LIFE TURNED ON A DIME:
A Q&A WITH BENJAMIN ANASTAS
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: A MEMOIR
By Benjamin Anastas
New Harvest. 192pp. $25
Benjamin Anastas’s memoir, “Too Good to Be True,” tells a wrenching story of failure, in literature and love. Ten years ago the author was a rising literary star with a well-received first novel to his name and a personal life that seemed to be keeping pace. But with dizzying speed, his marriage fell apart, his writing career dried up — along with his earning power — and he was forced to evaluate the varied mistakes and misfortunes that had brought him to this crisis. Biographile recently spoke with Anastas about the experience of writing so personally and painfully about money, fatherhood, failure, and redemption.
In this book you describe your writing process in vivid detail: You wrote longhand in a particular kind of notebook, sitting in your son’s bedroom in the early morning. Was that unique to this book, or do your surroundings matter whenever you write?
The circumstances you mention were unique to this book. I had gotten myself into some bad habits writing on a computer — constant editing, trying to keep the right-hand margin aligned, rewriting until the piece was dead — and I knew I had to go back and start from the beginning if I wanted to turn things around. That’s where the notebook and the pen came in; by writing the book in longhand, I was trying to recapture the original relationship to language that I’d had when I first started writing fiction. Of course, it also helps that notebooks don’t come equipped with WiFi. The opportunity for distraction in our wired world is pretty much unlimited. And since I was writing a lot about my son, it made a lot of sense for me to bring my notebook into his bedroom on the mornings when he wasn’t there and use it as my study — to sit on his bed with his sea of stuffed animals while I was writing, and feel closer to him.
Was it strange to try to write your life as you were living it? Did any later events ever make you want to go back and change things (for instance, you mentioned in an interview that you and Eliza, your girlfriend in the book, are no longer together) — or did you always have an end point in mind for the story?
I started writing the book’s first pages during the fall of 2010 and I had a finished draft in August or September of 2011, so I did most of the heaviest lifting within that first year. I had a lot of help from my agent, Bill Clegg, when it came to stitching the manuscript together. He’s a genius when it comes to hands-on editing. The book came out almost exactly a year after I had a finished draft, so the whole writing and editing process took two years — that’s extraordinarily fast. It was the first time I’d ever written about anything more or less in “real time”: I didn’t know whether I’d find a job (I did), or make my peace with my failed marriage (I think I have), or whether I’d stay with my girlfriend and get engaged (we didn’t in the end) or if I’d lose her. We broke up after I’d finished the memoir and found a publisher for it, so I decided to be faithful to the time that I was writing and leave things between us up in the air. It works better that way, I think.
The memoir moves back and forward in time, rather than sticking to a chronological downfall-to-redemption pattern. Did you deliberately want to avoid a structure that tends to belong more to the genre of the “misery memoir” or the addiction narrative, in order to separate it from those kinds of books? Or did you think of it as a different kind of book altogether?
I definitely didn’t want to write another “misery memoir” and I don’t think I have — sure, there’s a lot of real misery in the book, but rather than wallowing in it, I was more interested in exploring the connections between the present and the past. “How much of our lives do we write,” I ask in the book, “and how much of them are written for us?” Symmetry is the term I use — the idea that we can unwittingly re-create the same circumstances that we knew as children when we start mucking around with our lives as adults. I suppose the technique is more novelistic; that’s where my background and interests as a novelist come into play. The opposing trajectories in time (moving forward and backward simultaneously) make for a richer reading experience.
Absolutely — those novelistic techniques are what make the book stand out from other kinds of confessional memoir, and give it its power. But given how vigilantly many readers and critics want to police the line between novel and memoir, did you worry about employing too many “fictional” tools? Do you think literary artistry can get in the way of the truth you were seeking, or is the divide between memoir and novel unimportant to you?
I had one rule for myself while I was working on the book: “Don’t pretend.” That meant when I was writing the Nominee chapter, for example, which is an open letter to my ex-wife’s boyfriend, I couldn’t shy away from some of the uglier feelings that I had, including the need to try and get a little revenge. If part of my problem was always trying to be “Too Good to Be True,” then the book would have to be the place where I stopped pretending and just told it like it is. So the memoir, on a certain level, is truer and more bold than anything else I’ve written. As for the fictional techniques that you employ when you’re writing memoir — I’m sorry, but it’s unavoidable. And it starts with the issue of selection, the fact that you’re only narrating those scenes from a life that are utterly necessary. If you just narrated a life from start to finish and didn’t lend it any novelistic shape, no one would want to read it. It would be so unwieldy, like Borges’s map that’s as big as the world.
Now that the book has been out for a few weeks, can you describe its reception, both from critics and among your friends, family, and fellow writers? Have you been surprised by any reactions? Is there anything you would change, or anything you regret, in the light of those reactions?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how positive and supportive the book’s reception has been. It’s not that I expected a critical bloodbath or anything, but there’s a certain callousness that you see on places like Twitter, a kneejerk condemnation — that’s one of the reasons why I call it Twitter Village — and so far I really haven’t had to deal with any of that. So my fingers are crossed! Everyone who’s actually in the book saw the manuscript months ago and I gave them a chance to lodge their objections; I did make some small changes based on feedback, so I’m pretty comfortable, at this point, with the finished product. My family is incredibly supportive of the book and that’s the most important thing to me.
To what extent do you think yours is a cautionary tale for all aspiring writers? Would you like to see the book handed out to new MFA students as a warning — or is the story rooted more deeply in your unique experience?
I do think there’s a cautionary tale for young writers wrapped up in the story of how I lost my way, even if the mistakes I made are all my own and could never, thankfully, be repeated by anyone else. There are so many pitfalls when you’re starting out, and I managed to fall headlong into every one of them: I quit good jobs when I got a book advance (you should never, ever quit a job to live on a book advance, especially if it’s small!), I ignored advice from people in publishing because I thought I knew better, I took it too hard when my second novel only sold a few thousand copies and moped my way around town like a wounded teddy bear. You have to care enough about your work to want great things, but learn indifference to the actual results. Otherwise you’ll be riding a rollercoaster of the world’s devising and every day will bring another opportunity to scream your head off.
Obviously, the taboo of money, and the role of debt, is a major part of your story. Except for your anger at your bank for its “shakedown” fees, you tend to represent money problems as issues of personal failure, but a lot of what you’re describing — medical bills, health insurance, student loans, credit card lending, pitiful adjunct-professor salaries — could just as fairly be thought of as political problems, stemming from the particular nature of the twenty-first-century corporate economy. Did you ever think of your problems in those terms? Did your experience of being broke make you a more political person?
I’m already a politically aware person in my day-to-day life, but I do try and keep the sloganeering to a minimum when I’m writing. The opportunity to write about being hounded by collection agents and getting shaken down by my bank is something that I relished, not only because I would get a few things off my chest, but also because I know economic insecurity is something that a lot of Americans are facing right now — people who’ve been a lot smarter and more vigilant about their financial lives than I have. Here’s where selection comes in: as I thought of the scenes that I should write in the book, I was immediately drawn to “Coinstar,” the chapter about going grocery shopping with my son using pocket change. If I could describe what it was like to buy food using the Coinstar machine, and be merciless about it, then I knew people on the other side would be able to identify.