As part of our Shelf Life series of virtual events, Henry Hoke, author of The Groundhog Forever, read from and discussed his new poetic pop novel, experimental influences and practices, and much more, in conversation with Lydia Conklin.
The Groundhog Forever is a queer sequel to the movie Groundhog Day. Two film students in post-9/11 Manhattan get stuck reliving the same day over and over together: the day they meet Bill Murray at a screening of Groundhog Day. This vicious loop tests the limits of their friendship and forces them to confront the true meaning of artistic immortality. A poetic pop novel with experimental flair. Charlie Kaufman meets Sarah Manguso. Today is the last day of the best of your life.
Watch the video from this event and read the transcript below:
Explore other books by Henry Hoke:
- Sticker (2022, available for pre-order)
- Genevieves (2017)
- The Book of Endless Sleepovers (2016)
Plus, explore these influences and recommendations from Henry Hoke:
- E! Entertainment & Hoarders by Kate Durbin
- Unexplained Presence by Tisa Bryant
- The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson
- This is a Dance Movie! by Tim Jones-Yelvington
- 365 Days / 365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks
- Madeleine E. by Gabriel Blackwell
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Open Me by Lisa Locascio
“A radiant, shapeshifting novel about fame, friendship, the ecstasy and agony of repetition, and The Divine Bill Murray. In playful, exhilarating prose, Hoke pushes sentential limits, wryly examining the way art marks the world (and the many ways in which it fails to do so). Just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of the spellbinding groundhog logic, the story blooms and swerves and evades, irresistible in its capacity for endless reinvention.”—Kimberly King Parsons, author of Black Light
“A gorgeous love letter to reality’s unfolding, this beautifully written, magically real adventure paints a lucid, abstract-expressionistic kind-of-a-sensation of being limitless even while standing under the fluorescent lights of the institution.”—Speed Levitch, author of Speedology
“The Groundhog Forever is that tricky kind of trick: the kind that says it’s just a little fun thing, but then opens up the entire world’s guts and out comes LIFE. Hoke’s sentences contain teeming cosmos, yet are somehow small enough to hide in your pocket. There’s ancient pathos in the quotidian, groovy earworms in the depths. It’s one day that is infinite, which means it’s also the immeasurable everything of right now.”—Johanna Hedva, author of Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain
SARAH LAWSON: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab in Zoom. Also, this event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time with the captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we really hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from the library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers today. Our moderator is Lydia Conklin, a writer who’s received a Stegner Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, three Pushcart Prizes, a creative writing Fulbright, a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and fellowships from Emory, MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and elsewhere. Their story collection Rainbow, Rainbow is forthcoming.
And today’s featured author is Henry Hoke, author of The Groundhog Forever. Henry also wrote The Book of Endless Sleepovers and the story collection Genevieves, which won the Subito Prose Prize. He co-created and directs the performance series Enter>text, and his memoir Sticker is forthcoming from Bloombury’s Object Lessons. Henry, thanks for being here. I believe you’re going to start us off with a reading, so please take it away.
HENRY HOKE: Thank you so much, Sarah. Hi, everyone. It’s amazing to be concluding my virtual novel tour here at the Virginia Festival of the Book because that’s where I began my life—in Charlottesville, Virginia. And it’s amazing to be joined by Lydia Conklin, who is one of my favorite writer people on the planet. Just an incredible comic, creator, and fiction writer. And I’m so excited for their book, which is only a year away. I’m counting the months. But I think about their work every day. And I wrote this book actually when we were living ten feet apart in dorms at Sweet Briar College, teaching at the University of Virginia Young Writers Workshop. So, I had the presence of Lydia while I created this book.
So, I’m going to read a short excerpt from The Groundhog Forever, from Part Two of it. It follows two film students on one day of 2004, April 27th, as they get stuck in a loop together. Their names are Thing 1 and Thing 2, and the loop includes a screening in one of their classes where they watch the movie Groundhog Day and meet Bill Murray, who’s joined them in class as a guest. And this takes place after they’ve sort of realized they’re stuck in a loop, and they’re figuring out what to do with themselves. And every morning, Thing 1 wakes up, and her girlfriend is leaving without saying goodbye. Just like leaving the dorm room. And that’s how she wakes up every day. And her girlfriend’s name is New Rochelle in the book. So here we go.
Thing 1 stood in the bathroom and debated the need to brush her eternal teeth. Thing 2 sat using Thing 1’s computer. It felt right to end their days in her dorm room, this cozy abnormal space.
Thing 2 read a short email from his mother, an email that he’d missed on previous iterations. He knew that she was about to go to sleep when she wrote it, about to say her prayers, down south. He knew that if he replied there’d be no way she’d see it until after six the next morning, when he’d already have jumped back. Defiant of time, he typed and sent only XOXOs into the void, in hopes that she’d be restless, or rise early and check.
A melancholy slid into his insides with the last of the beer. They decided to sleep, side-by-side on the bed, and for hours they couldn’t. Thing 2 waited, awake, to teleport away. Thing 1 waited for him to be gone.
Thing 2 coughed and shifted. “I think I’m getting sick,” he said.
“You won’t,” said Thing 1.
He rolled over and faced the wall.
“What?” she asked, drowsy.
“I was really kinda looking forward to 2005. Looking forward to having a new president.”
Thing 1 and Thing 2 decided they had superpowers. Besides knowing the short future of Tuesday, they could also stay up all night, no sleep necessary, because they’d always be rested at the same level upon waking. All superpowered people need a code. They sat in Thing 1’s dorm and made separate lists, word-processed and handwritten. Thing 1 titled hers The Code: what we won’t do. Thing 2 titled his Dumb stuff we never have to worry about now that we have forever.
Never hook up with a soldier,typed Thing 1.
Student loans,wrote Thing 2.
Never leave the city,typed Thing 1.
Having a career,wrote Thing 2.
Their lists grew comically long. They could see the world shrinking and were gleeful. Each line they wrote felt like a goodbye, like they were waving from a train at a person sprinting down the platform, a person they were ecstatic about not having to see again.
As they wrote, they considered the absence of consequence. Thing 2 thought of a TV personality he loathed. Thing 1 fixated on the professor who always squeezed her shoulders in the hallway. Violence inside them swelled and abated. And simultaneously— Thing 2 on his notepad and Thing 1 on her computer—they added: We do not torture.
We do not torture.
If they could time travel, they’d be able to see themselves from the outside, in the act of list making, and they’d laugh. They must have looked ridiculous, working hard on manifestos that would disappear with the morning, every bit of ink and every digital tally mark gone. But there was only one version of them, locked inside their bodies. They didn’t have the privilege and excitement of narrowly avoiding other versions of themselves to prevent paradoxes and catastrophes. That happened in some other movie.
On page five of Thing 2’s notebook this futility hit him, and he ripped out the pages, balled them up, and threw them into the bathroom, missing the tub by inches. Thing 1 turned and looked at the crumple.
“I’ll remember the important ones,” Thing 2 promised.
Thing 1 went back to her document and put a finishing touch on the third page, making sure to save the changes. Saving changes felt important if they couldn’t affect real change or couldn’t see the effects of that change.
“Can we change the fact that one s***ty thing someone says about you can haunt you every day for the rest of your life?” she asked.
“No, but that happens with good things too,” he countered.
“C’mon, you know that’s not true.”
Their real superpower was impermanence.
People with superpowers also need missions. Thing 1 went first. “Ask me what I’ve never done.”
“What have you never done?” Thing 2 complied.
“I’ve never broken up with someone.”
She’d been broken up with, though, a handful of times, times she’d largely repressed. The first time she’d been dumped via answering machine at the end of a summer spent apart before middle school started. She could still remember the boy’s voice, but she couldn’t remember his face.
“It has to be in person,” she said, and thought of New Rochelle’s outstretched hands.
At Thing 2’s request, as they sat on the bed in what was now their ritual, Thing 1 recounted the Monday night spent with New Rochelle. “I asked her why she was having trouble sleeping, and she said she was thinking of Palestine.” They called it Monday night, always, to signify that bygone naturalistic time, in place of last night. Last night was fast becoming a meaningless phrase.
New Rochelle’s leaving every morning already bordered on permanent abandonment, and Thing 1 couldn’t let this be the final word. “I think I can catch her next time,” Thing 1 said and cracked just one knuckle of one finger.
Thing 1 felt the punch of New Rochelle shutting the door, and as usual it pulled her eyes open. She shouted, “Wait,” but only a hoarse rasp popped out. She gulped and swung up to perch on the edge of the bed and try another, and this time the “wait” worked but bounced off the closed door and the thick old walls, and she knew it had gone unheard. She swung open the door to see the emptiness that stretched to the curve in the hall and belted the loudest “hey” she could manage around it.
There was no echo and no response, and as she waited for New Rochelle’s possible return, she looked down and remembered how little she was wearing. Embarrassment seemed stupid, but she shut the door and went to her drawer for pants and a shirt, anticipating footsteps to signal New Rochelle’s return. None came.
She went to the door again, and before opening it, felt woozy from all the dressing and thought better of running out. Instead, she sat down and stirred the possibilities around in her mind, how the confrontation would go:
“I don’t know what this is, but I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m sorry,” she might say.
She sat and felt sick, but she was more than ready to hurt someone’s feelings.
When she could manage to stand, Thing 1 called Thing 2 to wake him and share how she’d struck out. They started to work out a plan. Since Thing 1 had the power to wake Thing 2 early, he would hustle over a few avenue blocks and intercept New Rochelle downstairs or on the street or as close as he could make it to her escape path. New Rochelle didn’t own a cell phone, couldn’t be stopped with a “come back” call.
“What do I say?” he asked. He’d only met New Rochelle once. She mostly steered clear of the film school and any of Thing 1’s friends.
“Figure it out. You feel great and I’m all messed up, so it’s your duty.”
She scrunched her hand around her hair and envisioned New Rochelle’s train chugging north, New Rochelle gazing out the window, indifferent of the space growing between her and the city and the girl in it. Thing 2’s voice punctured the thought bubble.
“You want to hang out?”
“No, I want to go back to sleep.”
Thing 2 had worn passable basketball shorts and a T-shirt to bed, another advantage. When his cell phone woke him, he was able to obediently toss his shoes on and sprint toward Thing 1’s dorm without so much as hearing her voice on the other end of the line. To others, he probably looked like a scrawny out-of-shaper doing his first run in a while, but he had a jolt of purpose rocket-fueling him all the way to the claustrophobic lobby of the Fifth Avenue building. New Rochelle wasn’t there. He waved to the security guard and found the left stairwell, stood for a moment and listened for anyone coming down, keeping one eye on the square glass panel back into the lobby to see if she emerged from the opposite side, which she didn’t.
It was an off-hour, most dorm residents already ensnared in their morning classes or hunkered down sleeping. He saw only a couple people pass, neither with any semblance of the curly mane that he knew New Rochelle to have. Since Thing 1 only lived on the third floor, after ten minutes of waiting, Thing 2 went back into the lobby and stood before the two ancient elevators. The one on the right was broken, its doors blocked by a sign. The one on the left was coming up from the basement. It opened. He looked back at the guard, made awkward eye contact, and decided to step into the elevator to avoid weirdness. Social conditioning was hard to shake.
The Things didn’t catch New Rochelle on the next few tries. Thing 1 lost faith in Thing 2 and stumbled out and into the hallway, but she met him in the stairwell on one repeat, at the elevator on another, their quarry never between them. Thing 2 circled the blocks around the dorm looking, checking delis, imagined turning a corner and bumping into New Rochelle’s hair, but it wasn’t meant to be.
They couldn’t imagine how she was eluding them, how they were f***ing this up. They had the numbers, the advantage. There was no bigger advantage than to wake up every morning and find everyone else still the same.
Thing 1 stepped inside her windowless bathroom and closed the door without turning on the light. In the darkness, she wasn’t there, in the mirror or anywhere else. The room wasn’t there. She was erased in the darkness.
Outside of the darkness, New Rochelle got farther and farther away.
Thing 2 considered New Rochelle a lost cause, but Thing 1 wasn’t ready to give up. She had one more long shot in mind: Grand Central. She knew the train New Rochelle left to take: the time and the destination.
But no matter what cab they grabbed or subway they dove into, New Rochelle was already on the train and beyond their reach when they arrived in the atrium of the station. It went without saying that Thing 1 wasn’t chasing beyond Manhattan’s limits.
“You could always do it by phone, when she gets home,” Thing 2 suggested, but then shuddered at the never in Thing 1’s glare. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the big clock above their heads. “I’m not usually up yet.” The space was vast and golden, and people were moving quickly, upset. The Things stepped outside.
New Rochelle was as unreachable as if she had taken off in a plane, crossing time zones to an island in the Pacific, an angel already. The sun hit them both from behind. They looked at the street and finally realized what they had missed in all previous repetitions, what had been absent the entire time. When the sun hit them, they no longer cast shadows.
Thing 1 woke up on April 27th and made her away message, “There are 8 million stories in the stupid city: you’re an idiot,” woke up and made her away message, “You wanna go where everybody knows your pain,” woke up and made her away message, “Each day is a gift/ curse/curse/gift, especially this day.”
Her dead fallen shampooed strands of hair anemonied up from the mesh in the shower drain.
Can you stay under the hot water for an entire day?
The answer is yes.
For two days?
“Not if you want to stay friends,” Thing 2 said on the other end of the phone when Thing 1 finally sloshed to it. “Come on,” said Thing 2. It was his turn for a mission.
Thing 1 looked down at her wrinkled toes. Pruning for hours under the shower scald was a way to simulate old age, but a half-measure. I’m not becoming some other person, she thought. I am her.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Thank you so much, Henry. That was beautiful. Thank you so much for your nice words too. I’m such a fan of Henry’s writing, and this book The Groundhog Forever is my favorite of your books so far. So, I’m so excited to be here talking about it, especially since we have a shared history with groundhogs that I felt should be mentioned. The place where we were on faculty, there were two warring bands of groundhogs called the Red Team and the Brown Team, and I wondered if they caused some small inspiration.
HENRY HOKE: I was looking at them the whole time out the window, yeah.
LYDIA CONKLIN: But the part you read is so beautiful, and I won’t ruin what happens with New Rochelle, but it’s such a great payoff later on in the book. And I wanted to ask you, because I rewatched the movie of Groundhog Day, which I hadn’t seen since childhood, a couple of days ago. And I just found it’s so claustrophobic—the movie—and like anxiety-producing. Even though I hadn’t watched it since childhood, it felt like that day was kind of embedded in my own memory. And every time like the DJs start their stupid banter, it’s like this cringey, horrible feeling. And like the whole movie, even though things start to change, it feels like this shrinking of possibilities. But even though your book also is just one day, it feels like—and the excerpts you just read is a great example of this. It feels like there’s this widening of possibilities and this expansiveness. And I wondered how you were able to achieve that within one day. Because I never felt this kind of like repetitive anxiety that I felt watching the movie.
HENRY HOKE: Yeah, thank you for the question. It’s so interesting to think about the source movie. Because again, I’d seen it—maybe I’ll spoil it later, but this was a real thing that happened with Bill Murray and everything for me. But I hadn’t really watched it since then because it was hard to match that experience of watching it in a room with Bill Murray there. But I watched it again many years ago, and I sort of had the same feeling. I think I was connecting to how much of like the sort of boomer residue of midlife crisis is so central to so many movies of like our youth. Movies with adults in them, you know? There was a lot of that disaffected—you know, a lot of these SNL people like Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, who were like the protagonists. And I think that that is still reflected in how we encounter that movie. It’s a midlife crisis, and he’s stuck in a place where he doesn’t have access to the things that he can indulge in. And I think for me it was like this is about youth and about like queer youth, and it’s about New York City. And all those things inherently made it full of possibility, I thought.
Because he’s at this point—the weatherman, Bill Murray, in Groundhog Day. I call it the groundhog movie because I keep evading. But he’s at this moment where he’s hit with depression and disaffection and despair from sort of the jump. And I think that my characters are immediately excited because they’re at the beginning of their life, of their out life, in a way. Of their coming into being and of experiencing New York. The real beginning of their New York life was September 11th. That was the first week of their classes. That’s when they met and bonded, and that’s a sort of pivotal part of the movie. I’m sorry, the book. Yeah, I’m getting confused. But, yeah, a pivotal part of the book is that that was their sort of early trauma. And this is sort of later on two years later. And so much of that was that everything they encounter feels exciting and full of possibility from the beginning because they have the context of the movie. They know that they can do it differently. And they run into some obstacles to doing it differently, but that’s for readers to find out.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Yeah, and I noticed also in rewatching the movie, there was that kind of standard nineties’ romcom mission, which his that a mediocre jerk man can like—there’s always a way that he can achieve the most amazing woman who happens to be in the film. And with Groundhog Day, it takes him some eight years of being in the same day to get to that point. But it’s just kind of like the same mission that’s in every ninety’s romcom. But in your book, the missions change. You read the part where the mission is to finally get to break up with someone and see how that feels. And at one point, one of them helps the other see a sun shower because they’ve been missing rain, and there’s no rain on that day. So, there’s lots of different missions that change through the book, and it’s kind of an evolving mission as opposed to this kind of one like misogynist, heteronormative mission of the movie. So, I wondered how you approached structuring the book around all the different missions and how they evolved over time.
HENRY HOKE: Yeah, well you summed that up so beautifully. Thank you. Yeah, that was really the approach. I think it was inherently just that I removed that sort of heteronormative, frustrating arc that I didn’t want to replicate. It’s not like—their characters have a deep bond and friendship, but they’re queer characters. You know, gay and lesbian characters coming to their own sexualities, but they’re not romantically involved. So, their possibilities are not like—it’s not inherently like will they, won’t they? And they’re not in pursuit of someone else who they have this extreme advantage over. I mean, they’re pursuing New Rochelle for a reason, but it’s not the same thing, and it’s not the whole arc of the book.
So, I think just in doing that, it opened up the possibility for me to explore every encounter, every experience you could have, or you could hope to have. Because there’s not some cookie-cutter, capitalist goal, which I think all those movies are kind of reinforcing. Of like at some point you’re going to be happy where you are. You’re going to be the favorite of the town. You’re going to win the woman. You’re going to get a house. Whatever it is. Even that he eventually settles down in a small town and comes to accept it is all very much like—you know, it’s hetero-capitalist coded. And for me it was like they don’t want to return to anywhere small. They want the brutality and wildness and recovering trauma of post-9/11 New York, and they really adhere to it as like the place they’re meant to be and become themselves.
LYDIA CONKLIN: That’s great, yeah. And I also was thinking about what you said earlier about they have the context of the movie, so they know, and they can prepare. And I don’t know if you’ve wandered into like the Groundhog Day Reddit. But I had always heard there was like people fighting over how many days are there, like whatever. I found this thread where everyone was talking about like how would they prepare the day before, if they knew the next day was Groundhog Day. And so, they were like, “I would get a lot of sleep, so I’d be really rested when I woke up.” And “I would make a plan with my mom,” which was really sweet. It was sweet to read like how they’re thinking about that.
HENRY HOKE: Well, that’s way more heartwarming than fandom people I’ve encountered. I love that. There’s a really important thread of like their mothers in this book. It’s a small thread, but that connection is like this funny thing for them that recurs. And so, I love that that’s part of the forums.
I think that it’s funny the way that an internet community will wrap truth around something that’s just so clearly high concept for a fun reason. I read a blog—I’ve never gone on to like forums about it. But I read a blog where someone was like here’s how we mapped out exactly how many days he spends on the same day in Groundhog Day. Eight years, right? Someone’s come to that conclusion. Somebody was saying it was way longer because he’d have to have the time to master piano and other things, he gets good at later on. Something like that. What’s funny is I was in a room with Bill Murray, and that question was asked at the screening that inspired this book back in 2004. And he’s like, “I don’t know. I think at some point we said it was like ten years.” That’s basically what he said.
But I think that for me, there’s an explicit—right before the passage I read, a few pages before, there’s a thing about them deciding to lose count. Which was really about me deciding to stop having to mark everything. I’m like the sixth Tuesday. The seventh repetition. I was like, no, let’s have them decide to lose count, and then I as the author can lose count and just vibe.
But then there’s sort of a—this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but my characters in the book spend a hundred years in this personal thing. And you’ll see. But at least in what the book tells, there are a hundred years collected. So, I got way more perpetual with it, I think, than that movie would ever really want to do. I think that would reach this level of despair that movie’s not prepared to deal with, even though it deals with a lot of things like suicide. But I think that it’s supposed to be like a livable amount of years. I mean, honestly, it seems like eight years since I’ve seen you or many of my loved ones in just these fourteen, fifteen months. So, I get how things get really hard really fast with the perpetual.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Yeah, I wondered about that in the movie, had they ever even counted the days. Because it seemed like there were sometimes when he’d been watching the bank for the robbery for a long time, but how can you know how many times it was?
HENRY HOKE: No, and it’s clearly—like as somebody wrote a book just like it, at no point was it mathematical. It’s a stylistic flourish, and you’re supposed to not know. You’re supposed to get lost in the conceit and just go with it.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Because I like how sometimes we’re really spending a lot of time in one day, and other times it seems like dozens of days pass in just a paragraph or two. But since we were talking about the movie, I just wanted to read—if it’s not rude for me to read your work.
HENRY HOKE: I would love that.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Okay. I just wanted to read a part on page nine that I wanted to talk to you about. So, this is a description of the movie.
At first, the weatherman tries all he can to leave the miserable loop. But once defeated, he uses his temporal advantage to be awful. He steals money, binges calories, and ruins other people’s lives, as if why not. He convinces himself that his female coworker will be his salvation and that he must pursue her sexually and configures all his repetitive powers in the service of seducing her: a futile and horrible practice. She perceives his game and remains repulsed. The weatherman decides there’s no escaping himself. A legendary actor named Bill plays the weatherman.
In despair, the weatherman commits suicide, but even this doesn’t free him from the same day, the same alarm clock radio song, the same wakeup. It’s simply a shortcut. He kills himself again and again, writhed in a snowy purgatory, destroying his body with increasingly inventive flair. This is a family comedy.
So, I just laughed so much when I read that because it was like wow. At that point when I was reading your book, I hadn’t rewatched the movie, and I was like is that really what the movie is. Because I couldn’t remember. Then I rewatched it and I was like, yeah, it is. But somehow the way you write it, it just seems like holy god. But then when you watch it, it’s like you’re not really questioning that this is a family comedy where a man is like committing suicide and trying to relentlessly pursue this woman who hates him. But it just was kind of—I wanted to read that part because I feel like it’s just a good example of your work as a whole in this and other books. That you just seem to have this project of kind of defamiliarizing the quotidian and taking something that we’ve always looked at and thought about a certain way and then using your brilliant mind to, in this case, show the kind of horrible underbelly of it that maybe we aren’t really seeing. But I was just curious about that project since the book in itself is kind of about the idea of defamiliarizing. You know, the concept of one day and how you’ve talked about how it’s kind of a poem about mortality. And just if you could share some more thoughts about that.
HENRY HOKE: Yeah, yeah. And again, I’ve described it as a book-length poem about morality. And that’s how I sort of thought about it thematically. And then also just from a craft level, I thought about it like film criticism. At least the whole first—really the whole thing. There are many moments where the idea of the film and its lingering effect and its pop culture relevance is just a shadow, no pun intended, across the whole proceeding.
And I do it a lot. I think that so much of what I write is deeply connected to literature that I’ve read or pop culture that I’ve internalized. And even using Thing 1 and Thing 2—using children’s book approaches and languages is a huge part of how I write, whether it’s poetry or memoir or, in this case, fiction.
And I thought a lot about, especially for this one, my good friend Kate Durbin, one of my favorite contemporary writers. And the way that Kate uses—Kate crafts books that are—two books are using reality TV as sort of a color palette to write poetry and sort of experimental fiction. And in doing so, it’s these names that we might be familiar with, whether the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan or these characters from the show Hoarders, which is Kate’s new book. But the way that Kate approaches the language starts to shift and change it. And at some points, Kate will use really interesting pseudonyms or stand-in names for people we all know. And we were in conversation a lot because I teach Kate’s book and we just are good friends.
But part of it was I was thinking I don’t want to keep saying the movie Groundhog Day, and I don’t want to keep saying Bill Murray. And they’re sort of diegetically in the book called Thing 1 and Thing 2. That’s what their friends call them. So, it’s not like I’m imposing that on them. In a previous book, in The Book of Endless Sleepovers, Tom and Huck are my stand-ins for my boy characters. But that’s me, the author, making it that way. It’s not like they’re culturally called Tom and Huck by their friends, although I play with that.
This is the idea that like, within that, I wanted to defamiliarize. It’s the Divine Bill or just Bill, and it’s the groundhog movie. At no point do we hear that it’s called Groundhog Day. So just in doing that simple textual sleight of hand—I mean, it’s not confusing—it’s not meant to confuse anyone. But it’s just meant to create a slightly different approach in the text so that we can start to just learn to stop thinking about the reality and be in the pop cultural adjacent fictional world I’m mapping and creating.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Wow, interesting. I didn’t think about it like that. But, yeah, those little language things kind of invite us to see that it’s going to be a little bit of a skewed vision of what we’re used to. I just also wanted to mention if anyone in the audience wanted to ask a question, you can at any point put one in the chat or the Q&A, and I’ll incorporate it in as we go. But since, Henry, you mentioned the Divine Bill, I did want to ask you about the role of religion in the book and that kind of underlying theme. Because we have the minister father. We have the Jesus Cab. We have the musician with her conspiracy theories. And the idea of like what happens after you die, and the things have different ideas about that and afterlife and that kind of thing. And I wondered if you might speak about how that theme crept in.
HENRY HOKE: Yeah. So, at the start, I think that I knew that I wanted religion to be—I haven’t written extensively about religion. I don’t have like a staunchly religious upbringing or anything, in any way. So, I was always very sort of open to various modes and honestly just social circles. We talked a little bit about Unitarianism and other spaces we’ve inhabited that were really more about how we were experiencing adolescence than they were to like faith inherently or indoctrination. But so, this I wanted to really—but I wanted to explore because I thought so much about that day of my life.
So, I’ll—maybe it’s a later question. But, yeah, so this book was inspired because I went to class one day with a friend. And instead of showing the kind of movies that our professor had been showing, which were seventies’ art cinema and other things with auteurs who would speak to us. Bill Murray—well, they showed Groundhog Day, and halfway through Bill Murray walked in, and he was there watching it with us, and then he hung out with us for about an hour. And at that point, everyone was just—we couldn’t believe what was happening.
So, for us that was an incredibly like religious experience, I think, for a lot of us, seeing as how he was deified as a comedian, as a movie star, from like our early—I was, what, nine when the book came out. Sorry, when the movie came out. These times where he’s so unreachable, and he does feel like a god. So, celebrity worship was inherent to that experience and became a huge part of this book. It’s like what is that to have your life changed by the presence of something divine. That’s why I call him the Divine Bill. And because that sort of gets old fast for them, this idea of—especially with the perspective on the movie but also that they realize maybe they’re blessed now. Like they have the power of the divine. They’re sort of working on becoming their own gods.
And there’s a moment in the groundhog movie—Groundhog Day—where he says, “I’m god. I’m a god, and I know everything that’s going to happen.” That moment always hit me when I was young. I was like, yeah, that’s what it is. It’s a power trip. And you saw in the excerpt I read how little it really does sometimes to have this power, and what are you putting it in service of? And I think that’s really true of life maybe, so that’s really inherent to how they’re—they’re becoming gods on their own terms. And part of that is they don’t really feel like they’re manipulating the world or effecting change or controlling it. They keep getting farther and farther away from that and more and more into a space of possibility and thinking about how power is something you have to process. People who are given power—it’s difficult.
And I think actually it’s a Bill Murray quote at one point. He said when you become famous, you have about a year or two to be a complete and utter asshole. And if you don’t get out of that and change that, then it becomes permanent. And I don’t know if he’s implicating himself in how that is, but it was something that I really thought about. I was like, well right, what are these characters going to process in their eternity and their saintliness and their godliness? And so many different moments in the book, especially because Thing 2’s father is a minister and he was raised with Christianity, and Thing 1 has a very different experience with her father being dead. I think there’s just so much where that keeps coming back to them. Of like what is our faith now that we have seen that maybe for us there’s no heaven, there’s no end, there’s no reason to expect transcendence. So how do we transcend in the every day, every day, every day?
LYDIA CONKLIN: Yeah. Thinking what you said about the god thing. Like there’s that moment in the movie when Bill Murray is in the diner and introduces every single person and is like, “This is Andy, and he’s gay.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I am.” It’s like he talks to all these people, and he’s found out all their secrets, and now he can just walk around and say like this person wanted to be a bookkeeper but never had the grades. Just like that godly moment. But, yeah, your character—they don’t really abuse their power in the same way in the book, so it’s interesting. They do use it but in a more kind of stealth way, like saving the biker or the little things that they do.
HENRY HOKE: Yeah, it’s almost like they keep thinking they’re getting away with it. Like, how are we doing this, you know? And I think that’s very much about youth.
LYDIA CONKLIN: I wanted to ask you, since you mentioned the day—I don’t know if there’s anything more you want to say about the real day. But that must’ve been such a crazy experience. Was he in the room watching, and you didn’t know until the end of the movie?
HENRY HOKE: So basically, I would say the two parts of the book that are almost entirely verbatim from life—besides how I just have a bunch of little snippets—obviously how we all as fiction writers collect from around us—are just that experience of watching the film and then also of September 11th, of going through those events and the attacks in Lower Manhattan where I lived at the time. Where I had just moved as a freshman. But the day Bill Murray—it was that we were sitting in the room watching the movie, and we were kind of like why, and it was kind of confused for us. And my friends, who I make the water boys in my fictional universe—they were trying to get us to not watch Groundhog Day. They wanted us to watch Stanley Kubrick instead because they think he’s the auteur. They were like, “Why are we watching Groundhog Day?”
And the professor had to be like, you know, “Trust me.” Just this hilarious moment because they just wanted to control—they were just very control freaky. Some of my best friends, but I knew that about them.
But halfway through, yeah, he just sort of cruised in and sat right near us. And my friend nudged me and said, “It’s motherf***ing Bill.” So that was amazing, actually, and it’s depicted sort of as part of the religious services that you’re watching a person with the person. And we weren’t strangers to celebrity. We see those people a lot at NYU Film School. They bring a lot of famous people through to like impress us. And they come and screen films. It was a regular thing to either encounter those people or their kids who went to school with us, who were just part of the classes. So, it was sort of numb in a way. But that wasn’t. That was different because it was this wild encounter with the movie.
This was a few years after the movie adaptation had come out, and there was a lot of this what I call like pop ouroboros cinema. Where it’s a thing about a thing about a thing, you know? Where there’s layers. And for me, that was just the moment. So, my friend and I were immediately like, “What if this was our Groundhog Day?” The minute we were back on the street, and we saw Bill Murray walking down the street with our professor—like they were just chilling—we just thought—everything was electrified. Everything was different. It was like that was before and after. And what if this was the day we repeated?
So, at some point I envisioned that as a film. For many years. I decided to do it as a novel because I was like I want to write a novel. Or like I want to avoid writing another novel by writing a different kind of novel. And I was, like, well, what can fill that much space? What was a day or a thing that was most concentrated that I can keep writing about for 150, 200 pages? And I thought that in that moment we felt like this is going to be a movie. And we almost thought about pitching it for a while because we had just walked down the street with Bill Murray. We were like we could maybe pitch this, and he would get involved. You know, it was that early arrogance. And it was for a week we talked about it or whatever, and at some point, maybe I wrote a little pitch for it. But we had none of the access, you know. If I was a Coppola, I would’ve probably been able to make that movie happen in some way, shape, or form. But that’s not me. That’s not my pedigree. But I’m really glad I took it and made it into something different. But in that moment, it was like—it was going to be a movie for a while, but sort of a joke. So much of what I do starts out as a joke, and I just ride it, and I’m proud of it.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Actually, I was wanting to ask you. Since you do have this past as a filmmaker and screenwriter as well, I wondered if—you know, it’s interesting that the book started off as a movie idea, and I wonder if, now having written the book, if it would even be possible to conceive of making this a movie.
HENRY HOKE: See, at this point I’m just like he’s way too old. You couldn’t have the main content of the book. And I think I knew that, and I was excited about that. I think that freed me to actually write the book. I wrote it three years ago. And I was freed from this idea that it would ever become a movie. It would be hilarious if somebody like optioned it or something, but I don’t think that’ll happen. But the sense that like at this point he’s past sort of the expiration date where you could believably think he was however old he was in 2004. And it doesn’t mean that you couldn’t adapt it and be like, okay, yeah, it’s still Bill Murray. He’s quite old now, but he’s still coming to a class and watching Groundhog Day. Which he may have done again. Who knows? Me and the twenty people in that class may be the only people with that experience.
But I really like that it has its own—I guess I just have a different feeling about it. I really value books that are just books, and so I kind of wanted to web mine up in this un—I think my real goal is to make unadaptable work. I know that it’s really important right now, and it’s exciting to see a lot of literary stuff transformed and optioned, and it gets the writers a lot of money, which is really difficult for people to get in our world. So, I’m grateful. I’m excited for all my friends who are selling movies and adapting them. But I personally—like I love a book that’s only a book and can only be a book, and I kind of strive for that.
I’m not saying Hollywood’s ever going to knock on my door—ever would. But I like the idea that like my books exist as books, and they’re not something that you immediately think, okay, let’s market this, let’s adapt it, let’s capitalize on it for a new approach. I kind of like that it’s just a book.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Right, yeah. That’s something I also think about as like a multi-genre writer. Is like why am I writing in this genre? And if it’s doing something that could be done in other genres like film, then why am I writing it as a book? Especially since it could probably get more audience if it was in a film. But, yeah, I think it’s important to think about what can this genre do that others can’t. And this is a book that it’s hard to imagine it as a film because it’s so special as it is.
A question came from Margo Figgins. Hi, Margo. Because this novel is tethered to a shared experience and time in your life, how do you imagine, Henry, that the novel could be different had your lives not intersected when they did?
HENRY HOKE: Yeah, I love that. I’ll have to think for a second. Thank you, Margo, for that question. I guess I’m really excited. I think that I learned so much from Lydia and working with Lydia. Just your energy and your approach to work—the way you present work. I loved how you read my work, and I’m so glad that you read a piece of it. But I almost feel like I can’t read your comics like you read your comics. There’s something that you do performatively and energetically. And I honestly think that your spirit is in this book.
I launched—I did my other two events—one with my friend Katherine Faw, who’s a novelist who was literally—she’s in the book. She was there with me at NYU. We were students together. And we both became writers and got together later on. And then the next person I did, Lisa Lacasse, was also an NYU student for many years. So, we had sort of that shared experience. But I honestly feel like because I wrote this, like I said, at Sweet Briar, looking out at the groundhogs that you named Red Team and Brown Team in this forever war for territory—watching them go about their combat—I feel like your energy is in this. And I think especially because you are someone who the present moment is incredibly important. I feel like I was always electrified by your presence even just in how you perform your work but also just how you live a day. How each moment was like a new sort of adventure that was right there—right in that possibility. And it wasn’t that we weren’t all navigating the sadness of career and capitalism and general sadness of life.
But there was something where I think you have a real deep knack for how friendship and participation and movement and jolt people out of that ennui both artistically and just socially. So, I think that having you close by in the other room in our dorm was phenomenally important to the spirit of this book. Because like the start of each new writing section like electrified. And it wasn’t just because you were playing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” really loudly sometimes. And that just got me like, “Yes, let’s do this. Let’s channel this.” Or “Chandelier.” That was a big one that year.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Yeah, “Chandelier.”
HENRY HOKE: That’s a very like spirited, present-moment song. But, yeah, I guess us intersecting—our lives intersecting was important to this book, I will say.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Oh, wow. Thank you. That’s so nice. I guess if anybody has a last question, we can maybe take one more. But before that—just to give people time to think if they have one—I wanted to ask you since this is your third book—and everybody should also buy Henry’s other books Genevieves and The Book of Endless Sleepovers, which are also wonderful—I wondered if you could talk about how different the approach was. I know they’re all three separate genres, but they have kind of in some way—you know, it’s all your voice and your style at the basic root. And I wondered how approaching this book was different from the first two.
HENRY HOKE: Yeah. I think that the commonality of style is that my writing is very fragmented. What I craft it into is very fragmented. And I think for me this was still my first and only big story. Like the memoir that’s coming out in January—get excited—that’s twenty micro essays. So, it’s not something where I was filling out a giant story over hundreds of pages.
So, for me to really do that—to write my first and only big story—even the large novel I’m working on is in stories. So, it’s really that like I had to sort of—I had to find a fragmentary structure, and that’s why I wrote this particular book. I was like I just can’t write that much on one thing unless the lives of my characters are inherently fragmentary. And that got me through it. To write a novel, I had to make a novel where every single other page I could completely start it over. Like I could begin the novel—really, I could begin the story of the novel again every single time. And that got me through it. And it speaks to my attention span but also just like what I enjoy in writing and how I like to have super-concentrated work. I guess it’s because I’m kind of like a poet spirit who doesn’t write poetry in that way. Who writes different kinds of books.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Right. Yeah, because even if you look at The Book of Endless Sleepovers, the text on the page—not as much this book, but it almost looks like you’d be looking at a poetry collection. But when you read it, it doesn’t read like that. I mean, it has a poeticness to it, but.
HENRY HOKE: Yeah. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to a poetry collection, but yeah. Absolutely, yeah. It’s still a big story, in a way, or a compilation that sort of resonates and speaks to itself, which I guess it what I love about poetry collections.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Great. And it’ll be interesting to see how you continue finding ways to find larger narratives that have episodic structures. Because that’s such an interesting project if you continue to do that.
HENRY HOKE: Yeah, I think it’s all I’ll ever do, to be honest. Everything I’ll do will have a unique fractured quality. I think it’s just the unique fractured quality of my heart. That’s it.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Great, well, I don’t know if you have anything else you wanted to say before we wrap up, or a message to the world?
HENRY HOKE: Well, check out the book. Grab it, enjoy it, get into it.
LYDIA CONKLIN: This is a great book, everybody, and it has a wonderful cover. I’m so obsessed with the—and your brother painted this?
HENRY HOKE: My brother Malcolm painted that cover. I sort of gave him some inspiration from an old film poster I like, and he made that. And HR Hegnauer designed it, who also designed Genevieves. So, I was really grateful to work with one of my favorite book designers as well. Yeah. Grab it, hold that painting in your hands, and check out the book, everyone.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Yeah, we would encourage you to buy the book either from your local independent bookseller or there is already a link in the chat. Or if you already missed that part of the chat, you can look on VaBook.org to find the link. But thank you so much, Henry, for writing such an amazing book and speaking with us today and sharing your wisdom and genius. And I also wanted to mention that if you want to check out other virtual events for the Virginia Festival of the Book, that’s at VaBook.org, which maybe we’ll post in the chat too. But thank you, everybody, for tuning in today. It’s been such a glorious time. And thank you so much, Henry.
HENRY HOKE: Thank you, Lydia. This was incredible. I can’t wait to see you again.
LYDIA CONKLIN: I know.
HENRY HOKE: We’ll make it happen. Bye, everyone. Thank you.
LYDIA CONKLIN: Bye.