Q&A with Annie Hartnett

Tin House, 2017

Tin House, 2017

In three words, how would describe your novel?

Hilarious, heartbreaking, fun. 

Rabbit Cake begins with Elvis’s mother sleepwalking into a river. Sleepwalking also plays a huge role throughout the novel. What inspired you to feature sleepwalking in such a prominent way? Did you do any research on the topic?

I think every novel, and every story really, starts with a “what if” question: what if this happened? And then the rest of the novel comes from a second question: what else would it cause to happen? So my what if question for Rabbit Cake was: what if someone died when sleepwalking, and another family member was also a sleepwalker – and sleepwalking became something to be afraid of? That’s what the whole novel grew out of. 

And yes, I definitely did some research on sleepwalking. And the movie “Sleepwalk with Me” came out when I was writing it, and that helped me too. 

This is your debut novel--congratulations! What has surprised you most about publishing a book?

Hearing from readers! I didn’t anticipate how many people would write me with their thoughts, and I really appreciate hearing how people are connecting with and caring about Elvis. 

Elvis is so incredibly weird and wonderful. How did you work out her characterization or was she one of those characters that seems to spring forth fully formed in your mind?

Elvis is partially based on who I was as a kid, and also the kids I read about or watched on TV. She has a lot of Ramona Quimby in her, a lot of Harriet the Spy, some Punky Brewster…at least that’s how the character of Elvis began. Once I had her voice down, Elvis became someone all her own. 

Elvis knows a lot of random animal facts. Did you have to read a lot to learn them all or did you just watch a lot of Discovery channel as a child?

I’ve always been obsessed with animals, but I definitely had to do my research. I don’t have an encyclopedia memory the way Elvis does. So I spent a lot of time on National Geographic’s website and in my thesaurus. 

Rabbit Cake looks at how different people handle grief, but your novel is also really funny. Did you have a particular strategy of how you used humor in the book?

That’s the brand of humor I grew up with, my family making each other laugh during moments of grief or sadness or in the middle of a terrible argument. It’s how we’ve always coped, so the humor in the book did come naturally to me. It took me more time to get the moments of heartbreak right. 

Here at the Reading Women, we’re all about women’s voices. What female authors have inspired you and your writing?

I read 98% women. I love: Joy Williams, Karen Russell, Lydia Millet, Aimee Bender, Laura van den Berg, Julia Elliott, Katherine Dunn, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Barbara Kingsolver, ZZ Packer, Lydia Davis, Celeste Ng, Hannah Tinti…I could go on and on. 

What have you been reading recently?

The last book that really blew my mind was The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti. And I really loved The Mothers by Brit Bennett. 

What are you working on now?

I’m writing another novel about a sex crime in a small town… and finishing up the Rabbit Cake tour! 

Photo Courtesy of the Author

Photo Courtesy of the Author


Annie Hartnett is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Alabama, and was the 2013-2014 Writer-in-Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library. She currently teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. She lives in Providence, RI with her husband and their border collie.

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