Sunday, October 30, 2011

William Kennedy's New Novel on the Cuban Revolution and Race Riots in Albany in "Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes"

Newark Star-Ledger, August 30, 2011

In his riveting new novel, “Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes” (Viking, $26.95, 328 pp.), the great American novelist William Kennedy covers the Cuban revolution in the 1950s and the race riots of Albany, N.Y., in 1968, as seen through the eyes of a young reporter named Daniel Quinn.

Quinn goes to Cuba just in time for the 1957 suicidal assault on the Presidential Palace in Havana, where dozens of students are slaughtered. He falls in love with the mysterious Renata, who runs guns for the rebels and practices Santeria. Eleven years later, Quinn is back in his hometown of Albany. Bobby Kennedy has been shot, a riot is ripping the city apart, he has to defuse a plot to assassinate the mayor and his memory-compromised elderly father has gone missing. Along the way, Kennedy showcases his brilliant ear for dialogue, the comic intricacies of corrupt Albany politics and America’s deep troubles over race.

Kennedy, 83, won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for his classic novel “Ironweed.” He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a hotel in New York City.

Q. Have you wanted to write a novel about Cuba for a long time?

A. I’ve been thinking about Cuba for more than half a century. The first time I covered the Cuban revolution was in 1957 for the Miami Herald, when I was 29. Cuba was the target destination for sex, for great exotic pleasure, for beaches and tropical paradises and the great Cuban culture. It was on the verge of becoming the greatest mob-run gambling resort in the world. Fidel Castro put an end to that.

When I got there, Fidel was in the mountains and another rebel group had attacked the Presidential Palace. The killing of the revolutionary students afterward was the most outrageous. There was great repression by (the Cuban dictator Fulgencio) Batista. They were killing casual enemies, anyone in the opposition.


Q. Quinn interviews Fidel Castro and helps Ernest Hemingway in a duel. Did you really meet both men?

A. I met Fidel several times, but I never met Hemingway. Hemingway did punch a lot of people out and did have a duel in Cuba. Some of the stories in the novel are true, but Hemingway was a fictional character. I shaped him to my needs.

Q. In one horrific torture scene, a doomed Cuban rebel is saved by her Santeria necklace. What drew you to integrating this mystical faith in the book?

A. When I was in Cuba in 2001, I went on the San Lazaro pilgrimage. There were 50,000 people on the road, people crawling, people dragging large rocks that were chained to their legs. I had to write about this experience.

Q. The novel moves from 1957 Havana to 1968 Albany, where the city is about to burn because of a race riot. Why did you write about Albany?

A. I covered the racial tension of the civil rights movement in Albany from 1964 to 1969. That was in my imagination. A lot of people have written about 1968, so it is an overused year, but I don’t care. I really wanted to use Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. I telescoped five years of events to a 12-hour period on one night.

When I began to use this period, I realized that I wanted to write about my father. A lot of things with my father had racial overtones.

Having written so much about black and Irish history and knowing where they intertwine, I wanted to make this happen again in this book. It worked perfectly.

Q. Was it difficult to write the riot scene?

A. I remember talking to a lot of cops about earlier race riots. There were a lot of swinging clubs and Molotov cocktails thrown.

You could say that writing the scene was difficult because it took me a long time, but then it began to flow. One event led to another.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jeanne Darst on her Darkly Comic Memoir "Fiction Ruined My Family"

In 1976, Jeanne Darst’s glamorous parents uprooted her and her three sisters from their comfortable existence in St. Louis and moved to Amagansett, Long Island, so their brilliant father could write the Great American Novel. The novel was a failure, the father basically refused to undertake regular employment and the mother descended into alcoholism and depression.

Despite that gloomy description, Darst’s memoir, “Fiction Ruined My Family” (Riverhead, $25.95, 336 pp.), is a wonderful, darkly comic story of her coming of age — and her own evolution into a writer and alcoholic. Darst rejects despair to write archly humorous portraits of her mother, father and sisters. From riding topless in the New York City subways to her perpetual fist-to-mouth existence as an artist, Darst chronicles the offbeat costs of the creative life. When all seems lost, Darst finds her path as an actress and performer, battles the booze and discovers great joys in her accidental motherhood. Darst sticks a gleeful thumb in the eye of memoir stereotypes.

Darst, 42, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Q. Your father uprooted your family to write his novel. What happened?

A. We moved to East Hampton so he could write his book. At the end of the year, the manuscript was rejected by several publishers. We moved to Bronxville, N.Y. He got a job as a speechwriter at CBS. My maternal grandfather’s money had been supporting my father’s dream. My mother really wanted a normal life. My father tried to make a go of it, but it wasn’t really him. A second novel also didn’t sell. At some point, it all became a fantasy. He basically stopped writing and became obsessed with reading and researching about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Q. What was it like growing up with your father?

A. He was always around and up for a game of catch. He was extremely funny and charismatic, and was a very talented writer. He was intimidating in every way. I knew my dad was special and more interesting than other dads. My mom was very unhappy. In a way, it was my calling to bring this story to the world. There was something very interesting going on between the two of them.

Q. In your 20s, you realize that you are both a writer like your father and an alcoholic like your mother. How did deal with this in the book?

A. I was always a writer. I always knew I was funny. From the first time I drank, I knew I was an alcoholic — that it wasn’t normal to black out. The whole idea of the book is that, in my mind, creativity can be as destructive as something like alcoholism. It’s not an original idea, certainly, but that was how I chose to look at family, through the lens of writing. I was able to lick alcoholism. I’ve been sober 12 years, but I haven’t been able to lick writing. There are days when I think writing is just as destructive as if I were drunk, in terms of the instability.

Q. How much can we make our children pay for the pursuit of our artistic dreams?

A. Moving to Amagansett changed my life. My life is a lot more interesting because of the risks my father took. My sisters and I all believe, though, that the experience didn’t have to be this hard. I want to take risks, but the needs for stability for my son have to be met.

Q. Was it rough going through the family story?

A. No, I don’t go around feeling glum about this material, though the stuff about my mom’s death was more difficult. Toward the end of the writing, I was a little sick of myself. It’s exhausting. You are faced with hanging out with your 14-year-old self again.

Friday, October 28, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A "SUPERBRAT": John McEnroe on his Memoir, "You Cannot Be Serious"

I had 25 minutes with McEnroe in his publisher's office. I would say that the biography was one of the least revealing that I had ever read. I asked him where all the anger came from, and he mumbled something about coming from a sports-oriented family. Little introspection in this man. The good news is that all the talk about going into politics during our 2002 interview was just talk.

July 9, 2002

By Dylan Foley

THE original tennis bad boy, John McEnroe, has just published his memoir. It's #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. DYLAN FOLEY sits down with the Queens native to discuss his Irish relatives and political ambitions.

AT Wimbledon in 1981, American tennis star John Patrick McEnroe Jr. already had a reputation for exploding at judges and umpires. In the first round, the middle-aged umpire said to McEnroe: "I'm Scottish, so we are not going to have any problems, are we?"

In his autobiography You Cannot Be Serious, (G.P. Putnam, $25.95) McEnroe writes, "I guess since my name started with `Mc,' he thought we were soul brothers! `I'm Irish,' I told him curtly."

IN THE late 1970s and early 1980s, McEnroe dominated men's tennis. The enfant terrible of the professional circuit, he is remembered for his tantrums and his epic tennis battles with Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. Now 20 years later, McEnroe has published his memoir, in which he details his tumultuous tennis career and eventual maturity into fatherhood.

Apparently, there is a large audience for what you might call these confessions of a "Superbrat": This week, buoyed by weeks of buzz on the gossip pages, McEnroe's book was listed in the #1 slot on the New York Times best-seller list.

Sitting in his publisher's office in lower Manhattan recently, the 43-year-old McEnroe is calm and relaxed. He has evolved into a successful tennis commentator and art dealer, but is still all muscle, and blunt about the controversies in tennis 20 years ago and today, as well as why he wrote this book.

"I didn't have any burning reason to write this book," he said, "but it seemed that by looking back, it might help me figure where I want to go next."

The title "You Cannot Be Serious" is one of McEnroe's patented lines for screaming at tennis umpires around the world. His memoir, written with journalist James Kaplan, offers a riveting look into the mind of McEnroe when he battled Borg and Connors and became No. 1 in the tennis world. He also covers the decline of his tennis career in his mid-20s and the implosion of his marriage to actress Tatum O'Neill.

McEnroe's grandparents hail from County Cavan and County Westmeath. His grandfather John Joseph McEnroe emigrated to Manhattan's Upper East Side in the early 1900s, when it was a rough working-class Irish, German and Polish enclave. John Joseph was a bank messenger who played trombone on the side.

McEnroe doesn't shy from controversy, whether it is referring to Lendl as "Darth Vader" or recounting how top American players like Jimmy Connors and Michael Chang have often refused to play for the American team in the Davis Cup competitions.

McEnroe also offers the hint that, in the future, he may pursue political office.

"I don't have the temperament for politics right now, but it is not impossible," he said.

McEnroe's father, John Patrick Sr., put himself through Fordham Law at night and wound up at a big New York law firm. He moved his family out to the affluent neighborhood of Douglaston, Queens, and sent his three sons to the Trinity School in Manhattan.

Starting with tennis at age three, McEnroe had a brilliant junior career. He went to Wimbledon semifinals at the age of 17 and matured on the tour.

"My life basically changed when I went to Wimbledon in 1977. I missed my high school graduation to go," he said. "I came back and people asked me, `Are you the guy Who yells?' It was a difficult growing process. I was making mistakes in public."

Much of the center of the book involves his battles with Borg at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1980 and 1981. McEnroe was the brash, let-it-all-hang-out New Yorker, while Borg was the quiet intense Swede.

"Borg was the only guy I never had a problem with on or off the court," said McEnroe. "He made me feel special, and I think I brought him up to another level."

The men's tour from 1977 to 1985 was populated with fascinating eccentrics, which McEnroe's book captures.

"When I came on to the scene, there was a cast of characters already," he said. "There was Vitas Gerulaitis. Borg had that aura around him and Connors was super-intense. And Vilas had the hair. It seemed it that all worked."

McEnroe's own notoriety grew. He was dubbed "Superbrat" by the British press for his outbursts at the 1981 Wimbledon tournament.

SOON after McEnroe became the No. 1 men's tennis player in the world, Borg retired at the age of 25.

"I know his disappearance hurt the sport," he said. "It is crying over spilled milk, but I wish he hadn't done it."

During the height of his career, McEnroe was playing the Davis Cup in 1983. His whole family came over to England to be with him.

"My father said we had one aunt remaining in Ireland, and she lived 90 minutes outside of Dublin," said McEnroe. The family went over to Dublin and drove out to her house.

"The first thing she says is, `I like Borg better than you.'"

McEnroe's father was an outgoing Irishman, according to John.

"My father knows every Irish song in existence. I love to watch him. He is the life of the party," he said. "I don't know any Irish songs myself."

After several years at No. 1, McEnroe's own career started to fall apart. His family life with Tatum O'Neal was plagued by conflict and they had three children in quick succession. A beefed-up Lendl eventually took him down.

McEnroe does not regret continuing to play as his rankings dropped. "Even though I never played as well again, I preferred mediocrity to quitting. I really didn't think about quitting."

McEnroe tells fascinating stories from the tour. He writes of Borg vanishing from the U.S. Open in 1981 after McEnroe beats him. Lendl comes off as a colorless machine. Then there is Connors, the moody schemer. Connors storms off the court during a finals match with McEnroe on the senior tour in Dallas in 1998. Connors, with the "smile of a riverboat gambler," offers to throw the match, then goes back on the court and beats McEnroe.

McEnroe said that he wasn't settling scores with Lendl and Connors.

"They are all incredible competitors," he said. "This is my point of view. I think the respect is there. They are all crazy in their own way, and so am I. That's what it is all about."

McEnroe's large ego on the court was necessary to handle the pressure that won him 77 career singles titles and 77 doubles titles.

"If you don't believe wholeheartedly that you are going to get the job done and you have what it takes," said McEnroe, "I don't think you can do it. There has to be a part of you that believes that the world revolves around you, even if you are wrong."

McENROE now lives in Manhattan and is happily married to rock singer Patty Smyth. They inhabit a four-story penthouse with six children between them.

"Having kids cost me a bit of my edge," said McEnroe of his beloved fatherhood, "but it has helped me as a person."

Are McEnroe's political ambitions serious?

"It is half and half," he admitted. "I have little kids now, and I don't want to spend a lot of time away from them. I also want to take a number ofyears to become knowledgeable on the issues. I could give back a lot because I received a lot."

One of McEnroe's dream jobs would be to become the first tennis commissioner, a position he says American tennis desperately needs.

"I would rather be the commissioner of something in New York City, than the tennis commissioner," he admitted. "Or if I were the Manhattan borough president, that would be a start."

McEnroe's personal hero is Arizona Senator John McCain.

"I know his story is 10 times tougher than mine will ever be, but he is an inspiration to me. He still has a temper, but for the most part controls it. I don't believe I have the political temperament, but I think people are fed up with politicians with that phony temperament. That is why Mayor Mike Bloomberg got in."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Imre Kertesz on the Despair of the Mistranslated Nobel Laureate

Denver Post

November 11, 2004

By Dylan Foley

In 2002, the Hungarian novelist and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Virtually no one in the English-speaking world knew who he was, for “Fatelessness,” his masterpiece novel of survival in Buchenwald, was horribly disfigured by a bad translation in English.

Kertesz’s profile is about to shoot up in America and the United Kingdom. Kertesz has just published a short gem of a novel called “Liquidation” (Knopf, $17), where a Hungarian writer and Holocaust survivor commits suicide as communism collapses in Hungary after 1989. Also, new author-approved translations of “Fatelessness” and "Kaddish for an Unborn Child” by Tim Wilkinson have also just been released in the United States.

Recently, the 75-year-old Kertesz made a triumphant visit to New York City, to be honored at Columbia University.

Sweeping into his publishers office at Random House, Kertesz was all smiles. “I really missed not being in touch with American audiences,” says the writer of his second trip to the United States. “My survival was influenced by the Americans. American soldiers liberated me from the camps,” he notes of his starved, near-dead 16-year-old self in 1945. “They were not looking for Imre Kertesz. They were waging a war and were victorious, but they still liberated me.”

Kertesz survived the camps only to be further tormented by the post-war Hungarian communist dictatorship, surviving as a playwright and translator. His novels, including the 1973 publication of “Fatelesssness,” were treated with indifference.

Though bald on top, Kertesz has long white locks that go down to his shoulders. His hands have a slight Parkinson’s tremor, but the intellect is steely and sharp. He brings an entourage of two, a skilled translator and his wife Magda, who was raised in the Hungarian neighborhoods of Chicago.

The new novel “Liquidation” starts as a farce, where B.’s friends are playing parts in B.’s own play about his suicide. The novel then swiftly moves into the tragic love affair of B. and his ex-wife Judit. B. was born in Auschwitz, a small life created in the machinery of death. The Holocaust informs B.’s work and every breath. He offers Judit, the child of Holocaust survivors, a personal Holocaust for two. After B’s suicide, Judit is given the job of burning his unpublished novel.

B. is a caustic character, who sees his life as a mistake. “Quite interestingly, in the camps we had a lot of children,” says Kertesz, a gracious man with intense blue eyes. “In Germany and the Netherlands, I have met people who were born in the camps. B. is fiction.”

“Liquidation" is not only the title of the novel, but also its overpowering theme. It covers the murder of the Hungarian Jews, it is the name of B.’s play, and addresses the incineration of B.’s manuscript and his suicide.

“It is a comprehensive liquidation that is actually boiling under the surface of all my novels already,” says Kertesz. “It is an internal compass that appears to be much stronger than anything else. Without such weight, I would not be in a position to write at all. What would incite me to put anything on paper?”

All of B.’s art is influenced by the Holocaust, as is every breath he takes. The murder of the European Jews and his own brutal two years in the concentration camps have shaped Kertesz's work.

“Every novel I write is autobiographical,” says Kertesz. “When it comes to autobiography, you really look at things in a much more complex, direct way. I am happy to accept that whatever I say is autobiographical.

“With B., there are many similarities,” says a bemused Kertesz. “I have not committed suicide on one hand, and on the other I believe that through my books I have been able to transform the Holocaust into a comprehensive human experience. B. wasn’t capable of doing that because he lived a different life. His survival is an accident.”

The Holocaust has had a horrible post-war toll on its chroniclers. Several of the great Holocaust survivors and writers, including Primo Levi and Paul Celan, have committed suicide. In creating B., Kertesz has explored the suicide of other writers.

“It is an issue that has preoccupied me a lot,” he says gravely. He points to the uncompromising work of survivors such as the French-born Jean Amery and Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski. “These two are radical, major writers,” he says. “They never followed the humanist attitude that Primo Levi adopted. When they wrote, they used a language that was post-Auschwitz. That language never allowed room for old devoid values, obsolete values.”

Writing about the Holocaust experience took Kertesz more than a decade. “I was 46 when the book first appeared. It took 13 years to give birth to the book. I started it in 1960 and finished it on May 8, 1973. I still remember the day. I had been struggling with the language, the semantics, then suddenly I got caught in the whirl of events. I remember the last pages. I wrote them on a park bench, so as not to be disturbed by visitors. That was a feeling of euphoria.”

To create his autobiographical boy-survivor, Kertesz needed distance. “I’ll tell you how I put the boy on the page,” he says fiercely. “I really had to distance myself from him. I did not want the reader to shed tears. This boy does not have any internal relationship with what is happening to him. This estranged personality made an excellent medium to depict the absurdity that was characteristic of the camps.”

Kertesz’s books sell well in Europe, with the best market being Germany. In fact, Kertesz keeps a home in Berlin, where he is comfortable. “The generation that lived through Nazism is not here anymore,” he says.

Kertesz warns that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe, though it comes in several flavors. “Anti-Semitism comes in different forms in Europe,” says Kertesz. “In Hungary, you have the classical anti-Semitism that predates the Holocaust. You know who these people are. In Western Europe, the situation is completely different. I call it ‘Euro anti-Semitism,’ which is basically rhetoric against Israel. I don’t say Israeli politics are pure and clear, but people go from discussing Israel to crossing a line into anti-Semitism.”

The horror of being mistranslated had weighed heavily on Kertesz for the past decade. “I really tried to protest against the first translations, but I found complete rejection,” Kertesz says. “The publisher (Northwestern University) was not willing to do new translations. It was a really bad feeling. It was as if you had a very sane character who has a rendezvous with the reader and the person who shows up is basically a real jerk, with a stammer, bad breath and a foul mouth.”

The first translators did their own inaccurate interpretations of his work. “The translators didn’t understand what I wrote about,” says Kertesz, cringing at the memory. “The radical nature of my words was something that estranged them. They thought in the interest of the reader, they would make the text more human, to round it off and chisel it a bit.”

The translations of “Liquidation” and the two older books have Kertesz’s ecstatic approval. “I got carried away with Tim Wilkinson’s new translations,” says Kertesz. “I’m extremely overjoyed.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Amitav Ghosh on the 19th-Century Opium Traders in China

Newark Star-Ledger, October 16, 2011

In his new epic novel, "River of Smoke" (FSG, $28, 522 pp.), writer Amitav Ghosh explores the 19th century community of American, British and Indian opium traders in the foreign quarter of the Chinese city of Canton. The year is 1839 and the Chinese government finally has started banning the addictive drug that has made numerous addicts countrywide and assaulted Chinese civil society.

Canton is a freewheeling city, where foreign merchants mingle easily with the Chinese residents. It is a town of art and culture, where vice can easily be found and merchants communicate in a local pidgin mixture of Chinese, English and Indian languages. As the Chinese officials move to confiscate the opium, the traders, including a Bombay merchant named Bahram, are faced with ruin if the British and American navies don’t intervene. "River of Smoke" is the second book in Ghosh’s trilogy on Britain’s two Opium Wars against China. Ghosh has crafted a masterwork of historical fiction, capturing the lost city of Canton and exploring how these colonial wars brought China to its knees. Through meticulous research, the use of primary documents and gorgeous writing, Ghosh captures the opium culture of 19th century China and India.

Ghosh, 55, met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a café near his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.


Q. How did you fall into writing about the obscure Opium Wars of the 19th century?

A. I got into it through the indentured servants. My first book in the trilogy was about Indians leaving India to enter the coolie trade. In my research, I found this narrative of opium. In India, we are not taught about the Opium Wars. Until my book "Sea of Poppies" came out, most Indians and even Indian historians were unaware of the importance and extent of the opium trade.

Q. The opium trader Bahram is a generous, charming man, who trades in a drug that has made hundreds of thousands of Chinese addicts. Does he have any moral qualms over doing this?

A. I realized that people like Bahram have two axes of conflicting morality. One of these axes is that he is doing everything for his family, for his children. The opium traders were also incredible philanthropists in India. In Bombay, half the hospitals were built by opium traders.

Q. Do you see any parallels between the Opium Wars and the modern drug wars in the United States and South America?

A. I was in Brazil recently and it is so striking when you travel around South America and you see the drug trade destroying societies. The United States is being ripped apart by its own war on drugs. Nineteenth-century China was the first country to deal with mass addiction, which was engineered by the British and Americans, as a way of reversing its trade imbalance.

Q. What was the colonial trap the Chinese fell into?

A. It was essentially a military trap. China did not have the ability to resist the Americans and the British. The Chinese response to the opium epidemic was exemplary. They set up commissions, they considered legalization. They realized that their only choice was to ban it, so they sent in Commissioner Lin to end the importation of the drug. The British defeated the Chinese in battle and continued importing opium. It is one of the biggest crimes in history. The toll in terms of lives may be as high as 120 million, in terms of addicts and people killed.

Q. In the novel, you use an amazing range of English dialects and patois. How did you write the dialects?

A. It took a lot of research, but it’s the kind of thing that interests me. I spent much of my childhood in Sri Lanka, where we basically spoke a kind of pidgin English. I love pidgin and Creole dialects. I find it quite pleasurable to work with them.

Whitney Terrell on How the Federal Highway Project Gutted Kansas City in "The King of Kings County"

(This interview originally appeared in the Westchester Journal News on September 25, 2005)

By Dylan Foley

In his new novel, "The King of Kings County" (Viking, $25), Whitney Terrell chronicles the destruction of his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., by the federal highway project that ripped the city apart in the 1950s and 1960s.

Terrell focuses on Alton Acheson, a would-be real-estate developer who is part visionary, part con man, who sees the new highways and the inevitable suburbs as an opportunity for great riches.

The rise and fall of Alton is told through his son Jack, as Alton throws his lot in with the wealthy and unscrupulous Bowen family, which owns much of Kansas City, and borrows money from the local Mafia chieftain to fund his land speculation. Through shady dealings, Alton helps the Bowens buy large tracts of land in the future suburbs and spurs white flight from Kansas City by selling homes to black people in formerly all-white neighborhoods in the city. By the 1980s, downtown Kansas City is a ghost town, after hundreds of thousands of white residents flee to the bland Kansas suburbs.

Alton is the most compelling character, with his tacky yellow suits, his unrepentant drinking and his larger-than-life persona. "Alton's the one guy who does all the things that are supposedly so bad," says Terrell in a telephone interview from his home in Kansas City. "In writing him, I found him to be an incredibly entertaining character, and I cared about him deeply. Alton says, 'This is the system. This is how it works, and I am going to try to profit from it.' He's trying to trick people, and he is willing to do something dishonest to get a deal done."

Terrell's debut novel, "The Huntsman," a grim interracial romance set in Kansas City, won rave reviews when it appeared in late August 2001. Its fragile traction as a literary novel was wiped out, however, after 9/11. Americans bought primarily nonfiction books in the months after the terrorist attacks.

With his second novel, the 37 year-old Terrell has written a vivid story about grandiose hopes for wealth, conflicts between fathers and sons, the destructive nature of unchecked development and America's unsettled history with race. As William Kennedy did with Albany, Terrell uses Kansas City and its dreams and dark history as a way to dig towards the American soul.

The story for "The King" came from Kansas City's desolate downtown. "My family had been living in the city since 1904," Terrell says. "My grandmother and great-aunts had told me stories about how vibrant Kansas City was in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. I started to think about how did this happen - why was the downtown empty, why was it segregated?"

Terrell started exploring Kansas City's tortured story of race and development. "I started moving backwards," he says. "Why would people move across the state line into Kansas? What were the triggers? The highway went in during the 1950s, right at the time that Brown v. Board of Education was decided. When you link it to the idea that Kansas City had a history of valuing property with the racial makeup of the neighborhood, it made sense that people would expand into an area that had no nonwhite population. I was trying to figure out what was in the developers' mind that said 'We should go to Kansas.' "

The massive federal highway project of the 1950s allowed America's suburbs to explode. People pursued the postwar American dream of home ownership, but the new suburbs also allowed for white flight from the cities. Kansas City is not alone in its empty downtown. Small American cities from Syracuse to Cincinnati had their lively business districts sucked dry by fleeing urban whites and the suburban malls.

What Terrell does so well is to take the story behind a real-estate manipulation that destroys a city and turn it into a moving literary novel. Along the way, he had to take some liberties with history, condensing numerous developers into a fictional family like the Bowens. "There is a difference between Kansas City's history and the book's history," he says. "Whenever you take a change in population of hundreds of thousands of people, you are going to simplify it for a novel.

"Part of the point of the novel was to talk about real-estate development as an expression of pure capitalism, similar to the railroad building of the 19th century," he says. "Pure, unfettered capitalism turns out being something like socialism, because one person ends up with a monopoly. Developers have the power to do things in a city with no restraint. The Bowen company in the novel is an example of a real-estate company dominating a city. They can basically determine where they want people to live. City planning by private interests has been disastrous for American cities."

Terrell sees Alton Acheson as traveling in a proud line of American capitalists. "The history of American capitalism is not about the history of impeccable conduct," he says. "It's a history of swashbucklers. I like that Alton knows his history. He goes back to men like [robber barons] Jay Gould and Tom Durant as source material. Their stories are purely American, outrageous and wonderful. These men themselves put a human face on American capitalism."

In the hands of the Bowen family, preying on white Midwesterners' racial fears becomes a cynical tool. "I think they use race as a way to make money," Terrell says. "It's something to be manipulated, and they are dispassionate about it."

In both his novels, Terrell has made a point of dealing with race. "It's the great American subject that's present in the work of Twain, Melville, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison," he says. "Kansas City is a particularly apt place to write about it. Kansas City is a hypersegregated market. It's different from the South, because race hasn't been such an explicit issue here. It's been under the covers. That's true in such cities - Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit - that experienced white flight and suburban growth."

As Terrell begins work on his third novel, he plans to set it, too, in Kansas City. He points out that the Midwest is now the crucible for the modern culture wars - the anti-abortion forces are strong in nearby Wichita, Kan., and the new evolution battles are being fought in the Kansas schools.

"Kansas City is the place I know best," Terrell says. "I think the Midwest right now is in a position to uniquely show the effects of our current economic and political policies. Kansas City is in the heart of the red-state area, a Democratic city in the heart of a heavily Republican territory. This is the flashpoint. It's really between blue and red."

Suketu Mehta on Corruption, Political and Ethnic Violence in Bombay

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger on October 10, 2004)

Welcome to Bombay (formally known today as Mumbai), the largest city in the world, where the population is 14 million and density reaches 1 million people per square mile. It is India's city of opportunity, where the rich lived crammed next to the poor and strivers flood in from the countryside to thrive or to be crushed.

In Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Knopf, $28), Indian-American journalist and screenwriter Suketu Mehta has written a sprawling, gorgeous biography of this teeming metropolis. He interviews the political thugs who burned people alive in the 1993 Hindu-Muslim riots, street kids who have turned into professional killers and the police officers who torture and kill them.

Mehta chronicles the "Bollywood" film world, the bar girls who have dreams of being movie stars and middle-class families fighting to get out of the slum. With Mehta's incredible access, he draws a complex, sometimes-horrifying and comical view of Bombay. Mehta writes from his heart about the city he was raised in.

Mehta, 41, came to New York City from India at age 14. He was educated at New York University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has written for Granta, Harper's and Condé Nast Traveler. Mehta, his wife and two sons live in New York City, where he spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley.

Q. How would you describe the scale and character of Bombay?

A. It really is a maximum city. Nothing human is alien to it. Anything that you are interested in can be found there. It is all lived publicly on the street, and so god-awful cramped that it is strangely intimate. You can see people quarreling and making love, all the things in other places that you would do behind closed doors. Bombay has fantastic wealth and unimaginable poverty.

Q. Did you intend to write a 542-page epic?

A. Hell, no. This is the edited version. My first draft was 1667 pages. Sonny Mehta (the legendary Knopf publisher and editor) said when he got my manuscript on his desk, there was a Himalayan quality to it.

In 1997, I had had an article in Granta magazine on the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1993. On the basis of that, Knopf bought this book on spec. I was already 200 pages into a novel I was writing. I thought I would finish my novel, then go to Bombay with my family for a year and do a quick and dirty book about the city. Sonny said to do the Bombay book first. In his runic way, he said "The book would come as a surprise to Americans."

Now it's seven years later. The book became an obsession. Every day, I'd take my laptop bag with me and go out on the Bombay streets. I mostly just watched people and what they did. I was like a kid in a candy store. People opened up to me on incredibly personal, private matters. It was the kind of access I couldn't dream of getting in New York, like meeting a killer who liked the Backstreet Boys and the sound of a Mauser firing. His friend, another hitman, said that he always kept strictly vegetarian, for it kept his mind calm while he was working. The police invited me to watch them torture suspects; the biggest Bollywood film stars were telling me about their sex lives. They thought I was writing a novel, but I always said I wasn't.

Q. You write extensively about Ajay Lal, an honest, brutal Bombay police official, who uses torture and possibly murder to protect the city. What was he like?

A. That was a tough portrait to write because I like him a great deal. He is honest, he is effective and has a strong notion of dharma, or duty, where you do your duty because you are supposed to. His dharma was to defend the city. He did it by any means necessary, which included torturing people. The thing that appalled me was the societal consensus for violence, a general agreement that it was okay to beat and shoot people because the judiciary wasn't working. Ajay does torture people. Every Bombay police station does.

Q. Throughout the book, you tend to hold back shock or moral dilemmas while you're interviewing. This is true with your handling of Sunil, a man who burned Muslims alive, and Satosh, a rapist and killer. Why?

A. There was a moral judgment that I withheld in the writing of the book, but also in meeting these people. I couldn't do it if I judged them. Sunil, for example, does business with Muslims during the morning, and in the evening he'd be killing them. When we look at murderers, we tend to focus on what is most violent and spectacular. We judge all aspects of his character that way. It is an incomplete understanding of a person. I begin the chapter having Sunil describe what a man looks like on fire, a man he had set on fire. I then talk to his parents, his wife, and go into the conditions that have formed him, and the political rewards that murder brings in Bombay. With Ajay, I watched him torture people, then looked into the defects of the judicial system.

In a strange sort of way, these people started becoming my friends, or at least my drinking buddies. I almost lost my liver to this book. In bizarre ways, even with the worst of them, I saw bits of myself in them, my own capacity for violence, my own lusts.

Q. Do you think you got too close to the criminal element? You befriend godfathers and arrange for a filmmaker to hire thugs for crowd control at a movie location.

A. A major gang leader offered me "one free hit, one time." It was uncomfortably close. The (gangsters) became quite fond of me, because they wanted someone to listen to them. In terms of arranging the crowd control for the movie, I put the filmmaker in touch with some people. They arranged the details. In Bombay, crowd control essentially involves crowd beatings.

Q. Do you think riots will happen again in Bombay?

A. Yes. I think it is not that the city could explode, but that it will explode. It has to. Cities like Bombay need these periodic urban eruptions to relieve the energy and frustrations that have built up. It is overdue. We don't know the contours of the next one.

Q. You develop quite a bond with the bar girl Monalisa, who dances and occasionally sleeps with clients. How did this happen?

A. Something like this is inescapable, if you are following the underworld. All roads lead to the beer bar. This is where they gather after a hard day of bribing and killing, to spend their ill-gotten gains. They come to fall in love. It was new and strange to me. With Monalisa, I became involved with her in a way that was more intimate than sex. I never did sleep with her. I realized if I had slept with her, all the stories would have been cut off. Then I would have been just another customer. I was at once a voyeur and her best friend.

Q. What has been the response to the book in India?

A. I was in Bombay this September for a week. I wanted to get out of the country before they started reading the book. I may be sued by some of the people in the book. I was not going to write hagiographies or hatchet jobs in my book. It was a celebration of man in the metropolis.

From the book—The growing ethnic tension in "Bollywood" cinema after the 1993 riots:
The Hindi film industry has always had the secularism of a brothel. All are welcome as long as they carry or make money. The financier might be a hard-core Hindu nationalist. The lyricist can be a fundamentalist Sunni. A star who plays a Hindu will actually be a Muslim, and the heroine, playing a Muslim, will be a Hindu, and none of that matters to the public. But the 1993 riots toppled the pyramids of power in the film industry. The lower-level technicians became newly bold and demanded favors, questioned authority. The Sena men (virulent Hindu nationalists) were making rounds in the studio to check for Muslim employees. Hindus higher up in the industry, not knowing (the movie director) Mahesh's mother was a Muslim, would abuse Muslims in front of him.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dana Spiotta on The Culture Of Consumer Excess in "Lightning Field"

Irrational Obsessions Get Full Play In `Lightning Field'

Hartford Courant, August 12, 2001
(LIGHTNING FIELD by Dana Spiotta, Scribner, $23, 256 pp.)

Mina Delano refuses to drive in Los Angeles. She walks from the bungalow she shares with her screenwriter-husband David to the apartment of one lover and the hotel of another. In a city where no one walks, she hikes long distances to her job managing a ``concept'' restaurant owned by her friend Lorene. The restaurant is a mock-1940s joint called Gentlemen's Club, where voluptuous waitresses with names like Luanne and bartenders with fake names like Sam serve nostalgia and a drink named Liquid Oblivion. Meanwhile, Lorene's housecleaner Lisa is convinced that either E. coli will kill her babies or they will be snatched off the street.

The alienated characters in Dana Spiotta's ``Lightning Field,'' her debut novel about three women in Los Angeles, are immersed in the culture of consumer excess that has replaced spiritual life. The social satire is dark and witty, subtle and moving. Spiotta's Los Angeles streets are bereft of people and the bars are almost empty, focusing attention on the main characters.

``It didn't start out as a Los Angeles novel,'' says Spiotta, from a linen-covered table in the sleek restaurant she manages in Manhattan. ``It started out as a novel about obsessive people and their obsessions. Los Angeles seemed to be the place for these people to interact. It is ... very ripe for a satire of contemporary culture.''

Mina's obsessions are the three men she is sleeping with. Lorene's obsessions lie with the creation of her hipper-than-thou restaurants. Though obsessed with beauty, Lorene does not have sex. ``Mina and Lorene have different obsessions,'' Spiotta says, ``but the fact they have overlapping obsessions makes them friends. You can have different reactions to the same things: Lorene will not have sex and Mina will have an awful lot of sex, but they are really not that different in relation to the world around them. They are pretty alienated.''

Meanwhile, Lisa is obsessed with terrorism and bacteria, as her working-class marriage disintegrates.

``All three women are aware of how obsessive some of their obsessions are, but it doesn't liberate them in any way,'' says Spiotta. ``We have this super-ironic culture that doesn't give people a way of organizing the world.''

Lorene also pines for her lost love Michael, Mina's institutionalized brother. She refuses to eat and indulges in $150-an-hour massages. Mina shops, buying supple leather shoes she will never wear.

``In New York and L.A.,'' Spiotta says, ``there is a mass hysteria to accumulate, and it is hard not to be affected by that. When you are in a culture with overwhelming abundance, an overwhelming amount of information, all these things overwhelm us. Style becomes your identity. What you buy and what you consume defines you. What you refer to becomes mannered and shallow.''

A flashback in the novel shows Lorene as a 22-year-old ``lifestylist'' dictating style to a boring software millionaire: He must affect an interest in German cabaret music, and only drink single-malt scotches.

``Lorene learned what every confidence woman learns: All our desires are the same, we all want the same things, we are all desperate in the same way,'' writes Spiotta. ``And the first to declare an answer, especially a vehement, confident answer, wins.'' Lorene takes her fledgling skills and, over a decade, builds her restaurant empire on taunting and seducing her clients.

Spiotta, 35, grew up in a film-industry family in Los Angeles and waited tables to support herself through college. She came to New York 12 years ago to work for The Quarterly, a once-hip, now-defunct literary magazine. For six years, Spiotta has managed restaurants at night to write during the day. It was the New York restaurant scene that provided raw material for Lorene's emporiums.

``New York is restaurant-obsessed, where chefs are stars,'' mused Spiotta. ``I would take one small idea and explode it.'' Lorene runs an exotic meat and whiskey restaurant called Dead Animals and Single Malts, then moves on to an all-smoking restaurant concept. ``I was sort of in love with Lorene when I was writing her,'' she says, with a chuckle.
One of Mina's lovers is her husband's best friend Max, who initially seduces her on videotape, then continues taping their sexual encounters. These scenes are some of the most provocative in the book.

``It's a challenge to write about seductions,'' she says. ``I wanted to explore formal ways of doing that to make it new. They were hard scenes, really humiliating in some way, and they were disturbing to write. That's what needed to happen.''

The adultery in the book -- Mina and Max betraying David, David sleeping with the woman who reads his scripts -- is pervasive.

``Growing up in Los Angeles, where everybody's parents were divorced, it's pretty hard not to be cynical about marriage as an institution,'' says Spiotta. ``In the book, everything gets debased, including sex, and it ends up commodified. I also wanted to make a woman character who treats sex the same way that men conventionally treat sex.''

Like her approach to sex, Mina's walking in Los Angeles is a rebellious act. ``She wants very desperately to be in opposition to what is around her. It's subversive in a way. Mina says in the book that if you drive, you get somewhere and you haven't really experienced how you got there. She is suspicious of the speed of our culture. She wants more of a relationship with the landscape and more engagement in her life.''

As the book progresses, Mina's brother Michael checks himself out of the hospital and Mina heads cross-country to meet him in New York, taking Lorene along for a ride through the Southwest and New Orleans. Mina starts to drive and Lorene starts to eat. ``Things are changing in their personalities as they drive away from what they are.''

Spiotta refused all easy endings: ``Originally, I thought the book would end with Michael and Mina meeting. I really didn't want that to happen. Just when you think something very dramatic is going to happen, they go back --Lorene to her restaurants, and Mina goes back to David.'' At the same time, an incident with Michael in Los Angeles forces Lisa to confront her obsessive fears.

``With Mina, I knew that some readers would want a satisfying ending, but I felt that would be dishonest,'' Spiotta says. ``I don't think things get solved. I don't think resolutions really happen in Los Angeles.''

Dylan Foley writes about books for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Denver Post and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and wrote this article for The Courant.

Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Noir on Frozen Tundra

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in May 2007)

Michael Chabon’s wonderful new novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”(HarperCollins, $27) opens with Meyer Landsman, a Jewish police detective in Sitka, Alaska, being awakened from his drunken downward spiral in his flophouse hotel room. His downstairs neighbor, a heroin addict and chess hustler, has been shot dead. The grim reality surfaces that the murdered man was the missing son of Alaska’s most powerful rabbi and may have been the Messiah, according to Jewish legend.

Using alternative history, Chabon has settled the Jews of Europe in Alaska after World War II. The Zionists in Palestine were pushed into the Mediterranean in 1948, so Sitka is home to three million Jews. Chabon’s imaginary community is a freezing hybrid of Yiddish, American and Native Alaskan cultures, an incredibly witty Jewish “Blade Runner” of ethnic clashes. Landsman and his half-Indian Orthodox Jewish partner Berko must track down the dead man’s killer, plunging them into the murky world of the fictional Verbovers, an ultra-Orthodox sect with direct links to organized crime. It is six decades after Alaska was settled by Jews in the 1940s, but they bleakly await their possible expulsion through “Reversion,” the policy where the United States will reclaim its territory. Paying a brilliant homage to Raymond Chandler and film noir grittiness, Chabon has peopled a universe with Yiddish-speaking gangsters and cops, and extremist American Jews and Christian who dream of the apocalypse.

Chabon, 43, was raised in Maryland and educated at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California Irvine. Chabon is the author of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and Summerland,” and his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. Chabon met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a New York City hotel.

Q. How did you decide to set a Jewish community in Alaska?

A. At some point, I picked up this piece of trivia that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had proposed resettling the European Jews in Alaska. It’s one of these random bits of Jewish American lore that I knew. I thought of this again when I was writing an essay on the phrasebook “Say It in Yiddish: A Phrasebook for Travelers” for the now-defunct Civilization magazine. The book was written in 1958, after the Holocaust and after Yiddish had gone into decline. Where would you go with the book, where would you travel? In passing in the essay, I wondered what it would have been like if the Jews settled in Alaska, and you had as cold, Yiddish-speaking North American country. I was playing with a counter-Israel,an alternative Israel, where everything is inverted. Yet after you are done inverting everything, you are still left with some core similarities. That is what interested me.

Q. What was your own Jewish background and your relationship with Yiddish?

A. I was raised in Columbia, Maryland, in this independent congregation called the Columbia Jewish Congregation. I had a bar mitzvah. We went to synagogue on the High Holidays. We went to the synagogue on Friday night, not always, but sometimes. We lit candles, not always, but sometimes. I heard a lot of Yiddish growing up My mother’s father, my mother’s mother and my great aunt spoke Yiddish with each other all the time. They used it when they didn’t want the kids to understand.

In using Yiddish in the novel, I really proceeded as much as possible by ear, what sounded right and appropriate to me. I tried to stick to the fundamental rule that I would only use a Yiddish word in the text if it was being used in a way that was not readily translatable or being used in a slang manner. A word like shammes literally means a sextant, but it has the association with seamus. It felt like the right slang word for cop or detective. Other things I did a lot was translate Yiddish expressions, like “banging me a tea kettle,” which means to pester someone.

Q. Where does your hero Meyer Landsman come from?

A. He partly comes out of the hard-boiled detective genre. Normally, they are private eyes, but my guy is not. They are very isolated, solitary figures. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe lives by himself in a cheap apartment. It has this template of a lonely guy. in the course of writing this book, I realized that my story was overtly and implicitly concerned with redemption, and redemption of the world. This redemption was something that Meyer Landsman was going to need, too.

Q. But the book opens with the redeemer, a possible Messiah, dead in his hotel room with a bullet hole in the back of his head. Why?

A. As I started the second draft of the novel, I was pretty immersed in Jewish folklore and Hasidic folklore I had all this stuff in my mind, and at the same time I was reading Raymond Chandler’s short stories. What I noticed was that he had a lot of hotel dicks, hotel detectives. I love hotels. There was something appealing about a guy who lives in the hotel where the trouble takes place. Because I was plunged into the lore of the Messiah, I had this image of the Messiah lying dead in an hotel room. That image became very haunting. I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t the Messiah, but someone who had been considered a possible Messiah. This man, Mendel, is my favorite character. I have a lot of pity for him, partially because he has so much pity for others, though ultimately he is the most deserving of pity.

Q. What interested you in the “Reversion,” where the Jews may be expelled from Alaska, as their territory is returned to the United States?

A. That is our history. That is all that has ever happened to the Jews, up until 1948, one expulsion after another. I was raised with this sense, like every Jew, that everything was different after 1948, that history was altered. Now there was a new template for being Jewish, never having to undergo expulsion again. It’s incredibly shortsighted and a typical modern perspective that now we have arrived at the end of history. It’s foolish to assume that the way things are now are the way they always will be. I am very aware of the fragility of everything as Jews in America and Israel’s position in the world.

Amy Tan on "The Bonesetter's Daughter"

(This interview was originally published on in January 2001)

An Interview with Amy Tan

Barnes& What inspired you to create the intriguing nursemaid, Precious Auntie, in The Bonesetter's Daughter?

Amy Tan: It is so hard to say where the characters in the most important part of our books originate. All the reasons seem superficial. You have an idea, an image that seems intriguing. I heard a story once about a monk who came and pretended to put ghosts into jars.

My mother had been scarred around her face from an accident when she was young, and there was a certain quality of speechlessness in all the women in our family that manifested itself in different ways. My grandmother was not able to speak about her despair until she killed herself, and my own mother wasn't able to tell the terrible stories from her own life until much later. And there is a certain quality of speechlessness that all women have, even very modern women today in a country such as the United States, women who feel that they have lost their voice.
I think that the most emotional part of what defined Precious Auntie as a character was my ongoing desire to find out who my grandmother was and the legacy she left us.

B& How much of your grandmother's story did you know when you began?

AT: I didn't even know her real name until my mother died. My half sisters and I were writing my mother's obituary while she lay dying, taking her last breath. I found out that I didn't even know my mother's true name. It struck me that there is so much that I still don't know.

My mother was born in China with one name, then her father died, and my grandmother was taken into another family. She was raped and became a concubine against her will. She killed herself, after the baby that resulted was born. I heard bits and pieces later in life. I knew none of this when I was growing up.

These were the tragedies that informed my mother's life. She would tell me these horror stories. "Don't let a man take advantage of you. Then you'll have a baby, you'll kill the baby and your life would be over." I didn't even know how reproduction happened. My mother had gone through such an abusive first marriage, and then knowing what had happened to her mother, she was so afraid that the same thing would befall me. I had no context for why she'd made these warnings.

B& Why did Precious Auntie try to commit suicide by drinking molten ink?

AT: The way it happened in the story was that she was looking for anything to kill herself with, and she happens to be there in the ink studio. What feels right to me is that ink is what you use to write words down. Ink is what lasts. Ink does not come off. The ink contains all potential words that could have been said. Her granddaughter later becomes a ghostwriter. Though she doesn't use ink, the metaphor is still there -- the words coming out, the words able to be said, and what Ruth does with the words is speak for other people, never herself.

B& When Ruth was pretending to channel Precious Auntie by writing in a tray of sand, what was she doing?

AT: She was trying to speak for her mother, translating for her mother, translating for other people. In effect, Precious Auntie was trying to say what a mother should say to her daughter. Though she was the mother, for all these years Precious Auntie couldn't say she was the mother. Precious Auntie's voicelessness was more than not being able to say what was the most important thing.

B& There are a lot of themes on identity and loss of identity in your book, such as LuLing being thrown into an orphanage when her real mother dies. What inspired you to write about this?

AT: In our family, we've had issues on the loss of identity, which is a very American concept, and where the American side of the story comes in. My mother left behind a life in China. She left behind three daughters -- she was a fairly well-to-do woman -- and a whole past, a language. She created a new identity here. That identity of who she was in China pervaded everything she did, and I didn't know what that was. My grandmother's identity exists only in a memory of a memory: my memory of my mother's memory of who my grandmother was.

The whole idea of existence -- the loss of one's memory of that person, which happens when one loses their memory, as my mother did -- was all tied up in a mix of emotions for me. It is my form of ancestor worship. Ancestor worship is so important in China, not in the sense that you make them into deities, but that they continue to exist as long as you remember them. It is very important to remember them, to do rituals. This is my ritual -- writing about my ancestors.
My grandmother is on the cover of the book. I wrote with her in mind. I suggested to Putnam that they use her photograph and they agreed. I was thrilled!

B& Your books include spirits, like the ghost of Precious Auntie destroying the ink shop. How did spirits permeate your childhood and form you as a writer?

AT: I grew up with several kinds of spirits in my imagination. My father was a Baptist minister, and he believed in the Holy Spirit. My mother was fairly quiet about her beliefs, which were an eclectic mix that are typical of a lot of Chinese; a mix of animism, ancestor worship and Buddhism, and even Catholicism, because she went to a Catholic school. My mother used to talk about ghosts, from the time I was a little girl. I would say that I saw a ghost in the bathroom. My mother would get really excited and say, "Where, where is she?" She was sure that it was somebody that she knew. If something happened that was disturbing to her, she was sure that it was related to a spirit. When my father died, all the ghosts really came out of the closet. She talked very openly. She made me use a Ouija board to talk to them. I would get advice from them about my father and brother, and what investments we should play on the stock market.

B& An important subplot in your book involves the dragon bones, the mystical fossils that turn out to be the bones of the Peking Man, the first human skeleton found in China. How did you decide to incorporate this into your book?

AT: I am trying to remember when the image of the bones became so strong for me. I thought of it like the excavation of my own memories of my mother, and finding these pieces at one point. I remember coming across an article about how the bones of the Peking Man had disappeared. My God, all these people who did this great effort to discover the bones, then they found it, knew its value, then lost it again. This is so much like what happens when we finally get to know our own past through our parents, then we lose them. That was the reason why I decided to set the book in the Mouth of the Mountain, near where Peking Man was discovered. But I also had the idea of a bonesetter and started hearing about dragon bones, which is where the early fossils were found, and all of it came together. It was almost too much emphasis, but in Chinese culture, nothing is subtle. Symbolism is a very big part of Chinese culture. Oh, and I am a dragon, and my mother was a dragon! We were both born in the Year of the Dragon.

B& Did the bonesetters use the fossils as medicine?

AT: The dragon bones were used for medicinal purposes. They were crushed and used as medicine.

B& You write about the generational conflicts between immigrant mothers and their Americanized daughters so well. It seems like the mothers are constantly criticizing their daughters, though the love is so profound. Where does the criticism come from?

AT: Criticism I grew up with! Everyone I know who had a Chinese mother who came from the mainland grew up with that criticism as well. It seems natural to me. I do not know if it is Shanghai-nese [where Tan's mother is from], the Chinese, or all mothers, but the criticism always means, "I think you deserve better." What the child hears is, "You never think that I am good enough." It's interesting to me, that loss of translation. Again, we are unable to say what we mean.

I, for example, am still very uncomfortable with compliments. I don't know what to do with them. On the other hand, I don't think I need compliments to make me feel that I know what my worth is. I think it can be a good thing, as well. I think my mother wanted me not to rely on other people's opinions for me to know what my opinion of myself was.

B& What is your writing office like?

AT: I usually write in a very womblike place. I have two offices, one in New York and one in San Francisco. The one in New York is a former closet. It has very low ceilings. It is painted a rust-colored red. It has antique Chinese furniture in it.

Here in San Francisco, my office is more modern, with mahogany built-in bookshelves. The room is a bit larger. I have a window, but the curtains are always closed. The room is painted dark green. It's cluttered with tons of stuff, knickknacks and mail I have not looked at.

B& You don't enjoy the views?

AT: I cannot deal with those distractions. I had a beautiful office with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay, but my assistant, Ellen, has that office now.

B& What is your next project, if that is not a rude question?

AT: It's not a rude question, but it is a question that I can't really answer. For me, I've found that if I talk about what I think a book is about, it is almost like deconstructing a book. I have enough time after I've written a book, but before I've finished, I almost feel like I am going to let the air out of the balloon when it has not even risen yet. I can only talk about it in vague terms. I know it is going to be very different. I don't know if it is going to delight my publisher or horrify them. I am very excited. I started it an hour after I finished this last book in August, after this moment of speechlessness.

B& Do you have a week of speechlessness every year, like Ruth in The Bonesetter's Daughter?

AT: I used to. I had a speechlessness that came around my birthday. It was related to a trauma that I'd had. One of my best friends, my husband's and my roommate, was murdered that day in a brutal way. I had to identify the body and go through the room, seeing the blood. You could smell what had happened in there. I went through the routine of identifying what was missing, but I really couldn't talk about the other things. So every year for ten years, I became mute on that day.

Amy Tan spoke from her office in San Francisco with interviewer Dylan Foley, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mario Vargas Llosa on the Assassination of the Strongman Trujillo

Hartford Courant, November 4, 2001
(THE FEAST OF THE GOAT by Mario Vargas Llosa; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $25; 416 pp.)

When renowned novelist Mario Vargas Llosa was a military cadet in Peru in the 1950s, Gen. Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic epitomized the repressive Latin American dictator, the kind of ruler who literally threw his enemies to the sharks. In Vargas Llosa's new novel, ``The Feast of the Goat,'' he goes inside the mind of the twisted general on the day of his assassination in 1961.

``When I was young, Latin America was in the realm of military dictatorships,'' says Vargas Llosa, in an interview from his house in Spain. ``Trujillo was probably the most emblematic figure of the system. His regime had all the worst trends, all the extravagance. It was not only the brutality and the corruption, but also the degradation of human life, the theatricality of bad taste.

``I wanted to enter the mind, the psychology of the dictator,'' says Vargas Llosa, the author of 14 novels and works of fiction. ``It was the most difficult challenge: How do you make a dictator like Trujillo a human character? I didn't want to make him a monster or a farce.''

In ``The Feast of the Goat,'' Vargas Llosa shows that a sweeping historical epic can still be great literature, taking the brutal history of a long-murdered dictator and creating a meditation on memory, terror and murderous complicity. It opens with two parallel stories. The first begins in the mid-1990s, when a Dominican exile named Urania returns to Santo Domingo to visit her father, a dying and disgraced Trujillista. Then the novel cuts back to 1961, where four assassins wait to kill Trujillo on a lonely highway.

For Vargas Llosa, the roots of his new novel go back to 1975, when he lived in the Dominican Republic during the making of a movie version of his novel ``Captain Pantoja and the Special Service.'' (``It is a very bad film -- please do not see it,'' he says, with a chuckle.) Fourteen years after the murder of Trujillo, the Dominicans were finally able to speak frankly of their dead dictator.

``This novel is not a history book,'' Vargas Llosa says. ``I have respected the basic facts, but I have taken many, many liberties because it is a novel.''

Vargas Llosa says that he didn't start in earnest on the novel until he discovered how Trujillo degraded his followers. ``Trujillo did very nasty things to the people who were loyal to him -- he went to bed with their wives,'' he says. ``Sex for him was a very powerful instrument for taming people, for humiliating people, or to test the level of loyalty and sacrifice of his partners. It gave me the idea of exploring the mind of the man.''

But the novel came together only when he created a female main character. ``I realized that the central character had to be a woman, because women were the worst victims in a regime where you have not only dictatorship, but machismo. Women became objects that were used in a very cynical way.''

Vargas Llosa presents Trujillo as a paranoid old man on his last day of life. He is still crafty and vicious, but looks for enemies everywhere. His aging body betrays him. ``A lashing rage shook him,'' writes Vargas Llosa. ``He could dominate men, bring three million Dominicans to their knees, but he could not control his own bladder.''

In a chilling scene, Trujillo reminisces on his 1937 decision to slaughter as many as 25,000 impoverished Haitians that were living in the Dominican Republic. Surrounded by his flatterers in a garish dining room, Trujillo and his men joke about how much of the killing was done with machetes: ``The general raised his hands and showed them to his guests: `For the sake of the country, I stained these hands with blood. If I had not, the Dominican Republic would not exist today.'''

To bring ``The Feast of the Goat'' down from epic history to its individual tragedies, Vargas Llosa focused on building his characters. ``In a novel, what is most important is not facts, not ideas, not scenery,'' he says. ``The essentials in a novel are people, living characters, who give the illusion of real life.

``A novel is people moving, people developing,'' he says. ``That's what deserves the acceptance or rejection of the reader. I worked hard on the personalities. It was necessary to contrast Trujillo with Abbes Garcia and Balanguer,'' referring to the dictator's murderous secret police chief and Machiavellian president.

For the Dominicans under Trujillo, state terror was pervasive, and Vargas Llosa captures the feeling of a people who can barely breathe. ``Latin America had the kind of regimes where terror is the atmosphere,'' he says. ``I used some of my own experiences.''

By the middle of the book, Trujillo has been assassinated and the revenge on the conspirators and their families by the Trujillo supporters is vicious and slow. One would think that Vargas Llosa plagiarized Dante's ``Inferno'' for the tortures, but the events actually happened. His writing is clear and powerful. Though Trujillo is dead, the ensuing political turmoil is riveting.

``This was the most difficult part of the novel,'' says Vargas Llosa of writing on the tortures that went on for weeks before the plotters were executed. ``It was so brutal, and difficult to justify the violence on literary grounds.'

Vargas Llosa keeps residences in Spain, England and Peru. ``I've spent a lot of time in France ... I am working on a novel on Paul Gauguin and his grandmother, a famous anarchist. It's about social utopias.''

But it is inevitable that Vargas Llosa will return to Latin America in his writing. ``The basic experiences, which are the source of images and ideas for a writer, are in my case rooted in Latin America,'' he says. ``It is the most exciting history to write about -- the violence, the drama.''

Dylan Foley is a free-lance book critic who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He wrote this article for The Courant.

Ursula Hegi on Writing From Soul's Experience

Hegi Waits Until Characters Have Lived In Her Head
November 18, 2001
Hartford Courant

HOTEL OF THE SAINTS by Ursula Hegi, Simon and Schuster, $23, 171 pp.

In ``Hotel of the Saints,'' Ursula Hegi's new collection of short stories, a fragile widow redoes her hotel as a theme park of Roman Catholic saints. By exploring young girls with adulterous fathers, battered women and battling sisters, Hegi's stories take her readers on a moving journey of loss and grief, and sometimes of hope and redemption.

In an interview from her home not far from New York City, Hegi said the 11 stories were written and rewritten over the past decade. ``I do between 50 and 100 revisions,'' says Hegi. ``The writing process is about going deeper and deeper, layer by layer, with each revision.

``Sometimes people ask me, `Did that really happen to you?' In a way, after I have written a story, it becomes part of my emotional experience. I become the character. I need to feel what the character is feeling.''

Hegi has written six novels and collections of short stories. The stories in ``Hotel of the Saints'' go from Italy to Germany and the American Northwest. Her beautifully crafted stories show fragmented families -- women who choose to be without men, brothers who have split over petty disagreements, and a husband who has lost a wife he had molded. In ``A Woman's Perfume,'' a motherless daughter at a beach resort is mentored by his father's married lover. Hegi develops the longing behind the memory of the sand on the girl's thighs and the woman's lingering scent.

With the title story, the formidable trio of siblings that make up ``the starch sisters'' are always baking or going to church. There are no husbands around, but they all raise one sister's son, Lenny, who grows up to be a doubt-plagued seminarian. When Lenny's uncle dies, his uncle's widow, Jocelyn, throws off her anti-depressants and years of repression. Aunt Jocelyn refuses to paint her hotel a sterile white. She and Lenny paint it vibrant colors, dedicating each room to a different saint.

The bar is christened Mary Magdalene, and the restaurant is named The Last Supper. ``The honeymoon suite is named after Mary Goretti,'' writes Hegi, ``who died young, defending her virginity.'' With deft humor, Hegi displays the widow's grief, how she remakes her life, and how Lenny confronts his own questions of faith.

The story of Lenny and his aunt were partially inspired by a famous offbeat hotel. ``There is this wonderful hotel on the Oregon coast called the Sylvia Beach Hotel, where every room is dedicated to a different writer,'' says Hegi. ``There is the Edgar Allan Poe Room, with the blood-red bedspread and the hatchet, and the Tennessee Williams Room, with mosquito netting.''

Hegi, who is in her 50s, came to the United States from her native Germany in 1965. ``I came here to get away,'' she says, with a trace of an accent. ``Part of it was being 18. I ended up staying.'' Besides her novels, Hegi has made a career of teaching writing, first in New Hampshire and then at Eastern Washington State University. She and her husband moved back East two years ago.

In creating her characters, Hegi often writes from the perspective of people she observes. One example came 20 years ago, when Hegi was dropping off her younger son at kindergarden. ``I noticed this woman standing on the curb, moving her arms in a strange way,'' she says. ``Her hair was almost like the feathers of a duck, and she was wearing a denim suit. There was this vacant look on her face.

``I started taking notes from inside her point of view. Quite often it is, `What would it be like to be that character, standing on the curb?' It's like method acting, in a way.''

Telling Details

One of Hegi's main strengths as a writer is capturing the small detail or action that defines her characters' personalities, explaining their later actions. In ``Lower Crossing,'' the last story in the collection, Libby recounts how her husband ends their marriage by storming out of a diner, leaving his waffles uneaten. Left behind, Libby eats them to try to cover up her public humiliation: ``Whenever I go over things I would do differently in my life,'' says Libby, ``I am sure that I would not sit at that table ... pretending that nothing is wrong, while swallowing Billy's cold spongy waffles that -- on bad days, I swear -- I can still feel sitting on the bottom of my stomach.''

In her story ``The End of All Sadness,'' Hegi goes into the mind of a battered spouse of an ex-convict. In her monologue, the wife is determined to keep her abusive husband, even though it is harming her daughter. In four devastating pages, the text spurts out, with rationalizations and delusions spilling all over. ``It was a very scary story to write,'' admits Hegi. ``I needed to become that woman. I am not that woman, but in order to go there, I had to feel what it was like.''

``It is a very disturbing story,'' she adds. ``The sentence structure changes as though it is told in one breath -- there is very little punctuation.''

Hegi is always working on several manuscripts at once. ``My novel `The Vision of Emma Blau' took nine years to write,'' she says. ``I finished three other books in that time. Some short stories have taken me years. Sometimes I need to leave stories alone and let the character live inside my head.''

Boost From Oprah

Hegi's best-known work is her 1994 novel ``Stones From the River,'' which deals with German guilt and responsibility over the Holocaust. It was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her TV book club. Winfrey's sponsorship resulted in a massive spike in sales for the book and a large Internet following for Hegi.

The power of Hegi's short stories is that they need to be digested, broken apart and examined. The reader will remember the battered woman or fragile Aunt Jocelyn for quite a while and will wonder what could happen to them. ``I never want to write a story that slams down at the moment when the story ends,'' says Hegi. ``The ending opens up another story after that.''

``Ninety-nine percent of the time, I don't know how a story will end,'' Hegi admits. ``What draws me into a story is seeing the characters together and what develops between them. If I already knew the ending, I wouldn't have to write the story.''

Dylan Foley is a free-lance book critic who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He wrote this article for The Courant.