Tag Archives: Alan Furst

Just Talking: Me & Anthony Doerr

20 Mar
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This conversation took place on May 14 2014 at my one time favorite neighborhood place The Keltic Krust (gone now). Anthony Doerr’s most recent novel,All the Light We Cannot See was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and (for what its worth) named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review. As is my way, Tony and I spent a pleasant and engaging hour chatting about this and that. The account of which you can read below:

(3 OR 4 MINUTES DISCUSSING KID SPORTS , COACHING AND UMPIRING)

RB: What do you want to talk about? Have you spoken with a lot of people?

AD: The book came out eight days ago—so yeah, I’ve been talking a lot. I usually am skilled enough to deflect conversation away from myself. I get tired of it. I am flattered. It’s a lot better than having no one interested your work.

RB: Is this the first time you have done a book tour?

AD: I came to Boston for the 3rd book—Four Seasons in Rome. For About Grace (my 2nd book) I went to a bunch of cities. The Shell Collector won a prize (Barnes & Noble) and so I went to 20 cities-or-so cities visiting B&Ns.

RB: Here’s a personal question—what’s it like living in Boise, Idaho?

AD: It’s not a personal question. I love it. It’s great. We always feel we need to crank up the drawbridge and not tell people how great it is. It’s a beautiful little town. I can ride my bike to work. 300 days of sunshine a year.

RB: Where is work?

AD: I’m just a writer as my work. But I rent an office for $150 a month, outside my house.

RB: You can’t write at home?

AD: Even before we had kids it was too difficult. My wife would be at work and I would just do things at the house. Productive procrastination—it’s not like I would lie down. I would clean the garage meticulously.Fold every piece of laundry very carefully. And as hours ratchet by, I start to get more and more upset with myself and anxious.

RB: Why wouldn’t you go to the public library?

AD: I did at first, before I could afford this office. My problem is I have to pee every few hours—

RB: —the library doesn’t have lavatory?

AD:They do but it’s more of a laptop issue. Especially when I am in a good place, the last thing I want to do is pack up everything in my carrel and go to the bathroom. Then I come back and the carrel is gone. For me, fiction is often this house of cards you are building and if the kids come in or my wife wants me to do something or someone interrupts me–the phone rings–the house of cards falls over.

RB: Do you put things on a wall as visual aids?

AD: I do. There were a lot of photographs that I used writing this book. I covered a couple of walls.

RB: Did you travel to Germany?

AD:I did. I went to Europe three times. Germany, France. Normandy—Saint Malo. I visited three different times.

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Lets get back to Boise— Gail Collins wrote a column on state legends and mentioned Idaho. Was the potato a part of the state motto?

AD:I don’t know. The potato I would understand. The university football team plays on blue turf.

RB: Yeah, what’s up with that?

AD: And then you get the white supremacists.

RB: Well, who can forget Ruby Ridge and its aftermath?

AD: That’s 9 hours north of our house—of course the reputation was earned.

RB: I met one other Idahoan, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter who is from Moscow Idaho.

AD: I’ve never met him but I like his work.

RB: I met him because he wrote a novel a few years back.

AD: You interviewed him—I read that. I hadn’t give him a chance as a novelist (which wasn’t fair because he is a wonderful songwriter) because I tend to be skeptical of someone who is really good at something and then they try to do something else. But his novel is good.

RB: Back to you—what determined the way you structured this story? Do you decide the form before you started the actual writing?

AD: : A lot of those decisions are not conscious. You are just kind of fumbling around, trying to figure out how this scaffolding will be built. But if I look back and start thinking about it critically, I realized that I’ve been building larger narratives our of little title pieces for a decade or so now. I think at least three of the stories in my last book, Memory Wall were long stories built with titled sections. “Memory Wall,” itself, the title novella is built from sections, each a little less than a page and each section has a title. What I liked about it was that it allowed me to move between points of view and employ a narrator who can go on little runs of lyricism and then you can give the reader a rest, some white space, between them.

RB: Janet Maslin commended you for doing that.

AD:Yes, she did. Which was surprising. She found an interview I had given at Powell’s and pulled that out. I was glad — I am getting a lot of questions about it. I didn’t think it was so unique or different; I’m certainly not the only contemporary writer to do it; Anne Carson, Jenny Offil, etc. I am getting a lot of questions like, ”Is it a response to short attentions spans?” Or Internet culture?

RB: That’s a reasonable question. Francine Prose’s recent book uses different forms —letters, book excerpts—to advance the narrative. You did the same—

AD: I wanted to make a symmetrical pattern and then occasionally disrupt it and see what that would do for a reader and try to keep in a reader’s head. See if she can keep both of these narratives—its almost as if I spat two lines straight up towards the sky and just inclined them slightly toward each other. . I want a reader to intuit that they are going to intersect and start anticipating that. And hopefully that builds some narrative momentum.

RB: And there are echoes of Rashoman — 2 people looking at the exact same thing…

AD: Yeah, thanks. I love that. Certainly that’s true for radio in the novel. Radio plays a different role in each of their lives. It’s both a curse and a gift.

RB: Philip Kerr, who has a novel series about a homicide detective in Nazi Germany says when he is finished with one of those novels, he feels like “he is climbing out of a dirty basement.”

AD: : I totally understand what he was saying. It felt so good to finally take those photos down. I had photos of the Hitler Youth in my office; I’d have friends come over and they’d emphatically ask, “What are you doing in here?” And I was beating myself up any time I read something that wasn’t about World War II or written in German around that time—something that I couldn’t qualify as research. For almost a decade, anything I was reading, I felt it should bend itself toward this project. So it felt so nice just really in the past three months to move into this Panama piece or start reading things about another time in history. Part of the reason that All the Light took so long was the psychic damage of reading incessantly about the destruction of human beings, especially when you read about the Eastern front and the Ukraine and this ravine called Babi Yar.

RB: ‘Killing fields’ before the term was coined.

AD: Unreal. The most destructive conflict you can imagine. And even forgetting what happened to Gypsies and disabled people and Jewish people, just what happened to soldiers on both sides —the level of violence and brutality in those two winters—‘42 and ’43 was obscene So sometimes reading those things I would have to stop. That’s why I wrote two other books. Partially as procrastination because this book was so difficult to put together. And partly because psychologically it was really difficult to live in the space for so many months..

RB: So, you first had the idea for this story and then you began to research? Or you began research about something and it got a little sharper and you researched more…

AD: Mostly the latter. You write yourself into these unknowns and you realize, ”I need to understand what a kitchen in 1939 would look like in Brittany.” So now I have to go figure that out. My problem there is you have to avoid letting that balloon into a kind of research/procrastination. Because after while I’m like, “Ooh maybe I ‘ll look at some more photos.” (laughs) It’s a lot easier than writing new sentences.

RB: Did you read all of [Joseph] Goebbels’s* writing?

AD: No, no, mostly his speeches in translation. Everything that is on Werner’s radio as a boy is real. I’m not making it up. All those slogans — that’s at that NAPOLA school (National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta). Yea, that stuff is so sinister.

RB: You read memoirs of students who attended that school?

AD:: Yes, a lot of that is in German, which I cannot read, I had to punch them into some god-awful Google translator. But those schools were real and sometimes in the novel I am toning down the punishing nature of those environments—I don’t really want to shine the light so brightly just on violence. That’s true, too, in what happens to Jutta [Werner’s sister] very late in the novel. In all likelihood, in real life, that would have happened to her many, many more times.

RB: Were you relieved to finish this novel?

AD: Yeah. At some point I had so many colored note cards out on the floor and I felt like: If I get hit by a bus my poor wife is never going to be able to piece this thing together.

RB: You could have an editor like Michael Pietsch who put together David Foster Wallace’s post humus novel.

AD: I know. But for a couple years there, I don’t think anyone could have assembled that mess into something functional. But later there’s that amazing moment when you can print the thing off and you don’t have to worry about your computer crashing or a your auxiliary hard drive crashing. That feels good.

RB: So after you complete the writing part, how long does it stay with you?

AD: For me its kind of like painting. Maybe it’s a forced metaphor, but the paint starts to dry after a couple of weeks if your subconscious isn’t working on it. That’s true for really any project—even if you are halfway through it. For me even little things like Thanksgiving or a family vacation for a week —if I am away from the work for even that short of a time, the ice really starts to form over it. It takes a week of chopping away at the prose before you can get back into it Because for me the times I am most happy and working well is when I am getting 3, 4, 5 sometimes 9 hours a day of working and then you do something like this—you come to a coffee shop or you walk the dog or you go to your kid’s baseball game, and suddenly your subconscious solves one of those problems you’ve made for yourself. Or you read something in the newspaper that seems totally unrelated, but it’s not—when you’re working a lot, everything starts to become relevant. But if your brain moves on to something else, it takes a couple of weeks. And then it seals over.

RB: There is that oft-repeated truism that writers write even when they are not writing.

AD:Yeah, you interviewed David Mitchell once [actually 5 or 6 times]? He compared writing to farming “there are a lot of different activities that comprise farming,” he said, or something like that. I like that—writing is not just confronting a blank white page all the time. You’re reading through what you’ve got so far. Or you’re seeding the fields by looking for other ideas. Or you are polishing your tools, or flipping through the seed catalogs.

RB: It’s a total life experience —for some people. I was watching True Detective and I was thinking that that’s another occupation or calling that is total.

AD: That’s part of the reason I have that separate space. To my family when I am home I am home. I’m present. Even if that means I get up at one in the morning to work on a piece. When my kids are around and they need help, I try to be there. And if I am not at home I am at work.

RB: How do you get along with people?

AD: I love people! They’re fascinating. There are times—I don’t have a sign on my door and I wear headphones like a chain saw operator—so there are times when I am being anti-social probably, just because it takes so long to get something done. Some of the chapters in this book, I have probably combed over hundreds of times. So, you do spend hours away from your family and friends.

RB: Really when you think about it, writers are abnormal. I find it difficult to gauge to what people are paying attention. If your interests are literary or about narrative and thoughtful, how do you deal with people who follow the Kardashians or whatever the latest trivia dominates the news cycle? Or spend their time sending selfies?

AD: My wife helps me try to be a less judgmental person and to try to understand everybody’s following a story and even the Kardashians, for some people are some kind of narrative they are following. I can relate to it terms of sports—I follow the narrative arcs of games but also of seasons and players within a season, coming back from injuries. So for some people it might be movie stars or whatever—they’re still big narratives that are interesting to them. I try to appreciate that.
RB: Am old Jew, Philo of Alexandria offered, ”Be kind, everyone in life is in a great battle.”

AD: Dr. Sherman Nuland said that in one of your interviews. It’s a beautiful quote.

RB: Have there been any negative reviews of your new opus?

AD: There has been one so far. In the Sunday Times. It was painful—William Vollman wrote it. The rest have been really good. Vollman did not enjoy Werner’s trajectory as much as Marie’s. His argument is a little cluttered to me but that’s because I didn’t like it. He says that spend more empathetic effort making Marie an individual and relied more on stereotype for Werner. And the next review will say the exact opposite.

RB: I don’t see that as a criticism as much as statement of taste.

AD: Yeah.

RB: But it still bothered you.

AD:I wish it didn’t. (pause)That is a really important thing for me to struggle with— I try to pretend, to myself, that I don’t care. But I am also skeptical of the writers who tell me they never read reviews of their own work and they don’t care how their books are received. You make this thing alone for so long and it goes into the world and the point of it is optimistic—to hope to connect with a stranger. To hope that somehow there is something inside this language that meets a reader and the reader has to meet you halfway. And so you’re curious to find out how readers will respond to it. At least I am.

RB: That’s an articulate way of saying we want to be acknowledged and liked.

AD: Another way of thinking about it is that you are an engineer and you are making this machine and you want to find out of the machine is working.

RB: Maybe your best hope is people read the whole book.

AD: (laughs)

RB: I read a review of a biography of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee and it stated that there should be no 800-page book a bout a sports figure. So immediately I am wondering if the reviewer read the entire book. I thought the same thing — I don’t think anyone merits an 800-page biography. But having read entire book I thought Bradlee made it work.

AD: I think you can write 800 pages on weeds and the lawn if you are good enough at it. Nicholson Baker could probably do that. With that length you are announcing: I know a lot about this and it’s going to be really interesting. Your reader has to come into it with a lot of skepticism, and if you win you reader that’s an achievement.

RB. On the other hand you have the case of Robert Caro on LBJ.

AD: Yeah, amazing

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: That’s good example of how much information is contained in many lives. We are so packed with all the stuff that happens and if you are world historical it has more valence.

AD: Of course, any life you can unspool a day for a thousand pages

RB: Mostly we don’t pay attention too much of it.

AD: That brings me back to your saying that writing is a way of living. I got into reading because I didn’t want to sleepwalk my way through life. But you can’t stay awake and alert to the majesty every day, every minute. Occasionally if you train you mind to pay attention, slowing down and looking at things very deeply, you do get to focus a little more. I don’t believe in reincarnation. You get one trip and if you are lucky you get 80 years — so why not pay attention to every thing that you can and learn as much as you can while you are here.

RB: True dat. You never know when you are going to come across a good story or storyteller. I marvel that there are people who claim to be bored and played out in life—essentially dead. I don’t know how that happens.

AD: Me neither. I feel like the world is way too interesting—just say yes. That’s what I tell young people, my students—somebody asks you to do something say yes, even if you are tired. If they want you to go mountain biking I in the middle of the night. Or they want you to scrape and paint a mural on a wall, go do it. You might learn something and you might run in to the storyteller you were talking about. And helps you recast everything I a bright and different light and help you re-see the world.

RB: Have you a prognosis or prediction for the world of literature?

AD: Oh man, no. (both laugh) No, I am so grateful that people read my work and I’m reading a lot of interesting and vital writers who are alive right now.

RB: That’s quite true—it seems that the people who are perpetually grousing about all the crap being published make too much noise. But so what— if there is a lot of good work being published?

AD: Maybe there is a greater need for gatekeepers, maybe curators is a better word. I like the ‘Readings’ section of Harper’s —anything that helps me find beautiful, important pieces that I have missed.

RB: Literature is not disappearing in the foreseeable future

AD: We still crave narrative. People maybe turning to True Detective instead of William Gass. And that may be something to mourn but I think True Detective is a really interesting piece of work.

RB: Yes, created by a novelist, Nic Pizzolatto.
.
(Brief interlude discussing the Wire) The cable channels have provided writes with great opportunities.

AD: Yeah, pretty nice. I didn’t know much about it but Nic Pizzolatto. He had two books with Scribner before he made True Detective.

RB: Galveston was one.

AD: [writer] Ben Percy told me he was a pretty good storywriter and just decided to try a screenplay. You can tell he’s read Faulkner and some Flannery O’Connor.

RB: The commercial imperative coming from publishers seems to be to keep grinding out series.

AD: I like the idea of each of the boards of the book closing,and that making its own universe.

RB: Have you read Alan Furst?

AD: No.

RB: His novels cover the WWII era in Europe and they are exceedingly well researched. And his rigor and conscientious commitment to get the fact right is because as he related to me, “Too much blood was shed not to be accurate.”

AD: I felt that too—very much so. For me in this novel the Holocaust is underneath the book all the time. Its kind of a silence between the sentences and there are times when I told myself, “Tony you have to do this with a lot of respect.” Especially because I am not shining a light directly upon the camps—they are just always in the background behind Werner’s childhood.The weight of responsibility to do a respectful reverent job was hopefully achieved.

RB: I came across Peter Matthiessen’s newest book [ After Paradise]which is set in Auschwitz— a group of Buddhists make a pilgrimage—

AD: Long after the fact, you mean?

RB: Yes, yes. It’s a very peculiar entry point to a touchy subject. I loved the first book I read by him back in 1967— At Play In the Fields of the Lord.

AD: He was important to me. The whole Shadow Country Trilogy —those books are amazing. He ability to be in love with the natural world and tell stories about it—he and Rick Bass and Andrea Barrett —those were really models for me, people who care deeply about the environment and use storytelling to communicate that.

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Cormac McCarthy also.

AD: Yes, he does have a love for landscape and it’s complicated. It comes, primarily though narrative. And that’s what I had to learn. For years I would just describe what I would see. I loved to backpack .I loved to be outside. It was really Rick and Andrea and reading Mattheissen who started me thinking that maybe I could make narratives out of it. I really infect my characters with interests that I have.

RB: You like to repair radios? [Werner does this in the novel]

AD: I like to play with radios. I am not very good at fixing them.

RB: Speaking of McCarthy, I caught a scene in No Country for Old Men with Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Corbin, which was elliptical but perfectly understandable. It was this gem of a conversation.

AD: You’re looking at the surface of the lake but there is the lake underneath…

RB: Did he write the screenplay?

AD: The Coen brothers did. I have been in love with McCarthy since I was in my teens. That’s maybe not his best novel but it’s probably the best film made from one of his novels. That’s because it was true to the essence of the book without being true to the actual material of the book.

RB: I didn’t recall the hit man[played by Javier Badem] being that dark and evil a character in the novel.

AD: Archetypal—the Devil. This makes me want to go watch it. I should watch the Counselor when I am on an airplane sometime; haven’t seen that one yet.

RB: Yeah, the Counselor is an odd movie—full of ponderous dialogue and speechifying but Ridley Scott always makes watchable movies.

AD: Interesting. I like it in his books—the Judge’s rant in Blood Meridian fascinate me. I am glad nobody has made that [in to a film]. I feel like that book is a book and should remain just a book.

RB: Garcia Marquez famously refused a million dollars for One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read somewhere that he agreed to someone’s offer with the following conditions—each chapter would be presented as 2 minutes in film and each of the chapters would be shown in sequence, each year, for 100 years.

AD: That’s funny (laughs)

RB: That book was important to me as was Pynchon’s— what about you?

AD:So many, although I think of Gravity’s Rainbow now that you mention Pynchon. To the Lighthouse, Blood Meridian, and Rick Bass’s the Watch (his first story collection). So much energy and movement in that book, especially the novella that names the collection. All these bicyclist’s whizzing through the dark. And in love with the magic of nature —fireflies in jars. He has a story called “The Hermit’s Story” about swamp gas erupting under the bottom of this lake, all this magic that is around us. I love that story.

RB: I can’t remember the last time I saw a firefly.

AD: Aw, Robert. We don’t have them in Idaho but when I visit my parents in Ohio, of course.

RB: Or monarch butterflies.

AD: That’s a problem—that’s real.

RB: The Panama Project you mentioned, is that novel?

AD: I don’t know yet. I finished the edits on this book in January [2014]. The published version of the novel is 110,000 words —the original was 170,000. We worked really hard on it. I can get a little verbose so my editor [Nan Graham] helped me trim and prune and gain a little more momentum. The great thing about her is I never feel like she is trying to make the book more commercial; she’s just trying to make the book better. So, I think it will take me about three months or so before I can really get the next thing off the ground.

RB: So while you try to decide what do you do?

AD: Y: You just keep trying to make things, and you see if they can stand up on their own.

RB: Do you do journalism?

AD: I say ‘yes’ to travel magazines sometimes. Often those things fuel my fiction. Especially when I review science books —that stuff funnels back in to my work. Also I go mountain biking a lot.

RB: Do you envision every leaving Boise?

AD: For the quality of life we have and the amount of work I can get done. I never sit in traffic. There are days that go by that I ever get in a car.

RB: I lived South Coastal New Hampshire for a while. I get that. A life where a car is an option not a necessity. Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. Did we talk about everything you wanted to talk about?

AD: Sure. [A brief exchange about moi] Thanks.

LINKS

Anthony Doerr Tony’s website

Literary Jackpot, Against the Odds NY Times article (not a review) on All the Light We Cannot See

Alan FurstOne of my conversations with Furst

Ben Bradlee My chat with Ben about The Kid.

Philip Kerr A conversation with the creator of a slew of Bernie Gunther novels and a bunch of stand alones.

Josh Ritter The singer songwriter tries his hand at fiction.

Sherman Nuland My chat with the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.

Powell’s Interview

True Detective

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Norman Mailer’s Summer Reading List

27 May
Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

I have no doubt come late to the party—the beach/ summer reading lists having been proffered by the usual experts on beach/summer reading. I am not versed in this genre (though I can recall reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Foster Wallace’s magnum opus at a beach in Rincon Puerto Rico).Late, but not empty handed. Here’s a list (scroll to the bottom of this article if the name of the list confuses you):

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t SeeAnthony Doerr (Scribner)

Excellent narrative, riveting characters and the use of WWII Europe and Nazi depredations are not cliched.

Everything I Never Told You by  Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never told You -Celeste Ng(Penguin Press)

Ng’s debut novel about a teenager’s death and its reverberations in the family and community is nimbly told (no small feat with such a weighty subject.

The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs-Leonardo Padura(FSG)

Trotsky, his assassin, The Spanish Civil War, Stalin and the Moscow show trials, an aging Cuban writer, two wolfhounds— its a far flung story (times and places) written with Carribbean alacrity.Don’t believe me? Here’s Ann Louise Bardach take:

A global epic set mostly in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow and Mexico City, Padura’s novel is grounded in a trifecta of storylines: We have the grim saga of Trotsky’s 11-year flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland.

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return-Elizabeth De Waal (Picador)

Adam Kirsch’s paean to Ms De Waal should move you. Or not:

…appearing now, as a historical document, it gains an additional interest, as Elisabeth de Waal’s imaginative response to her own exile…This is not, perhaps, a new story, but in The Exiles Return it is told with sharpness and authenticity.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek– Smith Henderson (Ecco)

I am partial to American novels set outside urban cultures and with a minimum of consumer activities. Like this one, set in the Fly over zone.

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair- Olen Steinhauer (St Martin’s

As sure-handed as Le Carre reporting on the activities of spooks and various secret police. A world normally Byzantine in its alliances and
fluidity of loyalties, this plot set in Cairo seems especially volatile

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons-  edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons- edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (Voice of Witness)by Ayelet Waldman , Robin Levi (Editor)

In case you were charmed into seeing incarceration as a vacation by the Netflix series Orange is the New Black here’s a corrective. Or Christina Rathbone’s A World Apart Women,Prison and the World Behind Bars

They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full    by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon)

Fishermen on Sea of Galilee

A citizen said, Every action
born out of pure spontaneity
is correct. It’s possible
he said corrupt but I was
eavesdropping. Correction:
minding my business: he was
performing, saying, also,
to his fellow citizens, I know
you agree with me on this.
Look, it’s autumn in our
hairlines and some smear
on the pavement’s been run
over so many times we can’t
tell whether or not it started
out as an animal.
My heaven is populated
with conures, llamas,
and adolescent bears
but is otherwise
fairly quiet. I’m done
looking for approbation
from people for whom I have
no respect and would respect
less if I met them.
Was this the sea they parted.
Understatement, so rarely
biblical: there is no quill pen
half as sinister as the lone
piece of penne in a dish
of farfalle. Today we rock
anonymity and tomorrow find
further evidence of same
dying in the comment fields.
Wake me when you can
tell me whether every taxi
must engage in a dialogue
with all previous taxis,
when you do something
impossible, when you leave
the party, when you take
my worst advice. This is,
friends, this was the sea.

Midnight  in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Random House)

Since I discovered Furst I have continued to read his regularly published and dependably entertaining and instructive war time “thrillers” I confess that was a brief period when I wasn’t entertained or instructed but the probability is high that was a shift in my attention or something even more subjective. But his latest opus, I can report is up to (my) snuff. Paris,1938 and the Spanish Civil War goings-on make for a great setting. And that infamous place where the Bulgarian waiter is shot is per Furst’s practice, cleverly insinuated into the plot.

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning– Greg Iiles (William Morrow)

A densely plotted post racial novel set in Natchez—that’s in Mississippi for all you Yankees that is thick on Civil Rights Movement era history as well lots of things you didn’t know about Natchez. Frankly I thought it was about 200 pages too long (800 pages). Reportedly, this is the first volume of a trilogy

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl– Robert Stone (houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Robert Stone is the gold standard of American fiction. That’s it.

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik (Pushkin Press)

Writer Stefan Zweig has garnered lots of attention recently not the least because of Wes Anderson’s film Grand Hotel which in turn reportedly owes something to The Impossible Exile by George Prochnick (Other Press). I like this novel about Zweig’s last few months of life very much

A Permanent Member of The  Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member of The Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member go there Family by Russell Banks (Ecco)

Russell Banks is also the gold standard of American Fiction.

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves– Nick Turse (Picador)

Sorry to saddle this book under the rubric of Important book but if you are in doubt about whether the perpetrators of the Indochinese Debacle were/are war criminals a few chapters of Turse’s exhaustively researched
account should shake up your belief in American moral superiority.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams  by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR (Little Brown)

See my chat with Ben Bradlee

Euphoria   by  Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic)

Author Alice Greenway expiates

Euphoria is a love story set against the scramble by anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea to record or map the traditions and beliefs of societies coming apart under the brutal onslaught of miners, traders, missionaries and colonialists. Lily King writes with astonishing insight and authority about a number of New Guinea tribes and particularly about their distinct gender relations. At the same time, she delves into the intellectual flights and passions of three anthropologists – as complex, rivalrous and brutal as any of the cultures they study. Euphoria is a brilliantly written book and entirely fascinating from start to finish. The character of Nell Stone, slight, wracked with fever and insect bites, with a slight limp from a fall in the jungle and large cuscus-like eyes, capable of joy and huge intellect, is extraordinary.

 American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Ward Just is a dependable novelist who chronicles both remote and familiar pockets of American Life, in this case the life of an American foreign service officer who’s brief tryst with a German nurse in Vietnam seems to haunt him through his years of world wide diplomatic postings to his pleasant but solitary retirement in France

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything  by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With A Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)

Who doesn’t love Barbara Ehrenreich‘s smart and compassionate views on the world? This,Living with a Wild God, would be her most personal book and reaches into an area that many people who spend time thinking, think many hours about. To quote one review

The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.”

“When I am asked what’s on my summer reading list… I read the all year long” Norman Mailer

Talking with Anthony Marra

23 Mar

For what its worth. Anthony Marra‘s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth) won numerous awards and accolades. A graduate of a Division One writing program (Iowa) and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and is currently teaching there. His novel is set in war torn Chechnya a doctor observes Russian atrocities and then rescues a neighbor’s daughter teaming up with another doctor to survive the relentless barbarity.

Anthony and I met at my favorite neighborhood cafe, The Keltuc Krust. Basking outside in the late spring warmth and amid the outdoor sounds of passing traffic, we chatted about his childhood, Chechyna, how he writes,his early inspirations, Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, acknowledgements, “his” cats, Netflix and his next project

Anthony Marra (photo:Robert Birnbaum)

Anthony Marra (photo:Robert Birnbaum)


15 May 2013

RB: What was your feeling when you finished your first novel?

AM: Well, ‘finished’ is a relative term.

RB: What was your feeling when you finished the first draft?

AM: A feeling of relief, a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of trepidation knowing how much more work there was to do. I knew from the beginning that my writing process has always been to write as much as I can and just keep moving forward and then go back and revise and revise. While I was writing the first draft I kept a record on my wall of my daily word count. My goal was a thousand words a day. The days I would get to over a thousand words I would mark in black ink. And on the days I got less, I marked in red ink. I grew up in a Catholic family and went to church and Sunday school and I had all this shame running through me.

RB: The days that were in red were days of shame?

AM: Exactly. I would just see it staring back at me, the red ink. So that kept me honest for the most part. When I finished the first draft, I printed it out, sat down at my keyboard and started retyping the entire novel from the first sentence. And I repeated that process four times.

RB: There was 4 different drafts?

AM: I wrote the book 4 full times— each time I felt the shifts and changes in the book occurred naturally, organically. By retyping the sentences I am able to tap into whatever creative well they first emerged from.

RB: What is your sense of how much the 2nd draft changed?

AM: It changed more in the language and the tone, the style, more than anything. IF you were to read the first draft and then read the current version, the final version, I think the greatest difference would be the language. And how the story unfolds and how much the point of view was fixated on one character and didn’t move into the points of view of minor characters or jump into the future. It was a bit sharper and had less of a total range. I had a different ending on the first drafts.

RB: What did you think as you did each draft? “This doesn’t have…” Or “I need to …” What was the approach to critiquing the drafts?

AM: Yeah, I would read through the previous draft and see what didn’t feel right.

RB: So when you arrived at draft number 4, you thought—

AM: When I got to 4, at that point this hyper-omniscient narrator came into being. Everything just felt alive and real to me, in a way that it hadn’t before. I felt the story was as complete as could be. After that I continued with my editor and ended up cutting 50 pages and condensing things here and there. But it was that draft where I made the breakthrough to what the book could be rather than what it might potentially be.

RB: How did you feel then?

AM: I felt pretty good. A sense of the vision meeting reality. I remember once hearing someone say that happiness is where your expectations and reality converge. And I took a literary sense of that—what the book could be and what the book was, came together.

RB: What was the working title?

AM: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

RB: Taken from a Russian medical encyclopedia?

AM: Well, I found it in an English medical dictionary

RB: In the book you wrote that it came from a Soviet encyclopedia.

AM: Yeah. I can’t recall the name of the text.

RB: That’s a splendid definition of life.

AM: Its one of seven definitions. I was on line, weighing various definitions, as one does on a Saturday afternoon…

RB: yeah, that’s what I would be doing—

AM: Who doesn’t? I went to the ‘L’ section and I found this definition and it struck me as so peculiar.

RB: Peculiar enough to sound fictional.

AM: I can send you the link—

RB: No, no, no. I am not doubting you
—that is, until you get really outrageous. What do you think of the dictum, “Write what you know?”

AM: I prefer the dictum, ”Write what you want to know.”

RB: (laughs) Good one. You present some wonderful images in the story— a toilet bowl over an unexploded bomb. Did you actually see that?

AM: I didn’t see that. I’d hear reports —someone using basins to cover unexploded mortar shells. The setting is a place where absurdities abound.

RB:(pause for fire sirens that are roto-rootering my inner ears —I am wearing headphones). That was deafening. You could say that about most of Eastern Europe. Dark humor seems to reign supreme.

AM: Yeah, it’s a gallows humor. When I visited Chechnya people were constantly cracking jokes, usually at my expense. There was this sense that we laugh because it makes things bearable.

RB: Reportedly you wrote this book because there were no English language novels that had been written about Chechnya.

A view from the mountains in eastern Chechnya. (photo: Anthony Marra)

A view from the mountains in eastern Chechnya. (photo: Anthony Marra)

AM: I came to Chechnya and started reading about it because I was a college student in St Petersburg Russia shortly after the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated a couple of block from my apartment. There was a Metro station where Russian veterans of the Chechynan War would congregate—it was very much in the air.

RB: ‘Congregate” meaning— smoking cigarettes, drinking. panhandling…

AM: All of the above.

RB: Were they homeless?

AM: Some of them. Some in wheelchairs would go through the train cars asking for change. It[Chevchnya] was in the air and I realized I knew nothing about it. I started reading history books and non-fiction accounts and came completely moved by these stories of ordinary people persisting in extraordinary circumstances.

RB: I am aware of world events—there was a hostage situation in a school that turned out very badly?

AM: Yeah, Beslan.

RB: By and large I was totally ignorant and unaware of the circumstances there. And then I thought I am not attending to what’s happening in Darfur; I am sure indigenous are still being murdered in Central America; I don’t know if the Tamal rebels have prevailed in Sri Lanka. Around the world there are numerous deadly tribal squabbles —did you think writing a novel about Chechnya would make a difference?

Location  of Chechnya in Caucasus

Location of Chechnya in Caucasus

AM: No, I wanted to write a story. I am not out to change the world. I am not an investigative journalist uncovering anything or trying to shine a light on anything as much as I just wanted to tell the story I don’t think has reached an American audience in this form.

RB: Recognizing that this is a novel, have you been criticized for a failure to adhere to the reported facts? Or that you have given a faulty picture?

AM: No, I have not heard any significant criticism.

RB: How about insignificant?

AM: I suppose of you read some of the reviews. The city and the village that the novel is based in are fictitious. I created them so that I could —originally I was going to set it in Grozny but I felt very uncomfortable setting a story there that wouldn’t match up to the historical reality. So I created my one city and village and region so that I would have the freedom to veer away, to create my own history.

RB: What language is spoken there, Chechnyan?

AM: Yes, it one of a series northern Caucasian dialects that split away from the European family and are not connected linguistically to any thing else.

RB: So how does the language deal with modernity?

AM: Its interesting when I visited, a lot of people my age—I am 28 are just learning Chechnyan now. The person I hired to show me around had grown up in Moscow coming to Chechnya as an adult. And was studying/taking the language. Another woman, when I asked about what billboard said shrugged and told me she didn’t speak Chechnyan.

RB: Was the exile of Chechnayans to Kazakhstan mentioned in the book, a real historical event?

A painting of the 1944 Soviet deportation of ethnic Chechens to Kazakhstan and Siberia

A painting of the 1944 Soviet deportation of ethnic Chechens to Kazakhstan and Siberia

AM; Yeah that’s true. It was in 1944 and Stalin decided as the German Army was moving in to the Northern Caucuses with hopes of capturing oil in Grozny and eventually Baku that the Chechnyans would side with the Germans.

RB: Was it a Soviet republic?

AM: It was a semi autonomous state.

RB: What were your aspirations when you were growing up in Washington DC?

AM: When I was a kid I started reading my parents’ John Grisham novels and Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy and all those guys, when I was in elementary school, it was not only my entry into long books but into the adult world. Novels and fiction have always been my way of understanding the world. I was an avid reader and as I grew up I started to try to write —the first story I wrote was the called “The Last Of The Bohemians”—

RB: —how old were you?

AM: Sixteen. It was a page and half long about a man walking up a staircase and I sent it to the New Yorker (both laugh)

RB: Good for you. Its better that you didn’t know what that process was.

AM: I got a rejection so quickly—they have very good taste there. It’s been downhill form there.

RB: Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Stanford—I can see that. I read your book’s acknowledgments (can I be acknowledged in your next book, if I give you money?)

AM: Sure.

RB: Why did you apply to Iowa?

AM: It has this reputation as being this place that—this crucible, where writers I have admired like Dennis Johnson who is one of my favorite writers…. As soon as I realized he went to Iowa wanted to apply.

RB: I started to say reading the acknowledgments that I have spoken with a lot of the writers you were surrounded by—Ethan Canin

ETHAN CANIN circa 2001(photo: Robert Birnbaum)

ETHAN CANIN circa 2001(photo: Robert Birnbaum)

AM: I had a short story with several of these characters [from the novel] that I work-shopped with him—it was the very first thing I work-shopped at Iowa. He told me, “This should be a novel.” It was something I was already doing—other people had expressed that sentiment.

RB: It seems that a lot of Iowa graduates go on to Stanford and get a Stegner Fellowship. How has that been?

AM: It’s been incredible. Getting to work with Tobias Wolff and Adam Johnson and Elizabeth Talent. And the other Fellows are just—extraordinary. Its two years and your only obligation is to your work. It’s where I completed the last draft of the novel.

RB: Are you out on your own now and having to earn a living?

AM: Thankfully I will be at Stanford for 2 more years—I’ll be teaching there.

RB: Are you at all concerned that this kind of a cloistered life?

AM: Um.

RB: You weren’t concerned until I mentioned it.

AM: Now I am terrified (both laugh). No, I more concerned about health insurance. I like to think that my fictional interests are outward looking enough that I could pursue them in any environment.

RB: That’s good to think—how much do you attend to the “real world? Read newspapers, watch whatever news sources?

AM: Yeah. I feel like I am generally interested—

RB: Can I quiz you?

AM: Absolutely not. You mentioned those other civil conflicts I know as little about them as you do.

RB: But you are aware that they are out there?

AM: Yeah—for whatever reason this corner of the world [Chechnya] touched me in a way that made me want to delve deeper.

RB: What are you aspirations now as we sit here? Finish this conversation?

AM: I have to write a new book so I can acknowledge you.

RB: Good answer— I am sorry to burden you (both laugh).

AM: I am working in a second novel, which Hogarth will be publishing probably on 2 years or so.

RB: They committed sight unseen?

AM: It started as a collection of stories and now its something between stories and a novel that deals with this similar time period

RB: “Linked stories”?

AM: I hate that term but yeah. After that, my dad keeps telling me I should set a novel in Hawaii so we can all go there.

RB: Has anything unexpected happened because of the very positive reception for your debut novel?

AM: I wrote this novel when I was in Iowa. I was teaching rhetoric.I was making $11,000 that year. I was writing a book set in a place that most Americans can’t find on a map. Full of characters, full of names that are a little difficult to pronounce. There is no point of view situated in a familiar perspective. There are no Americans walking in stage. So I really didn’t think that anyone would be interested in it. I just knew that it was something that deeply interested me that —I felt I personally had to—to write the novel for myself really. And for my own sense of what I wanted to achieve as a writer. If it connected with other readers, brought a little attention to this area, that’s great. But I began without any expectations of any of that.

RB: I found it curious that Ann Patchett wrote a blurb that connected your book to Jonathan Foer’s first novel.

AM: I am huge fame of Ann Patchett’s work—she is a brilliant writer. She didn’t know me from Adam and that she would take the time —

RB: Sure, sure but its kind of misleading and lacking in imagination. Do you read a lot?

AM: Yeah.

RB: Fiction?

AM: Yeah.

RB: Contemporary?

AM: I try to read both. I am not very good about sticking to it but I try to rotate between reading a book that was written before 1985 and one that’s contemporary and then a non-fiction. I feel like it’s important to learn what your peers are doing and what’s happening in the world today. Its as important as revisiting and learning from the classics.

RB: I came across a recent quote by writer J Robert Lennon (Mailer bio) that asserted that most contemporary fiction is terrible…

AM: (laughs)

RB: And he’s a contemporary novelist. I see remarks like that I am immediately suspicious.

AM: Yeah, I feel like we are in the Golden Age. There are more wonderful books being published—

RB: —I share that view. Sure there are “bad” books being published out of the 150 thousand books a year. So, yeah. How many people read a hundred books a year? What contemporary fiction have you liked?

AM: I recently finished the Edward St Auybn, “The Patrick Melrose “novels.

RB: Its brilliant writing.

AM: Its as if the cast of Downton Abbey have gone on to become substance abusers. It’s so dark but so funny and really quite powerful. Also I read Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal —he is someone who influenced me. He is a very whimsical writer. Always with the backdrop of these horrific historical changes. He wrote Too Loud a Solitude. It’s about this trash compactor in Prague. And he basically trashes banned books. Along the way he saves them. He has this apartment that is built out of books—he has a canopy bed with 2 tons of books on top of it. He is afraid that quite literally, he will be crushed by these books. He’s great.

RB: Do you feel you have to read the books of the writers you are surrounded by at Stanford?

AM: Uh, yeah.

RB: Orphan Masters Son [Adam Johnson]?

AM: I read it when it first came out and I am in the middle of it now—I am rereading it. It’s absolutely brilliant—the sheer imagination and empathy. That book has become a measurement, a meter stick for what’s possible.

RB: Do you do anything besides read and write?

AM: I go running. Margaret and I have 2 cats. Well, she has 2 cats—

RB: You are not accepting any responsibility for the felines?

AM: I used to but yesterday I was talking about my cats and she was like, “Wait a minute.” [Laughs]

RB: So if you broke up, as has been known to happen, the cats go with her?

AM: Unfortunately. I probably would steal one.

RB: This is on the record.

AM: (laughs) One of them is this fat cat and the other one, periodically licks itself bald. He has bad allergies and we have been trying to deal with them. They make quite a pair, the two of these cats.

RB: So, you run and take care of 2 cats—do you watch movies?

AM: Actually, I am kind of a sucker for those superhero comic movies. I have loved comic books since I was a kid.

RB: The charm of those movies eludes me.

AM: What did you think of Ben Affleck’s Boston movies?

RB: I thought The Town was riveting base on a Chuck Hogan novel (Prince of Thieves )and Gone, Baby, Gone had great actors.

AM: I really like The Town. I saw it twice.

RB: Because of Netflix and have just seen a John Cusak movie that I had never even heard of—The Factory. The other one has a Philadelphia homicide cop who is diagnosed with a terminal disease who is persuaded to have himself killed by a hired killer but is not told when. Then he learns that the diagnosis was wrong and now wants to call of his own murder. Great cast, Tim Roth, Gabriel Byrne…

AM: Tim Roth is great—he has never really gotten his due.

RB: I agree (19.17.2). There was a moment in the epic Rob Roy when Roth, playing a fop and philanderer, transforms into a lethal and vicious swordsman. I’ve been an admirer of his ever since. Plus he did an understated movie with Tupac. Do you have Netflix?

AM: Yeah, I like watching documentaries especially Frontline. Its one of the great gifts of television

RB: HBO’s documentaries are impressive. I just watched a series on warzone photographers called Witness produced by Michael Mann. Riveting stuff! When will your next book be published?

AM: About 2 years.

RB: Now that I have a dog in that hunt please report your progress to me. A fairly recent development in authorial acknowledgments is to include publicists. Imagine the ground you would be breaking acknowledging me. There is Sharon Sternberg’s Leaning in book where she has 7 pages of acknowledgments for a 140 page book

AM: There has been some blowback on acknowledgments. In Cutting the Stone there must be over 10 pages [of acknowledgements] He goes through and lists this scene was influenced by this book. Its ends up becoming this

RB: —epilogue.

AM: This wonderful reading list —the books that influenced him and the books he loves—its great.

RB: Indeed. So we’ll meet back here in 2 years. Thank you

AM: All right, I’d love to. Thanks very much for taking the time to do this.

RB: This is my pleasure.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Currently reading, Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Knopf)

Chatting with Amity Gaige

9 Jun

Interview with Amity Gaige (AG) and Robert Birnbaum (RB). March 28th, 2013 Location: Keltic Krust, West Newton Ma.Transcription:Jacob Powers, Recorder: Zoom H2N Digital, Camera: Lumix Digital, Contax G2 35 MM, Film: Ilford XP2

Ms Amity Gaige (photograph: Robert Birnbaum)

Ms Amity Gaige (photograph: Robert Birnbaum)

RB: I was going to ask why you are a professor of Baltic Studies, but you’ve already revealed to me that you have relatives in the Baltic.

AG: I’m not a professor of Baltic Studies—let me clarify. I’d love that. I did have a fellowship in the Baltic where they let me stay in a luxury hotel in Rega for a month. The hotel was beautiful. It had all of the amenities, and there was a really great chocolate shop around the corner that I visited pretty much every day.

RB: What did you learn during the residency?

AG: I learned that the book I was working on at the time was not the book I was meant to be writing, so I started to write Schroder.

RB: And what happened to the book you weren’t supposed to be writing?

AG: It’s in the drawer. I wasn’t going to throw it out when I could recycle it. Metaphorically and literally it was recycled because those pages found their way into Schroder, even though that other book was a completely different book. The themes are very similar. I was working on a book about the Soviet experience, about WWII, about my mother as an immigrant—she left Latvia when she was five and arrived in the United States when she was eleven. I wanted to write about all of these things, but I discovered I was writing about it too literally.

RB: So, you used the things you learned in Riga to write about an East German immigrant?

AG: Absolutely. I’ve actually never been to Berlin, so Riga is the Berlin in this book. It’s the source of Erik’s childhood memories. Frankly, I just had to do a lot of research to write those sections, but the feel of the homeland that’s lost to war, specifically to communism, is familiar to me. I felt like the emotions were authentic and sincere, but the scenario was based on research.

RB: My favorite fact was that of the 8,000 or so people who attempted to cross the Berlin Wall, only 300 actually made it.

AG: It was amazing to research that. There were so many, as the book says, creative attempts. Some of the details included in the book are totally true. There was a guy who designed a zip line from a building in East Berlin into West, and his family zipped down. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine living in a world in which you’re so close to freedom? You’re so close, but there’s a wall between you and your family, between you and the life you want to lead. You can see the other side, but you can’t get there. It’s a wonderful metaphor.

RB: Were you tempted at all, amongst the things that were factual, to make up any?

AG: Yeah, I think I did make things up. I freely mixed fact and fiction in those scenes, which I feel I have every right to do as a novelist. There’s one detail, amongst many true details about how people crossed the wall, where a little boy who flies across it in an aluminum airplane. I think there is some factual basis there, but I put the little boy inside of the plane. That’s what’s great about writing fiction. You can do that with impunity.

RB: But it is an issue. People challenge that idea nonetheless. Alan Furst gave me a reason for getting it right— he writes serious, historically accurate fiction based on wartime Europe. I asked, “You’re a novelist, why do you feel you’re obliged to make sure all of the details are exactly right.” He said, “Well, because so much blood was shed over them.” I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s certainly convincing. Do you feel like you are required to defend your right to make things up?

AG: No. I think what Allen Furst says makes a lot of sense. I don’t know his work, but there are certain contexts in which I would totally agree with that. However, with my protagonist, Erik, everything he says is somewhat suspect. He’s a historian through his own very unique, eccentric lens.

Schroder by Amity Gaige

Schroder by Amity Gaige


RB: Is there in fact a science of pausology?

AG:There is a field called “silence theory,” but I kind of made up the pausology stuff. I think it’s justified in this narrative because Erik is something of an unreliable narrator. He admits he’s not a very good scholar, he admits he doesn’t know everything, and he can’t remember so much, so it’s ok to distort details through him. If I were trying to create a piece of fiction that was meant to be reliable and objective, then I suppose I would agree. For example, if I was writing in third person, and I was trying to write the book I was originally trying to write about the Latvian occupation, or the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the independence of all of the Soviet countries, I would definitely feel the need to get those facts straight. I wouldn’t just sit there and invent stuff. Obviously, the whole thing is invented anyway, but I would base it more closely on fact.

RB: I was thinking about when a publication one contributes to, asks for a short bio. Over the years I’ve frequently enjoyed that opportunity. What if I attempted to write one short profile every day for a year? Each one would be different and true. You said something [in the novel]I thought was so true, but you never justified it. You said there is no such thing as forgetting. I think about that a lot. Sometimes I try to keep lists of everyone I’ve ever met in my life whose name I couldn’t remember. They come to me when there is no pressure. So I am wondering if one could come up with enough material about one’s life to fill up 365 days X 150 words. What do you think? Has anyone done that? What would it be like to write a year worth of short biographies? They would all be true.

AG: It would be almost like you were taking your mind’s temperature every day. I’m teaching this class at Amherst College about unreliable narrators, and I’m very interested in the subject. I have taught the course a couple of times, and what we arrive at is the idea that the self changes significantly day to day. In a sense, what you are saying in this moment is the only reliable thing, but that same thing doesn’t apply tomorrow. The context of your life changes and that changes the truth. The truth itself is not fixed, and it’s not something you can locate in time and place. Especially when it’s coming through the literary or written self, because the words you use to describe something change as well. It’s constantly shifting. I find it very thrilling when you think about writing both fiction and non-fiction. There’s a new word that was in vogue a couple of years ago, and I hope it’s not anymore, but it’s “truthiness.” It was adopted as an acknowledgement of the fact that the truth is just very hard to get at, and likewise, that something can be untrue, but have “truthiness.”

RB: Do you think we will be friends at the end of this conversation?

AG: I feel like we are already friends.

RB: Well, it’s a way of asking about your name, Amity. Where did that come from? It’s a rather unusual name and it has an unusual meaning. It means friendship, right?

AG: Yes. What a beautiful meaning. Some times I do wonder how fateful the name was. What if they had named me Cruelty? Or Greed? My sister is named Karina, which is a Latvian name, and also a Spanish and Italian name, but I got Amity. My parents just liked the meaning and the sound.

RB: Do you have children?

AG: I do. I have two. I have a son named Atis, which is also a Latvian name. I also just had a baby named, Freya. I got the name from a British travel writer from the 1930’s named, Freya Stark. She’s a beautiful writer who traveled all over the world by herself. She was a very strong woman, so I love the name.

RB: You studied writing. Why would you do that?

AG: You mean get my MFA? That’s what people do these days. I don’t think it’s that unique.

RB: What are you talking about? You went to a program with 20 spots for 1,200 applicants.

AG: I just feel like I got lucky there. I was there from 97’ to 99.’

RB: In Central America, the bonds that exist between the militaries in all of those countries is the graduating class. The people who you go to the military academy with are closer to you than your family. Do you have any kind of ongoing relationship with the people you went to Iowa with?

AG: I am very close with three or four of them. Others I’ve lost touch with, but mean a great deal to me. I did become very close to people there, and I like your metaphor. It was very a very formative experience. I loved Iowa. I loved being out there in the weird mid-west, this windy, treeless place. I remember having a window that rattled so much I thought it was going to shatter and kill me—nobody would find me for days. I loved the people I met there. It’s a hard place for some people because it is a sort of crucible. The tests you have to go through as a write there, the competitiveness, the way they rank you is all very stressful. Those things, however, are only some aspects of it. If you can ignore those things, which a lot of people can, the teachers are fabulous, the other students are fabulous, and also it was such a hotbed. Everyone came through to read [usually at Prairie Lights Bookstore]. You could just meet famous people as if they’d just grown on trees.

RB: Were you older than your classmates? I ask because one writer told me that being in her mid-thirties was a great help to her because she didn’t feel put-off by the workshop competition.

AG: I wasn’t really more than a year or two older than my peers. There were some people who came right from undergraduate programs, but I was only a couple of years older than them. The competition doesn’t really depend on age. You can be in your thirties and still be full of self-doubt. There was an older woman there when I was there who had a really hard time. She didn’t have a lot of people her age to talk to. Personally, I had a concept of myself as a writer rather early in life based on the fact that I started writing when I was very young, and I had a bunch of publications by the time I’d left high school. That was a strange experience, which came largely because my father was sending out all of my poetry and short stories for me. I would never have done it myself.

RB: Like a tennis dad?

AG: Yes, a tennis dad is the right metaphor because tennis dads and moms are particularly intense in terms of encouraging their children. I had published a lot, so by the time I got to Iowa, I’d been thinking of myself as a writer for a long time. Not that I thought that meant I was a successful writer, or a writer destined for success. I didn’t feel that way.

RB: So when you meet somebody for the first time at a social gathering, and they inevitably ask you what you do for a living, do you tell them with great gusto that you are a writer? Is that the way you would do it, by saying you are a writer?

AG: Back then, no. I didn’t really go to those kinds of parties in high school. But now, sometimes I don’t say anything about writing if I don’t feel like talking about it. Sometimes, I’ll say I’m a teacher. It depends. Sometimes you tell someone you’re a writer and the person launches in about how they want to write a book, this is every detail of my story, and so on.

RB: There is a section in the book where a phrase is repeated for several pages. Is it just a typographic convenience that it ends where it ends? How did you know you got it right?

AG: I’ll tell you. When I started writing that phrase—the phrase is “I let you down”—I started typing, “I let you down, I let you down, I let you down…” and I had the idea that Erik would chant this for a while. Then I realized I could cut and paste. I was like, “Oh! I can just cut and paste,” but then I was like, “No! Of course you can’t cut and paste, are you kidding me? You have to write every single one of those.” I had to be fully in Erik’s character. If he was genuinely sorry, he’s wouldn’t have cut and pasted. I found that once I was typing that phrase for a while, I entered into an incredible emotional state. It was really one of the most intense experiences of writing the book. I don’t know what was so cathartic about writing it, but maybe I was speaking to everyone I’d ever let down. By the time I was finished writing that section, I felt this amazing catharsis. Just last night a beloved past student of mine and I had a beer before the reading, and he told me that he had read every iteration of “I let you down,” that he didn’t skim it, which was actually what I was hoping for. He said the same thing, that once you read it for a while it has a trance effect.

RB: I can’t decide about reading reviews. I go back and forth on it. Currently, I am in a period where I look at reviews to see if there are any clues I can find about the person I am going to interview. I found one review of your book that I thought was worth reading. It appeared in New York Magazine. The article’s references to Nabokov troubled me. Should I feel that I haven’t really grasped your book without having ever read Nabokov?

AG: No, not at all. I loved that review, and I loved the scandalousness of it; in the cover art of the article they scratched out Lolita and wrote Schroder. I did not intend it to be a re-writing of Lolita. In some ways, I think it would be absolutely the same book if you weren’t aware of my admiration of Nabokov. There are so many influences on this book that you don’t need to know any of them. I could name so many, even outside of literary influence, my experiences as an immigrant, or my experience as a mom, for example. I love Lolita, but I almost get a little nervous by the comparison because Humbert Humbert is such a monster. The reviewer says that Erik is much more compassionate than Humbert, and that you feel much more emotional depth in Erik than you do Nabokov’s protagonist. But, no, you don’t need to know anything else to read this book. Most people read the novel without knowing anything about why I wrote it or what elements contributed to it. I think it’s better if you don’t know anything else.

Cover concept for "Schroder"

Cover concept for “Schroder”


RB: This is also a book about divorce and broken relationships. How do you write a novel like that in the context of being in a marriage?

AG: I think that the safety of my marriage is very important. To be able to go where I need to go in the realm of fiction is essential. If my life was a total mess, and I had multiple divorces and scandalous affairs, I don’t think I would be able to write about those things. My marriage really anchors me.

RB: Is there any point at which your husband, upon reading the book, starts to worry that some of your observations about marriage reflect unconscious ideas?

AG: I don’t think so. First of all, my husband is a great reader. He has read so much more than I have. He also knows that a writer in her imagination needs complete freedom, and I love that about him. Our relationship would be very limited if he weren’t such a great critic, reader, and understander of art. He has never once judged anything that I’ve written. I also think that Schroder is still a love story. I know that’s an odd reading, and perhaps I am the only one who thinks of the story in that way, but Erik still loves his ex-wife. There’s something kind of romantic about that, even though he completely screwed her over. He was happy with her. She wasn’t happy with him, and that happens sometimes. So, in terms of my husband reading this book, there is still a romantic quality in which Erik is still attached to their happy years. He wants very badly to have a happy family. He just ruined it.

RB: Considering Erik’s ability to fabricate things, it seems to me that Erik is capable of making that happiness appear where it didn’t exist. Given that Laura didn’t like him, or that she wasn’t happy with him, you have to posit such a connection.

AG: Right. If I had to imagine what she is like, I think she was also happy. I think they had a couple of happy years, as so many newlyweds do, especially before children. One thing that is true in the book, and I am sure my husband would agree with this, is when children come along marriages become very challenged. That was the case with us. Everything changes. It really puts the marriage through a test, and theirs doesn’t make it. It turns out they have very different ways they want to parent. Erik’s eccentricity is getting in the way, and he isn’t particularly present either. He doesn’t take it seriously in some ways until he spends that year at home with his daughter.

RB: This is your third novel. In the constellation of your work, where does this story rest? How do you talk about it? Would you consider Schroder the best novel you’ve written? Is it your favorite?

AG: I think this is the best novel I’ve written. It was also the most fun to write.

RB: Is writing fun for you?

AG: Sometimes. I think fun is an odd word, and when it’s not fun, it’s excruciating. I’ve had the same problem with the word fun that I’ve had with the word happiness. I’m not sure what either of them really means. Fun might be like dancing, or blowing bubbles in the air, playing with your kid, but writing isn’t fun in that sense. It’s absorbing. When writing is going well, you are so absorbed that you’re transported, almost like you don’t have a body, like you don’t have a life, like you’re just some kind of consciousness. It’s not so much a trance, but you feel that you are a consciousness that can actually slip into other bodies, other places and times. It’s awesome. It’s like flying.

RB: I always wonder more generally about how people who love stories and people who create the stories reengage with the real world after leaving the world of the story. Some actors go totally into character for the length of their performance. Writers don’t do that, so they have to go write something about Dorchester, for example, and then you go out and you feed their kids.

AG: They have these writers’ colonies, which I’ve been lucky to go to, and it’s the best perk of the job. When I am at a writers’ colony, I can barely go to meals because when I am writing so much by myself for such long stretches of time it’s difficult to come out and interact with people. When I was at MacDowell, I would never go to breakfast, for example. I wanted to move straight from sleeping into writing without talking to anybody. No earthly reminders at all. It’s rare that one can do that. When I come out of that experience, I feel so thin-skinned, like I’ve been traveling. Once I re-enter my body and my daily life, I feel very delicate. So, I have to refrain from certain conversations. I start back very quietly.

RB: In going through your interviews, I noticed in the past few years it has been really big to acknowledge your publicist. On your itinerary you had a public conversation with Cary Goldstein(who has since left Twelve Books). This is your first book with Twelve. What’s next for the future of your relationship with Twelve?

AG: I am fairly sure that it’s standard to have a clause that’s called right of first refusal, which means you have to go to that publisher first. My editor, Cary, was incredibly helpful. He was more than just an editor. He is my age and we are going through the same experiences in life. He’s about to have a baby. He’s also just a great reader. He’s read a ton, he’s a poet himself, and we just share a sensibility.

Amity Gaige (Photo: Robert Birnbaum

Amity Gaige (Photo: Robert Birnbaum


RB: That leads me to today’s final question. What’s next?

AG: This is probably my least favorite question. It makes me long to write. When you’re out on the trail publicizing the book, which is something I actually enjoy, you’re so far away from your writing. I know some people write through it all, but I teach full time, I have a new baby, and another child, so it’s a challenge. I’m very far away from being able to write. It makes me sad. I have some ideas, but I am not in a position to share them now. I think you have to write what you’re feeling, what you have some flow for. I know that is kind of a cheesy word, but flow is something I really believe in. If you’ve got flow, if you are feeling a project, you’ve got to follow it. Whether or not it’s what you planned to write. You can have all of the plans in the world, and then one morning you start something and it’s not what you planned at all. That’s what Schroder was. I was working on this other novel, and then all of a sudden I got this other idea and I just ran with it. I’m humbled enough by the process to know that plans are just that. They are written in sand.

Currently reading Sparta by Roxanne Robinson (FSG)

The First Furst

31 Mar
"Cover' for E book version of The Spies of Warsaw

“Cover’ for E book version of The Spies of Warsaw

If you have read all or many of Alan Furst‘s exquisite novels of European WWII espionage, The Spies of Warsaw might not be the one that comes to mind as the first you would choose as a foundational text for a film. On the other hand, an obvious point that obtains here, good books don’t necessarily make for good movies (and so on).

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst


I suppose after all, one should be pleased that finally someone has chosen any one of Furst’s dozen novels— in this case our benfactor is the BBC (shown in 2 parts, April 3 and April 10.) Furst fans should be thankful. I say this because though I suppose American filmmakers could probably have done a fair job, it did not hurt whole tone of the BBC’s production of The Spies of Warsaw that their view of WWII is a less likely to be romanticized the way some one like Speilberg would do. In The Spies a French intelligence officer who had served in the War to End all Wars is posted to his country’s Warsaw embassy in 1937. His view and attitude as well as everyone of that generation, present in this narrative had witnessed and processed enough of the horrors of 2 continents engaged in senseless and bloodthirsty combat to work diligently to avoid further blood shed and slaughter. Historically Americans did not seem to exhibit such post belligerence depression or showed much evidence they were afflicted by the world weariness so evident with the Brits and Europeans.At the end this taut drama , on Sept 1 1939,Anna Skarbek, the colonel’s lover asks Jean-Francois Mercier “What now?” Mercier responds,”We try to survive.”

Knowledgable fans of Furst will be amused at the appearance of the Parisian Heininger Brasserie, one of the author’s faux McGuffins where the anecdote about the assassination of the Bulgarin head waiter is mentioned (as it is every Furst novel)

Currently reading Mary Coin by Marisa Silver (Blue Rider Press)

Berlin Stories

29 Aug

As Berlin continues to have a reputation as a vital and exciting world capitol, it also provides an alluring setting for any number of War War II era thrillers including Erik Larsen’s last opus In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Most notably Phillip Kerr has set most of early Bernie Gunther in Berlin which makes sense as Gunther is a Berlin homicide detective. Not to be overlooked is a trilogy of novels by Rebecca Cantrell, set in the early 30’s Berlin,following crime reporter Hannah Vogel
through Nazi mayhem and criminal intrigue.

City of Women by David Gillham


Now comes David R. Gillham’s debut novel, City of Women(Amy Einhorn Books/ Putnam) presenting a picture of Berlin 1943—as the tide is turning, with the Nazi military machine broadening its grasp for cannon fodder, Berlin has become a virtual city of women.In this story, Sigrid Schroeder, whose former bank official husband is serving on the killing fields of the Eastern Front takes on a mysterious Jewish lover and becomes involved in efforts to hide and transport Jews out of Berlin. This convolution of her previously uneventful and tedious life provides all manner of tension and danger with Gillham draws out with alacrity and pulse raising prose. Alan Furst, who knows a thing or two about wartime atmosphere in Europe, extolls, “‘City of Women,’ is built on one of the most extraordinary and faithful recreations of a time in history—Berlin in World War II—that I’ve ever read.”

Currently reading Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (Little Brown)