#ScottPrize Shortlist in Profile: Otis Haschemeyer
My parents were professors of biochemistry so I decided to be a writer. I wrote my first story when I was thirteen, and after the teacher read it out loud in class, I began to take myself very seriously. I imagined the life of Hemingway. I never considered that writing required so much typing.
After a number of years, I left the east coast to pursue the mythic art of storytelling. After an MFA at the University of Arkansas, I was lucky enough to receive a Stegner Fellowship to attend the Stanford University Creative Writing Program in Palo Alto California. I continued my slow migration west.
After Stanford, I spent a wonderful year in the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris France living with artists from around the world. There I worked on a novella. After coaxing the love of my life, fellow writer Zondie Zinke, to Paris (cliché aside, Paris does work), we’ve been searching for time to write ever since.
We moved back to California where I did some teaching for Stanford and then we packed up and moved back cross-country to Tennessee. We then moved with our daughter to Oregon where Zondie took her MFA. I’m currently visiting writer at the University of North Dakota—snowing today—and travel back and forth to Oregon to see my family, Zondie and now two amazing daughters, Ozymandias and Zo-Massy Wild.
So where did the book begin for you, how did the book come to be written?
I had a student, an older guy, and I gave this talk about Homer, about how the story of the Iliad was passed down through generations and Homer wasn’t around at the time of the Trojan War. This student responded in an essay, something like, “I agree with what you said about Homer. I knew Homer didn’t know war. If he had he would have mentioned the smell.” I was pretty struck by that. We did a lot of talking after that and I did a lot of other research, including firing a .50 caliber sniper rifle out in Nevada. I wrote a nonfiction piece on that but I couldn’t pursue the story in all the ways I wanted to, so I started developing fictional account too. That’s “The Storekeeper.”
The other stories here I wrote when I had a break from that longer work. I was doing a lot of rock climbing, so that’s in there—a sort of wish fulfillment trip to Mali I had neither the money nor time to take. Also there are stories that come from my time spent in San Francisco and Wyoming. And finally a story that sprang from the boxing gym I train at in Oregon.
What was going on in your life while you were writing it?
Wow—well, it’s been the same thing now for a long time—about fifteen years. I’m always looking for time to write, which is really tough since the kind of writing I do seems to take a long time.
In Arkansas, when I was first working on “The Storekeeper,” life could seem pretty grim. I sat around with a lot of sniper manuals. I read books on physics. I imagined being the guy I was writing about. I bought a gun. That’s the kind of research I did. I call that “experiential” research now, but I’m not sure what it should really be called—just squirrely to tell the truth.
Later at Stanford, I lived by the coast in a 6×12 trailer, showered at the Stanford gym, and did a lot of experimental writing. My step-mom lived in the building in SF that appears in “Blue Triangle.” I had a residency in Wyoming and that’s where I wrote “Too Much Horse,” running around those hills, watching a bald eagle sore from my window. I did a lot of rock climbing and later boxing—I guess to burn off the energy of writing and not writing. I’ve done a lot of things over all those years, the biggest is having a love-affair and having kids. That’s a whole new amazing world.
What do you think were the real driving elements within the book — the things that moved it all forward for you?
I’m fascinated with people and places and physical action. I’m obsessed with processes—events in time. I’m fascinated by the ways what we do become us, in our individual lives and historically. There are things about our secretive military culture that make me mad—the notion that we can do terrible things to each other, and if we just don’t know about it, we bear no responsibility. I feel our notions of propriety trap us, and circumstance, because we’re uncomfortable knowing. I think we have a responsibility to each other and to know each other. I find a connection in the world when I really try to imagine other lives. With writing, I try to see the world accurately. I want to reveal our secret worlds so that we might acknowledge them. I want to raise the stakes.
How long did it take to bring it all together?
I believe that there is no bad writing. The novella was, at one point, 640 pages. Now it’s about 100. If nothing else, I’ve proved I can type. Everything you do as a writer, just living, getting by, is part of writing because character is part of writing. I’ve been learning how to be a better person. It’s a long process. The book is part of that process. Anyway the simple answer is about 12 years, the more complicated answer is all my life.
Who was important to you in developing your writing life?
This is too big a question to answer. I had a teacher in a New York City public school, in seventh grade, who gave us Jack London to read. I wasn’t in New York anymore. I was in the Yukon. Great teachers in high school introduced me to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I had wonderful teachers at Arkansas who are now lifelong friends, Skip Hays and Bill Harrison—who taught me what it meant to be a writer. At Stanford, there’s Tobias Wolff—the most generous man I know. Sitting down with him over a bowl of Thai noodles in the courtyard outside Margaret Jacks—swapping stories, I’ll remember that always. There are all the people who share life by swapping stories. I’ve been very lucky.
Where do you think you’ll go to next in your writing — what are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a novel that takes place at a school I worked at for a number of years. I’m also developing a nonfiction book about police corruption in Atlanta with a friend. I’m excited about both projects.
The Storekeeper (extract)
His primary thinking is this: if he makes L’Heureux mad enough, then L’Heureux will take his next shot like he means it, and then this will be over. Then Stacey can take his shots and they can get the hell out of there—he can go home. But if it is to be a test between himself and L’Heureux, if L’Heureux wants to put him on the spot, then that’s OK too. If Stacey has to shoot, he wants all the pressure the SEALs can bear down, all the bullshit, gum-snapping, name-calling, double-edged bravado they might muster, because ignoring that—forgetting the world around him—is what makes him shoot well.
“You’re this far,” L’Heureux says, not turning, just raising his index finger and thumb spread millimeters apart. He pulls the spent shell, and Tee hands him another cartridge. L’Heureux places it in the bolt slot and chambers the round. He steadies the weapon again, taking a second or two more time, which can be either good or bad, only L’Heureux would know. He squeezes the trigger.
The recoil crushes him. Through the binoculars Stacey sees the target lower—it is still a difficult read—skating along in the mirage and bouncing along—there is no way for Stacey to keep the image steady. Portico watches through his spotting scope, and L’Heureux watches through the rifle’s scope. The target comes back up. Stacey is pretty sure he sees nothing, no second shot on the paper and therefore no chance for a group.
“OK,” Portico says. “Give the Storekeeper a chance.”
Thick blue smoke curves out of the chamber, suspends for a moment in the breech, and blows away. L’Heureux taps off the shell, stands, and dusts off his fatigues. Stacey’s mouth sours. He pushes his glasses up and passes off the binoculars, the bridge of his nose slicks with sweat. He tips his bill-cap down.
“Good luck,” L’Heureux says, drawing his finger across his throat as he passes.
Stacey smells his own acrid stink rising up through his collar as he hunkers down on his belly. He exhales and stalls by asking about the zero, just to give himself a little time to settle down.
“The master at work,” Hector says sarcastically.
Stacey tries to remind himself that this rifle is no different than all the others.
“Glad this isn’t a fire-fight,” L’Heureux says. “You need your bifocals, old man?”
Against the ground, Stacey can feel his heart thump into the dirt.
“Stow it, gentlemen,” Portico says.
“I see fine,” Stacey says, looking down range. Then, cocking his head back, looking over his shoulder, Stacey says. “I see what used to be the safest target in the world.” He scans the group. “Because you guys were shooting at it.”
Discover more about Otis Haschemeyer
Discover otis’s work Online
Old Man Bar (nonfiction)
Anti-War Poetry and the Oxymoron of Liberal Fathers (nonfiction)
Interview with Sam Green, Documentary Filmmaker
Designated Marksman (excerpt) in the Sun
Storekeeper (nonfiction and basis for Designated Marksman)