The Dallas Morning News

High Profile: David Haynes

Author finds inspiration in ... well, everything

04:24 PM CDT on Saturday, April 9, 2005
By KRISTEN HOLLAND / The Dallas Morning News

David Haynes used to say "bookkeeper" when an adult asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. "I thought that was the person who got to keep books," he says. "What I learned later was I meant 'librarian.'"

The associate professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Southern Methodist University still avidly collects books, but he also writes them.

Named one of the best young American novelists by Granta magazine, Mr. Haynes has written five children's books and six critically acclaimed novels, including Live at Five, a satire of the TV news business. Several of his short stories have been read on National Public Radio.

Hardly a newcomer to the author circuit, the former fifth- and sixth-grade public school teacher continues to create a buzz in publishing, public education and literary circles.

His latest novel, The Full Matilda, follows six generations of Housewrights as the clan evolves from serving one of the most influential families in Washington, D.C., to running a service empire of their own. Published in May 2004, the book has received rave reviews from Texas Monthly, Salon.com and the Boston Globe.

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How did you get started writing?

I've always loved books. I also knew that I wanted to do something creative. And the third thing was I also knew I wanted to teach writing. Writing became a part of my life probably when I found out that I couldn't sing. I didn't have much natural musical ability at all. I'm sort of uncoordinated, so I can't draw. Writing was the outlet.

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You've taught fifth and sixth grades, as well as college and adults. What do you find harder -- writing or teaching writing?

Oh, I think writing is a lot harder than teaching writing. Maybe that is a horrible thing to confess to. They both bring me pleasure ... neither is odious to me. Teaching is a social puzzle. It's like, how can we as a community of learners work our way through this thing and come out the other end? Whereas writing is, how can I figure out this story that I got myself into writing?

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Where do you find inspiration?

I consume everything that comes from everywhere. I don't write much from personal experience in that direct sense, but sometimes things will happen that I'll ask a question about and the novel will come from the question. Years ago, when I first taught, I had a little girl whose mother entered her in beauty pageants. She was a very ordinary girl. To her, it was just like her mother's hobby. She was so down-to-earth about it. Every once in a while, her mother would send up the pictures. I would just say, "Well, look at that." I wasn't so much interested in writing a book [about pageants] ... I was really interested inasking the question, "What's on that mother's mind and what's she thinking about?"

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What are you reading?

Everything. I do, I really do. I hate this word for myself but someone once described someone else as being a "promiscuous reader." It's almost fair. I'm promiscuous but discreet. I have my limits. I try to read as much literary fiction as I can. But that's the professional side of it. The personal side of it is that ... reading books is my crack cocaine. You're always after that next rush. That next book that's going to just take your head off. Unfortunately, you don't find those very often. But every once in a while, maybe once or twice a year, there's a story that does that, and once or twice a year maybe there's a novel that really does that.

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What have you discovered lately?

I haven't found much. That doesn't mean that there haven't been good books, but I'm waiting for that one [that] knocks my socks off.

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What is your writing process like?

When I was teaching sixth grade, one of the things that I figured out fairly quickly was that if I wanted to get as much work done as I wanted to, I was going to have to figure out some things about time. Seeking out a few minutes in the evening and on the weekend wasn't going to work. So I started going to colonies and retreat centers probably about 20 years ago. My habit came to be that during those retreat periods, I would generate lots and lots and lots of raw material. I would come back often with two or three or four legal pads just full of raw, raw material. Even though I had a hard time generating raw material during the school year, I could spend a few hours a week editing and revising that material. I've been trying to change it ... but that works for me.

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What's next?

I have a whole bunch of projects that are sort of sitting on a back burner. I have two novels that I just can't find my way into. The one that I'll probably go into first is on the working poor. [It] was inspired by the time I checked into the wrong motel. I was, like, the only person that didn't live there. I'm also working on some short stories. I have some children's books that I've written. I wrote them because there weren't good multicultural books for those kids. I've written four in the series. I've been collaborating for a couple years with a school over in North Carolina, in Winston-Salem. We're going to write a play. The kids have already sent me the ideas for what they want to have happen with the characters.

E-mail kholland@dallasnews.com