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Disappearing Act: Part Two

What was the size of the manuscript before you cut the book down? The finished book is 350 pages. I probably handed in 600 pages to my agent, but really, with the footnotes and my annotated raw notes, it was … Read More

By / June 1, 2007

What was the size of the manuscript before you cut the book down?

The finished book is 350 pages. I probably handed in 600 pages to my agent, but really, with the footnotes and my annotated raw notes, it was around 1100 pages.

You expected to do radical excision?

That’s how I work. I really love to work with negative space. Otherwise I would lose my mind. It took a decade; if it was the wrong direction I would really go insane. I really believe I had to draw Lillian a thousand different ways for her to become Lillian, even if it means drawing these scenes and dropping them out.

It was really a giant test for me as a writer to not fall prey to sensationalism, too. How much fun is it for Mr. Naughty Ex-Religious Boy to do the Jewish pimps and whores? I wrote tons of chapters on those whorehouses, but that was not the story I was telling. And the same with torture. I gave it this tiny little section that was the hardest and most dangerous part to write.

It was powerfully effective to have this little girl being incarcerated in this tube-like cell awaiting her —

Thank you. That was scary. Just after finishing my book I interviewed A.B. Yehoshua on stage about his novel Woman in Jerusalem which has a Greek chorus that comes in at the end. I asked him, “Did you really need to take that chance? Are you aware of how dangerous that was? You were home free.” I love fiction and it’s holy to me; I feel like if I make one mistake, I'm bumped and its over.

What do you mean, you're bumped?

Bumped out of line. “This was a perfect book but that comma is in the wrong place and it doesn't read right for me anymore.”

Is Kaddish a common Jewish surname?

No, no.

So if I'm not Jewish, and I’m reading this book, do I get the portentous nature of the name?

Even better if you don’t. His name is explained in the book, and how he received it. It’s a Jewish tradition. If somebody, say, has a terrible heart attack and survives it, they will take on a new name. If the angel of death was coming for Steve Cohen, he might not be looking for Marc Cohen. Sometimes people take on these wonderfully loaded, portentous names. In this case, the rabbi gives Kaddish his name—which is the prayer for the dead—because he is a sickly child. He says he should be the mourner instead of the mourned.

This book will not be pegged as a Jewish book, will it? A Jewish novel?

I like the way the question is formed because I get really defensive about that. It really comes from the Jewish community. I'm happy to be anything. You can call me whatever you want. Last time people said, "He is a long haired hippie writer," so now I am a short haired —

[RB laughs]

Now am I actually different? I got a haircut. Well, so do we switch shelves? But for me, I believe that if fiction is functioning, it better be universal. If this book makes me a Jewish writer, it should also make me an Argentine writer. I spent ten years of my life on this book. I'm obsessed with this country. I lived this book for a decade. I can't feel any closer.

Historically, it feels like I have been given the Holocaust because I am a Jew, even though I am an American Jew—you are bequeathed these things. But sometimes you just adopt them. Argentina is so close to my heart now. I am just doing my work and they are my people. I should at least be one quarter Argentine writer now. But apparently that doesn't change either.

How Jewish is the Posnan family?

After the last book, I just I felt so much pressure to be like, “These are not regular people, they are Jewish people.” It’s just insane. I write fiction. And again I think of fiction as universal. My world in my head is often very Jewish when I imagine these things, but for the Posnans I actively resisted that. Once I decided the book starts off, “Jews bury themselves, the way they live,” that was one of the most freeing days, like “I’m just going to start this book with the word ‘Jews.’”

I was trying to stay away from Jewishness, but I recognized there is nothing to stay away from, that this is the world of my imagination. And it’s enough to me that it’s part of their humanity. Once I realized that I was not thinking of them as “other,” I got comfortable with the idea that none of this stuff is other, and now I feel like I can set everything in shul for the rest of my life. I am just so sensitive about it. It’s just such a strange thing that people want to do.

Why is it strange? Isn’t that what minority communities do?

Inside my head, it’s not a minority. That’s the whole point. When I grew up, Orthodox was the only way to be. I keep using the Dostoevsky example: In the Idiot, one Russian guy is talking to another Russian guy. But they don’t see themselves as “Russian guys.” You’re just in their world. They’re just guys.

What are your feelings about Kaddish and Lillian and Pato? Ten years with three people—

Day and night, yeah. I’m such a pessimist, I didn’t know if I would survive this book until the characters began to take on their own forms.. You have Lillian say one thing, and you go back and it’s just not her anymore. A friend still hasn't forgiven me this one moment I wanted so much. I think it was maybe the finest line I have ever written, but it was just a slightly different Lillian head—she would just not think this way at this point, anywhere in the book. That's when it the book felt tight to me, when I cut that line.

There was a question about surviving this book? If you felt that, what was the hump that you got over?

That moment I just said.

Nine years into it [laughs]?

I knew the book would be completed when I suddenly had another idea. I’d was writing the novel—this thing that was all-consuming, literally eating my whole brain—and then this little space opened and I thought, “Oh, that would be a good short story.” I feel like my head is now lit with ideas. It’s all free space now.

I would have thought that for some period of time, having completed the book after spending so much time on it, there would be some kind of reverberation. You’re saying you have been liberated to move on.

For me this was book was all-consuming, like most of my adult life spent on it. There really was a postpartum thing where you feel fine for a couple of weeks and then you just crash. My whole sense of purpose was this book, but then it gets balanced out by the fact that my real purpose is writing. If that’s what you are going to do all the time, you better really like it. So I feel like people get into trouble when they are only project-oriented.

Nine years later, big life commitment. Done. So what do you think about your book?

For me it’s not about whether I think it’s good. I recognize that’s not for me to do. I know what my obligations to a book are. I always quote Barry Targin, a writer who taught me about moral fiction at Binghamton. He talked about writing a fiction he could bear. The question is, do you stand by it?

You are proud of this as a good piece of craft?

Uh, I don’t know if it’s that.

You did the best you could?

Actually, it’s very strange for me to need to say, “Yes. I have tried my best” and then also to be done. Literally, my poor, poor editor, poor Jordan—I made a list of probably 75 to 100 pages of questions that I wanted to answer before the book was done. I remember sitting in her office on the last day, with her at her desk and me sitting at a small desk behind her.

Was it the kid’s table?

At the kid’s table. Other editors would walk by the office and look in and say “Poor woman. I don’t know why they love each other, those two.”

I remember sitting there crossing out the last question and being like, “And now I am done.” That’s it.

That’s a beautiful scene. Possibly shows the finer editor-writer relationship—

I'm so thankful for my editor and my agent. They take good care of me.

Let's give them names. Who are they?

Nicole Araggi and Jordan Pavlin at Knopf. I’m spoiled as can be. I’m really happy at Knopf. They care about books. Even the cover is important. Barbara de Wilde, who did my first cover, she hadn’t worked there in the intervening eight years and yet they brought her back. Nobody asked. I didn’t ask. To me that means somebody in the art department is thinking about books in a careful way. Not that anybody remembers I was alive, thank you, but I don’t think my collection would have sold a copy with a Jewish star on the front. They represented it the way I see it and that gave it a chance.

Have you spent much time thinking about who you are now, after this long boat voyage, ten years before the mast or some such?

My friends would say, “All he does is think about himself.” [both laugh] But not in that way. It’s a goal, to be very honest, to choose writing, to make time to write. I keep saying “obsessed” or “holy” because I am obsessed with it and it is holy to me. The writing will not suffer. I refuse to have it suffer but, now, after this point maybe I can balance writing and something else. I would like to be more available for dinner plans with the next book. That can be a goal.

You’re shooting for becoming a well-rounded mensch here.

I’d like to work towards being of the world.

We’ll check in from time to time and see how it goes.

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