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Posts Tagged ‘novel’

Francine Prose on ‘My New American Life’

May 13, 2011 | by

Photograph by Stephanie Berger.

Francine Prose is a pleasure to interview. She is quick-witted and gracious, and there is this way that she says my name—“Oh, Thessaly, that’s an excellent question”—that makes me feel, for a split second, as if I’m the award-winning novelist that has something interesting to say. Her latest novel, My New American Life, is about a young Albanian immigrant named Lula, who is working as a nanny for a teenager in a quiet, New Jersey suburb. Her boss has offered to help her get a green card, so Lula waits and waits, until one day, three visitors, unannounced, knock on the door. Will Lula be deported? Are they long-lost Albanian family? Through Lula’s eyes, we see the promise of the American dream as well as the ways it might never come true. Prose and I spoke on the telephone not long ago.

Your protagonist is a twenty-six-year-old Albanian immigrant named Lula who lives in New Jersey. Why Albania?

If you are going to write a novel, I would not suggest that you pick an Albanian unless you are an Albanian. I was writing about immigration, and I wanted to pick someone from the most psycho-isolated Eastern-bloc country. If you go to the Czech Republic now, it is deceptively easy to forget what happened there. But if you go to Albania now, you are not going to forget it— you just can’t; then is now.

In a strange way, the novel began ten years ago, when I was staying at this really crappy Hilton in Tampa, Florida, for a weekend. We got there and there was a plate of food outside someone’s door in the corridor. It was there when we got there and it was there when we left, and I thought, This is just like Eastern Europe, because no one really cares if you ever come back again. In the late eighties, I went with my family to former Yugoslavia. We showed up at some restaurant, ordered dinner, and the waiter came back two hours later and said, “What? I had to eat my dinner.” End-stage capitalism and Eastern-bloc communism have a lot of things in common, as Lula discovers in the course of the book.

So you visited Albania?

I did. I got about forty pages into the novel and I couldn’t go any further. It turns out that you can’t find out about Albania on YouTube as much as one might like to. I mean, you can learn about people’s vacations and weddings and so forth, but not much more. So I went on a trip with the State Department. I was there for about two weeks and I just loved it.

Do you think one has to acquire experience to be a novelist?

Well, I would, because nothing has ever happened to me. I had to go to Albania; I couldn’t make it up. It more often happens the other way around. It is not as if you go around saying “I think I will have a love affair, and then I will write about one.” It’s more “Blah-blah broke up with me and said the most cruel thing,” and ten years later you find a way to put it into a book.

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An Interview with James Salter

April 11, 2011 | by

Photograph by Lan Rys.

Our Spring Revel is tomorrow, April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. Here is Salter himself, discussing his new novel and reflecting on his work as a writer and a teacher.

 

Tell me about your new novel.

I’ve been working on it for some years. I’d had the idea for a long time, but I was unconsciously waiting for a line from Christopher Hitchens. He wrote somewhere that “No life is complete that has not known poverty, love, and war.” That struck me, and I began with that.

I haven’t followed it through. Poverty doesn’t play much of a part. Betrayal does, and it’s a book that has a little more plot than other books of mine. It’s about an editor, a book editor, it’s the story of his life.

In your Paris Review interview with Edward Hirsch, you describe this image of your friend Robert Phelps going through his books, taking down the ones that didn’t measure up and leaving them in the hall. Reading your work, one gets the sense that there is a similar process at work—that everything unnecessary or plain has been taken away.

Yes, that’s probably a fault of the writing.

How so?

I think I’d like to write a little less intensely.

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David Bezmozgis on ‘The Free World’

April 5, 2011 | by

Photograph by David Franco.

Set in Rome in 1978, David Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, tells the story of the Krasnansky family, three generations of Latvian Jews, who leave their lives in Riga, and, like many Soviet immigrants bound for the West in the late seventies, must spend six months in the Italian metropolis to secure their visas. Contrary to the book’s title, the Krasnanskys find themselves confined to this Roman waiting room, weighed down by the rubble of their communist past, the uncertainty of their future, and their allegiances to one another. Born in Riga in 1973, Bezmozgis immigrated to Canada with his family in 1980 and told the immigrant assimilation story with his tender, restrained collection of short fiction, Natasha and Other Stories (2004). The Free World is a sort of prologue to Natasha, the taxing journey his resilient characters—Jews in Transit, as the émigré newspaper offered in Rome is called—made before settling in the North American suburb. I recently spoke with Bezmozgis at a café not far from the New York Public Library, where he is currently a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center.

The Krasnanskys’ story begins on a train platform in Vienna and concludes before they ever reach the North American free world. Had you always intended to contain the narrative in this strange way station?

Yes, one thing I knew very clearly is that the book begins when they get to Italy and it ends when they’re about to leave. That in-between period, that purgatory, is the balancing point between the past, the unknowable future, and the present, which is intriguing and exotic. It’s full of dramatic possibility. It was always fascinating to me that these people had given up their lives without really knowing where they were going. I feel like I leave my apartment in Brooklyn to go to the Bronx with more information than my parents had leaving the Soviet Union to go to Canada.

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David Vann on ‘Caribou Island’

February 10, 2011 | by

Photograph by Diana Matar.

David Vann’s Caribou Island is my favorite novel of the past few years. I read it last summer for possible excerpt in The Paris Review. It’s the story, set against the striking landscape of the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, of Irene and Gary, whose thirty-year marriage is collapsing. The story is disturbing; I read it quickly, consumed. I loved the book so much that I was reluctant to see that an excerpt wasn’t working. The story was so powerful as a whole—it was irreducible. I recently had the chance to talk to Vann.

You alternate between characters’ points of view, and between their stories. How did the shape of the book come about?

None of it was planned. I was writing seven days a week, a few pages every day, and those were where the chapters ended. It really was such a blind process writing the book. I didn’t know each day what the characters would do or say; I didn’t know when a chapter would end; I didn’t know what the next chapter would be or where it was headed. And so with each chapter, I felt like it had come to where it closed, and then each time, luckily, there was some clear sense of where to go next.

How long did the book take to write?

Five and a half months.

Wow.

I started it fourteen years ago when I finished Legend of a Suicide, and I only got forty-eight pages in, and then I just couldn’t figure out how to write a longer arc. I didn’t know whose story it was or where it was supposed to focus, so I put it away. That’s when I went to sea and became a captain and wrote A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea. I couldn’t get Legend of a Suicide published, so I pouted for a while and didn’t write for five and a half years. Not writing was partly pouting and partly because I was stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to do a novel. And I felt like my brain wouldn’t do a longer arc. But in January 2009, I was walking on Skilak Lake, walking out across the frozen lake toward Caribou Island, and I felt like I could see all of it. It seemed really clear that Irene had to be the focus, she had to be the main character right from the start, and that the story had to begin really late, and that their marriage would already be in trouble. The whole thing would feel like the final sequence in that way. I think that was why it was easy to get from chapter to chapter and why they’re fairly short and quick, as if they’re really all the final sequence.

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Karen Russell on Swamplandia!

February 3, 2011 | by

Photograph by Michael Lionstar.

Swamplandia! is twenty-nine-year-old Karen Russell’s first novel. But the Miami native is already well known in literary circles for her debut story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006). The overlapping themes in St. Lucy’s—the pitfalls and wonders of childhood, reality’s spectral double, and the changeable mood of the Florida swamp—resurface, with equal deftness and wit, in the novel, which also borrows the Bigtrees, a family of alligator wrestlers. In Swamplandia!, the Bigtrees operate the titular theme park on a small island in Florida’s archipelago, and Ava, the youngest daughter, traces the park’s and the family’s demise—the “Beginning of the End” she calls it—after the death of her mother.

Were there theme parks on islands in the Florida you grew up in, as there are in the novel?

There were definitely a lot of these little Diane Arbus-y–constructed realities everywhere. We had Monkey Jungle, Parrot Jungle, a serpentarium off I-60, zoos, and the Miami seaquarium. It was this seamless, whole cloth thing: There is the seaquarium, now we go to the grocery store. It doesn’t really interrupt reality.

We had a little boat when I was really young, and we would go tool around the islands near Pristine Bay, and I loved that. I was reading YA novels where kids are always shucking their parents and living for months on an island, so that was exciting. There’s a whole genre of YA novels where some kid is stranded by a plane, or stuck on an island, or lost in the woods, and they use their kid resources to survive through sheer luck. That was always my favorite trajectory. I was an anxious kid, and these books seemed like the best invention ever: here is a door I can carry with me wherever I go; I could just open a book in any situation.

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A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer

February 2, 2011 | by

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.

DAY ONE

8:42 A.M. I sit on the couch, drinking cold leftover coffee, reading through the printout of the novel I’m working on. The week’s first cultural artifact is the most elusive: a work of fiction in progress, still finding its shape. I’m working on the last quarter of the book, which is mostly rough draft. I’ve been weaving together three narrative threads, set in different time periods, from the 1830s, when two families work together on the underground railroad in small-town Illinois, to 2004.

To see how other writers handle structure with multiple points of view and chapters that slide around in time, I’ve been rereading Heidi Durrow’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. It’s clear by page twenty that young Rachel’s Danish mother jumped off a roof with her three young children, and that only Rachel survived. Durrow keeps building suspense. In the first chapter, Rachel has gone to live with her black grandmother. She is the “new girl” in school: “I learn that black people don’t have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes. I put all these facts into the new girl.”

I’m suddenly reminded of Quicksand, an autobiographical first novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. It’s mentioned in Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s collagelike book of essays, Harlem Is Nowhere. I pull out the galley and double check. Yes, Rhodes-Pitt writes that Helga Crane, the narrator in Larsen’s novel, is both black and Danish, as is Larsen, the author. Rachel in the Durrow novel seems to be a cultural descendant of Helga, who has a fractured sense of self but finds temporary contentment in “Harlem, teeming black Harlem.”

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