The Principles of Shapeshifting: An Interview with CJ Hauser

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

The folks at Vol. 1 Brooklyn call CJ Hauser’s “The Shapeshifter Principle” from our Brooklyn-Portland issue a “sly jab of a story.” I couldn’t agree more. In “The Shapeshifter Principle,” a narrator obsessed with paranormal sleuthing sets herself on a case decidedly more domestic: her own mother’s disappearance from their Flatbush apartment. Tina’s voice is so buoyant and assured that it’s easy to forget what’s at stake in solving the mystery, but Hauser’s ending is a gutting reminder of the ways even the most stalwart investigator needs family.

I talked to Hauser about science fiction’s lessons for writers, drinking on trains, and alienation both familial and extraterrestrial.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: One of the things I love most about “The Shapeshifter Principle” is the way place drives its action. Various spots around this neighborhood in Flatbush offer clues about the story’s central mystery, and you do a great job of evoking the way the rich, messy energy of this place feeds the messiness of your main character’s life.  What drew you to writing about this neighborhood, and how did you come to know it so well?

CJ Hauser: Flatbush! I lived in the neighborhood where “Shapeshifter” takes place for two years and saw something remarkable or strange there every day. You know how in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Junot Díaz says, “What is more sci-fi than Santo Domingo?” Flatbush is another planet, for certain. I’d be walking past The Old Dutch Cemetery where some of Brooklyn’s earliest settlers are moldering (Vanderbilts, Leffertses and Ditmases!) and then right across the street there’d be a Jamaican Jesus van playing reggae hymns.

EKH: Before reading the story, I’d never heard of goalball, the soccer variant Joey and his blind teammates play. How did you come to know about it? And have you ever played? Tossing oneself around, sightless, in full-contact pursuit of a jingling ball sounds both awesome and terrifying.

CJH: I had this amazing student named Izzie in one of my English classes and he was a Goalball player. On the first day of class he asked where the registrar was and I said, that way and pointed. He said, Are you pointing right now? and started laughing at me. We’ve hit it off ever since. I went to see him play in a Goalball tournament back in 2009 and was immediately hooked. It’s a very exciting sport to watch. The New York Knights are a real goalball team, and are much better than the Knights in my story (you should check them out here!). I haven’t played myself, but Izzie keeps threatening to organize a game for his sighted friends so he can laugh at all of us fumbling around. He was even nice enough to fact check “Shapeshifter” for me…and he spotted a grammar mistake! The ultimate student revenge, correcting the teacher!

EKH: As someone who’s recently been watching a lot of X-Files, I think there’s wisdom in your character Tina’s formulation of the shapeshifter principle. Her notion is that throwing a shapeshifter into the plot of the sci-fi shows she watches always “ruins the integrity of everything” by blowing up the “strict bizarro rules” for how things work in that world. The idea resonates with what’s happening in Tina’s life in a way that moves me, but I also think it’s just solid craft advice, whether you’re writing a sci-fi show or a short story. Does that ring true to you? Are there other craft rules you follow?

CJH: As far as I’m concerned “Nerdian Plausibility Refutation” should be an official mode of rhetoric. Anyone who watches enough sci-fi has, at some point, found herself in a heated disagreement with another fan over the plausibility of some wacky trope or another, My exasperation with shapeshifters cam out of a debate like this I had with a friend. It’s absolutely a craft issue. Of course some characters should have mind-blowing skills, but shapeshifting is such a game changer; it destroys the balance of power between the characters. Not to mention it seems like a cheap trick to get around all the hard work of innovating a dastardly plan for your villain. In my story I wanted to play with the trope…what would it take to make you suspect your mother wasn’t really your mother? What happens when you grow up and your parents become, not just your parents, but actual real life people too? That’s scary stuff.

EKH: I gather from your contributor’s note about “preferring to travel by TARDIS” that you’re a sci-fi fan yourself. What else do you think sci-fi has taught you about plot and storytelling?

CJH: There’s a divine sneakiness about the way sci-fi tricks us into learning about ourselves when we think we’re just having a good time. Stories about monsters that are really about the most terrible parts of ourselves. Stories about outer-space colonies that are really about how democratic society functions. It’s so much easier to understand hard truths about who we are when those truths are caught up in the magic of rocket ships and monsters. One of my favorite sci-fi shows, Doctor Who, has its characters make moral choices almost every episode. Is it moral to torture a star-whale if it’s the only way to save Great Britain of the Future? Can a Dalek transcend its inherently evil nature to become human if it bakes you a soufflé? Is it wrong to enslave an Ood if you lobotomize him first? (The answer to all of these is YES, in case you were wondering.) I think that sci-fi has taught me to push my characters further, to force them to make the kind of tough moral choices that define you as a person.

EKH: I know you’ve recently left Brooklyn for Connecticut. Was this a willing or a grudging move? Are there things you’re missing about Brooklyn’s particular brand of writing life, or is it liberating to get out of the pressure cooker?

CJH: I have loved Brooklyn for so long, but we had a disagreement, Brooklyn and I, about pacing. I’m not big on rushing, or being aggressive, and these are pretty requisite survival skills in the home borough. I guess I just wanted to be quiet and calm for a while, think less about every blinking thing I saw and spend some time with the stories in my own head. What I miss most are the people I love there. I’ll probably start screaming and run back into Brooklyn’s arms soon enough. We have an on-again, off-again relationship like that. But for now I just visit. I take the Metro-North train and pretend I’m John Cheever, drunk on his way to work. Did you know the Metro North still has a bar car? True fact.

EKH: Finally, what are you working on now? And what do you do in the time you don’t spend writing?

CJH: I’ve been working on my first novel, Maritime, for a while now and have been fiddling with the very last edits these days. The book is set in an imaginary fishing town in Maine and is about these two girls who move there to work for the local newspaper, but then get mixed up in a town scandal that upends their love lives. It’s kind of a second-coming-of-age-story, about all the terrible growing up that you have to do in your twenties that no one ever warns you about. Finishing the book is so exciting—it’s like I’ve been living in this imaginary town, with this gang of motley characters, watching all the drama unfold for so long, and now that I’m finished I feel like throwing a party and saying to everyone I know, You’re invited to my town! Come meet everyone! You’re not going to believe the stuff that went down in this place! Let us tell you all about it!

 CJ Hauser’s stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Esquire, The Brooklyn Review, The Laurel Review, and more. She is the recipient of the 2010 Amanda David Highwire Fiction Award and also the Jaimy Gordon Prize in Fiction. She prefers to travel by TARDIS.