Curran Hatleberg on Novels

1.What kind of stories or books were you drawn to as a child? How has that changed over time?

Thinking back, the most enduring stories from childhood were family stories. Perhaps they are so powerful in my mind because they are all about people I know. These oral histories were often repeated and over-embellished, just enough to remain believable. They were told a little differently each time.

These were the memorable moments of life lived that my parents told, my grandparents told, my aunts and uncles told. These stories are carved into my memory, and I carry them around in my mind. This probably began my interest in the lives of real people. Even the fiction I am drawn to most is about naturalistic scenes, people and families.

2. Have you read the entire works of any authors? Why those authors?

Sometimes I read a book and it's so overwhelming, so mysterious, that it feels like I have no choice but to consume everything else this author has written. William Faulkner was one of these authors. Joy Williams was another. Toni Morrison and George Saunders too. Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion, David Means, and Denis Johnson also. The list goes on and on.

When I am reading I am looking for the unexpected, in order to learn something that I don’t already know or assume. It’s a simple thing to say, but all the authors listed above achieved that in their own unique and exacting way. I guess in short, each of these authors works have exercised an influence over the way I interpret the world. They all succeeded in making the world new, and they all devastated me in some way.

3. Have there been any pivotal or particularly transformative books for you?

Certainly I remember instances were a book shook me to the core. Even if I can say exactly how it changed me, I nevertheless felt myself changed. I remember turning the last page of Beloved and not being able to move from the kitchen table. Something had collapsed inside me. I sat there staring out the window for hours, just watching the backyard move from afternoon to darkness. I was so hypnotized I completely forgot to go to work that night. After closing Blood Meridian I was disoriented in a similar manner. I recall feeling so emotionally exhausted when I finished Under the Volcano that it felt like a relief. When I finished American Pastoral, I remember throwing the book across the room, then almost immediately rushing to get it back in my hands so I could begin reading it again.

4. Could you tell us about a book that has let you down?

Sometimes, it seems, authors write a special book of incredible originality. This book is so important to so many people that it must eventually become a curse to it’s creator - because anything they write afterwards, even if it’s great, will never come anywhere close to being as significant or acclaimed as the previous work. I got hooked on Don Delillo after reading Underworld and White Noise. I really love those books. They felt like true discovery - they had a pulse that was undeniable. Excitedly I tried to find the same essential quality in his other novels - and even though I still enjoyed them immensely - they just didn’t possess the same vitality for me.

5. What story genres/archetypes do you enjoy? Or do you prefer to find stories that are between genres?

I enjoy stories about ordinary people involved in everyday life who are trying desperately to make themselves understood.

6. What book have you gifted most often?

For better or worse, the book I gift most often is typically the last good thing I’ve read. Maybe because it’s still fresh and alive in my mind. When I’m reading something moving - something really excellent, it’s as if the whole world of fiction has been eclipsed by that particular book. Of course this isn’t the case - it’s just that particular work at that particular moment is still so bright everything else falls into its shadow.

I think the last book I gifted may have been Updike’s Rabbit, Run. I know I’ve gifted East of Eden before. Just before a close friend moved to Africa I dropped The Sheltering Sky in his bag. Years later, when I met him for a beer back in the States, he casually mentioned that the book altered the course of his experience there and informed certain decisions he made. You can’t beat that.

7. What book character do you feel closest to?

I couldn’t say which character I feel closest to. I am probably closest to a composite of many different small qualities of many different characters. That being said, when I read Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, it was very relatable to me. The book contained an aspect of escape that felt familiar. Throughout the novel, even if he doesn’t know it, Suttree is always looking for a home, seeking out the moments and exchanges that impart the meaningful belonging and stability of home.

This struck a nerve. Maybe because so much of my life is lived on the road, because I’m uprooted and disconnected from my own home - in unknown places and company - much of the time. Or maybe because some primal purpose of my photography is tied to the creation or understanding of home and family.

8. How do you feel about reading works in translation?

I feel fine about it. I enjoy those works as much as any other. If the book is illuminating and forceful, then I tend not to think about the translation’s effectiveness, but I suppose that's the very definition of good translation.

9. Do you take books with you on shooting trips? How might they influence your photography there?

Yes, I always have something I’m reading while shooting. Reading hones my awareness and puts me in a state of concentrated expectation. I especially love reading books about the region I am actively working in, because it helps to narrow the gap between imagination and reality.

When I was down in Florida for a few months a few summers ago I read Mark Richard’s The Ice at the Bottom of the World, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men as well as a few wild books by Harry Crews. These books all dealt in some way with the South - the specific weather there, the people and the landscapes. While shooting that summer those books instilled a belief - reinforced an idea, that my intuition to photograph in that place was meaningful and all I had to do was wait for the pictures to show themselves.

10. What are you reading right now? Why?

I am living in the Midwest for the Summer, at a residency in Omaha. There’s a great bookstore here, up the street from my studio, and while browsing the shelves I came across a copy of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass. I remembered a friend recommending it at some point. Almost everything I read is because of a friend’s endorsement. Being in Nebraska, in the heart of the country, so to speak, it felt like the right time to crack it open.