Two hundred and fifty pages in, Hannah Tinti finally admitted things weren’t working out with her book. It was supposed to be the follow-up to her acclaimed first novel, The Good Thief, and the manuscript was competent—but didn’t have the most important thing, the ineffable quality that brings a story to life. Then she discovered lines from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” that gave her the courage to toss the whole thing out and start again, and changed her writing process for good.
“East Coker,” which Eliot started writing in 1939 after a four-year drought, is a prayer for creative release: for the ability to remain patient, to find peace inside of doubt, to hear music in the quiet. In a conversation for this series, Tinti explained how the poem taught her to push the outside world away and write for the right reasons—without hope for success or fear of failure—and why she’ll forever keep these lines taped above her desk.
Now, almost nine years after The Good Thief was published, Tinti’s second novel has arrived. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley reimagines the title character’s criminal career as a series of Herculean labors, and his body bears the signs: A dozen pinkish bullet scars pucker his skin, each one from a job gone wrong. The novel begins with Hawley in semi-retirement, traveling with his young daughter, Loo, whose growing fascination with violence is only matched by her curiosity about her mother’s mysterious death. As the story of each bullet wound is revealed in a series of interspersed flashbacks, and as Loo starts to uncover the past Hawley’s running from, the picture darkens, and deepens.
Hannah Tinti’s story collection Animal Crackers was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Prize; The Good Thief won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. She’s also the co-founder and executive editor of One Story, an award-winning magazine that publishes just a single story per issue, and literary commentator for NPR’s Selected Shorts. She spoke to me by phone.