A Year in Reading: Robert Birnbaum

From the gaggle of books I have read over this past year Beautiful Ruins, Gods Without Men, and The News from Spain stand out as especially special. Jess Walters’s novel Beautiful Ruins is a lovely story in which a handful of likable characters wend their disparate ways across nearly a half of the last century, from an obscure Italian coastal town to an array of locales on the shores of America, to resolve an unlikely but plausible narrative. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor make appearances. Gods without Men is a sprawling high-powered multi-threaded story that diverges into some rarified and elevated subjects -- parents flailing at the near impossible task of raising a seriously autistic child, a stock trader searching for and believing he has found an algorithmic formula for trading that in its Kabbalistic form is the Holy Grail, recondite anthropologists studying southwestern Native American culture, hippy cults, and more, spark a steady forward fugal motion. Reading this story sometimes feels like a breathtaking roller coaster ride as it shoots from one dissimilar point of view to another. It’s an exciting read with some brainy and amusing digressions. Andre Gregory’s blurbs on Joan Wickersham’s collection of stories The News from Spain asserted that the stories were sufficiently weighty that they could be read twice in succession -- an unusual notion, methinks. And yet I found that the stories were so engrossing and rich with thoughtful characters that I easily followed Gregory’s suggestion. And was indeed rewarded with another pleasurable read. Not linked stories, but bound by the author’s conceit of having the phrase The News from Spain appearing in each -- without, I must say, an appearance of contrivance or showiness. I volunteered to participate in this exercise because it required me to focus my attention on my own reading habits -- which I otherwise wouldn’t do, as I am not usually interested in the meta-gesture of thinking about or reading about reading (though I do recommend Andrew Piper’s Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times). What did I learn? Looking over what I read in the past 12 months, the list confirmed what I already knew -- that I am a literary omnivore and any litany of books tells more about the reader than individual the books listed. No big surprise there. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Sing You a Book: Josh Ritter Gets Out of His Comfort Zone

I had never heard of singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, but I was moved to find out about him because his debut novel, Bright's Passage, received very positive notices. Additionally, I was curious because of the diverse backgrounds of the people (Thomas Ricks, Jesse Kornbluth, Dennis Lehane, and Robert Pinsky) who were singing his praises. Bright's Passage tells the story of WWI veteran and widower Henry Bright taking flight from both a raging forest fire and his malevolent in-laws. His passage takes place in the company of his infant son and an unusual guardian angel in the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia as Bright's recollections range from his childhood to his traumatic experiences in the killing fields of France. It’s a tale told with great assurance and skill as might be expected from so skillful a songwriter. Josh Ritter and I spoke in late June 2011, when Bright’s Passage first came out and the discussion ranged across writing fiction and songs, books he loves, making music, growing up in Moscow, Idaho with a love of reading, and more. Bright’s Passage is out in paperback today. RB: What was growing up in Moscow, Idaho like? JR: It was good. I don’t have much to compare it to. We grew up pretty far out of town -- my brother who is four years younger than me and my folks and kind of parade of psychopathic dogs. RB: What distinguishes a psychopathic dog? JR: I haven’t figured that out. RB: I haven’t checked a map -- is Moscow near a river, and thus its name? JR: No.  No one quite knows. It’s the same with Idaho as a name. No one really knows where the name came from. There are a lot of theories. RB: The Indian word for “potato” (laughs). JR:  Somebody said it was based on real estate, like a sub-division, like “Hardwood Acres.” No one really knows. RB: Not an Indian word. JR: No, no. And Moscow was the same sort of thing. Some people said it was from Russian immigrants. It was originally called Hog Heaven. RB: (Laughs). JR: And then they decided they wanted to get some girls there and so they called it Paradise Valley. And then Moscow finally. RB: You’d think they might have changed the name during the Cold War because of John Birchers. JR: Yeah, yeah. There’s a big file out there somewhere. RB: When did you leave Idaho? How old? JR: Eighteen. And then I moved back after I lived here in Boston for a while. And then to New York. RB: Why back to Idaho? JR: I was on the road all the time and there was a moment when I realized that I was going to freak out unless I had something familiar. And it was, in a way. Coming back gave me a sense of familiarity I really needed at the time. RB: No big airport that was conveniently located? JR: There’s Boise but that’s eight and a half hours south. RB: So Moscow is up north. Is there much evidence of Native American culture? JR: Definitely.  All around -- there is Nez Perce to the south and Coeur d'Alene to the north. All kinds, Blackfoot, all kinds around. RB: So you came east when you were 18. JR: First to Oberlin, to college. And then from there to Boston. (Actually I lived a block down the street from here.) RB: Oberlin has a fine music department, though little known on the East Coast. JR: Amazing music department. I took some [courses]. I still play with Zack who I met there. He’s an amazing bass player. And then Darius, who is my manager, who I met there as well, were roommates. So it was great for music -- lots of music-minded people went there. RB: Somewhere in Ohio— JR: The old Northwest. RB: Did Oberlin have a football team? JR: It actually did and it lost the entire time I was there. They did not win a single game. RB: (Laughs). JR: It became a point of pride. RB: I read that you began writing Bright's Passage, this, your first novel, at Oberlin, which reportedly was written because you felt you couldn’t express certain things in a song. JR: I always felt that the songs -- my favorite songs are usually stories. A lot of times I feel like a song can be an instant. Like a love song, but there is always a setting. Always a sentiment expressed. Always, you know, a moment. And in other songs there can be a whole story. So I think songs are really great, kind of, delivery vehicles for a story. They allow you to make your own conclusions. Good songs never give you everything. So I really believe a song is like an envelope. A novel, you can unfold from a song. Say like "Tennessee Stud" or "Isis" or "The River." Or "Famous Blue Raincoat." You could unfold stories from them.  So I was finishing my last record and I had a bunch of long narrative songs on there. I was pretty much done and I had this song and I thought it might be too long. It might make the record -- there would just be one too many of these longer songs. But I had nowhere else to put it.  So, I figured that I had been talking about it for a while -- how songs and novels were closely related. So I thought I would just do it, you know. Or try it. I had come out of a long spell of not really feeling excited about some of the writing. And suddenly I was writing all these songs and then I didn’t really turn off the tap. So I just started writing this [Bright's Passage] without thinking too much about it. It was exciting -- it began as an experiment. RB: So as you are writing this novel do you know how it’s going to end? JR: No. No. RB: That was a discovery made along the way. JR: Absolutely. RB: So why a novel and not a short story -- it’s a big jump from songs. JR: I have never been interested in short stories. RB: You don’t read them? JR: I mean, I read them. I read a lot of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver and Dashiell Hammett stuff. Mostly because I felt like I needed to relax in something. RB: Reportedly people read short fiction less today -- which I don’t understand given the demands on time that exist. JR: Right, yeah. RB: But many writers will say that short fiction is more difficult. Less forgiving. JR: That’s true. I agree. I totally agree. The thing about good writing is concision and when it’s a song in which you tell a story, it has to be as tight as possible. You cannot have anything that’s going to obfuscate if you are telling a story in a song. You can do lots of missteps in a novel or go off on some tangents and still bring it back. RB: I agree that songs are stories -- what’s the difference in writing a song and writing fiction? JR: Well, I guess there’s a time frame element. Which is that you can write a song -- it may take an afternoon. It may take eight minutes or a week. But it’s a fairly short amount of time. And then when you are done you constantly play it for people and get that excitement of kind of pulling the sheet off of the statue and saying, “I did this.” That instant gratification -- which is a great feeling. With a novel you sit and work on it, little bit by little bit, every day. People see you working with your headphones on and then you close the computer or you put down the pen and you have nothing that you are going to show for that day. That kind of thing was a big adjustment for me. I wrote the first draft in two months and then the subsequent 10 drafts over the next year. RB: Ten drafts, wow. JR: It was a big first experience for me. RB: Ten drafts before it went to an editor at a publisher. JR: I had several drafts before an editor came in and looked at it. And then that process -- it was a lot like a song. You write a song first. The song is done in your mind. Then you work with a producer and they pose problems for you to solve. It was a great experience. RB: Everyone needs an editor. JR: Yeah, yeah. It’s like an extra set of ears. Yeah, yeah. RB: How long have you been out touting Bright's Passage? JR: Basically since yesterday. (Laughs). RB: So is the book tour integrated into the music tour? JR: I’ll never read and do a show at the same time -- luckily, I travel for the music and then I go and read at bookstores or something like that. Yeah, I love it. The experience of writing the novel was such a fantastic experience. I have read so much more since. And I have gotten a whole other appreciation for the books I love and reasons to understand books I might not like very much. And also to have a lot more sympathy for stuff I don’t like. Because I know how hard it was to do. RB: Talking about books you love. What are some of those? JR: The very first books I really remember loving was a series called The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. They’re the first books I ever read on my own. They are beautiful books -- kind of Welsh mythology. And then all those fantasy books like J.R.R. Tolkien and then moving on to Carl Sagan and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke—and 2001. Lots of those. Moving forward, all sorts of history books. You know one of the great things about growing up where we grew up is that we had a TV, but we only got two stations. We lived out in the woods and we didn’t have a car to drive anywhere. Not that we would have had anywhere to go. So reading became a really important thing. We never thought about it as something different; it was just that it was all there was to do once you got home at the end of the day. RB: So your so-called formative years were full of books. JR: Yeah. RB: Did your reading level off when you entered a wider world? When on tour do you read a lot? JR: Yeah. On tour you have to do stuff to stay busy. Luckily the band I’m in all the guys are all pretty big readers. That’s nice. You don’t come into a place and the TV is instantly on. I love watching TV, but feel like it fractures your brain before you go on stage. We pass books around -- we were passing around Neal Stephenson. Neil Gaiman as well -- American Gods, which everybody passed around. It’s fun -- whatever is getting passed around is really good. I get all sorts of great stuff from Zack [bass player]. RB:  Do the people who like your music know you like to read? JR: Yes. RB: Do people send you books? JR: Yes, all the time. Or after shows, they give me books. I usually make little notes about what I am reading at the time. I’m reading William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways and Robert Penn Warren. RB: The road book -- a quintessentially American story. JR: Yeah, I agree. RB: Occasionally, someone revisits de Tocqueville’s itinerary. JR: And Jonathan Raban travelling the full length of the Mississippi River [Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi]. Seems like British people like to do that… RB: I always envisioned travelling the circumference of the U.S. JR: That’s a great idea. That’d be amazing. RB: With my dog, Rosie. JR: Like Travels with Charley. RB: So you are beginning to be interviewed for the book -- are those interviews much different than for your music? JR: I thought it would be roughly similar. In some ways it is. But I feel like with songs, there are so many other things to talk about. Production choices -- all these sorts of things. With a book you are dealing with one kind of long extended idea. Also, you write something and you don’t necessarily know what it means until you’re done. Really, what you were actually thinking about. Or what you think you were thinking about. I like that about records as well, but it is interesting to suddenly be kind of holding myself to account about a longer piece of writing, really wondering what it is. RB: There is so much that is subjective about it. You may read a book when you are 20 years old and then when you re read it later you have a different view. Which may happen with your own writing-- being really pleased. JR: Yeah, really. That’s magical.  Or embarrassing. (Laughs). RB: You seem very happy with what you do. JR: Yeah, I am. RB: So you are encouraged to do more? JR: Absolutely. I understand song writing in some ways because I have been doing it for 10 or 12 years now. At this point I wanted something new -- something that made me nervous or made me feel like I didn’t know what was going on. And I really felt sorta like I was a horse in a field and I look over and see a whole other field. And I want to be over there. RB: Out of your comfort zone. JR: Yeah, totally. In so many different ways. I feel with a song, people get a glimpse of a part of what you are thinking and a little bit of your brain. With a novel the vulnerability seems much larger. People can see you for all you might be or potentially how simple you actually are. Which is funny. RB: I assume you want to get “better” as a novelist/writer? JR: Yeah. RB: How would you go about that? JR: You just gotta keep on doing it. I really do think that showing up is the biggest part. While I put stock in school, I really think that school only teaches you that you don’t know very much. And get used to that. Like knowing the limits of your own abilities is good. I never thought that going to school would make me a better writer; maybe a more aware writer. But I didn’t go to school to write songs and I didn’t feel the necessity to go to school to begin to write a novel. Writing the novel was certainly going to school for me. And I have learned a great deal at least about what I think I want to do better on my next one. It’s funny I was reading this thing that Annie Dillard said -- the reason you have writers who have written 12 books is because they have been dissatisfied every time. (Laughs). Which is cool. RB: Are you dissatisfied after you write a song? JR: No RB: You don’t feel that there is more you can do? JR: I mean in that way, most of the songs I throw out, not throw out, but I don’t use 85 percent of what I write -- cuz, I just don’t want people to see it, you know. And the stuff that’s there, that actually makes it on a record is stuff that I know is good. Maybe people won’t like it, but I know I liked it and I know why. And over time I will still feel happy performing it. I won’t dissociate. RB: So, have you begun your next fiction? JR: Yeah, I wrote a fair portion and then decided I wanted to go back and restart. But I have a really good idea. I don’t feel stressed out by it RB: There is no pressure on you to write fiction? JR: No. RB: There must be some for song writing? JR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s pressure, but it’s pressure to account for myself. When people buy a book and give you a chance -- I see it as they are buying a book to read, but they are really giving me a chance to go and do something else. My job is to write. I love it. I love it. I’m in this great incredible position right now to be able to write and enjoy it and the pressure is to make it good and to make it good the way I feel it should be. RB: Well, it’s a different pressure than worrying about your kid’s dental bills, or the mortgage JR: Yeah -- right. RB: What’s your vision or sense of your future? Continuing writing? JR: Yes, definitely. RB: Movies? JR: (Laughs). I would love to write a movie. And I would love to write another 10 novels. There is a place to put stories now that isn’t just in songs. And that’s really important. Not just because it’s fun but for me right now. It’s really important because I want to continue to feel hungry -- really hungry and get a sense -- I get a real buzz off of writing. RB: It’s impressive that apparently you can write anywhere. As far as know, not many writers do that. JR: Yeah, I guess when I was deep, really having trouble writing I asked Robert Pinsky who I’ve gotten to know. He’s got grandkids, he travels a lot and he’s doing all this stuff and he has a lot of demands on his time. I asked him if he believes in writer’s block? He said that if you ever have an empty stretch of time coming up, fill it. Like with stuff. Fit your poems in, you know. And I really think that’s true. If you are going to be real precious about where you write then you are kind of admitting you are easily swayed by everything. And mostly I just like to put on music that doesn’t have words. And I sit, put on my headphones and I have a much easier time writing prose on the road than I do writing music. Which is nice, it’s nice to feel productive in another way. RB: Speaking of people you know, how do you come to know  [journalist] Thomas Ricks? JR: In 2006 he was working on Fiasco. And he heard "Girl in the War," which is a song of mine, and he wrote a section of his book to the record. So he wrote me a note and we met and when I was in Washington D.C. he gave me a tour of The Washington Post, which I was totally geeked out on. It was awesome. And then we have stayed really close friends. RB: And Jesse Kornbluth is another big fan of yours. JR: Yeah. You know him? RB: I know his work. He reviewed your book in the most glowing terms JR: Really, yeah, yeah. RB: You must be very active to have these contacts outside the world of music? Are you a pop musician? JR: I would say so. I am certainly not -- it’s amazing how a song can go through the ether to people and find them and if they are interested, it’s easy to find out more. The people that I have met doing this stuff have been though music. Dennis Lehane -- he wrote some of his book to a record of mine. That just happens that way. And it’s really cool that they will give me some time to try this. RB: Have you talked to your writer fans about writing fiction? JR: I talked to Ricks a bunch about it, yeah. He has a beautiful way of looking at it. RB: Is he retired from The Post? JR: Yeah, he’s writing books now and has this defense blog. He is working on a history of American generalship from WWII to the present. It’s a big one. RB: Is there any way that writing fiction has interfered with writing music? JR: It’s true that it used to be if I had an idea for a song I would never think about is this idea for a book. But thankfully they are different enough I get so much energy from performing and recording and it’s such a social activity with my gang, my wolf pack of people that I love. I could never give that up. I love writing for the group I am with. And I don’t think I would be satisfied writing -- I am very lucky because if I was sitting and just obsessing over [writing] I wouldn’t be as happy as I am when I go and work and play. RB: You have choices. JR: That’s it, yeah. RB:  Give me a sense of how much you tour? JR: It used to be 150 to 175 dates a year. You’d be on the road eight or nine months a year. Some days off in between. RB: I wonder how cultural information [books, movies, music] impacts anyone who creates things. How does it reach you as you crisscross the country? Do you travel outside the country also? JR: Yeah, all over the place. All over Europe and Australia. Not too much in Asia although I ‘d love to -- it’s great. Basically every day you wake up and you meet new people and find your way around a town. There’s time for reading and you meet people after shows and they give you books. I think that’s what people who are writers do. They assimilate whatever is  -- all the stuff people are thinking. You get a range of different impulses and you try and write about it. RB: Lots of visual information that’s almost subliminal. JR: Definitely. I remember reading Johnny Cash’s biography and him saying that after so many years traveling that he could wake up and know within five miles where he was in the country. And I thought he was full of crap. RB: (Laughs). JR: But it turned out as time went by at least you know what state you are in. (Laughs). RB: Who are some of your musical idols, for lack of a better word? JR: Of course for inventiveness and seeming fearlessness, somebody like Tom Waits has been -- I would buy whatever he puts out. I like that he is just trying things. [Bob] Dylan is inescapable. Radiohead, like Tom Waits for their inventiveness and their searching. And there’s people like Alfred Deller-- RB: Early European music-- JR: Yeah. Counter-tenors. Gillian Welch has a new record out who I love. Lucinda Williams. I like Jay-Z. I like a lot of stuff. I like people more and more like Neil Young who have chosen to make music and I can tell how they have chosen to live their life. Which is important to me. RB: Young strikes me as an authentic renegade. JR: Yeah and he also has a family and has a good family life. RB: I am trying to think of who else has stayed on top of their game -- Leonard Cohen. He got screwed by his manager. On the other hand that’s how many people wake up after Enron and the like. JR: I saw him [Cohen] at the Beacon in New York. I never have cried at a show. I am always too busy watching what’s going on. I lost myself totally that day. RB: He is pretty compelling and poignant. I came to like him later in his career especially after his album Ten New Songs with “That Don’t Make It Junk.” JR: And “Alexandra Leaving.” That’s an amazing song. RB: I was glad to see that my musical tastes hadn’t calcified and that I was still open. JR: That is really cool. It’s interesting that you say that -- so many people respond to his earlier stuff and have trouble getting in to his later stuff. RB: Do you have a title for the next book? JR: No. RB: Did Bright’s Passage have a title when you began it? JR: No. RB: Like Steve Martin says, You started out with a blank sheet and pen. JR: That’s how it is with records too. The title is always the last thing to come. It’s the last distillation of whatever you are working on. RB: Well, thank you very much JR: Thank you, man. Thanks a lot. Image courtesy of the author.

Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction

One is tempted to attach the pop-cultural sobriquet “overnight sensation” to writer Edith Pearlman’s current moment in the sun. (She quotes comedian Danny Kaye when I used the phrase). As it is, Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), Pearlman’s award-winning story collection and any number of reviews ask the question, “Why have I not heard of this fine writer before?” Why indeed? Pearlman has published over 250 short fictions and works of non-fiction in all the usual (and some unusual) places, and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, The Pushcart Prize Collection,and The O. Henry Prize Stories Collection. My own take on Ms. Pearlman’s fair-weather fame has something to do with the limited attention paid to the practitioners of short fiction -- when I grouped her in the company of much heralded short story maestros Alice Munro and William Trevor, Edith blushed (though she did not demur, false modesty is not an attribute she has). As is the case with my author colloquium, Edith Pearlman and I talked about many things – Tales From Shakespeare, Hermes typewriters, Penelope Fitzgerald, reading Dickens, the task of literature, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and more. Okay then. Robert Birnbaum: What was the first book you remember reading? Edith Pearlman: Interesting question. I think it was Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare. RB: How old were you? EP: I don’t know – eight. You asked about the first book I remember reading -- I am sure there were books I read before then. My aunt taught me to read at four. I think we read [Lamb] together. RB: How did she teach you? EP: Some kids are ready to read. I don’t think they need much teaching and I was one of those. My grandson is the same way. RB: Your reading career started in earnest when, at age six? EP: I suppose so. There were plenty of children’s books around -- maybe I read Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or-- RB: After reading Lamb were you a fully engaged reader? EP: Then I read the plays in order. (Both laugh). No, I think I went back to Mary Poppins. I read Lamb with my aunt. RB: And when did your writing career start? EP: It started even earlier. I started a book, I think, at the age of three. And it was called All About Jews. RB: I have recently come across three writers who began writing really young – Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel when he was six or seven. And Ben Katchor, he started early. EP: I started to write the book at three, but I didn’t get any further than the title. RB: Really – writer’s block? (Both laugh). EP: I think so. RB: Will you ever revisit that story? EP: I have revisited it often in interviews. RB: I mean All About Jews. EP: Probably not. RB: Are there generalizations with which one can describe short form fiction writers? For instance, many novelists write short fiction, but it seems that short fiction practitioners don’t often write novels. EP: It is something that clings to you and that you fall in love with. And though I love to read novels and so do my colleagues, I have no wish to write in the long form. It’s my destiny. RB: Have you ever tried? EP: I started to write -- actually I finished writing a mystery story with a friend but it wasn’t very good. And no -- I don’t think I ever have. RB: How do you know it wasn’t any good? EP: Well, nobody took it. RB: (Laughs). Alright. Writing came to you as an avocation, hobby, and obsession-- EP: It came to me as an occupation. I was making my living as computer programmer, so writing was in those days confined to letters. But my letters were rather long. RB: Do you still write letters? EP: I do still. RB: Hand write? EP: No, but a typewriter. I write my stories on a typewriter too. RB: It seems there is a renaissance of interest in typewriters EP: Yes, somebody told me that. RB: Well, at least if you pay attention to The New York Times. I have a few -- one is a [portable] Hermes 3000, which reportedly was the typewriter of choice for journalists. EP: I used to use a Hermes. I don’t remember what model it was. It was pretty old. RB: For some reason, the 3200 comes up in a few stories. EP: It was a very good typewriter. I used it for years. RB: Did you study writing anywhere? EP: I took a course in college and a course or two in my 30s. I did not get an MFA -- I took a total of three courses. RB: In the course of your writing career I read that you had written over 250 stories. EP: I have written 250 short pieces, not all fiction. RB: Is there a group of people you talk with about writing? EP: I have particular friend and colleague whom I meet with every month who is also a writer and we exchange manuscripts. That’s been going on for 25 years. RB: Any fights? EP: We have had and we are ruthless with each other. I also have a non-fiction group of four and we meet once a month too. RB: Which writers do you like to read? EP: Well, I like best to read Dickens and I read him over and over again. I have been doing that for a long time. So I have probably read each book five or seven times. RB: Rereading is a great thing. I feel compelled to keep digging in to the newly published. Although I reread 100 Years of Solitude three or four times. The last time I didn’t feel I got anything new and it made me wonder about past judgments about the book. EP: Well, in Dickens, each time I find something, some turn of phrase, a manipulation of plot or a character I hadn’t appreciated. I read them in order to live in them. My purpose is not to find new things. My purpose is to sink into them. RB: Dickens makes appearances in a number of contemporary novels -- Peter Carey's Jack Maggs. EP: That was a riff on Magwitch in Great Expectations. I don’t think Dickens appears. RB: Right. But he is in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and in Joseph O'Connor’s Star of the Sea. EP: There is a story by Evelyn Waugh, a novel I can’t remember which one it is. The end of it is a about young people and explorers and takes place in Africa -- Black Mischief? The hero alone is captured by a crazy, fanatic ex-preacher who lives alone. And is held captive in order that the young man can read over and over and over the novels of Dickens until the old man dies. It’s supposed to be a tragic ending. To me it sounded like a wonderful life. RB: Is that the extent of your reading, you just read Dickens? (Both laugh). EP: I thought you asked who I read most or my favorite -- at any rate. RB: You gave me the impression that you aren’t required to read any particular writer. EP: Right. I don’t feel I have to read anybody. At this point I feel like I’ve probably read enough. Not enough to educate myself -- if I stopped reading, which would be a horror, I would probably not be a different person. People are made by the books they read and I think I am finished. That is to say, my making is finished. RB: Do you think the task of literature is to instruct and entertain? EP: Exactly. How did you know? RB: (Laughs). EP: I would put entertain first. RB: Richard Russo introduced the volume of Best American Stories he guest edited with an amusing anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting the campus where Russo was teaching and answering a graduate student’s inquiry with the “task of literature is to instruct and entertain.” Apparently the gathering wanted a more elaborate answer. I think that view is actually taken from Horace. EP: Oh really? RB: Is writing short fiction important? EP: Yes. RB: Because? EP: Because literature is important. The project is important. RB: Do you have any sense that it’s being drowned out? EP: It is being attacked so to speak. Drowned out isn’t the word I would use. It’s being narrowed by all sorts of things. But it probably always was. We notice the Internet, television, and all these electronic things, but 100 years ago it was affected by farm work. Only the very rich could read. RB: That was probably the case for most of history -- that only a small fraction could benefit from reading and writing. EP: I don’t know that the percentage is any different now. RB: The percentage may not be the different but the cause may be and thus the hold it has on our civilization may be different -- more tenuous. I work with people who don’t read -- 35 year olds who play video games. EP: Well some time ago they might have been plowing the fields. RB: There is this meme of the educated working class guy who finishes his shift on the assembly line and goes home and picks up William Faulkner. In fact, that is the story of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Gay. I don’t think that obtains any more -- especially because I don’t think one can be poor with dignity in the 21st century. EP: People do come home and read no matter what their occupation is. RB: Working class people have to work hard -- frequently taking on second jobs EP: Why don’t they have that luxury in their off hours? RB: Besides fatigue, there aren’t a lot of cultural prompts. EP: Where did people get it before? RB: This belabors the obvious, but this a world that is far different than what we were raised in. EP: My husband plays early music -- he plays the viola de gamba as an amateur. The early music crowd is eccentric and a world unto itself. And passionate and they don’t write early music -- it’s already been written, but they play it and adapt it. It is their overwhelming hobby. I think that’s what reading may become. A small group of people who love it and don’t care if they are thought of as crazy. RB: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has seemed prescient to me. EP: It is. It is. RB: People who collect guns or Aunt Jemima cookie jars are passionate also. Today it would seem passion -- people who like reading and literature passionately began to champion the independent bookstore. That’s okay. I mean, who likes cookie cutter retailers? On the other hand, booksellers were beatified as if they weren’t merchants and capitalists. C’mon! Maybe a few were/are heroic -- Truman Metzel of the late Great Expectations in Evanston Ill., or Sylvia Beach in Paris, Vincent McCaffrey in Boston. EP: And now they have readings. Those of us who want to sell books are delighted. RB: I understand. Do you go to the annual BEA? EP: Tell me what it stands for? RB: It’s a big booksellers trade show. EP: In Frankfurt? RB: That’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the big American convocation of the book industry. EP: Obviously, I don’t go to it since I don’t know what it is. RB: So, do you go to book related events? EP: I go to literary events -- mostly at colleges. I go to bookstores. I go to festivals. I go where I am asked. If the BEA invited me, I would go. RB: That does speak to the assumption that writers should help their publishers promote and sell their books. EP: Yes, right. I do it for my publisher. RB: Your publisher is blessed to be located in a civilized place like North Carolina (laughs). Wilmington? Chapel Hill? EP: Wilmington. Do you know him? RB: Ben? No. EP: I thought he introduced us. RB: Oh yeah, by email. EP: He knows you, knows of you. RB: I don’t remember the chain of events that brought us together -- it must be because you are an overnight sensation (laughs). I must have read about you in Variety. EP: No you didn’t. I am an overnight sensation of a sort. I have been writing for 40 years and this is my fourth book. And I always had a small following. And I never expected to have any bigger following. I would go to my grave with a small collection, happy. So this somehow happened. RB: You knew about Ann Patchett’s intro to [Binocular Vision]? [She writes:“My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, 'Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?'”] EP: That certainly helped. RB: And there was a review in the LA Times that took the same tone. As did Roxana Robinson. I am happy for you, but that’s a bit of journalistic gimmickry. There are many artists that one can say that about. EP: Absolutely. I had the luck to be plucked. It was luck. There are writers absolutely as good as I am or better who write their books and don’t get noticed. RB: I am disturbed by that -- I am reluctantly drawn into thinking about the business part of book publishing. Success frequently is serendipitous. I am certain you know the stories of writers who have submitted their books to many publishers and were rejected. EP: Absolutely. Or 30 rejection letters for a story. RB: Tibor Fischer’s story is particularly amazing. Of the almost 50 publishers in Britain he was rejected by all except the last one he approached. How do these decisions get made? EP: By human beings. By fallible human beings. RB: It would be okay if there were some humility attached to the gate keeping of publishing. Don’t you think? EP: Yes. And the prize givers ought to be more humble and certainly the writers. In general the writers are -- they know how lucky they are. RB: You start out with a sense that there is a civilizing effect of thinking and writing and telling stories. It made life somehow better. And looking around today, it may be true but the contemplative life seems to be losing the battle. EP: It improves the individual life, I think. People who read, people who write-- RB: Wouldn’t it be nice if they were to be salvation for all of us? (Laughs). EP: I would, but I am not a proselytizer. RB: All right, I scratch that line of thought. I have three favorite stories in Binocular Vision. “The Ministry of Restraint,” in part because I didn’t know what was going to happen -- how well do you remember your stories -- pretty well? EP: I think so. RB: A guy takes a trip to some backwater town, and takes a train back to the capitol and meets a woman. The train is blocked at a tunnel and the passengers have to get off and return to the starting point -- as man and the woman walk side by side, their hands come close to touching but do not. And then over the years they meet. In final pages, you learn explicitly that they were lovers once. I was charmed by their initial close proximity which was brought to some fruition much later. EP: I’m glad you liked it. RB: And then the heart wrenching tale of a damaged infant. Why did you name her Tess? EP: I don’t remember. I don’t remember. It has a slightly angelic appeal to me. RB: Any connection to Thomas Hardy? EP: No. She wasn’t named after Tess of the D’Ubervilles. RB: How many Tesses do you know? EP: Probably none. RB: It’s an unusual name EP: Yes, it’s taken from the nickname for Theresa. RB: Was it a hard story to write? EP: Yes. I wrote it in pieces. And, of course, it’s told in pieces. And I didn’t write it in the order of its final form. RB: You chose to have a number of people tell the story. EP: Only one person speaks in her own voice -- that’s the mother. There are probably a half of dozen people who see the child -- each of them has a thought that you know about. But it’s the mother who speaks in the first person. RB: And it was hard to write because? EP: It dealt with such sad things. RB: Do you have enough time to emotionally identify with the characters? EP: Yes, I think I do. I have enough intensity to get involved. RB: I wonder about the aftermath of writing a novel, which requires a writer to inhabit lives for a period of time. How long does it take to write a story -- a year? EP: No, no. A few months. I suppose in a hardhearted way I forget the sadness of the story I have written. Life goes on and I write the next story. RB: Are you tempted to write what seems to be a current trend-- EP: Linked stories? Well I have several stories that take place in the same place -- in soup kitchen. The stories about the woman who works for the joint distribution committee -- there are four about her. It’s not a temptation so much as I am not through with that character, so I want to write another story about them. RB: Is there one thing that moves you in taking up or developing a story -- a name, an image, feeling, a memory? EP: All of those things. It’s not one -- something I dream-- RB: When you begin, do you know what is going to happen? EP: When I start out, it’s a lot of improvising and I write many pages of improvisation and then I begin to see what story I want to write. I start all over again with the knowledge that I have gotten from the improvisation. RB: Do you think the piece is finished when the story is written? EP: Well, I take them to my friend, whom I meet every month, who is ruthless with me and I with her. RB: Does she use any instruments in her ruthlessness (laughs)? EP: No, no. It’s all an abuse of the mind. And she either says, “This is almost done” or “Go back.” And I do. RB: One writer told me that she submits the draft -- her editor sends a back a few notes, which enrage her. She writes back to her editor expressing her anger. The editor doesn’t respond. And a few weeks later, the writer decides the editor was right (laughs). EP: She had to get over her rage and humiliation first. RB: Really! Where was I? EP: You were going to tell me the third story you liked. RB: Right. It was the one entitled “Chance.” It had a Torah study group card game. I enjoyed the Hassidic slant, but I really like that it went somewhere I didn’t see coming. I lost track of why the card game devolved to the temple and presentation ceremony. EP: It begins with the Torah being delivered, and so I had hoped that the Torah would always be somewhere in the back of the reader’s mind. RB: Yes, it’s mentioned in the middle of the story. I was distracted by the card game interlude. EP: Well, the title of the story is “Chance.” That’s what poker is about-- RB: And what the Torah is about (laughs)? EP: No, that’s what the destruction of Jewry was about. That is to say it was chance that some Jews lived and some died. RB: The story’s last two lines were quite powerful. Story collections are a delight because despite what is usually a deliberate sequence you can go through and begin with titles that you find appealing. I would never skip around in a novel. EP: My daughter used to read novels that way. A piece here and a piece there. And I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote his novels that way on 5x8 cards. There is a writer who found or could have found his ideal reader. RB: Movies are made that way -- out of narrative sequence. EP: When I was a girl, I‘d go to a double feature in the middle and go around for the part I missed. They don’t let you do that now. I tried and was told that the director did mean for you to see it that way. RB: In the last few years, I have relaxed my personal rule about finishing books that I begin-- EP: Many of my friends have said that [same] thing to me: “Now, if I don’t like it out it goes.” RB: It means I have shifted more responsibility to the writer. It’s always an issue, the immediacy of our reaction -- you may hate a book one day and find it quite readable the next. EP: Yes. And the things we believe today, we can expect not to believe tomorrow. RB: (Laughs) If we can remember them. EP: (Laughs). RB: Do you go back to your work? EP: Well, I do when I make a collection. Because it’s a chance to improve them. So I go back -- when a story is accepted by a magazine, it’s an opportunity to correct things. RB: You see that as a correction? EP: Improve? If it then goes into an anthology like Best American, I take an opportunity to correct or revise there -- but not much. Not wholesale revision. And then, for a collection of my own, I certainly have an opportunity to change or review. RB: Where does that impulse come from? At one point you felt the story was finished. Not perfect but done. EP: I thought it was done to the best of my ability at the time. RB: And then you got better since you wrote it? (Laughs). EP: I don’t know that I got better -- I got different. I was in an event in which three short stories were read by three actresses which was a lot of fun. I was watching one writer listening to her own story -- she said later all she could hear were the infelicities. So I am sure if that story gets re-collected she’ll change some things. RB: There is also the matter that the creator has expectations of the audience to grasp their creation in a certain way. EP: No, I don’t feel that way. I agree with the statement, "Trust the tale, not the teller.” My attitude about a story I have written may well be different from a reader’s. And I don’t mind that. RB: Would you say it should be different? EP: No, I don’t say that. It can be appreciated in many ways. Or not appreciated. RB: This recent collection was a collection of stories that already existed? EP: Thirteen new stories that had not been in a book. They had previously been published in magazines. There were 16 stories that had never been collected. RB: They had all been previously published somewhere? EP: Except for one. I can’t remember which one. RB: Some writers say they will write stories specifically for a book. EP: No, I don’t do that. I write hoping that a magazine will take it. And I don’t think about a collection until I have quite a few stories. RB: Why are writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, and yourself admired in a way that seems different than many writers? EP: Thank you very much for putting me in that threesome. I was so dazzled by that that I didn’t hear the rest of the question. RB: (Laughs) I took your breath away. Does it strike you that there’s a craftsmanship assigned to the writers I mentioned. That short fiction writers are looked as artisans? EP: Yes, we have to have our end not only in mind, but pointed towards, within the story. Like the ones you mentioned. RB: You seem to travel a lot. EP: I'm traveling now because-- RB: You’re an overnight sensation? EP: Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, “Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.” I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it. RB: How do you know? Mostly there is a six-week window of attention for books and then goodbye. Your “15 minutes” has lasted since the Spring. EP: It’s been three months. RB: That’s a long time. EP: Yes, yes. It received these very good reviews. But other books are coming along with good reviews. RB: What’s come out that has really excited reviewers? EP: The Tiger Wife. I’m trying to think of fiction -- I am sure there are others. RB: I think not. Except for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. EP: What about David Mitchell’s book? RB: That was a while ago -- it just came out in paper. EP: I bought it in hardcover. RB: Did you like it? EP: I haven’t read it. RB: (Chuckles) You bought the book and haven’t read it. EP: I have a lot of books I haven’t read. RB: What are you reading now? EP: The Worst Journey in the World, which is about Scott’s last expedition. It’s a nice alternative to fiction. RB: Do you know Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal? It’s about an Arctic expedition. EP: I’ll bet its good -- I like her short stories. Anthony Doerr got very good reviews. RB: Sure, but within the usual window of attention. And not a widespread choice. So what’s next? Any polar expeditions? EP: No, no. I have a grandchild I walk every day. I have lots of friends whom I meet for coffee. Love to go to the movies. RB: What was the last movie you saw you liked? EP: I liked The King’s Speech. I usually like movies when I see them. There are very few movies I don’t like. RB: Meaning you choose carefully? EP: No, I have a general love of movies. I love the experience. RB: Do you watch TV? EP: (Shakes her head). RB: None? EP: I don’t have one. RB: Wow. Isn’t there a whole bunch of culture you are missing? EP: I am. Yes there is. I do lead a somewhat insulated life without television. RB: Well, you have missed one of the great TV series -- The Wire. EP: Oh yeah? What’s that about? RB: Big city life in Baltimore -- drugs, unions, corruption, public schools, politics, media. There were five seasons and every season had a different focus. It was a Tolstoyan tale. EP: I am sure I am missing things that are good. I have a feeling that I'd become addicted if I started watching. And I also have a very good radio. RB: What do you listen to? EP: Music mostly. I listen to interesting interviews RB: What’s it like to be on book tour? Especially when a small amount of people show up for an event -- has that happened to you? EP: It certainly has. This [current] book seems to get a crowd. I read for my other three books a lot and seven people would be there. You do as well as you can for those seven people. I once was on a lineup that included David Sedaris and I was the first reader and he was the second. I had the experience of standing before 500 people reading my story -- all of 499 had come for him. It was fun. RB: That’s show business. EP: Thank you.

Crime Pays: Jo Nesbø Talks about Killing Harry Hole and the Best Job in the World

Even a slight familiarity with pop culture provides the awareness that Scandinavian crime stories are ascendant -- due in  part to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's internationally bestselling trilogy. There are, of course, numerous other practitioners of the crime genre from ice-bound precincts -- Åke Edwardson, Karin Fossum,  Anne Holt, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Arnaldur Indriðason, and so on. Norwegian Jo Nesbø, whose CV includes stints as a stock trader, cab driver, musician, and soccer player, has seen six novels featuring his driven and single minded Oslo homicide detective, Harry Hole, published in English translation. Harry likes jazz, '80s rock, booze, and solving crimes. And, naturally, Hole resents and resists authority -- a burdensome characteristic for a big city policeman. All of which produces entertaining and, dare I offer, suspenseful reading. In our face-to-face chat we talked about American crime writers, Nesbø's ineptitude as a taxi driver, who is making a movie from his book, Lord of the Flies, his reading habits and more: Robert Birnbaum: How do you pronounce your name? Jo Nesbø: Ah, well. Outside Norway I prefer Jo Nesbø (both laugh). It’s the simple version. The Norwegian version is Ug Nespa. RB: Say it again. JN: Ug Nespa. RB: Is there a “g” at the end of your first name? JN: No there’s not. RB: Sound’s like it. There’s a hard sound at the end. And Harry Hole is pronounced how? JN: Same thing -- outside Norway I am happy with Harry Hole and so is he, but in Norway it’s Hahree Whoule. RB: Since your book is translated, it must be first written in Norwegian, yes? JN: Absolutely. RB: When you think about American crime fiction, there are a number of icons that people around the world refer to -- Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and Thomson. Is there someone like that in Norway? JN: Yeah, you have [Henrik] Wergeland. [He] is recognized as the godfather of Norwegian crime literature. In Scandinavian crime you have to go to the '70s -- Maj Sjöwall andPer Wahlöö founded the modern Scandinavian crime novel based on social criticism. RB: And more procedural. JN: It was. So everyone in Scandinavia who writes a crime novel, whether they l know it or not, they are influenced by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. RB: You have a varied CV -- how did you come to writing? JN: Um. RB: You were a stockbroker, a rock and roller, soccer player, taxi driver. JN: I was a really bad taxi driver. I was famous for it. RB: Bad sense of direction or poor driving? JN: Just bad driving. Lack of concentration. But I come from a book reading home. My mother was a librarian. My father was a book collector. And so he would always be reading. So I started reading as soon as I could tell the letters [of the alphabet]. The first novel that I made my father read to me was Lord of The Flies by William Golding. A Nobel Prize winner. I wish I could say I chose that book because I have good taste, but I liked the cover. It was a pig’s head on a stake. Actually, when I wrote my first novel at the age of 37, none of my friends were surprised that I had finally written a novel. They were more like, “What took you so long?”  It took some time, but it came very naturally. RB: I am a little confused. There are eight novels in the Harry Hole series and four have been published in the U.S. [there are actually six available, with a seventh on the way in fall 2012]? JN: I’m a bit confused myself. Because the first two novels feature Harry Hole in Australia and then in Bangkok, Thailand. And when we started selling the rights abroad we decided we would not sell the rights to the first two novels because they were a bit far-fetched -- a Norwegian detective in Australia and Thailand. So we started with the third novel, but then the U.K. and later on the U.S. decided they would publish them out of order. So it is a bit confusing. Not only are they out of order, but also they are in different print sequences in different countries. RB: And Headhunters? JN: That’s a stand-alone. RB: And Harry Hole is not in it at all? JN: No, he is not mentioned and he is not there. RB: Headhunters has been made into a movie in Norway -- will it play in the U.S? JN:  Yes, which is rare. I just came back from Cannes and we showed it to distributors and the American distributor was so happy with it that it will be shown in at least 15 cities. RB: Is Working Title the distributor? JN: No, they bought the rights for one of the Harry Hole stories. RB: Which means they effectively bought them all. JN: Yah, yah. RB: Working Title is the Coen Brothers? JN: That’s right. That was their opening line when they phoned me. Because I had turned down offers for the Harry Hole series for a long time. Not that I don’t love movies, but they’re so strong compared to novels, so I wanted to keep that universe untouched. But they phoned me with a great opening line -- “Hi, we are Working Title and we made Fargo.” (both laugh) And so I said, "OK, I’m listening.” RB: Why did they mention Fargo, of all their films? JN: I think they had a hunch that I liked that movie. It was probably on my top 10 list of movies ever. RB: That’s great. I always have liked them, but I gained a lot of respect for them in the way they re-made True Grit. JN: I just saw the first part of True Grit on the plane -- I hadn’t seen it. And the dialogue was great. And I was curious because I hadn’t seen the original and it was really whippy great dialogue. It reminded me of Deadwood. Different, but still with great attention to dialogue. RB: I recommend the novel Deadwood by Pete Dexter. JN: I didn’t know there was a novel. Is it written in the same, almost Shakespearean way? RB: Dexter is a great American writer, most well known for Paris Trout. JN: I’m so ignorant. RB: Is this your first visit here? JN: No, I was here two years ago [for a book tour] and I was here before that. My father grew up in New York, in Brooklyn, with my grandparents. So I have some ties and bonds with the U.S. RB: Besides gruesome deaths, what would define and distinguish Scandinavian crime literature? As opposed to American? JN: Hopefully, Scandinavian crime has -- the quality is good. You do have bad Scandinavian crime lit -- but I think what separates it from not only American, but the rest of Europe also, is there is a tradition stemming from the '70s that it was OK to write crime literature. It was prestigious. Sjöwall and Wahlöö sort of moved the crime novel from the kiosks into the bookstores, meaning that young talented writers would use the crime novel as vehicles for their storytelling talents. And so you have had good crime novelists, good writers, who would, from time to time, write so-called serious literature and almost all the well-known, established serious writers in Scandinavia have at one time written a crime novel. It’s sort of a thing that you do. You must have a go at genre. RB: Here it seems acceptance of genre fiction as legitimate has come later. Elmore Leonard is championed, by among others Martin Amis, Michael Connelly, and George Pelecanos. JN: James Lee Burke. RB: I have read three of your books -- and you have avoided what I think is the reason I don’t read series. Harry Hole is not predictable and clichéd. You know some of his habits, but the plots aren’t cookie cutter.  What’s on your mind when you write the next Hole story? When are you done with him -- how old does he get to be? JN: That’s a secret. RB: You know? JN: I know -- I have a storyline for him. He is not going to have eternal life. And he is not going to rise from the dead. So after the second novel, I sat down and wrote his story -- I am not 100 percent sure how many books there will be, but if we are not near the end, we are nearer the end. RB: Philip Kerr, who has written seven Bernie Gunther novels, says that the problem with writing a series is that the author usually writes one or two too many. They don’t know when to stop. Will you know when to stop? JN: I don’t know. (laughs) I have no idea. Hopefully somebody will tell me. As long as the books sell, probably they won’t. RB: Sales and quality don’t necessarily correspond. JN: Actually, I think that -- I am reading Jim Thompson on the plane. He had to write to pay the rent. I am so lucky I don’t have to write. I don’t have to sell books. So I can focus on what I want to do -- what’s interesting. Do I know when to stop?  Yes. It will not be decided by sales numbers. From the start I wrote for myself and two friends that I wanted to impress -- two friends that had more or less the same taste in culture. And it’s still the same. Those are the two guys I am writing for -- they don’t know this. If they say, “I read the last book and it was OK, then I am over the moon.” RB: OK is good? JN: OK is great. RB: Do you have first readers? JN: Yah, at the publishing house. RB: But not friends? JN: No, nothing like that. I have four or five people at the publisher. They coordinate their opinions and we sit down and have a meeting. RB: Chandler was in the same situation as Thompson -- so it goes. So, there is a limit to the Harry Hole. Are you already thinking about other fiction that you want to write? JN: I am. RB: How far ahead are you in your aspirations and goals? JN: Other series or novels? I don’t like to think that long term. The problem is that I have more ideas than I have time. So I have -- I am 51 now. I probably won’t be able to read all the books I want to read. And I won’t have the time to write all the books I want to write. So I try to give them the right priority, meaning that— -- I have a children’s book series that I am working on now. There will be one more book in that series. And then a stand-alone children’s book. And then I will finish the Harry Hole series. I have some ideas for maybe a new series. I haven’t quite decided yet because I want to write this stand-alone thriller. When you write, it’s important to do it while you have the enthusiasm for the idea. Maybe the most important period of your writing is when you are convinced that your idea is the best idea any writer ever has had. So you have to use that energy, because the time will come when you wake up in the morning and you will doubt your idea. And then it’s good that you have already more than half-- RB: That doesn’t happen when you start something? JN: Not when I start. And it doesn’t really happen that often. I wake up in the morning unsure. It did happen two years ago. I had been working on a novel for a long time and I started doubting. I went to my publishers and they were quite happy with it. But they had some suggestions and I immediately knew that they read it the way I read it myself. And what I did was delete the whole novel. Two years’ work out the window. Like I said, I am in the fortunate situation that I don’t have to publish books to pay the rent. RB: It sounds like you don’t encounter writer’s block. JN: No, I never experienced writer’s block, no. RB: Do you have to write every day? JN: I try to write every day, and I can write almost anywhere. I have been writing on the plane coming here. I thought our meeting was at four o'clock, so I was planning to write for an hour. When we are done here, I am going to write for two hours before my next meeting. RB: Sounds like you love it. JN: I love it. I started writing so late in life. I was 37 -- I had worked, as you said, as a taxi driver, a stockbroker. A fishing trawler. I had many kinds of jobs. And I know this is the greatest job that you can have. To actually get up in the morning and people are paying you to do what you really want to do. To come up with these stories. It’s unbelievable having that as a job. RB: Do you go for periods without writing? JN: I don’t. Not really. Like I said I have more ideas than I have time. When I am going on vacation with my daughter for a week, she says, “Daddy, don’t bring the laptop, ok?.” I say, “No, no, no, I won’t.” Like an alcoholic, I will have it hidden somewhere. No, I have one week a year that is sort of sacred, that I don’t write. RB: Can you imagine not writing? JN: I can. I had a long life not writing, so I can imagine. But it would a poor life, that’s for sure. RB: What is life like for a successful writer in Norway -- do you live in Oslo? Is there a literary circle? JN: I live in Oslo and there is a literary circle. I guess I am not part of it. I never was. I have my friends before I started writing and I stick with them. We hang out and do things. RB: No publishing parties and movie openings? JN: Not really. I probably did that more when I was a musician. And you get tired of it -- talking about books, talking about writing. I do that enough when I am traveling. It’s good to go back home and go rock climbing or just talk about Bob Dylan -- anybody but me. When I first started talking about myself at interviews like this, I though this must be the best job ever. To have people absolutely listening to you, talking about yourself for hours and hours. So I was a bit surprised when after a couple of years I felt I was getting tired of myself. Listening to my own voice, retelling the story of my life. RB: Answering the same questions-- JN: You know this interview is a bit better than most-- RB: Well, thank you. Is there a big boom in writing programs, MFA programs in Scandinavia as in the U.S? JN: Ah, yah. Something happened in the '90s that suddenly writers became pop stars. They started being interviewed on talk shows and they started having their own shows called Book Box -- there was an old building in Oslo where they had an indoor pool. They started interviewing writers there. They were like rock concerts. Actually, they had rock concerts in the same arena. It would be sold out -- just for a writer being interviewed for 45 minutes. Ever since that, all the young talented people, they want to become famous writers because they would be treated like pop stars. RB: What is the book business like in your part of the world? Is it prospering? JN: It is. Norway -- I am not sure about Sweden and Denmark, but Norway is one of the best countries in the world to be a writer. Both economically and artistically. I just went to France and I asked a bookseller there, "How many writers can write full time?” He said, “Probably, 50 or 60.” In Norway there are probably 200. Which has a smaller population -- smaller than Massachusetts -- 4 or 5 million. RB: Which Americans do you try to read? How do they filter into Norway? JN: I guess European literature has traditionally been more important in Norway than American. But myself, maybe because my father grew up here, I was influenced by American literature from a young age. Mark Twain, who I still regard as one of the great American writers. And Ernest Hemingway. Later on I read the Beatniks -- Jack Kerouac. I was a great fan of Charles Bukowski. RB: And contemporary novelists? JN: Michael Connelly. James Lee Burke. There are so many greats. I didn’t read that much crime fiction before I started writing it myself. I can remember reading Lawrence Block. Dennis Lehane, of course. His Mystic River. I went to Asia and I bought 10 crime novels that were supposed to be good. Out of the 10, I found one good book -- which was Mystic River. RB: There is another Bostonian, Chuck Hogan [The Town] who is excellent. And there is [the late great] George Higgins who wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Do you know it? JN: No. RB: It’s also a great movie with Robert Mitchum. You are here for an extensive charm initiative? JN: I will be here for nine days, trying to charm as many [people] as I can. Toronto, NYC, and the West Coast. RB: By the way, how is it that your father grew up here? JN: My grandmother left Norway for the U.S. when she was 16 and then she went back and met my grandfather. They made my daddy. And they went back to Brooklyn. To a part of Brooklyn where you had many Scandinavians in the '20s and '30s. RB: Do you watch crime movies? JN: I do. When I started writing I was probably more influenced by crime movies based on novels than the original novel. In some cases the films are better than the novels. The Godfather is probably a better movie-- RB: Someone is actually writing a prequel. What a god-awful idea. JN: Yah. RB: Did the HBO series The Wire make it to Norway? JN: Yes. I have seen it and it’s great. The most interesting thing happening in storytelling right now is probably in American TV series. Breaking Bad-- RB: Justified based on an Elmore Leonard character -- pretty funny. Are there original serials like that in Norway? JN: We do, but with a small population and limited resources -- there is a Danish series that made its way at least to the U.K. It’s called The Crime. RB: It’s called The Killing here. A female cop tries to solve the killing of a young girl-- JN: That’s it. Are you seeing the original series? RB: No, it must be made for the U.S. It’s in English and set in Seattle using American actors. JN: Yah, the original is shot in Copenhagen. It’s great, if you can get it. It has subtitles. RB: When I saw The Wire, I never saw it in episodes -- I got the DVD and watched four or five hours at a time. It seems counterintuitive to watch these long stories a piece at a time. JN: I agree. Watching the DVDs is like books, you decide when to consume the story. But don’t forget Charles Dickens would serialize his stories. RB: Who knew the difference then? What is it, a new phenomenon? JN: I think he was the first one who did it -- if not, it was unusual to do that. I heard he would receive letters from his readers advising him how the story should go. And he would actually listen to them. RB: Dickens was fascinating character. I’ve read a few novels where he actually appears as a character -- Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Joseph O Connor’s Star of the Sea. What kind of music do you like -- jazz appears a lot in the Hole books? JN: Jazz and American rock from the '80s. I still play about 50 to 60 gigs a year. I play guitar and I sing. So most of the gigs are with my bass player. We also go touring with my old band. We are going touring this summer -- just for a few festivals. Just for fun. We keep the tour short enough so we don’t kill each other (laughs). So we are having fun. RB: Do you tour outside Norway? JN: No, the lyrics are in Norwegian and I don’t think the music makes sense outside Norway. RB: Who comes to Norway to play? Anyone big? JN: Most of them -- either to Oslo or Stockholm or to Copenhagen -- which is not so far from where I live in Oslo. RB: Do you travel in Scandinavia? JN: The land is more or less the same -- just different dialects. RB: Danish is understandable? JN: No you have to read Danish. They speak funny. Actually, and I love Danes, but Danish is difficult. Children all over the world learn their mother tongue at the same age except for one country -- Denmark. It takes a little longer. RB: Apparently Dutch is unpronounceable by anyone except the Dutch. That’s how the Dutch Resistance tripped up spies in World War II. So will you participate in the making of the Harry Hole movie? JN: The deal is done. I am an executive producer. I have a veto when it comes to the director and screenwriter. And that was what was important to me. I wasn’t too eager to sell the rights for the books as long as I was writing the series. So that was a condition -- that I would have veto. The first time we met they said, “We can’t do it like that. We can’t go to Martin Scorsese and ask him to write a screenplay for this unknown Norwegian writer and if he likes it then maybe this unknown Norwegian writer will say yes. And have you direct the movie.” I said, “I completely understand but that is my condition. I am happy not to have the series filmed, yet.” RB: Is it difficult that once the film is made there will be a tangible character and so when you write-- JN: That was one of the reasons I wasn’t eager to have it filmed, you know. I‘d rather there be a 1,000 Harry Holes in the heads of my readers than one character defining him. RB: Having said that, who do you think may be a good Harry Hole? JN: I have no idea. RB: Norwegian or American? JN: I have been thinking hard -- Nick Nolte is probably too old. But I have no idea. RB: Do you like Harry Hole? JN: I do. He is a bit annoying at times. But most of the time I like him. RB: Because he comes through -- for truth, justice, and the Norwegian way? JN: I mean he is irritating. He always has to do things the difficult way. He can’t ever -- he has this problem with authority. And in my opinion he should try to avoid authority more, instead of always picking a fight. He’s a bit annoying in that sense. He is not the kind of guy I would like to hang out with -- he is a bit too intense. RB: He doesn’t really have any friends. One guy -- his tech guy; he is sort of a friend. Even his colleagues who seem to respect him don’t gravitate to him. He is a tough cookie. His girlfriend obviously has problems with him. JN: I think women want to save him more than that he is pleasant to be around. But he has one childhood friend -- the hard drinking taxi driver. Apart from that, a psychologist and women. RB: Often in crime stories, the crimes are not that important. Certainly in Raymond Chandler, in The Big Sleep who could figure that one out. Or in Chinatown where you are told not to try to understand “because it’s Chinatown.” In the Harry Hole stories, you do plot out a crime and have surprising solutions and endings. It’s something you care about? JN: Yes. I like the dialogue you have with the reader -- I am going to give you a chance to sort out the riddle. And I will give you enough information to solve it. I am not going to give you all the vital information from the last 30 pages. But before that, at least you have a chance. That was what Dennis Lehane did in Mystic River -- there was a bit of information in the middle of the book and an experienced reader or writer -- you could probably tell, okay, here is the killer. RB: I liked his standalone novel about the 1919 Boston Police strike, Any Given Day. JN: Yah, yah. RB: It mentioned the Great Molasses Flood where a big vat of molasses escaped killing 19 or 20 people and wreaking untold havoc. Robert Parker also wrote a number of series and I thought his best work was a standalone, All Our Yesterdays. Did you read Parker? JN: No. One American writer I read recently was Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. A great novel -- short and to the point. It reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. RB: When The Road came out, I wasn’t in the mood to read it. But I did read a post-apocalyptic novel by Jim Crace called Pesthouse. Twenty years hence, most of America has been destroyed and survivors are searching for safe areas and viable communities. And of course they encounter obstacles. It came out around the same time as McCarthy’s book and was overshadowed by it. Do you know of Jim Crace? JN: No. There are so many writers. We been sitting here almost an hour now and you are mentioning well-known writers and I don’t know about them. I probably should be embarrassed, but I am not. There are so many books and we don’t have time to read them all. RB: It is frustrating. If you read 200 books a year, you still don’t scratch the surface. JN: How many do you read a year? RB: I may complete 150. JN: 150! RB: I start a lot more. I used to feel bad about not finishing a book. I’m better at that. JN: I ‘m a slow reader. I read more like 30 a year. It’s a crazy thing -- there so many talented writers that you are not going to hear about. That’s why I feel so privileged and lucky to be able to come here after years of writing and have a name in Europe and hopefully some day in the United States. It’s not enough to be good. RB: Is your backlist available here now? Harper has four, Knopf as two. The others? JN: The first novels will translated to English next year. Harper will probably keep the backlist. RB: Which one will be made into a movie? JN: The Snowman. RB: The new one. JN: Actually that’s the previous one -- the next one is called The Leopard. RB: All right, thank you JN: Thank you. Image courtesy of Robert Birnbaum.

Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with Anne Enright

If you don’t think the lads dominate the Irish literary landscape with all manner of Colums and Seamuses, quickly, name three Irish women writers. I’m guessing two of those would be Edna O’Brien and Emma Donoghue. And one of those would no doubt be Anne Enright, whose novel The Gathering, garnered the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2007. Enright has followed up that dark novel with The Forgotten Waltz, which on the surface is a lighter more external narrative. Set in 2009, Gina Moynihan, a married mid-30s IT professional, looks back at her adulterous adventure with a married man named Sean. It’s a survey of that dysfunctional coupling with precise snapshots dating to Gina’s first sighting of Sean at her sister’s housewarming barbeque seven years earlier. The period of her dalliance corresponds to the economic bubble known as the Celtic Tiger when, much like other countries riding an economic upswing, the material world dominated the attentions and energies of Ireland’s striving classes (and then some). And so Enright, who is acutely observant and precisely expressive, paints that consuming hysteria as the backdrop for the Gina’s romantic and illicit thrill seeking. Robert Birnbaum: Did you look at any news source this morning? Anne Enright:  Umm, yeah I glanced at the papers. RB: What the big story for you today? AE: Me, I am checking the Eurozone and keeping an eye on the banks. Whether they are going to fall apart -- how slowly or how quickly. RB: Who is going first -- is Greece going? AE: Greece hasn’t gone. They really are going to work to keep it together. There hasn’t been any doubt about that for a while. On the panic level, the worst panic level was probably September, October 2008. After Lehman’s, when the Irish government guaranteed all the banks. Everybody was going crazy about this decision that was made to guarantee all deposits in Irish banks. But in fact I had gone to bed the night before with the assurance that I was going to go into the bank and take all my money out the next morning. RB: How much has the defanging of the Celtic Tiger affected you? AE: Personally, I am really lucky. I am always out of sync with Ireland, you know. When Ireland was booming away, I was sitting in my garret, writing The Gathering, rearing two small children out in Bray, which is south of Dublin, wondering why this had nothing to do with me. All I got from the boom was ripped off. RB: Oooh. AE: It’s true. Childcare, fees, everything was ridiculously expensive. My nieces and nephews are coming up to their 20s now -- so my generation and their generation missed the worst of it. The worst of it hit the people in their 30s. And their early 40s, who really felt the need to buy a house they couldn’t afford, in a place they didn’t want to live and stuck with partners they don’t like anymore. RB: Much like the characters that appear in The Forgotten Waltz. AE: Yeah, The Forgotten Waltz is full of real estate that’s unsellable. RB: Is this an Irish novel? AE: Umm, when you think about it, it’s a highly contemporary novel set in February 2009, when the economy is falling. There is real estate in it. There’s money in it. RB: Designer names. AE: Designer labels. You look at John B. Keane’s The Field, and love and land; we always understood the connection between the two in Ireland. So, it’s Irish to that extent. It’s also interested in family ties and family love and what’s the difference between romantic and family love. That’s quite Irish as well. It’s Irish in that you can’t get away from those forces. The novel is a highly individualistic form -- my characters are dragged back to the communal, (laughs) blood ties -- and that’s quite Irish. RB: To look at it, the focus appears to on adultery. But-- AE: Yeah (pauses) actually, it’s a book that seems to be about adultery but is about a different kind of love that sort of creeps in afterwards. On February 6, 2009, it was a day of snow in Ireland and the place was stalled. I was making a journey through the countryside with my family in the snow with all of them annoying me about how to drive -- RB: (laughs) AE: “Watch out for the black ice,” and all of that, in the back of the car. It was a very melancholy sort of moment -- the country was falling and we didn’t know how fast, how far. And something about the stillness of that day (pauses) -- you know, it made me think of the silence after all the noise; all the hubbub has stopped. And that’s when reality come stealing in. I’m not against reality. The adultery part of the book is glorious and fantastic, full of denial and bliss and getting away with it-- RB: And passion. AE: Passion, a bit like the boom. Doing what you want. The country was doing what it wanted for a while. RB: Maybe, it could be viewed as mass hysteria. AE: Well, there was a hectic quality to those last years. And there was a lot of -- you were not allowed disbelief. If you said it’s all going to come falling down -- no, you have to believe in property prices, if you don’t they will crash. RB: Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this industry of self-improvement rooted in being positive and upbeat. AE: But it really works economically. Until it doesn’t work at all. It’s a confidence trick -- you take belief out of the system and all the money turns into dust. RB: It’s true in a lot of areas. It’s true in sports. Is it true in writing? Writers don’t have any confidence (laughs) AE: Writers have a lot of emotions about their work, and about themselves in relation to the work. None of them matter that much. It’s just a way of making you get to the desk a bit more, with more intensity. But yeah, writers always think their work is no good and they have no confidence and yada, yada, yada. RB: After you won a major prize and went on to work on the next book how did you feel? AE: I felt just fine. The whole prize thing was so external and so much hard work, actually. And I felt so relieved to get back to the desk, you know. RB: You were in some way anonymous before winning the Man Booker. AE: I felt a bit robbed in that way. RB: (laughs) AE: Because books are incredibly personal items and you have to keep vulnerable, to keep your vulnerability at the desk. Too famous is not good -- for whatever limited amount of time that that happens. RB: Did I read correctly that you never returned to the room where you wrote The Gathering? AE: You’ve been doing your research? (laughs) Well, it’s a small room and full of books, it’s a bit unmanageable as a space. No, I didn’t go back, really. I mean, I never wrote in that room again. RB: Are there other things in your life that you do but can’t explain? Like that -- can you explain why you never wrote in that room again? AE: I didn’t realize I wasn’t going back for a long time. And then I did [realize]. Yeah, I knew why -- it wasn’t much. RB: Sometimes we call those ghosts or skeletons, hanging there, not fleshed out. AE: Yeah, it’s more an aura. RB: When I spoke to John Banville recently, he was very positive about the future of the U.S. -- the great hope of civilization. When you come to the USA what do you see and feel? AE: It’s more interesting going to China and looking around China (both laugh). Sean in The Forgotten Waltz, says you should go to Shanghai, just to see that it’s all happening, it’s all real. It was very much my experience in Shanghai, these eight-lane highways with no cars on them. Ah, what do I think of America? Elsewhere is always important for Irish writers because Ireland is a little bit like that room where I wrote The Gathering. (laughs) I always wanted to come back to it (laughs). It’s a complicated place for writers. It’s the origin, it’s the spring of it, you know. The place things come from. RB: The U.S. is the place things come from? AE: No Ireland is. Elsewhere is really important for Irish writers because that’s where your book goes. And, the flavor of the readership is important. Or the critical response. America has always been a great opportunity for Irish writers. RB: And the Continent? AE:  France is slightly impermeable to foreign influence. They say in France, “But we have so many great French writers” -- none of whom are translated into English, of course. You want to say, “But who are they?” Germany is important. RB: The French like Paul Auster and Julian Barnes? AE: Yeah, they like what they like. Paul Auster walks down the street in Paris and he is bothered. People take his picture. Germany is interested in Ireland in a way that France isn’t. France thinks we are savage (pronounced with French accent). RB: (laughs) Well, so that should be a positive. Does that mean wild? AE: Untamed. RB: Don’t the French use the word apache as a positive description? AE: I know -- of course, they consider themselves very tamed, very sophisticated. It’s not so interesting to be looked upon as some sort of wild object. Fintan O’Toole wrote an article in The Irish Times about how important America was to a whole generation of Irish writers, but he didn’t include me in the list. He said partly because I was a woman. I didn’t know that as a woman I would be less interested in America. I am a little outside the run of regular Irish writing which has post-colonial concerns. So I don’t write about that kind of power relationship between the rural and the urban between Ireland and England, between the noble savage and the chilly aristocrat. Within that argument, America is clear space and an opportunity. And also it has a huge diaspora Irish community. So there is a kind of melancholy connection between the two countries -- of loss and opportunity. RB: Irish Americans are strongly supportive of what is exported from Ireland? AE: In the readings you meet them. My name is Anne Theresa. I met an Anne Theresa Enright in Australia -- Melbourne. And I met an Anne Theresa Enright; it may have been in Kansas, I’m not sure. They looked like each other. They didn’t look like me. I knew there were different Enrights. I am signing books and there is often, there used to often be a Bernadette. We’d know when she was born. She was born when the Song of Bernadette came out as a movie. And then Martinas were born when Saint Martina was being canonized. Not only can you spot trends, you can know what age people are when they tell you their names. Why did Banville voice his admiration for America -- he wants Americans to buy his novels? They do. They love him. RB: I live here and I have my disappointment about the USA. I am buoyed by this Wall Street occupation. AE: Who’d a thunk it. In Ireland there was a march  -- 50,000 depressed middle class, middle-aged people walking silently through the city, through the streets in their good shoes. Not their best shoes, but in their decent walking shoes. RB: One day? AE: One day. Nobody burned any cars. In Greece they were turning cars over in the streets. RB: Do you believe in class warfare? Isn’t there complicity between such people? AE:  Yea, but of what kind? It’s a bit like Regina says in the book -- the way people have, the way men have of getting ahead. For no ascertainable reason the guy just has a talent for being “on side.” It’s not an envelope full of money. It’s not any of these things -- it’s just because-- RB: How or why did you decide to use the title, The Forgotten Waltz? AE: I was sitting in a chair downstairs writing and the afternoon radio was on, the classical station and he said that was the “Forgotten Waltz” by Franz Liszt. I was half way through the book and I just put it in a headline, as an email to my editor. And I don’t talk to him really at all when I am working. I pressed send to see what it would look like. And then it came back and it was on the title of the email and it looked just fine. RB: There are no other obvious reference points in the book. AE: There are various dances. RB: You also title the chapters after pop love songs. AE: There is one reference. I mean, there is nothing cheesier than putting “a waltz that has been forgotten” in a book called The Forgotten Waltz. Gina is in the room at the hotel where they have their affair, and says, “…the shape of our love in a room like some forgotten music, beautiful and gone.” So that’s the waltz. Also, I wasn’t going to do explicit descriptions of sex in this book because I didn’t think Gina would. A forgotten waltz is a better way of describing what has been going in between her and Sean. This romance, this game. RB: And the chapter titles? Any concern that they will be distracting if the reader notices what they are? AE: I wanted the songs to be catchy and a bit kitsch. Because love is best described in song, I think. The thing I like about pop songs is that they are aware of the foolishness of love. They are delighted by the foolishness of love. I mean, Gina clearly is a woman who likes to be in love and who wouldn’t, ya know? Do they stick in your head and annoy you? RB: No, they don’t annoy me. It’s another thing to reckon with for a close reader. Do they mean something? Are they clues to the chapter? Is there a code in their order? AE: Well, there’s a whole heap of The Good Soldier [Ford Maddox Ford] in my Forgotten Waltz -- after the fact. Edward, in it, falls in love with the girl at the end -- his ward. It depends how plugged in you are to music. RB: I was tempted to create an iTunes playlist to see if there was a message in the sequence AE: No, it’s a little more arbitrary that that. As in some of the chapter titles were there before -- Like “There Will be Peace in the Valley” which is sort of a little anomalous. And “Love is Like a Cigarette” which is slightly anomalous too. Before it gets into the catchy, boppy, you know, “the Shoop Shoop Song.” Yeah. And then the Leonard Cohen -- I had a lot of doubts about putting in the Leonard Cohen. Because his lyrics -- he’s too interesting (laughs). You know? RB: You must listen to music a lot? AE: I listen to classical music. I had some trepidation with the song titles because I hate the way boys do music -- because I always like the wrong things. “Oh you like that, yeah?” RB: Give me an example. AE:I don’t know -- it’s sort of what I mentioned about men -- they use music as a counter. I don’t know what the game is. ”You say Arcade Fire?” “Oh you like Arcade Fire?” “Yeah, I don’t know about Arcade Fire.” Constantly pushing their taste. In a kind of slightly strange-- RB: Using groups as identifiers or parametrics. You are supposed to understand something about someone. AE: It’s slightly a competition and it’s slightly warm -- because music is a filter. If you like something you are really quite exposed by liking it. I listen to Bach. No, I don’t. My husband brings in the new stuff. I am slow to catch on to his stuff. It’s amazing that with the Internet our external sources get smaller and smaller. It’s all about selecting. RB: Your life is composed of writing and raising your kids-- AE: Which isn’t conducive to keeping up with the music scene, I have to say. RB: How old are your children? AE: Eleven and 8. I couldn’t even listen to music after they were born. That was the thing that went. RB: Because? AE: I don’t know. It wasn’t talking about emotions that I had. RB: Did you play Mozart to make your kids smarter? AE: There’s Mozart around. I do love Mozart. But I didn’t do that. Actually, it put Rachel to sleep. Now they’re coming in and she has her earphones on. Do you know Adele? Adele is on the other end. She can sing. RB: How much of your life is now devoted to the persona of being a writer? Conferences, festivals, awards juries, and on? AE: I get invitations -- I’m a conscientious sort of chick. I said yes and I went to Australia. It was amazing. I suppose it was amazing. Martin my husband said, “Just do it, do the year.” As opposed to Linda, Roddy’s wife— RB: Roddy Doyle? AE: Yeah. When he won [the Booker] they looked at the schedule and decided what he was going to do and said no to the rest of it. He’s very unswayable. I met Kiran Desai. She had won the Booker. And we met in Colombia -- in Cartagena. I was there for 2 days. I mean what a life. It was fantastic. I didn’t have much time to go outside. RB: You would never had gone there-- AE: No. And to meet Kiran Desai, also a great pleasure. Although we did kind of glance off each other. And she said I am going to sit down in March. I emailed her next March and she was doing something else. (laughs) Really, it was hard. I have to say, ”No more, absolutely no more.” So then I sat down in January and looked at the wall for three months, until March basically. I had the book started. It’s the same thing, the same problem as it always is. You have to sink in order to write a book. I don’t mean in a depressive sort of way. RB: Focus? AE: It is like a depressive state. You have to sink into it -- not even focus. You have to diffuse as much as anything else. Just in those early days -- to lose control of it and to be helpless and not know what you are doing. And then the focus comes sentence by sentence. RB: A vulnerability and openness. I’m reminded of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) who said that in order to hit really low notes, to sing in low registers, you almost had to go to sleep. Almost suspended animation, hibernation AE: Ah, ah hah. Those are both good. RB: Was it hard to come out and talk about The Gathering -- since, as you say, it was more private, seemingly more personal? AE: The great thing about having done two books -- people ask if they are autobiographical? -- and I am really delighted when they ask that because it means I have succeeded in what I wanted to do. And I have never bothered about those questions. But you know, I steal from my own life quite freely. So some of it, yes for sure happened to me. RB David Shields [Reality Hunger] would say it was all autobiographical. AE: (laughs) You have no other place to write from. You can’t be someone else at the desk. RB: You change some names and some nuance and-- AE: No, actually it much more mechanical, no as organic as that. You steal a bit. For example, I once took a train journey to Gstaad, and I’ve been waiting to use that train journey for 20 years. RB: You have vivid recollection of the details, exactly as you think it happened? AE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. RB: What now? AE: I have nothing on the screen for the first time in 10 years. This summer I stopped working for the first time in 10 years. I would be in holiday saying, “Isn’t it lovely being able to write my book in the sun?” And so I stopped. We went to South East Asia for a long trip with the kids -- came back and I had two weeks when I didn’t work. RB: That’s a good feeling? AE: It’s like being young again. It’s amazing. I haven’t a single idea, a single fragment. RB: I assume you love writing and are devoted to it? AE: But this is the first time I’ve stopped in 10 years, yeah. Maybe it’s a bit like ooooooooohh yeah? No I am very poor company when I am not writing -- so I do need it. Everybody around me needs it. RB: Am I the only person willing to talk with you right now (laughs)? AE: I’ve been fine. RB: You don’t know what to make of it? AE: Yeah, it’s great. I mean, I have some intimations. RB: Is there anything else you want to do in addition to writing? AE: No (pause). No. RB: You produced a TV show. AE: I did yeah. I was a baby. I was one of those trendy young media types that get burnt out, thrown on the scrap heap in four to six years. So I was that one. RB: Like Tina Fey? AE: No she’s a bit older and she is a much better manager than I ever was. RB: Like the woman in the BBC’s “The Hour”? AE: The woman in Broadcast News -- Holly Hunter (laughs). No, I used to do things to earn money and there is a kind of balance there. Where you are writing stuff to earn money, but you are writing. So that’s OK. It’s as good a reason as any other. And so it really pushed you. And you go places where you wouldn’t necessarily have thought to go. And I am a great believer in a bit of hard work actually. I was reduced to walking around hands on my forehead saying “Where’s my book?” So, I don’t have to do that so much anymore. RB: Do you have a timeframe for writing a book? AE: No. RB: You churn away at it? AE: I do. RB: Can you imagine spending seven to 10 years writing a book? AE: I can. You know Trollope wrote for three hours every morning. And if he was finished with a book an hour and a half in, he would start another book. But he knew three hours was it. RB: Do you look forward and have a sense of where you want to go, what you want to accomplish? AE: (pause) Staying alive is a good way of advancing in the literary world. I am slow -- I did a count. It was too scary. I reckoned I have five books left -- but it was too scary. I am quite interested in looking at the idea of the late style. And the feeling after a certain stage that you don’t give a monkey -- so that you are able to expand on the page or go somewhere strange. Strange (chuckles), I don’t need more strange. RB: You don’t strike me as someone constrained by much. AE: No, I wouldn’t mind -- you change so much from decade to decade. I like to sort of reflect in the book, where I am. Or find out by writing the book where I am. So, I am into my 50s now and I am thinking it would be good to write some longer, more -- having a book that you don’t really know what the edges are so precisely. Does that make sense? RB: When you are well published you have a couple of jobs. AE: Yes, it’s an absolute full-time job -- the Booker was another full time job. And I had two full-time jobs already. I had a home to run and I had books to write. It was a third full-time job, for sure. And then there’s being the travel agent. After the Booker, I was on Expedia saying, ”I think I can do this -- this journey can be done in under 20 hours. RB: What’s your feeling about winning awards in the future (laughs)? AE: I am sure I will get a bit plaintive. After the Booker they don’t give you any little ones any more -- they give them to other people on the way up. RB: Some people claim about these awards that they don’t mean anything until you win one-- AE:  They mean everything when you don’t have one. RB: Really? AE: Yeah. “If only I had the Booker.” I was taking to my husband, we were in Indonesia and we were looking at shooting stars and my daughter asked me what I wished for? And I said, ”Probably that I win the fucking Booker Prize.” (laughs) I really wanted it.  Ever writer has that-- RB:  Some awards seem to mean something and some seem to be beauty contests. AE: Yeah, yeah, sure. RB: I like the IMPAC Dublin because the long list comes from librarian nominations from around the world.  Also, the MacArthur-- AE: And the Lannan. I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a Lannan (laughs). RB: We could talk some more but you need to go. So thanks. AE: Thank you.   Image Credit: Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles

In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books -- a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make. A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history -- the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo. This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life. Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day -- in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers? John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book. RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska. JS: Just about, yeah. RB: Is that fun? JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores. RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it? JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books. RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something? JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated. RB: You haven’t published a book since Los Gusanos [1991]. JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it -- they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it. RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another -- you are out among the people. JS: We like driving across the country. RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring? JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil -- which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City. RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all. JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust. RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics -- did they just have an election? JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government. RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction -- lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is

Robert Birnbaum and Darin Strauss

As is frequently the case, having met and yakked with young novelist and NYU writing mentor Darin Strauss back in 2002, on the occasion of the publication of his second novel The Real McCoy, he and I kept in touch and resumed our conversation for his 2010 memoir Half a Life. Though, for a number of reasons, Strauss' tome is not my kind of story — the memoir recounts a profound event in his life when, as a teenager, he runs into and kills a bicyclist — as Strauss is a bright, thoughtful, and engaging conversationalist, I was pleased to talk with him again. In the course of the chat that follows, we talk about this event that has been central in his life, its aftermath, why he wrote the book, readers' responses, his own post-publication conclusions, and a wide swath of topics, literary and non-literary. Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir? Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died. RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this? DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it's linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence. RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue. DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly. RB: What is the benefit? DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It's funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic. RB: Isn’t that the point? DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person's flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do. Hopefully — I didn’t set out to write a self-help book but if — RB: Those tend not to hit their target. Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? Or needn’t be? Years ago Stephen Dixon wrote a book called Interstate, in which two infants are shot and killed in a drive-by and the father who is driving the car descends into a pit of despair. My son had just been born and I just couldn’t read past the first chapter. DS: I remember the book — it’s the first chapter played out again and again, with different ways the father would handle it. Yeah I think there are some stories that are — but even that handled really well could be great. RB: Even handling it well — DS: I know what you are saying. That’s why memoirs for the most part turn me off. When memoir opens itself up to criticism it’s because it's prurient or self-aggrandizing or salacious in some way. So this was an attempt not to — I wanted to make it an anti-memoir. I was going to do the book with Penguin but I ended up doing the book with McSweeney’s — RB: Why? DS: I said, I don’t want to write a memoir, I just want to write about this accident and what I learned from it. And I want to do that because people responded really well to the This American Life thing. I wanted to examine it a little more deeply than I did on the radio. (I am actually embarrassed now — having written the book I think the early piece was kind of glib.) But I am not sure how long it’s going to be — it might just be 50 pages. It’s just going to be about the accident. My editor said, that’s great but it has to be 200 pages. We are happy to print it — we need for it to be a viable paperback. It’s got to be 200 pages. I said, what if the story is only 50 pages? He said, well you can pad it. I said, forget it, but then Dave Eggers contacted me or maybe it was Eli [Horowitz] — and McSweeney’s said they would publish it at 50 pages. I said, that’s great, and it ended up being 200 pages. It’s longer than I thought it would be but it's still a short book. RB: Why are there no chapter headings or numbers or titles? DS: I wanted it to have a disjointed feeling in the manner that you feel when you go through something like this that life comes at you in a disjointed way. RB: Can you start anywhere in the book and move backward or forward? DS: I don’t think so — I hope that there is an arc to it. The challenge was to — every book is a magic trick. Every realistic novel pretends to be realist but is actually a complete fabrication. The trick is to make it seem like it's not. [In] this book [it] was more difficult to do that because I wanted to remain truthful and to be respectful of the girl in the incident, but also I was very aware that I wanted it to be a good reading experience — not just to be a therapy exercise for myself. So I thought, I have to make an arc and a dramatic structure and all that but I wanted it to be less visible. And wanted it to be somewhat disjointed especially in the beginning because that’s the way we experience these things. So hopefully it was mirroring that. RB: How firm is that border between fiction and non-fiction? DS: Ah, I’m not a non-fiction writer for the most part, so my wife who is a journalist would laugh and say, “Are you sure you are not making things up? Are you being truthful?” So that was the real challenge — to remain absolutely faithful to the facts. I didn’t want to make anything up. RB: Two of your novels were based on historical figures or characters — DS: Chang and Eng, my first book, which was about two famous conjoined twins, I took a lot of liberties. RB: I noticed you refrained from using “Siamese twins.” [laughs] DS: Yeah, because I was corrected a lot. People from Thailand are sensitive about that. I sold the book to Thailand — it's not very often there’s an American book about Thailand. They were going to make a big deal of it and fly me out for a Thai book festival, and then they translated it [laughs] and I kept hearing from the translators that they were having a lot of problems: ”You’re making stuff up here. This is not what happened in Thailand back then.” And so I never got the invite. I took a lot of liberties with old Siam, too. I wrote that book when I was 26 and broke and couldn’t afford to fly there. So I bought a Let’s Go Thailand and used that as my research and invented stuff. Which is okay. A novelist doesn’t have to tell the truth. The beginning of Kafka’s Amerika is the Statue of Liberty holding up a big sword. There is a debate of whether he was trying to make a point or he didn’t know. RB: Alan Furst, who rigorously researches his novels, says he doesn’t take any liberties because as he says, “a lot of blood was shed” in these stories. And beyond that readers still have unwarranted expectations — DS: I think we talked about this four years ago [more like nine years]. There is a quote from [E.L.] Doctorow where he said, “that historical novelists should do the least amount of research they could get away with.” The key part of the sentence is what you can get away with. You don’t want to make ridiculous mistakes. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or take the reader out of the situation. But you can take liberties because it says “novel” on the book. RB: More and more it says, “Such and Such, a novel.” And less and less do people pay attention. DS: It’s true. Although writers go into a publisher and say “novel,” and the publisher kind of slides out into another room. I have a number of students trying to sell novels and they have been told to say it’s a memoir, it's easier to sell memoirs. But Doctorow once told me that he received a letter from someone saying, “In Arizona there aren’t X kind of cactuses which you had in your book.” He said, “There are in my Arizona, madam.” Which is a dashing way of saying he screwed up but he didn’t care. RB: Tom Franklin [for Hell at the Breech] pointed out that readers would heckle him about armadillos and the shape of a cigarette tin. DS: Yeah, yeah. Bellow said he was tired of being crucified on the cross of American Realism. Hopefully a novel gets to deeper truths than the shape of a Lucky Strike container. But you do want to be truthful enough — if it’s not plausible the reader will lose confidence and then the book is lost. I was just talking to someone about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, where she apparently makes tons of mistakes about Boston geography, saying something like Harvard was in Porter Square and things like that. Which took Boston readers out of the book. I didn’t notice it because I am not from Boston. So I thought it was a great book. RB: Who am I to say something is irresolvable. But I was reading an essay by Curtis White [The Middle Mind] and he refers to William Shawn as the publisher of the New Yorker. I didn’t think it made the rest of his remarks without value, but I wondered about what editors or fact checkers were doing. DS: I know there are fewer and fewer fact checkers. My wife works at Newsweek and they hire younger and younger people and they have fewer and fewer people to catch mistakes at these magazines. There has been a loosening of standards across the board but that’s a different conversation. RB: There is always Edward Jones — he spent 12 years writing The Known World, intending to research from a long list he had, and he never used that list. And he most definitely made stuff up. But I dare you to identify it. DS: Exactly. RB: [chuckles] Though a history professor from Texas was upset that in my various online citations of my chat with Jones I had no problem with his approach. DS: I don’t know why people come to fiction with that expectation — that it’s going to be the same as a biography or something. And have the same standards of factualness when it’s a fairy tale — what Nabokov called his books. Peter Carey told me when he writes about his hometown he purposely puts in mistakes just to piss people off. That’s kind of funny. RB: The other side of the coin is that you can get a certain kind of pleasure out of a book that is about a place with which you are familiar. I loved [the late lamented] Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime story writer, or I suppose people in Boston like Robert Parker and they expect everything to be as they know it. DS: A lot of Jon Lethem’s popularity came from taking Brooklyn as his literary subject before anyone else had, and people turned to Motherless Brooklyn — I’m from Brooklyn now so it feels his territory because he wrote about it. So there is a pleasure for natives in reading about their home turf. RB: So we have variable valences of why we derive pleasure from reading — some are higher than others but when we talk about this stuff we are supposed to say smart things — DS: Yeah hopefully we turn to books for the writing or the moral truths or whatever you get out of it but there is something nice about saying, “Oh I know that street.” RB: I find I have learned more history from Gore Vidal, Edward Jones, Alan Furst, John le Carré, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr than as an undergraduate history student. DS: I was talking to a writer friend David Lipsky. He wrote a book called Absolutely American about West Point and the book about David Foster Wallace where he traveled with him [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] — kind of a new way of doing biography. It got good reviews, but I am not sure reviewers understood how revolutionary it could be. Even when people say the novel is in trouble and there aren’t as many readers, which people have been saying as long as there has been a novel around, I am sure more people read about the French-Russian war than read War and Peace, but nobody goes back to read the newspapers. These made-up stories are the way future generations find out about these things. I am sure more people read Libra by Delillo about [Lee Harvey] Oswald than anything else. RB: Than the Warren Commission Report [laughs]. DS: Exactly. Or anything. If you think about it like that then we have a certain responsibility to be honest. RB: There is a mistake about the way history is taught — the emphasis is on minutiae and not narrative — not the juicy stories about human frailty and foibles. And what do you know after you know all the details? DS: Look at the political discourse. It seems like people know nothing. RB: I see signs calling for the impeachment of the president. And I am sure that the sign carriers know nothing about impeachment. The House decides there is to be a trial — DS: — based on crimes and misdemeanors. It’s not like saying we don’t like the guy. It’s like if the president is unpopular he should be impeached. The memories are so short — the Clinton impeachment was 10 years ago or so. He was impeached but not forced to leave office. I don’t what it is — there is something narcotized about this country. RB: I look at James Howard Kunstler’s website ClusterFuck Nation and he decries the public conversation, and he recently asked, “Where did all the sensible people go who used to stand up against the kind of radical silliness that is so prevalent now?” DS: It’s very strange. Where are the country club Republicans who were fiscally conservative but didn’t want to get rid of public education or meddle in social issues? Didn’t want to overthrow the government? RB: Sold out? Went to ride their horsies? They supported McCain. DS: The thing about McCain that was so weird — there’s a great McCain piece by David Foster Wallace — he was honorable enough to do the right thing — RB: — once in his life. DS: But in the worst circumstances. To have his fingers broken and to refuse medication — after all this torture to say, “I’m not the first in line so [other] people should go home before me." Which is the most noble thing I can imagine. And then to totally sell out, which makes me think if you can stand up to Viet Cong torture but not attack ads, it says something interesting about power. RB: And that we are more complicated. I think in some twisted way McCain feels entitled because of his war experience. He is convinced of his own nobility and that the rest of it is just politics. And in a way it is just politics. DS: It is just politics although he did bring Palin onto the national stage. And so if she is the next president we have him to thank. RB: My son brought home a chart from school in which he was asked to evaluate himself in ten categories and his teacher would also. The point of the exercise was whether the world was better off with you in it. His self-score was 96 and his teacher scored him 89. They were obviously close, but the class participation was scored a 5 by the teacher. I bring this up because how we see ourselves is a fluctuating thing. And I wonder about this when I try to assign a value to a book like yours. If I understand you correctly the people who benefit from this book are people who have had a similar experience. DS: Most people have had a similar experience — it doesn’t have to be as spectacular. Everyone carries something that they are guilty about. RB: You’re extending the franchise of this book. DS: I’m telling the response I have gotten. People that carry something they are guilty about around or feel a grief they don’t know how to express. It’s been more universal than I thought. Which has been nice. It’s strange for a fiction writer. If you write a novel and people email you it’s generally, I liked it or didn’t like it. Not, here’s my terrible story please tell me what you think. I was doing Philadelphia NPR, and they took callers and each call was sadder than the one before. One woman called in saying her son was killed in a car accident and she had never seen grief written about in that way and she thanked me. That was weird since I wasn’t sure that people who lost kids in car accidents were a demographic for the book. And then a guy called in whose daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife was made quadriplegic and he is taking care of his wife now and his daughter is gone. I didn’t know what to say and he asked me if he should reach out to the driver. I said, “I am only a story teller, I don’t know. If it would make you feel better I think you should.” It sounds like Dr. Phil but I didn’t know how to respond. RB: Well, you wrote the book – need you say anymore? Or what more is there to say? DS: I don’t think so but these kinds of books open you up to that. Right before I published I heard from A.M. Homes, who wrote a really good memoir, and she said, ”Be prepared. It's exhausting.” And Dave Eggers who edited the book with me — RB: He has his own story. DS: He said you have to prepare yourself. People want to talk to you in a way that they don’t with novels. In a way, it's better if they don’t meet the novelist because the novel stands as its own thing and meeting the novelist can muddy the feeling you get from the book. But if you are writing about yourself, people want to meet you and talk to you to see if you compare to the you in the book or how you are now after you have written the book. So it’s much more intimate. RB: With the expectation that you have some expertise. DS: Surprisingly that’s happened a lot. Maybe I just choose subjects that are arcane. My first book about twins — anytime conjoined twins are separated around the world I would get a call from some reporter asking about conjoined twins. And I would say, I’m a novelist. RB: The world’s foremost authority — DS: — on Siamese twins. For my third book, a novel called More Than It Hurts You about Münchausen by proxy where a mother injures a child, I was on Good Morning America talking about Münchausen’s disease with an expert. I kept saying I’m happy to go on TV but I’m no expert on this. But maybe that’s not true — Roth said one of the jobs of the novelist is to be smarter on the page than he is in real life. So I had to become an expert — at least temporarily. RB: It does also speak to the efficacy of the so-called talking cure. DS: That’s been one of the moving things. I kept a file with hundreds of emails now and a number of them have said, I haven’t told anyone this. I’ve never met you but I haven’t told my husband or something like that. That’s a validation of the talking cure. I had terrible experiences with therapy. Another reason I wrote the book — to figure out what I think about this. That’s the way I do it. Since I’m a writer, to understand how I see something I write it down. It’s much more effective than therapy — sitting at the computer working my way through something. RB: People certainly organize their perceptions of the world differently — some effortlessly. To me everyday is a new day, almost like starting over again. DS: Maybe that’s why people look for help — they don’t know how to organize their lives into stories until they see someone else do it. With this book I stumbled into therapeutic cures that I didn’t know about. Not that the book should be therapy for me. If it’s just therapy for me then I should write it and not publish it. I hope it has value beyond being cathartic for me. In this disorder called complicated grief therapy, which is a fancy way of saying people are sad, the therapy for that is that you are to talk into a tape recorder and say what makes you sad and then play it every night for 16 weeks. It sounds like torture — it’s thought to be effective because you have a tape, a physical object that you can turn off and put away. I didn’t know about it until I was researching the book. But writing the story every day and turning the computer off at night was a version of that therapy. The book is like my tape. And then talking about it to you and on the radio and to crowds at readings is like A.A. — making a public confession. So to me it was a great therapy. You said something about organizing life; my friend David Lipsky was saying anyone who teaches writing by saying you should show and not tell is going to fail. As he put it, “life is showing all the time, what literature does is tell you what that show means.” Movies are a show, life is a show. What books can do is tell in a way the others can’t. RB: Where do these clichés come from, like “write what you know”? What do you know? DS: Exactly. It’s bad advice for other reasons too. If you only write what you know, you will never know anything new. That’s the weird thing about our education system — right now in the Army they force you to take classes all the time as an adult. Which makes sense — why only be taught for 16 years of your life and then never be taught anything again? That’s to last you for 70 years. Why is that the method? Why wouldn’t you want to keep learning? RB: There is some science that holds if you continue to learn that is in fact a benefit to your brain. DS: Yeah, I read about a study that said you should try to switch things up every week just to keep your mind active without taking a course. Open doors left-handed one week and right-handed the next — just to teach yourself even in the most minor way something new to keep your brain active. RB: When I drive to places I try to take different routes each time. I leave enough time so I may get lost or just wander around. So when will you be done with this? DS: I was taking to Dani Shapiro who was nice enough to review the book for the Times. I didn’t know her beforehand, but I thanked her for the review and we got to talking and she was saying memoirs kind of never end. A novel is over when your next novel comes out but people still talk to her about the memoir she wrote ten years ago. Because it’s personal, and you are opening up your closet. We’re a voyeuristic society. I find most memoirs distasteful — it’s strange I ended up writing this. I thought, I will never write about this, I am a novelist. Not only that but I don’t read non-fiction a lot so I would never want to write a memoir. Something about this story was very insistent, asking to be told. I realized in writing the book that I had been writing about this all along. The girl’s parents at her funeral told me, we will never blame you — don’t worry about that. But whatever you do in life you have to live it twice as well because you are living for two people. And then they sued me for millions of dollars after that. After they said they wouldn’t blame me. The important thing from that is I took that very seriously, living for two people. I think that’s why I wrote Chang and Eng. That book deals with how we are different people at once. The end of the book — “this is the end that I have feared since we were a child.” So the “I” and the “we” means they are both one and two people. My second book was about a guy who lives in NYC and becomes an imposter and doesn’t tell anyone about his past. I had this accident in high school, went to college, and then moved to NYC and never told anyone about this. My third book is about a family from the suburbs with a secret that no one knows — I was growing up in the suburbs and had this secret, so obviously this has been informing my writing, in a way I hadn’t realized, forever. I wonder how stark a line it will draw in my fiction. RB: Have you started the next novel? DS: I have — I wanted something light after this. We’ll see. Writers often have this one thing they obsess about. Roth seemed to be writing the same book for a time — now he is writing obsessive books about being older. I wonder if my obsessions will change — a lot of writers have their one subject and keep writing around it, circling it. Bellow, no matter where his books were set, wrote about what it means to be a thinking person in a society where thinking people are not valued. And Updike had his pet obsessions — they seemed to be about a good boy being naughty. What does that mean? Bellow also said he didn’t want to go there because he didn’t want to know why he was writing what he was writing. Now I know and I wasn’t Bellow to begin with. RB: Have been teaching since we last spoke? DS: I went to Columbia as an adjunct for a while and came back when this new director of the creative writing program [of NYU] Deborah Landau, who amazingly re-energized, not even re-, she energized NYU faculty and brought in a bunch of people. I was lucky to be hired by her. She brought in Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer — she brought in this amazing constellation of people. On the poetry side she brought Anne Carson and Charles Simić. It’s an amazing place to work. I have my office there because I can’t work at home — I have three-year-old twin boys. And I go to work and it’s almost stiflingly overwhelming because you know these incredible people are doing incredible work — that’s both energizing and terrifying. RB: Yeah. DS: In some ways it’s beneficial to the writing — it forces you to return to first principles all the time. You have to tell students why you think something works and why it doesn’t. It gives voice to your aesthetic in a way that helps you form it. Also, it keeps you open-minded because you are reading people who have a different aesthetic. And you try to help them not by saying how you would write it yourself but try to get them to figure out how to be more successful in what they wanted to do. It can also be stultifying. It’s like when you try to walk up the stairs if you spend the day telling people, ”Well you put one foot in front of the other, and then you lift up your knee and move it forward and put the other foot down.” When you walk the stairs next you will be pretty self-conscious about it. It’s a balancing act. RB: You use novels in your courses. DS: In the Crafts classes — I often use books that I think are flawed. I teach Marry Me by Updike which is a good book but not his best. RB: Glorious failures? DS: Yeah. I wouldn’t say the book is a failure — but when you see a great writer make mistakes it can be instructive. I teach some all-out masterpieces. I shouldn’t say this but with modern academia you are also expected to have from many different — from both genders and a lot of different ethnic groups. You have to fill those slots. RB: You feel that is an obligation? Are you conscious of it? DS: Yes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing — you want students from all different backgrounds to feel you are not being exclusionary. But I wouldn’t teach an author I don’t like. RB: Right, it’s not like the choices are limited. DS: I teach Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. I like Zadie’s work better. RB: I wasn’t impressed by Lahiri’s stories. I liked the film of her novel, The Namesake. DS: Her stories are well-constructed. They are ingenious but they aren’t exciting language-wise. RB: How well-read are your students? DS: It varies. A lot of undergrad students are well-read, but I am often shocked at how they are not. A lot of people want to be writers who don’t care about why or how to get there. So when you come across someone who is paying a lot of money to go to grad school and one assumes they are trying to make that their life, it’s very strange to see that they haven’t read that much. RB: Assuming it is a prerequisite of being a decent writer? DS: Yes. It’s kind of like saying I want to be a professional baseball player but I don’t watch or practice much baseball. I just want to put on the glove and play. It’s fine if you are doing it as a social activity. When you make a commitment to be a writer then it’s strange you wouldn’t want to learn about it. RB: Despite the warnings and evidence, your students still aspire to become writers? DS: Yes, that’s something I feel guilty about in teaching in these programs. RB: How many students have you had over the last ten years or so? DS: 30 a year for nine years. Whatever that is. RB: 270. Of those, how many have published one book? DS: Two so far. But a lot of them were undergrads and they are not 30 yet. I think more will do that. It’s a good grad class if two or three publish. RB: And what are the rest doing? DS: I don’t know. That’s what’s scary about these programs. They are expensive, although NYU is good about giving money and they are working on making it free for everyone. Then I would feel less guilty about it. You can get a lot out of learning how to write and learning to be a reader. RB: That’s one self-justification of teachers — you get better readers. DS: Michael Thomas [Man Gone Down] tells all his students that if they are taking these courses to be writers, it’s a bad idea. This will help you become a smarter reader and if you chose to become a writer, good luck. RB: Being a smarter reader is a great benefit. DS: It sure is. But the issue is, is it worth the money? NYU is very competitive to get into — 30 fiction students out of about 800 are accepted. RB: Like the Writer’s Workshop. DS: Yeah, and once you are in that circle of fire you are expected to get somewhere. Maybe two out of 30 will publish one book and one of those two will have a career. It’s very tough. RB: To quote Fats Waller, “One never know, do one?” DS: [laughs] RB: Thomas hasn’t been heard from since he won the IMPAC award in 2007. DS: That was recently. He teaches at Hunter. RB: That’s an interesting place. They have — DS: — Peter Carey — RB: — Colum McCann. DS: A small department [Tom Sleigh and Gabriel Packard]. McCann won the National Book Award last year and Peter was nominated this year and they are both really, really good. RB: McCann is Mr. Exuberant. DS: He really lives up to the image of the Irish raconteur, try to go out drinking with him and you won’t make it home. A great writer. Peter, too. He was a teacher of mine at NYU. It ended up working out for me, but when students ask if should they get an MFA I never give an unqualified yes. RB: If someone asked me I’d ask, what are the choices? Go into plastic. DS: I did a reading with Jennifer Egan and she hasn’t gotten her [MFA] and she wondered if she missed out. It hasn’t hurt her. She is having a good career. I tell students if they need the time to write and have people read their stuff then it’s great. I was talking to someone taking a course from Oscar Hijuelos, and he was considered the worst one in the class and the teacher was hard on him saying he shouldn’t be a writer and then something switched and one day he came in with the beginning of his first book and he was great all of a sudden. There shouldn’t be anyone who is an arbiter, saying you can’t write because sometimes it takes people a while. RB: Isn’t it the same with editors and buying books? Think of all the stories about writers who have gotten 20 to 30 rejections and then one editor says, “Yeah” and they are off. DS: Proust had to self-publish the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past. One of the things that’s great about him is that everyone said his sentences are too long, that’s why we can’t publish him, [both laugh] so at the beginning of the second book, the sentence is one of the longest in the entire book. What a great fuck you. RB: It’s fascinating that these literary chats are an attempt to regularize an exploding array of characters and stories. It seems like an untameable beast. As we talk here, what are we explaining or clarifying? The best stuff is maybe what we can’t explain. DS: That’s true. Writing can be taught to a degree. The best thing it can do is save you years of self-discovery — which may not be a good thing. Maybe you should learn on your own. You can teach people tricks you have learned from reading but obviously you can’t teach talent. Maybe you can help students achieve the maximum from their talent. RB: Talent can be overrated. There’s something to be said for perseverance. DS: Lethem who taught at NYU said this to me once: talent was kind of meaningless. Whether you publish or write good books it’s the people who keep trying, keep trying. There’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory — which sounds kind of glib — 10,000 hours at something will make you great at it. I don’t know where that number comes from but it’s probably true. If you sit in the chair for 10,000 hours and that translates over four or five hours a day for eight years, six, seven days a week — RB: Well, that’s from the outside, from an external observer. Our sense of that time must be indescribably different. DS: The first 7- or 8,000 hours are fumbling around being terrible — people who are talented might not progress because they are too embarrassed to do the apprentice period. They can’t allow themselves to be bad. RB: Or someone tells them they are crap and they believe it. DS: Or someone tells them they are great and they believe it. You really have to get in there in those hours whatever the magic number is, and force yourself to work hard. When I was a grad student it wasn’t the most talented people who moved on — it was the people who could take their first draft and make it a second draft. For example everyone at that level can do a pretty good first draft. It’s people who listen to criticism and say, “Fuck that, I’m good enough” who don’t go on to make a good first draft into a great second draft. RB: Writing fiction must be about delayed satisfactions — writers take five, eight, twelve years to finish a novel. DS: The problem with Foer and Zadie Smith being as good as they are – and I think they are both really good writers and I’ve heard they are good teachers – they are dangerous examples because of their early success. RB: Don’t try this at home, kids. DS: Exactly. RB: There seems to be an attitude about Foer in the literary world. Have you noticed that? Jealousy? DS: Yeah. RB: In addition to the normal quotient of anti-Semitism? [laughs] DS: I ran into Jonathan Wilson, a professor of mine, and he was planning on giving talks on new takes on anti-Semitism. I asked, what was he going say? He said, “It exists.” [laughs] If there is bad feeling toward Jonathan [Foer] it's because he has outsized success. That’s hard for people to take. I’m sure a lot of the anti-Franzen griping is the same thing. You make the cover of Time and people will grumble — that’s the way it is. RB: I remember getting into it with a writer when they retracted a review of Foer’s second novel and came up with a negative one. DS: I hate when people retract reviews. My first book was badly reviewed in the Washington Post for what I thought were silly reasons. The reviewer didn’t like three things about the book — I named certain characters after my friends (I thanked friends in the afterword) and very minor characters had similar names. The reviewer asked, “Is he playing games or writing a serious book?” I thought, well why are those things in opposition? Second, how am I as a white male in the 20th century qualified to write about Asians in the 19th century? And third, she claimed five words I used were not in currency in the 1800s. She was wrong about that. Those words were found in Shakespeare. I was really pissed off. I was doing an interview somewhere and this reviewer who is also a novelist was there also, doing an interview. And they said such and such is here, she wants to meet you. I said that’s okay and I sneaked out the back. RB: [laughs] DS: And she came around and ran into me in the parking lot. She said, “Hey I am so-and-so and I gave your book a bad review.” I said, “Yeah, I remember.” She said, “I’m really sorry I kind of liked the book. I was in a bad mood and my husband is Asian, and I thought I should say something about that.” I thought it was crappy she liked the book —she was entitled to her opinion but to apologize for it was even worse. RB: Do you write reviews? DS: I wrote a few that I regret — not that the book was good. It’s not good karma to write negative reviews. I am going to stop doing it. I wrote a good review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which I thought was a good book — that was fun. RB: As I have said many times, I think book reviewing, especially in newspapers, is a degraded enterprise. DS: [Martin] Amis has a great quote about that. He said something like, “Reviews are the only forum where the practitioner is working in the exact same mode as the art itself but generally doing it less well.” You don’t have movie critics making a movie about the subject of their reviews. So yeah, I think it’s degraded. There was a recent review of Roth where the reviewer wrote, "I never read any Roth until this book was assigned. I dismissed him without thinking about it.” This is Philip Roth, maybe the greatest living American writer. Not having read Roth, having dismissed him, shouldn’t that disqualify the reviewer? RB: I recently reviewed the new Cynthia Ozick and according to the dust jacket it was an homage and reworking of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I hadn’t read that book. It bothered me that other than an epigram from The Ambassadors, I had no clue of anything Jamesian. I see that quite often, that certain stories are tied to an older work. Why tell the reader — if they are familiar with the referred-to book they should recognize it and if not they should not be distracted? DS: On Beauty is supposed to be an homage to an E.M. Forster book, which I never read. But I liked Smith’s book. It might be a way to spark your imagination. Doctorow’s Ragtime’s plot was lifted from a 19th century novella by Kleist. RB: And you know this, how? DS: I took a class from him and he said so. RB: But was it on the dust jacket? DS: No. RB: Does it improve your enjoyment of Ragtime? What does it do for the reader if he knows? DS: It’s a way of coming clean. Lifting plots is as old as Shakespeare but now people are so afraid of even the whiff of plagiarism they feel if they are upfront about it it's okay. It’s okay whether you own up to it or not because there are only 36 stories out there anyway, and certainly Zadie and Doctorow made something new. But I don’t know why people feel that compunction to own up to stuff. This is something that I have noticed that’s new — even novels are listing all the books used for research. But why bother, it’s a novel. RB: Over the weekend I read a book that very much resembles [Cormac] McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — an unstoppable psychopathic killer searching for the protagonist — even when that came to mind I wasn’t put off because the writing was crisp and propulsive. But I could already imagine reviewers taking the author to task for lack of originality. DS: When I said there were 36 plots, that’s based on this crazy French book called The 36 Dramatic Situations — the author, Georges Polti, spent his life doing a scientific study of writing and came up with the fact that there are only 36 possible stories and there is a wide berth within those. Number 1 is revenge and number 1A is revenge, father against son. You know there is a limited scope within which to work, so what? Why not do what Shakespeare did and use famous stories? There is something energizing about having every plot and format to work with. RB: Do you ever think about what you would have done if your writing hadn’t panned out? DS: Oh wow! Well, when I was a kid I thought I might be a lawyer — RB: — and then you were sued — DS: — and then I was so turned off by the lawsuit — I wasn’t angry with the parents, they had just lost their daughter and were very vulnerable. But I was certainly angry with the lawyer — he knew they had no case and he actually screwed them over because he told them they could make millions. But they ended up getting the most nominal sum from the insurance company just to make them go away. Which they could have gotten at the outset. And so they had to take five years of legal fees out of that. So they received almost nothing. It was just awful. The police said I wasn’t at fault, five witnesses said I wasn’t at fault. He tried to say I was drunk — 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. Then he tried to say that the policeman who said I wasn’t drunk, was drunk. RB: [laughs] DS: It was just an awful experience, dragging me through the mud. And so I thought I am not going to be a lawyer, that’s an awful thing. But I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know that I could do anything else, so it’s hard to say. RB: Sold insurance? DS: I could have done something like that. RB: A trader or speculator? DS: That might have been more satisfying. Writing is great in so many ways — being your own boss — RB: As Shaw said, you don’t have to dress up. DS: Yeah, so in all the obvious ways it’s great. It is also a job where you are never not working. So I kind of envy those people who are 9 to 5. RB: How much has your writer life changed now that you are a writer dad? DS: A lot. The book is short — RB: [laughs] DS: The book is short. I started it when my kids were one — to have one-year-old twins in the house means all hands on deck. RB: One of the challenges of journalism is to write within a word limit. DS: Thank you so much for having me back. RB: My pleasure.   Image credit: Robert Birnbaum