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Posts Tagged ‘novel’

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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Michael Cunningham

October 14, 2010 | by

Photograph by Richard Phibbs.

By Nightfall, the sixth novel by Pulitzer Prize–winning Michael Cunningham, tells the story of Peter Harris, a gallery owner in Manhattan whose comfortable marriage is interrupted by the arrival of Mizzy (short for “the Mistake”), the younger brother of his wife, Rebecca. Peter—a straight man—finds Mizzy’s youth intoxicating and seductive. Soon, Peter is questioning his life, his marriage, even his sexuality, and wondering if it’s worth throwing it all away. Earlier this week, Cunningham answered my questions about his book over e-mail.

You write, “History favors the tragic lovers, the Gatsbys and the Anna K.s, it forgives them, even as it grinds them down. But Peter, a small figure on an undistinguished corner of Manhattan, will have to forgive himself, he’ll have to grind himself down because it seems no one is going to do it for him.” Why create someone like Peter and not … well, a Gatsby?

A Peter as opposed to a Gatsby. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from reading the modernists, particularly Woolf and Joyce, who insisted that fiction depict the 99.9 percent of the population who are not Gatsby or Nostromo or David Copperfield; who insisted that part of the novelist’s job is to ferret out the epic story of outwardly unextraordinary people, who are of course extraordinary to themselves. I just don’t feel much interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

At one point, Peter says, “I don’t know. I mean, how could I love another guy and not be gay?” “Easy,” says Uta. Why is it easy?

Human sexuality is tremendously complicated, so much so that the designations “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” are all but meaningless. How many of us have had crushes, and even sexual experiences, with people who fall outside our official “erotic category”? Okay, not everyone, but many of us. I’m interested in sexuality that falls outside the official lines of demarcation. As is Uta.

The seed of By Nightfall was really Mann’s Death in Venice. Although I didn’t want to rewrite Death in Venice, I’ve always been fascinated by Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio, which is eroticized but not exactly sexual; it’s more about Aschenbach’s love of youth and beauty and ephemerality. If it was just a book about an old letch hungering for a young boy, what good would it be? I wanted to write about an essentially straight guy who finds himself powerfully drawn not only to a boy but to what the boy represents. If Peter had simply become obsessed with a girl, the story would have been too conventional. Read More »

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