Today, I’m speaking with Hobie Anthony about his fine story The Last Man to Ever Let You Down.
Mary Akers: Hi, Hobie. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. I’d like to talk about your main character, Jefferson. He seems to be an intriguing but not particularly likable fellow. Do you think the writer always has to love his or her characters, no matter how prickly they may be?
Hobie Anthony: As a matter of fact, I think it’s important to find those elements which aren’t likeable in even the most conventional character. As writers and artists I think it’s important for us to look squarely at the ugly side of things. Purely likable characters, characters who seem to have no flaws, are the most boring characters I could imagine.
I find it interesting that you didn’t find Jefferson likable. He is a roughneck sort of guy, but I found him completely likable. But, I like your reaction to him, it means that readers find different elements in the story which I might not have consciously intended. I think the best stories come from outside of us, leading us down the page, not the ones we drag, kicking and screaming, to contrived conclusions.
In fact, I’ve had other friendly, surprising disagreements with people over this story. I think this has to do with my experience with, and perspective on, drunks and junkies – and the recovery process in general. It’s not an easily described phenomenon and is rather personal and subjective. It’s also a baffling phenomenon with no easy answers or clear formulas for success.
Where I find Last Man to be a hopeful story, others see Jefferson as doomed. He may be, I’m not sure any more. At the end, it’s all up to him. I think this ambiguity is 100% valid and part of the great fun of literature.
MA: I agree. Ambiguity allows the reader to make his or her conclusion about the story. But, actually, I didn’t phrase part of the previous question quite right. I did find Jefferson likable (I’m a fan of roughneck characters) but as readers, we had internal access to his thoughts and feelings, which I think makes us soften towards him. What I meant when I wrote “not particularly likable” was that the other characters in the story didn’t seem to like him much. His boss, Francie, the bartender, the hotel manager, even the guy at the end who is dumpster diving. I felt like they never quite understood Jefferson and the end result of their interactions with him left me feeling as if he was still all alone (physically and emotionally). Would you like a chance to respond to that?
HA: Yes, Jefferson is very much alone in the end. He does have the opportunity to return to work and I hope he shows up. But, it’s all his choice. He can do his duty to himself and return to a life of good work or he can rejoin his comrades in the gutter. In the end we all must make these sorts of choices, but rarely do we have them laid out so plainly. Jefferson has to actually choose to live, it’s not a given for him. Much as cancer survivors speak of choosing to live and fight, Jefferson has the same sort of choice.
So, I see the other characters as putting Jefferson in a situation where he must take action. Though his boss is rather prickly, he shows Jefferson a modicum of grace in offering him his job back. Even the bartender helps Jefferson to see that maybe drinking isn’t for him – he won’t let Jefferson get away with only a few drinks, playing with his alcoholic condition. Rather, the bartender sends Jefferson straight to what drunks call a “bottom.” That is, rather than allow Jefferson to tinker with his disease, taking a slow, painful trip to the end, the bartender ups the ante, forcing Jefferson to face the reality of his disease head-on with no bull – straight, no chaser.
I hope Jefferson will return to work and perhaps start to find a group of friends, etc. But the choice to take that path is his to make alone.
MA: Agreed. Do you find yourself providing some sort of redemption for your troubled characters when you write about them? And if so, what form does that redemption take? If not, why do you think you keep redemption out of their reach? (By “redemption”, I simply mean something that “redeems them” either in their own minds or in the eyes of others.)
HA: I don’t often think in that term, but I suppose I do try to illustrate the full spectrum of my characters so that we see the good and bad of them. It’s my aim to show a character like Jefferson in such a way that he can illustrate something to a high-class executive or a middle class school teacher, as he is just as human as they are. They may spend their lives trying to rise above the rest, but at the end of the day, it’s Jefferson who lets them down. It is our shared humanity which, once acknowledged, can help us redeem ourselves. Through literature, writers can embed that message inside the reader so that perhaps change can begin to occur.
MA: Yes, I agree that readers can see themselves in characters if we write them well, and the resulting empathy can alter and even transform a belief system. I always find a little bit of myself in my characters, and character is almost always my starting point. How about you? Do you start with character when you write a story? Or does the character evolve out of the story?
HA: I always start with character. I often have little idea of what they are going to be doing in their story or even who they truly are. They may have a job which helps, as in the case of Jefferson, or some other fact of their lives may influence the action or help to bring them into relief – such as a physical deformity or mental twist.
Ultimately, it comes down to language and finding the right temp for that character. Often I can carry a character around for weeks or years before finding the perfect rhythms to bring them out onto the page.
MA: What does the term “recovery” mean to you?
HA: Recovery is a process of shedding difficulty and suffering in our lives. We try to recover what is true inside of us – what lies past the conceits, the selfish fears, which cause much of the suffering. It’s a process of change and transformation which must come from within – no matter how the suffering is manifested.
I think the best we can achieve on a day-to-day basis is a semblance of authenticity, accepting the flaws in ourselves and others. This applies to all people, not merely addicts,cancer patients, or other “known patients.”
MA: Wow. I really love that description. Thank you, Hobie, for sharing your work and your insights. It’s been great.