ehrenreichBiographile, April 8 2014


LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything

By Barbara Ehrenreich
Twelve, 256pp. $26.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Living with a Wild God is a departure from her impassioned political bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch — it’s a personal story, although not a conventional memoir. Ehrenreich revisits and explores a period in her teens when she experienced a series of inexplicable “encounters” that shook her faith in the reality of the world. Culminating in a kind of epiphany in the California desert, these mystical experiences both disturbed and intrigued the young Ehrenreich, who was already questioning the purpose and meaning of life.

Raised as an atheist and trained as a scientist, Ehrenreich had no language or framework to understand these encounters, except as the frightening onset of mental illness. The book is the story of the adult writer’s attempt to describe and understand what happened to her — and what it might mean for the rest of us.

Biographile: At the beginning of the book you describe rediscovering your teenage journal and deciding to try to unpack this mysterious story. How did the writing process develop from there?

Barbara Ehrenreich: There was a certain point where I said, OK, I think I’m actually going to do this, and started writing the first chapter. After that, I had plenty of other things that I went on doing, but this was my project. It was spread over several years, but that’s just how long it took to do.

BIOG: So you had a fairly clear idea of what you wanted the story to be from the start?

BE: No! There were a lot of surprises. I knew I had things to figure out, and that I would be working very hard to describe what I always thought to be indescribable. I did research along the way and found out some amazing things. One that stands out in my mind was about this kid I had gone on the skiing trip with, that ended so spectacularly — or cataclysmically, in my case [with her vision in the desert.] To find out that he claims he was transporting nitroglycerin in the car on the way back… [Ehrenreich discovers this in a phone call during the writing of the book.]

BIOG: It’s a great moment: a clash between how you describe yourself as a teenager, as very solipsistic, and the realization, looking back, that in fact you were at the mercy of the world around you.

BE: And that there were some people a lot more solipsistic than I was!

BIOG: It’s rare to come across a memoir, perhaps especially by a woman writer, that is so much more focused on a philosophical coming of age than with emotional or sexual discovery. Was that a deliberate decision, to keep the focus on intellectual discovery?

BE: There are a couple of reasons for that focus. One is that’s what the journal is about: I didn’t think it worth my time to write down anything I considered trivial or frivolous, like high-school life, and I wasn’t that interested. I was a super-geek, although outwardly getting along fine in terms of going to school and doing what was expected of me. But once I started asking that question, What is going on here? — that’s what I was obsessed with, starting at age thirteen.

BIOG: We also tend to assume that teenagers are just hormonal creatures, so we don’t take their philosophical development very seriously.

BE: Or worse, we say, “Oh yes, you have those big questions when you’re an adolescent, but when you grow up they should go away. When you become a mature person, you should accept everything as it is and just get on with your life.” I didn’t do that. I think we should all take our younger selves a little more seriously.

BIOG: There’s clearly so much that you learned from going back to your journal.

BE: Yes, and with some impatience on my part. I was frustrated at how unrevealing my journal was for those things that I knew I was thinking or feeling. At other times, as an older person, I felt real respect for that younger person.

BIOG: It seems as though the central question of the book is one of communication: how we describe things that are indescribable. When you were writing the book, how did you find the words for these experiences?

BE: I thought of myself as not so much writing a memoir, but more of a metaphysical thriller. Here I have this question, this event, this mystery in my life, and it doesn’t go away. I have to return to it at a certain time in my older life.

BIOG: I’m curious about this as a literary problem — how have other writers tried to describe this? You mention fire as a metaphor that comes up a lot.

BE: When I was gearing up to work on the book, I read a lot of accounts of mystical experiences, and was amazed to discover how often they used the metaphor of flames or fire. Then I thought, hey, burning bush! This goes way back! And I can’t claim that my experience is anything parallel to those of other people who claim such experiences, but it seems to be. My guess is this is a pretty widespread phenomenon — we just don’t talk about it.

BIOG: And even though finding the language is difficult, there is some way of approximating in words what is going on.

BE: A lot of people solve that problem by saying it was God, or a god — something supernatural or some kind of being. I didn’t have that “out.” I didn’t have that imagery, didn’t have that kind of comparison to make. You really have to dig deep to reimagine things.

BIOG: You write a lot about mental illness in connection with this kind of mystical experience, and it seems we have similar narrative problems there. I wanted to ask about that in connection with your other writing, which has been so much more clearly politically motivated. Is that where this book has a political urgency, in the way we understand and treat mental illness?

BE: I would say so. I was terrified as a teenager of being seen as mentally ill, because when I went to the library and read everything I could about unusual psychological experiences, that’s all I could come up with: mental illness, probably schizophrenia, which seemed really scary. So I thought, you just don’t talk about these things, or you end up in a locked ward. It bothers me very much that the dissociation — which is the psychiatric term I used for my early perceptual anomalies, which started when I was thirteen — is considered an illness. There is the psychiatric assumption that there is one shared reality, and if you’re not down with that reality, you’re pathological. That’s horrible. That’s totalitarian, as far as I’m concerned.

I was so nervous when I first showed this book, or the proposal for the original chapters. I just thought, people are going to say you’re nuts. And you could make a case for that, that’s fine, but so far nobody has said that to me.

BIOG: And then the scientific side of your thinking comes out, in that that’s not enough of an explanation. Even if you were to say this was a symptom of some psychiatric anomaly, that’s not the answer, that’s just the first question.

BE: My scientific feeling is that when something bizarre and seemingly inexplicable happens, you don’t just bury it out of sight. You have to look at it with the full power of your own mind and rationality.

BIOG: That seems connected to your scientific training, at the beginning of the era of uncertainty, and your discovery of how much was unknowable in chemistry and physics.

BE: Yes, and this book turns out — somewhat surprisingly, to me — to be more a critique of science than it is of religion. It’s a critique of a kind of Newtonian or Cartesian science that separates the mind from the body completely, and then says we humans are these little conscious lights in a universe in which everything else is really dead and operating mechanistically. I’m taking that on!

BIOG: Whether the mystery is out there or whether it’s in us, it’s still such a mystery.

BE: Yes, but I don’t like to leave anything as a mystery. I was talking with my sister on the phone over the weekend, and she said, “Well, isn’t it enough, Barb, to just say it’s all a mystery — it’s so big and our little minds will never understand it?” I said no! I have to die trying!

BIOG: I’m curious how you hope this book connects with readers. It’s such a personal story, but then it gets as big as humanity in some ways.

BE: Well, it’s a little different from a lot of my previous books, when clearly at the end I want the reader to put the book down and march on City Hall. I felt in writing this that I was making a report: Here’s what happened. For many, many years I had no idea what to make of this. I’m sharing it now, because I think it’s a human responsibility to share even bizarre experiences and observations. I would really like to hear from more people who’ve had similar sorts of experiences. I would like people to feel, maybe there’s something going on here, and that this has something to do with their own lives too.

BIOG: It seems likely that you would have a lot of readers who have stories that are not explained by their particular religion, or they’re not satisfied with the explanation.

BE: Right. It took me an awfully long time to realize that this was a widespread phenomenon still. You can go back to Moses and the Burning Bush, or so many of the prophets in the Old Testament. I spent a lot of time reading — which was very strange reading for me — the Christian mystics. They always attribute what happens to them to God, but I can see parallels and similarities with what happened to me. So I think there’s something widespread but unacknowledged. We’re a society, a culture, that just does not speak of them, but I think even bizarre and mystical things can be in the purview of rational thought and science.

BIOG: So the idea that science and religion are in opposing camps, and to accept one you have to reject the other, is unnecessarily reductive.

BE: I do object to religions that require belief, because there’s so much that’s against scientific rationality. Not all religions require belief — a lot of Jewish people will say you don’t have to believe, you just have to follow the law. I have always been fascinated by the ecstatic religions of West African derivation, where there’s no idea of believing in the deities or spirits, you actually see them in an ecstatic trance. That’s impressive to me. But I don’t like the idea of belief because that’s like a surrender: “I can’t prove it, and you can’t see it, but there is something there.” Well, let’s find out!



five-daysBiographile, September 10 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Sheri Fink
Crown. 576pp. $27

Investigative journalist Sheri Fink’s new book, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, is a riveting two-part study of the experience and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at one privately owned New Orleans hospital. The first section meticulously, and harrowingly, describes five days of storm and floods, followed by a series of disastrous failures of power – both electrical and human. The second part of the book spans the months and years of investigation into what happened during those five days and why, eventually focusing on a small group of doctors and the vials of morphine they had in their possession. In the course of its gripping and razor-sharp investigation into the Memorial case, the book challenges us to examine our deepest assumptions about medical ethics, human rights, sickness, survival, and the right to die with dignity.

BIOGRAPHILE: What first led you to this subject?

SHERI FINK: When I saw in the news that three well-regarded health professionals had been arrested for having allegedly murdered their patients during a terrible disaster, I wanted to know more. I’d been a medical aid worker in several conflict and disaster zones and written a book about a war hospital that was under siege for three years in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but I’d never heard of allegations like this arising in any of those situations.five-days

BIOG: How did your background, as a trained physician who has worked in disaster areas, inform your writing?

SF: I’d experienced how the stresses of a prolonged emergency, the exhaustion that can accompany it, can make it hard to think clearly and act effectively as a caregiver, particularly the first time someone is confronting that without a lot of preparedness. I’d also witnessed how people who are older, chronically ill, can’t walk, or have trouble taking care of themselves are often the most vulnerable in a crisis and the easiest to neglect. And I had seen responders rise above challenges and save lives by improvising and persisting in far worse circumstances even than Katrina. Despite those experiences, I tried not to assume anything about this particular event, and I aimed to learn everything I could about it and to collect as many perspectives as possible.

BIOG: Although the initial timeframe of events is short, the book’s larger subject matter is huge and complex. Can you describe how you organized the material and chose whose stories to focus on?

SF: I stuck as much as possible to a chronological narrative, and when moving from event to event tried to keep either point-of-view, time, or location constant. The events provided opportunities to delve into larger subjects. The choice of perspectives was partly influenced by access – in other words who was generous enough to share their experiences – and partly by who was central to the important decisions made at the hospital or most affected by them. I also considered which people acted rather than were only acted upon by the events, and were changed by them.

BIOG: You give a very balanced and nuanced view of the events at Memorial and their aftermath. Was it hard to stay objective in the face of the evidence you had?

SF: Reporters naturally bring their own perspectives and life experience to the articles and books they write, and it’s easy to argue that objectivity is impossible. However, I think it’s a great and important goal. It’s similar to what’s done in science – you have to test your own assumptions and theories and expectations about how the world works and be open to discovering that you’re wrong. That’s the way we get closer to truth. A fair presentation of the evidence is its own best argument.

BIOG: You mention at the end that a lot of the documents from the investigation into the Memorial deaths remain sealed. How did you work around those gaps in the record?

SF: I interviewed many people involved in the events and viewed documents and other materials from a wide range of sources. It was helpful to work on the book over many years, because some people who were not initially willing to speak were later open to it, and some material that was difficult to access later became available.

BIOG: Are there other books or writers who you looked to as models for this kind of investigative writing?

SF: Yes, many. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Dave Cullen’s Colombine, Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, Chuck Sudetic’s Blood and Vengeance, Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family, Nicholas Gage’s Eleni, the excellent books written by David Rohde, Deborah Blum, and Laurie Garrett … I could go on and on. There are many good models.

BIOG: You are resistant to the idea that disaster zones should be treated as war zones, and you give the example of the public hospital in NOLA that had better outcomes than Memorial largely because staff stuck more closely to their regular civilian routines. Do you think this approach has been downplayed in disaster planning – and should it get more attention? More generally, what lesson(s) would you like readers to take away from the book?

SF: Yes, disaster or war, it’s helpful to strive to maintain as much normalcy and routine as possible in a very abnormal situation. These events taught me the importance of remembering in the midst of a disaster that there will be a tomorrow and that the choices we make and how we treat each other at a time of crisis will be with us for a long time to come. I hope readers will understand this, too, and see the power of individual action, of flexibility and improvisation along with preparedness, and what disaster geeks call “situational awareness,” the ability to keep in mind the larger picture of what’s going on in a crisis and to respond proportionally. I also hope that reading about the human impact of a severe disaster can help people weigh how much to invest in preparing for unlikely but foreseeable events in balance with everyday urgent priorities. Critically, the rationing of lifesaving care is horrific, and as we prepare for situations where medical needs might temporarily outmatch resources (for example, a number of hospitals and state health departments are drawing up guidelines for how care might be rationed in an overwhelming pandemic or other emergency) the perspectives of a range of people from various backgrounds must be sought. We can’t just stick those value judgments to a few exhausted, frontline health professionals. There are so many other facets to the events portrayed in the book, and I’m hopeful readers will come away with their own insights.


ZealotBiographile, August 27 2013. Part II, August 29 2013.

Joanna Scutts

Random House. 336pp. $27

The biographer of Jesus of Nazareth has been fielding plenty of media interest and controversy over his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which attempts to uncover the man behind the Messiah. We spoke to him about the constraints of biography, the challenge of researching a time before “history,” and Jesus as a political rebel in part one of our interview. Check back later this week for part two.

BIOGRAPHILE: Why did you choose biography, as opposed to any other way of writing about Jesus? What was it about biography that gave you new possibilities?

REZA ASLAN: When you write about Jesus it’s hard to avoid either Christology on the one hand, or apology on the other. For so many billions of people around the world, Jesus is more than just a man, so if you want to treat him as a man, you can’t avoid dealing with the theological implications of his life. The only way to do so is through the lens of a biography, because then you’re limited in how speculative you can be. There are many books about Jesus that challenge orthodox Christian views of him, but so many of those books are themselves a form of theology — they speculate about influences he may have had, places he may have visited, et cetera. What biography essentially forces me to do is to maintain a sense of grounding, to keep from making statements that cannot be backed by the history of the world in which Jesus lived.

BIOG: So it’s a way of limiting yourself to those known facts, which are so few and far between, and resisting speculation.

RA: Yes. What I’ve noticed is that people who criticize the book, and then read it, often respond by saying that it wasn’t that odd or weird; I think they expect wild accusations about Jesus. But there’s no pedagogical purpose in this book — it’s simply an attempt to unearth what little we can know about this historical figure.

BIOG: Can you describe a little of your research process and its challenges — for instance, the multiple languages in which sources are written?

RA: I often say that writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon, because by the time Napoleon exists, there is a firm concept of a thing called history. The notion of history as an accumulation of verifiable facts and dates is a product of the modern world. When writing about an ancient figure like Jesus, and one endowed with spiritual significance, you have to make a differentiation between sacred history and history, right from the start. What the ancients thought when they said the word “history” was not what we think. They were much more interested in revealing truth about the characters they were writing about, rather than facts. Facts were secondary, if not irrelevant.

That means that we are immediately at a disadvantage when writing about Jesus, because essentially the only information we have about him is the New Testament, the Gospels — and as I’ve said [in the book], the Gospels are not documents of history. They are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s acts, his works — they are testaments of faith, written by communities of faith, many years after the events they describe. To put it another way, the Gospel writers already believed something about Jesus, that he was the Messiah, that he was the son of God, that he was God incarnate, and set about writing the Gospels to prove that belief. They are theological arguments, so they’re not that helpful in trying to reconstruct the Jesus of history. What I do instead is rely on the world in which Jesus lived, a world that — thanks to the Romans — we know a great deal about. By placing Jesus firmly within his time and place, we can fill in the holes of his life and create a picture of him that is in many ways more accurate than that offered by the Gospels.

The methodology for doing what I just described has been set for centuries — the quest for the historical Jesus is a centuries-long endeavor. The tools that have been developed to try to analyze as far as possible the claims of the Gospels according to the history of the time — to figure out what is more and less likely historical in the New Testament — have been used by thousands of Biblical scholars before me. I don’t do anything different.

BIOG: The book is a wonderful synthesis of so many things that have been known in the academic community, but just haven’t become a part of our larger cultural understanding of Jesus and his time.

RA: Oh, that’s the fault of academics. The biggest criticism I have of my colleagues is that they spend all their time talking to each other, that they rarely bother to synthesize their ideas and their research to make it accessible and appealing to a wider audience. Now, ironically, the biggest criticism my colleagues have of me is that I spend all my time synthesizing research and making it accessible to a broader audience. There is this culture in academia that tends to look down on those who try to reach a wider audience — we’re immediately tagged as not serious. And honestly, that explains why there is such anti-intellectualism in the media and in popular culture.

BIOG: The historical context you bring out seems so basic to understanding the story of Jesus and how the Gospels came to be written — primarily the importance of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. That’s generally understood as a decisive moment in Jewish history, but you show that it’s equally fundamental to the development of Christianity.

RA: It changes everything.

BIOG: So in the book you foreground the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, and then fit Jesus’ life into that larger story.

RA: My goal was to so deeply and fully immerse readers in the social, political, and religious context of the first century that by the time you got to Jesus’s story, I wouldn’t have to explain it — you could figure out for yourself the larger implications of what he was saying and doing.

Part Two

BIOGRAPHILE: At the beginning of your book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, you quote the theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who says that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest, and that scholars see the Jesus they want to see. What kind of Jesus emerged for you in the course of writing this book? He seems like a much more political figure than he is later understood to be.

REZA ASLAN: Well, let’s be clear that in Jesus’s time there is no difference whatsoever between politics and religion. So I don’t know if it would be correct to say that this is a political look at Jesus, because you can’t separate the two in the way that we do in the modern world. “I am the Messiah” is both a religious and a political statement; they are exactly the same. I’m just trying to make the reader aware of the political implication of what most people think are mostly religious issues.

BIOG: One theme that emerges so strongly, especially when you get to the later chapters about St. Paul and the Roman adoption of Christianity, is how certain aspects of Jesus’s life and his teachings end up being pushed out of the story. At the beginning you explain that this is a time of great inequality in wealth and tension between the rural poor and the urban rich, and Jesus is absolutely on the side of that rural poor, and comes from that background, and sees poverty as a virtue. That was always a difficult claim for Christianity to maintain, as the power and wealth of the church grew.

RA: Right, you go from “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” to Joel Osteen, and “Jesus wants you to be rich,” and drive a Bentley. That sums up everything I think about how far we’ve got from Jesus’s teachings.

To go back to the question about Rudolph Bultmann – it’s absolutely true, and I think, by the way, it’s true of every historian, every biographer. Otherwise there would only be one biography of every character in the world. There’s no such thing as objective history: a scholar cannot help but bring his own impressions and perceptions into his study, no matter how hard he tries. For me, my quest for the historical Jesus was launched while I studied at a Jesuit Catholic college, Santa Clara University, and the Jesuits of course are famous for their focus on social justice and Jesus’s preferential options for the poor, so there’s no doubt that that influenced my look at Jesus. The scholars and professors who trained me — there’s no question that their focus on Jesus as a man dedicated to social justice impacted my own scholarly look into Jesus. I also think it’s historically accurate, but nevertheless, I absolutely admit that that influence exists.

BIOG: That Jesuit influence is so interesting, since at the end of the story you begin to get into these debates within the early church about the direction of the faith, but obviously as it develops that’s beyond the scope of the book.

RA: I’m glad you say it’s beyond the scope of the book, because a lot of people have said that this book is about Christianity, or it’s an attack on Christianity. But it’s not — it’s a book about Judaism, because Jesus was a Jew.

BIOG: And about the Roman Empire.

RA: Exactly.

BIOG: It seems to me the book is grappling with a much bigger question, which is the tension between facts and faith, and how far it’s possible to reconcile history with belief.

RA: I think when it comes to a historical look at Jesus, the principal dividing line isn’t whether you believe he’s the Messiah or not, whether you believe he’s God or not. The line is whether you believe that Jesus was utterly unique or not. In other words, do you believe that Jesus was unlike every other Jew of his time? Do you believe that his perception of God, his reading of the scripture, his understanding of the Messiah and the messianic function, his view about the relationship between creator and creation, was completely and utterly different than every other Jew of his world — was totally and utterly innovative? Or do you believe that he was remarkable, that he was extraordinary, that he was charismatic, and all of those things, but he wasn’t utterly unique, that he saw the world the way most Jews in his time saw the world, and that he understood the function of the messiah, the interpretation of the scriptures, the way that most of his fellow Jews did? I think the historian falls in the latter category, and the person of faith falls in the former category.

In other worlds, is it possible that Jesus was utterly unique, is it possible that unlike ninety-eight percent of his fellow Jews he could read and write, is it possible that in contradiction to everything that Judaism has ever said about the nature of God and man, that Jesus thought that he was himself God? Yes, it’s possible. Is it likely? No. The historian’s job is not to say what’s possible: it’s to say what’s likely.

BIOG: I almost wanted a sequel to this book that talks about St. Paul, who did seem to be the one — along with the Gospel writer John — whose way of thinking about Jesus was unique and new and transformative. It was their interpretation of Jesus that broke the religion from Judaism.

RA: That’s right. If you want to put it in its simplest way, an innovation happened in Judaism, otherwise we wouldn’t have Christianity. The question is, when and where did it take place? Did it take place in the mind of an illiterate, uneducated, poor, marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee? Or did it take place in the mind of a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking, educated, deeply Romanized Jew named Paul? Again — choose one. The person of faith says it was Jesus and the historian says no, it was probably Paul.

BIOG: I know you’ve had plenty of extreme reactions to the book, but have readers of faith also been open to this alternative that you’re presenting?

RA: To be honest, the overwhelming response of Christians to this book has been positive. I have received countless emails, tweets, and personal messages from Christians saying that this book empowered and enriched their faith. I understand where that idea comes from. At the heart of orthodox Christianity is the belief that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, but the consequence of that belief is that Christians too often focus on the God part. When you go to church, you mostly hear about Jesus the God, and even when you hear about Jesus the man, there is this kind of safety net underneath him, because his motivations, his actions, the troubles that he encounters are always tempered by the fact that he’s also God. A lot of Christians don’t fully encounter what it means to believe that Jesus was also a man, that he lived in a specific time and place, that he was shaped by his world, that his teachings were in response to the specific social ills that he confronted, and that his actions were a response to the powers of this time. Christians don’t often get that that perspective in church. You can believe that this man that I am talking and writing about is also God, and still be enriched by this biography.

BIOG: The way you write about Jesus is so enriched by the history but also very aware that there was something extraordinary that marked him out, and we’re never going to know exactly what that was, what sort of personality attracted those followers that enabled a new religion to be built on the basis of this individual.

RA: In fact, I think that looking at him as a man makes him that much more extraordinary, more remarkable. The idea that a poor peasant could have started a movement that was such a threat to all the authorities of his time that he was ultimately arrested, tortured, and executed for it; the fact that an illiterate, uneducated man had the charisma and power of his teachings necessary to start such a movement is extraordinary. It makes him that much more powerful, that much more worth knowing and following. Whether you think he’s God or not is fine, but just looking at him as a man, you cannot help but be blown away by him. You can’t help but want to know him and to follow him. Part of the reason why I wrote this book was to show that you can be a follower of Jesus without necessarily being a Christian.

BIOG: You can find his example inspiring without believing that he’s God.

RA: Without the baggage of dogma, exactly.

BIOG: You end up with someone who is restored to non-Christians as much as enriched for Christians.

RA: In fact, the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve received from Christians has been matched by the extremely positive response I’ve received from atheists — both of whom thanked me for confirming their already-held notions of Jesus. Writing a book that brings atheists and Christians together — that’s probably what I’m most proud of.


blue-plate-specialBiographile, July 9, 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Kate Christensen
Doubleday. 368pp. $26.95

Novelist Kate Christensen, whose books include The Great Man and The Astral, turns her hand to memoir in this month’s Blue Plate Special, an unforgettable coming-of-age story about love, loss, and food. We caught up with Kate to ask her about taste and memory, making the leap from novel to memoir, and why food is such a powerful portal to the past.

BIOGRAPHILE: You mention that the book has its roots in your blog entries. At what point did you see the larger story start to emerge? Did you have to do a lot of editing to turn them into a book?

KATE CHRISTENSEN: It took only three or so months to write the first draft. It came out of me naturally and fast because, of course, I already knew the story. The hard work started after the first draft was written, when I had to figure out how to structure my life as a narrative, how to shape it around my love of food, how the recipes fit in. But the greatest challenge was trying to figure out how to excise my ego from the whole process. I think it all started working for me when I was finally able to treat myself as a fictional character and allow my own voice to be separate from my life.

BIOG: Were you surprised by any connections that emerged between the entries?

KC: I was surprised at how hard it was to write the book after having so much fun with the blog. The blog was one thing: easy, organic, episodic, lighthearted – the book was another. I had to dig intentionally to uncover memories that were raw and visceral and painful to recall. I had intended to write a book about food. But there is no hiding in food: the fact that food was my subject and theme in no way provided any shade. On the contrary, every memory about food, beginning with the soft-boiled eggs of my two-year-old, cataclysmic breakfast, forced me to recollect everything that surrounded it, sad or painful, funny or revealing.

BIOG: What was it like moving from fiction to nonfiction — does it feel like a very different writing process? Do you think you’ll write more nonfiction in future?

KC: I feel a greater sense of responsibility, writing nonfiction. Rather than inventing a cast of characters whose lives are generated by my imagination and the demands of the novel itself, these are people who actually exist, both in my memories and in the world, people whose stories I have appropriated in the course of telling my own. I changed many names and soft-pedaled as much as I could and sent the manuscript around to various loved ones for corroboration, correction, and comments, but in the end, I can’t pretend it was easy or comfortable to write about real people, including myself.

That said, I am fomenting another food book, but one that is less about me and more about food itself.

BIOG: Much of your writing about food focuses on obsession — you discuss gorging on particular foods (like cream cheese sandwiches) and at other times, severely restricting what you ate, which feels different from many food-related memoirs that primarily emphasize pleasure. Did you deliberately set out to describe both joy and the punishment of eating, or do you think those are connected somehow?

KC: As a creature of extremes who strives (usually fruitlessly) for moderation, my life story is, like many people’s, fundamentally an account of sliding along a spectrum of irreconcilable, though coexisting, desires. Both overeating and hunger have been profound parts of my life, and therefore I had to acknowledge both in its telling.

BIOG: We seem to be in something of a golden age of food- and drink-related memoirs by women. Are there other “foodie” writers (men or women) who influenced you during the writing of this book, or whose work you particularly admire?

KC: Food memoirs have saved my life during times of insomniacal trouble, most notably the works of M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Laurie Colwin, and Nicolas Freeling. I also love the fictional and nonfictional works of the likes of James Hamilton-Paterson, Diana Abu-Jabar, John Lanchester, Nora Ephron, James Chase, Jami Attenberg, Adam Gopnik, Cathi Hanauer, Gabrielle Hamilton, Tamar Adler, and Michael Pollan.

BIOG: Throughout the book you’re surrounded by people who are seeking some kind of unconventional salvation, from Berkeley hippies, to anthroposophical communities, to your sister’s involvement with a cult. In the book, it often seems as though food was in part a refuge from the spiritual yearning of the people around you — a tangible response to their otherworldly needs. What kind of spiritual balm, if any, does food offer?

KC: I’ve grown to feel that the deeper the attachment to a dogma, religion, or belief, the less the visceral connection to experience, which is all I’ve ever wanted. If food offers any balm, it’s the comfort of being in a world of pleasurable concreteness, one in which the experience is evanescent and temporary. When food is gone, it’s gone, and then it’s time to make the next meal.



drinking-with-menBiographile, March 19 2013

Joanna Scutts

By Rosie Schaap
Riverhead. 288pp. $26.95

Drinking with Men is the first memoir by New York Times“Drink” columnist, part-time bartender, and full-time bar enthusiast Rosie Schaap. In the spirit of a friendly barstool raconteur, she shares stories of her unconventional education in drinking dens from the Metro-North Railroad bar car to pubs in Dublin, Montreal, rural Vermont, and a vanishing pre-gentrification New York City. The book, released in January, has attracted innumerable glowing reviews from readers and regulars. We spoke with Schaap about writing, drinking, and the unique comforts of a welcoming local.

BIOGRAPHILE: From your title on, the book is focused on what it’s like to be a woman in an environment that’s almost always male dominated. Why do you think so few women (especially young women) become true bar regulars?

ROSIE SCHAAP: I think taking that first step of walking into a bar on one’s own is very hard for women, and cultural stereotypes contribute mightily to that anxiety. We’ve received cultural messages that bars are, at worst, very dangerous for women (think of “The Accused” or “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”). But even milder messages can be a barrier: There’s an assumption that a woman on her own at the bar must be sad, or must have nowhere else to be. Or must be looking to hook up, or to drink for free. None of these perceptions sits well with me or with the women I know. None reflects my own experience in bars, but they’re powerful and hard to shake. I think they’re the greatest obstacle to women embracing bar culture.

BIOG: Do you think the kind of bar culture you describe is unique to certain cultures, or is there something universal about needing a place to go that’s not home or work, but where you’re still welcomed?

RS: I suspect it’s universal that people crave a place that’s neither home nor work, but I think different places have very different bar cultures. In Europe, I’ve rarely seen the after-work decompression happy hour that’s pretty typical here in the United States. But even here in New York City, bar regularhood remains largely the province of men. I’m not sure where other women are finding that “third place.” Maybe cafes and coffeehouses, but I don’t think they facilitate the kind of relaxed atmosphere that good bars do, and coffee’s effect on us is so different from alcohol’s.

There are other differences. In small communities, the local bar has perhaps an even more vital function than bars in big cities have; it’s the center of local news and information, an anchor in its town. And the only country outside the U.S. where I’ve loved bars even more than I love them here is Ireland. There, it seems much more natural and normal for women to be part of the life of a particular pub. And I love the mix of ages — it’s not uncommon to see people in their twenties and people in their sixties or seventies sharing a table. That doesn’t seem to come as naturally here.

 BIOG: As an occasional bartender yourself (at Brooklyn’s South), how does drinking look different from the other side of the bar?

RS: Well, I have greater responsibility on the working side of the bar — and I don’t drink when I’m working until (per the house rules at my bar) the final hour of my shift. By nature, I’m a pretty protective person, so I don’t like seeing people drink more than they can handle from either side of the bar. I’ve observed some bartenders who seem to like getting people really wasted. I’m not that kind of bartender. I want my customers to let off steam and have fun, but not get sick or do anything they’d regret (or fail to remember) the next day. When you’re tending bar, it’s kind of like you’re throwing a party, and, as host, you’re largely responsible for the quality of your guests’, or customers’, experience. As a patron, you don’t bear that sense of duty.

BIOG: In many of your stories, endings and closures are built in to the experience of regularhood: whether you’re aware of it at the time or not, it’s a temporary state. This gives the stories a particular poignancy — and often, the ending is literal, as many of the bars you write about, especially in New York, have been forced to close as a neighborhood gentrifies. Do you think the kind of bar that encourages regulars can survive in an increasingly expensive city?

RS: I’ve seen many beloved bars come and go, but great bars will always be with us. And I think that’s because a great many of us will always need them and love them. My own Brooklyn neighborhood has gentrified a lot since I moved here sixteen years ago. There’s been a bar boom here, and while it feels as though we’ve just about reached saturation point, the variety (and quality) of my local bars offers something for everyone: a great mom-and-pop local, an excellent cocktail bar, a great place to watch soccer, a bigger bar with space for live music and comedy. I hope they all thrive, and the signs are good: Each seems to have cultivated its own community of dedicated regulars. I don’t think good, inviting, comfortable bars will disappear anytime soon. The city is increasingly expensive, but the price of a few pints for a few hours of comfort, company, and good cheer is comparatively low.

BIOG: What are the features of your ideal bar? And what makes someone a great regular?

RS: My ideal bar is one with a great, varied mix of people — men and women, old and young and in-between, good talkers and good listeners, people working all kinds of jobs. A friendly, welcoming, skillful bartender does a lot to set the scene. Aesthetically, nothing too fussy or over-designed, please — just comfortable barstools and booths, plenty of wood, and good lighting will do. A great regular is someone who contributes meaningfully to the culture of his or her bar — someone who’s fun to be around, engaging, interesting, open, kind (to her fellow patrons and to the bar’s staff).

BIOG: Are there other writers (on drinks and bars, or memoir in general) who influenced you in writing your book?

RS: Although Pete Hamill’s memoir A Drinking Life is a recovery story, and my book is not, I’m a huge fan. He’s a wonderful writer who describes people and place in beautiful, efficient detail. Another book that was often on my mind as I wrote is Last Night’s Fun, by the Belfast poet/novelist/nonfiction writer Ciaran Carson. Its central subject is Irish traditional music, but pubs, naturally, figure prominently. He’s just a fantastic writer, whose language is always both surprising and precise. The great food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, was brilliant at describing restaurants (my favorite essay of hers is the unforgettable “I Was Really Very Hungry”). I kept her work in mind as I wrote about bars.

BIOG: Now that the book has been out for a while, how would you describe readers’ responses? Have you been surprised by anything? Is there a question you always get asked?

RS: I’ve been mostly thrilled by the reaction. The book particularly seems to be striking a chord among women in their twenties, which isn’t shocking (as much of the book is set during my own young womanhood) but I hadn’t quite expected it. I think the twenties are tough on women: trying to figure out the shape of the rest of our lives, establishing relationships and careers that might or might not have staying power, fretting, drinking, dreaming, wondering what we’ll be doing in ten years or so. I’m really gratified that young women are connecting with this book, relating to it. I think I’m telling them: It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to worry. It’s okay to hang out in bars. It all adds up to a life. On the other hand, one question I’m often asked is: “Are you an alcoholic?” No matter how many times I say no, I’m not, some people just can’t believe that anyone can be a bar regular without being an alcoholic. I’m surprised by the intransigence on this. But I don’t feel obligated to change their minds.

BIOG: Do you think you might return to memoir writing in the future?

RS: I don’t anticipate writing another book that’s explicitly a memoir, but I do plan to write more narrative nonfiction. About soccer, maybe. Or Ireland.


american-isis1Biographile, February 11 2013. Part II, February 12 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Carl Rollyson
St. Martin’s. 336pp. $29.99

Carl Rollyson has written biographies of several iconic women, including Susan Sontag, Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, and Marilyn Monroe. His latest book is “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath,” a biography of Sylvia Plath, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s tragically early death. In part one of this two-part interview, Biographile spoke with Rollyson about who the renowned poet really was throughout her life, leading up to her tragic end.

You begin your book by calling Sylvia Plath “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” Can you say more about that comparison, and how it shaped your writing?

It’s always struck me that Sylvia Plath was unusual for a woman of her generation in the range of her interests. She had such an interest in poetry, in prose, and in wanting to be a greater poet, but at the same time she saw no problem with also being a popular writer, for Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and other kinds of magazines. When you look at her journals, she really wanted to have a wide range of appeal. That made me think of Marilyn Monroe, in part because Sylvia Plath dreamed about Marilyn Monroe, and I thought that for a writer of Plath’s age and seriousness, to dream about Monroe was really quite striking – and not only to dream about her, but to take Monroe seriously as someone who would give her advice, comfort her, appear as a kind of fairy godmother. When I read biographies of Plath, biographers would say that this was odd or strange, but because of my own work on Monroe I thought no, that’s exactly what Sylvia Plath is. This is a woman firing on all cylinders, who wants to be that kind of cynosure or center of attention, that marks her as a figure in the culture.

It’s a fascinating connection that you develop as the biography moves forward: Marilyn Monroe’s relationship with Arthur Miller, for instance, has several parallels to Plath’s with Ted Hughes.

Marilyn Monroe was always looking for, in some sense, a father figure, and Arthur Miller served that function, as well as being her lover and a man she respected for his writing. Well, look at Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – in her poetry, and Hughes’s own poetry, in “Birthday Letters,” he emerges as a kind of replacement for Plath’s father, and also of course as a respected writer, someone with whom Plath could identify in that way.

You have a line I loved about the relationship between individuals and culture. You write that culture is “fixed in the human psyche like the grooves of a long-playing record.” It seems that much of Plath’s experience as a young, ambitious woman in the 1950s, so many of the tensions within her which were pathologized and treated as her own illness, were also pathologies in the culture of the time. She was torn between the intellectual ambitions nurtured at Smith, and the conflicting pull toward domesticity, that was just unavoidable.

Yes, she was very much picking up those cues from the culture. Again like Marilyn Monroe, she’s one of these great transitional figures in the culture. Monroe wanted to have a family, to have the life that her culture was teaching her would make her a full woman, a complete woman – and I think Plath was susceptible to all those feelings as well. And yet at the same time, here’s this powerful intellect, this independent woman – you can see the seventies and eighties and beyond also emerging in Sylvia Plath. I think that’s what’s going to make her last. When people say, “Oh, it’s because she died young, and she was beautiful” – that’s true, but it’s just not enough. It doesn’t explain enough.

The picture that emerges so strongly from your book is of Plath as a relentlessly professional writer: constantly entering contests, and competing for writing prizes.

It’s absolutely true – there was a relentless ambition in her, and an interest to learn not only her craft, but to learn what worked, what sold, what would catch people’s attention. She wrote forty stories for Seventeen before a story was published. You have to work very hard to become Sylvia Plath.

Yet we tend to think that if someone is published or is on their way to fame very young, that it somehow landed in their lap, that it happened by some miracle.

When I talked to Plath’s classmates at Smith, they told me that they’d say to her, “Oh, fantastic, you got a story published in Mademoiselle! and Sylvia would say, “Let me show you the forty rejection slips I have.”

And her professionalism and hard work also guided Ted Hughes – she understands where Ted is likely to be published, what his strengths are, what publishers are going to respond to his work.

Absolutely. She brought him up to speed. He was a poet already; I’m not suggesting she should take credit for that at all, but in terms of professionalism, I think it would have taken him several more years to develop and to reach an audience. That’s what Plath helped him do: cultivate an audience. She was a master at that.

Part Two

Was this a daunting project to take on, given the weight of biographical legend around Plath?

I like to say that I write in a state of self-delusion. I write in the morning; if I were to write later in the day, or really thought about it when I’m out of the writing trance, I think it might be daunting. Already in 1986, when I was writing my Marilyn Monroe biography, publishers were telling me that there were too many biographies of her; what else could there possibly be to say? And people say the same thing about Plath, but we’re learning much, much more about these figures, as one biography responds to or answers the others.

Did you have difficulties in the process of writing the book, as Plath’s other biographers have had, with her estate, or with access to materials?

I realized right at the beginning that there was no way that the Plath estate – especially given my point of view – would cooperate with me. Anyone who knows anything about Plath and the previous biographies knows that biographers had a very hard time with her estate. So I made that decision early on that there was no way I could submit the manuscript or even ask for permission to quote from Plath’s work, that I would have to do this under fair-use standards. That also determined another aspect of the book: Although I do deal, at crucial points, with Plath’s work, it’s not a literary biography in the sense of dealing extensively with her poetry and her stories. I certainly mention a good deal of them and describe them, and try to point out to the reader the importance of this work in her life, but in most pages of the book you’re not reading a work of literary criticism. I’m quite conscious of that – I’m really treating Plath as a kind of cultural symbol. I think people reading my biography will find new ways to read her work, but since I couldn’t quote in any significant way from her poetry, it simply would not be possible to do that other kind of literary biography.

So the limitations actually end up producing a different kind of book.

I would certainly call it making a virtue of necessity. Every biography has its own challenges, and all that interests me as a biographer is, do I have enough to tell a story? If there have been other biographies of this subject, are there ways in which I’m telling this story that differ from them? If I convince myself of that, any other obstacles I have – like worrying that the estate is going to sue me – I really don’t worry too much about that. I have to tell you, though: I have a secret weapon. My wife is a lawyer, and for over twenty years now she’s been my constant companion, my in-house counsel. And in the end, the Plath book was vetted by attorneys hired by the publisher, because they want to be absolutely sure they’re not going to run into any trouble.

It does seem, from your chapter on the other biographies, that a lot more threatening goes on than actual legal action.

That’s right. In England, the laws of libel are very different: The burden of proof is on the person who’s accused – that is, on the author – and in this country it’s just the opposite, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. As a result, many biographies that are published in this country do not get published in England. My Plath is not going to be published in England, because the law is against the publishers, and they’re not going to take that risk.

You made an interesting structural decision in the biography to sideline major events by listing them in the headnotes of each chapter, so readers run through them first. Why was that?

I’ve never written a book quite that way before. In terms of method, not just subject matter, I thought of this Plath book very much like my Monroe biography: There have been so many biographies of my subject, so if there’s going to be another one, I want the freedom to interpret my subject. But some readers have fixed expectations of what a biography is, and if they get into a chapter and they’re not exactly sure when something is happening, they might find it confusing, so I put the chronology for each chapter up front, to let the reader see where we’re headed, what follows what. I have a thesis, an argument in this biography. Some people like that and some don’t – some people want the biography just to tell the story. And although I do believe I tell the story, it certainly is a biography shaped by a vision, a point of view.

So by separating out the fixed events from the emotional flow behind them, what emerges is how difficult it is to track human emotions and motives. Plath comes across as someone with extreme moods, who is unpredictable emotionally, but she’s not really alone in that – other people are also unpredictable and do strange things that are hard to figure out. What do you hope this book will do for readers’ image of Plath, at this remove? What new picture of Plath do you think you’ve created?

Good question. I think it starts with the cover of my book, with that photograph, which was taken by one of her classmates in April 1954 – so that’s Sylvia Plath coming back to Smith after her first suicide attempt. But if you look at that picture, you don’t think it’s the picture of someone who’s going to commit suicide. We have a tendency to read back into Plath’s life, starting with her suicide, that her life was one long trajectory toward killing herself. I don’t think that’s true. I remember coming across a letter from her high school teacher, Wilbury Crockett, which I quote in the book, in which he says, “These biographers come and interview me and they want to know about Sylvia Plath’s sad life – and she was one of the most buoyant, exciting students I’ve ever had.” I hope the way I write the ending of the book shows that there was a whole complex of factors that led to her suicide, and it’s not so simple as saying that she had a certain “suicidal” sensibility. For Sylvia there was a brilliance and a joy to life. I hope readers understand that toward the end, for very complicated reasons, she came to feel that she couldn’t go on – but that she found tremendous value in life.



rosa-parksBiographile, Jan 30 2013

Joanna Scutts

By Jeanne Theoharis
Beacon Press. 320pp. $27.95

A new biography of Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis’ “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” revisits the life of the civil rights icon, and argues that the quiet, shy seamstress so well known to elementary schoolchildren is a reductive stereotype. The real Parks was a lifelong activist. From her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, to Detroit, where she moved after the bus boycott, Parks worked tirelessly on behalf of the NAACP and other organizations, and yet had to struggle all her life for recognition and compensation for her efforts. We spoke with Theoharis about the importance of changing the image of the tired lady on the bus.

You discuss in your introduction the difficulties of accessing the full archives relating to Parks’ life and work. Can you explain the effect those restrictions had, and how you managed to work within and around them?

Guernsey’s Auctioneers, which is selling Rosa Parks’ effects, has not allowed any scholar to evaluate the papers in that archive. Her papers have sat unsold for five years. This is a significant loss, not only for what it might have offered to my book, but to scholars and students more broadly. It’s hard to imagine auctioning any of Martin Luther King’s papers without a scholar assessing what was there.

To work around this restriction, I searched other archives. I went through the papers Parks donated to Wayne State University; the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress; the Highlander Folk School Papers; James Haskins’ notes and interviews with Parks for her autobiography; research by Preston Valien, a sociologist at Fisk who sent a team of researchers to Montgomery in the first months of the bus boycott; and many more collections. I read dozens of interviews and oral histories. I combed the black press and conducted scores of interviews with her friends, family, and political comrades to try to give a fuller picture of the span of Parks’ political life. And with all these threads, I began to sew a fuller account of her life.

It’s a shock to learn that before your book, there was no full-length scholarly biography of Parks, despite many children’s books about her. Was it this omission that led you to write the book? Or did the project grow out of your other research?

I found it shocking; I still do. It seemed like a tremendous oversight – and reflective of the very myths I critique in the book – that Rosa Parks is one of the most famous Americans of the twentieth century but is treated not as a substantive political figure, but as a character in a children’s book. The only book on her was Douglas Brinkley’s small, un-footnoted “Penguin Lives” biography. I think people mistakenly assume we know all there is to know about her.

For me, as a scholar of the civil rights movement in the North, her life in Detroit was particularly compelling. While some historians have started to examine Parks’s political life before the boycott, and the rich story of the origins and maintenance of the boycott itself, this part of her history was completely overlooked. Yet there was so much to tell of her political activities in Motown.

Parks is remarkable for her heroism, but also for her endurance of hardship: her economic struggles, the constant hate attacks, the setbacks to progress. Was it difficult to write about the years – decades, even – of her suffering? 

Yes, it was difficult. Despite the fact that Parks has been celebrated for her courage and service, the impact her arrest had on her family and the decade of suffering that ensued is not usually part of the story. She didn’t like to talk about it. I found myself both sad and angry as I tried to piece together what happened and why. The article Jet magazine ran on “the bus boycott’s forgotten woman” in 1960 is devastating: she’s sick, she and her husband have very little money, and they are living in two rooms with her mother. For someone like Parks, who was often too proud to ask for help, this was her way of highlighting the direness of her situation.

What do you think made Rosa Parks so tenacious? How do you think she found the vision and strength to fight for equal rights, when so many people suffered in silence?

Rosa Parks had a kind of resolve that, coupled with her Christian faith, led her to keep going year after year, decade after decade. She also possessed a deep sense of responsibility – if there was something to be done, if she thought something was wrong or untrue, she believed in her responsibility to correct it or take action. She felt the individual had responsibility: Even if you couldn’t necessarily change things, you had the responsibility to register your dissent. So that is what she pushed herself to do.

You chose to focus on Parks’ political rather than personal life in this biography. Yet you also point out that her personal life, particularly her relationship with her husband, Raymond, is very important to her political activity. What made you decide to play down the personal story?

Parks is celebrated as a national hero for her politics, for her courage – so it seemed to me the most important task was to chart and examine that political life and to analyze her courage. Her actions are already used to tell a certain story of America, so my task was to convey a fuller history of her, which ultimately tells a different story. Our extremely limited history of Parks reveals our investment in the popular myths of the civil rights movement: the fable of the quiet seamstress doesn’t ask anything of us. It puts the movement in the past, when in fact Parks kept going, pressing for racial justice and social equality for a half century after her bus stand.

Parks was also a very private person, who found her fame hard to bear, and it seemed to me important to grant her a modicum of privacy in her personal life.

An important running theme of the book is the gender struggle within the civil rights movement. Do you think that Parks’ contributions were downplayed primarily because of her gender, or also because she was a self-effacing person, willing to work behind the scenes?

I think it’s a combination of gender, class, and personality. In terms of the national civil rights movement, the March on Washington for example, women were very much relegated to the backdrop. No women got to speak. Parks was dismayed by the treatment of women at the March. Indeed, Lena Horne and Gloria Richardson were talking to reporters at the March, telling them that the real story was Rosa Parks, she was the one who started it all and she was who they should be interviewing – and they got sent back to their hotel before the march was over. Richardson attributes this to their outspokenness.

Parks also never got to go to college, and many civil rights organizations only wanted to hire college-educated people. Finally, she was a shy person who did not seek out the limelight. With all the attention paid to the Montgomery bus boycott, she actively sought to keep the spotlight off herself.

How would you like to see the popular story of Rosa Parks change to reflect her “rebellious life”? Would you change what’s taught in schools, for instance?

Absolutely. There are many things I would add: how long and hard Parks and others struggled in the decade before the boycott, how lonely and dangerous that NAACP work was, and how worn-down and dispirited she felt in the years leading up to the boycott. I would emphasize that Parks was not middle class, as she came to be seen, but working class and living in the projects when she was arrested; that her bus stand came at a great cost to her family; and that she continued her political activities for nearly a half century in Detroit, in the North, and alongside the Black Power movement. I think this would make her an even more compelling figure for young people and make her legacy seem more approachable.


tgBiographile, November 23 2012

Joanna Scutts

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.


absoThe Millions, July 18 2012

Joanna Scutts

By John Boyne
Other Press, 320pp. $16.95

John Boyne’s The Absolutist is a slim, tightly wound novel of love and disaster in World War One, narrated in a claustrophobic first person by Tristan Sadler, a young soldier who returns to England after the war with a secret that is too horrifying to share and too heavy to bear alone. The story unfolds through flashbacks to Tristan’s war training and trench life, during which he falls in love with a fellow recruit, Will Bancroft, the “absolutist” of the title. A soldier turned conscientious objector who refuses to do anything to further the war effort, Will is eventually executed by a firing squad, leaving Tristan to fight on for a morally bankrupt cause. After the war, Tristan meets up with Will’s sister, Marian, to rake over the questions of love and guilt, right and wrong, and the struggle to preserve them against the onslaught of the trenches.

I spoke with Boyne about the challenges of creating a fresh story out of well-worn history, and finding a voice to describe the unimaginable.

The Millions: I’d like to start by asking about Tristan’s voice. How did you find that balance, a voice that sounds contemporary but also authentic to the time period? Did you go back to letters, diaries, and memoirs of World War One?

John Boyne: I like to go back to novels that were written at the time my novel is set. I’ll fall into the idiom of the time, and find phrases that have fallen into disuse, and if I immerse myself in those, I find a voice starting to appear. I knew that because Tristan was going to be narrating his story from old age, and because he was going to be a novelist, he would have to speak in quite an elegant style—very proper and English. That was a challenge too, because it was about paring down the language, nothing superfluous. It’s a shorter book than any of my other adult novels.

For the trench scenes, I spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum in London, and I read a lot of letters not only from the front but also from the families the soldiers were writing to. I was trying to find the themes running through those letters, and the ways that a voice would change. There’s only a short space of time between the scenes where Tristan is a young man before the war, the scenes where he’s in the trenches, and immediately afterwards, in 1919—but emotionally he was going to have changed in so many ways, that he would have to sound different, but the same. Same person, but experience is going to have to have come in on him.

TM:  It’s so revealing to look at letters from families and not just from soldiers. Perhaps it upsets Paul Fussell’s claim that communication is always one way: his idea that the soldiers can’t communicate and stop trying, and that the people at home can’t understand, and also stop trying. The character of Will’s sister Marian, for instance, is a complicated and traumatized figure in her own right.

JB: In any novel I’ve ever read about the First World War, you never seem to read about what’s happening back home, the effect of the war on the family. In the previous novel I wrote for adults,The House of Special Purpose, which is the next one coming out here, I started with the idea that I hadn’t previously written a really strong female character, and I wanted to rectify that. When I wrote this I wanted to go further—I wanted a female character who was stronger than either of the two boys. She would be articulate, she would be a woman out of her own time, a woman who was capable of so much, but not allowed to do anything.

I really invested in her as a character, probably more than any other character I’ve ever written, including Tristan, because I didn’t know how she was going to react. In those long chapters in the cafés, when she meets and talks to Tristan, I didn’t know how she was going to respond to him, and I knew it would change as the day went along: there would be moments where she would be suspicious, moments where she would be warm and funny, moments where she would be aggressive. I wanted that conversation to just go where it went, but for her to be always one step ahead of Tristan, putting him in his place a lot. She talks along the way about things like the fact that she doesn’t have the vote—she’s a victim of these politics along with everybody else, but she’s not allowed to vote out the politicians who start the wars. I named her after Marian Maudsley, from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, which is one of my favorite novels, and a great character. I wanted her to leap off the page.

 TM: She’s so active, even in those static scenes in the café. You have this wonderful detail of the ubiquity of cigarettes—how important they are to how people manage their emotions during a conversation.

JB: I felt she would be someone who wanted to help the soldiers coming back to the front, but at the time would be so conflicted about the fact that they killed her brother. I mean, emotionally, what does that do to a person? That’s the key to novel writing for me: putting characters into situations where you don’t know how they’re going to respond, and letting the story take you where it takes you, to show you that. I thought that was an interesting conundrum for her: great anger, great pain, but still helping.

TM: Not just for her character, but for Tristan as well, there’s an enormous sense of frustration about what they can possibly do with these situations that are not in their control, and they don’t emerge heroically. Rage, for instance, becomes the emotion that drives Tristan. Even in fiction about war, I imagine rage is a difficult emotion to work with, as a novelist—it doesn’t really have a forward motion.

JB: Those climactic scenes were very difficult to write. It’s hard, in the printed word, to achieve that sense that you have in real life, where something just snaps—to create a moment where the reader will honestly feel that a character’s gone too far.

TM: Like the challenge of writing about the violence of the war—you reach these limits. One of the things you did so well in the trench scenes was to convey how the soldiers have to keep going, the next day, and the next day, even though every day seems to be a limit case of what can be endured.

JB: I deliberately made those into very short scenes, which could almost have been taken out of the book, juggled in different directions, and put back in. I wanted to create a sense of disorder and confusion, no linear structure to it all. When you write about the First World War, you’ve read so many books that you have to be careful not to simply replicate what you’ve read before. It’s one of the things this book has in common with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which deals with the Holocaust: when you’re approaching a subject as big as this, that’s been written about so many times, you’ve got to find some fresh way to tell it. So I knew when I started that I was going to spend more time in a café in Norwich than I was in a trench in Northern France.

TM: So you get rid of the idea that the events of the war are part of an arc, a conflict-to-resolution story. The war blows that up.

JB: I felt there shouldn’t be a beginning, middle and end, but that Tristan should be at the heart of the action all the time. Even when Tristan and Will’s story ends, when their wartime story ends, it’s not the end of the war—that continues off the page.

TM: Right, and his survival is just a matter of chance. You create that sense of chance, of randomness, as the characters we get to know in the training scenes are gradually picked off. We feel the shock every time someone we’ve met dies.

JB: I had to keep a chart of who was still alive and who wasn’t.

TM: I wanted to ask about the role of homosexuality in the book. Of course it’s important in the literature of World War One for writers who were gay, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but I was also thinking about Pat Barker, and her character Billy Prior, in the Regeneration trilogy, who was a gleefully boundary-crossing character in both class and sexual terms. Yet Tristan doesn’t have that kind of freedom. So what does thinking about sexuality in this context allow you to do with a character that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?

JB: It occurred to me I hadn’t really read anything about gay soldiers in the trenches—there must have been gay soldiers there, and surrounded by so much horror, relationships must have struck up. But that wasn’t something I had read, so it was a new way into a familiar story. What interested me was the idea of two boys where one has already started to come to terms with who he is, and the other hasn’t, so it would be an ambiguous relationship between them. Tristan gets angry with Will for rejecting him, but Will can’t understand this, because as far as Will’s concerned it doesn’t matter. In France, Tristan is all about this obsessive love, and Will is about the politics, and he finds this conversation that he’s forced to endure every so often to be an embarrassment, and to be almost trivial compared to what it is that’s going on there. I wanted there to be moments where you think that Will would open up, and let Tristan in, and moments where he would shut down. It was important to me that at the end you wouldn’t really know who this boy was.

TM: The term Will keeps coming back to is “comfort.” That’s all the relationship is for him, a purely temporary alleviation—it’s not love, it’s comfort.

JB: And Tristan can’t accept it. But that’s how it is in life, isn’t it? In most relationships, one person is much more into it than the other—in my experience, anyway—until you find someone who’s at the same place as you. Tristan’s just in love.

TM: To come back to the Shot at Dawn politics—as you know, after a long campaign in the UK we finally have a memorial to the men who were killed in this way. But there’s still so much we don’t know about what happened to these men. The term “absolutist,” which gives you your title—that was a technical term used at the time?

JB: It’s not a very common term, but I came across it one day when I was researching conscientious objectors and immediately thought, “there’s my title.” I knew that a lot of conscientious objectors would do some work on farms, or in field hospitals, or—as I talk about in the book—a lot of them were made to be stretcher-bearers. But there was this small group of people, absolutists, who wouldn’t do anything. It was important that Will would be a soldier and would be fighting when he becomes an absolutist. I didn’t want any charge, any confusion, that he was a coward, that he just wasn’t willing to fight—he had to be out there fighting, and seeing that the moral absolutes for which the war was being fought were being corrupted. If they can murder a German boy in cold blood, it’s a different kind of killing, to him, than the shooting in war.

It’s interesting because Tristan is the person in the book who cares about truth, and wants to express himself and his love, and he feels that Will is being dishonest in not doing that. But when it comes to a political situation, when a captured German boy gets murdered by group of British soldiers, Tristan doesn’t see that that’s a problem. It’s the same thing turned around: in the romance, Tristan is one place and Will is in the other, but in the morality and the politics they’re also in different places. Will’s morality has become much more finely tuned. He can’t just go shooting people without some kind of emotional response. Tristan is also completely honest when he says, I don’t get it, it’s just another—what does it matter?

TM: That line that seems so faint to Tristan is absolute to Will.

JB: So they’re both absolutists—Will in a literal sense, and Tristan in terms of his love affair. It’s all or nothing to him.