Winesburg, Ohio (Norton Critical Editions)

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Writing the Jersey Shore: The Millions Interviews Daniel H. Turtel

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Earlier this week, Daniel H. Turtel published his debut novel, Greetings from Asbury Park, which in 2020 was awarded the Faulkner Society’s Best Novel Award. The book, which is set on the Jersey Shore and follows three half-siblings as they deal with a family death, has received praise from the likes of Junot Díaz, Julia Glass, Tom Perrotta, and Rae DelBianco, who called Turtel “our next Philip Roth.”

The Millions caught up with Turtel—who is pursuing an MFA at The New School—to chat about Greetings from Asbury Park, his process, New Jersey fiction, and a whole lot more.

The Millions: You have a degree in mathematics from Duke and are currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing—and your first novel publishes next month. Tell us a little about that trajectory. Did you always want to be a writer?

Daniel H. Turtel: My first creative writing course was a poetry seminar taken purely to satisfy a humanities requirement. My professor, Deborah Pope, was really inspiring, and I started branching out from poetry; by the end of the year, I had enough material that I felt comfortable applying for a novel-in-progress course with Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love). Oscar completely changed the way that I thought about writing and I could not have asked for a more fantastic mentor as I began to consider fiction as a career and not just a hobby. He accepted me for a one-on-one independent study to coach me through writing my first novel which, rightfully, never saw the light of day, but had elements of what would later become Greetings from Asbury Park.

TM: How did Greetings from Asbury Park come about? What was the genesis of the book?  Isn’t that the title of Bruce Springsteen’s first album—what’s the relevance to your book?

DHT: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson was one of the first books I read that made me really want to write. In a sense, it’s an investigation of a town’s worth of disparate characters as they push another character through the universe of Winesburg and, ultimately, onto a train that leaves it forever. So, I started with this framework in mind for a non-traditional narrative that jumps around in perspective in order to give shape to some common underlying element that sits at the intersection of these different experiences.

Daniel H. Turtel

The novel started as a group of short story-ish standalone vignettes which were not explicitly connected, but all revolved around a common set of events. In beginning to think of it as a novel and not just a set of short stories, I knew that I wanted to make use of the music that Asbury Park is so famous for. So, there is meant to be an improvisational aspect to the shifting perspective, which, in some sense, is meant to imitate the jazz that shows up over and over again in the pages.

As for the title itself, it’s less a nod to the album than an acknowledgement of the way in which these bright, shiny words (usually printed on bright, shiny postcards) have come to define and dominate the way that a messy, complex town is seen from those outside it. There’s a sense of dramatic irony to the upbeat phrase.

TM: Tell us a little about the book, and the way focusing on a specific family—one with a few issues, to say the least—allows you to explore larger issues.

DHT: I remember reading Arundhati Roy’s wonderful The God of Small Things in high school; most readers were put off by the incest at the end, but the twins’ love scene was absolutely critical. We cheer for the cultural transgression represented by an intercaste love affair, but when it comes to a transgression that is morally problematic for us, that enthusiasm goes away entirely. Which is to say that American culture glorifies the transgression of boundaries that we deem unjust, but it is remarkably slow in examining the notion of what makes a boundary unjust in the first place. Few people who oppose the moral admissibility of a love affair do it because they want to erect an unjust barrier; to be cognizant of that would defeat the basis of the opposition. Instead, people really feel that they have some moral obligation to prevent something from transpiring, or some boundary from being transgressed, and that is a much more dangerous type of opposition, because it is born not necessarily of cruelty but of misguided moral compulsion.

Contemporary American fiction is filled with strawman controversies, and the experience of reading these is less challenging than affirmative. Most readers today are not pushed into a moral quandary when they come across an interracial or homosexual relationship; this is, unequivocally, a good thing for society, but it also means that in reading stories which focus on such relationships, as many of our stories today do, we are not so much being asked how we would respond to something that makes us morally uncomfortable, but rather we are reading a somewhat pure story of overcoming what reader and writer agrees is injustice. That’s fine, but it makes it difficult to ask: who gets to decide if two consenting adults can do something in private that you personally disagree with morally? Specifically, who gets to tell two consenting adults that they are not allowed to love one another? While most incestuous cases come with a litany of legitimate issues (growing up in the same house allows one to influence another, etc.), Casey and Gabrielle meet for the first time as fully formed adults, armed with developed psyches and capable of making their own decisions. This comes to a head in the chapter “Greetings from Asbury Park,” which spotlights Gabrielle as she grapples with the question of whether certain boundaries ought not to be crossed, and who can cross them and why, which is really what the whole book is about.

TM: Greetings from Asbury Park is set on the Jersey Shore, where you grew up. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to that area and why you chose to set the book there? What’s your message for people who only know that area from reality television programs?

DHT: I grew up right outside of Asbury Park, and returning there each summer from college was eye-opening in several ways. For one, I slowly went from year-round local to “Benny” (those taking the train from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, New York) and had the feeling of becoming a tourist; for another, the changes evident in the area were stark when separated in time by absence. As kids, my brothers and I used to ride bikes or play in the abandoned and empty Convention Hall—the building on the cover—which now hosts several boutique clothing shops, two clubs, a gelateria, an oyster bar, and a coffee shop. But just as its once-decrepitude was contained, so has the revitalization and change in demographic been specific to Asbury Park. The unique communities that border Asbury—most relevantly to the novel, the United Methodist community in Ocean Grove and the Syrian Jewish enclave in Deal—remain largely insulated and have largely resisted change. It all makes for a fraught, tense setting with genuine explosive potential.

TM: If you were to situate your book among other novels set in New Jersey, which titles do you think it’s in conversation with? Which other New Jersey novels influenced your book?

DHT: There has been no shortage of good fiction about New Jersey, from Richard Ford to Junot Díaz to Judy Blume to Philip Roth. But, for whatever reason, the Jersey Shore has been largely overlooked, which is a shame—it’s a fascinating, complex, multicultural behemoth that squeezes hundreds of unique communities into a very narrow space, and then erupts each Memorial Day as the summer crowds come. I’m hoping to see more fiction about and from the Jersey Shore in years to come.

TM: What, if anything, do you want readers to take away from Greetings from Asbury Park?

DHT: As mentioned before, there’s an experimental, improvisational style to the novel, and I’m hoping that it’s read as much for this as it is for its traditional narrative. I’m a little bit rhythm-obsessed as I write, and I really love the craft on the level of the sentence. So, I’m hoping that comes across.

Aside from that, I’m hoping that some of the moral questions posed don’t just ruffle feathers, but actually get people thinking about some difficult questions.

TM: Tell us a little about your process. And does your study of mathematics inform your writing process in any way.

DHT: I don’t think my studying of math does much to inform the way I write, but my study of music certainly does. The cadence of the sentence is critical to me, and I read everything aloud as I write it.

As for process, I take a ton of notes throughout the day. I feel like I’m supposed to carry a mysterious leather-bound journal, but I actually just use the notes app on my phone. The first thing I do when I sit down to write is type out all the notes that I’ve taken, separating them into different categories and tweaking the sentences as needed. The idea of sitting down and doing all my thinking in front of a blank page really terrifies me, so I try to minimize that—mostly because I just don’t feel that it is a productive way to go about writing. So, I feel like I do a good chunk of my writing while walking around or reading or doing anything but writing, and then I clean it up when I’m actually in the document.

TM: In the writing world, people seem to either be pro-MFA or anti-MFA. How has your experience at The New School been? And how do you view that odd divide over MFA programs?

DHT: I’ve had a really great experience at The New School. Coming from a non-creative writing background, this was my first real opportunity to participate in workshops, and I found the feedback invaluable. It just takes all the guesswork out of writing for yourself, and its enormously useful to find out if some specific style is or isn’t working.

That being said, I think it’s important to take all criticism with a grain of salt so that you don’t end up sounding like everybody else; I think the foundation of the anti-MFA side is that it transforms what should be a generation of individual American writers into one big, conglomerate fiction-making machine that produces cookie-cutter fiction. I haven’t come up against any sort of prescriptive approach to fiction at The New School, and that’s a great thing. I also was mostly remote during my time there, which—who knows?—might be an effective built-in tool for checking the collective influence that a classroom of critics has on your work. There’s a protective/insulating element to interacting only through Zoom, and there could be some value in that, from the perspective of avoiding formulaic fiction.

TM: What are you working on now? Another novel? Short stories?

DHT: I have a second novel coming out in February of 2023. It’s a retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Greco-Roman myth as a multigenerational Jewish family saga (called Morfawitz, obviously). It’s very, very different than Greetings from Asbury Park. And I’m finishing up another novel now which is pretty different from both of those. Coming to creative writing relatively late, I feel that it’s only within the past few years that I’ve escaped having my fiction sound like whatever it is that I’m reading at the time, and really begun developing a voice of my own. It’s an exciting time for me, and I’m honing or making up new little tricks of craft every day.

TM: I have to ask, are you still using that math degree?

DHT: Not even a little bit.

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