Hannah Tennant-Moore, a graduate of Bennington’s MFA program, debuted her first novel Wreck and Order this past February. The book follows the trail of a lost yet jadedly self-aware young woman while she travels to locations around the world, gathering a greater understanding of her spiritual existence from each place she lives in. The reader follows her protagonist, Elsie, from California to New York and Paris to Sri Lanka, while Tennant-Moore candidly portrays the difficulties Elsie encounters in love, sex, her career, and the blanketing dysphoria that follows her along the way.
Tennant-Moore’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, n+1, Tin House, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. It has also been twice featured in The Best Buddhist Writing. I recently took to email in a fruitful exchange with Tennant-Moore to talk more about the writing process and intentions behind this novel, as well as her experiences at Bennington and how the MFA program helped shape her as a writer.
Currently living in Upstate New York, Hannah Tennant-Moore is at work on her second novel.
Literary Bennington: What was your writing process like for Wreck and Order? How long did you spend working on the manuscript?
Hannah Tennant-Moore: The novel began as a story about a young woman who has gone through hell in love and sex and who takes a return trip to Sri Lanka as an act of desperation, survival. I didn’t know much about her past and what would happen to her once she got to Sri Lanka, but I had a strong sense of both place and character and the rest followed from there. I always write by hand, filling up notebooks with little to no editing, and then I go back and type up the usable parts of what I’ve written. Then I print that document out, edit it by hand, enter those edits into the computer, re-print, re-edit, etc. until I have a collection of sentences and paragraphs that I believe in. The hardest part of writing Wreck and Order was finding a structure that interwove past and present while still maintaining forward momentum. I tried about six drastically different structures before I found the current one—sections divided up by place. It took five years from the time I began writing until the time the book was published, but I was mainly working on a new book in the year before publication, with intermittent bursts of intense editing on Wreck and Order.
LB: The novel takes on a somewhat journalistic style, giving the reader a snapshot into the protagonist’s thought processes by constantly analyzing her experiences. How important was it for you during the writing process to communicate Elsie’s self-awareness?
HT: All-important! Rather than simply describing Elsie’s life as a series of events, I wanted to draw the reader as closely as possible into her inner world as these events unfold. We are all constantly analyzing our experiences—that’s the nature of the mind. But in everyday life, this process of analysis is hidden, an internal running commentary that dictates our behaviors often without our noticing. Partly through using meditation as a narrative device, I wanted to draw attention not only to the movements of Elsie’s particular thoughts and feelings, but to the way the human mind moves through daily experience in general.
LB: Travel is a large part of what drives the plot as well as Elsie’s character development; the novel follows her to various places around the world such as California, Paris, New York, and Sri Lanka. Have you personally traveled to all of these places? If so, how much of her cultural experiences throughout the novel are inspired by your own?
HT: Although much of what happens to Elsie in these places is fabricated, the settings are taken from life. I have lived in California and New York, studied abroad in Paris, and been to Sri Lanka on several occasions, partly to research the book. I wanted to be as culturally accurate as possible in my depiction of place, even though the book presents my real-life observations through imaginary scenes and characters and through the lens of a particular character’s strong opinions, some of which I intentionally negate throughout the course of the novel. Elsie has strong feelings about the Sri Lankan Civil War, for instance, simply because she’s read articles about it. Once she travels to a recent war zone, however, she learns that the horror and sadness of the war is much more complicated than she had assumed.
LB: I find that novels following a young person’s travels too often romanticize/generalize complex Eastern cultures through the lens of Western discovery (the quest of “finding oneself”). How did you manage to immerse Elsie into Sri Lankan culture and show how her experiences there changed her without giving into this cliché? Was this something you were aware of during the writing process?
HT: Absolutely. In fact, I have Elsie talk directly about what seems on the surface to be the “cliché of her journey.” For me, travel narratives, particularly those involving metaphysical inquiry, become cliché when the character’s transformation is based in circumstances. It’s not interesting to me to read about someone who found inner peace by putting herself in an idealized setting: I moved to an Indian ashram and spent all day doing yoga and meditating and eating organic goji berries and I feel great! I hoped to depict a subtler kind of transformation, one that may not look like much from the outside but feels profound as an internal experience. Elsie does change in the course of her travels, but it’s not the places that change her so much as her quality of awareness.
I also hoped to avoid the realm of cliché by centering Elsie’s time in Sri Lanka around her friendship with a particular woman. The complicated specifics of this relationship naturally make Elsie’s story something other than an expected spiritual journey.
LB: An important aspect of Elsie’s exploration throughout the novel is her discovery of meditation and Buddhism during her first trip to Sri Lanka. Do you practice Buddhism or meditation yourself?
HT: Yes, I have a daily meditation practice and my husband and I go to a Buddhist temple a couple of times a week. I find that meditation and Buddhist teachings make everyday experiences—particularly difficult ones—richer and more fruitful; it’s endlessly fascinating and humbling to watch the mind’s attempts to justify its own existence.
LB: Your unapologetic honesty on topics that are typically taboo for women, especially Elsie’s sexual experiences, could be interpreted as inherently feminist just in the fact that you are portraying real and honest experiences that a lot of young women go through without apology. How did you reconcile this honesty in your writing with certain themes throughout the novel like pleasure imbalance in sex and self-destructive/abusive relationships?
HT: Well, the honesty you’re identifying—thank you!—is largely about the pleasure imbalance in sex and self-destructive relationships, both of which I was interested in portraying with as much emotional, physical, and psychological specificity as possible. I hoped to identify what I see as a common problem facing young women today in a new way—through feeling rather than analysis. Our culture’s increasing casualness and permissiveness about sexuality has not been accompanied by increasing intelligence or self-awareness, particularly when it comes to female experience. Pop culture still almost exclusively eroticizes male pleasure, which is bound to be confusing for both young men and women who freely enter sexual relationships expecting to have fun, but having little to no sense of what form that fun takes for the woman. Rather than identifying this problem analytically—through a diatribe against internet porn, for instance—I wanted to credibly portray the disappointment, pain, and confusion inherent in having one’s own pleasure overlooked completely in a situation that falsely promises pleasure in exchange for vulnerability. I hope that those feelings speak for themselves.
As for Elsie’s self-destructive relationship with Jared, I wanted to show, among other things, the problem with believing one can only express love in a particular way with a particular person. Elsie says at one point that she feels “the need to do violence to her love.” This may be extreme, but most people convince themselves, consciously or not, that it’s only safe to give and receive love in a particular form. Whether this form is “healthy” (a stable monogamous partnership) or “unhealthy” (a tumultuous, adulterous one), only allowing oneself to feel love in a particular context can limit one’s engagement with the infinite varieties of goodness in the world. Elsie may or may not find love in any conventional sense, but the reader is given reason to hope that she will develop a grander—and subtler—sense of what love can be over the course of the book.
And just to clarify, I would never qualify Elsie’s relationship with Jared as abusive; they are both willing participants in what Elsie calls at one point “the damage we were doing to ourselves through each other.”
LB: A passage that stuck out to me was: “There is no point to my life. The sentence appears in my head several times a day. If I said the words out loud, it would sound like a lament. But kept to myself, it’s the best thought I’ve ever had”(234). Can you talk about the significance of this idea for Elsie?
HT: Thank you for identifying that passage. It’s at the heart of the subtle spiritual transformation I was talking about earlier. Because Elsie has the privilege of choice—where will she live? What job will she have? What kind of romantic relationships will she pursue?—she keeps thinking that if she can just manipulate her life into the right shape, she will be happy; she will be okay. This passage identifies the falseness of that thinking, the wasted energy that goes into trying to make one’s life look a particular way from the outside, instead of giving oneself to the moments as they unfold. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Set me free from the laziness that goes about disguised as activity when activity is not required of me, and from the cowardice that does what is not demanded, in order to escape sacrifice.”
LB: Can you talk briefly about your experience with the MFA program at Bennington? What are some of the things you learned that stuck with you or inspired you?
HT: I loved the self-motivated structure of the Bennington Writing Seminars—you’re all alone with your work, but you know exactly what you have to do (read and respond to a certain number of books, write a certain number of pages). This set-up helped show me practically that it’s possible to commit to a long-term creative project while also making a living. My time at Bennington also helped me learn to read and discuss books critically, as well as to be a better editor of my own work.
LB: Was Wreck and Order something you worked on during your time at Bennington?
HT: Small sections from two essays that I wrote at Bennington found their way into my novel, but otherwise, Wreck and Order was all written after I graduated. It was wonderful to have two years to practice the art of sentence-making, and now to look back on what I produced during my MFA and be able to see it as simply practice.
LB: Are you working on another novel now?
HT: Yes, it’s such a joy to have my mind back inside another long-term project, and one that is very different from Wreck and Order. Off and on over the course of the last decade, I’ve been researching the relationship between two artists I love and I’m finally putting that research to use in a playful, imaginative way.