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Sawdust and Raw Meat: An Interview with Scott Alexander Hess, author of The Butcher’s Sons

By on Tuesday, August 4th, 2015 at 9:03 am

Photo of Scott Alexander Hess courtesy of the author

The Butcher’s Sons is the latest novel by author Scott Alexander Hess. He launched The Butcher’s Sons in May. The family saga is set in 1930 New York City and follows three Irish brothers as they attempt to find their place in Hell’s Kitchen.

Roberto Santiago: Congratulations on the release of book No. three, The Butcher’s Sons! Since we are Press brothers, I must ask: How did TBS find its way to Lethe?

Scott Alexander Hess: My first two novels were with a different press, which did not deal with literary fiction. Those first books were a bit more subversive, while The Butcher’s Sons represents my current direction as a writer toward literary historical fiction. I hunted around for a good match and saw that Lethe authors had won awards and I read some good press. So I submitted and began a wonderful relationship with publisher Steve Berman.

Santiago: Having two other novels under your belt, Bergdorf Boys and Diary of a Sex-Addict, can you talk a bit about the experience of crafting this novel, how was it unique? Similar? Was your writing process different this time around?

Hess: My process has evolved. I am a “method” writer. I do a lot of research, and experience elements of the work (a butcher shop, Ireland) as intensely as I can. That has always been the case. Once I begin a book I enter into the characters’ world and I feel I am living there until the novel is complete. It’s an incredibly rich ride! That said, with historical fiction the detail and research became even more crucial. Plus, I am writing more poetic, language driven prose, inspired by my idols William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. I enjoy stream of consciousness writing.

Santiago: You mentioned at your Hell’s Kitchen book release, “I was interested in a world of masculine men,” and The Butcher’s Sons is dedicated to “The Hess Men, Richard, David, and Earl,” clearly a nod to the men that make up your family… and so I have to ask, what drew you a dandy like yourself to delve deeper into that fascination with masculinities via the world of 1930’s mobsters?

Hess: Growing up, our St. Louis based family business was Hess Meat Machines. It included a huge warehouse of giant meat saws and greasy grinders. I spent time there as a boy, working (in reality hiding behind a meat saw writing poetry). I think early in my life I shunned all things masculine, but as I grow as a man and as a writer, I have become more fascinated by levels of sensuality for men, my own masculinity, and how men relate to men either as warriors, friends or lovers. With The Butcher’s Sons, I wanted to indulge fully in a very masculine… often times, violent world, and sink into the mind of men I never could imagine myself connecting with. It ended up being a really enlightening experience, and in the end, brought me closer to my older brothers, who now run the family business.

Santiago:I got to tell you, the image of you as a young boy writing behind a meat saw is pretty striking. That’d drive a man to some pretty dark vices…and you chose the darkest one I know of… poetry! :::Laughs:::

Taking place in the 1930’s, do you feel that race/ethnicity has a more profound effect on this work than any of your earlier works?

Hess: Absolutely. It was a very different world regarding race and sexual preference and identity. This conflict and tension gave me a lot to work with. I think all the characters I write are in some ways outsiders looking in, all struggling with traits that they are both fiercely proud of and secretly ashamed of.

I created the oldest brother Dickie’s affair with Eva, as a parallel to Adlai’s relationship with Big Ed. At the time, both of the brothers could have been jailed for what was considered criminal behavior.

Adlai and Dickie are involved in relationships that were considered subversive at the time. While the two don’t see it, they share that as a similar trait, both are risk takers and rule breakers. This ties into the book’s theme that blood relations can live very closely together, yet share very little about themselves.

Dickie’s intense bravado for instance is a result of his wanting respect.

Also, Dickie has not…up until Eva…been able to engage in a loving relationship with a woman. I see Eva’s differentness, the fact that she is what was considered forbidden, the thing that attracts Dickie and stirs his sense of rebellion and violent disregard for societal morals.

Santiago: At the aforementioned release for The Butcher’s Sons, you mentioned, “once I find the voice, the process of writing drives itself. Getting to that point is the challenge.” Of Dickie, Walt, or Adlai, which of the Butcher’s sons did you find the most difficult to inhabit/harness?

Hess: I suppose Walt. He initially is the most gentle, the least conflicted. He has simple dreams and goals. His was the more subtle journey of the three.

Santiago: In a book that deals with so many different men in so many different ways, how did the absence of Alice, the Butcher Matriarch, affect the way you explored the roles of female characters in the lives of the Butcher’s sons?

Hess: I wanted only men in the central story (the father and sons). A very masculine world. Alice lingers as a memory, a phantom, and there are only a few hints of her influence or presence. Like a very mild lingering perfume. The other primary women, Eva and Adriana, are parts of very passionate relationships, both sexually and emotionally. They are romantic extensions of the brothers who love them.

Santiago: Let’s Talk about Sex, shall we? In your earlier novels Bergdorf Boys and Diary of a Sex-Addict, your depiction of gay sexuality is explicit, whereas in The Butcher’s Sons you have intentionally tamed the sexy, so to speak, so that it feels uniquely more intimate and implicit. Many times I felt as if you were striving to push beyond physical nature of sex, making the exploration of intersecting masculinities an act of sex itself. Was that at all your intention?

Hess: Yes, absolutely. In Diary, the sex is driven by emptiness and great pain. The extreme amount of sex is meant to numb the reader. In The Butcher’s Son, the sex is driven by love, and with all three brothers, forbidden love. Their affairs are matters of the soul…propelled by deep gut desires to connect with another human being, almost in a spiritual way.

I also see nature, and the exterior world as part of the interactions they have with the people they love. Particularly with Adlai, I did not want to use any obvious or graphic detail. Sex for these two young men is absolutely new, a constant discovery, very innocent in a way. I wanted the connection to stay in a space filled with beauty as well as intense poetic passion.

Santiago: Some of the intimate moments between heterosexual characters, for example Eva and Dickie, feel extremely tangible, what was it like delving so deeply into heterosexuality?

Hess: It was more natural then I imagined. As I said, I’m a method writer. Once I was in Dickie’s mind space, filled with his desires, it was organic to have him go for what he wanted sexually. My writing group at one point mentioned they were shocked at how realistic my hetero sex scenes were, which was nice to hear.

Santiago: Would you say that with TBSs emphasis of the construct of family, various iterations of masculinity, explorations of heterosexual love/desire and good ol’ fashioned cinematic mob violence you are opening up your work to a wider audience than your earlier works?

Hess: Yes. I am increasingly interested in the topics of family, eras of time, relationships, which indeed broaden my audience. The first day the novel came out, a film director who saw a shout out on twitter reached out to me to talk about the book. He said the time period, and elements of family and crime could make it a good cable project. That to me was a great sign.

Santiago: That would be awesome! I could totally see this play out on screen! On that note…Last question, if you could cast any two celebrities to play Adlai and Big Ed (a la chapter 17) who would they be? Why?

Hess: I’ve been asked that before and the thing is, in the book as written (and in line with men growing up more quickly in 1930) the characters are under 20. I honestly don’t follow a lot of actors in that age range! But, that said, if Tom Hardy or Matthias Schoenaerts were 18 either would be perfect! In terms of young Adlai, Dane William DeHaan (at 17) could work. I choose Big Ed for his intense, sexy yet vulnerable qualities and Adlai for his intense sensitivity and curiosity.

Santiago: Hmmm…I would cast a newly-blond Keir Gilchrist for Adlai and a gym-ratted Oscar Issac for Big Ed…but that is just me…

Scott Alexnader Hess’s The Butcher’s Sons and Roberto F. Santiago’s Angel Park are both available from Lethe Press.



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