Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Jay Neugeboren: Q+A With the Editor

We published Jay Neugeboren's first novel in two decades, 1940, in the spring of 2008. In a fantastic review of the book, the Los Angeles Times called Jay "one of our most honored writers of literary fiction," which cleanly sums up my sentiments.

We've recently made plans to publish Jay's fourth collection of stories (and our first!), You Are My Heart And Other Stories, next spring. It's marvelous, and underlines Jay's reputation as one of our pre-eminent American writers.

ED: This new collection of stories is impressive to me in the ways in which it deals with the complexities of relationships. Is this reflective of a period in your life where you’re maybe better capable of understanding your own previous relationships?

JN: I’m not sure that my understanding of my previous relationships--the life I’ve lived--has much to do with the writing of stories. What intrigues always, fifty years ago as now, is mystery: how did we get to be who we are, and how did somebody I don’t know, or know slightly, or imagine into being, get to be who that person is. In the extended moment that is a story, it is the web of relationships (involving people, places, events, memory) that can evoke the unseen from the seen, and allow us to move through past, present, and future in both troubling and pleasurable ways. The question, though--always always--will I be capable of conjuring up that moment, that story?

I wrote The Stolen Jew (1981), not because I knew about Jews in 19th century Russia, or what things were like for my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents who were either born in Russia, or were first generation Americans, but because I did not know what their lives were like and had been like before I was born. In order to know--to begin to understand who they were and where they had come from (and, thus, to begin to understand who I was, and why), I had to invent their lives.

Just so in these new stories. Although the time and place of many of the stories may be known to me--Brooklyn in the years during and after World War Two, the south of France during the uprisings of 1968 and in the 21st century--the people in the stories--who they are and what happens to them--these are invented so that I can come to understand things about them, and their relationships to one another--and to time and to place--in ways that are, until I write the stories, un-known to me.

There is also this: I’ve been free, these past few years, from responsibilities that were mine through most of my adult life. For a large portion of this life I was an on-site single parent to my three children (all now adults themselves, and well-launched); caretaker to my brother Robert, who has been a mental patient for five decades, and who now receives the kind of decent care that does not require me to be active full-time in caring for him and/or monitoring the care he receives; a full-time professor, and adviser to several generations of graduate students (I took early retirement a decade ago); guardian for my mother in her final illness, which lasted more than a decade (she died in 2003); owner of a large old home and two cars (I now live in a thousand square foot New York City apartment, own no car), etc.

I.e., Perhaps, being free of such worldly responsibilities, I have the time, and good fortune, to be able to luxuriate in letting my imagination roam more freely than ever--in the contemplation of relationships, and in the conjuring up of stories, worlds, people who themselves can roam freely, doing things (and contemplating things) that are, by turns, surprising, sweet, weird, sad, horrifying, or astonishing. For the most part, I let them go their way, observe their relationships, sometimes guide them this way or that, and then, in the writing of the stories, try to make some sense of what I have glimpsed, discovered, and/or sense about what I remain (passionately) curious about.

ED: The stories, ranging in location from South Africa to France to mid-20th century Brooklyn, wonderfully use location to evoke mood. I’m thinking of the hospital in Avignon being re-located in ‘Make-A-Wish’, or Peter imagining the dispersal of anti-retrovirals in South Africa in ‘Here or There.’ Do you find it more or less difficult to do this with short fiction?

JN: No more difficult than in a novel. I’ve set novels and stories in times and places I’ve never been to or known directly: Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries, Israel in 1978, the Bronx in 1940, Manhattan in 1904, Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1915; Hollywood in 1930, Cuba in the twenties, South Africa today, etc. The task is ever the same: to do enough homework so that the latitude and longitude of the tales--time and place--seem accurate (to use, and invert Marianne Moore’s image: I try to set imaginary toads in real gardens). I would expect anyone who has been to, or knows, the places in which I set the stories in the new collection--Avignon, Grasse, South Africa, Lakewood, New Jersey--to think: Yes, that’s what it’s like! Place is as central to story as it is to life: it evokes feelings, images, and, above all, memories. I trust the details and descriptions in the stories--the selection of detail; what I leave in and, as important, what I leave out--evoke place in particular (not general or generalized) ways. But a major difference, I note here, briefly, between writing stories and novels has to do not with the conjuring up of place, but with the way one deals with time. Writing a short story is as different from writing a novel as painting a watercolor is from making a sculpture. They may have similar elements, or effects, though to elaborate on the differences would require a more lengthy discussion than seems useful or possible here. Suffice to say: stories come to me as stories--the arc of the tale, and its length (short stories are shorter than novels, and according to Poe, who set the standards, should be able to be read in a single sitting) necessitates that all must be contained within a certain ‘space’--and novels come to me as novels.

Curious discovery: When my previous (3rd) collection of stories was published in 2005, I first became aware that, in general, my novels take place in shorter time periods (weeks and months) than my short stories, which often move across many years--and, as in the two novellas in this collection, across several generations.

ED: In many of the reviews of your work, you’re credited with very intelligently raising some profound questions rather than simply banging the reader over the head. You have a grace in revealing these questions so that they unravel almost like a mystery – I’m thinking specifically of Daniel’s progression in 1940. Is there a succinct way for you to explain your thoughts on the writer’s role in storytelling?

JN: Best way to explain: Tell the story. Old adage (attributed to Sam Goldwyn) for writers--‘If you want to send messages, use Western Union.’ The last thing I intend to write is, to quote Flannery O’Connor, “a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.” When people ask, for example, ‘What are you trying to say in your story?,’ I wince. My characters themselves may have much on their minds, and strong views, but what they believe may or may not be what I may or may not (at different times) believe. The hope is to create a world that has its own inner logic; as in life, it is the complex of relationships: time, place, character--that helps to reveal things, to dissolve some mysteries (about the characters and their worlds), while creating others. I’m not naïve enough to believe my stories are without themes; my own prejudices, convictions, and tastes often, like the proverbial hem of the skirt, may show. If so, too bad. But I don’t conceive of my stories thematically (as being about ‘profound questions’)--I don’t think: in this story I want to raise questions of a and b and c... I think in terms of the voice or voices in which most effectively to tell the tale, of the characters I dimly know and want to know better, and of the language that may most vividly evoke moments whose joy or sorrow or delight I, for whatever reasons, am trying to evoke...

ED: You’re one of the most prolific and diligent writers I know. Can you describe your routine?

JN: I wake up early--630-645--eat breakfast while glancing thru the N. Y. Times, then turn off my phone (essential!), make a journal entry, and begin working. I go over what I’ve written the day before and don’t move forward until I’ve revised what I’ve already written in a reasonably satisfactory way. I revise endlessly, and by hand. I use up many, many trees. One of my early novels, coming in at 500 pages, went through a dozen complete drafts. I love trimming and cutting: for another novel, a penultimate draft of over 1000 pages became, happily, a book of fewer than 500 pages in its final draft. Depending on the story, I spend a good deal of time doing homework (a year or so for most of my novels)--researching this and that, reading, sketching in scenes, wandering about in the unknown, searching through new and old notes, folders, drafts, scenes (leftovers) that were cut from other tales. In two of the stories in this collection, major sections derive from stories I first began writing more than three decades ago. I don’t show anything I’ve written to anyone until I believe it’s finished and ready to submit. And, when deeply submerged in writing fiction--novels or stories--I stop reading most fiction: find myself much too suggestible and vulnerable.

ED: One of the publishing figures that you’ve brought up in conversation to me previously is Hal Scharlatt. He had worked with you and Rudy Wurlitzer, amongst many other writers. Can you tell us about him, and maybe a favorite story if you have one?

JN: Hal was my editor for an early non-fiction book, Parentheses: An Autobiographical Journey (1970), which I wrote when I was thirty. It tells of my political activities in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the sixties, my tenure as a junior executive trainee for the General Motors Corporation, my coming-of-age as a writer (eight unpublished books before my first novel, Big Man, was published in 1966), and of the life I lived for two years in a small village in the south of France. Hal was one of the boy wonders of publishing--editor-in-chief of E. P. Dutton before he was thirty. He was both easy-going and driven, a total mensch and a shrewd, demanding editor, and he believed in publishing books he loved, and he loved working with writers. He edited my book line by line, and my fondest memory is of a day we spent together, going over the manuscript, when he drove out from Manhattan in an old rear-engine Volkswagon to where I was living at the time--on the Old Westbury campus of the State University of New York (the former Clark estate). What surpised me was that a man in charge of a major New York publishing company would drive out to Long Island, and spend an entire day going over a manuscript with an author (me) on a book that he warned had only the slightest chance for commercial success (despite his efforts, and mine, the book sold under 1500 copies). He loved books, and he loved the work he did--also bringing into being, while editor-in-chief, a literary magazine, The Dutton Review, in order to provide a home for new writers and adventurous prose.

August 18, 2010

Jay Neugeboren's fourth collection of stories, You Are My Heart and Other Stories, will be published May 2011.

Author photograph credit: Copyright Eli Neugeboren.

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