Interview With an Author: Conner Habib

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Conner Habib and his debut novel, Hawk Mountain
Author Conner Habib and his debut novel, Hawk Mountain. Photo of author: Al Higgins

Conner Habib hosts the podcast Against Everyone With Conner Habib, which covers topics like punk rock, philosophy, pornography, and occultism. His writing has appeared in CR Fashion Book, Best Gay Stories, Slate, and The Stranger. He lives in Dublin, Ireland. His debut novel is Hawk Mountain and he recently talked about it  with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Hawk Mountain?

If you’ve ever had an enemy or someone you just mildly dislike, and you see them out of place, you might react totally differently. If, for example, there’s someone who lives in L.A. and you don’t like them, but then you see them when you’re on vacation in Mexico, you might wave and say hi enthusiastically. I wondered about why that was, and I realized that maybe our animosities are just a sort of performance…but does that mean our friendships might be too? And what would happen if two people saw each other out of place and one was performing one thing, and the other was performing something else? That was the initial thought that the novel unraveled.

Are Todd, Jack, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

No one is based on anyone I know, thank goodness. They’ve all got things going on in their lives that are calculated or tricky. But the situations are inspired by feelings I’ve felt and feelings a lot of readers have had: of feeling drawn to someone who may not like you the way you like them, of being trapped and needing to find a way out, of being on high alert, and more.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The novel began as a short story fifteen years ago or so. I wrote it for my MFA workshop. One of the other students said it was “disgusting” (or maybe he said that I disgusted him, it’s hard to remember), and the professor refused to comment on it. Obviously, that was all disappointing and dispiriting, but I kept thinking about the characters and their challenges. So then, when I moved to L.A. in 2013, I wrote it as a screenplay (anyone who lives in L.A. knows the impulse to turn a story into a screenplay!), but it didn’t work. So I did a weird reverse move…I turned my screenplay into a novel. Suddenly, it all clicked. I wrote the novel in about six or seven months and did minimal editing on it.

Did you have to do a bit of research on how to dispose of a corpse? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

In some ways, I wish I could tell you that I did a lot of research, but apparently, my imagination about tending to a dead body was pretty accurate. I reached out to my friend Caitlin Doughty, the bestselling writer and mortician, and asked her if I got anything wrong. She told me the only thing I really didn’t nail was a certain smell. I don’t know if I’m proud or just sort of frightened by the fact that I nailed it all without help.

How would you characterize your own high school experience? Were you a popular kid? One of the kids who didn’t “fit in”? Someone else?

High school was a very difficult time for me. I was bullied by other students, but I felt even more bullied by the teachers. They didn’t really get me, they didn’t like that I was interested in literature or weird movies or punk rock music. Where I grew up—a mostly white and Christian small town in suburban/rural Pennsylvania—liking art and books and wanting to be smarter weren’t valued traits. Instead, the whole structure was set up to get you into the workforce and certain kinds of college.

Do you have an idea/theory as to why high school is, overall, such a terrible experience for most people when they look back on it?

I think that high school is compulsory, which is difficult for anyone who wants to experience freedom. I think that tearing someone away from their family for twelve years, almost every day, is bound to mess you up. And if you don’t get along with other students or the teachers, or you don’t feel you’re being enriched by what’s being taught (or worse, all three!), you can feel like there’s no escape. School becomes your world. Anyone who is in a relationship they feel they can’t leave or a job that they hate but can’t get out of knows the feeling. And, unfortunately, many leave high school and jump right into such a job experience. Obviously, learning is wonderful, but school? It can be very, very challenging and even quite punishing for those that don't fit its aims.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I read all over the place, and I tend to read a lot of books at once or go on my yearly bender of reading one book a day, every day. Right now I’m in the middle of Master Class by Paul West, about his time teaching MFA workshops; Silver Surfer comic books from the Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers era; the obsessive thriller Black Country by Kerry Hadley-Pryce, Hide—the adult horror debut by young adult writer Kiersten White; and some anthologies of writing by the Bulgarian occultist Peter Duenov.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I can name the top five that come to mind right now:

Joy Williams
Patricia Highsmith
James Welch
Clive Barker
James Joyce

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

As many twists as you can put into a novel, there may be way more in your experience of getting it published. I got a book deal from an indie publisher years ago, but the editor ended up being hostile to my book, so we dissolved the contract (thankfully, I kept the advance!). Then I got a big-time agent, and she disappeared and left all her clients in the dark. After getting another agent, I wrote a nonfiction proposal that should have sold but didn’t. Finally, I learned my lesson and wrote what I had really been wanting to write all those years: a novel. Hawk Mountain sold to my favorite US publisher, Norton. I think the lessons are: 1. Do what you want, not what you think the market wants, and 2. The road is often completely unlike write-a-book-get-an-agent-get-published.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

There are so many, but one that stands out is Monsters You Never Heard Of by Daniel Cohen, which was about cryptids like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster…but that were much less reported on; the Jersey Devil, Spring-heeled Jack, and more.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My mom didn’t want me reading any violent books, so I often had to hide them or just go to the library and read there. Some hidden stand-outs: Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison, It Stephen King, and The Books of Blood by Clive Barker.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I know this sounds crazy, but…no! Then again, I have no trouble telling people I haven’t read something.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I buy books for the cover all the time. Recently, I bought Halle Butler’s excellent workplace novel, Jillian. Although I think the cover is different here in Ireland. The best buy-for-the-cover book is definitely Alissa Nutting’s (also truly excellent) novel, Tampa.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Ulysses by James Joyce didn’t just change my life, but changed the way I think, changed what I thought was possible in art. I teach online courses about it with the Museum of Literature Ireland now, and it’s a huge honor. I’d never before read a novel that could actually change the structure of your thinking. As you read Ulysses, you start to think in Ulysses. The short sentences, the dazzling turns, the attentiveness to every detail.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Disgrace by Nobel Prize-winner J.M. Coetzee is such an amazing novel. It’s almost a horror novel, but it’s more literary in its events and situations. So much tension in what’s said and not said. You’ll tear through it, screaming at the characters - Do something! anything! - but then feel almost implicated in their failures.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. What an absolutely wild—in the natural sense—book. Joy Williams is the greatest living fiction writer. She introduces new characters right up to the end. There are strange, almost magical animals, weird dismemberments, deadpan over-enthusiasms about cosmetics, the challenge of the landscape, and human tensions. I will never read a book quite like it again; it’s marked my psyche.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

My friend Nina Persson recommended a musician to me whose songs have created a sort of lonesome, lovely feedback loop in my soul: Connie Converse. She wrote and performed her own songs in the 1950s, and then, after being frustrated by the lack of reception, she disappeared totally in 1974. Apparently, there’s a documentary about her, but I have yet to see it. Her songs come across as simple but hold such depth and are absolutely stirring.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’m blessed to live in my favorite place ever, Ireland (though my favorite place in the US is, truly, Los Angeles). Hanging out in an Irish cottage by the coastline with my boyfriend, reading books by the fireplace while the wind goes nuts outside and the gray ocean keeps coming up to the rocks; that’s perfect. Also, some snacks would be good.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

It’s more like a series of questions, and they’re too complicated to answer here. But it goes something like: How do you experience the world? When you look out onto it, what do you see? What’s your experience of thinking? Of feeling? Of acting? What is all that actually like?

I’d love for all of us to take on these questions, really.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my new novel, which is about evil, and also recording and posting episodes of my podcast, Against Everyone With Conner Habib, each week.

Book cover for Hawk Mountain
Hawk Mountain
Habib, Conner

In his debut novel, Hawk Mountain, Conner Habib tells a tragic story of deception, manipulation, repression, and violence. Habib lays bare our culture’s systemic toxic masculinity and homophobia, and illustrates how they are delivered in near lethal levels during high school, leaving wounds that may never really heal and can fester into adulthood. He also demonstrates how a single moment or action, at the right time, can have life-altering after-effects.

Habib’s characters are well-drawn and nuanced. They are believably human, with character traits both admirable and shameful. There are no heroes in Hawk Mountain, but there are also no villains. There are simply damaged people struggling to live their lives as best they can and to make the emotional connection that they desperately need. It is telling that one character’s strongest emotional connection seems to be with a corpse, which is, ultimately, part of the true tragedy of the novel.

Unsettling, brutal, and, ultimately, heartbreaking, Hawk Mountain is more than a little disturbing, but it is also bleakly beautiful.

For the first time since I have been posting these lists, I have two books that I feel equally strongly are the best books I’ve read this year, with markedly different reasons for each. The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon is a wonder. McMahon captures perfectly what it was like to be a "monster kid" in the 1970s and tells a marvelous tale about who we brand with the title monster. As said by Edward Van Sloan at the opening of 1931’s Frankenstein: "I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you." And it was going to be my pick for my favorite book of the year. . .until I read Hawk Mountain.

Conner Habib’s debut novel shares many attributes with McMahon’s The Children on the Hill. It certainly may shock and horrify readers. It is also heartbreaking in its depiction of the brutality that high school students can, and are, subjected to regularly and how those wounds sometimes never heal. Hawk Mountain is a novel that stayed with me long after I read it and was the genesis of several long conversations with library staff and friends regarding the themes within the novel and Habib’s writing of it. Habib is a writer to look for and anticipate what he releases next.