Eric Wasserman is the author of a collection of short stories, The Temporary Life, and a novel, Celluloid Strangers. He is an Associate Professor of English at The University of Akron where he teaches literature, fiction writing and film studies. He lives in Akron, Ohio with his wife, Thea. You can visit him at www.ericwasserman.com.
Travis Craig: We at The New Old Stock take interest in publishing today’s brightest poetry and fiction, but we also want to see the conversation such writings can have with older or classic works. For example, we like to see how the works of G.C. Waldrep and Edgar Allan Poe could be in communication with each other and how they inform each other. Are there any particular writers that you find yourself in communication with, whether in content, theme, spirit, or otherwise? Are there writers that you find yourself in communication with through your own writing?
Eric Wasserman: If I am in communication with writers who came before me it is certainly a one-way relationship on my part. That said I’m a huge proponent of fiction writers needing to be artistic sponges. With absolutely no apologies to the fiction purists out there, I don’t think good fiction needs to be only influenced by other fiction. When I was earning my MFA at Emerson College I took a workshop run by a writer I won’t name who refused to allow any creative references made in class that were not directly associated with fiction. It put up walls for the students and it was without question one of the weakest creative experiences I ever had.
When it comes to me, I would reject an affinity for content and theme in regard to being in communication with another writer, but when it comes to spirit, we’re talking about something more personally tangible. If we are going to go on spirit alone then, I’d have to say indie film pioneer writer/director John Cassavetes is that artist for me. Of the many films he struggled to get made, only two, Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night, are truly precious to me. But I completely identify with the spirit of his artistic life and uncompromising conviction as an artist. If you have the time you should watch Charles Kiselyak’s amazing documentary, A Constant Forge, on Cassavetes’ life and work. It’s one of the most inspiring portraits of a true American artist you’ll ever see.
Kafka is another one in spirit that comes to mind. I don’t write anything like Kafka, but there is a spirit there that I feel a kinship with. That’s a much longer conversation, though.
TC: Is there any certain author that you seek to emulate? And if not for emulation, is there an author that you find yourself echoing?
EW: Not particularly. If I look at my work I can see traces of little and not so little influences from the periods in which I was composing certain pieces. I’ve got a stack of paper somewhere from my early twenties of all the short stories Philip Roth never knew he wrote. I don’t read Roth anymore, but at a certain time I was probably—oh heck, definitely—unknowingly echoing him, but not in a good way. Setting out with the intent to emulate probably leads more to imitation anyway, as writing those Roth-like stories was for me in my youth. Had I not moved around so much since my twenties and had I settled into a certain area or city early on in life I might have eventually echoed a school of thought or regional attitude or approach or aesthetic connected with a place. But that’s just not the creative life I’ve had.
Your question implies influence more than anything, and I understand that completely. But the truth is that writers are different kinds of writers at different points in their lives. The writing changes because we change as people along the way in our own lives. The writer who wrote those Roth-like yarns in his early twenties doesn’t exist any longer. As artists move through life, they become influenced by new things or embrace things they might have once rejected or were skeptical about. It always kind of amazes me when people say, Why can’t that musician I love write song like the ones I fell in love with twenty years ago? It’s because that artist isn’t that artist any longer and is echoing newer influences.
But I also tend to think that intentionally going out of one’s way to not emulate can be just as bad as an attempt to emulate. Each writer’s influences are what they are. It’s working your way to where you are doing your own kind of writing with an acceptance of the remaining subtle presence of those influences that is hard to reach. One of the most exciting things for me to see as a teacher is watching a first year MFA student arrive with great potential but clearly mimicking her or his literary heroes. Then three years later seeing those influences still there but now placed on the back burner so to speak since he or she has found their own approach to crafting original narratives. To be honest, seeing that happen thrills me more than a budding writer landing their first publication.
TC: Is there a particular angle or niche that you would like to fill, and if so what is it? If not, how do you understand the place your work has in the traditions and contexts you’re working within?
EW: This is a tough one for me. I’ve seen a real push for fiction writers to willingly label themselves or to allow themselves to be labeled by others. Perhaps I am old fashioned but I really believe a fiction writer’s work should speak for itself. Marketing your work is one thing; I fully accept that the artistic and business sides of this game are practically different universes. But intentionally selling yourself or having yourself sold as something specific doesn’t sit well with me as an artist. We currently live in a literary environment where the writer herself or himself is too often promoted over the work itself. The writer’s blog or Facebook feed are then followed more than her or his actual work is being read. That’s just something I don’t necessarily aspire to be a part of myself. Although when my next book comes out I imagine I’ll probably cave in and finally open a Twitter account.
That said, in some respects, unlike other Jewish writers, I don’t have any real problem with a label such as “Jewish-American Writer” being pinned to me, because in the end I really am both of those things, one by default and one by intention. I’m okay with that. But labeling used to be the norm for creative nonfiction, where there is kind of an inherent understanding that the writer herself or himself is intricately part of the package of the work. When a writer of serious fiction in any genre accepts a label or seeks to intentionally self-appoint herself or himself as the voice or spokesperson of a niche, it’s then impossible for the work from then on out to not be effected in anything but a poor way. I know this sounds dogmatic and perhaps makes me seem like I’m in my nineties instead of my forties, but it is a concern I take seriously. Not just for myself, but for my literary friends, for my students who are aspiring wordsmiths, and for our literary community.
TC: Speaking of niche writing, what is your reaction to the newer resurgence of genre fiction? We have George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling pushing ahead, beginning to emerge as fantasy writers taken seriously. Where do you think the world of writing is heading in regards to this?
EW: Writers working in very specific genres such as Fantasy or Young Adult have the most loyal readerships you can imagine. Those readerships have always been there and always will be. They are also far more forgiving of a writer’s weaker moments. I hope I’m not crushing your optimism here, but I’ll be honest and say that Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Game of Thrones have been successful in recent years in expanding that readership primarily because there is finally exceptionally high quality visual medium interpretations of those works. And those visual interpretations take fantastic artistic liberties in deviating from the books in order to appeal to and reach a wider audience than just those in the know. The person with the lay interest in the genre now has an image to go on. Let me be clear though, I have no problem with somebody picking up a book after getting hooked on a TV series based on it or being overblown by a movie adaptation. But this doesn’t really equate to a newer resurgence in my view.
Harry Potter is of course its own unique thing since those films are generally made to directly please fans of the books. The exception would be the third film installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which takes wonderful artistic liberties not in line with just pleasing the fans alone and is the only one of the adaptations that is a superior quality movie to me. Unless you’ve read the final book in the series, the last two companion Harry Potter films based on it will make very little sense to you because they are almost purely made for the fans in the end. On the contrary Game of Thrones as a TV series or The Lord of the Rings films are clearly made to offer greater access to the moviegoer unfamiliar with the source material.
I’d be willing to wager that a lot of Stephen King fans first come to his work though cinema and not the printed page, which is fine. The impressive quality of films based on King stories, such as Stand By Me, Dolores Claiborne, and The Shawshank Redemption, is the real reason he can be appreciated and respected beyond his core readership. I think it’s intellectually dishonest to not accept that reality. I remember watching the debut episode of Game of Thrones with my wife and a former graduate student who also appreciates the genre and all of us being completely blown away by the high quality of what we were watching. We didn’t think anyone we knew—at least locally—would be into it, too. We were absolutely wrong, of course. That high quality is what gave the series and the explosion of the readership for the books the life they both now have.
On a side note, it really does anger me when people assume that admirers of genre fiction are not sophisticated readers or that they are not curious about the finer points of how fiction is constructed. I advance our department’s minor in Popular Literature and Film and teach a combined upper undergraduate and graduate level course on J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I always begin the class with a discussion of the tradition of the quest in literature and then an examination of Tolkien’s quite lengthy and quite academic essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Every time I find these students—many of whom are not English majors—fascinated with discovering the traditions these beloved authors are working from and then talking about the contemporary authors they love and becoming excited about seeing the same connections in those works.
TC: Beyond what might most inspires you, what else do you like to read? What do you read to grow your own understanding of writing? What do you read just for fun?
EW: Well, that’s a whole lot of things. I don’t read specifically intending to further myself as a writer. I’d like to think anything I read contributes in some way to that. I do have a wide interest range, but it kind of depends on a few factors. When I lived in Los Angeles I was in the car a lot every day, so I listened to tons of nonfiction and history through audio books. But those really are the only kinds of books I can listen to instead of reading. Of course, there are exceptions for audiobook fiction, but those are few.
I would actually say that what I read for fun and what I read that inspires me go hand-in-hand. When we experience the joy of reading as writers it should be fun even if a particular author is asking you to work a bit harder than you might usually have to. It really doesn’t matter if it is an engrossing and sprawling six hundred-plus page novel like Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside or a small little masterpiece like Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. I had so much joy reading both of those books in recent years for different reasons, even the saddest sections. Each left me feeling the same way when I finished the last sentence. I didn’t want those stories to end. But they also inspired me to want to produce that feeling for readers from my own work, to produce better work of my own. Yes, there are moments when I’m reading a great book where I’ll pause and consider what the writer is doing as far as construction goes, because I can’t remove the fact that I think like a writer. But if a book is really that good, I’m usually too swallowed up in the narrative to stop and think.
TC: What are you reading right now? Do you see it transforming your writing, even a little?
EW: I’ve had the same New Year’s resolution for ages; that I will not buy a new book until I read at least ten I’ve already purchased that I haven’t gotten to yet. I’ve never once been able to fulfill this promise to myself. In truth, I’m always a little behind the current releases. I just finished Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, his fictional account of the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life when he was grinding it out in Hollywood. If I were still working on my novel, Celluloid Strangers, it might effect my own writing a bit, but I just enjoyed the pleasure of reading it. Right now I’m finally deep into Jonathan Franzen’s newest, Purity, and I’m so far very impressed. He’s a controversial American writer for his public statements and stances on art, but I would hope people remember that in the end he is first and foremost a serious artist who deserves to be taken seriously. And I’m committed to finally reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves in the near future since my wife beat me to the punch. My students have been referencing that novel for a while now, and if it’s speaking to them I want to know if it will also speak to me.
TC: How studiously do you read? Do you take notes, jot down sentences, etc.?
EW:Throughout my entire twenties I was always reading. And I typically did so then with a pen in hand, underlining passages or making annotations I now know in hindsight that I will never return to reviewing. For the first year after I finished my MFA I literally couldn’t sit down to read without a pen in hand. These days I tend to read less but I find myself spending more time with the books I am committed to having as a part of my life. I do occasionally pause and think about a sentence and even write it down. I was recently kind of casually perusing rather than really rereading Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot after I came into a free copy since I hadn’t looked at the play in years. A certain line of dialogue did jump out at me and I wrote it down. So, yes, it still happens, but now that I’m in my forties I find my reading time to be more pleasurable than studious.
The studious reader in me is still there, though. It is typically reserved for reviewing my wife’s manuscripts or work by my friends, and always pieces from students struggling to tell their own stories. There are times when I will remember a poem or a part of a novel that I connected with in the past or once found absorbing in some way. I will not reread the entire book it’s in, but I will instead return to that specific piece and sit with it for half an hour. It’s actually something I encourage writers to consider doing. Not too long ago I overheard something on the radio in the car and it reminded me of my favorite Yehuda Amichai poem. When I got home I found the book that poem is in on my shelf and read and reread it and then quietly sat with it and remembered why it has always meant something to me. Reading doesn’t need to be some taxing commitment of time, it can be a momentary break from your day that allows you to look inward or to forget the frustrations of life. I wish we would teach children that in school.
TC: What sort of themes does your work tend towards? Do you include these themes consciously, or do they bubble up to the surface of your writing?
EW: I don’t really consider theme too much, the same way I don’t really consider audience too much until I have the bones of a story in place. But I have had an ongoing interest in the private verses the public and the individual verses the communal and other such universal differences. I’ve also always been interested in societal views of morality and how that is applied to people. For instance, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible remains one of my favorite works of American literature. If we are talking about debating what is moral, John Proctor is about as complex a character as they come. He’s no saint, that’s for sure. But he’s not the most immoral character in Miller’s play by a long shot. I’ve seen the play several times and it never gets old to me for that reason.
In the end though, I’d say theme is better for readers to contemplate than the writer when bringing a story to life. I sincerely doubt Esther Freud had theme on her mind when composing her beautiful semi-autobiographical debut novel, Hideous Kinky. I bet she was really just struggling with how to present a fictional version of her mother that spoke to the realities of the effect that kind of woman could have on a childhood while still working to pull off some reader sympathy for an essentially unsympathetic character. Yet as a reader I could talk to you all day long about the enormous thematic layering I see in that little book.
TC: The spark for a story can come from anywhere, as many know, and can take a lot of forms. What is the first form your stories take? An idea, a particular image, or perhaps a philosophy?
EW: My stories have always started with situation. It was that way when I was first learning to write fiction and it remains that way today. Celluloid Strangers literally began with one of my best friends in graduate school telling me this crazy story about a situation his father once found himself in. I mulled over that situation a lot. Once I had the situation I wanted to explore in the opening chapters of Celluloid Strangers, I finally had a loose question in mind, which was, How would a man who is otherwise a perfectly reasonable person react to a situation he is placed in that is completely unreasonable? I went from there, but I can’t say the question was on my mind that much after that. The relationships of the characters were completely central in my mind from then on. But all writers are different. The novelist Frederick Reiken has told me on several occasions that he can’t even begin conceptualizing anything until he has a sense of the place where he wants to consider putting fictional characters and their stories. Location is everything for him.
I love the philosophical in fiction, but when a work of fiction is promoted as a philosophy or reviewed as one I feel bad because that automatically alienates many readers from even picking it up when there might be a great story there. I don’t blame people who have never read David Foster Wallace when I hear them say with irritation that they aren’t even going to bother checking out his work because they don’t think they are as hip or as cool as his obsessive fans, or that they think they probably aren’t smart enough to get it anyway. When a writer like Wallace is lauded as some great thinker people start to forget that we’re supposed to be talking about fictional narratives here. I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Franzen’s work, but when I saw the Time Magazine cover with him that had the caption saying his wonderful novel Freedom “shows us the way we live now” I had one of those “Oh no!” moments. I have no doubt that kind of description makes a lot of readers roll their eyes. Whereas had they seen a caption saying his novel depicts “A Midwestern family struggling to hold on to what they mean to each other in a post-9/11 world,” you are presenting a situation first and foremost—a story! And people and story are what I read for first. If there is a philosophy within that narrative, it’s just icing on the cake.
I do admit that my work probably has a philosophical undercurrent, but it’s not incorporated on purpose. I tend to think fiction that intentionally sets out to present a philosophical or even a spiritual message tends to be only about those things. Occasionally there is the rare exception, such as Frank Herbert’s first Dune novel, which clearly sets out to present a sophisticated philosophical and spiritual message about the environment and pulls it off through story. But exceptions should not be promoted as the rule in my view. I’m more interested in people than ideas, although ideas connected to the lives of people always excites me. A good example of that is Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, Then We Came to The End, which is essentially a hilarious and at times moving Gen-X deconstruction of American office life in the nineties. That novel is so much good fun, and Ferris is clearly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. But those big ideas are always subtly incorporated and the author never includes them at the expense of story itself.
TC: Does where you live have an influence on what you write? How about the time period and the developing social and scientific happenings of today: does when you’re writing impact what you write?
EW: It kind of depends. I wrote the majority of the initial drafts for the eleven stories in my first collection, The Temporary Life, while living in Boston. That book was always intended to have each story situated in a West Coast city and for each story to depict West Coast Jewish life in some way. Being physically removed from the West Coast during the drafting process definitely had a positive impact on those stories. Keep in mind that at that time the Internet was not what it is today and the idea of an iPhone wasn’t even fathomable. So, I found myself imagining those cities I thought I knew well in different ways. However, almost all of those stories take place either in the times I was writing them or at least in a time period in which I was actually alive. I had an inherent reference point.
It was not that way writing Celluloid Strangers. The initial chapters for it were written in Boston and Portland, Oregon and the book was completed in Akron, Ohio. However, the major composition took place over a four-year period while I was living in Los Angeles. Because the novel is historical and, with some minor exceptions, deals with the Los Angeles of the late 1940s and the postwar culture of cinema that was then emerging, I was blessed with not only easy access to research material but to be able to literally physically visit the vast majority of the locations I was situating my narrative in. Looking back, some of my frustrations when completing that novel once I moved to Akron stemmed from the physical removal from the environment of the story. I think it might say something that the stand-alone short stories I have published in the past few years all take place in vague, generalized locations or exaggerated worlds of my own imagination.
As for having certain events of the day effect the work, I don’t see how any writer can avoid the history playing out in her or his own times. September 11, 2001 happened literally the week I was returning to my second year of my MFA studies. I think overnight a lot of us Gen-X kids who were heavily influenced by the nineties peace and prosperity that we had all sort of taken for granted started asking ourselves if what we were writing about mattered any longer. Was what we had to say now instantaneously irrelevant? You can’t avoid contemplating those things when writing fiction and major world events happen, whether you are immersed in domestic realism or inventing a complex society on an alien planet.
TC: How involved is your wife in your writing process? And if she does contribute to the process, what are the pros and cons of that kind of assistance?
EW: Well, in Richard Ford’s ten rules for writing fiction his number one is, “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.” His second is, “Don’t have children.” Although I have accomplished both I am not entirely adherent to the second. I know plenty of working writers who also manage to be engaged and dedicated parents. But I would suggest spending your life with a partner who thinks you being a writer is a good thing and not a person who simply likes the idea of you being a writer, because those are very different things.
My wife Thea’s involvement in my own work has changed over the years since she is also a writer, but I think we’ve both found a process that is the most beneficial. I used to give her every draft of everything, but that came with a lot of complications. These days I find myself giving her the very first drafts of pages and then not giving her anything until I’m at a point where I think I’ve wrestled a piece to the ground. Stephen King calls his wife, Tabitha, his “Ideal Reader.” I like that romantic idea, but my wife is really more my “Ideal Understander.” I have her and one or two initial readers who either completely understand where I’m coming from or are really close to understanding.
In the old days when Thea got every draft of everything she would constantly battle me about not taking a certain suggestion here or another suggestion there. Now that she sees things early on and then not again until much later in the process, I have a solid reasoning for not taking on a certain suggestion of hers, so the dialogue is more productive. But not all writers can have a spouse so involved. When I was in graduate school I heard the author Christopher Tilghman once say that he didn’t show his wife anything until it was published.
For any writer though, having a life partner who allows you to embrace a creative life is essential. Plenty of serious fiction writers I know have at least one story of a great love that found the idea of them being a writer incredibly romantic until reality set in that it’s not a team sport. The most important involvement my wife has in my process is knowing that I need to write. As she has told me, she thinks I need to write the way a dog needs to be walked, that if I don’t write I get irritable. In order to realize an imagined narrative a writer is essentially spending a great deal of time isolated from others with her or his words alone. If you can find a shipmate for life who is understanding of your need for that time, you have struck gold.
That of course doesn’t mean my wife hasn’t intervened for my own good. I have a vivid image of her on the floor of our tiny Santa Monica apartment just before we left for Ohio and her actually removing all of the pages from the then manuscript for Celluloid Strangers that included a massive subplot I had spent years developing. At the time I was angry with her because I was certain that it was because she doesn’t like baseball and I was then obsessed with the history of the now forgotten Pacific Coast League. Of course, she was right. As usual. But I was still able to salvage one scene from a subplot that I now realize just had to be gutted to make the narrative gel.
TC: Do parts of your life come out in your writing? Are some parts autobiographical, even to a small degree?
EW: In a literal sense? Not really at all. I gravitate more towards a fully imagined experience for my characters. Direct transfer of a writer’s actual life events rarely makes for engaging fiction to me. There are some good exceptions, but in the end they are just that, exceptions. However, I am a huge proponent of fiction being emotionally autobiographical. Emotional autobiography has a wider reach. The second story in my first book was the most difficult to write and there is nothing about it that literally reflects my own life at the time it was written. I wasn’t married then. I still don’t have children. And I’ve never been divorced. Yet, it is probably the most personal piece in the collection on an emotionally autobiographical level because what those characters are feeling are things I was internally grappling with at the time I was writing their story.
I’m not entirely against direct autobiographical fiction, though. It is in fact many young fiction writers’ starting point. I remember in graduate school reading a very well written short story that was clearly autobiographical to the extent of it being almost an apology. I’ve never forgotten that workshop because it really made me think about autobiography in my own writing. It was a rough discussion that night until made even more uncomfortable when a peer finally said something to the effect of, There have been plenty of women who have slept with their best friend’s boyfriend over a summer break in college and feel bad about it for the rest of their lives, but what makes this version of the typical youth infidelity story different from any other we’ve read? I felt bad for my classmate, but I think it was something we all needed to hear, that the profound moments of our own lives are likely not in any way significant or interesting to readers. And still, the emotions we connect with those personal events can be meaningful to readers, if transferred to an imagined situation.
TC: As will ever be the case, some writers need help motivating themselves to write. What habits or disciplines have you adopted to help you write? What works for you? What doesn’t work for you?
EW: I know this sounds incredibly arrogant, but I have in all seriousness never once believed in writer’s block. It’s a saying that seems to be an acceptable excuse for laziness. I’ve always got another project brewing as I am submerged in the latest one, or even while taking a break from a piece. Motivation has honestly never been an issue for me, with the exception of a brief period of creative self-pity when working on Celluloid Strangers in Los Angeles and my wife having nothing of it and pulling me back into line.
The real hurdle for me these days is essentially time. I have personal and professional responsibilities, commitments and obligations. I’ve accepted that there will be brief periods where I am not actually writing, but I am always connected to the story at hand, even if just working a detail out in my head. The creative impulse never departs, at least in my experience. My wife has observed that others might meditate to achieve peace and keep the demons at bay, but I write to remain sane.
I do generally know that what works best for me is writing from home with an extended free period to do so. It’s always been that way. I’ve tried to write while traveling but it’s an effort that is over before it even begins. And I absolutely know that writing in public has never worked for me at all and never will. Whenever I see people writing—or reading for that matter—in coffee shops, I am bewildered and astonished by their ability to do it. I want to be clear that I am not judging people who can. All writers maneuver their creative life around the set of circumstances they are thrown. If you have young children and your spouse or partner is generous enough to say they’ll hold down the fort in order for you to sprint to the neighborhood coffee shop for two hours to write, I have nothing but respect for that.
TC: What is the one thing you wish you could emphasize to students of writing? You know, that one pet peeve you wish could be understood by writers everywhere.
EW: I’ve seen it so many times, the promising young writer crafting a great story and then at some point there is this moment where it is clear that the writer is trying to be different simply for the sake of being different, as if their credibility is at stake if they make the obvious choice for their narrative. Ninety-five percent of the time it reads as forced, false, and even phony. The truth is that you should not be worried about credibility when it comes to your writing. Unfortunately, I see a lot of self-imposed censorship based on this very insecurity in young writers. The obvious choice for your characters does not make you some mainstream sellout. Most of the time the obvious choice is correct for a reason when constructing fiction, and it should be that way regardless of genre. I am not saying to go “happily ever after” to please the masses, though.
Think about it this way. A sixteen year-old who has their first real girlfriend or boyfriend break up with them has never experienced that emotion, they don’t know what to do with that feeling. There are probably a few stoic sixteen year-olds out there who go through this experience and take the dignified road. But typically that’s not the case because of the fact that it is an emotion that is foreign to such a young soul. The overly hip budding writer who wants to always go the different path will not have that teenager cry over the loss and will instead have that kid go home and listen to obscure vinyl records nobody has ever heard of to show off the writer’s exquisite knowledge of indie rock bands. The smart young writer will have that kid throw herself or himself on a bed or couch and start sobbing and wondering what they did wrong to not be desired any longer by that first supposed love because that is real.
Most fiction that is different for the sake of being different is pure wish-fulfillment because the obvious choice is truer to our own emotional autobiography. The opening of Jeffrey Eugenides’ superb novel The Marriage Plot is an excellent example of this. When Madeline’s mother expresses concerns about her daughter moving in with Leonard and Madeline feels those same concerns but doesn’t dare admit it to her mother, it is the obvious choice for the writer to present that character’s predicament. That’s reality. Eugenides is smart enough to know not to be showy or flashy just to be different. Unfortunately, some writers never grasp that.
TC: What are you working on right now, and where has that story come from? Is it in conversation with another story?
EW: I have finally brought to close the novel I have been working on off and on again since early 1998 when I was living in the Old City in Jerusalem, Israel. The initial situation spark for the story now comes near the end of a hefty manuscript and is much different than originally conceived, but it’s still there. Then again, the narrative has drastically changed over the years because I am no longer the writer I was then, I’m also am no longer the person I was then.
I suppose this novel is kind of in conversation with different books that are in the spirit of a certain type of narrative I am reaching for. The ones that initially come to mind are Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, and especially Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. I suppose if I’m in a conversation with the spirit of those kinds of stories, it’s a “feeling” in the end. Every time I return to The Satanic Verses and get almost to the end where Saladin has returned home to make peace with his estranged, dying father, I get emotionally overwhelmed as a reader, but in an exhilarating way. The moment Saladin’s father says to him that he’ll be getting the copper-and-brass lamp is one of the greatest passages in my reading experience I’ve ever had. It still hits me deep on an emotional level. You have to stick with Rushdie’s narrative for well over five-hundred pages to get there, but it’s always well worth the ride for me.
I’d like to think that even though its popularity might be at an all-time low with the general public in the age we live in, that there’s still a place for the long novel form, and that really is about “feeling.” Readers who return to The Lord of the Rings in its complete form over and over again throughout their lives probably aren’t doing so for that amazing, imagined world or big ideas. And let’s be honest, Tolkien is certainly not the greatest writer when it comes to construction or sentence-level language usage. Readers return to his world for the reason that those who dismiss the reading of such a book will never understand. They plow through over a thousand pages of fiction because they want to get to the final line of the novel where Samwise Gamgee says, “Well, I’m back.” They want that feeling that comes with that final line Samwise speaks after the experience of reading such a book.
TC: Finally, what have you learned from a writer’s life about living in general? What lessons has writing taught you about living?
EW: I can only give you my own impressions because no writer has the same life as another writer. Two things come to mind, though.
The first is a concerning trend I have been seeing more and more in the age of social media. The inner literary life with yourself and the imagined worlds you enter through your words is always—and I mean always—more important than any literary social life. I’m in no way saying that being part of a literary community or attending literary readings or participating in open mic nights or literary conferences and festivals and such is meaningless. I’m only saying that it should always be of secondary importance to your own private creative life. When I hear the word “networking” in connection to the literary life I want to throw up. It’s a sad placement of professional and careerist strategy over genuine creativity.
The second is perhaps not so relevant to every writer, but I believe it is relevant to many. If you want the rewards of the creative life, you might have to accept that if you are truly cursed/blessed with the creative impulse, you might have to make choices that mean you will be living a different kind of life than the people you know who don’t have that impulse. You will potentially watch your non-creative friends getting married and starting families, buying new cars and buying houses, taking nice vacations, and having traditional careers, while you are postponing societal expectations and norms in many ways for a variety of reasons in order to better serve your creative needs. If you are willing to accept that you might have to put off those things, your creative life journey is going to be far more content and rewarding. It took me a long time to learn that, but I’m glad I was able to eventually embrace it. That journey was well worth both its struggles and eventual rewards.