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Atoning For The Past In 'The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. In a place called Olympus, a brutal, loyal charismatic man must atone for past sins against his family. A tale told through 12 demons that fought him and almost won. It is not the Olympus of legend, and the man is no Hercules. It's Olympus, Mass., where Samuel Hawley, a possibly reformed criminal and single father, has brought his teenage daughter, Loo. The book - "The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley" by Hannah Tinti. And it's a story about a hero but also about how our parents can fail us and yet still save us. Hannah Tinti joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HANNAH TINTI: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: What are Samuel Hawley and Loo looking for when they first get to Olympus?

TINTI: Well, they've spent their lives traveling back and forth across the country having a life on the run. And they moved to Olympus to try and settle down and have a more normal existence. It's the hometown of Loo's mother, Lily, who is passed away. And living in this place starts to open questions about Hawley's past. And Loo, his daughter, starts to piece together the mystery of her mother's death.

SIMON: Hawley is a guy who thrums with secrets, mysteries and violence, I don't mind saying. But he sure loves his daughter.

TINTI: He does. (Laughter) I think that good parents can come in unexpected packages. And this is really a story about how - you know, about this strong bond between this father and daughter.

And I think that for all of us, as children, our parents are both heroes and strangers. They've had entire lives that had nothing to do with us before we were born. But to find our own identities, we need to understand them and where they come from. And, of course, this is a much more extreme example of that in the novel because for Loo...

SIMON: I was about to point out, for most parents having a life we don't know, I mean, that consists of the time they put a lampshade on their head and danced at the office party.

TINTI: (Laughter).

SIMON: Hawley has rather something, you know, something different.

TINTI: He does because her father - it's a different story when your father is a criminal.

SIMON: Yeah.

TINTI: So she's acting almost as a detective in this story. And what's fun is that the reader is traveling along with her to discover all these secrets about Samuel Hawley.

SIMON: And she - I mean, she is a detective. She traces it from the scars in his body.

TINTI: Yes. I had a lot of fun with that. For me, the 12 lives of Samuel Hawley are represented by these 12 scars on his body, which are all from bullets that nearly took his life. So I was interested in this idea of how to tell the story of someone's life through their physical body and how our bodies can in some ways be almost maps of our pasts and maps of our lives.

SIMON: I have to ask you about the violence in this book. And in fact, we - let me read some of your words to you. (Reading) There was a taste that filled Loo's mouth whenever she was getting ready to hit someone, tangy like rust. She could feel the glands on either side of her jaw as if she'd bitten her tongue. The first few times the taste came slowly, but soon it flooded her mouth whenever a situation was turning against her. Then the pool took over her senses and for a moment she crossed over and became another person, a powerful person even if it lasted only until someone punched her back. Where does a nice Brooklyn literary writer...

TINTI: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Come up with that?

TINTI: I do get that question a lot. People say you seem like such a nice young lady. Why do you write such dark material? And I usually start by telling them that I was born and raised in Salem, Mass., where it's Halloween 365 days a year. And...

SIMON: Oh, right. OK, of course, I get it now. Yes.

TINTI: Yes, so that dark stuff is - was all around me growing up. So it feels very natural to me. And what I was interested in doing was sort of blending these violent parts of the book with this really tender story of parenthood and this man who would do anything for his daughter.

SIMON: How do you as a novelist blur the line between hero and anti-hero and yet still make us root for someone?

TINTI: Well, the whole book - I was inspired by the idea of heroes. And one of the connections I made was between Samuel Hawley and the myth of Hercules - actually, the structure of the myth of Hercules with his 12 labors. So I'm interested in heroes that are flawed. And I wanted to sort of translate those 12 labors into the 12 lives of Samuel Hawley and show how sometimes you have to do really bad things in order to accomplish your goals.

SIMON: Hannah Tinti's book "The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley." Thank you so much for being with us.

TINTI: It was such a pleasure talking to you, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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