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Meet the WritersImage of George Hagen
George Hagen
Good to Know
In our interview, Hagen shared some fun and fascinating anecdotes with us:

"I started out of college struggling to finish the film I directed at NYU. I needed several thousand dollars to complete the film, so I worked two shifts at two different law firms as a text editor. I spent about six months working 16-hour days in order to raise the money. Though the film won prizes in festivals, the experience of being in debt for more money than I had ever seen in my life made writing seem more appealing than filmmaking. All I needed was a typewriter and paper."

"My book started with an episode that had really happened to me as a baby just after I was born. I was a surrogate baby for another mother in the ward whose child was in an incubator. So every day I would spend some time with her, and some time with my mother."

"I've had many jobs: movie theater doorman, carpenter, selling newspapers outside the Midtown Tunnel, picking up the guard dog's droppings at a lumberyard, baling hay on a farm, janitor, executive secretary, screenwriter, and stay-at-home dad."

"Likes: Lucian Freud paintings, Matt Davies cartoons, Jack White's guitar riffs, pinhole photography, steak frites and homemade cappuccino."

"Dislikes: Almost anything on television -- an infernal device that masquerades sarcasm as humor, cruelty as entertainment, and fame as happiness. It has also shortened the American memory to about a week."

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In the summer of 2004, George Hagen took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
During college I read a short story by Delmore Schwartz entitled "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." It was about a young man who dreams that he is watching his parents' courtship in Brooklyn in 1909, on a silent movie screen. When he recognizes all their conceits and the troubles that lie ahead in their marriage he stands up in the audience, urging his parents not to go through with it, but, of course, he cannot stop the movie from playing its course.

This story astounded me because it told so much all at once. It was about the American immigrant experience, the complexities of love, and marriage, and the paralysis of regret. These were all themes that fascinated me, that I had never seen addressed together with such insight and brilliance.

This story made me want to write.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -- Because it seems fresh with each reading. And for those beautifully drawn characters -- Pip's yearning for Estella, Miss Havisham's bitterness, Magwitch's unforgettable, terrifying appearance at the beginning of the story.

  • Dubliners by James Joyce -- Because each story is written with such care and skill, and "The Dead" is such a devastatingly sad tale.

  • The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene -- Brilliant plot, economy of writing, characters so well drawn that they conjure an emotional chord at the very mention of them -- poor doomed Scobie, and his fatally unhappy wife.

  • Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll -- I constantly reread these books for their humor, rhythm, complexity, and playfulness.

  • Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson -- Combines his familiar humor and social comment in a sharp, ruthless plot. It's Huckleberry Finn's angrier cousin.

  • The Snapper by Roddy Doyle -- One of the funniest books I've ever read, but it is also an unpredictable, unapologetic depiction of working-class life, conveyed almost entirely through dialogue.

  • Correlli's Mandolin by Louis DeBenieres -- In spite of the anger of its tale, it's a novel of delightful characters with a distinctive narrative voice.

  • The World According to Garp by John Irving -- Probably the most influential book for me after college because of its blend of tragedy and humor. Irving shows tremendous affection for his characters, a quality that makes you want to go back and read the book immediately after finishing it.

  • Thackeray's Vanity Fair -- Simply a masterpiece, and it should be on every bookshelf. I like books with a strong narrative voice, and Thackeray is wicked, funny, and always compelling.

  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan Thomas -- Tells amazing stories of childhood, from the perspective of a child, and of course, his writing style is pure poetry.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • Fellini's Nights of Cabiria -- Because it's terribly sad, and yet there's an incredible sense of the human spirit that envelops one in the end.

  • The 400 Blows -- A great film about the harsh nature of childhood.

  • The Sweet Smell of Success -- Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis playing archly wicked characters...from a time when actors weren't afraid to be disliked.

  • The Lion in Winter and All About Eve -- Two films with electric dialogue, from a time when movies were written like dramas instead of greeting cards.

  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Man Who Would Be King -- Films from a time when stories didn't have to have happy endings. These are great stories about characters who come to realize their own limitations.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I listen to everything from Bach to Mussorgsky, the Kinks to the White Stripes, Sinatra, Tom Waits, and Duke Ellington, but I have never been able to listen to music while I write. It's too distracting.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    The Bible. I've been meaning to read it for years, but I think I need the pressure of a group to do so.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I like to receive nonfiction, since I rarely buy it for myself. I like to give books I've read and loved; everything else is a gamble.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I write in the morning, three pages minimum, no matter how bad they are, and I always have a cup of coffee, which I always forget to drink.

    What are you working on now?
    A period novel about an emotionally paralyzed father and his son's attempts to gain his love.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I spent 20 years writing screenplays that were never produced and rarely earned me any money. I tried a lot of other writing, including magazine articles, essays, cartoons, and short stories before attempting novels. Rejections were constant, but, as they say, all you need is one person to say yes. Ultimately, you keep writing because you can't imagine not writing -- that's the way it was for me.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
    Marisa Silver, a writer based in L.A., wrote a book of short stories entitled Babe in Paradise. She writes about characters we've all seen, borderline people, but she has the nerves to peel them open; her stories always have a remarkable tension to them.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    1. Write what you most yearn to read.

    2. Read the books that inspire you, not the books that are successful.

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  • About the Writer
    *George Hagen Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *The Laments, 2004
    *Tom Bedlam, 2007