This reading group guide for Running includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cara Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Bridey Sullivan, a young woman on her own in Europe after having been raised by her uncle, is the centerpiece of this story. In the underbelly of 1980s Athens, Bridey and her friends Milo and Jasper scrounge for work in order to survive. When their plot to make money blows up with unintended, far-reaching consequences, the three find themselves in over their heads. Years later, Milo—who has become a famous poet and professor—struggles with the legacy of their time together.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What is the significance of calling the unnamed hotel where Bridey, Milo, and Jasper work “Olympos?”
2. In speaking of the ruins in Greece, Jasper says, “It’s the damage they love, really; they say
it’s the history, but it’s the damage
. No one would care in the least if these things were new—covered with gaudy, bright primary colors like it was back then.” What do you think of his opinion? Do people have an appreciation for the ancient mainly because its remains are desolate and ruined?
3. When Bridey returns to visit their room years later, she remembers the vision of her friends as they slept: “the back of a knee, the curve of a hand, a fist closed around a wrist or an ankle, close around flesh that fit perfectly in the cradle between fingers and palm.” There’s a element of physicality in her memories; is memory sometimes carried in the body in a way it isn’t to the eye or ear? How would you describe the interplay between the three main characters, physically?
4. Bridey speaks of “that new landscape that can only appear fully to you when you’re alone.” If you’ve traveled (even locally), what did you find was different when you were alone, as opposed to when you were with a group or even one other person? What is the benefit of spending time alone? What is the drawback?
5. Both Bridey and her uncle Dare seem drawn to the power of fire. What is the appeal to working with such an unknowable element?
6. Navas’s brother, Milo, and Shaunjaye all box. Compare the sanctioned violence of something like boxing or wrestling with the unsanctioned fights between runners or between Declan and his enemies. Why do you think a current of violence runs throughout the novel?
7. When Milo begins working in New York, he laments the shift that has occurred in social interaction since the advent of cell phones. Do you think technology has made life less mysterious? Less personal?
8. What do you think Dare was trying to teach young Bridey when he threw her bomb into the pond? How does that lesson resonate with her?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Take turns reading aloud from an ancient Greek poems such as The Iliad
or The Odyssey
. How does Running
fit into the space where those epics once stood? Have you read any literature from ancient Greece before?
2. The epigraph of Running
is a quote from David Wojnarowicz’s book Close to the Knives
. Look up the art of David Wojnarowicz, or read his memoir. Are there parallels between his writing and Hoffman’s? Are there parallels in their ideas or lives as writers?
3. Hoffman writes about Greek culture in Running
, particularly the food, the music and dance. Look up traditional Greek dance on the Internet to hear the music Bridey heard in the train station; see the kinds of dances Bridey saw on the islands; try traditional Greek recipes such as spanokopita and moussaka; try drinks like ouzo, mastica, and Metaxa.A Conversation with Cara HoffmanRunning is about three loners who band together to make their own family. What drew you to 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.
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 of them deals with the aftermath 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 physical 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 you were there. What attracted you to that time and place?
In the late ’80s, Athens was one of the most permeable sites in Europe to enter with arms and drugs, and 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 Athens 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 of the novel, 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 there over twenty-five 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. 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. 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 entryway 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. On the trains we were to pass out the hotel’s leaflet, which 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 who had been travelling for multiple years and working under the table. Then, you knew someone who knew someone else 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. (That sentence alone tells you how much my life has changed since I lived in Athens in the 1980s.) 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 had been when I lived there. The hotel was painted and had a sign out front, and there were no broken windows or garbage in the street, and it had an Internet café. The rate per night was seventy euros; but it was only twenty-two hundred drachmas, 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.