NS: Your work intrigues me.
You tackle the hard stuff in a visceral way while leaving me awed by the beauty of our humanity. What leads your hand as you take us into difficulties like being misunderstood, mute, derailed, shaking through it all, and noting everything beautiful along the way?
HN: Um, wow. Errrr.
First of all, you have to notice the beauty or you might as well shoot yourself now. As for the rest, I try to capture experience in my genre bending work like “Little Orange Pills,” which is why it necessarily ends up as hybrid work. It’s not a poem or an essay or a story, but it draws from all of those. I guess it’s most like a poem, except I’m too long winded to be a poet. I don’t want to boil it all down: I want to expand it out while using images and cadences that reflect the experience.
I suppose I do it by being honest, as honest as I possibly can be with my words.
NS: I personally fall madly in love with poetic prose. It never ages. And your work has it droves. Can you say a bit about your poetic voice, especially in “Littel Orange Pills”?
HN: I started writing genre bending work like “Little Orange Pills” while in graduate school, and the poets declared I was one of their own. I laughed, but it’s probably true. My prose used to be flat and lifeless. I could not write a good sentence. I especially failed at description of any sort. During my second semester in graduate school, I started writing flash fiction as a way to focus on the small details.
Honestly, I surprised myself with my poetic voice. Once I started writing pieces I wanted to write in the way I wanted to write them, without worrying about genre and what’s been done before that has already been declared acceptable, the poetic voice appeared.
My genre bending work is generally more poetic that my fiction and creative nonfiction. The words present themselves to me in a different way when I’m not worried about traditional elements of plot. Ideas flow differently. The writing is more like how I actually sense and interpret the world and think without the filter we have to use in daily interactions. I guess I’d call it “raw,” though I do craft those pieces. I am a very passionate person, but I typically display a put-together and tough façade. The poetic pieces are me without my armor.
NS: Your work intimately conveys the human body again and again. Sometimes graphic but mostly just apt. Did you study medicine at one point in your life or is it an innate ability?
HN: I am not comfortable having a body. I could never practice medicine. Bodies upset me a great deal of the time. I was single for a long time because the idea of a stranger touching me would make me throw up in my mouth.
NS: Does your dog help you? ; )
HN: Yes. Milkshake has given me a lot of purpose and stability. I was always a very suicidal person, but then my mother had another child when I was 24, so I ended up removing suicide from my list of possible life choices. After that, I had to figure out how to live my life and have it be better than miserable. I got a dog so I’d have an external obligation that would force me to get out of bed. Since getting Milkshake, I have consistently gotten up early in the morning, gotten more exercise, and been forced to talk to strangers. My writing productivity has been higher than I thought possible, and I’ve been publishing like crazy. He is also very loving and cuddly, so I don’t feel a strong need for a girlfriend or boyfriend, which helps keep my time my own.
NS: How does place influence your writing? Detroit or other places?
HN: Place haunts and intrigues me. I’ve lived across the country. I’d like to have a home, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. During my final semester at UIUC, I started working on a novel set in a generic town. I didn’t work on it for a few years. While it sat, I kept hearing about Detroit, the artists moving in and the opportunities. I realized my novel should take place in Detroit, then I started working on it again. I went to Detroit and fell in love with the city. I scrapped what I had already written and started over. I am now in love with my own novel, which I think is pretty necessary for taking on such a terrible task. Seriously. Writing a novel is awful, but it feels a little good, so I keep doing it.
NS: Are you studying creative writing now? What are you working on?
HN: I have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I graduated in 2007. My focus was fiction, though my thesis was a mix of fiction and nonfiction. A year after graduating, I went into another MFA program for Creative Nonfiction, but I was no longer in student mode, so I left. I currently teach Creative Writing through a local community center, or I will if anyone enrolls. I’m working on essays, always, like six of them. I’m also writing the Detroit novel. I tend to juggle a dozen or so projects at once. I’m just that way.
NS: Hopes and dreams? Film or fiction or both? Or something else?
HN: My middle name is Hope. My name used to be Cocaine Comfort Neal, but when I was 8, my parents changed it to Harmony Hope Neal. My sister is Rose Love. I pushed for Rose Redemption or Rose Revival, something with the alliteration, but those were kind of lame, so I said, fine, “Love” is fine.
I don’t really believe in hopes and dreams. Any old schmo can dream of being a princess or President. Anyone can hope for true love. I believe in serious work. I have goals and aspirations: an essay collection, the novel, a professorship.
I do words. Film is outside my purview. Two of my flash fictions are being made into short films, but that is all on someone else’s end. “Sarubobo” is going to be freaking amazing when it’s done. I’ve seen the rough cut and thought it was great, so great that I forgot I wrote the original story. The films being great have little to do with me and everything to do with the skill and vision of Kyle Broom and Alexandra Spector and the wonderful actors and actresses they hire. I simply hand over my stories and tell Kyle to go for it.
NS: Thank you Harmony. Happy to have your work here. It’s alive, true and fresh. An honor indeed.