RS: Your two novels deal with time and place in very different ways. After The Rage of Achilles, was it a nice change of pace writing American Neolithic, which imagines a Neanderthal living in New York City?
TH: Very much. I’ve never been to Turkey, supposed site of Troy, nor does anyone know much about Homeric Greece. So it was pretty hard to see any of that as I was writing. On the other hand, I’m pretty much marinated in every venue in American Neolithic. (Some of the New York courthouses I actually had to visit, but otherwise they’re in my blood.) And that goes beyond New York. One chapter is set in my home county—Fayette Co. PA, immortalized as Fayette Nam in Phillipp Meyer’s American Rust. (One of the characters, Capt. Graner, is the Sgt. Graner of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, who lived a couple of thousand yards from my dad.) And another is set in New Haven, and half the action takes place in my regular haunt, Rudy’s. So for those reasons, it was a very nice change. And of course, another difference was that I had no Cliff Notes to crib from for Am Neo; in Achilles, Homer kind of helped me out.
In just three years, you've built up the Yale Writers' Conference into a literary institution. What has that process been like and what can people look forward to in 2015?
“Literary Institution”? I like that! The process has involved so many spooky-dumb-luck coincidences that I am beginning to believe a thousand monkeys with typewriters could knock out Hamlet in a week or so. After Achilles came out, I spent a lot of time at small press book fairs with sad eyes hoping kind passersby would spring for a book. After a couple I thought, "Hey, New Haven could use one of these." I took the idea to Yale’s provost, whom I just happen to know. He referred me to the summer program. We started thinking about adding seminars. Next I thought, "Oh hell, why not just rip off Bread Loaf?" Our success exceeded not only my wildest expectations but my secret innermost emperor-of-the-world fantasies. Two things about which I’m happiest: first, our participants’ success in their writing careers as a result of the program; second, the atmosphere of inclusion, mutual support, and collegiality that’s marked every session so far. As to the former point, I think I have at least a clue—we put on a damn good show. As to the latter I’m less clear—I guess we just attract very good writers who are also very nice people. No really—I know that’s a Venn diagram that’s hard to imagine, but I swear it can happen!
In addition to being trained as a lawyer, you're also an expert on the city of New Haven. What are a few spots that a daytripping New Yorker would have to check out in the Elm City?
The obvious choices are the art galleries. The Yale Art Gallery was the largest university collection in the country before its renovation and expansion. It’s not the Met but it beats the Frick or the Morgan. The Mellon British Art Center is the largest collection of British art outside the UK, and if you’re anything of an anglophile you will have seen many of its portraits glowering at you from high-priced history books. (Mellon had money when dukes didn’t and were being eaten alive by postwar inheritance taxes; there’s no other reason for this stuff being outside England.) Interestingly enough, the buildings are across the street from one another, and the YAG is architect Louis Kahn’s first commission and the BAC his last. (Netflix "My Architect" for his very interesting story.)
Another no-brainer is the Beinecke Rare Book Library. First its contents—let’s start at a Gutenberg and work from there. Tens—hundreds?—of thousands of irreplaceable books. But even more astonishing is the setting. From the exterior an uninspired huge stalinist marble block. But the marble has been sliced so thin that within, penetrating slight makes the walls glow like gold. You have never, ever seen anything like it. And within these glowing golden walls is a six-story glass tower containing the books themselves.
Nine times out of ten when I’m stopped for directions by a car with out of state plates it’s for directions to Wooster St, home of the famous Pepe’s and Sally’s pizza joints. Do yourself a favor—don’t. Seriously. I live two blocks away and we have lunch there once a year when we’re snowed in and know there won’t be a line. If you want New Haven pizza every bit as good—and it is very very good—but without the attitude, and with a couple of crazy and astoundingly successful innovations, go to BAR on Crown St. They do traditions not to be found in the antipodes like classic white clam, but also things that should be abominations but are instead served in heaven, like the mashed potato and bacon. And they’re a brewpub.
Finally, my haunt, Rudy’s. Formerly a dive founded in 1937, they lost their lease and then moved around the corner with an enormous infusion of capital, becoming a gastropub with a nod to their ginmill past. Lots of nice beers on tap, wines by the glass good for a bar, but their claim to fame is first, genuine Belgian frites with thirty varieties of sauce, and second—and my favorite—Belgian mussels done three different ways. With frites. See you there!