Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jami Attenberg on Literary Break Ups, Writer Credit Card Debt and Epic Book Tours





(This interview appeared on LitHub.com on March 7, 2017)
By Dylan Foley
In 2010, the novelist Jami Attenberg published her third book of fiction, The Melting Season, which had a woman on the lam from Nebraska to Las Vegas with a suitcase full of cash. The book received very good reviews, but did not sell well. She was dropped by her publisher.

Attenberg took the literary break up like a punch in the gut. “I wasn’t sure if I could keep going as a writer,” said Attenberg in a telephone interview in Washington D.C., where she was attending the AWP conference last month. “I thought, ‘Oh, man, I have to go get a real job.’ I was so confused because I thought writing was what I was supposed to be doing with my life.”

A year later, Attenberg’s fortunes took a 180-degree turn. Her editor left the same publisher and sold her new publisher on Attenberg. Attenberg’s 2012 novel The Middlesteins, a crisp domestic drama of a family ripped apart by a mother’s eating disorder, was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, hit the Times bestseller list and was sold in 10 countries, being translated into German and Italian. The book became Attenberg’s breakout novel, putting her prominently on the literary map.

Now the 45-year-old Attenberg is back with her fifth novel, the witty and dark All Grown Up, which introduces readers to Andrea Bern, a 39-year-old Brooklyn professional woman who wants neither a husband nor baby, but is searching for a fierce connection with her friends and lovers.

Maybe Andrea drinks too much for her own good and has turbulent taste in men. She’s a failed art student in a boring, stable job she does well. Andrea is dealing with some buried traumas from her past and isn’t dealing with her brother’s daughter, who has a rare, inevitably fatal medical condition.

“The very first chapter I wrote was ‘Indigo Gets Married,’” said Attenberg, as she put on make up for a PBS interview related to AWP. “ I don’t even know where Andrea came from at that moment. I wanted to write about a person who was watching a friend achieve all these adult grown-up milestones in her life and she was not achieving them. Andrea is not me, but myself and so many other people can identify with watching a friend do the things you are supposed to do.”

“In a way, the Indigo cycle of chapters was easy to write,” said Attenberg. “It was ‘Here’s 20 things that are annoying about this.’ I then put the novel away because I didn’t want to do it at that time.”
“I didn’t want to write this book, to deal with the subject matter,” she said, which addresses sexual violence. “I sincerely had a sense of taking one for the team. There finally was a moment when I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”

“I made a list,” she said. “I want to talk about how young women view themselves. I want to talk about how older men treat young women.  I want to write about when a friend has a baby and disappears. All these things were happening around me. I wrote this book so fast.”

“I don’t feel this character exists elsewhere, or that these issues are discussed enough in fiction,” she said “In many books, female characters are forced to think about when they are going to find their romantic partners.”

“Andrea lived in the physical landscape I had occupied for so long,” referring to the South Williamsburg neighborhood that the fictional Andrea Berg and Attenberg have both lived. “I had an idea of the annoyances and grievances that she had. I could see it all around me.”

Attenberg published Instant Love, her first book of stories, in 2006 when she was 34. “My first book was about what love was for the women of New York back then,” she said. “I think the two books are connected.  I wrote the new book when I was 44. I want to show what life is like out there now.

“It is the weirdest thing, for fiction is fiction, but I kept telling myself that I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted there to be a specific honesty to it. The characters are invented, but there are these important feelings and sentiments.”

In the novel, Andrea goes through the men in her life. There is Matthew, the truly impoverished painter committed to his art. Then there is Barron, a shell-shocked divorced father of a little girl, groping his way around, trying to put his life together. Finally, there is Kevin, who is the closest thing to a soul mate for Andrea, but whose mother won’t let him bring a white woman home.

“Andrea is jealous of Matthew, because he is committed to his art,” said Attenberg. He’s a pain in the ass, for he can never afford to pay for his own dinner. “I definitely identify with Matthew,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with myself, where I’ve said ‘Either I’m not going to write, have stability in my life and not be happy, or I am going to do this and accept what comes my way.’”

Meeting Barron at a party, Andrea takes him home and seduces him. Barron proceeds to indulge in comic egocentric and acrobatic sex, where he needs to keep his glasses on to watch himself during the act.

“With Barron, I’ve never been in a 12-year relationship and gotten out of it,” said Attenberg.  “I’ve known people who’ve done that and everything after feels huge, everything feels like the first time.”
“These people fell in love, they felt they were all grown up, they were doing everything they were supposed to do,” she said. “Suddenly, it’s over. ‘Holy crap, I am completely adrift and I don’t know how to behave myself. I have to figure out how to be an adult in a different way.’”

“All the men that Andrea has sexual interludes with—I don’t think I can use the word romance—they are all in different ways trying to figure out how to be grown ups, how to treat people and how to be in the world.”

Andrea goes out for drinks with Nina, a 25-year-old coworker. Over stiff drinks, they bond over bad dates, creepy sexual behavior by men, rape and near-rape stories that happened to themselves and friends.

“I’m on social media and I see what young women are readily revealing about themselves, that they might not have revealed 20 years ago,” she said.

“The way that we talk about rape culture and that it exists wasn’t discussed 20 years ago,” said Attenberg. “It’s a positive step that people feel comfortable talking about the negative sexual things that happened to them.”

Andrea finds out that the ambitious. competent Nina is sleeping with their uptight, married boss. Horrified by the soul-killing discovery, she notes, “Every day, there is a little death waiting for me. All I have to do is wake up and walk out the front door.”

Andrea’s yoga-teaching, gorgeous friend Indigo resurfaces when she has her baby. She is condescending about Andrea’s single status. “I was thinking of all these women who have those fancy tech jobs, who say ‘All I want to be is a yoga teacher,’” she said. “How do they afford it? Oh, you’re married to a super-rich dude!”

“There’s no point in writing Indigo if I’m going to make fun of her,” said Attenberg. “A one-note character is not interesting to me." Indigo’s final appearance is in “Indigo Gets a Divorce,” when she finds out her banker husband is having an affair. She tries to reconnect with Andrea, looking for sympathy. 

Andrea mockingly compares their lives: “Her life is architected, elegant and angular, a beauty to behold, and mine is a stew, a juicy, sloppy mess of ingredients and feelings and emotions…But have you tasted it? Have you tasted it. It’s delicious.” 

 In a flashback, Andrea explores her jazzman father’s heroin addiction and impending death that will severely disrupt her family. At 13, she trails her father from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village, where he scores and shoots up. She confronts her father’s junkie friend, defiantly saying, “I make my own rules.”

“I think what Andrea means is ‘This doesn’t feel right for me, this situation doesn’t fit for me,” said Attenberg. “Andrea is going to spend the rest of her life trying to make things fit, or to make herself fit in.”

After the father dies, the family struggles financially and Andrea’s mom resorts to “rent parties,” where her fellow ex-hippies come over for vegetarian food and to smoke pot. The 17-year-old Andrea is bombarded by unwanted attention from balding 50-year-old men with ponytails, some more predatory than others. One man’s inappropriate sexual attention veers into assault, but is interrupted.
“The mother is high and sad, not able to protect her daughter,” said Attenberg.   “That scene is reflective on how some men treat younger women and take advantage of bad situations. I wanted to create a character that would allow readers to feel less alone.” 

After high school, Andrea goes to art school in Chicago. Her own art dreams are thwarted after she becomes an assistant to a charismatic, abusive woman artist Felicia. Felicia systematically rips Andrea down, burying her artistic ambitions for years.

“The teacher was a mentor, as well as a friend,” said Attenberg. “I wrote this relationship to show how it is the responsibility of women to support each other.”

“I do think women can destroy each other in more specific ways than men can,” she said. “Friend break ups are a million times worse than romantic break ups.”

At the end of the novel, Andrea Bern finally reconnects with her brother, his wife and their dying daughter. “This book was a way for Andrea to look at everything that was important in her life,” said Attenberg. “Andrea is offering up what made this character who she is today.”

“Some readers may feel differently about the ending, but I feel that she does all that, so she can move on to the next part of her life.” Attenberg paused, then said “Not death.”

Attenberg’s path as a journeywoman novelist was nontraditional. “I had a very indirect path to a writing career,” she said. “I didn’t get an MFA and moved around I a lot, all over the country. I met a lot of different people and got into all kinds of trouble.”

Attenberg is from the Chicago suburbs. She moved to Seattle after college.” My aunt tells me that after I finished college, I told her that I was going to travel a lot. At 21, I knew that I was going to roam. My mother calls me the Wandering Jew.”

By the late 1990s, Attenberg wound up in New York. At that time, she was an early blogger, writing about culture, dating and sex in her adopted Brooklyn neighborhood. She supported herself as a freelancer, writing shopping books and dull pharmaceutical copy. “Sometimes three months of freelance would pay for four months of my own writing,” she said.

First came Instant Love, followed by The Kept Man in 2008, which was narrated by a woman who discovers that her comatose artist husband had been having prolific sexual  affairs with Polish coffee shop waitresses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as part of his last photo project.

After Attenberg was dropped by her publisher and moved to Grand Central Publishing, her editor and new publisher tweaked her career, taking her out of the box of women’s fiction and promoting her as a literary novelist. 

“Grand Central knew what to do with me,” said Attenberg. My editor Helen Atsma saw The Middlesteins as a chance to relaunch my career. I had been marketed as a women’s fiction author, which was not true to the material I was writing. When you are mismarketed, when the audience picks up the book, they are not going to read it or talk about it. Word of mouth is what sells book. Half the battle is getting people to talk about your book, to tell their friends about it and to read it for their book club.”

With loyalty to her editor, Attenberg followed Helen Atsma when she moved to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is publishing All Grown Up.

Before The Middlesteins was published, Attenberg had doubled down on her writing career. “I was massively in debt,” she said. “Six months before The Middlesteins, I was couch surfing. It was probably foolish, but writing novels is the thrill I like to do, so I just went all in,” putting her expenses on her credit card. “Maybe I went too far. I was 40 and in bad financial shape.”

Becoming a bestselling literary novelist had unexpected perks. “I didn’t really know how bad my career was until it became good,” said Attenberg. “I had been plugging along publishing books, but not selling that well. Before The Middlesteins, no one asked me to write for glossy magazines No one asked me to speak at universities. Now there are travel opportunities and events to promote my books. Because I’ve published in Europe, I get invited back there, as well.

Unless you are a writer like Stephen King or David Sedaris, the epic bicoastal book tour mostly went the way of the dodo in the early aughts, when publishers realized that the expense-sales ratio did not make tours that useful.

Attenberg is going old school, doing a book tour of 27 events, mostly over a five-week period in March and April, swinging through the northeast, going down to Key West, out to San Francisco, through the Midwest and the South. She’s hitting the great indy book stores, like Politics and Prose in D.C., Elliot Bay Books in Seattle and Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.

“It’s not the fanciest book tour ever, “ said Attenberg, “but my publishers are behind me and I feel super lucky. I’ve written three books in five years, and I’ve built good relations with the independent booksellers. I feel like I am coming home, because I am seeing the same faces again.”

Attenberg looks forward to the conversations that will be had in the newly toxic Trumpland. “I want to see what’s happening in America,” she said. “We are going to have an enormous conversation. Everything feels so urgent now.”

Though based in Brooklyn for two decades, Attenberg’s wanderlust continued every year. She’d sublet her loft for months, going out to a new city, like her sojourn in Los Angeles several years ago. Recently, she kept going back to New Orleans. “For the past five years, New Orleans has been my spot,” she said.

A two–book deal pulled Attenberg out of debt and allowed her to buy a house in New Orleans. She splits her time between there and Brooklyn. “The house is called a side-hall shotgun, with all the rooms off one hallway,” she said. “It is a small house, but it has a beautiful office. New Orleans is a great place to write.” 

“I love New York for millions of reasons, but I am interested in my quality of life,” said Attenberg. “My quality of life is better down in New Orleans. I was looking to where I wanted to be in my 50’s, and I wanted to be here.”

The title of her novel begs the question--does Attenberg feel grown up at 45? “Am I all grown up? I don’t know if anyone can be. I have this little house, a dog and a quiet and secure life,” she said. “I don’t even know if I was dreaming of that, but suddenly it became possible. For me, to have a home of my own feels like progress.”

Attenberg has tapped into the New Orleans literary scene.  “There are a lot of writers down here,” she said. “I helped organize a Writers Resist event recently. I knew some writers and met a lot more. There are a lot of journalists down here who write about New Orleans for other places. It is a fascinating place with a complicated history, and a lot of things to write about.”

“I’ve met some great people,” said Attenberg. “I had my birthday dinner in November and I was at a table with people dressed in black. We were all writers. We all have shared sensibilities and neuroses. Wherever I go, I can’t escape that scene.”

The Novelist Gish Jen on Bridging America and China’s Culture Gap


(This interview appeared on LitHub.com on March 1, 2017)

By Dylan Foley

Several years ago, the Chinese-American novelist Gish Jen came across the story of a Chinese teenager who applied to the elite Milton Academy in Massachusetts. The girl had top-notch test scores and great essays, and her interview on Skype showed a profound command of English. She was accepted to Milton.

A few months later, representatives from Milton picked up what they thought was their stellar foreign student. The Chinese girl they met at the local airport spoke halting, substandard English. It turned out that the girl they were picking up was the sister of the great student, sent in her place.

Jen uses the Milton story to open her new book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, which explores the major differences in Chinese and American culture and worldviews, from the interdependence in Chinese culture and the proud individualism of Americans.

“I’ve been going to China for many years,” said Jen in a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Mass., of the four decades she’s been travelling to China. “When I arrive, I am always amazed at how Chinese China is.  I am also struck with how baffled the long-term observers can be by China.”

“People say to me, ‘Don’t you think China is changing? Shanghai is so modern,’” she said. “The Chinese wear their Nikes, they drink lattes at Starbucks, but the Chinese are not like us and it is the height of hubris to imagine that they are like us, or will become like us.” 
In her compelling new book, Jen sets out explain the differences between the “big pit” individualism of Americans, where the needs of the person are put first, and the “flexi-self” interdependence of the Chinese, where the intense obligations to family and then society are given priority, by mixing compelling anecdotes with academic studies exploring the differences.

“I bring in the academic studies because you can make lot of assertions and describe and describe, but without the studies, it seems very anecdotal,” said Jen. “I have the anecdotes, but then tie them to the larger, established truths.”

Jen plunges into the Starbucks study in Shanghai, where an American academic took 100 Starbucks throughout the city, and in each one pushed chairs together, blocking some of the aisles. “The researcher arranged the chairs so they were very close together, and he watched to see how many people would move them,” said Jen. “The chairs were placed so they were really in the way. In America, customers would have moved them.”

In the end, only 1.9 percent of the Chinese moved the chairs.  “This was the most cosmopolitan city in China,” said Jen. ”It shows a big difference. I spoke with this sophisticated Shanghai journalist about the chair experiment, and she started laughing and said, ‘Of course they wouldn’t move the chairs!’”

Gish Jen’s parents are Chinese immigrants. Her father survived World War II, going to college classes held in caves to escape the Japanese bombings. He came to the U.S as a civil engineer and eventually worked on the atomic bomb program. Her mother gave up her graduate school dreams to become a schoolteacher. The family was very traditional, and as Jen writes in her new book, they were a “first-son-comes-first” family and also had the attitude that  “No one wants to marry a smart girl.”

Jen rejected her family’s interdependent view.  “I was the rebel and broke very dramatically from my family,” she said. “I became a writer when people like me did not become writers. My parents could not have been more opposed. I broke with the whole thing—I did not speak Chinese. It was a completely Western program. I became a novelist, which is the most individualist thing you can be.”

After she finished Harvard, Jen went to Stanford Business School, but dropped out in 1981 to go to the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her mother stopped speaking to her, though they did reconcile after about 18 months.
It was only after Jen published her first novel Typical American in 1991 and was the subject of a large profile in The World Journal, a major Chinese-language newspaper, that her parents realized their daughter was a success.
Jen, 61, has written four novels and a book of short stories called Who’s Irish? She also the author of Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self, which was from a series of lectures Jen gave at Harvard in 2012, which helped inspire the new book.

Family roots can be hard to pull out. “There is a huge part of me that is still interdependent,” said Jen. “I can see how my book is resonating with people like Yo-Yo Ma, people who are so Western. We drink our lattes, but there is an interdependent part that persists.”

“My a-ha moment on my interdependence came when I had my first child,” said Jen. “I was in a mothers’ group. The kids were like six weeks old. The other mothers put their kids on the floor. I couldn’t put my kid down. They went around the room, asking what the mothers wanted for their kids. They said they wanted them to be independent. Independent? These kids can’t hold their heads up. I said I wanted my kid to be happy.”

“Many Americans have a strain of interdependence in them, but mine is more pronounced, because it comes from China and my parents are immigrants,”” she said. “You can see the interdependence in second, third and fourth generations. It really persists.”
Jen recounted how a Greek-American acquaintance sheepishly admitted that he lived with several generations of his extended family. “He feels like it is not that American,” she said. “Why is it un-American if it is true of so many families?”
According to a study Jen references, 85 percent of the countries in the world lean towards being socially interdependent, including China, Japan and Korea, the South Asian countries like India and Pakistan, many African countries, large swathes of South America and the historically Catholic European countries of Spain and Ireland. In the United States, rates of interdependence are high among certain subgroups like firemen and members of the working class. 
In the book, Jen offers the example of her sophisticated middle-aged brothers, who still visit their 91-year-old mother almost everyday. “My brothers are ambi-dependent,” said Jen, straddling individual American traits and the interdependent immigrant culture.

Jen writes about the Dafen Oil Painting Village in southern China, where artists churn out copies of paintings by Van Gogh, Klimt, Picasso and many others. Do you want “The Starry Night” to be extra large? No problem. The interdependent village of artists finish each others’ paintings when needed.

“The Dafen painters would not meet my criteria for art,” said Jen. “I feel sorry for them because I see them as in between. In other ways, I don’t feel sorry for them. Many of them are completely happy with who they are.”

Jen presents amusing stories of interdependence and cooperation. There is a Chinese painter who is best friends with another artist who forges his paintings. When the forger runs into financial trouble, the real painter signs the forgeries to make them more valuable, helping him out.

In a bizarre twist, Chinese police officers develop close relationships with the dissidents they are sent out to repress. Showing the societal interdependence, police enquire about sick parents and even offer to help find the dissidents jobs if needed, while they continue to monitor them.

In a personal story, Jen recounts losing her keys while flying kites with her children in Tiananmen Square, a massive public space. Seeing her panic, a kite vendor approaches her, and through a chain reaction of help with other competing vendors, the keys are located and returned. The pivotal figure of help turns out to a blind vendor. All offers of tips are refused, but satisfaction at the community response is evident.

For Chinese immigrants who come to the “big pit” individual culture of America, life can be emotionally taxing. 

“A lot people who come from China find America very hard,” said Jen. “As we can’t imagine how different their lives are, they can’t imagine how different America is. They know it is richer and everybody drives everywhere, but the psychic landscape is so different. They can’t begin to imagine.”

Born in New York, Jen was initially raised in the tough working-class city of Yonkers. ‘The kids would throw snowballs at us that had rocks in them,” she said. “I was so happy when we moved to Scarsdale, for the snowballs didn’t have rocks in them.”

Even in Scarsdale, the Jen family experienced the casual racism and bigotry of 1960’s New York.

“There I was in 5th grade, in Scarsdale, New York, in an incredibly liberal, sophisticated community,” said Jen. “I can tell you that I was asked almost every day if my father ran a laundry. Of course I knew it was offensive. They had never seen anyone like me. They didn’t ask that of me by the time I was in high school.”

“My brother was beaten up every single day,” she said. “He was being beaten up so relentlessly that my parents sent him for judo lessons.”

“There’s a way in which it didn’t damage me as much as it could if my background had been more individualistic,” said Jen. “I got it, but I didn’t focus on it. There were so many other things to worry about. It was one more thing.”

“It’s an interdependent view of the whole life,” she noted.  “Why do you get an education? The answer is, ‘If I don’t get that M.D., I’m always going to be beaten to a pulp.’”

“My brother survived this time, as did myself and my sister,” she said. “It is not okay. It’s a big, dark cloud, but there may be a silver lining. Once you are bullied a few times, you are aware. You are prepared to deal with the world.”

Unfortunately, Jen noted, the bullying of Asian kids still goes on in schools. “Bullying is not a thing of the past,” she said. “I don’t make light of it.”

The relationship between an individualistic “big pit” view and the “interdependent “flexi-self” can be quite fluid, changing over time. In the book, Jen refers to the family history of her Korean-American friend Jeannie Suk, now a Harvard Law professor and a contributor to the New Yorker.

The Suk family was living a miserable, impoverished existence in Korea, with too many relatives living in the family apartment. Jeannie Suk’s grandmother demanded that Jeannie’s mother turn over her meager wages to her. The mother refused. Jeannie’s family then broke the larger family obligations and moved to New York, to pursue a better life.

“The same mother who’d been individualistic in Korea made the interdependent decision to send Jeannie to a miserable cram school, so she could pass the test to go to the elite Hunter College High School. Was the mother’s decision so bad? Jeannie wound up with many opportunities.”
“Now we come to the part where Jeannie wants to dance,” said Jen. Jeannie had been elevated to a prestigious ballet program. Jeannie’s mother, again being interdependent, refused to let her go.

“I want to throttle the mother who says no, you can’t dance,” said Jen. “If my daughter had wanted to be a ballerina, I would have taken the ‘big pit’ route and supported her. Of course, I am on Jeannie’s side. I wanted to be a novelist when everything was saying to me, ‘You cannot do that. Life is not about self. Do something practical!’”

“When you hear that the four girls who took the class Jeannie couldn’t take all got injured and no one went on to become ballerinas, you wonder if the mother was that wrong,” mused Jen. “Now Jeannie is a tenured professor, having a great time. Who knows what would have happened?”

“I feel that in America, to take such a hardline interdependent approach in a world that is so big-pit oriented, it makes for much misery for the child,” said Jen. “It is not really an option for most American parents. If the mother had done that in China, the child feels distress, but not as much as in America.”
Jen periodically teaches at NYU Shanghai, so she goes to China for weeks or months at a time. She also spends time with her extended Chinese family.
“In Shanghai, I understand the Chinese I work with, but they are not me,” she said. “I have a lot of sympathy for them. That’s why I am not hard on the Dafen artists.”

“My family in China is wonderful, but I don’t go to every family event,” said Jen. “It will take up every minute of your life, if you let it. I am big pit enough to say ‘I am not going with you, I am staying here to read the new Elena Ferrante novel.’ In China, I feel just how American I really am.”
“The idea of being kind is so important in China,” she said. “The family forms a really important network. It is the social safety net.”

Jen has high hopes for the book, that it will help Americans truly understand Chinese interdependence and its profound influence on family obligation and China’s social structure. 

“Some of the research on China is new, but much of it has been out there,” Jen said. “I don’t think people have been able to use the research to help them see China as they should. This is a book that I hope will help change the world,” she said. “There has already been a flash with the early readers, where people go, ‘Oh, I see it now.’”














































“Some of the research on China is new, but much of it has been out there,” Jen said.  “I don’t think people have been able to use the research to help them see China as they should. This is a book that I hope will help change the world,” she said. “There has already been a flash with the early readers, where people go, ‘Oh, I see it now.’”

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Elizabeth Strout on her novel "The Burgess Boys"




Interview By Dylan Foley

In 2009, Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “Olive Kitteridge,” a novel told in sublime stories about the life of an imperious but nuanced Maine schoolteacher.
In her new novel, “The Burgess Boys,” Strout returns to the cold, fertile ground of her native Maine to explore the worlds of three siblings whose lives in the fictitious town of Shirley Falls were forever scarred by the horrific accident that killed their father 50 years before.



Jim and Bob Burgess escape Maine for New York City, where Jim becomes a high-flying, wealthy corporate lawyer and Bob becomes a lowly legal-aid defense attorney with a failed marriage. They are called back to their hometown by their sister, Susan, when their teenage nephew Zach rolls a severed pig's head into a mosque full of Somali refugees. The attempts by Bob and Jim to save their nephew from activist lynch mobs and relentlessly ambitious politicians have a profound effect on all three siblings and their futures.

Strout, 57, divides her time between New York City and Brunswick, Maine. She spoke with Printers Row Journal from her New York office. Here is an edited transcript.

Q: You use fragments of your own biography and geography in writing this novel, drawing from your upbringing in small-town Maine, the three decades you lived in Brooklyn, N.Y, and your background as a lawyer. Why?


A: My life is really all I've got, in certain ways. I wasn't a practicing lawyer, but my first marriage was to a (legal aid) defense attorney. I've always been tremendously interested in criminal law. It goes to a deep interest I have in prisons and the criminal element, and what we do as a society with it. I've always been touched by the idea of criminality.

Q: Zach Olsen, the Burgess brothers' sad-sack nephew, commits an offensive and careless crime against a local mosque in Maine. Where did Zach and the crime come from?

A: Zach was entirely invented. There was, however, a similar incident in Lewiston, Maine, which is a town close to my heart because I went to college there. In real, nonfiction life, it was a reprehensible act. But as a fiction writer, I am always looking to go against the grain, for you get more interesting material that way. If my instinct as a person is to say, "This is terrible and an indefensible act," let me as a novelist release myself from that judgment. Zach became very real to me as a character. There is nothing technically wrong with him, but he is one of those kids who is weird, very lonely and misses his father, who left the family.

Q: What inspired you to write about a dark family tragedy?

A: I grew up in small towns, and my mother was a fabulous storyteller. There were always different stories, different tragedies being told in the most matter-of-fact ways. As a very young person, it always piqued my curiosity. This kind of material was delivered in the driest of tones, with almost no reaction. As a little kid, I always thought, "Ooh, that's amazing."
I've also always been interested in families and how we try to run away from each other, and try to run away from the past. With the tragic accident, one would assume it shaped parts of the three Burgess children. The key thing to me was to have them scatter into their own separate directions and their separate lives.

Q: The dynamic Jim Burgess often mocks and berates his younger brother, Bob. Where does this come from?

A: I have a brother, and we don't have that kind of relationship, but it was surprisingly accessible to me. Who knows where these things come from? Bob is younger enough than Jim, and because they both lack their father, Bob would look up to Jim. While Bob is goofy and kind, Jim is who he is. He is full of a lot of rage. He was partially born that way, but in my mind as the novelist, he developed that way because of the terrible pressures he is under.
I know people won't like Jim, and that's OK because it is the readers' book. I have to tell you, I love Jim. You have the sense he would kill on your behalf. Most of the time, he's trying to do the right thing. He's having a crackup, though, and he behaves reprehensibly because of it.

Q: Zach and his mother, Susan, live in a grim, unheated house. How do they cope with their bleak circumstances?

A: I was very interested in place and the culture that it brings with it. If you get divorced in New York, you go into therapy and will talk to anybody you meet on the sidewalk about it. Susan has remained in the Maine culture where people don't talk much. People are not going to say, "I am so hurt by my divorce." There is still a sense of shame, and people can't communicate about it. With Susan, she has a difficult child to raise and a husband who has left her. It is more than she can bear. It's the culture she's living in, and she can't just reach out.

I thought a lot about Zach. I think it is absolutely true that people can die from loneliness. Zach's one of those people. He's so malnourished from loneliness that when his uncles come up to help him, it does mean something to him. Even if Jim is yelling at him, he's doing it with him in mind.

Q: What interested you in writing about the cultural phenomena of Somali war refugees settling in dying New England towns?

A: My interest always has to arise from a deep place or it is not going to be meaningful to myself or anybody who reads my books. When the Somali community started to emerge in Lewiston, Maine, I was fascinated by it. There were a number of incidents, but I chose (the pig's head incident). At first, I wondered what they were doing in Lewiston, which is a mill town that has been dying for years. I didn't know if I should go into the Somali shops. I didn't want to be a gawker. I read an immense amount about Somali history. It's very moving. I did not feel I could write from the Somali point of view if I didn't immerse myself in the material. I also spoke with some Somali people. I did all the research I could.

Q: In your novel, the Somali elder Abdikarim has a profound moment of grace, shifting the whole story. How did he develop for you?

A: I don't plan a whole lot as I write. I tend to write in circles, and Abdikarim came to me in one of those circles. Once I made the decision to have this marbleized Somali point of view running through the text, it didn't seem like much of a struggle to take him on. I loved him quite a bit. He's absolutely exhausted, both physically and emotionally. His heart is good, but it is truly broken because he saw his first son murdered in front of him in Somalia. Thinking about it as a mother myself, you have to imagine the unimaginable. Abdikarim didn't strike me as someone who would become bitter. There seemed a transferential possibility that he could see Zach in the courtroom and think, "My God, he's just a scared kid."

Q: After many years in New York, you are now living in Maine half the time. What does Maine mean to you?

A: My husband comes from Maine, as well, so there are family and friends there. Your question is a valid one. I left Maine such a long time ago, with steam beneath my feet. I have friends there I grew up with who stayed there, and I love them so much in a way I wouldn't have 20 years ago.
I don't want to live in Maine full time, but the physical beauty is very striking. It is the exact opposite of New York. When you walk through my small town to get a cup of coffee, you bump into five people you know. You have to think, "Do I want that cup of coffee?" It has a real coziness to it. In New York, nobody cares about anything, and it's heaven.

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Elif Batuman on "The Possessed"

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Newark Star-Ledger
March 7, 2010

In her delightful debut nonfiction book, “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15 paperback), writer Elif Batuman explores the eccentrics, the obsessives and the romantics like herself who study the dark works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin.

In 2001, Batuman was a recent college grad struggling to finish a novel. A broken arm and several other occurrences led her to enter a doctoral program in comparative literature at Stanford University, where Batuman became immersed in the melancholy world of Russian studies. Mixing hilarious personal stories with astute observations on the world of academia, Batuman chronicles a California symposium on the murdered writer Isaac Babel, whose elderly daughters are fighting tooth and nail; a conference at Tolsoy’s farm in Russia filled with professors and lunatics; and a trip to an ice palace in St. Petersburg. Batuman recounts the comic summer she spent in Uzbekistan, as well as the psychodrama of graduate students at Stanford acting out the tortured love stories in Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed.”

Batuman, 32, was raised in New Jersey. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature at Stanford, where she teaches. She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in San Francisco.

Q. Could you tell us what draws people into studying Russian language and literature?
A. By the time I got to college, the Cold War was basically over. Even for my generation, the appeal was that Russia was the only place in the world that was exactly like America, but everything was opposite and everything was secret. The difficulty of the language attracts ambitious people, but also people who are attracted to things that will always be hard and challenge them.

As for the literature, the darkness and depressing nature is a big part of it. I grew up in Florham Park and Summit. In high school, my friends and I were always phenomenally depressed, even though we weren’t Russian. There was something about “The Three Sisters,” where the sisters were trapped: “Oh, someday, I am going to go to Moscow.” (In that Chekov play,) there was something very familiar to me about growing up in the suburbs. It was a very strange place, where nothing was accessible. New York was very close, but it was also somewhere else.

Q. You won a grant to study the Uzbek language in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, but found out the language wouldn’t help your academic career. You were told if you rejected the grant, you would never get another one, so you and your soon-to-be ex-boyfriend went to Uzbekistan for a summer. Why?

A. There is a Henry James line, “You should never regret a generous error.” That has been a policy of mine. When in doubt, it is better to do the less conservative thing and to err on the side of the more colorful, possibly terrible mistake. That comes from thinking of yourself as a writer.

Even if I have a completely horrible time, I will have some material I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

The mid-20s is also such a bad time in your life. You will probably be depressed and miserable anyway. If you are in a breakup, you might as well go all the way and spend the summer in Samarkand, with no air-conditioning, learning a language you have no use for. At least it adds some romance to a depressing situation.

Q. Led by a charismatic Croatian grad student, you and a small group studied Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” and accidentally mimicked the unhealthy love triangles in the book. What happened?

A. We were all very young, but we were all graduate students and used to analyzing and overanalyzing everything. The creepy quality was how we all played out our roles, even though they were potentially very damaging, and even though we knew better and knew what was happening.