Myth, Motion, & Infrastructure: An Interview with Riley Hanick

Maggie Anderson

Riley Hanick is an Iowa City native and a graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. His book-length essay, Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways, came out in April from Sarabande books.

I first heard of Hanick in 2006. I was an arts reporter for The Daily Iowan, the University of Iowa’s student newspaper, and he was a Writer-in-Residence for the same university’s art museum. After graduating, I ended up working at this museum from 2007 to 2009—through Iowa’s 2008 flood and its aftermath, which make appearances in Hanick’s essay. (Full disclosure: I worked with Hanick’s mother, Pat, during my time at the museum.) Reading Three Kinds of Motion, I remembered 2008 at the museum—movers loading our prized Pollock paining, Mural, onto an air-conditioned, armed truck; the public outcry both for and against selling the painting to fund flood recovery; the brief national spotlight our little museum held during this controversy.

Hanick writes about the flood and the ensuing sell/not-sell debate with both emotion and distance. He is an insider—an Iowa Citian with personal and professional ties to the museum—and an outsider, someone certainly less invested in the painting remaining in Iowa than I was at the time.

The flood and this painting took on a mythic quality for those of us at the center of it, and myth—its creation, its cultural value and harm, its misconceptions and truths—are at the heart of Hanick’s work. I wanted to learn more about how he found his topics, his book’s structure, and the impact this investigation had on his own relationship to these myths. Our interview took place by e-mail in March of 2015. 

MA: In this book, you’re weaving together three (or perhaps four) threads: the stories that surround Jackson Pollock’s painting Mural; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road scroll, on exhibit just doors down from Mural at the University of Iowa Museum of art (UIMA) in 2005; and the creation of the U.S. interstate highway system.

Why did you choose to tell the story as you did, in what I’ll call a series of cumulative collage essays, rather than a series of more straightforward linear narratives? To clarify what I mean, I guess I think that you could have chosen to tell this story in one or more sets of essays where each was dedicated to one of your main topics—one on Pollock, one on Kerouac, etc.—but instead, most (though not all) of the sections contain bits from each. Why?

RH: The simplest way to answer would be to say that it was as a combination that these things presented themselves to me in the first place. I wouldn’t have been willing or able to write about Kerouac without giving myself the option to change the subject pretty frequently.

The physical proximity of Pollock’s painting to the scroll’s display and the way the latter had been drawing me in since I’d moved back to Iowa in my mid-twenties made it feel like an obvious choice, something I really wanted to try to write into. The highway as a third term just sort of jumped up and asserted itself as soon as I decided the first two belonged in an essay together. Maybe an imagined escape route felt necessary. Or the need to have a third thing that was more inhuman and completely impossible to view in its entirety.

Trust me, I asked myself more than once if it really had to be made this way—sustaining that collage mode was periodically exhausting. But the way I’d had of looking at these things simply led to moving between them, and I needed to be able to do that more impulsively than would have been possible with separate, sustained chapters on each topic. I mean, none of the topics truly made or make sense to me, but keeping them in that continuously shifting field of relations allowed something to emerge (I hope) in addition to my own flailing.

MA: The title of the book is Three Kinds of Motion. But I had the feeling that, throughout the book, you’re actually searching for ways that these three different things—a novel, a painting, and a highway system—exhibit the same kind of motion. How do you think about the idea of motion? Did your conception of what it means to be in motion (or to be static) change as you wrote the book?

 RH: Yes, I would say that my conception(s) changed. It’s difficult to outline exactly how. So, as a way to put that off, I’ll say that the book’s working title was Gravel Ends. I was attached to it as both a found phrase (driving in the country, you’ll see it on signs as you transition from gravel to dirt roads) but also for some vague sense it had of pointing to an arrayed severing.

But whenever I spoke the title aloud, people were like “come again?” Three Kinds of Motion replaced it pretty late.

The first version of this essay was about thirteen pages long and was published while I was still in grad school—I was happy enough about that, and I thought I was done with the whole thing. I was resistant to expanding the essay into a book in part because I felt like I’d said what I needed to say, which approximated this insistence on some kind of unity that was exhilarating and catastrophic.

The ending hasn’t changed—the book’s final page is basically identical to the last sequence in that earlier, shorter version—but I’d like to think that my relationship to the materials did. For me, something felt particularly stuck and fatalistic in this project when the material insisted on some essential, generalized unity. As the essay became a book, I had to look harder at the peripheries and undersides of things, which is where I found alternatives and surprises. 

I also had to open myself up to a different kind of sympathy for three historical figures that I often don’t like and periodically felt very tired of. But because each felt larger-than-life in advance of my writing anything about them, I also felt more free to seek out and present minor moments in their lives. I think that scaling down that way helped. Maybe these figures and the projects they were attached to ended up feeling more mysterious the further in I went, and this allowed me to stop feeling as if there was a totalizing energy welding them all together.

Maybe it was increasingly important for a multiplicity of motions to inhere to each subject—so that, for example, the propulsive force that brings a painting like Mural into existence could become a sort of contained, anxious, static energy that continues to feel lodged or held somehow, and that this could intermingle with the slow transformation of the painting’s yellowing, sagging surface as the sealant applied to the underside steadily seeps through it. Trying to find forms to track those separations of forces with occasional syntheses was what came to feel more urgent to me over the course of writing the book. To propose that such things belonged together, but that it had much more to do with the chances that an object or person is subject to, rather than anything essential about motion and/or fate.

MA: The book also seems, to me, to be interested in exploring the space between truth and speculation. For example, you say of Kerouac’s scroll that it “appeals to the way we believe in texts. That in extension something will be revealed. On a plain white cloth, beneath well-labeled evidence. In an uncurled genome, in Teletype. Papyrus unfurling like a bloom or shoot. Say that truth has a shape to be seen, an unfolding where nothing is hidden. Or that the shape of a scroll is fundamentally optimistic, like a diagrammed ray, or youth. Believe this if you find it appealing.”

Particularly revealing of this theme to me is where you nod to Ike’s biographer Ambrose, imagining conversations with him, or where we go pretty deep into you imagining what it must have been like for Kerouac to suddenly be famous. How concerned are you with indicating truth vs. speculation for your readers? As a writer, do you prioritize facts or feelings?

RH: I prioritize facts, insofar as I can generate feelings about them. For me, that revelation about Ambrose fabricating interviews with Eisenhower had some real pathos to it—I mean, the scandal when a well-regarded historian is found to have made things up can be stimulating too, and not just for the renewable skepticism we can feel about any kind of historiography. But the thought of a writer, kind of in a pinch, wishing he had a colorful quote from someone who’s not alive, then just “finding” it via imagination—and then not being able to keep himself from doing that over and over again, staging these imagined chats—it felt sad, but also proximate to me, because I’d been spending all this time writing about famous dead men who weren’t talking back.

The speculative mode is important to me as a way to show how little we know about certain moments that might feel compelling or important to us. Maybe they only feel that way when we realize what questions we can pose but not answer. That earlier passage in the book that you quote is really more of an inciting, I think, and a way for me to register that tendency—not unlike Ambrose claiming that Eisenhower’s eyes “never left him” during an interview—the ocular proof, right? An assurance that truth is a thing to be tracked, revealed, exposed, given no place to hide. But the thing that’s more important, for me, is what deeper need is being satisfied by a story about someone paying close attention to you as he answers all your questions. And it was necessary to me, at certain times, to believe that something was manifesting itself in front of me—even while I was staring out the window of a car—something that was inescapable, but also articulable. There’s a forensic relationship to the truth that takes different forms over the course of the book, but for me that avidity is also part of what characterizes the adolescent mindset I was writing a lot of this book both about and within. 

MA: There’s a subtheme in there about real estate, it seems to me—Peggy’s apartment as the original home for Mural, then her move to Venice; Jack and Lee’s move to the farm; your move to Boston and then back; your parents move to their new house and the protests against the development. Then later, the museum building itself, another piece of real estate, becomes a symbol of motion and stillness. I wonder what you think the relationship between motion/transit and physical property is? 

RH: Well, at the risk of stating the obvious: without the motion (or at least the promised motion) of highways, we simply don’t get the suburbs. I think that the reshaping of the country in a way that centered on the car—most of which was already achieved before I was born—served as a fairly continuous background for a lot of what I was thinking about.

Of course, I don’t have a living memory of what space might have felt like before that happened. Maybe this gets back to your question about speculation—since, on the one hand, I very much wanted to imagine scenes like the one with Henry Joy navigating his Packard across meadows and fields, just following the rutted tracks that stretching in front of him. I suppose, despite everything, I do have a romantic attachment to that entirely unknowable relationship to place and motion. 

MA: I’m always amazed to hear about the resistance that has occurred in the past for things that we in the present accept as a given. This hit home where you write about the Iowa State Highway Commission being established in Ames, “where it will spend most of the next fifteen years persistently arguing for the creation of a state system of public roads. The existing policy calls for roads to be maintained by each farmer whose property they abut or run across. Most roads are made of clay or loam or whatever is at hand. Such roads are prone to muck.”

Reading this, I thought of the tension between individualism and collectivism that is present in so much of American life. I wonder what you think about this shift from individuals maintaining the roads to the government maintaining them and how that relates to the hyper-individualism that is present in the art of Kerouac and Pollock, who both in part built their reputation not just on their art but on their personas and the myths around them.

RH: I think that the development of a national system of highways was as much about standardization as it was about the sheer scale of the thing. And, to some extent, both Kerouac and Pollock became the standard-bearers of something like authenticity, or full-borne masculine individuation. To some degree, I had experienced each of them as disappeared ideals to measure myself against. I got into a mess with all of this when trying to gauge what was really "in" either one that had appealed to me, versus how much of the idolization of someone like Kerouac was fully sanctioned by the culture.

Of course, there’s nothing more generic and reflective of mass culture than the claim that you’re devoted to your own uniqueness above all else. I guess that I’m more interested in the way that our weaknesses actually make us more like one another than we feel comfortable saying. One of the really sad things about Kerouac was that, as you said, he increasingly bought into a hyper-individualism that entirely lost sight of the fact that he had served as a kind of community scribe when he was writing On the Road. Sure, it’s his book, but he was in the middle of these other lives and other stories—I think he underestimated how much he needed them, as indirect collaborators.

MA: A major theme of this book is myth, and how myths are created and what sort of pain or inaccuracies might lie behind the creation of the myth, as well as what sort of pain/trouble might grow out of the myth.

Early on you say, “A myth has no need of artifacts.” One thing I saw this book doing was potentially pushing back against these myths by bringing forward artifacts or facts. For example, in referencing the specific numbers of highway fatalities in your birth year or by juxtaposing one of the artist’s stories with a fact like this: “During what remains of that century, roughly half of the planet’s oil will disappear.” Did you intend to push back on the myths? Do you think holding these types of myths damages us in some way?

RH: Myths are fascinating and damaging simultaneously. There are obviously a few different senses of the word—one that you seem to be pointing to is the widely held, enabling lie—something like the idea of trickle-down economics or the existence of a “white” race. The story of Kerouac or Pollock creating significant pieces of art in one intense, sustained fit is a lesser myth of this kind that still tells us something about the stories we like to hear.

For me, Kerouac felt more human as I catalogued all the goofy false starts to his book and that’s why I included them. Maybe inserting a sentence about disappearing resources into a section otherwise describing Kerouac’s temporary circumstances in San Francisco—living in the attic of Neal and Carolyn Cassady, a setup that felt both idyllic and erotically charged—is trying to see a momentary, domestic situation hooked into a larger scale of time and consumption.

That sounds pretty dry, I guess, and maybe a little shrill. Maybe reciting traffic casualties does as well? But it was important to me to push for some kind of astonishment—because I do continue to find it astonishing—that somehow we just accepted that tens of thousands of people would die in highway accidents every year. And that this model of living and dying was exported. How did we come to decide on such a thing? In that respect maybe pushing back on a mythic sense of the freedom of open roads can also feel like a fool’s errand. I mean, I don’t expect readers to smack their foreheads and say ‘you’re right, we need to shut down the highways!’ We’re very much accustomed to them and even if we know what they’ve done and are doing to us, and to the planet, actually creating a different system feels somehow out of reach.

Maybe this is where I veer toward a broader, older sense of mythic narratives—imaginary solutions to actual problems, as Claude Levi-Strauss says. There’s a kind of surplus of meaning that we seek from myths, particularly those of unequivocal actions and gestures. If a mythic picture of a psyche free from self-doubt is what emerges from or is grafted onto our reverence for Kerouac’s scroll, Pollock’s Mural, or the largest infrastructure project in human history—if we marvel at the sense that someone appears to have really believed in this endeavor, that tells us something about who we are and what we want, i.e. lack. It often seems that, when it comes to something like climate change, we’re living in a moment where some part of our reaction is already soothing itself with the thought that, yeah, maybe we could have avoided this but somehow we weren’t meant to.

Maybe that’s something I’m unfairly attributing to “us”. But, an imaginary solution to the actual problem of climate change is that we, the people, loved a certain idea of freedom so much we were willing to destroy ourselves on its behalf. No doubt this simplifies things, but myths do tend to do that. I think the myth that we can and should experience a desire for freedom in a blameless way—that my freedom is something inherent in me, and not part of a very tricky relation that I have to the many things that I’m not, which enable me to act in certain ways—this is hard to hold together as an abstract thought. Whereas there’s something else in the mythic narrative of Prometheus, who kept returning in the book. Prometheus is still on that rock, in that narrative loop that defines mythic time as always-ongoing. The structure of eternal recurrence means his punishment is co-terminus with daylight, but also industry, warmth, cooking. It was, and is, very important for me to seek out some sort of figuration for that—not a martyr exactly, but someone whose experience of unfreedom, of everyday-the-sameness, could stand in relation to what we feel as daily opportunity. 

MA: I’m curious also to see how you think of this idea of myth in relationship to the way the Pollock painting was perceived by Iowans during the debate about whether to sell or keep the painting after the flood. When you write about it, you say that we Iowans thought of ourselves as stewards, “guarding a legacy, a heritage.” Do you think there’s anything potentially harmful in this kind of pride/possessiveness?

RH: I guess that I do. But it’s just as unappealing to view an art collection as essentially fixed capital at the disposal of the university or the state, of course. I have a lot of sympathy for the museum because they were in an impossible situation—but I felt suspicious of that idea of heritage being vaguely deferred to.

Not that I didn’t and don’t also feel a sense of possessiveness abut that painting—I definitely do. The crisis after the flood, for me, was two-fold. First, because this painting that had been part of my book-in-progress for a few years was suddenly something that a bunch of people were really opinionated about. And that upwelling of chatter seemed like it had already become part of the story and there was no going back, even though I had no idea what to say or do about it. But more broadly, it seemed like the particularity of our absurd situation had something in it that was quite a bit bigger than us, something perplexing about value and common ground just couldn’t exist no matter how much we tried to speak of it.

This sounds mystical, maybe, but that was the way the voices sounded—I listened to a lot of people hold forth on it, but more importantly and ridiculously, I read all of the comment fields on all the stories published online in the local paper (a terrible thing to do!), and when the comment field was suddenly taken down, I panicked and just rewrote everything I could remember more or less as best that I could. On some level, I felt entitled to, in possession of and possessed by, those voices. And harmed by them.

MA: I alluded to a fourth thread of the book earlier, and it seems to me that it is your personal experience as an Iowan who left home and returned and is interacting with these three topics. We hear about how you are occasionally making your living as a painter, “being paid by the inch” in a parallel to the work Pollock and others did for the WPA. You say late in the book, in a letter from you to Jack (I think Keroauc?), “Tell me again how I should hold these things. Or what it means that writing can only begin in emulation. If yours became a kind of long loopy patter, it is only because it had to. That was the claim, at least. I cannot say if I believe it. I will not write to you again.”

I wonder what you learned about yourself, both as a writer and an Iowan, raised in Iowa City, while exploring these topics. Have your feelings about Mural or On the Road changed after spending so much time with them (enough time to count the number of staples on the side of the painting!)? 

RH: I’m not sure what I learned about myself from writing the book—I think getting some distance from it is leading to a bit more of that. Or, maybe I have a hard time knowing what kind of self-knowledge came in connection with the book and what just came from getting older. I might say the same about my awareness of being an Iowan.

I should say that including the number of staples was, I think, one way of indicating I’d come to the end of having anything to say. It felt right to be at the margin of the thing, totaling stuff up. Maybe being at the end of something means you’re looking a little harder at how forms and materials get fixed into place.

All of which is to say that I haven’t had a lot of additional thoughts on these topics since finishing the book. Regarding that letter you quote from, it was important for me to acknowledge a kind of debt to them—these figures, myths, materials. To say that if I hadn’t gotten started with these things and taken permission from what was there, I might not have gotten started.


Maggie AndersonMaggie Anderson lives and writes in beautiful Corvallis, Oregon, but will always call Iowa home. She is a journalist, essayist, part-time government bureaucrat, and MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Oregon State University.