Questions by Jon Page at Bite the Book.
1. With Sheldon Horowitz you have created a unique literary hero that I certainly won’t forget. What was your inspiration for the character?
Sheldon, more than anything, is my way of saying goodbye to my grandfathers, and by extension, that entire generation. I needed to come to terms with the end of this generation, including their very deep and particular sense of Jewish-American patriotism. I sometimes worry this generation is too subject to caricature, just as I worry that the contemporary discussions around patriotism are as well. Perhaps one of the reasons Sheldon seems original is because of how distinctly he refuses to settle into the box we have ready-made for him.
Both of my grandfathers — Paul Miller and Lester Shapiro — were high school graduates only, were born in the U.S., were hard-working and self-made in every conceivable way, and neither one ever complained a day in his life. We can talk about the British "stiff upper lip," but that suggests understatement. For these guys, there was nothing to say to begin with.
Sheldon is not either of these men, but there is a spirit, a humor, and a sensibility on looking out at the world that they all share. I miss them very much.
More directly, Sheldon appeared as a minor character in a novel I was working on in 2003. It was the second of my unpublished manuscripts. He had such a powerful personality, and integrity of person, that I knew I wasn't finished with him, nor he with me. But it took another five years before the right moment presented itself and the themes properly aligned, giving Sheldon a platform for action.
2. You have worked in international security affairs for fifteen years and written non fiction books on the subject. What drew you to writing fiction?
I was drawn by a chance to see the world, discover it, wrestle with it, and create something new in it using a set of tools for expression unavilable to me in other domains of life.
The work I do at The Policy Lab, and in cooperation with the UN Institute for Disarmament Reseach, is a highly collaborative, political, and social activity. It is therefore often tiring, frustrating, and exasperating — as many worthwhile things are.
Fiction, by contrast, I get to produce behind a closed and locked door in utter silence (that is, when the children aren't pulling on my legs). It is uncompromising and uncooperative. I need that space. What drew me in is that the process itself makes me happy.
3. What was the hardest/easiest part about writing fiction?
There is the obvious answer that it is very hard finding the time to do this. I have a family and a day job. Maybe if I sell a few books I can choose a new balance in my life, but let's not get ahead of ourselves…
More interestingly, perhaps, I needed to understand — at some theoretical level — what made a story a story and not merely a sequence of utterances and events. That's a trickier question than it sounds. Not everything with a beginning, middle and end is a story. Instruction manuals for TVs have those too.
So what distinguishes a story — as a genre of communication — from something else? The one book that helped me most was John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. His notion of profluence — or the sense that we're getting somewhere when reading — was instrumental in giving me a criterion for reflecting back on my work to interrogate it for value. It also helped me understand and address how tensions and resolutions work in drama. I also listen to a lot of music to understand how musicians achieve this.
The easy part, by contrast, was the exuberant pleasure that came from having no rules, no masters, no demands for propriety, diplomacy, or even collaboration. And frankly no consequences. After all, if you fail to help design a reintegration programme for excombatants after a civil war, then bad things happen and frequently do (hence why we're working with the UN now to improve this). Meanwhile, if I write a bad novel, I'm unlikely to cause any real harm. To be able to express one's self freely, creatively, and without harm to others is a rare opportunity indeed. And oh, the pleasure …
4. Your novel is a thriller but it also deals with dementia and grief in a very profound way. What was the reason you combined these two very distinct elements?
I'm interested in time and how it works. Dementia is the mind breaking down as a consequence of the brain itself failing — as a machine. Time, and our relation to it, is a first casualty.
Grief, at least in my view, is utterly different. It is the proper response of a well-functioning mind to human tragedy. I think grief brings us closer to the dead, which is why we don't want the grieving to end. We can hold them close through our pain. This changes how we move through time.
What they have in common, then, is the challenge of memory and the experience of time. I decided to throw a child into Sheldon's arms who reminded him of his own dead son, which forces time to fold back in on itself, therefore moving the story forward and backward simultaneously.
Why combine these with a thriller? I'm still not sure whether or not that's what I did. I wanted to write something with a very simple and clear plot that then allowed me to improvise around themes that I wanted explored. The structure of a thriller — at least this one — provided that. I also wanted a driving plot for personal reasons, namely to overcome my own flaws in my writing. Sheldon helped me.
5. Do you consider your book a thriller?
This is connected to the previous question. I wanted to write a story that was rather more linear and clearly structured than my previous effort — which all got a little convoluted — and I remembered that great line from Chinatown where Jack Nicolson is told, "just … find the girl." In this sense, Sheldon needs to "just … save the boy." But, being who I am, I needed to complicate that at least a little by asking Sheldon to save one boy as a means of coming to terms with his inability to save another.
The end of the book brings these strands together. The last scene of the book came to me in the moments just before my son was born at the hospital. Julian was the inspiration, and that's why I dedicated it to him. So I knew who Sheldon was, I knew what made him suffer, and I wrote the book to the final scene, giving Sheldon a moment I thought he deserved. That it evolved into a thriller — or something like one — was the natural evolution of the project.
So whether this is a thriller, per se, is still an open question to me and I have no vested interest with how its classified. It's a story. That much I'm sure of.
6. What brought you to Norway and why did you choose to set the novel there?
My wife is Norwegian, so I was brought to Norway by a woman who outsmarted me. I'm not the only one suffering this fate. Norwegian women are crafty. Watch out for them.
But I wasn't too hard to convince. It was time for me to leave Geneva, where I'd lived for over a decade, and Oslo was a lovely next step. I have two young kids — Julian and Clara — and it’s a nice place to be. I also love the outdoors — and quiet — and this suits me.
Concerning the setting of the book: One of the clichés in fiction writing is "write what you know." I've never liked this, because it seems to me that adhering to what you know is not a good way to destabilize yourself and search for truths (remember that word? Can I still use it?).
I think a better aphorism might be, "write what you care about" because you will be spending a lot of time with these themes and ideas. In coming to Norway, I wanted to explore Norway. I also wanted to consider the Jewish experience in Norway. I'm Jewish, my wife is not, and so my children will always be negotiating and exploring their Norwegian, Jewish, and American identities. It is an interesting opportunity and I think it will prove to be a rewarding one. As a new father (this was 2008) I wanted to poke around in these themes for a while so I could get there first and maybe develop something helpful to say on the matter for when it arises in a decade and my kids start asking questions of their own. Setting the book here therefore let me explore Norway, Norwegian society and culture, humour, socio-political tensions, and history all as an outsider looking in. This was interesting to me. Meanwhile, placing Sheldon in Norway turned out to be a lot more fun than I ever first suspected. Norwegians are my family now, and I do love them. Nonetheless, this book is partly my revenge.
7. Your novel was oringally published in Norway, in Norwegian, what has the process been like getting your book (originally written in English) published in English language markets?
No one wanted this book. I was pretty much rejected by everyone in the English-speaking world for more than two years. No one knew what kind of book it was or how to market it. I was told this explicitly. "We like the writing, but not sure we can sell it." There really isn't a reputable publisher who hasn't turned this down. That is, in the end, aside from Scribe, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (U.S.) and Faber & Faber (UK)!
So I decided to think strategically. After maybe twenty or thirty rejections, I stopped attacking the enemy at his strongest point (Vintage, Random House, etc.), and decided to attack the publishing world by invading a small, peaceful, and poorly defended country with a very strong interest in literature and a natural connection to the subject matter. People in the know said that Norway had never accepted a manuscript in a language other than Norwegian, and I said, "good, then they'll never see me coming!"
And so Sheldon went to Norway as a new kind of gambit and it paid off. Cappelen Damm — an excellent publisher — was willing to read it in English, then they said yes to it, and off we went. This attracted some interest, and with careful fanning of the flames — helped by a German and French literary agency, passionate book scouts and editors to whom I am very grateful — it found a foothold in Germany, then France, then Israel, the Netherlands and finally an English-language publisher in Australia. Eventually, the U.S., UK, and Spain came on board as well.
It was Henry Rosenbloom — of Scribe Publications in Melbourne — who was the first English-language publisher to say yes. I knew Scribe's excellent reputation, and I suspected that an intimate relationship with a small but highly experienced and well-positioned publisher might be a great way to get the support I'd surely need. I was right. I'm simply delighted to have the book coming out in Australia first. You all gave me the break, took the risk, and welcomed me in. Thanks.
Meanwhile, in the first chapter, Sheldon steals a rowboat from you Australians during the battle of Inchon in 1950. On his behalf, allow me to apologize.
8. War and its legacy is a big theme in your book. Do you think we can ever get over wars and more importantly should we?
I do believe that conflict is endemic to social interacion and that conflicts between societies will therefore continue to occur. However, I also think that there is much progress to be made in better managing and resolving conflicts. I feel confident in saying that states have not invested in building the tools necessary to engage the world's plurality of cultural systems in ways that are informed by our differences. I believe real progress towards more peaceful co-existence will be the reward for relevant efforts in this regard. Just consider the expertise, budgets, systems and scholarship that has gone into winning war. And now compare that to what we've invested to avert, manage, or recover from war.
My colleague Lisa Rudnick and I have been working on designing "evidence-based" approaches to peace and security programming for almost a decade at The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research and now through my own work at The Policy Lab.
At the moment, for example, we are assisting the UN to build new tools on the matter of reintegrating excombatants back into civilian life after wars — such as in Libya, South Sudan, and other places. Such efforts pertain to matters such as human rights abuses, transitional justice, economic recovery, and how different societies manage the memory and morality of warfare and its atrocities. Until we recognize how different cultures are, and how they need to address these themes locally, we will never make serious progress.
So I absolutely believe that even if we can't avert war entirely, we can get better, smarter, and more strategic in our efforts to assist societies in resolving conflict and recover from it.
9. What other writers have inspired you?
I haven't sought to emulate anyone, but I'm very often inspired. In no particular order: James Salter for his language and very careful sense of emotional movement; Mark Helprin for his limitless imagination and mastery over what John Gardner called "the fictional dream"; William Maxwell for his clarity, and humanity, and quiet; Siri Hustveldt for how she looks out into the world, and what she sees in it; Richard Ford for creating worlds that make me feel like I can understand lives I haven't lived, but might have or still may; Saul Bellow for being a master and serving as a mentor; Kurt Vonnegut for … well … his Vonnegutness; Nick Hornby for reminding me to lighten up, enjoy my writing, and just tell the story; John Irving for Owen Meany specifically, but also for holding the line and saying, "plot matters … damn it" because he's right. Many others of course. I could go on and on.
And just to toss these out there, it isn't only the fiction masters who inspire me. In children's literature — often overlooked for some reason — I love Dr. Seuss, Sandra Boynton, Oliver Jeffers, and Mo Willems among others. For humor I love listening to Eddie Izzard, George Carlin and David Sedaris. In non-fiction I have a long list but perhaps that's another question. I am constantly dazzled and excited by fiction. The notion that it might be dying or needs help baffles me.
10. What books have you been reading lately?
I read slowly. Perhaps very slowly. These days, I'm more or less limiting my reading to books I think worthy of being read out loud. That's when I hear the sentences and the voice. And that's what makes me happy. I just finished Salter's A Sport and a Pastime which should be read aloud, though its erotic content might get you arrested. Don't let that stop you, though.
I recently read William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows. Many of his short stories too. The loss of Maxwell's mother was a powerful force in his life, and I needed to understand how he portrayed it. Maxwell was a huge influence on how I came to think about Sheldon's relationship to memory and time. I would strongly encourage everyone to listen to his interview on America's National Public Radio. If you can keep from crying, you're tougher than me.
I'm now reading Richard Ford's Canada. I think Independence Day and Lay of the Land are among my favorite books. This, however, is my first ebook which I'm trying to read on an iPad and it is definitely slowing me down. I might buy it again in paperback.
I've been trying to read Franzen's Freedom, but I'm having more trouble getting through it than … apparently … everyone else on the planet. I was a huge fan of The Corrections, though.
On the docket is Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic. Adam and I went to high school together in Wellesley, Massachussets. We were friends way back then. I haven't seen him since … I suppose … 1988 when we graduated. I'm very curious to see what he's writing. I hear it's great.
Also on my contemporary list is Lean on Pete, by Willy Vlautin, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. But I'm no slave to staying current, I don't make the slightest effort to do so and I'm unapologetic about it. I'm also keen to read some James Thurber. I want to read more Oscar Wilde, and I also want to read more Tom Stoppard plays. Finally, I have to mention Andrew Delbanco's wonderful non-fiction anthology called Writing New England, which is inspiring my next novel.