Benjamin Anastas is a writer whose work reminds us all to keep it real. He published two novels, An Underachiever’s Diary (1998), recently re-released in paperback by the Dial Press, and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance: A Novel (2001), which was a New York Times Notable Book, before writing the shimmeringly beautiful and gut-wrenchingly painful memoir Too Good To Be True (2012), in which he tells the story of a life (his own) whirling out of control. When his third novel is refused, his wife leaves him, and he becomes so utterly broke that he must scavenge change to buy food for his toddler son, the once-promising writer must find a way to put the pieces of his existence back together. In a review in The New York Times Book Review, Deb Olin Unferth writes, “New Yorkers connected to publishing will have fun finding themselves in this book — or they might recoil in horror. (…) With painful precision he tells a midlife coming-of-age story: the world shatters us.”
Anastas earned his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and currently teaches writing at Bennington College. His fiction, criticism, and essays have been published in Story, GQ, The Paris Review, The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, and Granta, among other places. His essay, “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self Reliance,'” was selected for The Best American Essays 2012.
Despite all that Anastas has been through, his humor – and generosity – remain intact, as witnessed in this lively interview.
How much do you know about The Days of Yore and how much do you want me to tell you before we sort of get going?
I think I get the idea, which is sort of talking about a certain time in your life, before you were a grand personage.
I like that: a grand personage.
While you were still struggling.
The struggle never ends but there’s struggling and then there’s struggling.
Exactly. So, can you recall an early reading experience that was somehow important to you?
Well, my father kind of made it his project to turn his children into literate people. All he had in his house were books; he never had any money but what money he did have to spend he always just spent on books. His house is just absolutely filled with them.
I don’t remember how old I was, maybe ten or eleven, and for some strange reason he encouraged me to read James Joyce’s “The Dead”. I remember starting the story one night when I was staying at his house and not being able to stop. Reading about halfway through and then I couldn’t wait to go to bed the next night because then I knew I could finish “The Dead”, and did. I read it all the way through in two sittings.
In a lot of ways it was the first grown-up literature I ever read. I used to read a lot of – I guess you would call them fantasy books – about swordfights and monsters and dragons and heroes with great manes of hair. But James Joyce’s “The Dead” was really the first profound reading experience I had when it comes to adult literature.
And what was it about it that was so appealing to you?
There was a lot that went over my head, but it was literally just the cadence of the language. When I got to that last page, about the snow falling over Michael Furey’s grave, I remember sitting there and reading it over and over again. And of course it didn’t hurt that my father – you know, I had been coached, I had definitely been coached. He said, “You’re not going to believe the last page of this story.” I think he’d even read it aloud to me. So, I had been primed to really appreciate this kind of pure outpouring of language almost for its own sake and it really did work.
Of course the idea of having regrets in marital life and having carried unrealized love around with you for years: these were things that were completely alien to me as an eleven-year-old. It was just the force of the language itself that I found really mesmerizing and I remember very vividly staying up late with the bedside light on in the bedroom that I slept in at my dad’s house and just reading and reading and reading.
After that reading experience, did it change what you looked for in a book? There are different ways of reading. Reading for language is one way of doing it, more than reading, say, for the story – which is probably what you were doing when reading those fantasy series.
I think it did. I think it did help awaken me to the music of language. I’d like to think I would have become a writer on my own without my father’s influence, but he was almost like a tennis dad when it came to writing. The idea of giving your eleven-year-old child “The Dead” and saying, “You’re really going to love this.” It’s almost like I wanted to love it to make my father happy.
When I was younger he would read us fairly crazy stuff before bed; he went through a phase where he read us JG Ballard short stories that I’ve never forgotten. One in particular was Ballard’s story “The Drowned Giant.” It’s an amazing story; I’ve actually taught it before. It’s about a giant that washes up on the beach in a place that’s clearly postwar England but it’s never really stated as being postwar England. The giant’s body slowly deteriorates and gawkers show up and start climbing all over it and then pretty soon people are cutting massive pieces off of it and carting them off. This giant is first described as being like a Grecian statue, it had these perfect features, but as decay degrades his body and then human appetites cart away the rest, it turns into a sad and almost devastating story about the smallness of people and their imaginations. This is what my dad chose to read to us when we were 7 or 8 years old. He also used to read us HP Lovecraft stories before bed, which are completely terrifying!
So, I learned to take comfort in fairly arduous fiction at an early age, which I think was great. I think he, in his way, was training us all to be writers.
Did your siblings end up being writers too?
My brother and my sister turned out to be writers in different ways: my brother does a lot of writing for marketing and advertising, which is the field he works in; and my sister is an art historian so she writes a lot of criticism about 20th Century and contemporary art. I’m the only fiction writer.
Was your dad coaching you with writing as well as reading?
I did make a few abortive stabs at writing stories when I was young, but it was really my senior year in high school when I started writing fiction in a sustained way for the first time. I remember it was the summer before my senior year in high school; I was up in Maine and I decided I was going to write a short story. So I wrote the story and I was inspired by – I forget the name of the band now, this is embarrassing…. Oh! It was This Mortal Coil and they had a song I loved called “Song to the Siren,” with Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins on vocals. I used to just love the song; it was so ethereal and so sad and filled me with all these emotions that I felt like I needed to have in order to be a writer. So I wrote a short story that summer and I named it “Song to the Siren.”
Those are emotions you need to have not just to be a writer, but to be seventeen.
Exactly! Everything is unrequited. I mean, everything is unrequited.
It was really then that I started and got very serious about writing fiction and I stayed serious about it from that point on. Really, to the detriment of all else. I mean, I stopped doing my work in other classes.
I just felt the need to be a writer with my whole being and everything I read, everything I did, everything I thought about was all kind of geared towards that. When I was that age my father was a frustrated fiction writer; he’s since written and published quite a bit – but, you know, Jung has a very famous quote about the strongest influence on children being their parents’ unlived lives, and I definitely think that’s true of my father and me. One of my touchstone memories is a manuscript that he used to have on his desk in his house – this is at a time in his life when he really wasn’t writing very much; he stopped writing fiction for 19 years. So, he had this manuscript of stories that he would take out and he would send to try and get grants every year and he would never get one. This sense of frustration he had I think I really inherited.
So, I was really interested in publishing from an early age. I think much too interested in publishing. In college I went out to Santa Fe with my twin sister and we were working at different places; she was working in a restaurant and I was working construction and living in this beautiful place outside of Santa Fe. And I was working on the first novel I ever wrote and I was making so much progress and I thought I was doing so well that I didn’t want to go back to school, so I ended up taking a semester off. When the summer was over and my sister went back to school, I stayed.
I ended up renting a room in this woman’s house right in downtown Santa Fe. I worked in a restaurant called the Santa Cafe, which was pretty high-end. I started as a busboy. It was great hours for a writer and also great money. I was making between $60 and $100 a night in cash, which to me just seemed like unheard of money; I felt like I had real wealth for the first time! I would spend all day working on my book and five nights a week I would go to work at the restaurant.
This was before I had a computer; I had a Brother typewriter, an electric typewriter, which had this weird lag: you’d press a key and there was this momentary and very awkward lag before the letter would strike. I was a terrible typist, I was a kind of hunt-and-peck two-fingered typist (I still am) – but the words were flowing out of me so fast that my typing couldn’t keep up, and also because the typewriter had this weird lag. So I would keep a notebook right next to the computer because so often the words would just come out of me so fast and so furiously that I was too slow of a typist to catch them; I’d have to stop typing and just write things down by hand so I wouldn’t forget them.
This is all very Kerouacian.
I know! And sometimes if there wasn’t any paper around I would just – I have very tiny little handwriting, it’s almost like code – and I would take the pen and just write, literally, on the top of the typewriter in ink. It was November of the semester that I took off that I finished the book, and as soon as I finished the book I was like, “Okay, I’m out of here.” And I drove back east.
So much discipline! It’s incredible and also somewhat manic. And daring, too. To take time off from college and pursue a project like that is a pretty daring thing.
I never had plans to leave school permanently. But working in the restaurant was great – like I said, it was great money, it was hugely fun, that community that builds among people who work in a restaurant is just… there’s really nothing else like it. You’re under all this incredible pressure every night; friendships form really fast; there’s lots of flirtation and romance; and you’re also eating and drinking a lot, which is nice. There’s something primal about it. At the end of the shift they always brought out all this really nice food for the staff and we’d all eat together and the bartender would always be sneaking everybody drinks. Bourbons that keep getting magically refilled, goblets full of wine.
You make good money and the camaraderie is kind of incredible and there is this thrill that comes from working in a pressure-filled situation every night. You have all these reservations and people start coming in in waves and then before you know it you’re in the thick of it and there’s people who needs things, they want things, there’s food that needs to get out, there’s tables that need to be cleared, there’s all this stuff that needs to be done, and then all of the sudden it’s over and you have this sense of having sort of come through a trial by fire, of having actually accomplished something. It’s almost like every night there’s a celebration: “We did it! We did it!”
I thought, “This is great,” but by the same token, there I was: 19 and full of all these vague ambitions. Most of the other busboys were all pretty young, they were around my age, but the wait staff was older and I would say, “Oh you know I took a semester off, I’m working on a novel and I’m going to go back when I finish.” And some 35-year-old waiter would say, “Oh yeah, I took a semester off too and I never went back and I’ve been waiting tables ever since.”
It was terrifying! I really did get sort of scared straight; the idea that I did know on some level that I could blink my eyes and it would be 10 years later or 15 years later and I would be in the same place clearing off half-eaten plates of pheasant spring rolls …
When you finished the novel and went back to school; the novel that you wrote, did you publish it eventually?
No, I never published it. But, you know, quite insanely, I did try to publish it. I sent it to agents and I actually got one. Quite a good agent, too. She really liked the book and sent it around. Luckily nobody took it, but still sometimes I think, like, “Why did I even think of sending it to an agent?” But then I go back to my dad’s manuscript sitting on his desk and I must have been trying on some level to undo the injustice of my dad’s frustration with publishing. I wanted to publish; I wanted to be a published writer.
That’s a big reason why I went to grad school right after college. I was in grad school when I was 22, which is kind of insane. And then after graduation I came to New York. I felt like I didn’t want to be a writer who sat somewhere in isolation and sent out envelopes and hoped for the best.
But first you faced the rejection of that first novel. How was that?
It was pretty devastating. I think one of the reasons why I worried about publishing too early is that, you know, I wrote a lot during those years, starting when I was a junior in college and then all through grad school. I mean, I really wrote a lot, it was kind of… I wouldn’t say it was compulsive, but it was really all I wanted to do. At that point I was producing, like, a manuscript every year, more or less. Every year, every year and a half, I had this manuscript that I tried to do something with.
By the time I got out of grad school, I had published some short stories here and there but I hadn’t had a book published so I felt like I was this massive failure; I felt like I was a 25-year-old failure, which is ridiculous. I was just reaching the age when people might actually be interested in what I had to say. So the idea that I felt all kind of used up and like my chance to be a writer had already been squandered, those were not helpful or productive feelings to have.
I wish there had been someone in my life to say, “Ben, it’s great that you’re writing so much, but why don’t you show it to your friends, show it to your family, but don’t worry about sending it out to these people in New York? Just wait. Just be patient. You have plenty of time.” I was impatient. Very, very impatient.
I used to push my work on everyone. When my agent was done sending work out to editors I would find out who other editors were and I would send them my manuscript. I even sent a book to Norman Mailer once.
Did you get a response?
Yes! Like eight months later I got what looked to be a hand-typed letter from Mailer saying: “Thank you for sending the book. You know, I’m a writer, not a publisher. My eyes are so bad that I can’t even read my friends’ work, so I can’t read your book but I appreciate how brazen you are, and how desperate.”
Good of him to even write back.
People used to write back. Things have really changed. I remember when I was in college – again, quite prematurely – I would send short stories to The New Yorker, the ones that I felt were my best work. And I used to get notes from Daniel Menaker, who was a fiction editor then. Which is just unheard of. I mean, I think that courtesy among writers and editors has just disappeared.
It’s partly out of the electronic onslaught of work and not being able to see through the fog of it, I imagine. But I also just think that there’s this compact between writer and editor that just doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of things have gone into breaking it, but I think editors just don’t feel responsible to writers anymore, or feel in a way obligated to treat them like human beings.
I mean, can you imagine being as a sophomore in college and getting a note from Daniel Menaker at The New Yorker? You can imagine how important that was to a young writer.
You were getting a lot of encouragement through thoughtful rejections.
Yeah, it wasn’t all bad that I was getting rejected. For a long time I got very nice rejection letters.
You suffered from a brain tumor when you were in college, right?
Yes, that’s true.
Was that after you came back from having written the novel in Santa Fe?
Yeah. I took one semester from school off so I finished in December of my fifth year. I had applied to graduate schools – like 5 or 6 of them – and I didn’t know where I was going yet. I left school and went to my mother’s house in western Massachusetts. I had been having really very, very bad headaches for a year, maybe even longer, but I never even thought very much about them. I just figured, “Oh I’ve got headaches, it must be a migraine.” In that 21-year-old way I was like, “Oh I don’t need to see a doctor about this.” But the headaches got really, really bad to the point where sometimes I almost passed out and had to sit down. I just assumed it was my tragic flaw. One morning I woke up and there was this spot in my vision and when I looked in the mirror I couldn’t see any scratch on my eye or anything in it. So it turned out it was something happening internally.
My cousin, who lives in Connecticut, is an ophthalmologist so I called him up and he said, “Well it’s probably nothing serious but you should come and see me anyway. Come down tomorrow.” So I drove down to where he lives and he looked in my eyes and it was clear from the moment he first looked that something was seriously wrong. The spot I was seeing in my eye was actually blood inside my eye, my optic nerve was bleeding from all the inner-cranial pressure I had. It’s a condition called papilledema and pretty much the only thing that causes it in a twenty-one-year-old is a brain tumor. He said that I could have a condition called Pseudo-Tumor, which is when you have all the symptoms of a tumor but you don’t actually have one. But the chances of that were slim. It turned out that I did have a tumor, a very small one, and it turned out to be benign. But it was right up against my brain stem. It was nine hours of surgery, it was very touch-and-go. But I had otherworldly surgeons and they told me they were aiming for nothing less than a “cure.” They put this tube in my brain called a shunt, which I’ve had in ever since. I actually just had to have my shunt replaced last year – without health insurance. I got a bill in the mail for $93,000.
This all happened for the first time in February of 1991. It was the semester off I had between finishing college and going to grad school. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to go. I ended up finding out that I got into Iowa and then I showed up there in September after having gone through this really life-changing experience.
I’m thinking about you describing yourself as someone writing all those manuscripts and not really having something to say yet because most of us when we’re that young don’t have that many experiences. But now you had a very intense unusual life-and-death experience…
Well, here’s the part that still seems kind of remarkable to me: I left school and then came back home and I had been studying pretty hard the last semester – another great thing about taking a semester off from school is that it made me realize that I actually wanted to be a good student, so when I came back to school I went to all my classes and I studied hard and I did well in school for the first time ever. That last semester I didn’t have a whole lot of time to write, but I’d been forming an idea for a novel. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to go back home and write a novel really fast.” I sort of planned the whole thing out. I knew how long I wanted the book to be, it was a short novel – 170, 180 pages or something – and I sort of planned it out, like, “Okay, if I write 7 pages a day then I can have the book done in this amount of time.” But I was having all these headaches and they were getting worse and worse I was sort of speed-writing this novel and I wrote it in 5 weeks. It was called Transition from Cool to Warm, after a book by the German artist Anselm Kiefer. I was very pretentious as a youngster.
As soon as I finished it, that’s when my headaches got really awful and that’s when I went in and had the surgery. So between leaving school and having brain surgery, I cranked out a novel in 5 weeks.
That’s crazy. You realize that, right?
I know! And when I got to the hospital and it turned out that I had a brain tumor I remember saying to myself, “Well, you know what? If I die, I guess it’s not the end of the world because I just wrote the best thing I’ve ever written in my life and I’m ready for whatever happens.” I was ready to rest my reputation on an unpublished novel that I’d just written in 5 weeks. So I went into the operating room with a very serene attitude.
And then you get out and you’re fine and you’re like, “Well, now what?”
That’s part of what made graduate school so hard. I showed up in September and, literally, I felt like I had been born again. I mean, I felt like I was kind of this newborn with this tender little sensibility, you know? And grad school was just hand-to-hand combat. I mean, it was brutal. I wasn’t ready for it.
What about it was so brutal? Was it the competitive atmosphere?
It started with the competitive atmosphere. I don’t know if Iowa still does this, but they used to literally rank everyone in your discipline from 1 to 50. At least that was the story.
Your financial aid job was based on where you fell in the rankings. So you knew where everybody was roughly ranked based on whether they didn’t have to work at all – there were a few fellowships at the top like that – or if they were teaching-writing fellows, the next level, or just plain teaching or some other kind of job … So, you kind of knew where you were and everybody wanted to move a notch or two up. Part of moving a notch up was making sure you were writing a lot and writing well, but the other part of it was trying to tear everybody else down so you could take their job.
That’s pretty terrible.
It was a blood sport. My friend Peter Craig and I, we were both 22 and I think we were the two youngest people in the program. Grad students in MFA programs tend to be younger now. When I was there, the average age was somewhere in the early 30s. People had been out in the world, they’d had jobs, they’d traveled, they’d seen things, they’d done things, and I think there was this idea that, “Okay, I’ve got two years to make it or break it.” That just made for a level of … I’ll call it desperation.
But I wasn’t equipped! I was 22 years old, I’d just been through this near-death experience. I felt like I was an infant with wisps of hair and baby-soft skin, you know? I just was not ready. I was not ready for it. And I made every mistake imaginable.
Had you been in workshops before, like in college, or was it your first experience with the form?
I had been in workshops before but they were all very tightly controlled. If there was even a hint of going off on somebody my workshop leader would always sort of step in and stop it. Whatever you said had to be “constructive.” But that was not the case in Frank Conroy’s workshop; there were some weeks when it was just this competition to be as cutting and brutal as you could possibly be and everybody was trying to one up each other. And Frank would just sit there with a glint in his eye and a little smirk on his face.
He was oddly inspiring, though. He was a wreck of a man; you could tell that he had suffered for writing. He had the shakes a lot and there was a certain part of him you knew was unfulfilled because he had published Stop-Time and it was… The book had never gone out of print but he hadn’t really done that much else to take his place in the pantheon. He was a cautionary tale and an inspiring presence at the same time.
But you know, he knew what the writing life was and he knew the value of literature and he could really inspire. The love of it emanated from him. Granted, I didn’t love a lot of the work that he loved, certainly not in workshop. He was very into sort of baseball fiction and Jazz-guy stuff. I was raised by lesbians, it didn’t really interest me.
But I still remember the fall of my first year there, we all gathered in the same room and he gave a speech about what we were there to do and I just felt like, I’m in exactly the right place, all these people care about the same things that I do, we’re all here because we burn for this.
Then he just seemed like this kind of high priest of literature, but of course the more you got to know him the more flawed of a person you saw that he was. And when it came to the kind of work that he loved and the work that he didn’t, he was very flawed.
Did you find camaraderie with your peers?
Oh sure, I made close friends that I still have. That’s the best thing about a program like that.
And did you develop from there relationships where you continue to read each other’s work?
Less that now, more just friends that I’ve had at this point for twenty years. But, certainly, at the time I had friends who were my first important readers and I got used to the idea of I have this other person out here who I can show my work to before I enter the more dangerous realm of sending it to an agent or an editor. Choose a comrade in arms.
Exactly. You said you moved right to New York post Iowa. Did you move there with the intention of writing only? Where did you live and what did you do?
Quite stupidly for a long time I had this idea that I just wanted to write. I didn’t want to do anything else. I just did not attend to the practicalities of life and financial well-being and all that.
My sister had come to New York first and she was working in galleries and so I lived with her, I kind of slept in her hallway. She had a railroad apartment on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. I guess for the first six months that I was in New York and living on my sister’s floor I didn’t work at all, which is kind of crazy because I didn’t have any money either. I guess I just ate my sister’s food.
Your poor sister! Working a probably-incredibly-poorly paid gallery job!
I know, I know. She was in grad school at that point too, getting her master’s in art history at Columbia, and she saw a poster on campus saying that there was a job opening at the graduate writing program at the School of the Arts. So I went uptown and I interviewed for this job working in the office and I worked there for the spring of that year.
And what did you do? What was your role there?
I would Xerox people’s stories and get them ready for workshops. I remember Xeroxing Jonathan Ames’ work and he got very upset once because the Xerox wasn’t of high enough quality. He brought this stack of Xeroxes back and asked me to do them again.
It was a bad time in the life of the graduate writing program at Columbia. There were a lot of very unhappy students. The program wasn’t nearly as well run as it is now. A lot of my job was just to field phone calls from really angry alumni.
I’ll never forget: I was sitting in the office one day and I was on the phone with this woman who – I think it was two years after she’d graduated and she’d never gotten comments from her thesis readers, she was really pissed off, like, “I just want my responses! I want my fucking response letters about my thesis and I want them now!” She was screaming at me through the phone and Stephen Koch, who was the director then, was coming down the hallway after teaching a class and he was talking to his students and laughing and the laughter started ringing through the corridor. All of a sudden the woman on the other end of the phone got very quiet. “That laugh!” she said. “I know that laugh! It’s him! I’d know that laugh anywhere! You tell Stephen Koch I want my fucking thesis comments …”
It was great.
Well if you’re going to pay, you know, incredible figures for an MFA and they’re not even going to give you your thesis notes…
At that point, as poorly run as the program was, there were some seriously talented people there. I mean Ed Park was there, Heidi Julavits, Vendela Vida, Mark Wunderlich, I mean there were people who have gone on to be real writers. I’m proud to have done their Xeroxing.
So how long did you work that job?
I just worked there through the spring semester. As soon as the school year was over in May or whatever, I stopped.
Was that the only job you had at the time?
Yeah, that’s when two things happened: One is that I found out that I won a fiction contest from GQ Magazine. They published the story and they were throwing this big party and they paid me like $5,000 for it or something insane.
And then I also found out that I got a fellowship for the next year from Iowa, which was $1,000 a month – it was $12,000 total – and I thought, “Great, twelve grand! I don’t need to work at all!”
And live in New York? I mean this isn’t even the 70s. It can’t have been that cheap.
No, this was 1994.
Right, I mean, come on.
Well you know when you’re sleeping for free in your sister’s hallway you don’t need that much.
Through my sister I ended up moving to a room in an apartment on the south side of Williamsburg, an artist named Miguel Ventura who kind of went back and forth between Mexico City and Brooklyn. He was just so incredibly generous; I only paid for rent of my room but I had the whole apartment when he was in Mexico City so for about half the year I had this whole huge apartment for the price of my room.
That’s one of those great New York stories. Amazing.
Yeah, I lived in the south side of Williamsburg back when people would throw bricks at you and you could get mugged at 10 in the morning. Now you can buy a Case Study playhouse for your toddler.
What was life like? Did you have friends in New York besides your sister?
Oh yeah, I had really good friends. One of my very best friends from school, Scott Anderson, had moved to New York too so I spent most of my time with Scott and with other writers and sort of getting to know literary New York more.
And how did you get access to literary New York?
A lot of it was through Scott. He had started publishing at Harper’s back when publishing at Harper’s was a huge deal. I remember finding some way to crash the Harper’s holiday party, which was the height then. I mean, everyone wanted to be at the Harper’s holiday party. Do they even have one now?
Also, through Scott and his brother, John Lee Anderson, I got to know a group of writers who had all started out together: Francisco Goldman, Charles Siebert, Bex Brian … If you’re a young writer you just want to be around the real deal, basically. They’re the first real writers who I was around a fair amount, albeit as a confused young puppy dog.
And were you publishing at this point?
I was publishing here and there. I had published one short story when I was in grad school and then published the GQ story. But, no, I wasn’t really publishing. Again, I was getting all these crazily nice rejection letters, so I felt like I had reason to keep going.
And did the agents start circling you like hawks when the GQ story came out?
No, not really. I guess I had been around the block by then. They were just like, “Oh, Anastas, that guy. I read that guy’s last novel and it didn’t work for us.”
At a certain point I started temping and then as a temp one of my assignments was to work at the president’s office at The New School, you know, just sort of answering phones and doing typing and stuff like that. It was a good enough place to work and they liked me so I ended up taking a full-time job there.
I was working at the president’s office and it was one of these crazy New York jobs. The president was a very hard guy to work for—very high-pressure and just not a particularly nice man. He had three identical leather briefcases and they were kind of different ages: one was brand new, one was nicely aged and the other one was old and tattered. After I had been there maybe a year and a half and they were used to me, I was entrusted with the three briefcases and my job was to make sure they had the right papers in them at all times. It was me and a constant stream of file folders and the three briefcases. They used to make cameos in all of my dreams.
He was constantly giving remarks at board meetings and so I did two things. One of them was to type and research his remarks. He would write out his remarks for meetings in longhand over the weekend. He would write things like, “Our applications are up blank percent this year, and our international program continues to grow by blank percent,” and the first part of my job was to call the right offices to get the numbers that he’d left blank. I would research and polish up these remarks of his on the computer and then I would make sure that the draft remarks went into the right briefcase for whatever meeting he was rushing off to next. That’s basically what my job was.
So bizarre that he had three briefcases, it’s so confusing. Like, what’s the point?
I know, it was really strange. After being there for a while – or at least long enough to get really pissed off – if I knew he was going to a really fancy event with Trustees, I would send him with the really battered briefcase.
Ah, the small revenges!
Exactly, it was all I had.
I was working on An Underachiever’s Diary then and it certainly helped to get into the mindset of somebody who was an intentional failure in life to have this completely absurd job where I was keeping track of briefcases.
I had a new agent at that point and she was sending An Underachiever’s Diary around and that’s when I got my first book contract.
After all these years of high productivity and kind rejections, to suddenly have your agent call you and tell you that there’s interest here and someone’s going to buy it…. What was that like?
It was great! It was a tremendous relief. Let me think about this… It was 1996 probably, so I was the grand old age of 26 or 27, something like that, but I felt like, “You know what? Maybe this just isn’t going to work,” because I had dealt with so much rejection at that point.
So it was mostly good, although I never really got along with that editor or that agent. Things went sour pretty quickly.
They were real industry types and I was just so convinced I was writing for the purity of the thing itself. I was still that 11-year-old staying up late to finish James Joyce’s “The Dead,” you know? If you’re around people who are steeped in the publishing industry, it can be hard to talk to them about books—I felt like there was nothing we had in common, we just thought about books in completely different ways. I remember one lunch at the Royalton that was so grim I wrote to a couple of divinity schools to get their catalogs.
Were they trying to push you to change your writing to somehow be more, I don’t know, marketable?
Sure, I think both that agent and that editor wanted me to do well in the industry, so they kind of knew what didn’t work, and what I did, what I felt like I should be doing, obviously didn’t work. I didn’t really calculate my career in the same way that commercial writers do. I certainly never have.
An Underachiever’s Diary got a lot of attention and it did well enough for me to sort of write my ticket for the next book. The next book was The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance and it was eccentric enough that even though I had a contract with the original publisher, when I handed it in they completely flipped out and were like, “Oh no no no no no no! We can’t have this. The first sentence is seven pages long. The pastor is black and he disappears and you never tell us what happened! This is crazy, you just can’t do this.” And my agent sort of agreed. At that point I realized, you know what, this is wrong. I need a new agent, I need to get myself out of this contract.
So, I fired my agent and found a new one and the book went out again and I found a great publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. As I say in the memoir, for me … It was like the promised land. So, to be honest, more than my first book, that’s really when I felt like I could breathe easy, which, again, was completely wrong.
You reach this point, your second book, you feel like you’ve in some ways arrived, right? You’re publishing with FSG – to many writers THE ultimate place. And then there were many years that turned out totally differently than you had expected. I guess what I’m wondering is if you can tell me a little bit about what was going on during that time when things went in a downward spiral. I mean, you had the second book and then what happened?
Well, flush with the confidence that came from publishing with my dream publisher and making enough money to quit another job and then move to Europe, which is what I did – and granted, I didn’t get paid a lot of money for that book at all but, you know, it kind of gave me the impetus to make some rather extreme choices. Which were, “Okay, that’s it, I’m quitting my job, I’m going to move to Italy and write this other book, which is the difficult third novel I’ve been dreaming about for an eternity and I don’t just want to write but I need to write.”
It was the book that was going to dispel all of the great mysteries of my childhood. The main character is based on my maternal grandfather, an Austrian Jew from Prague who killed himself a couple of years before I was born. So I set about resurrecting my grandfather and telling the story of the early part of his life in Prague and Austria – which was a big mistake!
It was a big mistake in part because I think one of the things I learned is that I’m just not equipped to write historical fiction. And the other thing was I had to spend every single day for three or four years with this person who, even though I’d never met him, filled me with this sort of guilt and shame because I felt like, “I’m going to write this book and I’m going to finally understand my grandfather and it’s going to make me feel better about it, it’s going make my whole family feel better about it, and it’s going to finally put to rest this restless spirit who had always roamed the hallways of my life.”
An early chapter was published in The Paris Review, and that turned out to be the worst thing that could have happened. It made me feel like I might be onto something.
In this study where I worked in Italy I just had all these pictures of him and pictures of Austria where parts of the book were set and I just felt like I had this ghost who was looking over my shoulder all the time and disapproving, which are not great conditions under which to work.
No. Sounds like a whole lot of pressure to sort of make your whole family feel closure about something. I mean, what a crazy thing to put on your own shoulders with a book project.
Yeah, yeah, it was too much. And one of the things I lost sight of is that you really have to enjoy what you are writing in order for it to turn out well.
Though there certainly things that I enjoyed about writing the book. I loved living in Italy and I loved the life that we had there, but the book itself made me miserable, it literally made me miserable. I went into the study every day and I would write for six or seven hours and it was really slow and painful work.
I worked on this book for four years and FSG saw it and they were like, “This book isn’t what we were expecting and we’re not ready to give you a contract for it. We’re not really sure that this is what you should be writing anyway.” So it went out to publishers after that and there were editors who wanted to publish it but because my second book had kind of disappeared really quickly and sold very few copies, it was a tough sell. And the book itself was a tough sell too. It’s seriously flawed. So it didn’t get published in the US; it did get published in Europe. It got published in German translation. It got great reviews in Germany too.
You must’ve of course felt frustration that this book wasn’t finding a home in English and you were back in New York at this time, right? And what were you doing for work?
I was working for Art Omi, which is a non-profit that has a writer’s colony called Ledig House. I was the director of Ledig House, which meant that I did fundraising and admissions for an international writer’s colony and then I ran a board meeting twice a year. So that’s what I did.
What year did you come back from Italy?
I was in Italy from 2001 until 2003. I came back to New York and started working at Ledig House in 2004 and then I think it was 2005 that I spent a year on the eastern shore of Maryland as director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College on the eastern shore of Maryland. I taught literature and writing there as well.
And that’s also when everything else in your life sort of began to unravel, as I’ve read in your memoir.
Yes. The novel’s rejection sort of set off this whole shockwave, which just reverberated everywhere in my life. But it started with the novel’s rejection. Or rather, I let it.
And when did you begin to write Too Good to be True?
I started writing the memoir in the fall of 2010. I wrote it quickly and it was published very fast, just two years after I wrote the first words out in longhand.
You had been writing fiction and now you turned to memoir. Was it difficult for you to come into this new form on a pure writerly level? And then also, of course, was it difficult for you because you were implicating so many people – real people – in your life?
It was difficult to be writing a different kind of work, but I’d reached the point where the circumstances of my life got so difficult that I literally just couldn’t write fiction anymore. It felt like my life was pressing in around me from all sides so the only thing that I could do was write about it.
You know, I had tried writing a few different novels and other projects in the years preceding that but I had found them all really unsatisfying and I had never really finished them. Life all of a sudden seemed much more important than fiction.
To be able to write about life felt like this great relief to me because all of a sudden I wasn’t somebody who was broke and really disenchanted and lost and trying very hard to hold on to a new life that I had started with the woman who I was living with then. I didn’t want to lose her, and I was afraid that I would if nothing changed. I didn’t want to be the broken guy anymore.
Once I started writing, I was somebody on a page, I was a character in a book and that seemed so much more – it just seemed so much more…. what’s the word I’m looking for…. So much more manageable, you know? Before, during and after finishing the book, things didn’t get all that much better. But still, it felt, to me, that everything was less dire. I felt like I had agency for the first time in a long time and that really helped.
The toughest thing about memoir is writing about real people. That’s really hard. I made sure that everybody who is in it saw it; that was a big thing. The one regret I do have – but again, I did it out of sort of self-preservation – was that I didn’t tell my ex-wife that I was writing the book until the book was done, until it was already out with publishers. And New York being what it is, she had a copy as soon as it went out and then it was this sort of big drama, like, “I can’t believe you wrote a book about me!”
I guess in an ideal world I would’ve told her about it and she would’ve known about it and would’ve seen it before it went out to publishers. I was planning on showing it to her as soon as I figured out what was happening with it, but she got a copy early on even before it had a publisher.
How does that even happen?
Somebody in publishing gave it to her. You know, when a book goes out, it goes out, and all of a sudden there are copies everywhere. So someone just made sure she had it.
She read it, of course my family read it. Part of the book is about my mother, this period in my mother’s life when she was seriously depressed and suicidal and I wanted to make sure that she was okay with it. And then there’s a lot of stuff about my dad in there so I wanted to make sure that he was okay with it. So they did read it before it saw the light of day, yes.
But yeah, that’s one of the big reasons why I hope I never to write another memoir: the responsibility of writing about other people. I’m selfish enough to do it, but not callous enough to ignore reactions.
Going back to the very beginning, when you described your father as sort of, you know, the tennis dad but with writing. In a way I guess he can’t say too much if you show up at his doorstep with a manuscript…
Like, “Hey Dad, guess what? I’m writing about how you used to moon people out of the window of your VW Bug.”
He’s like, “That’s not what I meant when I gave you ‘The Dead’”!
It’s really no fun to have a writer in the family. We’re awful.
But how do your family members feel about you being a writer – your father, your mother, I mean. How did they feel about the fact that you pursued life as a writer?
I think mostly they’re proud. My father in particular has always really encouraged me. Not that my mother hasn’t, she has too – in very real ways – but she’s also someone who’s just more practical and is much more interested in like, you know, why does my forty-year-old son need to borrow money from me? Can’t you get a better job?
So as proud as they are, it’s definitely a mixed blessing.
When you were starting out and in your 20s say, what was your idea of success?
I read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald and if you read his essay “Early Success” it’s kind of all about how, you know, he was working on This Side of Paradise and he’d worked in advertising for a little while and gave it up and so he was back in St. Paul and working for a car-roof repair company and he’d sent the manuscript off to Maxwell Perkins for I think the third time and Maxwell Perkins accepted it and Scribner was going to publish his book and he writes about when the letter comes just kind of taking off down the street and just telling everybody who he knows, everybody who he sees, just sort of shaking their hands and saying, “I’m being published by Scribner!” And he talks about paying off all of his terrible small debts and starting his life as a writer.
So, I always felt like there was going to be this transformative moment from which there was no coming back. Like, “Okay, I’m a writer now.” You quit everything and you just, write. Both times – not this time, thankfully – but both times, when I got book contracts for my first novel and my second novel, I quit the jobs that I had and said, “Okay, that’s it I’m done, now I’m a writer.”
I’ll never do that again.
And what is your idea of success today?
Well, really just being able to write well and publish with people who value that. It was a little bit of a gamble publishing my latest book with Amazon because the book hasn’t been in a lot of bookstores. But I got to work with people who love the book and published it as well as anything that I’ve ever seen. So to me, success is being able to work with people who love your work as much as you do and are unfailingly supportive of it. I mean, that’s success.
Of course you never know what’s going to happen when you publish a book, particularly now. It might find 50,000 readers or 5,000 or 500. I compare being a literary writer now to making scented soaps in the bathtub and selling them on Etsy. You better like the smell of lavender …
Why did you choose to publish with Amazon, beside the fact that Ed Park is your editor and is awesome, obviously. Maybe that is the whole reason?
Well, it was really just Ed. The funny thing is, I’d never really known him before, even though we had overlapped at Columbia years ago and were probably in the same room 100 times. I just felt like I’d met this kindred spirit. So Ed is the biggest part of it, for sure.
You’ve had so many different ups and downs on this path and I’m wondering: if you were to look back at yourself in your 20s and look back at yourself in your 30s, is there something that you think that it would’ve benefited you to know? That you would tell your younger self at those different points in your life?
Well, when it comes to life, of course I have all kinds of regrets, all kinds of things I wish I’d never done or said. But when it comes to publishing, I just – the only thing that I wish I could go back and change is that I have had a lot of sleepless nights thanks to worrying about publishing and rejection and feeling slighted and just feeling like I would never make my way in this industry and, you know, all the typical things that writers feel. I just wish I’d cared a little less, you know? Just cared more about the writing itself and had more faith that people would find it eventually, in their own time and in their own way. I feel like I have wasted too much time worrying about how to navigate an industry that is fundamentally un-navigable.
In the same vein: you also teach a great deal. Do you have advice that you would offer young writers?
I think the only real advice that I have to give, and another thing that I kind of wish that I had understood, is that you just have to make sure that you’re the only person in the world who could’ve written what you’re writing. Doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be about your own experiences or your own life. It just means it has to be so particular and so geared towards your own individual enthusiasms that it can never be mistaken for somebody else’s and it could never be too influenced by any other writer, you know? It just has to be from some part of you that is really inviolate. I think that’s the biggest thing.
You can’t be writing something because you feel like you should be writing it; you can’t be writing something because you feel like it’s what you should be doing next and you can’t be writing something because somebody told you, “Hey I’d like you to write about that.” It has to be something that comes from a very pure and deep-seated part of you.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Lorena Ros