Paul Hanstedt is a Professor of English at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, a father of three, a writer, an educator, and a traveler. Besides his text book, GENERAL EDUCATION ESSENTIALS, his academic work has been published in MLA’s The Profession, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Liberal Education. He regularly travels throughout the country and around the globe working with faculty and administrators on general education/liberal education reform, curricular design and development, course design and development, and assignment and assessment design.
In addition to HONG KONGED, his nonfiction memoir about a year in Asia with three kids under the age of ten, Paul Hanstedt has published creative works in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Puerto Del Sol, and Confrontation, among other journals. He is a regular essayist and can be heard on Virginia Public Radio.
Jan: Thanks for agreeing to an interview, Paul. You have a wonderful new nonfiction memoir, HONG KONGED, about living in Asia for a year with your family. With three kids under ten, what were the greatest challenges and greatest joys of your family’s ‘most excellent’ adventure?
Paul: Simply keeping perspective. You’re in a foreign country, you’re already generally exhausted from trying to figure out where you are, where you’re going, who’s who, the language, the food, the map—it’s all exhausting. And then you’re on the train heading down to Central Hong Kong, surrounded by quiet, well-behaved Hong Kongers and their quiet, well-behaved children, and your kid decides to do a Demi Moore imitation, swing round and round on the support pole in the middle of the train. At home this would be bad enough, but at least you’d know how to respond and you’d know that your response is a legitimate one. Overseas, your sense of scale is thrown off and it’s pretty easy to overreact. Not that I ever did, of course. I’m a calm, well-mannered, very quiet, very rationale human being. Really. Seriously.
In terms of “joys” it’s hard to pick: the food was amazing, just exploring a new place was amazing, lion dances, Shang Hai opera—it was all crazy and overwhelming and wonderful. But the best thing was watching our family just sort of adjust to where we were and what we were capable of. For example: it’s late May and we’re planning on going to one of the outlying islands for a bun festival celebrating Buddha’s birthday (I’m not making this up). I have a meeting in the morning that I think will last 30 minutes that actually goes four hours. At two I drag myself into the apartment and tell the kids, “In fifteen minutes, we’re leaving. Do what you need to do.” And fifteen minutes later we all troop out the door, shoes on, backpacks on, down to the bus, down to the train, down to the ferry. We just go. No one asks any questions. This is just what we do: we go places, we see things. How cool is that?
Jan: So what do you, and your family, miss most from your year of living abroad?
Paul: The reality that every time—every time—you went out the door you would see or taste or hear or do something that you’d never seen or tasted or heard or did before. I know that word “literally” is overused these days, but I mean this very literally: every time we walked out of the apartment, something surprised us—a kind of candy we’d never had before, a dignified old lady at the bus stop stroking my daughter’s hair, goose feet for dinner, pink dolphins off the stern of the ferry . . . it never ended.
Jan: What was the biggest cultural jolt upon your return to Roanoke, VA?
Paul: Besides the predictability? The size, I think. We flew into Chicago and drove up to my parents’ home in Wisconsin. The sky seemed so big. The land seemed so broad and flat. The streets are so wide, the lawns so wide, the parking lots absolutely huge. And somehow all of that seemed very empty. I’m not sure what this means—if it was just our boredom with returning to what we knew, or if we were sensing some sort of American angst, a desperation to create space and big things as a means of establishing ourselves as relevant and important -and ultimately failing in that effort. This feeling didn’t disappear when we returned to Virginia. Even here, where the mountains close you in a bit more, there’s a sense of size. I mean, have you ever seen the parking lot of your CVS absolutely full? Why, then, do they make the things so damn big?
Jan: How do objects, and in particular ‘found objects,’ ground you as a writer? What do you need in order to write while you’re traveling?
Paul: “Stuff” matters: the material world, the concrete details we describe in our stories, that’s what makes the world understandable for the reader. When I mentioned goose feet a few questions ago, I’m guessing that was a moment that was both startling for the reader—woah! Really?—and familiar: they could see the feet, could see the webbing, could sense the peculiar (and unsavory, I might add) rubbery quality of it.
One of the few things I’ve actually figured out in my life is that writing isn’t just about putting words on a page, but about living differently: I think writers pay attention more, remember things that other people don’t, the spines on a leaf, the stiff crust of a corner brownie, the way the young mother at the pool walks with her hips forward, her arms swinging gracefully as though she’s in the evening gown portion of a beauty contest. And I think that writers need to pay attention and need to remember more. It’s essential for good writing. Writing, then, is a way of life, a way of living.
All of that said? I take a lot of pictures and use my wife’s pictures as well. If there’s someplace in a piece where I keep getting stuck, I find it’s useful to go to her Picassa site [website for photo sharing] and browse the photos from that part of the trip. Inevitably I’ll find some small detail that gets me going again.
Stay Tuned for Part Two of Paul Hanstedt’s Interview – Next Tuesday – September 25, 2012 – After 4:30 p.m. We’ll begin by talking about the paradox of our mutual fear of flying and love of travel.
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: