Alden Mudge

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Yaa Gyasi sounds a bit unnerved by the prepublication buzz surrounding her stunning first novel, Homegoing, and the changes its enthusiastic early reception portend for her life.

“I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life, so this is really the fulfillment of a long dream,” she says during a call to her home in Berkeley, California. She and her boyfriend, a writer she met when they were both at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, have recently moved to the Bay Area.

“I feel fortunate not only that my dream came true but that it’s coming true in such a huge way,” Gyasi continues. “On the other hand, the stakes feel really high in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I find myself being a lot more anxious than when I thought no one would read the book. I feel a lot of outside noise has come in now in a way that it never had before. I had always been writing for myself. And now it’s becoming more public. That’s definitely an end goal of a writer, to share their work with readers. But it is a little nerve-racking.”

Gyasi, who turns 27 in late June, spent seven years developing her first novel. Homegoing is a sweeping, emotionally and morally complex epic that begins in the 18th century in the British African colony that is now Ghana. There, two half-sisters—Effia from the slave-trading Fante nation and Esi from the Asante warrior nation—are born and live nearly intersecting lives without ever meeting. Effia is born during a violent fire. As a young woman, she is married off to a British official as a local wife and lives in the upper realms of the Cape Coast Castle, seat of British colonial power. Esi is sold into slavery and imprisoned in the bowels of the castle to await a harrowing journey over the ocean to the American South.

From there, in beautifully textured alternating chapters in which water imagery represents Esi’s line and fire imagery is linked to Effia’s, the novel explores the lives of these women’s descendants. Esi’s progeny live in the U.S. as slaves and then as free people under Jim Crow laws. Effia’s descendants remain in Ghana and experience the effects of British colonialism and bloody internal African warfare. In the end, in the 21st century, the two lines of descendants experience a poignant kind of “homegoing.”

“People in the present have a tendency to believe that we are necessarily better, smarter or more moral than the people who lived before us.”

“The thing that I was most interested in was the question of what does it mean to be black in America today,” Gyasi says. “So I was very much focused on those last two chapters. I wanted to get to the African immigrant and the African American today. When I first thought of this novel all those years ago, I thought I would toggle back and forth between the characters that make up the first few chapters and the characters that make up the last few chapters to show a then-and-now thing. But then at some point I realized that I was more interested in being able to see the way something moves over a long period of time, in this case slavery, how slavery dovetailed off into this colonialism and institutionalized racism depending on where and how you were looking.”

The novel is propelled by a profound and wrenching sense of history. Yet its characters are emotionally compelling rather than didactic. This is partly because of Gyasi’s “exploratory” style of research. “I didn’t want to feel stifled by the research or the need to get everything exactly, exactly right,” she explains. “I just wanted to have it be this atmospheric thing that was in the background, so that the characters were foregrounded and they were just reacting to a moment in history, as we do now. You know, things are happening around us, but they don’t feel like they always explain our actions and our choices.”

The novel is also shaped by Gyasi’s deep imagining of events and by her family’s experiences. Born in Ghana, she came to the United States when she was 2 years old. Her father is a professor of French and Francophile African literature, and her mother is a nurse. She is the middle of three children and the only girl. Before settling in Huntsville, Alabama, when she was 9, the family also lived in Ohio and Illinois. She went to Stanford University and won a Chappell-Lougee scholarship to travel to Ghana and research her novel.

“I’ve only been back [to Ghana] twice,” Gyasi says. “The first time was with my entire family at age 11. And the second time was when I was 20. I had just a very thin idea for a novel in mind. I had never been to the central region where my mother is from. So I wanted to spend some time there.”

Her visit to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle was the revelation that inspired the novel. “The tour guide started talking about the fact that a lot of British soldiers would marry the local Fante women, and the children from these marriages were sometimes sent to England for school and then came back and started to form the region’s middle class. I’d never heard much about the Cape Coast Castle or about Ghana’s participation in the slave trade. All of this was really new to me. And then the tour guide showed us the majesty of the upstairs level of the castle. It’s beautiful. Then after showing us this upstairs level, he takes us down to see the male and female dungeons. That was also a very striking experience for me—kind of the literal upstairs downstairs thing. And I thought, OK, this is where I’ll start.”

Interestingly, Gyasi says it was reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude that gave her permission to write her hugely ambitious novel. “That’s such a great book to read, especially if you are about to write a big, messy novel with a lot of family. Just the idea that a reader can look back at the family tree and that doesn’t totally mess up their reading experience was something I got from that book. [Homegoing has a helpful diagram of the characters’ family tree at the beginning of the novel.] I heard from people who had grievances about how many years it was covering or that there are too many characters. But having read Márquez, I could always say he did it, and it was fine.”

Gyasi adds, “People say that first books tend to be more quiet. They tend to be a lot more autobiographical. But I grew up in Alabama. I was a Ghanaian immigrant. When I was in Ghana, I didn’t feel Ghanaian. When I was in America, I didn’t feel quite American. I was kind of living on the edges of these two identities. I’d always been interested in that, and in what we had in common—the African American and the African immigrant. In that way, this book feels incredibly personal to me.”

Asked about the legacy of slavery that Homegoing explores, Gyasi says, “When we talk about slavery today, there’s a sense that it’s this thing that happened a million years ago, so why do we feel like it has any effect on our life today? And I always think that’s a ridiculous way to think about it.

“People in the present have a tendency to believe that we are necessarily better, smarter or more moral than the people who lived before us. We wouldn’t have done this awful thing. We would be the ones who stand up and say, ‘Not me.’ But in the moment I think that is a much harder thing to do. So I was really interested in the people who could say that or who tried to say that, whether they were successful or not. I did want to have their voices in the novel as well. Hopefully, this book is an addition to the conversation about why we still need to think about it today.”

 

Author photo credit Michael Lionstar.

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Yaa Gyasi sounds a bit unnerved by the prepublication buzz surrounding her stunning first novel, Homegoing, and the changes its enthusiastic early reception portend for her life.
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Patty Hearst? Jeffrey Toobin was skeptical when his Doubleday editor suggested writing about the sensational 1970s kidnapping saga that Toobin would eventually recount in riveting detail in American Heiress.

“The first thought that came to me was that there must be a million books about Patty Hearst,” Toobin says during a call that reaches him in Washington, D.C. Toobin, whose bestsellers include The Oath and The Nine, is a staff writer for The New Yorker and senior legal analyst at CNN. His wife is an assistant secretary of education in the Obama administration. Their two children are recently out of college and on their own, so as an empty-nester, Toobin says his work is portable. Although he has offices at both The New Yorker and CNN, his real desk, he says, is the dining room table in their apartment in New York City—or his laptop just about anywhere.

To his surprise, when he looked into the Patty Hearst case, he found that “nothing had been written about it for decades. For decades! I was a young teenager when it happened, so I was vaguely aware of it but not really following it. Just a bit of preliminary research suggested that it was an amazing story that had not been told in any detail.”

For those who don’t remember, on February 4, 1974, Patricia (or “Patty,” as she disliked being called) Hearst, a 19-year-old U.C. Berkeley student and the granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by a shadowy group of revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Two months later, Hearst publicly declared she had joined the SLA and taken the nom de guerre “Tania.” She appeared heavily armed on a videotape taken during a bank robbery in San Francisco. Months later, she and fellow SLA members Bill and Emily Harris were out buying supplies when police surrounded the SLA’s Los Angeles hideout. A fiery shootout, the first such news event to be broadcast live nationwide, left all the SLA members at the house dead.

Over the next year, Hearst and the Harrises joined with others, including Kathleen Soliah and her brother, Steve, and continued their revolutionary crime wave with bank robberies and bombings. Hearst was finally captured in September 1975, but the drama continued during her trial on bank robbery charges, where she was defended by the blustery F. Lee Bailey.

With great clarity, Toobin takes readers through all the perplexing twists and turns of the SLA’s misadventures. The SLA, for example, was led by a plum-wine-drinking escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze. His leadership was tactically proficient but strategically hapless, almost comically so.

“There was an element of theater to what they did,” Toobin says. “Guerilla theater can be effective. But every time you think of the work of the SLA, it’s imperative to remember Marcus Foster and -Myrna Opsahl [two victims of the SLA’s murderous rampage]. That quickly takes their behavior out of the realm of funny. . . . DeFreeze attracted a small cross section of an extreme of the counterculture.”

Toobin excels in giving readers a sense of 1970s-era counterculture, the petri dish in which the SLA  was spawned. “One of the things that I found so fascinating researching this book was how insane the ’70s were. I mean, there were dozens of bombings in Northern California alone. Can you imagine what cable news would be doing with dozens of bombings?”

Two big research scores allowed Toobin to add texture, detail and a sense of the complex interpersonal dramas that play out in his narrative. After Bill Harris was released from prison, Harris collected all the material about the case he could get his hands on—court documents, FBI files, private investigators’ notes. Toobin found out about the materials while interviewing Harris and arranged to purchase what turned out to be 150 boxes of documents. “For a journalist/historian looking at the era, this was a gold mine,” he says. Even more interesting was the acquisition of the jailhouse love letters exchanged by Hearst and Steve Soliah. Passed through their lawyers so they remained protected by attorney-client privilege, the letters speak loudly about Hearst’s state of mind after her arrest. 

And Hearst’s state of mind is a central question of the book and was the question at her trial. Toobin offers a balanced portrait that is surprisingly complimentary of her courage and strength. And in some ways he believes her behavior was entirely rational given the circumstances.

“One of my goals in portraying anyone is complexity,” Toobin explains. “People are not one-dimensional. Their behavior is not accurately defined in black and white. I think that is especially true for Patricia. She was kidnapped, and it was a horrible experience. But she also was a willing participant in a lengthy and extensive crime wave, long after she had the opportunity to walk away. I certainly understood why the jury in her trial convicted her. And frankly, she was fortunate that she was not prosecuted for the other two bank robberies that she participated in, or shooting up Mel’s Sporting Goods and setting off bombs in Northern California. That is very serious stuff. If you want to evaluate her conduct, you have to take all that into account.”

Toobin’s portrait of Hearst is nuanced enough that readers are likely to hold different opinions about the extent of her culpability when they reach the end of the book (just as people in the 1970s differed, often vigorously).

“I always thought this was bigger than just a legal story,” Toobin says at the end of our conversation. “It is really about this era and these people. It would have been a mistake to see Patricia Hearst’s experience as simply that was she guilty of a bank robbery. This is really about the question of who this woman was, why she got involved with this craziness, and how did this all happen.”

American Heiress offers compelling answers to these questions.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Patty Hearst? Jeffrey Toobin was skeptical when his Doubleday editor suggested writing about the sensational 1970s kidnapping saga that Toobin would eventually recount in riveting detail in American Heiress.
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Entering a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, for an annual investment conference some years ago, Amor Towles suddenly envisioned the premise for his inventive, entertaining and richly textured second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow.

“It came to me in a flash,” Towles says during a call that reaches him in his study—“a 19th-century library” with windows overlooking the street, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a fireplace—in the townhouse near Gramercy Park in Manhattan that he shares with his wife and their children, ages 14 and 11. “I was looking at the people in the hotel lobby and having this eerie sense that I had seen them before. And I thought, what would it be like to live in a hotel like this for the rest of your life?”

Towles rushed upstairs to outline the book. Within the first hour, he knew that his character would not be in the hotel voluntarily; he would be held by force. “And I thought if a guy has to be in a hotel by force, Russia is the perfect place.”

So the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov—a Russian aristocrat arrested by the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, saved from execution because he had written an influential revolutionary poem in his youth, and then sentenced in 1922 to permanent house arrest in the servants’ quarters of Moscow’s grand Hotel Metropol—began to take shape. 

But it would be a number of years before Towles actually sat down to write the novel. Now 52, the author says he’s been writing since he was a kid. At Yale, his mentor was Peter Matthiessen, with whom he remained friends until Matthiessen’s death in 2014. And during his graduate writing fellowship at Stanford, he was close to novelist Gilbert Sorrentino. But when he moved to New York City at the age of 25, he found that he “wasn’t ready to be alone in my apartment writing all day.” Nor did he find the bartending, table-waiting and fact-checking jobs of his artistic contemporaries appealing. So he joined a friend who was starting Select Equity, an investment-advising firm, and for the next decade he worked to build a successful business. In his late 30s he began writing again, and in 2011, he published his first novel, the bestseller Rules of Civility. Its success allowed him to retire and devote himself to fiction writing. In 2013, he began to work in earnest on A Gentleman in Moscow.

The action of the novel unfolds over the course of roughly 35 years. A central question the book explores is how we adapt to difficult circumstances over which we have little or no control. Towles’ Count Rostov becomes a kind of model of how to live well within very constrained circumstances. He is an educated, affable, kind man who has a passion for food, music, literature and love that seems to grow out of Towles’ own sensibilities. Towles’ evocative descriptions of food, for example, will definitely make a reader’s mouth water. “I don’t mind using the novel to sweep in many things that I enjoy,” Towles says, laughing. “That was part of the fun of it for me.”

A parallel challenge here is how a novelist makes such a confined life interesting over the course of many decades. In this regard, Towles is remarkably inventive. The Count develops surprisingly deep relationships with guests in the hotel, has an ongoing romance with a beautiful, aging actress, eventually becomes a head waiter because of his expertise in organizing social occasions, and finally becomes a loving, overly protective adoptive father to a musically talented girl whose parents disappear in the Russian Gulag. All of this happens within the confines of the hotel. And through all these changes, the seemingly narrow life of the Count lives large in our imaginations.

In addition, the location of the Count’s soft-cuffed imprisonment, the Hotel Metropol, becomes a fascinating character in and of itself. It makes an interviewer wonder, could such a place actually exist in the early years of the Soviet Union?

“The short answer is yes,” Towles says. “It was seized by the Bolsheviks because they needed office space for the government. Moscow, after all, had not been the seat of government for centuries. But when European nations recognized the Soviet government at the end of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks realized pretty quickly that the first thing foreign diplomats and businessmen would see when checking in was a crappy hotel, a signal that the revolution was failing. So they restored the hotel to its former grandeur and it became the place, not only for foreigners, but for all of Russia, who dreamed of dining and dancing there.”

Towles’ knowledge of Russian history and literature is deep, which adds a pleasing and provocative texture to the novel. But he says adamantly, “I am not a research-oriented writer. A premise gets brighter and sharper the more it’s tied to an area of existing fascination for me. That happened here. I love Russia. I’ve read all the Russian writers and admire them. I think Russian history is fascinating.”

Instead of facts and research, Towles says he thinks of his writing in musical terms. “I think the closest cousin to the novel in the art realm is the symphony. A novel has movements and leitmotifs. It has moments of crescendo and diminuendo. You feel a growing emotional force and then it backs off for reflection. A work must feel cohesive and organic and the beginning and end inform each other in a way that we can hold in our head.”

It’s an apt observation. Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow often reads like it has a song in its heart.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Entering a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, for an annual investment conference some years ago, Amor Towles suddenly envisioned the premise for his inventive, entertaining and richly textured second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow.
Interview by

Is there anything Billy Collins misses about being the U.S. poet laureate, a post he held from 2001 to 2003?

“Not really,” Collins says genially during a call to his home in Winter Park, Florida, where he lives with his fiancée, the poet Suzannah Gilman. Collins, 75, retired recently from a long teaching career at the City University of New York. “You’re never completely disconnected from it,” Collins says of being poet laureate. “I compare it to being Miss America. Even though you might have been Miss America in 1973, it’s always part of your identity.”

Collins, who was an unusually popular American poet even before he became poet laureate, calls himself one of the “gateway poets.” These, he explains, are poets who write very readable, nonacademic poetry that can connect with people who leave the form behind after miserable experiences in the meaning-hunt of high school and college. “The key reason for the smallness of the audience for poetry is that people associate poetry with school. . . . I wrote an essay some time ago where I mention six or seven pleasures of poetry—things like the pleasure of rhythm, the pleasure of sound, the pleasure of metaphor. The last pleasure was the pleasure of meaning. The search for meaning has dominated the classroom experience of poetry to the exclusion of all these other pleasures.”

As his many fans know, Collins is a poet of what we’ll call deep playfulness. “I like to play with the reader,” he concedes. “I tell my poetry students that earnestness and sincerity are not the only tones you can take with a reader. In fact, wanting always to be emotionally sincere eliminates a lot of the possibilities for play.”

And so we get the slyly funny “On Rhyme,” whose 13th line provides the title for Collins’ delightful 11th collection of poems, The Rain in Portugal. “It’s supposed to be a kind of blunder,” he explains, laughing. “Because no word comes easily to mind that rhymes with Portugal. Portugal is contiguous to Spain, but it just doesn’t present the same rhyming opportunities as in ‘the rain in Spain.’ Some readers might think the poem is about a rainy day in Portugal, but it’s really an ironic admission to the reader—a kind of trigger warning—that if you’re looking for rhymed poetry you won’t find it here. The real admission is, I’m just not very good at rhyming.”

This sort of self-deprecation in conversation, as well as in his poems, is one of Collins’ most appealing characteristics. But that’s not the only tone he takes in his wide-ranging new collection.

In a poem called “The Present,” for example, he good-humoredly challenges the popular idea of how great it is to live in the present. “It’s questioning how you can live in the millisecond that is always vanishing before your very eyes,” he says. “And it talks about the pleasure of regretting and the pleasure of the mind’s ability to envision a future. I guess that’s what distinguishes us from cows, for example. Probably cows tend to be in the moment. They’re not thinking about what happened yesterday or when they’re going to be milked tomorrow. One of our human abilities is to imagine a future and recreate the past or fall into nostalgia.”

And then there is the darkly beautiful line in the poem “Greece”: “Is not poetry a megaphone held up to the whispering lips of death?” A number of poems in this collection seem to be meditations, often wry meditations, on death. Is mortality a particular concern these days?

“Well, no one’s getting any younger,” Collins responds. “But mortality is so engrained in lyric poetry that the inclusion of death in my poems doesn’t so much reflect my own trepidation or concerns about my own personal mortality as it is a recognition of a convention. I don’t mean to be too professorial about this, but I’ve said this before: If you major in English, you’re majoring in death. The shadow of mortality commonly falls across the page. Thumb through The Norton Anthology of Poetry and you’ll find a lot of death in there. That’s the lens through which we see things.”

I think good poetry gives you the impression that it’s being written just for you.

Collins remains an energetic and engaging presenter of his poetry, which he reads aloud at public appearances across the country. But performing a poem and writing or reading a poem, Collins says, are very different things. “Poetry intensifies one’s aloneness. . . . I don’t show my poems around to other poets [before publication]. Ever since I was an adolescent, the appeal of poetry for me is that you did it by yourself.”

Expanding on the subject of aloneness, Collins says, “If you’ve read my poems, you’ve probably noticed that there are very few other people in them. No aunts or uncles or family members; no Uncle Charlie, no ex-girlfriend. I want to be alone with the reader. I don’t want the reader to be distracted by others. That intimacy clearly gives poetry, well, if not superiority then a least a large difference from public or political language. I think good poetry gives you the impression that it’s being written just for you.”

Add a profound sense of intimacy to the lengthening list of pleasures in reading Collins’ new collection of poems.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Is there anything Billy Collins misses about being the U.S. poet laureate, a post he held from 2001 to 2003?
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Yes, Gary Taubes, the “prosecutor” in the provocative, eye-opening book The Case Against Sugar, took his 8-year-old son trick-or-treating in his Oakland, California, neighborhood on Halloween.

“Clearly I don’t think any of us should eat sugar, and I try to stay away from it,” he says during a call to his home (built by the founders of the Clorox Bleach company) in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood that he shares with his two boys and his wife, the author Sloane Tanen. “But it would be foolish to deny my experience as someone with children and as someone with a sweet tooth.”

Which brings us to the perplexing question raised in his opening chapter: Is sugar a food or a drug? Taubes reports on some astonishing scientific studies of newborns’ first responses to sugar that strongly suggest sugar has addictive properties that are quite different from other carbohydrates. Taubes himself seems to regard his own sweet tooth as an addictive response to sugar (as well as to high fructose corn syrup, a cheap sugar substitute). “I realized that in thinking about the history of sugar, I had to keep in mind that you might be thinking about the history of a drug,” says Taubes, who speaks rapidly, softly and with passion.

Taubes’ historical account of the rise of the consumption of sugar, covered in the early chapters of the book, is fascinating. For example, this reader had no idea that the addictive power of blended tobacco in cigarettes—beginning with Camel cigarettes in 1912—was created by the introduction of sugar.

“It’s an amazing story!” Taubes exclaims. “It turns out that increasing the sugar content of tobacco leaves—or marinating the leaves in a sugar sauce—has the effect of making the nicotine much more inhalable so that you can bring it into your lungs, which is much harder to do with cigar or pipe tobacco. As such, it made it much more addictive and allowed the carcinogens in smoke to get to this huge surface of the lungs.”

Almost every page of The Case Against Sugar resounds with such revelations. But the heart of Taubes’ prosecution of sugar challenges contemporary beliefs about the underlying causes of obesity and diabetes. His question is this: Why has sugar not been more directly implicated in the dramatic rise of obesity and diabetes? Citing a study of Arizona’s Pima Indians, whose sudden increase in diabetes occurred as they adopted a Western diet early in the 20th century, Taubes says, “The question was, what was causing that? Sugar should have been a major suspect. In the 1920s very influential public health authorities were blaming the epidemic increases in diabetes and obesity on the prevalence of sugar. And then it vanishes from the conversation. The question is, why did it go away?”

In a chapter called “The Gift That Keeps on Giving,” Taubes documents how the sugar industry was let off the hook when medical and nutrition sciences decided that obesity caused diabetes, and that obesity was caused by an updated, scientific Puritanism that blamed sloth and gluttony—overeating and a sedentary lifestyle.

"The book is basically saying that the prime suspect of what’s causing insulin resistance is sugar."

“We are seeing worldwide epidemics of obesity and diabetes, and the diseases associated with them—heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s,” Taubes says when asked about our ingrained belief in the sloth-gluttony narrative. “It’s undeniable that as populations begin to eat Western diets, you see these epidemics come along. We now know that both obesity and diabetes are disorders of what’s called insulin resistance . . . and that is a fundamental disorder in what we now call metabolic syndrome. . . . The book is basically saying that the prime suspect of what’s causing insulin resistance is sugar.”

If that’s true, why did medical and health researchers get it so wrong? Taubes, who has at least once refused the food industry’s monetary support for his journalism, is surprisingly agnostic on the ethical issue of who pays for the research. “The industry needs people who are critical of the data,” he says. “And the only way they’re going to get them is to pay them. Nobody is ever going to do this for free.”

Nevertheless, Taubes is vigorously critical of the ethical and scientific standards of current nutrition research—often funded by the food industry—as he has been in the previous bestsellers Why We Get Fat and Good Calories, Bad Calories. He says that in earlier books such as Nobel Dreams and Bad Science, he cut his journalistic teeth by looking at experimental scientists in physics, chemistry and nuclear physics. “I was taught by these exquisite scientists how to think about these issues critically and skeptically,” he says.

Turning to contemporary health research, he was shocked to find a lack of similar rigor.

“Critical aspects of the methodology of public health and nutrition research are incapable of establishing reliable knowledge, which is the goal of science. Because they can’t do it, instead of being hypercritical as they’re supposed to be, they sort of take this philosophy that it’s the best they can do, therefore it’s good enough. The counter to that is—and I’ve actually given lectures where I’ve said—if that’s the best you can do, get out of the business! Sell shoes, take guns away from gang members, do something useful.”

Taubes says his approach in this book is deliberately prosecutorial. “I really want to get the facts across,” he says. “I’m synthesizing massive amounts of data. It’s based on hundreds of interviews that might spread over years, and it’s invariably based on an unconventional take on the evidence.”

Given his unconventional take, The Case Against Sugar seems destined to be controversial. So does he expect pushback? 

“I expect this book to give everybody something to dislike,” he says with a laugh. Then again, New York magazine has recently asked him to write an article. The working title? “How I’ve Been Vindicated.”

 

This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Yes, Gary Taubes, the “prosecutor” in the provocative, eye-opening book The Case Against Sugar, took his 8-year-old son trick-or-treating in his Oakland, California, neighborhood on Halloween.
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When Jack Spencer began the 13-year, 80,000-mile odyssey that would result in his ravishing book of photographs of the American landscape, he was in a very bad mood.

“It was the jingoistic, flag-waving, let’s-go-bomb-everybody stuff after 9/11 that was excruciating for me,” Spencer says during a call to his 8,000 square foot studio “right in dead center Nashville,” where he has lived for the last 28 years.

Spencer’s photographs of vast American landscapes and iconic wildlife are beautiful and strangely inspiring.

“I was absolutely and totally against going into Iraq, and I thought America was going nuts. The terrorists had accomplished what they wanted to, which was to throw us off our base. I had a show in Sun Valley, and I decided to drive there, take my 4×5 Polaroid camera and just take off. I drove this gigantic loop across America, 9,000 miles in a six-week period. I was a little bit on the bitter side. But I wanted to photograph the land and try to get some bead on what America really was.”

In the ensuing years, Spencer’s mood has mellowed. “It’s been a transitional journey,” he says, in a gravelly, Southern-accented voice that reminds one of Waylon Jennings. “I was making a collection of images that were about an awareness of this land that we live in, this planet we live on, actually. It’s deeper than just America. We live on this beautiful planet, and we take it for granted.”

     5 HORSES  2005, Montana

Spencer’s route to this book and to a remarkably successful career as a fine art photographer has been circuitous. He was born in Mississippi in the early 1950s but grew up “mostly in Louisiana.” Sounding somewhat mystified, he notes that he has always been interested in art, in making things, even though no one in his family had a similar interest. So Spencer went to Louisiana Tech “for about a year and a half,” majored in art, “but mostly learned how to drink beer.” He dropped out and headed west to work as a musician. Then in the 1980s he returned to the South, Mississippi at first, and, with renewed eyes, “dove head first into photography and worked really hard at it,” with the result that his first book of photographs, Native Soil, made a big splash.

“Basically, I taught myself photography,” he says. “I tell people all the time that I don’t understand why people go to school for four years to learn how to be a photographer because I can pretty much teach you everything you need to know in about 15 minutes. It’s a fairly simple process that really has nothing to do with the mechanics of it. It’s just about seeing, getting what you’re seeing and what you’re feeling. It’s a very strange process.

“Any kind of artwork asks questions of the artist in every step of the process. The piece itself lays out the guidelines. As an artist, I just pay attention to what the piece is asking of me. Of course, this is not a conscious thing. It could better be described as a sort of trance-like process, though that is not a very good description. But it is the best way for me to describe it. The work reaches its own conclusions.”

Well, yes. A great photograph is not about technicalities; it’s about vision. But that vision has to be supported by technical proficiency. So the gorgeous photographs in the new collection This Land have been carefully, digitally rendered according to Spencer’s artistic intuition.

CLOUD / TREE  2008, South Dakota

“I think I’m more influenced by painters than I am by photographers,” Spencer explains. “In this [book, I think] one can see Rothko, Hopper, Bierstadt and others if you look closely enough. But you’re unlikely to see many photographic influences. As an artist, I’ve never really liked the literal. I don’t care for the perfect exposure. I don’t allow my camera to do my work for me. Ansel Adams talked about the negative as the score, and then he goes into the darkroom and interprets that score. I see it the same way. Whenever I make an exposure, it’s just the starting point for me.”

Thus, the 150 or so stunning photographs in the book often evoke mixed feelings about life and about America. “It’s certainly not a Hallmark card presentation of America,” Spencer admits. “There is a certain kind of loneliness and desolation in some of the photographs.” But his photographs of vast American landscapes and iconic wildlife are beautiful and strangely inspiring.

Notably, This Land has very few photographs of people. “The people in the photographs are relatively anonymous,” Spencer acknowledges. “As well they should be—because the book is not really about Americans. It’s trying to explore what America means to Americans.”

Spencer says he has lost track of how many forays he made into the American countryside for this book. In a succession of Denali SUVs he refers to as his mobile living room, he traveled through all lower 48 states, deliberately avoiding the interstates. “I kind of equate it to fishing,” he says. “Some days you catch way past your limit. Some days you don’t even get a nibble.” Spencer caught enough past his limit that he believes he could fill three books of photographs. For Spencer and his editors at the University of Texas Press, deciding what to include was excruciating.

Spencer also says that his travels left him unsurprised by Donald Trump’s electoral victory, but he worries what it might mean for the land. “I knew that this is a beautiful country, but I didn’t know how deeply beautiful this country is. There are plenty of things that can be done to make money. You don’t have to despoil beautiful landscapes just to get some oil. In some ways that’s the point of this book, to say to people go out and take a look at this beautiful land, this beautiful planet we live on. People need to pay attention.”

Photography from This Land copyright © 2017 by Jack Spencer

Author photo via

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When Jack Spencer began the 13-year, 80,000-mile odyssey that would result in his ravishing book of photographs of the American landscape, he was in a very bad mood.

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George Saunders, the prize-winning short story writer, waited a long time before he showed the beginnings of his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, to his wife, writer Paula Redick.

“She reads my stuff and knows where on the emotional spectrum it lies. So if I do something clever, she’ll go, yeah, yeah, it’s clever. Or she might say, you typed this, you really typed this!” Saunders says, laughing, during an early morning call that reaches him near Monterey, California. Saunders teaches in the esteemed writing program at Syracuse University, and for much of the year, the couple lives outside of Oneonta, New York, where Saunders writes in a converted toolshed that is just far enough from the house to “send a message about what my priorities are.” A light spring-semester teaching schedule, the desire to escape snowbelt winters and the success of his remarkable short stories (which earned him a MacArthur “genius” fellowship) led the couple recently to buy a winter place in California. At the time of his conversation with BookPage, their daughters, age 26 and 28 and also writers, were visiting.

“We’ve been married a long time,” Saunders continues, “and—I’m never trying to phone it in; but sometimes you can inadvertently phone it in—and she knows when that’s happening.” That wasn’t her impression of the new book. “She was like, this is really good. All I needed to know was that she was on board, and it was worth polishing.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is good. In fact, astonishingly good. Yes, it is strange—part ghost story, part historical novel, maybe a little sci-fi-ish—but in the end, it’s an incredibly inventive and deeply moving book that often reads like an epic, elegiac poem. Saunders says he applied the same standards to this novel as he does to his short stories: “Be efficient and brisk and do whatever you’re trying to do as quickly as you can.” Cross this novel’s threshold and a reader will be entranced, magnetized by the beauty of its language and the brilliance of its conception.

“During the Bill Clinton administration we were up in D.C.,” Saunders says of the initial impulse behind the novel. “We drove by Oak Hill Cemetery, and my wife’s cousin pointed out that Lincoln’s son Willie had been temporarily housed in one of the crypts there. And then she offhandedly added that the newspapers of the day reported that Lincoln had gone to the crypt on several occasions to hold the body. I had this idea of Lincoln with his son’s body across his lap on a dark night, kind of like the Pieta. I wondered what were the mechanics of him leaving the White House, why would he do that, and then why would he stop? That was really interesting to me.”

But for many years, Saunders felt the story was beyond his capabilities. “I was like a mountain climber who every day walks by a mountain and goes, nah, no, can’t do it.” Later, in his early 50s, Saunders decided to give it a try. “I’d never written a novel before. I kind of liked the idea of being the defiant short story guy who was getting more attention than is normal for stories. But this idea just kept coming up and sitting on my porch and going, OK, I’m here and I want you to take care of me. You can only walk away from that so many times.”

“But I thought, Lincoln? Sheesh! I might as well write a novel about Jesus. It’s just so daunting. You don’t want to be disrespectful and you also don’t want to rehash the same old clichés.”

Still, there was the problem of writing about Lincoln. Saunders, who was born in Texas, jokes that he has “almost a fashion interest in the Civil War. I love the look of it and the idea that it happened a relatively short time ago. And of course this last election kind of showed that the war is still being fought.” Over the past 20 years, “as a hobbyist,” he has wandered the Lincoln/Civil War section of any bookstore he’s been in, and his research for the novel has benefited from an impressive collection of Civil War books and documents donated to Syracuse by conservative journalist and presidential speechwriter William Safire.

“But I thought, Lincoln? Sheesh! I might as well write a novel about Jesus. It’s just so daunting. You don’t want to be disrespectful and you also don’t want to rehash the same old clichés.”

Saunders resolved his Lincoln issue by limiting the number of occasions Lincoln is actually present in the novel. And even when present, Lincoln is revealed through the eyes of others—which has the eerie effect of making his grief over the death of his 11-year-old son—and his increasing distress over the growing carnage of the Civil War—even more palpable.

Most of the novel’s action takes place in Oak Hill Cemetery on a single night at the end of February in 1862. The story is narrated by a weird and raucous medley of voices. Saunders says that in making the audiobook, he discovered that there are 166 different personalities in the novel. These voices also include a beguiling weave of quotations from actual and invented historians describing—in conflicting accounts—the Lincolns’ growing alarm during a February 1862 White House party while Willie lies upstairs dying. For most of the novel, there are three main narrators, and at some point a reader will likely become skeptical about them. They seem stuck between life and whatever comes next, the transitional place that Tibetan Buddhists call “the bardo.”

Saunders was raised Catholic, but he and his wife have practiced Buddhism for many, many years. “I was really happy to be writing this book because I felt the things it is about are the things I am thinking about: one’s own mortality and the question of how you persevere with a loving heart in the face of the harshness of the world,” he says. Later he adds, “The notion of the bardo is not fake to me. I think in some ways my whole life has been spent trying to get into some relation with death. . . . I love the idea that there are people who are trying to get a little behind the veil. And there’s evidence from really advanced spiritual people that the end is not the end.”

Saunders is quick to add that he tries “not to have too many thematic thoughts because I don’t want to derail the story with simplistic answers.” Instead, his entry into prose has to do with sound. In revising his fiction he says he is “trying to make the sound distinctive, which in turn makes the sense more precise.”

The sounds—the voices—of Lincoln in the Bardo are indeed distinctive, often funny, sometimes bawdy, despite the fact that the novel is about death and grief, good and evil, the nature of human existence.

“I really love writing contemporary voices, or imitations of contemporary voices. This book was a struggle because I usually go out of my way to be funny and funny in a contemporary way. Wondering how I would be funny in a 19th-century way was a constraint I really enjoyed. In writing, the use of humor at its highest level is trying to mimic the comic nature of the universe. We’re trying to imitate the mind of God, and the mind of God doesn’t work like a human mind. You have to remember that the universe runs on its own timer.”

Summing up, Saunders says, “I didn’t want to write a historical novel. I find myself averse to anything pro forma. I didn’t want a reader to [think], oh, I see, he’s going to milk the juice out of the night Lincoln went to the grave. “The trick was to find the means to shake it up a bit. Going back to it after a few months away, I think, wow, it’s a strange book. A little deformed. But it’s deformed because it’s trying to get to the emotional core more directly. This book was kind of a weird blurt. I can stand behind that because I know it’s efficient and I know that its heart is in the right place.”

 

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

George Saunders, the prize-winning short story writer, waited a long time before he showed the beginnings of his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, to his wife, writer Paula Redick.

Interview by

First-time novelist Stephanie Powell Watts prefers to write outside her home in a place where there’s some noise—somewhere like a grocery store or a coffee shop.

A grocery store?! Watts laughs. “I don’t like to be isolated,” she says during a call to her home near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Watts has been teaching creative writing and African-American literature at Lehigh University since 2004. She and her husband, the poet Bob Watts, are the creative writing department at Lehigh, she notes. They have a 7-year-old son. Watts adds that she wrote most of her wonderful novel, No One Is ­Coming to Save Us, in the coffee house on campus.

“I had four younger brothers in my house,” she says, explaining her need for noise. “There was always noise and there were always people running in and out, so you had to carve out your own space. And we had a very small house. Maybe I’m referring back to that. I really, really like a sense of connection.”

Watts grew up in Lenoir, North Carolina, a small town “right at the base of the Smoky and Brushy mountains,” where as a child 30 years ago, there was a vibrant furniture-making industry. The town has now fallen on hard times. “It’s empty parking lots. People have nothing to do. It’s a beautiful area, but the town used to be bustling and kind of grimy. Now there’s no bustle.”

Watts draws brilliantly on her personal experiences of those changes to create her fictional town of Pinewood. The place has an exhausted, ghostly feel that underlies the nostalgia, tumult and strife in the lives of her characters, who are mostly African Americans.

Watts drew similarly on her experiences in this part of North Carolina in creating her highly regarded short story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need. The book earned Watts a Whiting Award, which comes with a $50,000 prize, and individual stories in the collection won additional awards. That’s one reason her first novel has deservedly earned a lot of early attention.

Another is that one of the surprising influences on the novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

“Once I realized that this was a story about displacement and identity, particularly racial identity,” Watts says, “I started to wonder how I could embody that. And I began thinking how Gatsby appears to be about one thing, but is really about many other things. That had generative force for me.”

But influence did not lead to imitation. In Watt’s telling, Jay (JJ) Ferguson, who left Pinewood as a very, very poor man, returns after 17 years as a rich man and begins building a house on a hill overlooking the town, where in the past only wealthy white people could live. Like Jay Gatsby, his intention is to woo and win a married woman he has long been in love with. The object of JJ’s obsession is Ava Bailey.

And here the shape, texture and even the diction of the two novels diverge widely. “When I read Gatsby and thought about [the women characters] Daisy and Myrtle, I thought, oh my gosh, they should have some say here. We never see them as anything other than materialistic and flighty people. Their stories seemed potentially fascinating.”

The emotional heart of Watts’ novel actually lies in the vexed relationships between Ava and her mother, Sylvia, and between each of these women and their detached and wandering husbands. Sylvia is so saddened by the absence of her son that she begins a phone relationship with a desperate young man in the county jail who randomly called her. She also feels free to intrude upon her daughter’s life while maintaining a complicated distance from her husband. Ava, nearing 40, is a manager at the local bank and wants fiercely to have a baby. Her husband, Henry, a casualty of the collapse of the furniture manufacturing business, seems aimless.

“One of the things I wanted to write about was difficult mothers and daughters. But I wanted to write about loving difficult mothers and daughters,” Watts says of Sylvia and Ava. The men, she admits, “are not on their best behavior. These men have access to a kind of power, and it’s sexual power, and they take it. But I hope they are rounded enough and that I’ve shown their lives in other lights.”

One way Watts leads the reader to feel empathy toward her characters, even though we may not always like them, is through an inspired shifting and intermingling of points of view. Another is the humor in the book, both in her own narration and in the exchanges among her characters. “Humor is absolutely necessary to keep going,” she says. “So many of the people in my family and my community were wonderful storytellers. They would tell stories about just awful things that happened to them. But their humor made what happened into their own kind of triumph.”

The novel, Watts says, “absolutely has the particularity of African-American experience. But I feel strongly that this kind of experience is not so different from other people’s experiences. This is about a particular time and place, but I think there are so many other resonances here to other kinds of experiences. And that to me is the beauty of reading. As a reader, you know the gut of it and say, ‘I get this,’ and I’ve felt like that, too.”

In the end, these characters achieve a kind of peace with one another, a place where Watts says, “I could see them having a future, a difficult one, but a future.”

She adds, “There are mercies that we get all the time, if we can see them as that. That doesn’t necessarily mean change and it doesn’t necessarily mean forgiveness. But we can decide that this [harm done to us] is not going to destroy me or lead me to destroy you. I think my characters are on that road.”

 

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Doug Benedict.

First-time novelist Stephanie Powell Watts prefers to write outside her home in a place where there’s some noise—somewhere like a grocery store or a coffee shop. A grocery store?! Watts laughs. “I don’t like to be isolated,” she says during a call to her home near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Interview by

Throughout her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Dina Nayeri wrote draft after draft of a second novel, and with each revision her editor would say, no, that’s not it, it doesn’t have the Dina magic.

“I remember thinking, what the hell is the Dina magic? I don’t know what that is!” Nayeri says, laughing, during a call to her home outside of London, where she now lives with her partner, the writer Samuel Leader, and their 16-month-old daughter, Elena.

Finally, her editor told her to shelve the project and write instead about whatever popped into her head when she thought about her life and what she had experienced as a displaced person. Nayeri fled Iran with her brother and mother, a Christian convert persecuted by Iran’s morality police, when she was 8 years old. She ended up, improbably, in Oklahoma as a refugee. Her father remained in Iran. What popped into Nayeri’s head were the four occasions when she had seen her father, a dentist from Isfahan, after she left the country.

These four visits, fictionally reimagined, of course, but also “pretty closely autobiographical,” are one of three beautifully braided narratives in Refuge, a revelatory novel about the lives of uprooted people. One of the narrative threads concerns Dr. Bahman Hamadi, a vibrant, poetry-loving, opium-addicted dentist who remains behind in Iran and runs afoul of the Iranian authorities during the Green Movement’s protests of 2009. Another focus is his daughter, Niloo, a high-achieving, assimilated immigrant now in her 30s. She is in a listless marriage with a sweet man named Guillaume and living in the Netherlands, where despite its progressive politics, anti-immigrant furor is rising, with shocking results.

Nayeri’s 10-page fictionalized treatment of her visits with her father, submitted at the last minute, earned her a residency at the MacDowell Colony, a “sacred space” for artists in New Hampshire, where in a burst of creative energy she completed a full draft of Refuge. At MacDowell, Nayeri also met Sam, who like her had married his college sweetheart and then divorced after 10 years. “It’s an experience that’s hard to relate to unless you’ve been through it,” she says. “We kind of realized we were each other’s person very quickly. This book is deeply tied into my relationship with Sam.”

Refuge is also deeply tied to Nayeri’s profound experiences as a young refugee. “We escaped from Iran and then spent a couple of years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S.,”she says. “There were two years when we were completely without a home. And when we arrived in Oklahoma, we were suddenly very poor. I don’t even know the words to describe the sense of loss I lived with for those first few years. I developed this kind of crazy determination to find a place for myself in the world, to have a kind of security that won’t disappear in an instant.”

Drawing on these experiences, Nayeri creates in Niloo a character who is very tightly controlled. Niloo fashions, for example, what her husband names the Perimeter, a fiercely protected corner in every place she lives that is for her alone. Unhappy at the beginning of the novel, Niloo’s journey is toward finding some sense of belonging and happiness.

“Once you’ve lost everything and there’s no going back,” Nayeri explains, “you have this sense of panic that nothing is under control. You develop these OCD-like symptoms. You want some small space that you can control—a space just small enough so you know that whatever happens you can huddle over it and it isn’t going to change.”

Nayeri is quick to emphasize that the character Niloo is not her. “I think the child Niloo is very much based on who I was. But as an adult, Niloo is not at all like me. It was so tempting to just pump in all my own feelings and experiences and reactions. Reining that in was something I had to go through a lot of iterations to do.”

"I don’t even know the words to describe the sense of loss I lived with for those first few years."

Likewise, Nayeri makes a distinction between her real father and her character Bahman. “I just love that character. He’s this other version of my dad. My dad was in his early 30s when I said goodbye to him, and Bahman in his 30s is very close to that person. Then my father and this fictional father branch out in different directions. I think I captured the voice of a real, true person and at the same time gave him a balance that maybe my father’s real life hasn’t had. Bahman is a person who has kept his capacity for joy through all his adversity. He represents to me a kind of wild, animal enjoyment of life, a quality that can’t be stamped out.”

Nayeri says she has not gone back to Iran because “it never feels safe enough.” Her visits with her father were in other countries. But she remains deeply connected to Persian culture.

“I moved away from my Iranian roots for a while in my late 20s when I was very lost and trying to become something different. But as I was becoming a writer, I jumped back in. I immersed myself in Iranian communities. I made sure my Farsi speaking and writing skills didn’t deteriorate. I listened to the music, cooked the food and celebrated the holidays. I recaptured my culture for myself.”

Her immersion in Persian culture, in addition to her experience as a refugee, enables Nayeri to create a nuanced and remarkably textured narrative about a world few of us experience.

That was apparently also the opinion of her editor when on the final day of her MacDowell residency, Nayeri and friends hit the send button on the first complete draft of Refuge.

Nayeri recalls, “Of course we went through a long editing process. But the first thing she said was, ‘This is it! This is the Dina magic!’ . . . And I still don’t know what that is.”

 

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo credit Anna Leader.

Throughout her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Dina Nayeri wrote draft after draft of a second novel, and with each revision her editor would say, no, that’s not it, it doesn’t have the Dina magic.

Interview by

Jonathan Dee’s keenly insightful, gently humorous seventh novel, set in a small town in western Massachusetts, was scheduled for publication in 2018. Then came the 2016 presidential election.

“Obviously the book reads a certain way now that I couldn’t have foreseen when I started writing it,” Dee says during a call to his home in Syracuse, New York. The Locals is a novel with an enticing ensemble of vivid small-town characters with many stories to tell. But the narrative thread that vaulted the book to the front of the publication queue has to do with Philip Hadi, a somewhat mysterious and very wealthy New York money manager who owns a summer place in Dee’s fictional Berkshires town of Howland. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Hadi receives secret intelligence through the elite circles he travels in that more attacks are imminent and moves his family to their summer home in Howland. He eventually is elected first selectman of the town and through a blend of generosity and paranoia begins to reshape the town in his own image.

“The idea that the extremely wealthy not only possess a special skill set but a sort of moral purity has been around for a while,” Dee says, talking about his conception of Hadi. “That only the really rich can lead us seems like a very American idea. I was thinking of Michael Bloomberg and Ross Perot. What fascinates me in terms of the role of class, class conflict and class aspiration in American society is the idea that if you get a little bit rich, you’re venal and corrupt, but if you get really rich, you’re a special kind of human being.”

Then there are Mark Firth, a less-than-rich local contractor, his wife and young daughter, and his increasingly disorderly brother and sister. By chance, Firth, a victim of financial fraud, is in New York for a lawsuit during the 9/11 attacks. The Firths have deep roots in Howland, and simply because Mark returns safely from the 9/11 disaster, he is greeted, to his consternation, as a hometown hero. Firth is soon hired by Hadi to improve the security of Hadi’s home. After a casual conversation with Hadi about his middle-class American aspirations to better himself, Mark decides to buy foreclosed properties and flip them, with increasingly mixed results. From there, this smartly observed story moves forward without looking back, presenting the love and small betrayals of family and village life, and playing out on a small-town scale the bitter conflicts that plague the nation.

“I wanted to find some way to write about what I felt had happened in American life in the first 10 or 15 years of this century, the mainstreaming of the once-radical idea that your problems are not my problems,” Dee says of his early musings on the novel. “When I thought about what had happened to our discourse about government and the social fabric, I had the idea that it begins with 9/11—technically the book begins on 9/12—with that intense reaction to what had happened: the coming together, the selflessness, the collective pride. That was real but it was also a reaction to something specific. I feel that gave way to an equal and opposite reaction over time, and a sort of panic about collapse and an every-man-for-himself mindset resulted from that.”

“The book reads a certain way now that I couldn’t have foreseen when I started writing it.”

Dee, who is best known for his fifth novel, The Privileges, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, began working on The Locals in 2013 in his tiny Manhattan apartment. He finished the book in the old house in Syracuse that he shares with his partner, novelist Dana Spiotta. Both now teach in the Syracuse University writing program. “It’s a tonic just to be around very talented young artists who are struggling with the same things that you struggled with and continue to struggle with,” he says of teaching. Dee says he grew up in a town not far from the location of and not unlike his fictional Howland. He clearly draws heavily on his personal experiences in creating the novel’s sharply drawn characters and locale. “There was a summer population that really changed the character of the place, particularly economically,” he says of his hometown. “And when the summer ended, the place changed or reverted. That dynamic of both depending on and somewhat resenting the temporary population is a really interesting one.”

Curiously, another source of inspiration for The Locals was George Eliot’s Middlemarch. “One of the models I very modestly had in mind was Middlemarch,” Dee says hesitantly in response to a question about the novel’s portrayal of neighborliness and small-town society. “The surprise for you as a reader is that when you get really far into this long book, you realize that the characters you have grown to know so well and who live in a very confined space don’t know each other all that well, and that’s because they occupy different social realms.”

The action of The Locals unfolds during a span that on the national scene roughly parallels the time between the 9/11 attacks and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not the most cheerful of eras.

Asked if he thinks his novel is pessimistic or hopeful, Dee points to the character of Mark First’s daughter, Haley, who we meet when she is in second grade. “Ten years in the life of Mark First is momentous, but he’s still Mark First,” Dee says. “But 10 years in the life of somebody who starts the book so young is a much, much bigger deal.”

Dee continues, “I gave a copy of this book to a friend to read. One of the things she said was, it’s interesting, your last three books have been similar in that they’re about well-meaning parents screwing up. But they manage to end on the hopeful figure of the child. Honestly, that would not have occurred to me in a million years. But when I thought about it, I thought she was right. And that seemed like a good reason to dedicate The Locals to my own hopeful child, Claire.”

 

(Author photo credit Jessica Marx.)

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Jonathan Dee’s keenly insightful, gently humorous seventh novel, set in a small town in western Massachusetts, was scheduled for publication in 2018. Then came the 2016 presidential election.

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One of the many surprises of Salman Rushdie’s beguiling 14th work of fiction, The Golden House, is that it marks his return to realism.

“My previous novel [Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015)] had been so elaborately fabulist that I thought I had probably pushed that stuff as far as it can go. So the idea was to go in a completely different direction,” Rushdie explains during a call to his home not far from New York City’s Gramercy Park.

Rushdie, who turned 70 in June, has lived in New York for more than 20 years. Since his divorce from television personality Padma Lakshmi in 2007, he has lived alone. His two adult sons live in London, where Rushdie spent much of his early career, and he sees them frequently. He describes his in-home writing studio, where he is taking the call from BookPage, as having floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a working but fragile Remington Rand typewriter (he actually writes in notebooks and on a computer), a very old photograph of the house where he grew up in Bombay and a window that looks out on “big New York trees.”

It was not only the desire to move in a new direction that led Rushdie to a realistic approach to the novel, it was the material itself—the story of the violent, tragic demise of the Golden family, headed by the mysterious, aging patriarch Nero Golden.

“There’s a place for flying carpets,” Rushdie says, laughing, “but, I thought, not in this book. Very often what happens is that I’ll get a kernel of an idea; bits and pieces of a storyline will sit with me for quite a long time. The more I understood Nero’s history and his world, the more I thought this just needs to be told straight.”

Realism, Rushdie notes, is a “broad church,” big enough to include at one end the abstemious prose of Raymond Carver and at the other end the lyricism of James Joyce. In this novel, Rushdie’s own realistic pew seems to be situated in a stylistically inventive aisle where satire and tragedy sit arm in arm.

The action of the novel mostly unfolds in the MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens, a place Rushdie describes as “a private, magic little place in the middle of downtown New York.” The houses around the Gardens share an open, communal backyard. “There is something wonderfully theatrical about it as a kind of stage for the action. It has a pleasingly Rear Window echo, where everybody could look out at everybody else’s lives.”

Rushdie’s reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic is hardly casual, as his passion for film is well-known. As a young man he reportedly seriously considered a career in the movies before determining to become a novelist. And he did write the screenplay for the movie of his Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children.

In The Golden House, the narrator is René Unterlinden, a young filmmaker and a resident of the Gardens. René decides to make the Goldens the subject of a documentary and becomes dangerously close to Nero, his three sons—Petronius, Apuleius and Dionysus—and to Nero’s second wife, Vasilisa, a young, calculatingly ambitious Russian émigré, whose entry into the household is a catalyst for the tragic events that ensue.

“The story of New York is the story of . . . people coming from elsewhere, and I thought that’s a story that I can tell.”

“The moment I realized that René was going to be a young filmmaker, that released me into a whole lot of stuff that I am pleased to get into the book,” Rushdie says. “The fiddling around with form and allowing bits of it to shape into little screenplays, for example. It’s the first time in my fiction that I found a way of doing that. When I was first thinking about the book, I thought René would just be a kind of I Am a Camera point of view. But he gradually became more and more central to the story. In a strange way it became as much his book as the Goldens’.”

Readers of Rushdie’s other novels know how stylistically playful he can be and how wide the range of knowledge and references he incorporates into the subflooring of his novels. Here, in addition to film references, he manages to work in literature (of course!), popular and classical music, art, identity politics and ancient Roman history.

“I’m afraid this is just the way my mind works. This is just the garbage in my head,” he says, laughing. “It comes out like this because it’s me doing the writing. But I actually do have a lifelong interest in ancient Rome. Certainly not now, but at better moments in America’s recent past, New York has felt like a kind of incarnation of Rome.”

Rushdie, who has spent his life in three gigantic metropolises—Bombay, London and New York—clearly loves the city where he now lives. He became a United States citizen and voted in his first presidential election in 2016. He talks about his pleasure in walking widely in Manhattan. The New York he portrays in The Golden House is a city of immigrants. “People who are born-and-raised New Yorkers are very proud of the fact. And rightly so,” he says. “That’s the kind of New York novel that is not mine to write. But I know that most of us who live here were not born here. So much of the story of New York is the story of arrival, the story of people coming from elsewhere, and I thought that’s a story that I can tell. This was a very, very deliberate attempt to write a sort of immigrant novel of New York.”

Rushdie says one of the biggest risks he took in writing the novel was to place the action at a contemporaneous moment in American life. “The physical background is the Gardens, but the social background is America in these last eight years or so. There is something aesthetically, formally satisfying to move from a moment of optimism and hope of eight years ago to a moment that seems to me the very opposite. And there is something dangerous about writing very close to the contemporary moment. If you get it right, it gives people a kind of recognition that yes, the world is like that now.”

The contemporary world—at least, the contemporary social/political world Rushdie satirically portrays—is cartoonish. Contrasted with the sonorous tragedy of the Goldens is the buffoonery of national politics. Rushdie writes of Hillary Clinton as a Batwoman character and Donald Trump as a green-haired cackler—the Joker.

“What I was trying to say is that there’s a deterioration. Many people have talked about the reality show aspect of our current politics. I see that. And I also see that the movies have been taken over by cartoons, by Marvel and Dell. It struck me that one way to describe what is going on is to say that America has succumbed to a comic book vision of itself.”

Rushdie continues: “One thing that I think anyone who is a reader of fiction knows is that human nature is complex. Human nature is not homogeneous. It’s heterogeneous and contains many contradictory, even irreconcilable, elements. In that way, the more broadly we understand human nature, the easier it is to find common ground with other people.”

Asked then about a recurrent question in the novel—can people be both good and bad at the same time?—Rushdie says, “The obvious answer is yes. Most of us do things which at some point people in our lives would describe as bad things to have done. And many of us do things that people will see as good things to have done. We’re all broken and confused and contradictory. This ought to be a no-brainer. But we live in a cartoon universe. I quite openly wanted to reopen the subject about the complexity of human nature. People are not cartoons.”

 

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo credit © Randall Slavin.

One of the many surprises of Salman Rushdie’s beguiling 14th work of fiction, The Golden House, is that it marks his return to realism.

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Asked what he’s reading now that work on his psychologically compelling fifth novel is complete and the book will soon arrive in bookstores, Olaf Olafsson says he is rereading the novels of his father, the award-winning Icelandic novelist Olafur Sigurdsson.

“My dad passed away in 1988,” Olafsson explains during a call to his home in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill neighborhood, where he and his wife—now parents of two adult sons and a teenage daughter—have lived since 1989. “We were very close. It’s strange, in that his voice is so clear in his writing. It’s like he’s here again.”

Those close paternal ties are certainly not shared by Magnus, the central character of Olafsson’s latest novel, One Station Away. Magnus, a New York-based neurologist, grew up in England, the only child of a narcissistic mother who believes the world has ignored her great talents as a pianist and a hustler father who lovingly caters to and promotes his wife’s injured ambitions. Without musical talent or creative interest, Magnus is largely rejected by his parents, whom he is expected to call Margaret and Vincent, rather than Mom and Dad.

No wonder then that Magnus’ research interest involves another kind of alienation, the separation of mind from body. Magnus and his scientific colleagues search for consciousness in people who are believed to be brain dead, with unexpected repercussions.

“I came upon an article years and years ago about a British neuroscientist who had begun to search for consciousness in people who were believed to be ‘vegetables,’” Olafsson says of the origin of the novels. “To me this state of being fully conscious but unable to communicate at all is the definition of hell.”

Olafsson, who seems to be drawn to conjoined themes and multiple plotlines, also read about a British pianist named Joyce Hatto, “who got involved with her husband in a fraudulent exercise” to pass off the recordings of other musicians as her own work. Olafsson used quite a bit of Hatto’s story to fill in the love-deprived background of his nonmusical central character. The result is a novel that braids together these seemingly disparate themes and thus raises as many profound questions about personal relationships and love as it answers.

“Needless to say, I like gray,” Olafsson says. “Everybody will come to different conclusions. I want my characters to be complicated.”

Olafsson wrote his first work of fiction as an undergraduate studying physics at Brandeis University in an international scholarship program. “I grew up reading a lot of literature, so when I came here, I wanted to study something else.” His first collection of stories was published in Iceland in 1986 to critical acclaim.

“My physics professor had a higher opinion of me as a physicist than I do,” he says with a laugh. “And he wanted me to finish my Ph.D. I said I didn’t think so because I didn’t have the passion for it, and I was writing my first book. To make a long story short, he introduced me to a former student of his who was supposed to persuade me to continue in physics. That gentleman had just left science and was the CEO of Sony. When he couldn’t help my professor convince me to spend my life doing physics, he offered me a job.

“It never occurred to me that I would go into business. I thought I’d try it for a couple of years. At least I’d learn something that I could use in a book.”

“Needless to say, I like gray. . . I want my characters to be complicated.”

To his surprise, Olafsson became an exceptionally successful businessman. He worked first on a brand new technology called the CD-ROM, and then led the introduction of the Sony Playstation in 1995, for which he is viewed as a sort of demigod in some quarters.

About this gaming legacy, Olafsson demurs, “Back then there was the hope that this form of storytelling would mature and develop and stop being a toylike activity. I don’t follow it very closely now, but I think it’s still pretty rudimentary. It just looks better. And sounds better. I’ve always looked at technology as a set of tools. It serves a purpose, but you can’t be a slave to it. What I was interested in then was introducing a new product and building a business, which I enjoyed back then. And then I left it.”

Since 1999, Olafsson has worked as an executive at Time Warner. Yet he has somehow continued to write fiction. “If there’s one thing I’m decent at, it’s discipline with time,” he says. “If I can write two or three hours before I go to the Time Warner offices, I’m happy.” He writes mainly in an office at the top of his house in Manhattan, but also in outbuildings at the family retreats in Iceland and on Long Island.

Today Olafsson, who along with his wife remains an Icelandic citizen, is executive vice president of Time Warner. “I have a green card. I’m what you call a resident alien,” he says, laughing. “At Time Warner, I’m in charge of corporate strategy. Time Warner has a lot of different businesses so my job is basically to figure out the right composition of assets within the company. So I guess my work is predicting how the world is going to evolve.”

So how is the future looking?

Olafsson laughs. “The media landscape is changing enormously. At dinner with my wife and my publisher last night, we were saying that we’ve been through all kinds of technology changes. But the smartphone? The only thing to call it is a revolution, because of the behavioral changes it has brought through the years. But my hope is that the future is also looking good for books. Needless to say, for me personally, that’s the thing I care about most.”

 

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook

(Author photo by Johann Pall Valdimarsson.)

Asked what he’s reading now that work on his psychologically compelling fifth novel is complete and the book will soon arrive in bookstores, Olaf Olafsson says he is rereading the novels of his father, the award-winning Icelandic novelist Olafur Sigurdsson.

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Tayari Jones’ first name is a Swahili word that means “she is prepared.” It’s a powerful declaration that holds true, as the groundwork for Jones’ moving, emotionally complex new novel, An American Marriage, can be traced to seven years ago.

But it truly all began in Jones’ closet, where she wrote her first novel, Leaving Atlanta (2002), on a manual typewriter during her time in grad school. “It wasn’t like an empty closet that I made into an office. It was my closet!” Jones exclaims during a call that reaches her in Las Vegas, where she has a yearlong fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I never had any trouble writing in that closet, because with your first book, you’re like a cup that is full to the top and overflowing onto the page.”

Jones tells this story to explain why she can write anywhere: in Brooklyn, where she usually lives; in Atlanta, where she grew up and where her mother still lives; at Rutgers University–Newark, where she teaches writing as a founding member of its MFA program; or at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, where, during another fellowship in 2011, she felt the need to research the mass incarceration of black men, which would eventually form the backstory of An American Marriage.

“The word in my head was ‘bigger,’ ” Jones says. “Most of my books are about the family, the way people interact. But I felt I needed to write about big issues, and mass incarceration has always been nibbling at the edges of my mind because of its collateral effects. So on this fellowship, I read and read and read and read. I learned all kinds of statistics that would blow your mind. But this did not engage me as a storyteller. . . . So I went home to talk to my mama in Atlanta. And when I was in the mall there, I heard this couple arguing. She said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, because this wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’ I know I have a novel when I’m intrigued by two people’s conflict and when I feel they both have a point.”

On its surface, An American Marriage tells the story of the marriage of Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport. Roy is a poor, ambitious boy from small-town Louisiana. Celestial is from Atlanta’s black upper class. When the two first meet, he is going to Morehouse College and she to Spelman. They are introduced by her “bone-deep” friend and lifelong neighbor Andre, who becomes the third leg of this story. Celestial and Roy connect again in New York, where she is an exceptionally talented art student and he is a rising business consultant. The two marry, and a year and a half into their marriage, he takes her home to Louisiana to visit his parents. While staying at a local motel, Roy is arrested for rape. Readers will have little doubt of his innocence, but he is convicted and sent to prison. The exchange of letters between Roy and Celestial while he is in prison is heart-rending. After five years, Roy is released, and the remainder of the novel is a wrenching portrayal of the love, anger and moral dilemmas—the collateral damage—these characters are left with as a result of injustice.

“It is a question of modern African-American life. What is the balance between your desires and your responsibilities?”

“All of these characters are trying to figure out the extent to which they are allowed to be self-interested in the face of this larger cultural crisis,” Jones explains. “In many ways, it is a question of modern African-American life. What is the balance between your desires and your responsibilities? For Celestial to say, ‘I want happiness’ when her husband is a hostage of the state is very different from a novel where the wife seeking happiness is at home, bored, and her husband is a stockbroker.”

Like any good novel, An American Marriage lives in its particular details. Jones presents readers with a richly evocative cultural moment, and each of her characters has a complicated past that raises as many questions about life as it answers. Especially compelling are her depictions of black urban professional life in Atlanta.

“I’ve lived a lot of places since I finished college in 1991,” Jones says. “But I haven’t lived long enough in those places to feel I have enough authority to write about them. I need to know the layers of a place. Atlanta is my hometown, and I know all its layers. Furthermore, it is important to me as a Southern writer to write about the modern urban South. When I tell people in Brooklyn that I’m from Georgia, they act like I got there on the Underground Railroad. They have no concept of the modern South.”

Readers of An American Marriage will discover a bold, big Southern story to match its ambitious title. “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” Jones says. “And I have accepted that my niche is this quiet space. I’ve never been one of those writers who says writing is the hardest job in the world. Look at the jobs my grandparents had. Can I really say a job I’m able to do in my pajamas is the hardest job in the world? This is not a quiet title. And this is not a quiet story. I was a little intimidated by claiming this title for myself. But this novel caused me to challenge myself. I feel really good about it now.”

 

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Nina Subin.

Tayari Jones’ first name is a Swahili word that means “she is prepared.” It’s a powerful declaration that holds true, as the groundwork for Jones’ moving, emotionally complex new novel, An American Marriage, can be traced to seven years ago.

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