Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Shelby Hinte’s fiction piece, Connection Is the Opposite of Addiction

John: You do a great job with the characters in this story—both Greg and Emma are sympathetic and relatable, even as they’re acting badly. It’s a difficult thing to pull off. Do you have any tips for us on how to achieve this?

Shelby: Thank you for saying this. I don’t think I have any advice per se, but I will share that this is something I have really tried working on getting better at over the last year or so. I was reading a lot of Elle Nash and Bud Smith at the time I first drafted this story, and I was inspired by how sparse some of their writing is. I was especially drawn to how little they defend their characters and how they don’t really allow their narrators to rationalize for their characters. When I found myself relating to their characters it was usually because I saw them wanting something desperately and even if I didn’t agree with or relate to their actual behavior, I could certainly relate to wanting something desperately.

As a perpetual overthinker, not rationalizing/over explaining isn’t a style of writing or being that comes naturally to me, and so I wanted to see if I could do it. It felt like it would be a good challenge for both my writing and my personal life to rationalize less. To just kind of say the thing/do the thing and let it speak for itself. I think for me, especially with this piece, I was trying to limit the presence of the “authorial hand.” I wanted to write a story where all the reader had to judge a character(s) by was their thoughts and actions. I didn’t want myself or the narrator to interrupt the story with explanations. This is hard for me, and I don’t yet think I’ve mastered how to do it, but I think on a technical level it requires a lot of cutting during revision. During the actual writing I think I had a bit of a mantra in mind that went something like just say the thing as it is. nothing else. 

Greg’s desires for happiness and connection, in themselves, seem like positive things. He should be happy. And yet this leads to some clearly disastrous decisions. It’s something I think everybody is familiar with. Somehow, our natural—and wholesome—desires for our own happiness routinely get hijacked into bad behavior. Why do you think we do this?

Honestly, I don’t know. It feels kind of primal when it happens though. Speaking only as it relates to my own personal “bad behavior,” I know it usually comes from a place of fear—like when I feel afraid I am going to lose something I love or when something I perceive as fundamental to my identity/existence is threatened (or I perceive it as being threatened).

Like Greg, I have spent a lot of time lying to myself about my various motives and choices. I have, through painful experience, gained a lot of respect for my mind’s ability to lie to me. Is self-delusion the worst of the vices?

It’s definitely my worst vice. I do a lot of work to try and check myself, but it’s difficult because all we have is ourselves and our own individual consciousness. I think, at least in my opinion, this is one of the most difficult things about being a person. Maybe it is why interpersonal relationships can be so difficult. As much as I might try to practice empathy or kindness or whatever value it is I am trying to harness at the moment, I can’t control how others perceive me, and, to a certain extent, I can’t even really control how I actually am. It’s like I once baked cookies for this gas station clerk who really came through for me on some car troubles. I spent the afternoon baking these cookies and thinking this guy is going to love these, but then I took him the cookies and he wouldn’t accept them. He said he wasn’t eating sugar. There I was thinking I was doing this great act of kindness when in actuality I didn’t know that guy at all, and in the end, even if he did think it was kind or thoughtful or whatever, it certainly wasn’t the nicest thing a customer ever did for him (which is probably what I was going for).

I have a theory, endorsed by almost nobody, that there is no such thing as willpower—that there are compulsions that affect our behavior, and others that just arise and pass away without causing us too much harm. We can, to some extent, retrain the mind to withstand some of these stronger impulses, but at some point no amount of steely determination and gritting of teeth is going to help. Any thoughts on this?

This is a good question. I like to think there is some value in grit, in being a hard worker, in being persistent. I think those are all iterations of willpower to some degree. I grew up in a working-class family where work ethic was esteemed above all else, so for me this idea of willpower has manifested in both good and also kind of terrible ways. Good in that I am not a person that gives up easily. Bad in that I have often believed that I could control the outcome of my life if I simply worked hard enough. I read a saying a few years ago about how when we grind two things together all that’s left is dust. I think that’s true, and I think attempts at exerting willpower over one’s life has a similar effect. I guess where I fall on this question is that, while I do believe in determination and a willingness to do hard things (or not do things we desperately want to do), ultimately, I think I agree with you in that there isn’t really such a thing as willpower. I think control is somewhat of a facade. It’s a dangerous thing to think you are in total control. To me, that sort of belief feels fragile. Like it is tempting fate to prove you otherwise. I know for me, my biggest breakthroughs in writing and in life have been when I finally relaxed my grip on my imagined control—when I said, what I am doing isn’t working, and instead opened myself up to the possibility of doing or trying something that was beyond my imagination. Control has a way of narrowing our vision. I think when we accept that we’re not in control our eyes get to open up a bit more.