Category : Fiction
Category : Fiction
J. Robert Lennon is most recently the author of Familiar. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #300. This conversation was recorded live at McNally Jackson on October 3, 2012. This is also the final episode of The Bat Segundo Show. Thank you for listening.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with five possible endings to his existence.
Author: J. Robert Lennon.
Subjects Discussed: Attempts to disseminate chocolate chip cookies in a bookstore, parallel universes, being confident in the rightness of not knowing, getting inside other people’s heads, how Elisa’s conditional ambiguity created a deeper connection with the reader, whether framing shops can exist after the Great Recession, why guys named Larry tend to sound sexy, Stephen Dixon’s “The Frame,” art and self-therapy, Wilhelm Reich as influence and huckster, technological reliance and memory, a digital camera in which nobody bothers to offload the photos, being a photography nerd, the multiverse per Brian Greene and William James, Lennon’s affinity for characters with bare feet, subconscious calls for New Age aesthetic, the Stephen King aesthetic of everyone wearing blue jeans, casual Fridays applied to novels, when a character can be associated with both Hugh Hefner and Hephaestus, spending far more time revising than writing, a definition of insanity of finding meaning when there is no meaning, needlessly close reading, Reevesport, Lennon’s secret shadow map of central New York, Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, physically impossible floor plans in fiction and films, labyrinths and labyrinthine structures, how the question of identity is a trap, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, The Funnies, comparisons between Silas and David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Blow, revision revelations, Braid, advice Lennon received from Tom Bissell, video game titles that aren’t dumb enough, Lennon’s efforts to write a draft without internal monologues, Richard Matheson, The Twilight Zone, the thin line between insanity and genius, the stigma against unusual perspectives, broken and corrupt institutions, crackpots, impostor syndrome, Capgras delusion, Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, similarities between Familiar and Nine Princes in Amber, the Nine Princes in Amber Commodore 64 ROM, cell phone addiction, how smartphones reveal mundane lives, Infocom text adventure games, and fictional vs. video game description.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: We have a lot of cookies and they have to be eaten. So please pass these along.
Lennon: These are the very same cookies you saw today on Twitter in the form of uncooked dough.
Correspondent: In the form of uncooked. And then there was a picture of them being cooked. So now we see the transmission from digital to reality. Sort of like your book.
Lennon: You see the baby pictures. And now they’re graduating from college. And now they’re all going to die.
Correspondent: Yes. And they need to be sent away to your stomachs. So please. Anyway, John, how are you doing?
Lennon: Hey, Ed, I’m doing very well. Thank you for having me on the show again. And thanks for sharing your swan song with me.
Correspondent: No worries. So in this book, you have this 46-year-old woman and she’s named Elisa Brown. She enters another life very early on in the book. She’s put on some weight. She trades in this cracked Volvo — or cracked Honda; there’s a Volvo that comes later — with a Dodge Intrepid. She sees her son Silas, who has died in her previous life, suddenly alive in this new one.
Lennon: I think what you’re not explaining is that it seems to be a parallel universe.
Correspondent: It seems.
Lennon: All this happens instantaneously. And she’s transferred into this apparent other world.
Correspondent: Yes. Apparent. Which leads me to my initial question. I mean, she could be inhabiting a parallel universe. This could be a psychological projection. This could be a maternal fantasy. It could be any number of things. You leave this up to the reader. I’m wondering, as author, if you knew with any certainty what this was all about.
Lennon: I aggressively and definitively refuse to know.
Correspondent: You refuse to know. It’s a hell of a way to write a book.
Lennon: Like I’m very confident in the rightness of not knowing. I’ll put it that way.
Correspondent: Okay. But how do you get inside the head of a character when you don’t exactly know what the condition of that head is? Or do you?
Lennon: Does anyone know the condition of their own head? Or the meaning or the circumstances?
Correspondent: Do you know the condition of your own head?
Lennon: Of course not! No! I think it’s an arch sci-fi metaphor for the feelings of dislocation that all of us have in the less obviously nerdy way.
Correspondent: Well, it seems that the very ambiguity of Elisa would allow, as I suggested, the reader to find her own way into what this is all about. And I’m curious. Were you thinking more about the reader in mind with this book? Some of your other books have dealt with minutiae or quotidian life — such as Mailman, to very alarming degrees in that wonderful book.
Lennon: Alarming quotidianness.
Correspondent: Yes, exactly. In the case of Elisa, I’m wondering. Did that uncertainty allow you to connect with the reader perhaps more than your other characters?
Lennon: That was my hope. I mean, my goal in presenting this conceit or this unsolvable dilemma to the character — she ends up quite logically, because she’s a scientist, searching for both the meaning and the cause of what has apparently happened to her. But in the process, it forces her to do other types of searching of the self that she was previously unwilling to undertake.
Correspondent: Got it. So there’s this framing shop in the book run by a guy named Larry. And this intrigued me quite a bit. Because I said to myself, “Well, how can a framing shop exist in a small town after the 2008 recession?” It leads me to wonder, hmmm, I wonder if this is possibly a fantasy.
Lennon: (laughs) You’re onto me.
Correspondent: I think there’s something romantic about a guy named Larry. I think you and I can both agree about that.
Lennon: Sure. Sure.
Correspondent: But I wanted to ask you where this came from. Do you know of a framing shop in a small town that is financially successful? Or does Larry have another business of some sort? And, of course, Elisa as well does all sorts of naughty things with him and we only really see him through how Elisa observes him in that Korean cafe and so forth. So I’m curious about the origins of Larry and how you stuck your thumb in the nose of present economic realities.
Lennon: This is a curious thing to fixate on, I must say.
Correspondent: Well, I’m a curious person. And you’ve written a curious book!
Lennon: Thank you. There are several functioning frame shops in my town. It didn’t seem terribly unusual. But the framing bit is — I don’t know why he’s in a frame shop. Maybe…has anyone read the Stephen Dixon story “The Frame”? It’s essentially a joke about a framed story. And a guy goes into a frame shop. And this reminds him of something that happened with his sister in the past. And the frame of the story is a frame. Maybe I had that in mind as a goofy meta device. But in any event, the plot device that you’re talking about is that, in her old life, what she considers to be her real life, she is having an affair with this guy Larry from the frame shop. Whom she met because she brought some art that she was trying to make to be framed. And the art was therapeutic art to deal with the death of her son. And in this new world, where her son never died, this guy doesn’t know her. And so she tries to get it on with him. It doesn’t go as planned. But I like the idea of a quiet business. That the whole point of it is not about the content. It’s about the context.
Correspondent: Yes, it’s about the framing.
Correspondent: I see. So the artistic aspirations that Elisa has in this book, which aren’t necessarily totally fulfilled. We sort of see a little bit toward the end. But basically she has this studio. She’s not really doing much about it. Why is it that art — represented of course through Elisa’s painting and then transferred later onto Silas and his video game company — why is this the benchmark for these characters who are in such disarray to try to find themselves? I was curious why this seemed to be the motive for these characters.
Lennon: Well, I’m always kind of interested in this idea that creative effort is a form of therapy for people. And that usually doesn’t create good art necessarily. That the kind of self-criticism required for making…
Correspondent: True art.
Lennon: Yeah. It’s maybe not compatible with the needs of a self-therapeutic process. So in each of these worlds, I gave the creative output to one or the other character as one of them is dealing with the death and her possible culpability in it. And the other is dealing with his horrible childhood, for which he blames her. And she doesn’t get to do art in the world where he’s alive.
Correspondent: Yes. But it’s interesting that you call it therapy in light of all of the Wilhelm Reich references throughout the book. There’s some sly quotes. There’s this crazy family therapist named Amos, who is using very Reichian-like techniques. The whole idea of “blame yourself first,” which comes from Reich. And it’s interesting that that exists side by side with art. And it makes me wonder, well, is Larry, who we were talking about earlier, is he offering a form of therapy in terms of his sexual escapades? But I’m curious about where the Reich interest came from. I mean, he’s known as both one of the most important therapeutic forces of the early 20th century. But simultaneously, he’s also something of a huckster.
Lennon: Yeah. And I haven’t read him extensively. I’ve read some of the book that that quote comes from. But I read enough to use him as a motif. But not enough to know what the hell I’m talking about. But the entire book is about ways of perceiving experience and the extent to which people choose, no matter how hard we think we’re working, to understand the truth about our lives. We’re engaged in a form of self-serving narrative making. And so this whole process, which I think is hidden from us a lot of the time in real life — I’m sort of foregrounding this book by giving her an extra life and an extra version of her life to compose. And she seems to be screwing it up just the same way she screwed up the other life, which I think is what we would all do if we were given a second chance.
Correspondent: But is she entirely screwing it up? I mean, this book has some fairly damning things to say about technology, starting from the first technological implement we see. This camera, that has about a year worth of photos on it. And there is an interesting domestic dispute when all of the photos disappear. And the fact that these photos have not been transferred over says something about what our relationship is to memory through technology. And we see later on, of course, she sees a guy whose looking down at his phone over the last dregs of his meal. And of course there’s the video game motif as well. So I’m wondering why this notion of technology is almost defining many of these characters. Do you think we’re just now in this realm and fiction has to wrestle with this vital point of living?
Lennon: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think of technology as a motif that’s sort of extrinsic from psychology and emotion and that which has to be addressed. Rather, I wanted to bring it into the fabric of the book in a way that it might not naturally do so for nerdy people like this family. My wife said she was very proud of me with the camera thing. The deal with the camera is that they just never print the photos or put them on the computer or anything. They’re just all on the camera. And so everyone, they want to look at pictures, they just look for the camera and they pick it up and they just go like this for a while. And then Elisa’s mother-in-law appears to have deleted the photos of the child who has died. And for whatever reasons we don’t really understand.
Correspondent: Or did she? She just could have been messing with it. We don’t know.
Lennon: Maybe not. And Elisa ends up — she realizes that if she really wanted, that the files are still on there. That all, when you delete a file from, say, a hard disk or a memory card or something, all that changes is the bit of information that tells the computer or the camera that the photo is there. It’s still there. It just can’t be seen anymore. So this for me was kind of the metaphor for things that we try and put out of our heads that are still there. And the reason my wife is proud of me is because I’m a photography nerd. And I would never in a million years treat photographs like this. I’d have to download them to my computer and then edit them and disseminate them into a million different places and print them out and flog them in front of people. And I think it was really a stretch for me to realize that not everyone is like this.
(Photo: Sarah Weinman)
Chris Ware is most recently the writer and illustrator of Building Stories.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Learning how to wash his hands.
Author: Chris Ware
Subjects Discussed: The significance (or lack thereof) of the date September 23, 2000, technological reliance and its intrusion upon existence in Building Stories, the amount of time that humans presently stare into screens, the virtues of shapes and forms on paper, coming from a family of journalists, Ware’s decision to self-publish, the materials used in Building Stories, Ware’s affinity for small rectangular panels, the buildings that inspired the building, Charles Burns, losing track of time and space while drawing, temporal drift, Ira Glass and accusations of cliche, the pleasant frustration of not knowing the names of the Building Stories characters, people not saying Chris Ware’s name in his dreams, when characters are too defined by their names, flowers that grow along Illinois railways, SoundCloud, whether comics can compete with technology to encourage imagination, comics as a visually reductive medium to create a new language, Brandford the Bee and his influence as a narrative spirit, a fondness for circles, understanding other people, looking at animals for a very long time, empathy, Ware’s insistence on visual clarity, typography, operating from a place of uncertainty, Acme #20 and a character aging one year for every page, working with and without deadlines, how the Oak Park Public School system determines how much Ware turns out, observing the human world, parents who aren’t allowed to see their children as often as they need to, being in a privileged position, failed or aborted forms, Ware’s experiments with television, Ware’s difficulties in working with other people, cartooning as a singular art, whether there is an ideal medium for explicating or portraying human behavior, non-objective painting, representing a multilayered consciousness in comics, the physicality of doing the work, the frequency of Ware characters with afflicted or amputated legs, the creative inspiration which emerges from breaking legs, human frailties, and whether the human soul can be contained through illustration.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Is there any specific significance to the date September 23, 2000? I do know that a baseball player named Aurelio Rodriguez died that particular day.
Ware: Is that true? I didn’t know that. No, I picked it simply because it seemed like a date that didn’t particularly have any meaning to it. It’s just sort of a random day.
Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the role of technology in Building Stories. I mean, we see that you have a concern for its effect on everyday life, ranging from the Facebook searches for lost boyfriends to this one page stark illustration with this unnamed woman with the leg. She’s standing naked before her husband and her husband is there with the iPad, also naked, not paying attention to her at all. Then of course you have this really terrifying last page augmented reality future, where they can’t even spell “fuck” right. So this would suggest, I think, a deep pessimism on your part for how technology is affecting life and so forth. And here you have a collection of fourteen various pamphlets ranging from something very small to almost a newspaper size. Is this really what we have to do now? In order for literature and comics to survive, do we now have to create massive physical palpable forms in order to get people off of this highly addictive technology that has encroached itself into culture all around us for the last five years?
Ware: No. I don’t think so. I mean, it is a little disturbing. The amount of time that we spend increasingly staring into these glowing pits in front of us. Just simply standing out on the street here, the number of people who are looking at the palms of their hands. There’s probably a higher percentage of people doing that than actually looking up. And I think the gesture for trying to remember something now has changed from looking above one’s head to slapping one’s pocket. But it’s really not that different from what adults do anyway, which is not necessarily looking at the world around them, but looking into their own past and thinking about their future and simply just kind of navigating in a world. Just trying to get through the world while worrying about the past and thinking about the future. I don’t think it’s necessary to try to make something — I don’t know what word I could use here. It’s elaborate, I guess. That’s what I tried do. But at the same time, why not? I mean, paper can do things that screens cannot. And I’ve tried to take advantage of that with the book. And we’re at a moment right now too where certain experiences and the way that we get knowledge about the world has been attached to certain shapes and forms. And those shapes and forms are disappearing. And it seemed to me just like a possibility for a slight sense of poetry in using those shapes and forms as a physical way of imparting a sense of life or everyday experience.
Correspondent: So shapes and forms in the form of paper. Old forms are the way to counter the conformist technological forms. That the housing of the form is probably going to get through to people more than the elaborate Tuftean graphs you’ve often had in your work. So you think this is going to be a solution? You think paper will persist? Do you actually have to change as an illustrator, as a cartoonist, as an artist in order to woo people’s attention?
Ware: Well, no. I grew up at a time where I read everything on paper. And I don’t have a sentimental attachment to it. I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper in my life. I’ve always read the newspaper either just simply on the Internet or picked it up here and there. Even though I come from a long line of newspaper editors and publishers. My mom was a reporter and an editor. My grandfather was an editor. My great great uncle was a publisher who actually won a Pulitzer Prize for an essay in, I think, 1911. So it’s in my blood. I feel that it’s no longer the most efficient way of disseminating important up-to-date information. Newsprint was for a long time. It was almost a fiber optic cable. But now it’s not. It’s great for art though. So I think art needs a certain kind of containment. And it needs a certain kind of containment to it because so much of the things that one writes about as a novelist or tries to get at sometimes as an artist are so ineffable and uncontainable that they almost need a certain form to stop them or something. Or freeze them.
Correspondent: So this leads me to ask, I mean, did you have to learn a lot about materials and publishing for Building Stories? Or did you have someone shepherding this for you? I mean, how did you decide upon the forms for Building Stories? In which you’re essentially collecting things from the Acme Novelty Library as well as a few new things as far as I know. How did you decide upon the forms? And what research did you do in making sure they would stick together or would be lasting to counter the end of newsprint era that we now have rolling?
Ware: Right. Well, everything in the book is made out of the exact same paper. Which is intentional. And they’re almost all coverless, with the exception of a couple. And that’s also intentional. I didn’t really have to research much. I’ve been self-publishing my own hardcovers now and comics for a while. And I’ve actually dealt directly with printing companies. So I’m more or less familiar with how those things are put together. But for this particular project, the production manager at Pantheon handled all of that for me and was able to make it work. But I just simply gave him very specific parameters for the size and paper that I wanted to use. And he accommodated me essentially. He was a very nice guy. Andy Hughes.
Correspondent: So why did you move to self-publishing? I was always curious about that.
Ware: I was sort of uninspired, I guess, at a certain point. And I felt more that if I published something myself, it would feel closer to art. The way it had early on. And I felt like I was taking the whole risk myself at that point.
Correspondent: You wanted to be a control freak.
Ware: Well, somewhat. Yeah. But at the same time, if there are any mistakes, they were entirely mine. I was solely the product of my hand. It just simply felt more like art. I was making something specifically, giving it to someone. I didn’t go through a publisher. It was less of a product and more of a thing.
Correspondent: So when you’re creating an elaborate — well, there’s tons of questions I have to ask you about layout and so forth. But let’s start — I was always curious about your small microscopic rectangular panels that are often in your work. I’m wondering if part of your attraction to this is because you’re interested in communicating the maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of detail. Is this the allure for you?
Ware: Yeah. Somewhat. Yeah. And the reason I use square panels is simply because the page is square. It’s reflective of the shape of the object itself in the same way that a leaf of a tree is somewhat reflective of the shape of a tree itself. But that’s not unusual. That’s the way all cartoonists work. I think it’s the way it’s been handed down to us.
Correspondent: So the building that is at the base of Building Stories, was this based off of any particular building?
Ware: It’s a synthesis of two buildings that I lived in in Chicago before my wife and I moved to Oak Park, Illinois. But the inhabitants are completely imaginary.
Correspondent: Are they based off of floor plans and layouts that you wandered through or lived in?
Ware: Yeah, it’s a combination of the exterior of the second building that we lived in and the floor plan of the first that I lived in. Which really means nothing to anyone except me.
Correspondent: How much did the building dictate the dimensionality of the characters? Like, for example, there’s this couple who’s unhappy. And of course, we see that pretty much all the walls are painted blue. And I’m wondering if the blue room or perhaps a yellow background may have influenced where you were going with the characters. And had you thought many of them out in advance?
Ware: You know, I thought them out. But I did not think of the colors as having any influence on the narrative. I guess, if anything else, it was just simply a way of color coding the various floors of the building itself. I find — Charles Burns and I were just talking about this recently — that, sometimes when we sit drawing, we realize that we completely lose where we are in space and time. When I’m sitting at a table, sometimes I’ll forget what room in the house I’m in. Or if I’m even in the house that I’m in. That I’ll even imagine for a second I’m in the apartment that I used to live in. And Charles was saying that he would recently find himself thinking that the sister’s room was right around the corner the way it had been when he was a child. And I’ve experienced it. Everyone has certainly. I mean, it starts off. Proust. And when you fall asleep, you tend to lose a sense of where you are when you wake up in the morning. Sometimes you don’t have any idea where you are. You have to recalibrate yourself.
Correspondent: That temporal drift, I think, informs many of the stories that are in here. Especially the thin stripped one where there are no words whatsoever. It’s all about motherhood and how we see the passage of time throughout that. And I’m wondering. Does this often inform how you organize a story along those lines? Do words often get in the way? Is time sometimes more of an allure than words or dialogue or even blank speech bubbles?
Ware: Well, in that case, there was an attempt to try and give it a sense of the general activities that one might go through during a day. And if I use words, then the segments would be too specific and seem too much like a slideshow of actual reality. Where I was trying to get more of a sense of a general repetition as well as getting a sense of time passing very rapidly. That the strip was inspired by a comment that my friend Ira Glass, the radio reporter and…I shouldn’t say “radio reporter,” but the producer and inventor and progenitor of This American Life.
Correspondent: Well, This American Life has journalistic standards. You can call him that.
Ware: I mean, he’s a great journalist. He’s broken many stories for which I think he doesn’t get adequate credit. But I was just telling him one day over lunch how quickly it was that children grow up and how fast time seems to pass. And he looked up at me and he just said, “Cliche.” And I thought, “I’m just trying to tell you a story here, you know?”
Ware: It is actually true. That it is kind of a cliche. So I tried to write this strip in such a way that maybe it wouldn’t be such a cliche and to try and give it a sense of how the time passes rapidly. How it almost seems like in one day your children grow up.
Benjamin Anastas is most recently the author of Too Good to Be True.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling with failure.
Author: Benjamin Anastas
Subjects Discussed: Memoirs devoted to literary failure, Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth, Tom Grimes’s Mentor, being inspired by Notes from Underground, measuring life through the medium of writing, seeking existential symmetry through writing, recurring images of sedans crashing into a tree, the difference between work in fiction and work in nonfiction, Brooklyn Flea vs. South Brooklyn flea markets, being confined to specific areas of Brooklyn, maintaining a literary illusion, staying in denial about gentrification or geographical change, being slow to adapt, “you” vs. “I” in a memoir, living in Williamsburg and Italy, the need to close off the world to get your work done, the pros and cons of needing to notice, the need to believe in the illusion as a creative person, writing as a ontological gamble, the stigma of not talking about the realities of being a writer, standing in a boxing ring designed for Muhammad Ali at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Penguin/Random House merger, publishing with Amazon, talking with Jason Epstein, writing as a life going through self-inflicted hardships, why broke writers aren’t special, parental legacy, adultery as a choice, giant posters of Franzen and Eugenides, the writer’s ego, how book fairs can devastate a writer, the attenuated lifespan of a book, blurbs, why New York is an unhealthy place for a writer to live, a level playing field in which all publishing houses are equal, Brooklyn as the second most expensive place to live in the United States, publishing a celebrity journalist’s Facebook messages, Coinstar machines, the divide between the public and the private, navigating through Facebook posts, the need for reflection, the ineluctable physical demands that come with a Kindle book cover, clearing appearances of the Nominee and Marina with various legal counsel, earlier vindictive forms of Anastas’s letter to the Nominee, Dwight Garner’s hostility to the letter, the true manner in which a prize winner talks, Ali’s “It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” boasting, the blues as a shape-shifting force, writing chapters that cause you to burst into tears, what Anastas had to omit because of personal limitations, money as the stigma that has replaced sex, unknown novels being written about the financial crisis or unemployed men, the Fitzgeraldian association with the Manhattan skyline, and the many holes and changes and rebuilding in New York City**.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: There are a number of memoirs that are devoted to literary failures. I think of Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth. I think of Tom Grimes’s Mentor. And I think that there’s something about reading a book about literary failure that’s kind of akin to looking at the mirror and seeing the sagging and aging body and so forth. This leads me to ask what it must feel like to write such a thing, to expose something that is so identified with books and so identified with failure in book form. How do you contend with the notion of shame or humiliation? Or do you have no shame?
Anastas: Do I have no shame? Well, clearly, I actually have no shame. (laughs) I never set out to write a memoir. I actually have always been kind of anti-memoir in my writing life. I’ve written screeds against them. My first novel, I thought of it as a kind of Russian tract against the memoir when I was writing it and publishing it. I was very much influenced by Dostoevsky and Notes from Underground, which was a response to — I don’t remember the name of the tract*, but it was a response to this contemporary political tract. So I was trying to use the novel in my first book as an answer to what I thought then was the memoir craze. But of course the memoir craze has just spread and metastasized. And we live in a memoir society. But anyway, I ended up writing a book honestly because I really had no other choice.
Correspondent: You had no other choice?
Anastas: Well, seriously, I mean, I’d been trying to write fiction for a long time and I just hadn’t been working. I would either abandon projects 100 pages in or I would just edit them to death so there was really nothing there. And the circumstances of my life had gotten so bad that I couldn’t really do the necessary work of imagining. Every time I sat down to write, all I could think about was, well, god, how am I going to pay the rent this month? Or, jeez, is my girlfriend going to leave me because I’m so broke? Or what am I going to do about my child support payment coming up on the 15th? That’s all financial stuff. But there was also this overwhelming sense of “How did this happen to me?” How did I find myself here?
Correspondent: Did you feel that you were a victim and that you needed to memorialize this notion of “How did I get here?” Did it come from a sense of victimhood, do you feel?
Anastas: No. Definitely not victimhood. I mean, what was really interesting to me was trying to figure out — well, the book moves in two directions simultaneously. The first is it moves forward in time, which I was literally writing in real time. How am I going to get myself out of this mess? How am I going to find a job? How am I going to keep my girlfriend? How am I going to keep on seeing my son as well? Because I absolutely want to.
Correspondent: So you weren’t a fact checker at the beginning of writing.
Anastas: No. I wasn’t. I started writing the book in the fall of 2010. And I was just about to hit financial rock bottom. And it was the kind of situation where people had stopped answering my emails. The kind of things that I had done to make money had all disappeared.
Correspondent: You weren’t led past the velvet rope in any form. (laughs)
Anastas: (laughs) Exactly. Exactly.
Correspondent: So why did you feel — I guess you felt the need to grapple to the closest reality at hand. And that was the only way to actually deal with it. I mean, there’s actually one line where you say, “How much of our lives do we write? And how much of them are written for us?” And I’m wondering why you feel life has to be measured by how it is documented or how it is written about or how it is chronicled and how this was a way for you to deal with this really sordid rock bottom existence that is there at the very beginning of the book.
Anastas: Well, it’s funny. I used the phrase “write.” “How much of our lives do we get to write?” Of course, that’s how I think about life. Because I am a writer. But I really meant that metaphorically in the sense of how much of our own lives do we get to control. How much agency do we have? And how much of it is stuff that we’ve inherited? So there were two things simultaneously happening in the book. The first is that I’m trying to figure my way out of this mess and actually find work and try to keep my relationship alive and keep my relationship with my son alive. And also at the same time try to restore my relationship to writing by going into my son’s room with a notebook everyday with a pen. Just writing this book or the pages that began this book. Writing them out in longhand. And the second thing I was trying to do was go back in time. All the way back to the beginning. To my first memories. To try and figure out, well, how much of where I found myself is due to experiences I had when I was young? How much of it can be traced to be formative experiences I had when I was three years old? Including the really bad childhood therapy, which gives the book its title. So more than assigning blame, more than claiming victimhood for myself, it’s a way to try and create connections, to find where the symmetry is. Because I did feel like my life was weirdly symmetrical. Like I had been returned to the state that was very much like my earliest beginnings.
Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you view your life from this image of premonition throughout the book. The idea of the sedan that’s running into a tree, which then starts to have applicability to other incidents later on. Or even “I lost my marriage going down a glass elevator.” There is a sense of personal responsibility we all have, that we can in fact take action to if not inform that premonition then to also throw a few curve balls at the inevitable. Why do you seem to default, at least in this book, towards the premonitory? Or the “Oh, well my life has this trajectory that’s just going to play out this way”?
Anastas: Because I think that, as I said, I was trying to trace the moments of symmetry and put the pieces of this life that had been broken up into large pieces that were kind of dangling all over the apartment and hung over the railing and all this kind of stuff. I wanted to put it all together and figure out how I got to this place in life. And to me, that’s being active. That’s not being passive and saying, “Oh, life has done these things to me.” I haven’t been an equal part in saying, “Oh, life, how could you!” To me, that feeling never really entered into it. It was more a sense of taking what I do have, which is a knowledge of writing, a knowledge of books, and some measure of talent and trying to use those to knit back together a life that had broken to pieces.
Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you couldn’t actually approach this dilemma through fiction or that there was difficulty. You said that you were writing fiction that was too edited. Did you just really need to have an extremely broken place with which to turn out something as a writer? What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction to you? I’m really curious about this. Why can’t you approach fiction in the same way that you approach nonfiction? Which is like “Here I am. I’m kind of responding to the broken place I’m in, but I’m going to write my way out of it.”
Anastas: Well, that’s what I had been able to do my entire writing life. Up until the last four or five years. Obviously your life informs your fiction, even if the characters you’re writing about and the time that they live in has nothing to do with where you are. You always have some kind of overwhelming feeling that you’re trying to capture. And the feeling often comes from your immediate set of circumstances. You just lend it to somebody else. But I think just because of the dire state of my circumstances and because of the ways I’d failed as a fiction writer over the past five years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I had to, for this book anyway, I had to write it straight. It was a reality experiment. I was writing about things as they were happening. Which was incredibly rewarding in a lot of ways. But it was also so I could get the immediate satisfaction.
* — It was Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, which in turn was a response to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.
** — Please note that this conversation was recorded before Hurricane Sandy.