Interview with non-fiction writer H. L. Hix

cover for the gospelToday’s special author guest is H. L. Hix to chat with me about his new non-fiction, The Gospel.

H. L. Hix’s recent books include a poetry collection, Rain Inscription; an edition, with Julie Kane, of selected poems by contemporary Lithuanian poet Tautvyda Marcinkevičiūtė, called Terribly In Love; an essay collection, Demonstrategy; and an anthology of “poets and poetries, talking back,” Counterclaims. He teaches philosophy at a university in “one of those square states.”

Welcome, H. L. Please tell us about your current release.
The Gospel gives just what you’d expect from the title, a life of Jesus, but not at all in the way you’d expect it. It is not a fictional retelling, not a novelization like Jim Crace’s Quarantine or Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, or even a dramatization like the Mel Gibson movie a few years ago. I didn’t “make up” anything in it: everything comes directly from an ancient source. And it is not “the four Gospels,” the four gospels endorsed by the Church, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, presented together and in sequence.

It is a selection of passages from various ancient sources, arranged into a single narrative, and newly translated. Among its unique features:

* It includes material from the four canonical gospels and material from about three dozen ancient but noncanonical sources, on equal terms, without distinguishing them.

* It does not simply collect those sources and present them side-by-side: it selects from them, and arranges the selections into a single story.

* It does not take for granted familiar ways of translating words from the original languages. So God is not in heaven, but in the sky, and Jesus is not the Lord, but the boss.

* It refers to God and Jesus without assigning them masculine gender. God is our fother rather than our father, and Jesus is God’s xon. Both God and Jesus are xe rather than he.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was raised in an evangelical fundamentalist protestant Christian household, and I attended Southern Baptist churches through childhood and youth and into college, so even though I no longer “identify” as Christian or participate in any organized religious community, my “spiritual vocabulary” is still saturated with elements from that background: the Christian Bible, all those sermons I heard, the hymns we sung…

One quirk of that personal history, though, is that I was in college before I learned that there were any gospels besides Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or thought to ask who decided (and on what grounds) that those four and only those four ought to be read. As my ties to my religious upbringing loosened, I came to suspect that the exclusive presentation of those four gospels in that specific way had more to do with securing institutional authority than with sustaining my spiritual health, and I finally decided that this was one way to act out my questioning of that institutional authority. My ears are always open for suggestions of books other readers value and think would be worth my while to read, but I won’t willingly grant anyone the authority to tell what I can and can’t read.


Excerpt from The Gospel:
The Gospel is composed from ancient sources, so it doesn’t build toward a surprise ending: it won’t be a spoiler to give the very last section as an excerpt:

“We embrace the realm of the salve in order to abolish inequality, injustice, and discrimination, to return in the end to unity as we began in unity, without male and female, slave and free, circumcised and uncircumcised, citizen and alien, but all salved and salving. For the disenfranchised, rights; for the disadvantaged, empowerment.

Steady the feet of those who stumble and extend your hands to the sick. Feed the hungry, offer rest to the tired, help up those who want to stand, awaken those who sleep.

The god is here, not there. The harmful cannot harm you. Peace be with you.”


What exciting story are you working on next?
My next book, schedule for publication in 2021, is a novella called The Death of H. L. Hix. It retells Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, except it’s me, not Ivan Ilyich, who suffers and dies!

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I was a latecomer to writing. I wasn’t a reader or a diary-keeper as a child. It wasn’t until I was in college that I fell in love with literature: in sophomore British Lit survey, with a marvelous professor, the late F. Janet Wilson. Not until I had become a reader did I begin to write, much less to think of myself as a writer.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
My primary genre is poetry, so I’ve lost much more money as a writer than I’ve made! I can’t afford to write full-time: I have to have a “day job.” I’m a professor of philosophy at a university. In some ways, it’s very invasive and time-consuming: committees and endless paperwork and countless emails! But in many ways it’s accommodating to a writer: it gives me membership in various communities of inquirers, it’s part of my job responsibility to read a lot of things I’d want to read anyway, and so on. Higher education, like so much else, has been corroded by the relentless tyranny of monetization, so if I were just starting out, I would not enter higher ed as a career, but I have been very, very fortunate in my employment circumstances: the remnants of healthier conditions for higher ed have given me as a writer more stiles than the increasingly corrupt bureaucracy has built walls in my way. I am grateful for that good fortune.

My work day is very routine. I write way early in the morning, because that’s when I am best able to isolate. The hour has gotten earlier and earlier over the years! But it’s what works for me. I had a guitar teacher once who was an early riser, and his advice was to do first what you value most. That has always seemed like a wise principle to me. And I’ve had various examples over the years, to adopt as models for the get-to-work-early practice, not all of them writers. When I first started writing in the morning, I didn’t get to feel smug and self-congratulatory for very long, because as I was setting up to write at what I thought was an ungodly early pre-dawn hour, there would be my retired neighbors, Vi and George (he had been a milkman in Chicago), hanging out their clothes to dry — which of course meant they’d already been up and around long enough to wash the laundry they were pinning to the clothesline in their back yard!

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
In my morning writing sessions, I have a couple of goofy rituals. One is that I wear the same thing every day: insulated Carhartt coveralls, the kind people wear whose work is outdoors and more physical than my work. The other is that I wear a turquoise ring that was given me by the late poet Willam Meredith. I’m not otherwise a jewelry-wearer (I don’t have any piercings, and don’t wear a wedding ring,…), but I wear this ring as a kind of talisman every morning.

I don’t maintain those rituals from some giddy belief that they have magical power, but as daily reminders, the coveralls to remind me that writing is work, and the ring to remind me that writing is a gift.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to design cars. Not that I had any real idea of what that meant! I just liked to draw cars. I wasn’t even good at it! They were just fantasy cars, not realistic renderings of actual cars or workable plans for cars-to-be. It’s amazing that I made it through school, since all I did was draw made-up sports cars in my notebooks during class. Let’s just say I was not the smartest kid ever!

I often read about writers who knew from a very early age that they were going to be writers, but that wasn’t me. “Writer” would have been the last thing I’d have come up with as an expectation of what I would be as an adult, and the last thing my parents or teachers or schoolmates would have predicted.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Thank you for your interest in my book. Happy reading!

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