Cara Hoffman's new literary novel, Running, takes place in a time that may read like science fiction to some young readers. Twenty-somethings rely on payphones, AIDS is still a potential death sentence, and the most infamous terrorist threat hails from Ireland in the form of the Irish Republican Army (better known as the IRA). But the book's thrilling narrative showcases unavoidable similarities to today's political landscape.
Running tells the story of Bridey, a young American who flees Washington State to live in Athens, Greece. She forms a makeshift family with a queer couple known as Jasper and Milo, and they participate in a hostel's marketing scheme known as "running." (Basically, the hostel paid them to stand out train platforms and lie about how the dorms were safe and comfortable.) In between working and drinking, they befriend an IRA fugitive and later become involved in a devastating terrorist attack.
To give away any more would ruin the book's dramatic climax. Like Hoffman's previous two novels, the critically acclaimed So Much Pretty and Be Safe I Love You, Running creeps towards a page-turning finale that shocks while provoking important questions about feminism and violence in the Western world. Over email and phone, she discussed the book's origins in real life, her thoughts on contemporary terrorism, and the differences between 1990s and contemporary queer culture. This interview has been edited and condensed.
BROADLY: When did you start Running?
Cara Hoffman: I started writing Running, taking notes for it, when I was 19 years old and was actually living in Athens in a hotel in the red light district. The central idea for the novel has been through many different incarnations, most of which weren't right for a variety of reasons.
How does it differ from your previous novels?
So Much Pretty was about things I was interested in as a journalist, subjects that I had covered, mostly crime, violence against women, and environmental issues. Be Safe, I Love You was also born from journalistic research about women serving in the military, and from a family connection to the military. This novel is more deeply personal. It's a world apart.
Why did people run away to Athens at that time?
In the late 80s, Athens and Piraeus were some of the most porous ports of entry. It was very easy to get in and out with drugs and weapons. The place was close to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, so it was strategically important. There was certainly a robust trade in illegal passports when I was living there. It was also cheap, and it was warm if you had to sleep outside. It was also beautiful, diverse, cosmopolitan. Athens is an amazing city.
Did a lot of young gay people end up there?
It didn't seem like a huge bastion of queerness to me when I lived there, but I was probably hanging out in the wrong bars. This was also the 80s, when violence and discrimination against queer folks was worse.
Would the main character, Bridey, regret the terrorist attack she was involved in?
Bridey is in many ways the moral core of the novel. Her involvement in a callous act that leads to the attack is something she clearly wrestles with, but she takes action to rectify at least part of what she has done. Milo, on the other hand is still living with the guilt of his part in it; even decades later he's haunted by what he did, and by his inaction after the fact.
Do you think the terrorist subplots in the book have parallels to today?
Absolutely. There are whole groups of people being called terrorists who have nothing to do with terrorism. And some acts of terrorism are seen as less of a threat because they are being carried out by white people. I'm stunned that the fear of radicalization centers so deeply around Islam when there is such a surge in white supremacist rhetoric and violence in the western world. Running also shows how fluid and unstable these kinds of acts can be. The characters peripherally involved are young and are shocked at how something they did out of thoughtlessness or a whim could have devastating real world implications.
How do you think young queer people differ today than young people in that time?
I couldn't have anticipated how much things would change. It's a different world. The feeling that you need to look over your shoulder just because of your sexuality or gender expression; that you had to be closeted; that you expected abuse; that there was little representation of your life in popular culture—all that was real, everyday stuff. I know it still is for many, and that my perspective as a New Yorker is probably skewed. And I know that we have to keep on our toes in the current political climate, but that sense of discrimination and implicit threat simply because you are queer is becoming more of a distant memory every year.
How did that affect the art?
I don't think being closeted has never made the art better. I do think being an outsider gives you an important perspective.There may be something about the pure resistance against the institutions that told us our very existence was wrong. There was definitely a clarifying urgency to rejecting those ideas. The artist and writer David Wojnarowicz fought hard against the idea of the "One-Tribe Nation," by which he meant the institutions that hate difference, that want us to be quiet suburban consumers and to look and act a certain way. Being included in the One Tribe Nation is not the same as resisting it. As Milo says in Running, "I don't need a fascist to acknowledge my humanity."