The Art of the Con: PW Talks with Samantha Hunt

(c) Nina Subin

Hunt’s fascinating third novel, Mr. Splitfoot, begins with two teens from the Love of Christ foster home staging a lucrative con channeling a spirit they name Mr. Splitfoot.

Did the inspiration for the book have anything to do with the Fox sisters—three women from the 19th century who faked séances to swindle people?

The book did not start with the Fox sisters, but they certainly influenced parts of it. I admire the artistry of con artists because, as a fiction writer, I feel an allegiance with them: the deep truths in made-up stories. I wanted to create my own Fox sisters. So while Mr. Splitfoot has a contemporary setting, the Fox sisters are kept present in a variety of threesomes: Ruth, Nat, and Mr. Bell (the novel’s heroes and con artists); a reference to Clotho (she who spins the fabric of life and is one of the three sister Fates); and three Catholic nuns, sisters I named after the Fox girls.

Why the split narrative structure?

Mr. Splitfoot is an active argument; one narrative tries to prove that magic exists, while the other narrative tries to disprove it. That was a fun way to write! Having alternating narratives allowed me to consider two sides of many things: noise and silence, movement and stillness, life and death, faith and the profane, here and there.

The split in Mr. Splitfoot is an idea of a one that becomes two. Nat and Ruth begin the book as a singularity. All of their thinking is done jointly. Then the novel progresses. In the other narrative, Cora is pregnant, as maternity is the finest example of splitting: one becoming two. Cora is also on a walk across New York state, as walking embodies this split: one body, two feet. The book moves forward in a dialectic: right, left, back, forth.

Why is Ruth silent throughout the second narrative?

My grmr splitfooteat grandmother Ada lost her voice after her first child died. She whispered the rest of her life and wrote poetry instead. Because of her, I collect stories of women who lose their voices. I wonder where lost voices go when they’re lost. It’s hard not to imagine some gnarly Bluebeard’s closet full of women’s stolen voices. I also wanted the challenge of creating a character who can’t speak. There’s much room for tension and suspense when a character can’t tell you what’s going on.

What’s the significance of the “scar-like pattern” of meteor landings in New York in the novel?

I included the meteors as a way to think about how religions and cults co-opt the natural world for their purposes. I invented a cult leader who uses [them] to frighten and fuse together his followers. I am a person who exalts in apophenia; I make meaningful patterns from random data. So I gave Ruth the scar on her face. Some of the characters think her scar repeats the pattern of the meteorite landings. I think that our love of looking for patterns has everything to do with telling stories and our desire to make sense from the senseless. The danger comes when people accept the apophenic patterns of others (organized religion, partisan politics) as easy answers that allow a follower to disrespect or even terrorize all the other truths.

Originally published in Publishers Weekly on November 23, 2015

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