Stephen Housewright is a former librarian and educator whose book, Partners, was recently published by the Brooklyn-based arts non-profit Blank Forms and is available through the A.R.T. Library Program. Partners was originally self-published as a small edition in 1995 and deals with the life-long relationship between Housewright and his widow, the North Texas composer-performer Jerry Hunt, who took his own life in 1993 after a battle with lung cancer. The expanded re-publication of the book comes as part of Blank Forms’ extensive project on the life and work of Jerry Hunt, which also includes a gallery exhibit, several LPs of music, and an anthology of writing by and about Hunt, Transmissions from the Pleroma. To learn more about Blank Forms and these publications visit: blankforms.org.
Here Blank Forms’ intern Parker Allen speaks with Stephen Housewright about the process of writing Partners.
Parker Allen: I think the most interesting thing would be to talk about the writing process and the initial publication of Partners, in 1995. We could discuss that a little bit and see where we go from there?
Stephen Housewright: Sure. If you want to ask questions, I'll try to answer them. There's a wonderful story about Jerry. He was being interviewed by Gordon Monahan, a Canadian, and Jerry just talked, talked, talked, talked, talked. And at some point Gordon finally got a question in and Jerry said, "Well, I just talk, I like to talk." And the idea was that he didn't really have to be interviewed. He just monologued. And so I'm not that way, Parker. I'm a completely different person.
PA: Okay, I'll keep that in mind. So, for Partners, when were you writing this? Was this early '90s?
SH: Well, Jerry died, as you know, in 1993 and I was totally at sea. I didn't know what was going to happen and I didn't know how I was going to be able to go on. I thought very often about my sister, “We're so close and it would really be hard on her if you weren't able to pull yourself together and move forward.” And at the same time I was working at the library still and enjoying my job, and had a lot of good friends there. So the combination of the routine of the library work and thinking of my sister and many, many calls from friends kept me going for a good while. But then in 1994, after about a year had gone by and I'd gone through all of the holidays and anniversaries, which is part of the process when we grieve, I began thinking, "I should probably write everything down. I have all these memories and I would like to just put them on paper."
There was a big, round oak table in the barn house. I got some notebook paper and some pencils, and I just started out thinking, "Well, how did we meet? What did we say to one another in the very beginning? How did we begin making friends? Did I go to his house? Did he come to mine? The interests that we had, we shared, how did they come into the conversation, into the relationship?” And I found as I wrote, and this is something I think everyone who writes a memoir or autobiography knows; the more you write, the more you remember. Somehow just the actual process of writing a memory down evokes other memories. Like Proust’s madeleine; you think of something and it leads to something else if you give yourself plenty of time. And I did. I was sitting there with a piece of notebook paper and pencil writing long-hand. And that's what I needed to do. That was the timing thing that slowed me down. That, “Oh my God. Yeah, that's right. That did happen. Oh yes.” So ultimately the book came into being because I wanted to remember. It didn't really become a tribute to Jerry until I got toward the end. And then I began writing about his concerts and the reviews that he got. And I thought, you know what? Another thing about this book is that it's going to put the beginning of his career down, really all of his career is going to be recorded here. So then I got serious about digging out the reviews and looking for publicity information in the files. And Jerry was not an organized person. He was the opposite of a librarian, if you can conceive the opposite of a librarian. He didn't believe in categories, he had a folder in one of his desk drawers that just said “nixed files.” It could have been anything! So I dug it all out, tried to get it all in order. And then when I finished the book, I thought, "Okay, you have done something for him. You started out doing it for yourself and it maybe ends up being for him."
PA: The book is so beautiful because it's sort of the story of your relationship, and of course it's also very useful for learning about his career and process, but it's also a lot about you as an individual, which is interesting on its own, even if maybe that's not why I picked up the book initially.
SH: Well, I had no idea that it would ever be published, Parker. And I'm not a writer and I've never had any ambition to be a writer. I had the book photocopied and made about twenty-five or thirty copies and gave them to friends and family. And I thought, "Well, that's that. It's done its job. It's made the rounds it needs to make." And then when Lawrence [Kumpf] proposed reprinting the book, actually publishing it for the first time, I thought, "Well, I'm flattered that he thinks that it's of value." Not only as a record of Jerry, but also that even the parts about me are good enough that they're worth being published. I mean, he could have just taken out the parts about Jerry and published those, you know!
PA: Ha, yeah! Well, I think it stands on its own. It can appeal to many different people, even if they're not interested in the music of Jerry Hunt.
SH: Oh, well, I hope so. And it may. I had a friend, not really a friend but a new acquaintance, who came by and wanted to talk about Jerry. He was on his way to Austin from North Carolina. We spoke Sunday and he said, "The thing about your book is, it puts everything down.” He said, "You are candid. And you tell things that are maybe not so flattering or that are, well, hard to read.” And I thought, "Well, I didn't know how else to do it, if it was going to be genuine and help me, and if it was going to also help Jerry's career, it needed to be factual."
PA: It’s sort of special that mass publication just wasn't on your mind, because you were writing it for yourself. And maybe therapeutic isn’t the right word, but part of—
SH: It's a very good word. I think that's exactly what it was. And when I finished it, I felt so much better.
PA: I think it owes to the honesty of the book, like your friend was saying, if you're writing this for yourself, you owe it to yourself to be honest.
SH: Mm-hmm. And yet, at the same time, Parker, I don't think there's any such thing as objective truth in our lives. I think every step of the way we make it up as we go along, we select our memories, we edit and adapt our memories to create just what we think we need or maybe what we do need. I mean, certainly there's some basic hardcore facts, but everything around is all just what we put together.
PA: That's funny because a lot of the book also is sort of factual, or it’s what's chronological and necessary in telling the story of two lives.
SH: Particularly when I'm writing about our relationship and about our emotional stake in one another, there are times when I'm sure that I'm putting a certain emphasis on an event. Or I've selected just certain words that were spoken that I remember. And didn't record other words that were spoken that I've chosen not to remember.
PA: That's just a necessary part of it I suppose. I talked to Joan Snider, who was in the Audio Visual Studio Ensemble [group that made electronic music along with synthesized and processed video] with Jerry in the ’70s. And she mentioned that she had read Partners when it was originally published and was really happy that everything was being put out to a wider audience. It made me think that the original audience must have been solely friends and past collaborators and people like that. But now your book has been republished and the audience has expanded and I'm wondering, have you had any thought about who is seeing it now? I mean, now that it might be in libraries and people can come across it easily. Does it take on a new meaning for the book to be read by someone who maybe just learned about who Jerry Hunt was this year?
SH: Well, yes, this is a very good question. This is what I think is most important. What he did and what our life was like and what his career was like, it's been recorded. And now the younger people are picking it up, coming across his work through his webpage or through the exhibit or through Partners, or through this incredible book Transmissions from the Pleroma. All these different sources are going to give young people depth to their interest, just like this fellow that came by and talked with me last Sunday on his way to Austin. He just picked up one of Jerry’s CDs several months ago and was just blown away. So he's begun investigating. And that's the thing that makes me the happiest and is the most fulfilling, that Partners can get out there with the other sources and provide a way for people to get to know Jerry and what his art was like. His colleagues, other composers and fellow performers and friends and so forth, they're older and won't be around forever. And he wanted me to do whatever I could to keep his work alive.
Parker Allen is a student and musician living in Brooklyn. She plays guitar in the anarcho-punk band TAZ.