A Conversation with Cara Hoffman about RUNNING

What is a runner?

I write in the novel that a runner is someone who lies about where he lives and then convinces you to come home with him. They work trains by selling unsuspecting tourists on low-end hotels, and in exchange they get a cut of the deal and a free place to sleep. RUNNING is inspired by my own experience working as a runner in the red light district of Athens when I was a teenager. Like the characters in the book, I walked the length of trains coming into Athens looking to hustle people who didn’t know their way around or hadn’t yet figured out where they’d be staying.

RUNNING is about three loners who band together to make their own family. What drew you to creating characters like Bridey, Jasper and Milo—all outsiders who left one world in search of another?

Bridey, Jasper and Milo are outsiders not only because they are the kind of people who are pushed away, but because they each left a world they believed was wrong. They recognize themselves in one another: bookish and quick and hungry for adventure and knowledge. People who would sleep on the street or in train stations for years if it meant they could go to the Acropolis, or Delphi, or keep travelling. And they love and respect each other in a world that’s unkind to people like them.

Bridey is a woman, Milo is black, Jasper is gay, two of them are poor, all of them are queer in one way or another; all of them are young. As part of an underclass, they reject a society that harms and denigrates others. As Milo says, “I don’t need a fascist to acknowledge my humanity.” But I didn’t write these characters simply to make a point, I wrote them this way because it’s an accurate reflection of the world I come from and the people I know. I think many people understand the idea of “chosen family.” To me, these are the deepest bonds because they’re based on intellect and affinity instead of blood.

Bridey, Jasper and Milo dropped out of school, but they continue to study, read voraciously and write with no one to guide them. Why was it important to you to highlight their intellect despite their lack of schooling?

Their lives on the street as runners and traffickers in no way diminish their lives as intellectuals. It’s common to think that people who are poor, or uneducated, or living outside the law are not intelligent, or that they don’t love and understand literature or art, or history or politics. It’s also common to think that intelligent people in situations like the ones in RUNNING are the exception. This, in my opinion, is always a mistake. There are plenty of brilliant people who never went to school, or made money, or became successful; the world is made of them, in fact.

In RUNNING, it was important to me to show characters who are thriving and wickedly intelligent, but who might be disregarded by general society all the same, because that has been my experience. Access to education does not equal intelligence. And, in my opinion, lack of life experience can hinder intellectual development and empathy.

The characters in RUNNING unintentionally become involved in an act of terrorism; making a decision that leads to the murder of several people and then letting someone else take the blame. As the story unfolds, we see that each character deals with the aftermath of their involvement differently. What are you hoping to convey by showing their different ways of coping and living with this brutal act?

This topic is something that I think is particularly important to talk about right now: How do people learn to live with the things they’ve done to others? Bridey, Jasper and Milo are teenagers when they play a key role in a violent event, and their immediate and long-term reactions vary drastically. When the novel opens, it is more than twenty years after the fact: Milo is now an adult and teaching at a prestigious university in Manhattan. He’s successful, respected, and accomplished, but his understanding of who he is and how the world works is entirely built around that that quick, callous, violent act and his part in it. Bridey knowingly involves herself in other acts of violence to rectify the first. I wrote her reaction as more active than intellectual. Taking responsibility for suffering; living with the complexity of that consciousness, not excusing it; rejecting the myth of natural outcomes, and of hierarchies, that’s Bridey’s journey in RUNNING.

RUNNING is set in 1989 Athens, the same time and place you were there. What attracted you to this time and place?

In the late 80s, Athens was one of the most permeable sites in Europe to enter with arms and drugs and was a popular destination for people trying to disappear for political or legal reasons. It had a large expatriate community of which I was a part. Athens is also a beautiful city and to me: it always felt familiar, even though I grew up in rural America and it was vastly different from anywhere I’d lived; bustling and dirty and whitewashed and sprawling. Winding and intimate, and surrounding an ancient ruin. I loved the music there and the dance and the smell of the place and the liquor and the underlying sense of desolation and survival. Athens was the city where I became myself. I had never felt so at home anywhere, or so powerfully alone.

In a starred review, Booklist says “Hoffman is fearless and trusting of her readers, and her precise prose captures the novel’s many settings—Greece, Washington State, New York City—and her characters’ feelings and actions, vividly.” Your ability to so beautifully paint Athens and describe life as a runner stems from your time, over 25 years ago, living there and working as a runner yourself. How did you end up in Athens?

I had been travelling around Europe for about a year and was low on money. (I’d left the states with my savings from working in a restaurant and a bookstore, and I hadn’t been able to find under the table work in northern Europe.) I had been living in Venice, sleeping in the train station beside the Grand Canal and stowing on water taxis to get around and see the city. I met a trans-woman from Florida who told me she’d just come from travelling in the Greek islands. She said it was easy to find work there, and was a good place to go if you were sleeping outside and wanted to live cheaply. And I had met other people who told me Athens was a good place to find illegal work. So I took a train from Venice to Athens. I arrived with thirty dollars, one change of clothes, a notebook and a couple of paperbacks.

How did you become a runner?

On that train to Athens, just outside the city I got into a long conversation with an English boy who turned out to be a runner. He was looking for tourists to bring back to his hotel. He was also nineteen, like me, and had left home to live in the world. Before Athens, he’d been sleeping outside in a parking garage in Zagreb. I told him I was broke and looking for a job. He took me to the hotel he was working for, and the next day I started running trains.

How was it?

The hotel was dilapidated: the rooms were spare and people could pay a few drachmas to sleep on the roof. The top floor was condemned and crumbling—that’s where the runners lived. The buildings on either side of the hotel were brothels, the kind that actually had a single red bulb hanging in the entry way and a woman sitting beneath it in a folding metal chair.

Nearly every hotel in the red light district and the areas surrounding Omonia Square used runners. We came from many different countries. Most of us were young, many of us in our teens, but some were older people who had fallen on hard times or were trying not to be found.

We spent our time hustling tourists back to the hotel, reading and drinking, listening to Greek music and walking around ruins. I watched a lot of fights, worked and drank and spent time with people from radically different backgrounds. We were paid a commission for every tourist we brought back to the hotel. It was difficult to get people to stay in a place like that, so there was a lot of lying going on. The hotel printed a leaflet we were to pass out on trains that was full of pictures of some nice hotel that was absolutely not where we lived. There was no view of the Acropolis, no free continental breakfast; the place didn’t even have a sign outside.

Because of everything from cheap airfare to Airbnb to Facebook, the Athens you describe—a place where people can truly live off the grid—no longer exists. Are there still runners?

I am sure there are still outliers with wanderlust or intellectual pilgrims who do things like sleep in a church doorway so they can be near a Caravaggio painting they love. And I think there are still runners in remote places. The world never changes as fast for people with little money.

Before the Internet, it was common to make your travel arrangements based on word of mouth. And this was especially true among expats that had been travelling for multiple years and working under the table. Then, you knew someone who knew someone who knew about a job in village near Artemida or Delphi and you would just show up hoping to find that person at a bar they frequented. In retrospect, it seems surprising how often those connections worked out. But at the time it was common. I miss the power and the self-reliance of those times. I miss the solitude and quiet of it.

Have you been back to Athens since that time?

Three years ago, my partner had an artist’s residency in Florence, and from Italy we travelled to Greece. When we arrived, I went back to the hotel and the neighborhood where I’d been a runner; this was after the financial crisis, and even so the neighborhood was better than it was when I’d lived there. The hotel was painted and had a sign out front, and there were no broken windows, no garbage in the street, and it had an Internet café. The rate per night was seventy Euros; it was twenty-two hundred drachmas, or approximately seven dollars a night when I had lived there.

But it was still Athens. It was still sprawling and dirty and intimate and beautiful. I went up to my old room and stood outside the door and all I wanted to do was stay.