sleepovers, released last October, as “much more rooted in my poetic memories of the boyhood world.” And, because he was writing his first two books at the same time, he says, “the female energy of my inspiration went to Genevieves.”
The stories are strange and beautiful, with surprising elements that begin at the micro-level of language as the narrative unfolds.
Some of the stories in his second book don’t have any gender signifiers, but when they are present, they’re female. He also explores “gender queerness and non-binary figures throughout. That sort of became a rooting part of the expression of this book,” he says. “There’s so much pressure to anchor people in signifiers that they’re used to and expect.” But he chalks that up to marketing and is comfortable allowing the reader enough room to ask questions.
His current work-in-progress is a novel centered on undergraduate film students in New York, though still written in his distinct surrealist style. “I made a rule that the book after that (which is about a father and two sons in Europe) is not going to mention movies at all,” Hoke says with a laugh.