Fiction is Still True: A Conversation with Brittany Hailer, MFACW ‘15
Brittany Hailer, MFACW ‘15, is an author and a journalist at Public Source and other outlets. Her new book Animal You’ll Surely Become is a genre-blending work of poetry and creative nonfiction that explores issues of addiction, sexual assault, and fractured families. Sarah Cadence Hamm, Social Media Manager for ChathamU and an MFACW ‘13 alum herself, sat down with Hailer for a chat about journalism, authorship, and the Chatham community.
Sarah Cadence Hamm: Congratulations on your first book, Brittany! Can you describe the writing process, and how you’re feeling about its reception?
Brittany Hailer: It was a hard book for me to write, and it’s so short! I had to squeeze every word out because of the nature of what I was writing about. It was through writing really weird strange poems about deer that I was able to access it. I had to fictionalize it in order to tell the truth— but it’s still the truth.
The book is very topical, with my dad being a victim of the Catholic church. That had a lot to do with the reception, honestly. I feel overwhelmed [by the book’s reception] in the best way. There are people championing me that I didn’t expect, so that’s been really sweet. People from my childhood, and people I don’t know have reached out to me too— it’s such a small book, I didn’t expect that to happen immediately.
SCH: What does the typical day of a freelance writer and journalist look like?
BH (laughing loudly): This week in particular has been crazy, but it’s always feast or famine. I also teach so that’s a juggling act in itself. Fact-checking is thorough at Public Source, so for every sentence I write, I put it in a spreadsheet, and provide a source for each sentence. It can take days, but when we publish something we know it’s tried and true. Due diligence is important.
Some days I’m sitting in City Council for six hours, which I enjoy but I don’t know if other people would. Local government fascinates me. I’ll do dailies, covering protests, walking around from nine in the morning to nine at night, seeing a police wall with riot gear, and then have to go home and turn that story in immediately.
Other stories I’ll spend six months sitting with a guy who was in solitary confinement, getting to know everything about his life and then having to get it into 2000 words. And somewhere in there I write poems! That’s the hardest thing, trying to be an artist when you have a full-time job writing.
“This book, it’s a collection of essays that deal with some heavy truths— addiction, family dynamics, sexual assault—but to me, it’s an incredibly hopeful book. It’s about finding love, despite monsters.”
SCH: I think a lot of writers and others in the creative field can really relate to that struggle. How do you find that balance?
BH: Sometimes I’ll write poems at one in the morning if they come to me, but honestly, in the past year with the work involved in publishing a book and everything else, I’ve probably written four poems? I’m trying to take care of that, because that’s my first love. Of course I care about humanity; I report on social justice—but I need to do a little self-care and write about my tarot cards and my dog. I’m not someone who gets up at 5am and writes every day; I’ve never been that person. I do tend to write creatively at night, so instead of binge-watching TV, I intentionally try to write a poem. I get inspired by going to readings, doing interviews...if I can be around other literary people, the community inspires me to keep going.
SCH: How do you like being a Chatham MFA alum?
BH: The Chatham MFA family is so tight knit and amazing. That’s why I went there—I immediately recognized how much of a family it is. Like, you and I weren’t in school at the same time together—I didn’t go to school with Sarah Shotland or Christine Stroud or Ben Gwin, but when their books came out, I showed up, and now that my book is out, everyone’s there and excited. All my professors from Chatham showed up at my first book launch!
In terms of community, the Words Without Walls program is taking that tight-knit family dynamic and caring about words and art and bringing it to community members who probably wouldn’t have access to that otherwise. It really taught me to go out into the street and say, “Poetry is important,” to someone who might feel like nobody wants to read about their life. I think that really snowballed into the career I have now, which is gathering stories about marginalized folks. So I didn’t go to journalism school, but I definitely learned to listen to people.
SCH: What would you like to say about your book that you haven’t gotten the chance to say?
BH: I hope the book shows people that there are a lot of different ways to deal with trauma. You can make it magical. You can make it weird, if that helps you. I hope that vulnerability and exploration helps other kids of addicts, other sexual assault victims, think “I can do this, write about this...” Things do get better and you can heal.
You can find more about Brittany Hailer on her website, and attend her second book launch at Black Cat Market on Friday November 16th.