Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s debut memoir, The End of Boys, is not an easy read. A boy shouldn’t cower from his family. He shouldn’t feel that every system exists to break him down. He shouldn’t be driven into darkness by a voice in his head. And just as sure, he shouldn’t have half a chance to become a functional man, let alone a good man. But here we have Peter Hoffmeister, a husband and father, a teacher and mentor, about whom a colleague and parent of one of his former students says, “Because of what he has been through he has made conscious decisions about how he will live his adult life, much more so than the rest of us who often seem just to bumble along . . . his personal moral code of ethics keeps him a vibrant jokester and storyteller who will never, ever, ever lie.” She goes on to use the word “honorable,” which is what makes Hoffmeister’s memoir so gratifying. The current chapters of his life make it seem as if two very distinct stories have been glued together to form a very improbable reality.
We sat down with Peter Hoffmeister and tossed some pretty tough questions his way. He never ducked. We also learned he has a serious spot for indie booksellers as well as some of our absolute favorite NW authors. Honorable, indeed.
Has it been difficult to live and work in the same place where so much of the difficult story of your youth took place? As my mother puts it, “There’s Peter The Boy, and Peter The Man.” We’re two very different people. So until this book came out three weeks ago, not many people matched me up with the teenage boy, who was angry and violent and drug dealing and broken. That was Peter The Boy.
Peter The Man has different problems. He is addicted to coffee, uses too many adverbs and writes crappy first drafts. He also forgets to grade his freshman English essays on Monday nights and goes late to Wednesday staff meetings.
These days, I teach high school, fish with my daughters and coach a U11 girls’ soccer team. These were not real possibilities for me back when I was seventeen, in rehab, or hitchhiking across Texas.
Were there any players in your story who wished not to be a part of this project? How do you deal with that while remaining honest and fulfilling your need to write the book? Many people did not want to be in this book. It’s not a pretty story all the way through, and I felt bad writing about some of the people.
But in the end, I tried to tell the truth to the best of my ability. I had to say, “This is my story, and I’m allowed to tell my story,” and I had incredible support in that area from my wife, Jennie, (who is my first reader) and the writer José Chaves, who told me I had to publish this book. But it’s been very difficult. I’d be lying if I gave any other answer. I don’t enjoy exposing people. I don’t enjoy telling bad things that I’ve done, or bad things my family members have done.
Cooper, who is the second biggest character in the book, always believed in the project, read my drafts, corrected errors, and gave me honest feedback. So he was in. He was always supportive. It wasn’t difficult to write about him.
My father was less excited, though, if only because I was writing about the absolute worst time in his life. But he is nothing like his old self now. I’ve been stunned by his bravery throughout the publishing process.
Does he wish that the book was a novel instead of a memoir? Probably. But will he support my work 100% anyway? Definitely. He’s made that clear. And not many “memoir fathers” choose to be like that. So I’m proud of him.
Ironically, other people, who look far better, people who appear for a sentence or two (and sometimes only in a positive context) have asked not to be included in the book. It’s too late though.
You believe your family was very concerned with appearances while you were growing up, and that’s what lead to some of your problems going unchecked, because there were a lot of attempts to hide them, which usually meant shuffling you off somewhere, out of sight. How have they responded now that all of the dirty laundry is out in the open? This is similar to the last question (at least as far as my family goes), so I’ll try to give a different answer:
My sister Hillary has been very supportive. She’s reading the book, and we email back and forth about it. She makes it clear to everyone in the family that it’s important to support my endeavor, to show me love, to respect my choices as a writer. I’m very grateful for her loyalty.
My mother has also said that she’s proud of me and that I’m brave to put myself out there like this. The material in the book is really upsetting to her, but she’s chosen to back me. She believes in the artist and in art as a vocation, a calling. So she’s a supporter that way.
My sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law are probably most excited for me though. They’ve only known the adult me, Peter The Man, so they’ve seen the work, the thirteen drafts, the years of failure and repeated rejections, and they seem to want this as badly as I do.
My ex-brother-in-law Courtney (who I call my outlaw) has done an incredible amount of promotional work online, and my brother-in-law Caleb (a professional short film/trailer creator for multiple publishers) agreed to do my book trailer for free. Also, my mother-in-law, Kathy, has been promoting me in Texas, hand-selling the book, and recently sent me money for plane tickets to New York. She wants me to have an opportunity to read and celebrate the release in NYC and believes in this book as much as anyone. Who gets that much support from in-laws?
In your youth, there seemed to be a lot of times when you kind of imploded or blew things up rather than letting them unfold to an honest conclusion, frequently in athletic competitions, and often times on the brink of success. Did you fear that even if you won that you might still face the ache of something missing, or persistent disappointment? I’m really good at failing. At almost winning. As my wrestling coach once said to me in college, I’m capable of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” I think it is interesting that I got 2nd at state in Junior Olympic track three times, yet never won. That I should have won a state wrestling title my senior year in high school but got expelled mid-season. That I wrecked a motorcycle right before Greco-Roman nationals in college. There were reasons for all of those outcomes, but the truth is that I didn’t win the day. Those were almost successes. And I chose not to finish. I must not have wanted any of those things as badly as I originally thought. That’s what I tell myself. I believe strongly in humans making choices. We do what we choose to do. And I have no idea how winning would have felt, how turning that corner and getting first would have been different. Except, I know how getting a book contract feels. And there are pretty bad odds in that game. But I was never going to quit until that happened. In fact, I went a year with my first agent, getting nowhere, being rejected by 22 publishers and imprints. A lot of intelligent editors at big houses rejected this title before my second agent, Adriann Ranta, found Denise Oswald.
But I don’t believe that writing’s about winning. Writing is a working art, “work” being the key word. We either write or we don’t write. It doesn’t really have anything to do with publishing or victory.
There are a lot of instances in your life where people made poor decisions on your behalf, betrayed you to a silly ideal or dismissed you for someone else’s word. But there are also instances where you were really your own worst enemy. The one that really gets me was when you just made it home from a lock-up in Texas and have gotten really lucky upon your return to Eugene, where you’ve been given, and are taking advantage of, another chance. Then you do something really stupid in a moment of annoyance. The after-effects are insanely out of proportion with your actions, but at what point do you say to yourself, “Peter, you tend to attract a lot of bad luck, so maybe you shouldn’t tempt any more on your own?” I was my own worst enemy. And I also believe that I was complicit in the adults’ choices for me. I often think, what would my parents have done if I’d said, “No” when I was sixteen? What if I’d refused to go to New York? What if I’d gone upstairs and taken a nap? Then gone downstairs and made a bowl of cereal. Not gotten on that plane to La Guardia.
Could they have physically made me leave the house? No. So I made that choice, too. Even then. And after that, I made worse and worse choices. I was angry and felt like a victim. But I wasn’t a victim. I chose to react horribly in so many situations, so those reactions were my fault. I chose to be a victim.
When did your “own it” moment finally come? There were many. And I wasn’t perfect after each one. My life in my late teen years went up and down, improved a little, got worse, and improved a little once again.
The first “own it” moment was in Dallas, right after I broke down. I was sleeping under that counter in the Greyhound Station, and I sat up and thought, “This is where I am. I’m seventeen and I live in a bus station. Now what?”
And, strangely, I felt very powerful in that moment. I thought, “How can things get any worse than this, but I feel so good?” I felt better than I had in a long, long time. I knew right then that I was capable of anything. I was a survivor. I could ration my food, wander the streets, fight my way off of a brick wall, sleep in filth, never shower, get kicked by policeman, and still be okay. Still feel like a human somehow. So anything was possible.
That moment in Dallas informed the writing of this book. I could write and revise and write some more, get an agent and fail and get another agent, and finally publish, because I could do anything.
You are still a guy who has some unrest to channel, maybe a need to continually polish a chip on your shoulder that’s a lasting souvenir of your youth. Fighting and stealing have clearly given way to some healthier pursuits, so how do you control and expel that energy now? Now that I camp with my family, love my job and have an emerging writing career, I don’t feel like “polishing the chip on my shoulder” much at all. Or at least not very often. But I’m still too competitive. Hoffmeisters don’t quit. So I count things. Keep score. Grapple with people. Sometimes I still look bad. But like with Cooper and his snowboarding, I work most of my physicality out on rock climbs. On big or little boulders. I need a bit of suffering and adversity in my life, and climbing gives me both. Plus, that pursuit has humbled me countless times.
What kind of response—criticism, support, sideways looks—have you encountered from people you know who have now read the book? Well, the book’s only been out a few weeks, but the response has been unbelievable. People are too kind. They’ve sent me fan letters and emails, phone calls and messages through friends. I’m very appreciative of everything.
Last week, I was at a staff luncheon and everyone at my table was talking about the book, about the story, and that felt weird. It is a strange thing to write about yourself, to write a memoir. It sometimes feels foolish or narcissistic, or both foolish and narcissistic. But I have to go back to the story, and hope that it’s a book that helps struggling people.
You’ve answered the hard questions, so onto the fun part, where you get to hold your baby up to the crowd on your book tour. Because “a very full house is expected,” your local indie bookstore here in Eugene actually has you booked for two readings in June. The other readings you currently have scheduled are also at independents. Is this a deliberate plan? As of now, I’m reading at five indie bookstores this summer: Tsunami in Eugene, Ravenna Third Place in Seattle, Powell’s Books in Portland, and Books Inc. in San Francisco, plus one in New York in August. That’s one of the great things about indie stores. They still do readings. The big stores, the chains, want me to have signings, but no readings. And that’s a cultural shift, from one-on-one experiences with the author, listening to him or her read from the book to a mass book signing in the middle of the day with no reading involved. There’s a big difference.
Also, indie bookstores still handsell. Scott Landfield, at Tsunami Books in Eugene, is handselling my book every day right now. He told me that a father came in with his two teenage sons and said, “These kids need to read more. What should I buy them?” Scott handed him two copies of The End of Boys, the father read the back, and he said, “Okay,” and bought both copies. Now that scene is never going to happen in Barnes & Noble. There’s no owner to go up to. And the sales staff has to sell DVDs, CDs, magazines, stuffed animals, toys, puzzles, Legos, Tasty Science, and mint caramel vanilla-nut iced soy half-caf mocha lattes. There’s no time to sell a small, indie memoir.
If a customer at an indie has already purchased and loved The End of Boys, what other books would you recommend, books that inspired your style or just fueled your love to write? My favorite memoir is probably Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. But the opening to The Liars’ Club (Mary Karr) and This Boy’s Life (Tobias Wolff) probably influenced my memoir writing a little bit more. I read those two books earlier, when I was working on first stories and drafts. But memoirs weren’t my biggest influences. While writing The End of Boys, I really liked the imagery and loneliness of Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner. He’d admit that Ordinary Wolves, his first book, isn’t perfect, but it is incredibly beautiful. I’d recommend that one for sure. I’ve read Indian Creek Chronicles (Pete Fromm) a few times in the last five years, and I don’t know anyone who dislikes that book. So that’s a good choice, too. I love Hemingway. His honesty in A Moveable Feast was inspiring. He was repulsive at the end, but he wrote it. He made the reader dislike him, and that’s impressive. How many of us are that honest?