Life In LC

A Conversation With Author Peter Hoffmeister

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Peter Hoffmeister is a local author, teacher, and until recently, a contributor to The Huffington Post. He spent much of his upbringing in Eugene, and ultimately decided to settle down and start a family here. His first book, a memoir called The End of Boys, was published by Black Skull Press in 2011, and focuses on Hoffmeister’s personal struggles as a teenager. It tells a story of an isolated, anguish-filled and somewhat self-loathing young man, who, despite some bouts with delinquency, ultimately morphs into a family man and a productive member of society.

Hoffmeister will be giving a reading at Tsunami Books (2585 Willamette St. in Eugene) on April 6, along with four other Oregonian authors, Anthony Robinson, J.T. Bushnell and Jay Stephen Nebel. For more info on that event, go here.

His next two books, Let Them Be Eaten By Bears (an outdoor parenting book) and Graphic the Valley (Hoffmeister’s first novel), are scheduled to be released this year. Recently, Eugene Daily News had a chance to speak with Hoffmeister about growing up in Eugene, the challenges of being an independent author, and more:

Eugene Daily News: In the liner notes of your memoir, you talk about having to drastically cut words after starting with a large first draft. How do you sit there, take a look at your life’s story, and decide what’s most important what isn’t?

Peter Hoffmeister: Specifically, I wrote a 500-page draft first, and it wasn’t very good. I knew not only did I need to revise it, but there was a lot I needed to cut. As far as getting it down to those 200 pages I ended up with, that was 13 drafts later.

To narrow it down, I just asked: What is the important story? Where does this arc start, and where does it end? Most of my childhood and my adult life didn’t really matter, so I focused mostly on my teenage years, and that made things easier.

EDN: You have a lot of private information in your book, many stories about the lowest points in your life, some personal family stories, and you describe the angst you felt as a teen quite vividly. Did you ever feel uncomfortable showing this much of your life to the public?

PH: Yeah, I was definitely apprehensive. My brother Cooper read a lot of drafts to help fact check, since he was there for so many different scenes…

I chose to write the book in present tense, because I wanted to evoke a feeling of being there, and some people misread it, and thought I was describing my current state of mind. I’ve gotten a little bit of hate mail, people writing things like, “How could you be a teacher when you think like this?

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People don’t understand, that stuff was 18 years ago. It’s a part of my history, but it’s not reflective of my life now.

EDN: Do you still carry any of that stuff with you today? What lessons have you learned from your past?

PH: I’m not sure. I know that writing so many drafts of the book and working on it for six years was really cathartic. It was a weird kind of therapy, and I sorta felt at the end that I wasn’t telling my story anymore; that I was just perfecting these images in my mind.

Writing a book definitely helps emotionally, for my personality. So in some ways, no I don’t carry any of it with me anymore, but at the same time, I feel like we’re a collection of our choices. I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes—I don’t want to make them again, and I’d like to help my students avoid making those kinds of mistakes.

EDN: Your book talks about the loss of innocence in youth, which is a popular topic in American literature. Do you feel that today’s children have to grow up a little bit quicker than they did in your era, or do you feel it’s easier now for kids to be kids?

PH: I think kids in the 90s did grow up quicker than kids in the 50s, for sure. I don’t think there was the same kind of media influence. From what I’ve heard from people who grew up in the 40s and 50s, the average kid back then wasn’t involved in as many bad things as the average kid was into during the 90s.

I don’t know if we grew up quicker than the generation now, though, because now they have so much access to information, both good and bad. I feel like kids lose their innocence, as far as visuals go, very very early. And there’s a lot of drug and alcohol use now with my high school students.

I feel like there might be less violence, even though the media these days is always talking about how there’s so much violence in schools. I see a lot less violence in the high school where I teach than I did in the high schools where I attended.

Lowball LowEDN: What was it like to switch gears to a novel, after writing your memoir?

PH: That was weird. I started with a long short story, but I realized I’d opened up too many things to make it work. I asked another Eugene writer who I respect, Meriam Gershow, to read it, and she said, “This is a great story, but it just tries to do too much in 30 pages.”

So I started developing it more, but I struggled with structure for a long time. With a memoir, you have a set time period: a beginning and an end. But with a novel, structure is really difficult. You have this scope of the infinite; what are you gonna do? Where are you gonna start? Where are you gonna end? What are your characters gonna be? You can do absolutely anything, and that was kinda overwhelming for me. I went through a series of structures that didn’t work before I finally found something I felt good about.

EDN: What about for Let Them Be Eaten By Bears? How did you approach that, and what was the end result?

PH: It has to do with running an outdoor program and parenting the way I parent, and really feeling like we’ve lost our connection to the natural world.

EDN: What was the process like, getting a book published? What advice would you give to other aspiring authors in the area?

PH: It’s really hard to get books published. Books aren’t selling as much as they used to. My first book was rejected by 22 publishers, just on the first round. It takes some time.

If you want to get published with a significant literary press, you absolutely have to have an agent. That’s key, because agents know the market, and they’re not going to take you on unless they know it’s a book that can sell. If you have a manuscript that’s in good shape, you start by querying agents. If you query 20 agents, you’re lucky if you hear back from one.

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