'Sticker' author Henry Hoke

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday March 1, 2022
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author Henry Hoke
author Henry Hoke

With his breathtaking memoir Sticker (Bloomsbury, 2022), queer writer Henry Hoke challenges our notions and expectations of the genre and does it all in under 125 pages. Part of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series, for which he chose stickers, Hoke evokes our senses, emotions, memories, fears, and history, expressed in contemporary and urgent language that never fails to captivate. A necessary and important read for all.

Gregg Shapiro: As a memoir theme, how did you arrive at the one for Sticker?

Henry Hoke: After finishing my first novel, The Groundhog Forever, in 2019, I was seeking a container for a variety of short memoir pieces that had been bouncing around in my head, so when I saw Bloomsbury's open call for Object Lessons proposals I decided on a unifying object and pitched. That first object (disk) was spoken for already, but I got some encouraging words from Chris Schaberg (one of Object Lesson's editors), so I went back to the drawing board and chose sticker — an even more varied, nostalgic way in — and that one stuck.

Were the essays/chapters written in the order in which they appear in the book?

Weirdly, yes, for something so fragmented. I decided on the 20 stickers and outlined their chapters, arranged them like a mixtape, and wrote the book in sequence. It helped to generally follow a bildungsroman format, as the pieces progress in rough chronological order, the stories growing alongside me.

Almost every essay in Sticker contains a kind of "scratch-and-sniff" refrain or mantra.

This was my favorite part about writing the book, threading the recurring line "if [whichever sticker] was a scratch-and-sniff it'd smell like _____" into almost every essay to create a unity. As I detail in the "Blueberry" chapter — which is scratch-and-sniff specific — those smells are so deeply linked to memory that it helped me to imagine (and illuminate for the reader) what abstract or literal sensorial quality each sticker might have.

The book opens with the essay "Mr. Yuk," about the poison warning sticker, and Mr. Yuk makes a return appearance in the "Constellation" and "Death to the Pixies" essays. Would it be fair to say that like every "first crush," Mr. Yuk made an indelible impact on you?

Yes, his image is seared into my memories. Our first encounter with iconography, especially one tied directly to danger, is hard to shake. That was his brand and his lasting effect for little me.

Was it always your intention that the third essay "Wahoowa," and "HH," the final essay, would serve as kind of Charlottesville brackets for the book?

This was another musical impulse, like bookending tracks on an album, with "Wahoowa" and its litany of outside perceptions on the town, rendered in only direct quotations — kicking things off, and then "HH" — and its exploration of how the town's name was transmuted into a woeful signifier — functioning as a closer.

Did you know when you started writing the memoir that Charlottesville itself would become a character in the book?

Definitely. By default, whenever I'd write anything about my youth (especially The Book of Endless Sleepovers) I was low-key writing about Charlottesville, just as all memoir consciously or unconsciously reflects the place(s) where the writer was raised.

The deeper purpose of this book was to engage with my hometown explicitly, my complex relationship to it, and how that shifted once C'ville entered the international spotlight in the wake of white supremacist terror and the murder of Heather Heyer. The city's conflicts — centuries in the making — run parallel to those of America at large in this moment and many previous eras.

Throughout the book, you alternate between naming names of people, Lisa Frank for example, and making casual references to them, such as Dave (Matthews) and Paul (Nelson). Can you please say something about how you decided who would be identified and who wouldn't be?

This was never something I created a strict system for, instead following more poetic impulses essay-by-essay, so shoutout to my copy editor Dhanuja Ravi, for tolerating the freewheeling approach.

Dave and Paul were how they were always known to me, like in the context everyone knew who you were talking about, so I kept them last-nameless. Almost all non-celebrities and childhood friends have stand-in nicknames (Ponytail, Sled, The Vampire) for anonymity, and I purposefully chose not to use the names of the fascist president or the Unite the Right Nazis, because they get more than enough media attention.

Do you know if Lisa Frank is aware of her inspiration and that she's mentioned in the book?
Nah, but I'd absolutely die [laughs]. Hi Lisa! When you read this, email me [laughs].

Does Dave Matthews know he's in your book?
God, I hope not [laughs]. Don't tell him.

Your queer sexuality, in the essays "Unicorn," "Chiquita," and "Death to the Pixies," for example, is an essential component to the memoir.
Just as C'ville is inextricable from my upbringing, so is a struggle with gender and sexuality. Being bisexual and genderfluid means my identity is ongoing. I've spent my life mostly performing this journey of questioning through my writing, since the very beginning.

My books have always expressed queerness via uncertainty and contradiction, and that's because those modes are so tied to my sense of self. It's taken a long time for me to be okay with flux, to hold definitions at arm's length, and use those arms to embrace wherever I'm at.

In the "Are You Triggered" essay, you write "Things have changed in Charlottesville, I hear, have been changing everywhere, have never changed." It's a statement that's truer than ever because even though Biden was elected as POTUS, the 45th president's influence is almost unabated, with the recent election of conservative Republican Glenn Youngkin as Virginia governor. Do you think it's possible for real change to ever take place?
Sections of Sticker intersect with Critical Race Theory, and forebears in this crucial field of study deserve so much more than to have their labor tossed around like a political football. To be honest, I'm grieving for Virginia on many fronts, and sick of giving any attention or platform to these craven right-wing grifters and fascists and letting them drive the conversation or appropriate leftist terms for mockery.

It's never been amusing, and it only aids in their reach. Neoliberals cannot stop going on the defensive, and that was glaring in the recent gubernatorial election. It feels like avoidance, resistance to real action. "Change" has to come in the form of material benefits — reparations, prison/police abolition, and a baseline of care (living wages, paid family leave, M4A, debt jubilee). I'm grateful to people fighting for these things — locally in their communities, and on a national scale — against an overwhelming tide, and I strive to fund, show out, and support them in whatever ways I can.

What do you think your cousin Tallulah Bankhead would think of Sticker?
Having read her (underrated) autobiography, I like to imagine I channeled a degree of her sardonic perspective and wit. I tweet in her voice @therealtallulah and I'd be more worried what she thinks of that [laughs].

Have you started working on or thinking about your next book project?
I'm done with long-form nonfiction, probably forever. Sticker truly sapped that impulse. So, next up is a novel about Los Angeles, narrated by a mountain lion who's as traumatized and in need of therapy as everyone else in our careening hellworld.


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