November 11-17, 2012, is the first annual University Press Week. Established by the Association of American University Presses, University Press Week is designed to “highlight the extraordinary work of university presses and their many contributions to culture, the academy, and society.”
One example of these important contributions comes from the University of Georgia Press. The Invisibles by Hugh Sheehy is a collection of short stories published as part of UGA’s Flannery O’Connor Award series. The Invisibles was selected as part of this annual competition that typically attracts more than 300 entries.
I first learned about the The Invisibles when Publishers Weekly included it among other works being released on their “Best Book Day of 2012.” The short story collection earned a starred review from PW and Booklist.
Hugh Sheehy currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he teaches writing at Yeshiva College. When I discovered that he was visiting Georgia State University–where he had once taught and where I am now a graduate student–I asked if he would be willing to meet with me to discuss The Invisibles. Hugh generously obliged.
SS: The book is called The Invisibles, which likely borrows from one of the short stories with the same name. Define an “Invisible” for us.
HS: It’s a weird condition because it’s kind of a paranoid condition. It’s a person who is unmemorable for some reason, who doesn’t get detected by other people. Other people don’t pick up on their presence. They are there, but nobody notices them. When they’re gone, it’s as if they’ve never been there. They’re there lurking.
SS: I thought it was interesting that someone who reviewed your book said that she thought an “Invisible” was created by death. People of significance died and then these people became invisible. I thought that was an interesting interpretation.
HS: I guess that’s one way to think about it. Each of us is really only important to a few people in the world. So if you lose the people who are most important to you, the people to whom you are most visible, then I can see where it’s isolating.
“It’s someone who doesn’t get noticed, who for one reason or another isn’t memorable. I think some of them go bad, become things like kidnappers, or serial killers.” From “The Invisibles” a short story in the collection by the same name.
SS: Cynthia, the main character in the short story “The Invisibles,” tries to explain to the detective what an “Invisible” is. She says it’s based on your role and how you are positioned in terms of other people. Is that a fair description?
HS: Yes, I think that’s what I had in mind when I wrote that story. It was this idea of someone who doesn’t show up in other people’s perception. They’re there, people might see them, people might brush against them, but they don’t remember them. They just don’t get collected in something like a group memory.
SS: Another short story, “The Tea Party,” reminded me of the George Clooney movie Up in the Air. How they travel and they’re basically in and out firing people. They are not going to get noticed either. They’re going to swoop in for a day, and then they’re gone.
HS: What interested me with that was I have some friends that do this kind of consulting work, although they don’t fire people they just…travel so much. They own property in places and they have family in places, but they mostly live in hotels. The consequences of doing that kind of work is that they often get lost in their home towns. If you’re living in hotels and drinking coffee from Starbucks–eating sandwiches in the little bags–I think you probably lose some sense of a former imagination of who you were, so you might become something like invisible to yourself in some way. That’s what I thought was fun about that story.
SS: Obviously this is the book that won the Flannery O’Connor Award this year. The first story “Meat and Mouth” was reminiscent of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Just the whole element of meeting the characters Meat and Mouth versus The Misfit [character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story]. What inspired that story?
HS: When I sat down to write that story, I was thinking about this place where I went to preschool [Hugh grew up in Ohio]. I was missing the snow and thinking about what would happen if a couple of guys on a crime spree passed through a space like that. I was just curious to write a story about those kinds of intersections where people who are very involved in different things would cross each other’s paths. That story was fun to write because the Maddy character is trying to make sense of what’s going on. She’s definitely frightened by them. It’s difficult to define these characters except for these wandering criminals, like some kind of murderers who just show up. It would be reminiscent, perhaps, for some readers of what it’s like to have bad things happen to you that are way beyond your control. You have to do what you can in the face of terrible catastrophes and find your ability to act very, very limited.
SS: The Invisibles is a collection of short stories, most of which have been published in other places over the years. Was it just a coincidence–did it just happen–that there was this undercurrent, this theme of an invisible person in everyday life?
HS: I think that’s the way fiction writing works a lot of the time–and maybe a lot of other arts are like this as well. Often an individual can get really fixated on some idea, or some set of images, or some set of characters in the case of storytelling. I find ways to revisit those images or characters or ideas until they’re exhausted. You might write a story about a set of characters, put that down, and then try to write something else. But in your attempt to write something new, you may actually return to those old characters without recognizing it.
SS: Do you feel like you’ve extinguished the themes here?
HS: Most of the new fiction that I’m writing has moved away from mystery, but I have a couple of other short stories that I’ve finished in the last year or so that are in the same vein as some of the stories in The Invisibles. I’m also working on a novel that has elements that you can find in some of the stories of the The Invisibles. It’s also a novel, so it’s pretty different from a short story in a lot of ways. It’s far more expansive in terms of the way that it’s written.
To learn more about Hugh Sheehy, visit his author website at www.hughsheehy.net.