Snakes and sand and hope: Brandon’s Shane Hinton

Surreal tales of taking responsibility, with nature as a constant foil.

click to enlarge Shane Hinton at the Flamingo, St. Petersburg - Jared Silvia/Burrow Press
Jared Silvia/Burrow Press
Shane Hinton at the Flamingo, St. Petersburg

Shane Hinton reads from Pinkies
Thurs. Aug. 27 at 7 p.m. at Inkwood Books, 216 S. Armenia Ave., Tampa, 813-253-2638,

Shane Hinton is skinnier than a glimpse of his moon-round face would suggest. There are mild bags under his eyes, the slightest hollowing out beneath the cheekbones — not too bad, considering the year he’s had.

“I’ve been working 70 or 80 hours a week,” he says, sipping a Guinness, his back curved like an apostrophe. Mornings at the family strawberry farm, nights teaching writing at the University of Tampa. All while editing his debut short story collection, Pinkies, released in May from Burrow Press. All so that his wife can stay home with their newborn twins.

It’s the kind of epic manning-up you’d expect after reading the collection, which brims with hallucinatory familial anxieties and dogged, barely-logical efforts to allay them. In the title story, for instance, the protagonist sets dozens of traps to catch the giant snakes who are relentlessly fixated on eating his pregnant wife.

Pinkies points up the strangeness of Florida normal. Cars plow through living rooms, entire families lodged in their wheel wells. Tractor accidents occasion picnics. Roses sprout from the flesh of gas huffers, and lawnmower keys show up in cysts.

Hinton grew up in Riverview, and the strawberry farm is his father’s. His parents were smart, educated, and he spent an isolated adolescence obsessively “reading stuff I thought I was supposed to read.” Still, he says, “thinking of yourself as a writer always felt like a total impossibility.”

That limited horizon shows up in Hinton’s characters, who deal with their strange realities in adequate but unspectacular ways – just acknowledging, getting by, as if it’s all far too big for them. The language is terse. I say it reminds me of Beckett. Hinton demurs, saying he prefers Bukowski, and Celine. “He was defiant in every way.”

Hinton spent most of his twenties defying his eventual fate. He half-attended community college in Portland, and worked dead-end jobs at Kinko’s and “digging rocks out of the ground.”

“I wasn’t really totally sure I wanted to be in college.” But in Portland, he met the writer Lydia Yuknovich, who mentored him, pushed him to take his craft seriously. Even then, he hesitated — returning to Tampa Bay and spending three years barely reading before finishing his B.A. at USF.

He’s still so unpretentious about writing you could see it someday becoming pretense. “So much of what it means to be a writer in America is about posturing as a writer.” Writer’s positions in the literary canon, he thinks, are determined by “pure fucking chance.”

“I can’t imagine being on my deathbed and thinking, I wish I’d spent more time writing.”

He finally started the low-residency MFA program at UT, in part because it would allow him to keep working a day job. He had no illusions that what he was doing would lead to a ‘career.’

“Nobody’s making a living off writing fiction. Nobody is.”

His core ambitions are much more modest. “I write to figure out what the fuck I think about things.” (Hinton swears frequently — more after a second Guinness.) It’s clear what he’s been trying to figure out lately — Pinkies is full of dependents and children and vulnerable people, from the newborn rabbits of the title on down. Just beneath its fantastical conceits, the book vibrates with the mix of quiet pride and abject terror that defines adult responsibility.

He had help getting there. “I met my wife, and she was already this incredible mom” to his now-stepson. Though he’s not religious, he describes her impact on him by enthusiastically misquoting a Bible verse: “Steel against steel, so man sharpens man.”

After all that anxiety and anti-ambition, the nearly impossible has happened: Next year, in part thanks to Pinkies, Hinton will start a full-time teaching position at the University of Tampa. He’s excited to spend less time at the strawberry farm — but he regrets leaving more work for his dad.

Hinton clearly doesn’t want to disappoint anyone, let anyone down. Despite his love of Bukowski the writer, he’s ambivalent about the man. “It’s a weird thing, where we fetishize the brokenness, or the author who’s a bad person ... being a good person is so much more important.”

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