Interview: Peter May

 

Peter May

Peter May

 

I was displaced from my bedroom and had to sleep on the sofa in the living room. At the end of the sofa was a bookshelf filled with books that bore the most exotic names and titles – Aldous Huxley, Lewis Grassic Gibbon… Eyeless in Gaza, The Grapes of Wrath. I always awoke early in the morning and would spend time gazing at these strange names until one day I picked one out and began reading. It marked, I think, the end of my childhood, and I don’t think I stopped reading for the next 30 years!

 

As a native Scot, it’s natural you’ve managed to create such a strong sense of place any reader can identify with. What is it about Scotland and the Scots culture you feel evokes such a visceral reaction in your readers? What makes Scotland so fascinating?
Scotland and the Scots are shaped by a hard climate and a hard religion, set against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was that hard religion that introduced universal education, bucking against years of Catholic dominance when the Church liked to keep people in compliant ignorance. The new Protestantism wanted people to read the bible, and so taught them to read and write. As a result, Scotland was in the vanguard of the new enlightenment, its education system turning out scholars and engineers, doctors and inventors, economists and philosophers. Scotland was transformed from a medieval backwater into one of the most forward thinking countries in the world, and the Scots took their ideas and their work ethic with them during the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Scotland has a population of only 5 million, the diaspora is around 22 million, and people everywhere can, I think, identify powerfully with the Scot on his journey “home”. In a way “The Blackhouse” is a microcosm of that journey, as we voyage back to the Isle of Lewis with Fin Macleod after 18 years away and share his emotions and the powerful pull of the island.

For me, and certainly for those who live there, the Isle of Lewis is a place of unique beauty and harshness. But I think the themes of exile and return are universal to the human experience, and so in a sense the story could find its setting almost anywhere.

Is there a certain place, time or state of mind you require in order to write? Do you write longhand or typed? What about revisions?
I am a very controlled writer, bringing with me the disciplines learned during 8 years as a journalist and 15 as a screenwriter. These include writing fast, economy of language, working to deadlines, and using dialogue to advance plot and develop character. I work at a computer, touch typing, so it seems my thoughts appear on the screen as they come into my head. I am not even aware of the keyboard as an intermediary. I write a detailed synopsis of my story after several months of research and development, and when I begin the book I rise at 6am and write 3000 words a day. I never have writer’s block, and in the main my revisions are confined to daily tidying and a final polish.

Say you were granted one question from one great writer you’ve admired – living or dead. What would you ask, and of whom (s/he must answer honestly…)?
I would ask Ernest Hemingway why he was so determined to excise the adjective from his writing.

Do you come from a family that appreciated reading and great literature? Were you an avid reader as a child?
My father was an English teacher. Both my parents had genius level IQs and taught me to read and write before I went to school. I always read voraciously as a child, children’s books, naturally. But when I was about 12 my uncle came to live with us after his wife committed suicide. I was displaced from my bedroom and had to sleep on the sofa in the living room. At the end of the sofa was a bookshelf filled with books that bore the most exotic names and titles – Aldous Huxley, Lewis Grassic Gibbon… Eyeless in Gaza, The Grapes of Wrath. I always awoke early in the morning and would spend time gazing at these strange names until one day I picked one out and began reading. It marked, I think, the end of my childhood, and I don’t think I stopped reading for the next 30 years!

Are you a bibliophile? Do you own an outrageous number of books or does being a writer curtail the need to possess so many? If so, are you the sort to keep them neatly shelved?
I hate to throw books away, so have accumulated an inordinate number of them over the years. My house is filled with groaning (and untidy) shelves of them – I even still have those books from the end of the sofa, inheriting them after my parents’ death.

Kindles, Nooks and other eReaders… Blessing, curse or something else? Do you own an electronic reading device?
I am constantly traveling, and always need and want to carry books with me. The advent of the e-book has been a boon for me personally, allowing me to take with me as many books as I like. I have a Kindle and an iPad. But I do understand the implications for the book industry, and how both publishers and booksellers will face an uncertain future with the surge in electronic publishing and reading. History will determine whether it has been a blessing or a curse.

Will books go away? Any worries on that score?
I don’t worry about it. But I think the traditional book of printed pages between soft or hard covers will vanish eventually from the mass marketplace, to be replaced by the e-book. There will always be a place, I think, for ink and paper, but is more likely to become a niche market. I don’t think there is anything I or anyone else can do about it. It is the march of progress. But I do think that the book will survive the transition and perhaps even flourish.

With all your writing experience and accomplishments, do you ever freeze in the face of the blank screen/page?
Never. As I mentioned, I write 3000 words a day. When my computer tells me I have reached that total, I stop – even if I am in the middle of a sentence. That way I always know what I am going to write next, and so never have a problem re-starting the next morning. My tip to aspiring writers is never finish your writing day at the end of a chapter. Always leave something to latch on to the next day.

Lastly, what’s your next project? Any teasers you’d like to dangle to drive your readers mad?
The Blackhouse is the first in a trilogy, called The Lewis Trilogy. The second book, The Lewis Man, is already out in the UK where it is a top ten bestseller, and the final book, The Chessmen, will be out in January. American readers, I am afraid will have to wait a little longer. I am currently working on a new book that spans the Atlantic – from the Hebrides to Quebec. I am currently on a research trip to Canada. It is, I think, an epic story,  and I can’t wait to get writing.

[Previously published 2012 at BookBrowse.com, rights retained by author.]

Interview with author Frank Delaney (Instant Replay)

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Happy St Patrick’s Day, all. As promised, here’s a re-post of an interview with another of my favorite Irish writers.

Enjoy.

Much health and happiness.

Sláinte!

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Interview: Frank Delaney – March 16, 2012

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“The Most Eloquent Man in the World.” – NPR

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“Every legend and all mythologies exist to teach us how to run our days. In kind fashion. A loving way. But there’s no story, no matter how ancient, as important as one’s own. So if we’re to live good lives, we have to tell ourselves our own story. In a good way.”
– from ‘The Last Storyteller’

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Irish-American novelist Frank Delaney has been telling the story of his native country through historical fiction for decades. A writer, broadcaster and James Joyce scholar, Delaney has been called by NPR “The Most Eloquent Man In the World.”

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His most recent novel, ‘The Last Storyteller,’ is the final installment in his Venetia Kelly trilogy. A mixture of ancient Irish folklore, eerily similar modern recreations of these stories and the beginnings of the Irish Republican Army, the intertwining plot lines revolve around main character Ben MacCarthy, the latest in a long line of seanchis, traveling collectors of folktales. His predecessor, John Jacob O’Neill, realizes he has grown too old to carry on. He is ready to pass the torch on to Ben, teaching him what he will need to know in order to carry on the tradition for posterity.

Venetia Kelly, Ben’s former wife, still holds his heart in her hands, though they’ve been separated for decades. He struggles with the feelings he still holds for her, though she’s married to another man, raising Ben’s twin children. Learning her new husband treats her violently, Ben must decide what action to take, his fiery temper threatening to lead him into committing an act of violence against the man he despises, while at the same time violence in Ireland itself is unfolding.

‘The Last Storyteller’ is a deeply felt, moving tale of ancient tradition colliding with the onset of The Troubles, a period in which Ireland engaged in a long, bloody civil war. Hatred and love, coupled with tradition and a land torn apart, ‘The Last Storyteller’ is an epic historical novel of Ireland told by one of its finest writers.

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Mr. Delaney very kindly granted me an interview, taking time out of his busy schedule, for which I am incredibly grateful:

1). Could The Storyteller be set anywhere but Ireland? Would any other setting compare in intensity of history, wealth of folklore?

Naturally, chauvinistically, I’d like to think that it could not be set anywhere but Ireland! But, let me be Irish, and contradict myself immediately. First of all, I try to write for a universal audience. If the definition of the novel is “a prose account of the human condition” then we might as well make it global, might we not? Secondly, years of reading mythology from all around the world, and from time immemorial, has taught me that “people are people are people” and that the story of mankind, as reflected in mythology, has shared long, wide, and colorful strands everywhere. As I say in the Author’s Note to The Last Storyteller, “mythology was a bible ever before there was a bible.” So, the answer to your question has to be that this is a story you could find in Alaska, India, Canada, Sri Lanka, Norway – whereever we have placed our feet.

2). How has Ireland changed in your lifetime, or has it? Can The Troubles ever be relegated to history?

Ireland has changed beyond recognition in my lifetime. It has changed politically, socially, spiritually, and culturally. I’ve always believed that the change began in earnest with the 1963 visit of President Kennedy. His youth, his vigor, his godlike glory showed my generation (I was 20) what was possible. Soon after, Ireland’s politicians began to reach out to the world to invite companies in on tax holidays and we began to grow an economy. Next came the contraceptive pill, which loosened social behavior as never before. Shortly after this, scandals hit the Catholic Church like rockets – scandals of embezzlement and child abuse; at the same time, Northern Ireland and the civil rights issue exploded. Now we had a melting-pot to be sure. And how it boiled! For 30 years people fought each other in the streets of that part of the country still under British rule, and only when President Clinton came to power was the matter settled, if somewhat uneasily. By then, the full disgrace of the Catholic Church was underway and people quit worship in droves. To cap it all, an era of unprecedented wealth, the famed Celtic Tiger, began to collapse, and the country is now fighting its way out of bankruptcy. At the moment, there is no violence in the politics; it rumbles from time to time, but given my own personal experiences as a reporter during the worst of the Troubles, I’m grateful for even an afternoon of quiescence.

3). What drives you? What ignites your passion?

Good question – easy to answer! Writing drives me. Writing ignites my passion. The challenge of telling a good story clearly and, I hope, in excellent and vivacious language, across a cultural arc that is as wide as I can make it – that gets me out of bed with delight every morning of my life. Just think of it – the very notion of providing a reader with a book that they find enriching and rewarding is a privilege that I try to service every day.

4). Should we fear technology replacing books? Are you a fan of the digital era?

I’m a fan of anything that enables and advances reading. Technology holds no fears for me – I have a Kindle and an iPad. I read on both and I also have a stack of books on my bedside table. Since the e-reader first began to appear, I have always taken the view that it was “as well as” and not “instead of.” In any case, the book as beautiful object has always been powerful to me – for instance, I have long been a fan of the Folio Society, that deliciously enriching producer and purveyor of beautiful books and have dozens if not hundreds of their gorgeous titles on my bookshelves.

5). As a native Irishman, how do you feel about the pre-packaged Irish stereotype on St. Patrick’s Day, the declaration everyone’s Irish?

You shouldn’t have asked this question! I admire the parade organizers and the parade marshals, and the participants in the parades, the dancers and the pipers and the marchers, who bring such pleasure and such delight to the notion of being Irish all across the United States and indeed the world. It remains extraordinary to me that an island not more than 33,000 square miles in size should be able to have its own national day once a year – what a size of personality that is! So I like the declaration that everybody is Irish for a day – but here comes the warning. I loathe the idea that to be Irish is to be drunk and vomiting and comatose from eight o’clock in the morning on as many streets across the United States as you can find. That’s racist behavior, stereotyping the Irish as drunk.. The people who do that offer no representation of anything Irish that I know to be the general ethos of our country, and I wish they would go and throw up in their own yards and stay away from the sweet and good-hearted celebrations of our native saint and our culture.

6). Do you have a dedicated writing space and/or set hours you work? (Maybe the question should be, is there any time you aren’t working…)

The second half of the question is the correct perception! I have two desks – one in our Connecticut home and one in our New York office. Insofar as decent social and marital behavior will allow (!) I am at those desks as often as I can be. As to hours of work – I find that I like best the work that I do earliest in the day. Over the years I’ve tried to refine as much as possible what kind of work I do in which period. So I reserve the morning, especially the early morning, for original composition, and try to do the rewriting at other hours of the day. But when a book is nearing an end, all those rules go out the window, and I write all the hours I need, sometimes ten, twelve, fourteen hours at a stretch.

7). Longhand, computer or typewriter? Which is your preference?

I tend to start a book in longhand – I make notes, I filled page after page of notebooks with odd jottings, observations, questions and inquiries. Out of this a general shape and idea seems to arrive somewhere, and I begin to write the first third of the book on the computer. That first section can take four to five times as long as the remaining two sections together.

8). Silly question, but why Joyce? Why devote so much time to lovingly explicate Ulysses, page by page? Thank you, by the way, but why?

Why Joyce? Why not?! Seriously – he remains, for me, one of the greatest writers of all time, and since I discovered him for myself, and began to revel in the joy that I find in him, I felt almost obliged to find a way of spreading that enjoyment. I know, I know, it seems nuts – but since I first started unpacking Ulysses phrase by phrase, with the express intention of leaving not a reference unexplained by the time I’ve finished, I’ve had something else wonderful happen to me. Apart from the hundreds of thousands of downloads of the weekly podcast, and the thrill of the enjoyment that people are good enough to share with me when they write to me, I am learning the most fabulous new raft of knowledge. Joyce had an extraordinary mind – he may have been one of the best read people of all time, and by taking the time and trouble to interrogate his – often very dense – references, I am learning what he knew. And passing it on. I can scarcely imagine a more enjoyable task.

9). How strong is the pulse of literary fiction, criticism and serious examination of literature in the 21st century? Who are today’s shining literary lights?

Great question! People have been saying for generations, “Oh, the novel is dead.” Well, it ain’t – nor is that wonderful American invention, creative nonfiction, nor is biography, nor is political writing. And as well as the books, the commentariat is alive and well. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that it’s healthier than ever, because we now have this wonderful new creature, the Literary Blogger. I’m a massive fan of this gorgeous animal, with all its fur and feathers – for a number of reasons. My main complaint about the general direction of literary criticism over the last century has been – and Joyce is a case in point – that it tended, in its lofty tone and often impenetrable language (not to mention occasional vendetta behavior), to be antidemocratic, to keep certain areas of literature to itself, whereas my own passion is for as many people as possible to be reading as widely as possible. The Literary Bloggers have no axes to grind, they’re not protecting their reputations, they don’t fear being sneered at by other critics, they’re reading what they want to read, writing what they want to write, and they don’t want to keep what they enjoy to themselves. They want to share. They want to expand the constituency of reading. They want to hail and applaud good writing. To my mind this is a very significant development – uneven, I grant, here and there, but, dammit, not as uneven as the generations of formal literary critics, and the blogging intention is so good and so worthy of loud vocal support that you can call it truly a new and, to my mind, incomparably welcome development in the world of reading and writing.

Frank Delaney’s website

 

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Interview with author Sebastian Barry (Instant Replay)

Bringing this over from Bluestalking at its Typepad location, replaying it due to the impending St. Patrick’s Day holiday. I have at least one other interview with a genuine Irish writer. You may bet your shamrock I’ll repeat it here by or before Monday.

This interview was a highlight of my life, not just my blogging life. Meeting him was an experience that took my breath away but this opportunity to engage in an interaction – be it via email or no – certainly qualifies as a life event that shall live in infamy. My infamy, that is.

Without further ado, here it is, my interview with Sebastian Barry:

(Sebastian Barry!)

 

You grew up in such a rich storytelling environment, learning more than most about your family’s history – especially contrasting here in the States, where we’re more “mixed breeds,” often without any clear ethnic heritage at all. Do you believe you would have chosen writing as your vocation if you’d grown up without such moving stories as incentive to pass on your ancestors’ tales (which tell so much about the history of Ireland)?

 

The strange thing is, my family was full of both stories and silence. Pregnant with silence. As a child there were versions of things, in particular my mother’s rather ferocious retelling of her childhood, available. My maternal grandfather also told me stories, since we shared a room in my childhood, about his travels all over the world, and indeed he kept an accounts book in which he always intended to write his autobiography – but how could he, when there was so much to keep secret? So even around these voluble stories there was a silence, or silences – very interesting silences too. So as I child was a short-trousered spy among them, trying to piece things together from clues, lies, admissions, and absences. Not very consciously maybe, but it was all such a tangle and a muddle there was an instinct to try and make sense of it. The other ingredient was, the sense of a prohibition on talking about many things. Why did my other grandfather never go home to Cork? What happened to those great uncles that disappeared? My painter grandfather taught me to paint, and I went to his house once a week religiously, but in all that time he never mentioned his own mother to me – because much to his shame she had been a Protestant. Awful in many ways, but also, wonderful, for a child at least – the mystery of it, and the strange anguish in these grown-up people, whom I adored unconditionally.

So in answer to your question, I could never have been a writer if I had been a true believer in all those stories – it was the silences that decided it.

 

 

The literature of the southern U.S. – I’m thinking of William Faulkner in particular – bears a strong resemblance to much Irish literature, due in part to several historical similarities: enduring/surviving civil war, the oppression/prejudice of some groups by those more powerful, the breaking away of part of the country from another (temporarily, in our case) and the resulting violence afterward in the way of racial prejudice (partly religious there): lynchings here, bombings there. etc.. Have you read much literature of the American South and do you have any thoughts on similarities between the two?

 

I haven’t read enough of the literature of the South (I confess) but I have taken a sort of tumultuous interest in the history of it – and you are right, our own Irish history is written there, mutatis mutandis, which I think primes the Irish reader to feel the full measure of the sorrow that rises from it. The binary madnesses of our species, religion against religion, race against race, gender against gender, are tragically universal, aren’t they? And written on the wind everywhere.

But Faulkner, aside from being a Southerner, is the prime instance of the writer going his own way. That in fact is what Seamus Heaney said to me years ago, when I was about 30. ‘You have to go your own way.’ It’s very simple, very true, and very hard to do.

 

 

The intensity of your writing, and the reading experience for your readers, is so great. Does it exhaust or upset you writing such personal material and do you sometimes find yourself needing to separate (i.e., take a break from) your work before resuming writing?

 

The disreputable fact is I love to work, especially when I get off the bank and finally into the river, and the boat heads away on the current of a book – even if the inevitable waterfall is to be heard far off in the distance. I take long breaks because I am old enough to realize that one of the sins of writing is to force it, despite what some people say about writing every day. You can’t run all day, day after day, and you can’t write like that either, unless you want to write ‘on sticks’ as it were. So it goes for me anyhow. What I am interested in is the fact that at some point a book makes itself possible, and I am so grateful for that that it is somehow immaterial to me if the subject matter is ‘dark’ –  there is no dark in the writing of it, somehow, or at least the light shone by sentences seems benign, and language itself maybe is a form of courage.

 

 

In the current literary world newspapers are eliminating or reducing space dedicated to books and literary culture, while blogging about the same subjects seems to be filling that gap formerly owned by professional journalists. Some doing a better job of it than others. Do you see that as a negative, i.e., should we be mourning the loss of more structured, professional reviewing, etc.? (Please ignore that I have a blog and don’t worry about offending.)

 

The greatest change in my writing life, of about 33 years, is the new availability of the thoughts of your readers. The sense of readers out there, beyond your ken, and yet existing in remarkable intimacy to you. No book is read communally, the reader is usually alone, in whatever place he or she reads. And yet there is a community of readers for a book, a sort of constellation of lights on an unknown map, each lit point representing a reader. And thanks to blogs and sites like goodreads, a writer if he so desires can hear the thoughts of this mysterious, deeply human, deeply personal and private demographic. It isn’t that it will make the writer write for his or her readers, but that he or she will write now for the first time among those readers – in their midst as it were, in a way that didn’t quite exist before.

Otherwise there are still the places that review, despite the shrinkages of space. What has partly compensated for that is the availability of all the reviews online. Previously, an individual bought The Times and what the Times said was the whole story for that particular person, and so on. So in a way, there is a sense that there are more reviews. Australia, US, Canada, and all the translation territories… So reviews do still dominate, strangely enough. And it is necessary to have that, it is as old as Greece and older. But maybe in the final analysis reviews are for readers, not writers.  Maybe when the writer reads a review of his own work, in that instance he mutates, becomes a reader. Because the source of books, the well of a book, is not to be found near that ground. Then there is also academic criticism, another creature altogether, most usually written by someone who has a chosen love or regard for the work being written about. And curiously enough, I think as far as I can see, many blogs work at that level, as if there is a hidden academia of interest, empathy, and enthusiasm, called the blogosphere. This is the new dispensation, and I think all in all it confers a blessing on writers.

 

 

It’s ubiquitous to ask about your own personal reading. How much reading time are you able to fit in and what have you read lately that you’d recommend?

 

I read like a tramp travels. Instinct, weather, where the wind blows me. I have about fifty books on my worktable at the moment, about bomb disposal, gun-running in Africa, all sorts of arcane things. I sometimes imagine in my mind’s eye, as I order yet another obscure title, the bookseller in some far away place, packaging up the book he or she thought would never be sold. That he or she had placed bets on would never be sold. ‘The Wonders of Modern Engineering’ (1927) for instance, which just arrived today… Otherwise I get quite a few galleys and try to read them religiously, because to write a book is a very hard, unlikely achievement bordering on the miraculous, and sometimes indeed crosses over into the very heartland of the miraculous.

 

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Sebastian Barry.

 

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List of works

Poetry
  • The Water Colourist (1983)
  • The Rhetorical Town (1985)

 

Fiction
  • Mackers Garden (1982)
  • The Engine of Owl-Light (1987)
  • The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998)
  •  Annie Dunne (2002)
  • A Long Long Way (2005)           Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize; winner of Costa Award and James Tait Black Memorial prize
  • The Secret Scripture (2008)    Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize
  • On Canaan’s Side (2011)           Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize

 

Plays
  • The Pentagonal Dream (1986)
  • Boss Grady’s Boys (1988)
  • Prayers of Sherkin (1990)
  • White Woman Street (1992)
  • The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (1995)
  •  The Steward of Christendom (1995)
  • Our Lady of Sligo (1998)
  • Hinterland (2002)
  • Whistling Psyche (2004)
  • Fred and Jane (2004)
  • The Pride of Parnell Street (2008)
  • Dallas Sweetman (2008)
  • Tales of Ballycumber (2009)
  • Andersen’s English (2010)

the hangman’s daughter by oliver pötzsch

Hangmansdaughter

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Rep Rei edition (August 2, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 054774501X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547745015

In reading news, I finished The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch. I bought it as one of the Kindle Daily Deals and the sequel as well. Most of their offerings aren’t of much interest to me but I took a chance on these two and haven’t regretted it. Really entertaining writing – reminded me of the Salem witch trials brought to life – and knowing it’s partially autobiographical, using the author’s German ancestors as real-life characters, made it all the better. What a genius idea, really. His descendants are going to have a ball reading about their early ancestors.

The main character, Jakob Kuisl, reminded me of Hagrid from Harry Potter. He was apparently a huge bear of a man, which helps as he was the town’s hangman, responsible for torturing and carrying out death sentences. The downside is the family was shunned for being “unlucky,” living on the fringes of society. The hangman’s own daughter, Magdalena, who played a key role and made for a good title, even if it’s a bit questionable as the story wasn’t wholly about her. But Jakob, along with his helper and somewhat friend somewhat foe Simon Fronwieser (a doctor who was in love with Jakob’s daughter), made for excellent comedy. Their sometimes friendly, sometimes very not so relationship could be slapstick at times, tongue-in-cheek at others – and even a bit violent, on the side of the hangman. It really enlivened the whole experience, done sparingly.

I can imagine my early Dutch ancestors as interesting characters. They were among the first farm families to settle Manhattan island, one of them formed the first Dutch Reformed Church in the new world, etc. Since they were church goers, finding records of them would be quite easy, and is how I know of them at all. Finding personal details, though, may not be so clear cut. I don’t know how to research genealogy that deeply and frankly don’t want to devote time to it: unless I were to write a novelization of their lives. My plate runneth over as it is, plus I’m not always so fond of my extended family and am not sure I want to know more about them.

The Hangman’s Daughter is a story about the accusation a local midwife is a witch, after two children die violently, both bearing “witch’s marks.” These orphan children spent their extra time hanging around the midwife, who happened to have a similarly-shaped birthmark – unfortunately for her.

As 17th C townsmen will, they began to scream about the devil and possession and all sorts of other “pleasantries,” taking the midwife into custody. The poor hangman, whose children had all been delivered by the midwife, was put in the position of having to torture her, while he and Simon worked hard to find the truth as to what was actually going on. On a positive note, the hangman was also an herbalist/healer of sorts and was able to slip very strong medications to the midwife, to easae her pain and make her ambivalent to it. At least the first time he was forced to torture her.

Well-written and mostly gripping, though the repetition of interviews required in the investigation got a bit dull. I know that’s exactly as such things must go but I found myself skimming over them in an effort to get through this rather long book. Which I did do, by the way, over the course of the week-long retreat.

mortality by christopher hitchens

Mortality

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve. September 4, 2012.

[Review copy from publisher.]

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

– Christopher Hitchens

He could be aggravatingly abrasive, an always opinionated and outspoken atheist prone to ranting. He was prolific, could write when he was drunk better than most could do sober and, quite literally, never shut up until esophageal cancer took away his voice, though his writing went on until cancer claimed him, ultimately silencing him.

But, until that moment he was always “on:” before and after his illness he never cancelled an engagement, even if his treatments forced him to throw up immediately before taking the stage. He would not miss the chance for a good argument: the chance to talk, to expound, to debate.

Many despised him but those who loved him did so with uncommon dedication. He was entertaining, caring, funny as hell and certainly not shy or retiring: holding court at countless social events – including innumerable dinner parties at his home – he kept his audience’s rapt attention for hours on end. He’d have given even the notoriously loquacious Samuel Johnson a run for his money.

And he always had the last word.

Always.

 After his diagnosis of Stage 4 esophageal cancer in 2010, he was in a race for his life. Hitchens underwent the pain and devastation of radiation and chemotherapies, losing his trademark wild, blonde hair, enduring the indignities that come along with the disease – diarrhea, inability to eat, vomiting and weakness –  side effects of the poison that flowed through his veins, simultaneously keeping him alive and killing him.

His health was up one day, down the next, typical for many cancer patients.Though he was no fatalist, neither was he an irrational optimist. Despite his dire prognosis there were times he felt hopeful, when his tumors shrunk and treatment seemed to be progressing. Cranky and stubborn though he was, there were moments he hoped. Near the end his frailty showed.

 

I have personal experience, as indeed do most of us, seeing the ravages cancer visits on innocents. Having watched, helplessly, while a best friend slowly died from cancer I’ve been through that wringer. There’s hope; then there’s no hope. The numbers are good; then the prognosis is dismal. Patients sometimes outlive the estimates of doctors, it’s true – my friend surpassing his two year diagnosis by another four and a half – but at other times it isn’t possible. The force of the disease is just too great and medical technology insufficient.

Hitchens made it eighteen months after his diagnosis.

Cancer is a bitch.

In Mortality, Hitchens takes us along on his final journey. Ever the writer/journalist, he could not undergo such an enormous life event without recording his thoughts about all he went through,  with his trademark humor:

 I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that my razor blade would suddenly go slipping pointlessly down my face, meeting no stubble. Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.) If Penelope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice. In the war against Thanatos, if we must term it a war, the immediate loss of Eros is a huge initial sacrifice.

Mortality

 

Some celebrated his impending death; many religious zealots saw nothing wrong with passing harsh judgement. Never mind their religions – at least in the case of Christianity, which took a lot of bruising in Hitchens’s career  – purported to embrace love and forgiveness: in their frustration at their impotence in refuting Hitchens’s statements, and hatred of those who don’t believe the same as they,  there was out and out joy he was dying so painfully, headed for hell, naturally. When he lost his voice, they cheered. How appropriate! The man who dared contradict them could no longer speak. But he could, and did, write, until the bitter end.

Others, more charitable and less eager to see Hitchens depart this earth with the stain of atheism on his soul, offered up prayers on his behalf. Some hoped for conversion, it’s true, and others for the mercy of their particular version of god. That much even he respected:

 

Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice. Meanwhile, the god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe. I don’t mean to be churlish about kind intentions, but when September 20 comes [the date decreed “Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day”], please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.

Mortality

 

Throughout his career, the man invited controversy and gave as well – usually better than – he got. He thrived on open debate, squashing the opposition with scientific fact and philosophical reasoning. Having prowled through YouTube video after YouTube video, I’ve yet to find any instance in which he could not defend his position, no argument which he did not “win.” No opponent he did not best.

Was he absolutely correct in everything he said and believed, then? Good lord, who is? What he had was a razor-sharp intellect, the ability to express himself and his stance in order to refute the questions and arguments levelled at him. His ability to stay reasonably cool (for the most part…), and stand his ground was near legendary, whether the topic was politics, religion or some other.

He will be remembered as one of the great intellects of the 20th and 21st centuries, like him or not. His words will – and do – fill volumes. The name Christopher Hitchens will forever call up the image of a somewhat crusty, disheveled man unafraid of expressing his opinion loudly and at times obnoxiously, not giving one bloody damn what others thought of him.

I admire the bigger than life personality he was. Living life as a somewhat wishy-washy, reticent soul, I wish I could say I’ve never backed down from an argument, even when I knew in my heart I was right. I wish I had never caved in, letting others steamroll right over me. I’m not saying I agree with everything Hitchens believed but, rather, I wish I had just a bit of his spirit. I don’t feel one should relent solely out of fear of offending. Agreeing to disagree in order to make  peace, okay, because it’s wearying arguing forever. But giving into something one doesn’t believe just in order to end a debate? Never. His statement you may believe whatever you want, just don’t try to force it on him: that’s key.

And we have Mortality, his final published work, written with the conscious realization it would be the last he intended to publish as a collection. He didn’t have time to finish it, or polish it but what he leaves provides a glimpse into his final days, proof of his humanity and what weighed heavily on him as he was dying. It’s filled with raw honesty,  at times half-finished thoughts.

As it wasn’t edited as it would have otherwise been, it is a bit rambly and disorganized but that doesn’t diminish the painful truths of the cancer patient. It still gives the reader a clear picture of all he endured; you’d have to be stone-hearted not to be at least occasionally moved, especially at the expression of the pain he endured when his esophagus was made bloody and raw from radiation therapy, rendering the act of swallowing a torture making him writhe in his bed. It’s a book that’s difficult to read but fulfills the need to hear from him as he comes nearer and nearer the end. Just as he shared the rest of his life with the world, so did he bravely soldier through to the end.

 

So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate.

 

To say I enjoyed the book sounds ridiculous. I approached it with equal measures of eagerness to know what his last thoughts would be and the dread of returning to the days when I watched my dearest friend fight a similar – and only slightly more hopeful – battle with cancer. It reaffirmed my fondness for Hitchens and reminded me how evil and insidious cancer is. Hopefully, it will also result in some of Hitchens’s detractors coming to realize how human he was, how subject to the same laws of nature as the rest of us and, I imagine, his steadfastness to his ideals. But we’ll never know that for certain. We can only surmise what his last moments on earth proved.

If there is anything “beyond,” Christopher Hitchens will no doubt be at the podium, expounding on life, death and the hereafter. He will be missed.

 

Hitchens2

 

 

 

the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry by rachel joyce

Haroldfry


  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (March 26, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812983459
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812983456

“… [Harold] dared to lift his eyes to meet those of the silver-haired gentleman. The irises were a watery blue; the whites so pink they appeared sore. It tore at Harold’s heart, but he didn’t look away. Briefly the two men sat, not speaking, until a lightness filled Harold and caused him to offer a smile. He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.”

Fancyline4

The plot in short: Harold Fry is a recently retired salesman, living with a wife long ago turned bitter, sleeping in separate bedrooms in their immaculate little house with their uninterrupted routines. Together they have a son, with whom they haven’t spoken in many long years, the blame for the estrangement put squarely on Harold’s shoulders by his grief-stricken wife. One day, out of the blue, a letter arrives for Harold: a huge event for a man of routine, to whom nothing ever happens. It’s from Queenie Massey, a former co-worker who accompanied Harold on his sales calls once upon a time, a co-worker who became a trusted friend. She has cancer, she tells him, and is dying – her short note her goodbye.

Harold feels tears pricking the backs of his eyes as he realizes he’s hardly thought of Queenie in ages, that a friend who once did him a great service had been relegated to the past, forgotten. And now she is dying, essentially alone, in faraway Berwick-upon-Tweed. He writes a short note, a cursory expression of sympathy, before heading to drop it in the postbox at the end of his block. But once he reaches the postbox he decides he may as well go to the next one, which has an earlier pickup. Before he knows why, he opens the note, writing he’s coming to her, walking to Berwick from far away Devon, and she must hold on until he gets there. With no more preparation than that, he’s off on his adventure, not dressed for walking, without so much as a cell phone.

His journey is Quixotic: by turns exciting and mind-expanding, exhausting and frightening. But he soon finds his pace, meeting strangers whose stories help put his life in perspective. Meanwhile, back home, his wife Maureen waits, getting the occasional phone call to let her know he’s alright. While he’s away she has the chance to mull their life together, the relationship that started out so promising and turned out so very horrible. Does she love him? Does he love her? Or is it Queenie who’s the love of his life?

You will love Harold and – unless your nature is completely unforgiving –  grow to at least understand Maureen. The book – the writing, the characterization, the plot – is breathtaking. Gorgeous.

“… He went under the stars, and the tender light of the moon, when it hung like an eyelash and the tree trunks shone like bones. He walked through wind and weather, and beneath sun-bleached skies. It seemed to Harold that he had been waiting all his life to walk. He no longer knew how far he had come, but only that he was going forward. The pale Cotswold stone became the red brick of Warwickshire, and the land flattened into middle England. Harold reached his hand to his mouth to brush away a fly, and felt a beard growing in thick tufts. Queenie would live. He knew it.”

 

 

Interview: Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

You grew up in such a rich storytelling environment, learning more than most about your family’s history – especially contrasting here in the States, where we’re more “mixed breeds,” often without any clear ethnic heritage at all. Do you believe you would have chosen writing as your vocation if you’d grown up without such moving stories as incentive to pass on your ancestors’ tales (which tell so much about the history of Ireland)?

The strange thing is, my family was full of both stories and silence. Pregnant with silence. As a child there were versions of things, in particular my mother’s rather ferocious retelling of her childhood, available. My maternal grandfather also told me stories, since we shared a room in my childhood, about his travels all over the world, and indeed he kept an accounts book in which he always intended to write his autobiography – but how could he, when there was so much to keep secret? So even around these voluble stories there was a silence, or silences – very interesting silences too. So as I child was a short-trousered spy among them, trying to piece things together from clues, lies, admissions, and absences. Not very consciously maybe, but it was all such a tangle and a muddle there was an instinct to try and make sense of it. The other ingredient was, the sense of a prohibition on talking about many things. Why did my other grandfather never go home to Cork? What happened to those great uncles that disappeared? My painter grandfather taught me to paint, and I went to his house once a week religiously, but in all that time he never mentioned his own mother to me – because much to his shame she had been a Protestant. Awful in many ways, but also, wonderful, for a child at least – the mystery of it, and the strange anguish in these grown-up people, whom I adored unconditionally.

So in answer to your question, I could never have been a writer if I had been a true believer in all those stories – it was the silences that decided it.

The literature of the southern U.S. – I’m thinking of William Faulkner in particular – bears a strong resemblance to much Irish literature, due in part to several historical similarities: enduring/surviving civil war, the oppression/prejudice of some groups by those more powerful, the breaking away of part of the country from another (temporarily, in our case) and the resulting violence afterward in the way of racial prejudice (partly religious there): lynchings here, bombings there. etc.. Have you read much literature of the American South and do you have any thoughts on similarities between the two?

I haven’t read enough of the literature of the South (I confess) but I have taken a sort of tumultuous interest in the history of it – and you are right, our own Irish history is written there, mutatis mutandis, which I think primes the Irish reader to feel the full measure of the sorrow that rises from it. The binary madnesses of our species, religion against religion, race against race, gender against gender, are tragically universal, aren’t they? And written on the wind everywhere.

But Faulkner, aside from being a Southerner, is the prime instance of the writer going his own way. That in fact is what Seamus Heaney said to me years ago, when I was about 30. ‘You have to go your own way.’ It’s very simple, very true, and very hard to do.

The intensity of your writing, and the reading experience for your readers, is so great. Does it exhaust or upset you writing such personal material and do you sometimes find yourself needing to separate (i.e., take a break from) your work before resuming writing?

The disreputable fact is I love to work, especially when I get off the bank and finally into the river, and the boat heads away on the current of a book – even if the inevitable waterfall is to be heard far off in the distance. I take long breaks because I am old enough to realize that one of the sins of writing is to force it, despite what some people say about writing every day. You can’t run all day, day after day, and you can’t write like that either, unless you want to write ‘on sticks’ as it were. So it goes for me anyhow. What I am interested in is the fact that at some point a book makes itself possible, and I am so grateful for that that it is somehow immaterial to me if the subject matter is ‘dark’ –  there is no dark in the writing of it, somehow, or at least the light shone by sentences seems benign, and language itself maybe is a form of courage.

 

In the current literary world newspapers are eliminating or reducing space dedicated to books and literary culture, while blogging about the same subjects seems to be filling that gap formerly owned by professional journalists. Some doing a better job of it than others. Do you see that as a negative, i.e., should we be mourning the loss of more structured, professional reviewing, etc.? (Please ignore that I have a blog and don’t worry about offending.)

The greatest change in my writing life, of about 33 years, is the new availability of the thoughts of your readers. The sense of readers out there, beyond your ken, and yet existing in remarkable intimacy to you. No book is read communally, the reader is usually alone, in whatever place he or she reads. And yet there is a community of readers for a book, a sort of constellation of lights on an unknown map, each lit point representing a reader. And thanks to blogs and sites like goodreads, a writer if he so desires can hear the thoughts of this mysterious, deeply human, deeply personal and private demographic. It isn’t that it will make the writer write for his or her readers, but that he or she will write now for the first time among those readers – in their midst as it were, in a way that didn’t quite exist before.

Otherwise there are still the places that review, despite the shrinkages of space. What has partly compensated for that is the availability of all the reviews online. Previously, an individual bought The Times and what the Times said was the whole story for that particular person, and so on. So in a way, there is a sense that there are more reviews. Australia, US, Canada, and all the translation territories… So reviews do still dominate, strangely enough. And it is necessary to have that, it is as old as Greece and older. But maybe in the final analysis reviews are for readers, not writers.  Maybe when the writer reads a review of his own work, in that instance he mutates, becomes a reader. Because the source of books, the well of a book, is not to be found near that ground. Then there is also academic criticism, another creature altogether, most usually written by someone who has a chosen love or regard for the work being written about. And curiously enough, I think as far as I can see, many blogs work at that level, as if there is a hidden academia of interest, empathy, and enthusiasm, called the blogosphere. This is the new dispensation, and I think all in all it confers a blessing on writers.

 

It’s ubiquitous to ask about your own personal reading. How much reading time are you able to fit in and what have you read lately that you’d recommend?

I read like a tramp travels. Instinct, weather, where the wind blows me. I have about fifty books on my worktable at the moment, about bomb disposal, gun-running in Africa, all sorts of arcane things. I sometimes imagine in my mind’s eye, as I order yet another obscure title, the bookseller in some far away place, packaging up the book he or she thought would never be sold. That he or she had placed bets on would never be sold. ‘The Wonders of Modern Engineering’ (1927) for instance, which just arrived today… Otherwise I get quite a few galleys and try to read them religiously, because to write a book is a very hard, unlikely achievement bordering on the miraculous, and sometimes indeed crosses over into the very heartland of the miraculous.

 

a life in books by julian barnes

Barneslifewithbooks

Novelist, essayist, Booker Prize winner and all around genius writer Julian Barnes published this tiny essay for charity. I found out about it and was able to buy a copy from ‘cross the pond.

It’s about what a little book weevil Barnes is, how he’s been collecting since he was a very young man and all his trials and tribulations thereof and forthwith. It’s adorable and darling finding out he’s as book mad as all that, especially his admitting he looked through some of his older brother’s books avidly, because there were nude drawings in the texts of Ancient Roman works!

Julian Barnes?

Yes, pets, Julian Barnes.

 

“Over the next decade or so – from the late Sixties to the late Seventies – I became a furious book-hunter, driving to the market towns and cathedral cities of England in my Morris Traveller and loading it with books bought at a rate which far exceeded any possible reading speed.”

 

That sounds vaguely familiar…

 

“I bought with a hunger which I recognise, looking back, was a kind of neediness: well, bibliomania is a known condition.

 

Yes, yes it is!

And on he goes, for 27 pages of pure bliss. If you live in the UK it’s only £ 1.99. For us in the Colonies, unfortunately, all the king’s taxes of course make it much higher – $ 7.00 or so, I seem to recall pp but don’t quote me on that. Mayhaps we should dump a bit more tea in the harbor, lads…

It’s just such a joy. A complete and utter joy. Grab hold of one while you can.

 

Julianbarnes

 

 

Interview: A.J. Jacobs

 

Ddhealthy

 

He’s a little crazy, a little nutty and a whole lot of fun. A.J. Jacobs, editor at large of Esquire magazine and author of several self-improvement books, also happens to be an at large acquaintance of mine. We “met” after I’d posted a review of The Know It All on Amazon, writing about how this book pulled me out of a period of grief after the death of one of my best friends. I guess it touched something within him, as a writer, knowing his work had had such a healing effect on me. It was the nature of his book, the ease of putting it down after reading each short entry and picking it up again whenever I felt like it, that kept me going. And the humor didn’t hurt, either.

We still “chat” via email now and then. He helps me out by giving me the occasional writerly advice and is generally a kind soul and wonderful person to know.

He granted me an interview previously, after the publication of My Year of Living Biblically, and now, once again, upon publication of Drop Dead Healthy. I am a very lucky person, indeed, to know him.

Here’s the interview:

1).  What drew you to write a series of human experiment/self education/self help books? Did you intend this to become your niche, after The Know-It-All?
I wish I could say it was a master plan. I love to test things out, and I love to write. So this kind of journalism seemed a good match. (I just re-read this answer. I lied. I don’t love to write. I love to research, interview people and think about stuff. The act of writing is about as pleasant to me as a catheterization).
2).  What was the reaction from your wife and family when it became obvious you were writing more books a lot of people would consider overly-ambitious? 
My wife keeps asking me to write something that doesn’t involve major lifestyle disruptions. Maybe a history of wicker furniture.
3).  Your books require vast amounts of research. Is it annoying how quickly the reader is able to read it? I imagine it’s like Thanksgiving dinner. It takes forever to cook but only about fifteen minutes to eat…
Good point! I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you point it out, I am quite irritated. Slow down, people. Try a word or two a day.
4).  Do you have help with your research? Considering my “day job” profession, I have to ask, do you make use of libraries or librarians when working on the background information? This is where you say how great libraries are.
First, I want to say how great libraries are. I love libraries, librarians and the library sciences in general. (I’m not kidding. I really do love libraries. I even like library gossip. I once heard that Melvil Dewey, of decimal system fame, was a big womanizer. True?)

 

Second, I definitely borrowed stacks of books from the NYPL when writing ‘Drop Dead Healthy.’ But I didn’t delegate much of the research. I love to explore the informational detours, which you can only do if you’re researching it yourself.
5).   Ever consider writing fiction? If not, why and if yes, where is it?
I have considered writing a children’s book. I’m looking for an animal that has never been featured in a story before. My latest idea is to give the blobfish a moment in the sun.
6).    Which of your books took longest to write? Which made your family question your sanity the most?
The new one, Drop Dead Healthy, took a huge amount of time. It should have been out a year ago. But I had a long journey before I could declare myself healthy. As for sanity-questioning, probably The Year of Living Biblically. Like with the biblical rules about purity. Leviticus says you cannot touch women during certain times for the month. And it even says that you cannot sit in a seat where  menstruating woman has sat, because then the seat is impure. My wife found this offensive, so she sat in every seat in our apartment.
7).   Have you ever had to scrap a book idea because it was too much work or just too difficult?
Not because it was too much work. But I’ve certainly scrapped ideas because they were vetoed by my wife. I wanted to spend a month without face to face communication – live my life totally on line with Facebook and IMs and so on. But my wife said our niece’s bat mitzvah was coming up, and that I was not going to attend by having a monitor at the table with me Skyping from home.
8).  Do you have downtime when you can actually read for pleasure? Anything good you’ve read lately?
I just read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. It’s a great study of how we form political opinions, and why we are so convinced the other side is a bunch of idiots, when in fact we are often idiots ourselves.
9). Any idea what project you’ll try tackling next? Will you tell me if I promise not to (verbally) tell anyone else?
My kids are lobbying hard for “A Year of Eating Nothing But Candy.” They said they would join me. That aside, I’m not sure what is next. But I do love getting reader suggestions.
10). Is there anything you wouldn’t do, or have been warned you’d better not do, even if it would produce a really great book?
I don’t like to go undercover. I tell people right up front that I’m writing a book and I’m here to report. Maybe I was influenced by an experiment I once did in which I practiced Radical Honesty for a month. This is a movement that believes you shouldn’t lie. But more important, whatever’s on your brain should come out of your mouth. No filter.
Overall, this was a horrible month. But it also taught me the liberating feeling of telling the truth and the stress that lies can cause.

Interview: Adam Ross

 

 

 

 

Mrpeanut

 

  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (April 19, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307454908
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307454904

 

What does it say about me that I read this book last year and am posting my equally vintage interview with Adam Ross just now? That would be one of those questions I hope no one would ask. So I’m throwing it at myself, in a fit of self-flagellation.

But the answer actually approaches logical, believe it or not. Mr. Peanut is a complex book, so complex a once-over reading isn’t nearly enough to catch all the sneaky and brilliant little allusions, the references to things philosphical, art history, etc. My intention was to read the book through once more, before posting the interview. And at the time that seemed like a logical proposal. Now, looking back, it seems rather lame.

In any event, here it is, finally, my interview with Adam Ross – the original Mr. Peanut:

1). Do you practice any writing rituals, any special things you do to prepare?

I wake very early, write for three hours. Take a break. Run, lift weights, play tennis, take a jiu-jitsu class, something physical. Eat. Hopefully talk to a human being for a while. Do a second two-hour session. Repeat the following day. Sunday is Sabbath, depending on my wife’s Honey-Do list. This is only when I’m cooking with gas, by the way.

2). Do you write longhand or on the computer?

Computer for fiction but I journal longhand.

3). Can you recall when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been scribbling stories forever, honestly. I nearly bored my third-grade class to death with a 13-page long epic about superhuman mercenaries that I read in its entirety during “show and tell,” which come to think of it now should have been called “show don’t tell.” From there I moved to comics, creating scores of superheroes and drawing my own books. Caught the literature bug at Vassar and it was curtains afterward.

4). Were you a bookish child? How about your family? Were there many books in your home, growing up?

My mom has an MA in literature, she wrote her thesis on Henry James, so yes, there were books everywhere. But I wouldn’t describe myself as bookish. I was a comic book freak, as I mentioned, and my first passionate reading experience came, really, in high school, when I read Frank Herbert’s Dune series and studied the Bible intensively.

5). What is your educational background? Was that a good basis for your writing? 

New York’s Trinity School for middle and high school. English degree from Vassar, followed by an MA and MFA from Hollins and Washington University respectively. I don’t see how writing programs hurt an aspiring writer in any way, though in truth it was the exposure to fully formed artists like Richard Dillard, William Gass, and Stanley Elkin that had more of an impact than anything else on my development.

6). What are your biggest challenges as a writer, things you struggle with?

I struggle every time I put words to the page. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s no small thing to write an inspired sentence that becomes a paragraph that becomes a scene, and so on. Like any writer, of course, I want to grow, which for me means I’d like to create on a bigger canvas. We’ll see if I can pull it off in my next novel.

7). What do you feel are your writing strengths?

My father says my dialogue is terrific and most people tell me that my writing is highly cinematic. This is very important to me because I’ve always given credence to Conrad’s mantra about making the reader see.

8). In Mr. Peanut, was it difficult separating and then weaving together the plot lines? Did you use any particular method for keeping track of plot points?

It was and there came a period during the last two years of drafting where the whiteboard in my office was covered with the most elaborate outlines that only I could read—P1 and D1 and Mp1 and MD1, bizarre stuff that led my wife to occasionally doubt my sanity.

9).  What are you saying about marriage in the novel?

There’s this mysterious, paradoxical way in which marriage distances the lover from the beloved while also making her more vital to the lover. Consequently, we occasionally dream of freedom from the person we depend on most in life. The kind of marriage I’m describing is modern marriage, mind: chosen, willful companionship grounded in that most unstable of emotions: love.

10). Are you, or have you, been married?

My wife, Beth, and I will celebrate our 17th anniversary this August. We’ve been together since 1991 and every day has been bliss, especially after I got her pregnant five months after she gave birth to our first daughter. Yes, in spite of the fact that she was still breast-feeding, we still made time to take long baths together, give each other back- and foot-massages every night, and never, ever fought. Not once.

She also happens to be my best friend on the planet and here comes a whopper cliché: we seem incapable of boring each other.

11). Do you feel your book depicts marriage honestly? Is it intended to be realistic?

It depicts a single marriage honestly, the marriage of David and Alice. In his own. In his own novel, David sees aspects of his marriage in the investigating detectives’ marriages, just as they see aspects of their own in his. The Sheppard material, meanwhile, verges on historical fiction: it’s a fact that Sheppard behaved the way he did with his wife Marilyn and his mistress, Susan Hayes. And the astute Hitchcock fan will note that the Hastroll section exactly mirrors the marriages portrayed inRear Window, including the killer, Lars Thorwald (whose name recombines into Ward Hastroll). So the majority of the book steals data history or another artist reports to us about marriage.

12).  How long did you spend researching for MP?

It’s hard to say. A solid year if you combine all the Hitchcock criticism I read as well as the Sheppard material.

13). What about Escher and Hitchcock drew you to pull from their philosphies/works?

Those are really two questions. With Escher it was several things. First, his use of tessellation: two connected images that trace the outline of their opposites. I like to say that Mr. Peanut is about three marriages that tell the story of one marriage—an Escher-idea, really. Second, the sudden loss of perspective you experience looking at his work, the ceiling becoming the floor, etc. Marriage can feel similarly emotionally vertiginous. Just ask my wife.

As for Hitchcock, well, there are too many things to enumerate. His obsession with male anxiety and the controlling gaze men try to exert on idealized women, not to mention his obsession with the destructive and saving power of idleness that I noticed in his films when I studied them at Hollins. Idle characters in Rear Window and Vertigo, say, slip into moral hazard but also exorcise themselves of their compulsions during this slide. I use a similar strategy in the novel.

14). Are you working on anything new currently? Anything you can share about it?

My short story collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, comes out June 28. I’m very proud of it. It’s really a companion to Mr. Peanut since the stories were written during breaks from the novel.

15). What authors do you admire/enjoy reading? Do you credit them with influencing your writing style?

I’m omnivorous but I love Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Alice Munro, Joseph Conrad, Nabokov, John Hawkes. In all the writers I mentioned there’s this amazing combination of exuberance, intelligence, and great-heartedness that I aspire to in my own work.

 

Thank you, Adam Ross, for the work you put into answering my plethora of questions. And hopefully you’ll consider late better than never. Either that or you’ll snub me at literary soirees and other events, in which case I will cry quietly into my Diet Pepsi. My life is in your hands.

Visit Adam’s website for a complete listing of his works and a bunch of other cool stuff.

And buy his books. You will love them.

 

Adamross

– See more at: http://bluestalking.typepad.com/the_bluestalking_reader/2012/04/an-interview-with-adam-ross.html#sthash.xgckglFY.dpuf