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Birnbaum v.

Ben Jones

Some nights you want a period romance, some nights a claustrophobic babble-drama, and some nights you just want a ripping adventure story that will keep you awake. A conversation with novelist Ben Jones about his new book of Arctic exploration.

Novelist Ben Jones was born in Wales, received his bachelor’s degree in English from Yale in 1991, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Vermont Studio Center. He has served as an editor for the Adventure Library, which publishes stories of exploration and discovery, and has also been a high school teacher. Recently, his novel The Rope Eater was published, of which Alan Cheuse wrote, “It shouldn’t demean the talent and ability of first-time novelist Ben Jones to say this early in the new publishing season that his novel is one of the best first novels of the year.” Ben Jones has also recently collaborated with Brian Hall on a short story, “Le Morte D’INA” for the compelling Tag Team fiction series Dave Daley has been publishing at the JournalNews.com. Jones lives with his wife and two daughters in Bennington, VT, where he is the Dean of Admissions at Bennington College.

The Rope Eater is a riveting arctic adventure that takes place in the 1860s as Brendan Kane, the rudderless protagonist who deserts the Union Army, ends up being recruited for a sea voyage. This voyage, not unexpectedly, encounters a host of disasters: starvation, shipwreck, murder, madness, and mayhem. What is unexpected is the story of the Aziz, the Middle Easterner, for whom this novel is named. Patrick Anderson in the Washington Post concludes, “Jones…devotes 15 pages to this agonizing parable [Aziz’s story], and I imagine his goal was to impart a certain universality to his story. Early in the novel, we glimpsed the horror of the Civil War, then we plunged into a mad quest for riches, and now we have seen new, unimagined cruelties halfway around the world. As poor Aziz concludes, life on this Earth ‘is a strife and a clashing.’ It is not a cheerful message, but it is brilliantly expressed in The Rope Eater, which deserves to be one of the most admired novels of the new year.”
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: Why did you want to write a novel about an Arctic expedition?

Ben Jones: I got great advice when I was starting out from a friend who said, ‘Write a book that you want to read.’ Which is really very simple. And he said, ‘If you want to read it, the chances are that other people will too. If you don’t, then no one will.’ So I started to look around for models and the model that I got was Moby Dick, which I thought was a great, driving, adventure story. And had the space in it to hang all this other stuff off of—which I thought was really interesting—spiritual and philosophical explorations, those kinds of things. That was the initial genesis. I had always loved Arctic and Antarctic exploration. I always thought them really very interesting. I look at that time as the last time when we physically could confront nature in an authentic way. After that I think it became either mediated by technology, like space travel, or contrived, like, ‘I’m going to Pogo-stick across the North Pole.’

RB: That’s a good answer, but why did you want to write a novel?

BJ: I tried to write short stories, because I thought it would be easier, but I was terrible at it. I had a really hard time bringing the focus in that tightly. As soon as I started to think about one thing there were other things and I wanted to put everything in. I have a very hard time writing. I am not one of these people who sits and pages and pages flow out. So if I got it out I wanted to make sure that there was a place for it to go. Really, picking a novel was a picking a vessel that was big enough to have everything in it.

RB: Had you ever considered looking for a yet-undiscovered explorer or expedition?
Ben Jones, by Robert Birnbaum
BJ: I looked at a couple because I was an editor for the Adventure Library and there are some undiscovered guys. There is a guy named Thomas Simpson who was one of the great walkers of all time. He explored a lot of Canada. And basically he thought nothing of heading out into the woods of Canada with a gun and a backpack and walking 800 miles by himself. And then he would meet someone and turn around and walk back. He went crazy and was murdered at the end of his life. I thought he was an interesting character. I don’t have the stamina in that direction to be a historian.

RB: Meaning endless research? Did Simpson write much?

BJ: He didn’t write a lot, as far as I know. There may be papers in an archive somewhere.

RB: I wonder about the denigration that fiction writers have for so-called creative nonfiction writers—that there is some lower-order work. And also when I read books like Todd Balf’s The Darkest Jungle, which is the story of the first U.S. naval expedition to the Darién Gap in 1854, it’s a wonderful and fascinating story. I know there is a lot of hard work in assembling the facts, but the story is as good as any novel about that kind of thing.

BJ: Right.

RB: So what’s the difference? Why this antagonism between camps of writers?

BJ: I looked at it another way, [that] at least as a writer I was too lazy to do that. And also, I had literary fish that I wanted to fry, too. I took a lot from Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, which I think is magnificent. And a book [by Theodore Powell] called The Long Rescue, which is about the Greely expedition. And it has stuff in it that when I put some of it into the novel, my editor said, ‘This is completely implausible. You can’t.’ And I said, ‘The real stuff is worse than this. It goes further and it’s more fantastical and grotesque and awful and you can’t imagine that this stuff is true.’ And so I had to pull back in fiction and the realm of plausibility because the real stuff is—

RB: Is not plausible? Reality is not plausible. There’s an Orwellian slogan.

BJ: [laughs]

RB: You have three stories in The Rope Eater. And I found the two sub-stories totally delightful: the story of the entomologist whose area of expertise is the genitals of beetles who ends up discovering an Amazonian tribe. There you launch into a puzzling description of a non-existent language [and mode of thinking]. An impossible language, and then Aziz’s story is also compelling. Which story came first?

BJ: It was much more like a necklace. That is these pieces would float up whole hog, the story of Aziz, the rope eater story, came almost entirely whole and I wrote it and it was done. And I knew that it came somewhere later in the story and I had other little pieces and then the work of writing was like stringing them together. It wasn’t architectural. I had the arc of the plot from the first six months when I started to work on it and it took me another six or seven years to finish writing the book.

RB: Whoa.

BJ: The stuff at the end came very late, it was not—I was stuck with a problem which was ‘OK, up until now they don’t know where they are going and after this they do and I want to have that be as interesting as I can.’ I was reading a lot about language extinction, which I think is very interesting. Vanishing voices and the spell of the sensuous. And that morphed out of that. A little Borges and a little from Barry Lopez and I dropped in, very late—


It’s a funny question that has been coming into my mind lately—mostly I haven’t been able to work as much as I’d like—which is, ‘At the end of the day, did you earn your rest? What have you done to earn your rest today?’


RB: Was the novel’s last paragraph the last paragraph you wrote?

BJ: No, it came relatively early.

RB: It’s a haunting passage. What does it say that the last paragraph was not written last?

BJ: Parts of the last sentence were not written last. I went through a pretty intense [Samuel] Beckett period. I was reading Christopher Ricks on Beckett and he makes a big deal around the pun ‘Go still.’ Which I loved, ‘Continuing to go, go still to stop.’ And that tension is really—that really informed the whole last section of the book where [Kane] is figuring out what he is about. It got tweaked pretty late.

RB: There are some physical locales that I have been able to grasp reasonably well. The subtleties of the Arctic regions are not easy for me to visualize. How to describe this area of sheer ice and ice flows, hundreds of glaciers blocking off the sun. How do you get the picture? I struggled to place myself in the terrain you are describing.

BJ: It’s interesting for me because I haven’t traveled to the Arctic. To me the Arctic was always the most interesting as a landscape for the imagination. The ice is the ice, and there isn’t land, and it’s not rooted in the land, and the transformation that it goes through makes it sort of timeless and incredibly transitory. For me, when I talk to people who have traveled a lot in the Arctic, they say, ‘Oh, you really described this well.’ I think that’s great. [laughs] Lucky me.

RB: I read Gretel Ehrlich’s book [This Cold Heaven] about time she spent in Greenland and the one big thing I came away with was the perilous nature of being out on the ice. Every moment was fraught with imminent peril.

BJ: Right.

RB: You had, in another setting, proposed putting a Shackleton-type advertisement in newspapers: ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low pay, bitter cold, months of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.’ Who did you think would respond?

BJ: I would be really, really interested to see who would respond and for the people who don’t, it’s always an interesting question, ‘What are you about in your life?’ We talked about it: Shopping and television. It’s a funny question that has been coming into my mind lately—mostly I haven’t been able to work as much as I’d like—which is, ‘At the end of the day, did you earn your rest? What have you done to earn your rest today?’ And I have been reading about Wilfred Thesiger’s expeditions across the Empty Quarter in southern Arabia. He talks about the Bedou, the Bedouin. And he says that they believe that their life is the best life there is because it shapes them into the best people in the world, which is a really interesting way to think about your life. Rather than [as] a collection of experiences.

RB: Why did the Bedouin think that? Do other tribes or groups look at life that way? Don’t native Americans see it that way in suggesting in their languages that they are the ‘human beings’?

BJ: I don’t know enough to say.

RB: I thought that suggested something superior?

BJ: Yeah, that words for themselves are ‘we people’ or ‘true people.’ I hadn’t encountered anyone thinking about life that way before. It seems incredibly obvious to me. ‘What kind of person is this life shaping me into?’ Especially when you look at the shapes of Americans. [laughs] It’s a troubling kind of question.

RB: Yeah, it’s troubling because they don’t ask those questions. You have these oddly shaped worships and loyalties to certain tribal rituals and after that it’s—it’s a common undergraduate activity to decry the decline of civilization. I hope I am not alone in thinking that Donald Trump and the Hilton sisters and reality TV and Fox News are like turning a blender on inside of America’s brain pan. If you weren’t dumb when you started watching these creatures and myth machines you are made dumb as you watch. And then on the AOL front page they are actually surveying people on what they think about the last episode of some show. Do people actually go beyond spending time watching to then voluntarily participating in surveys about a television show? OK, I got that off my chest.
Ben Jones, by Robert Birnbaum
BJ: Right, right, right. There was a whole Dateline last night about the final show [The Apprentice] and the experience of the show, and I thought, ‘OK, here is a news program reporting on its own invented reality.’ That seemed very odd to me.

RB: Things like that, Jessica Simpson, which transmogrify into so called ‘brands,’ are strikingly scary. Juxtapose them with anxious and unpredictable political developments—who would have predicted we would be in the sights of a terrorist organization and a country at war?

BJ: And that the Europeans all hate us and the world would be fleeing. It’s interesting to couple that. For me, being a parent transformed a lot of that. I would undergo any kind of suffering and sacrifice or deprivation myself but I never want it for my children. So you think about what sort of life do I need to construct that has the right kind of authenticity to it and structure to it and pursuing the kind of things I want to pursue and doesn’t make my kids suffer terribly? I just read Anil’s Ghost and it made me want to go to Sri Lanka. I would love to go to Sri Lanka but I would never want to bring my children there, or at least, not right now. They’re little and would get dysentery.

RB: There are worse things than dysentery.

BJ: Land mines.

RB: The phenomenon of conscientious parents seems to be a great and wonderful thing. I think my parents’ generation were ill equipped to be parents and maybe the generation of parents after [them] didn’t do much better. But now I see many people engaged with and participating with their children, paying attention and caring about the world in terms of their children. I don’t know why. Anyway, seven years to write this novel?

BJ: It took over six to get the [big] chunk of it done. And two years of getting it done and having sold it before it came out.

RB: That was because you were all the time also working? Did I read correctly that you went to Paris for a while?

BJ: I moved to Paris to write novels and never to return. That was my big plan.

RB: [laughs]

BJ: [laughs] That’s OK. I went there and I had never been there before. I spoke no French. I had no job, and I didn’t know anyone who lived there. I had no place to stay. And I didn’t have any money.

RB: Why Paris?

BJ: I thought that I could—because all the people that I know who speak French cared about language in a way that no one that I knew who spoke English did. I thought that would be a place that it would be OK to care about language and to be intellectual and to be—to care deeply in a way that I wanted to, about books and ideas that I felt that America was very hostile to. And that was about it. And I have an EU passport so I thought I could get working papers. So I thought, ‘Let’s give this a shot.’ I was 27 and I had been a high-school teacher and I thought I could do that.

RB: How do you come to have a European Union passport?

BJ: I was born in Wales. My dad was over there in graduate school. [Paris] was great and once I landed and found my way around and got enough French to find a place to live and get a job and all these things, I felt like a lion. It was a great feeling. But in the time it took me to write the book—well, it took me, now it’s been eight years since I started. I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old. I moved 10 times, 12 times I have changed jobs, four times in substantially different fields.

RB: Gee, you look so stable and steady. [both laugh]

BJ: It was funny. I did a fellowship up at the Vermont Studio Center. And one of the great things about it was just seeing the way people put their lives together. The people who are teaching and the people who are professional writers and the people who are like me, sort of fitting it in on the side. And people who are looking at graduate school. There wasn’t anyone there that had it all figured out.


I was living on a hilltop in southern Vermont. And really writing and really reading and it sort of made me crazy, a little bit. That is, I was so far into my own head and had so little coming out of it that it was a very stale place to be. So that was part of the reason I chose to move into a city and move into Paris.


RB: Reading Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting, which is about a variety of artist/writer types, reminded me that part of making of art is making up one’s own life. I think about people who at least 10 times a week are caught up in this thing called rush-hour traffic. How terrible that must be.

BJ: Right, right. [breathes deeply] And every once in a while you find someone who has a life, that is in that vein, structured in that way, that is having a perfectly rich experience and has enough and carries the structure with him in a way that’s good.

RB: How do they do it? I don’t say, ‘Look at those idiots,’ when I am infrequently in rush-hour traffic. How do they do it? How to avoid becoming that character in that Joel Schumacher film Falling Down?

BJ: [laughs]

RB: Getting out of their cars and going on murderous rampages. Why aren’t there more of those?

BJ: When I was working on the section that became the rope eater [part of the novel], I was teaching high-school students. I had a kid who fell asleep in my class every day. I had a big, jump-up-and-down, active class. Every day she would fall asleep. She was a freshman. She was 13 years old. And she came in my class a bunch of times, and she had huge bruises on her arms. Terrible dark bruises. So I called her into my office, and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And she said, ‘I’m really sorry I fall asleep in your class, I’m a figure skater. Very serious and I practice for three hours before school. And four hours after school every day. The bruises are from falling. And it takes all my energy.’ I said, ‘It’s amazing at this age that you have this abiding passion that drives you to do this.’ She said, ‘I hate it.’

RB: Oh no!

BJ: She said, ‘My parents started me when I was five and think it’s going to get me into college and make me great.’ I think if we saw into people’s spirit, we would see the deformities. So I went into my next class and I asked them—this was when Michael Jordan was the king of the world; he was at the height of his powers. I said, ‘If you could have your child grow up to be Michael Jordan but they would have to dedicate their whole lives to basketball, no social lives, no nothing, just basketball, would you do it? And you had to decide for them before they were old enough to decide for themselves—that was the only way you could do it. And about half the class said, ‘Yeah, I would do that.’ So I started to talk about the castrati. And I said, ‘What do you think about this?’ And they were horrified. ‘That’s disgusting; I would never choose that.’ I said, ‘You just made the same choice for your kid. [Except] you chose basketball over music.’ It was a kind of making real of the physical damage.

RB: When I talk to writer/doctors they invariably became doctors because of familial pressure. Not out of love for medicine. And they certainly don’t care for the way medicine is practiced today. Is The Rope Eater done for you? Kane doesn’t die, so—

BJ: The set of questions that preoccupied me in The Rope Eater was still preoccupying me, which is why I was thinking of running the Shackleton ad. The set of questions is essentially the same. But he is done as a character. He’s done for me.

RB: You have two kids and have a responsible job, which I am certain from the 10 minutes that I have known you, you take seriously. [pause] If you received one of those pie-in-the-sky grants would you then devote all your time to writing?

BJ: I’d love to think that I could. I would love to. In the time before I moved to Paris I was teaching part time. And I was living on a hilltop in southern Vermont. And really writing and really reading and it sort of made me crazy, a little bit. That is, I was so far into my own head and had so little coming out of it that it was a very stale place to be. So that was part of the reason I chose to move into a city and move into Paris.

RB: Before you had kids?

BJ: Right.

RB: So that’s [the solitary writing life] no longer an option even if you wanted to.

BJ: Right. Would I? Of course I would. That was an adolescent thing, being so totally in your head. And an immature thing. I hadn’t been in the world enough. I think it would take a long time to get the world out now. Enough of it is in there. When I sold the book I didn’t have a job. I was unemployed at that point. We had a moment to say, ‘OK, here’s a chance, am I going to go whole hog and try to make a living just as a writer and do that? And I chose not to. I chose to get a job. I didn’t want to write the things that I would have to write because I felt like the kid needed a new pair of shoes. You know? And that’s a hard moment. Was I gutless? If I have talent and I think I can crank it out—

RB: Look at Edward Jones. Twelve years between books.

BJ: I know. I’ve been reading John Cheever’s journals, which are so great. He is talking about trying to write a story a week. I think, ‘Oh boy. I just couldn’t do that.’

RB: Well in the 19th century there was the view that writing was a job and you did it, and there is the Grub Street tradition that all writing is writing and you do the best you can under varying conditions and requirements. Lots of things are saddled with artistic pretensions. Is the book you wrote in between your real life not as good as the book you might have written if you had all the time in the world to write it?

BJ: With the room of my own and quiet. [sighs] I think about that a lot in terms of how long it’s going to take me to write the next one. I am at the tail end of the tour and the reviews are done. And I think, now is the time that I have to sit down and get the next one done. And the prospect of 10 years or eight years or five years just seems monumental.

RB: You’re not thinking that there are things that you have learned that might shorten the process?

BJ: I hope so. [both laugh] Oh God, I hope so.

RB: But you don’t know.

BJ: I was talking to another writer, Max Ludington, who just published his novel [Tiger in a Trance] in the fall. When I was working on this book it was everything, it was the Holy Grail, everything, at the time I knew. It was like I have to put it all in. It was the most important thing in the world. Now that I have written this and am thinking about another, it seems like there might be more than one that’s possible. The difference between this one book and a career as a writer is a weird one to think about.

RB: Perhaps it’s not healthy to think about. It’s troublesome, what happens in the book business. On the one hand you can’t leave it all to your agent and on the other hand it’s infuriating to have to think about some things that happen—whether your publisher is actually delivering the books to the places that you are reading. Whether they actually solicited reviews, et cetera.

BJ: I kept on trying to intrude on that process and finding my presence completely unwanted. And then having things come out much better than I hoped. Doubleday actually did a really nice job of getting the books out and I would go to bookstores and people in the bookstores would say, ‘Oh, no, they were terrific.’

RB: Well, you have a veteran editor in Gerry Howard and Peter Steinberg is your agent, two excellent and competent people. There are two different interests involved. The book business seems to be committed to a six-week window. And for a writer, your book is your life and it will stay with you.

BJ: I felt incredibly lucky to get Peter and then to get Gerry and have Doubleday and to get good review coverage, but you are always at that tension of, ‘It’s fantastic that anyone is reading the book. I thought a small press would take it on.’ And then at the same time, ‘I wish they had done a full-page review in the Sunday Times. And why not this and why not that?’ It’s funny; you can beat yourself up on both sides.

RB: What level of satisfaction? What is the level at which one would be satisfied? Was there a New York Times review?

BJ: A little [one].

RB: One of those In Briefs?

BJ: Yeah.

RB: You got a fair number of reviews, which is, I suppose for a young, first-time novelist, a good thing. When I talked with Stephen Elliot, he was pissed off that his first three novels never got reviewed.

BJ: Hmm.

RB: It would seem that the book review machinery only reviews a very thin slice of what’s being published.

BJ: I think that’s true, and I think I am incredibly grateful that mine got in. Now the web has pulled in a whole bunch of books. Literary Saloon pulls great books up, and there is a lot of stuff out there if you want to look for it.

RB: Yes, people like Michael at Literary Saloon, Maude Newton and Mark Savras in L.A., Golden Rule Jones, Dan Green at The Reading Experience [and Ed Champion, Sarah Weinman, and Ron Hogan]—do you know those?

BJ: I don’t know some of those.

RB: Really decent people who care enough to spend a good amount of time—

BJ: [laughs] A phenomenal amount of time. It’s great.

RB: They are talking about books and they care. So what do you feel like when you are writing? When it’s going well?

BJ: I don’t feel so craven anymore. That’s the nice thing. [both laugh uproariously] I feel like a whole bunch of stuff unlocks and the pieces come together and things are easy for a moment and the world is alive and the world kind of livens up.

RB: Most of the time when you are walking around, you have a beleaguered burdened view?

BJ: It’s that same question, ‘What have you done to earn your rest?’ I hear that in my head at night.

RB: Would this be based on any religious training?

BJ: My family comes from old Puritans. We have a lot of WASP blood. I spent so much time caring about it and wanting to do it and being focused on it and the time that I have is so compressed that it ends up being very fraught for me. I get a couple of hours on a weekend to work, and I am just battering my head against it.

RB: I stopped trying to measure how much I do or did. I find it’s better just to do whatever I am trying to do. Which may be a lesson that isn’t part of the training of or mentoring of writers. You just do the things that you want to do as opposed to posing or fussing—

BJ: Right, right, right.

RB: Or going to graduate school or a support group or whatever.

BJ: Right. I spent years and years thinking I couldn’t say I was a writer until I published or something and denying that I was a writer. And now I have the book out and I can finally say it and I still feel an incredible odd reluctance—Yeah, I’m a writer, I get to say it now. I have permission.


I’m reading Cheever’s stories as I am reading the journal. And you see the bad ones. And you think, ‘Boy, I have to write some bad ones.’


RB: When you are asked what you do, what do you answer? College administrator?

BJ: Frankly, it depends on the group. I find both of those lines of work are very interesting to people.

RB: Let’s forget about what’s interesting to people. What makes you feel good to say?

BJ: I’m getting comfortable with saying I am a writer.

RB: I wonder if what ensues when you say you are a writer is so unsatisfying that writers don’t want to even get into it?

BJ: Mark Haddon was telling an interviewer it’s like coming out: You tell it to everyone and hope they don’t run away.

RB: We’re not even talking about the fact that the question is couched in such an unappealing if not ill-mannered way. I am supposed to talk with Mark Haddon, but it seems that he has given the most interviews of any writer in the last decade.

BJ: [laughs]

RB: How is this activity of going out and talking about and talking up your book?

BJ: I’ve loved it. It’s been great. Writing is such an isolated process and you’re sitting and you are making all these choices you imagine people are going to be interested in, and it’s great to get out and have your instincts confirmed. I feel this great confirmation of all these obscure—I was reading a book on glaciology and there was a line about a guy who had dedicated his life to the study of the frost-resistant genitalia of beetles. I thought that was so great. How could you not want to know what that guy’s story was? And so that is some of what I wrote about. It’s great to go out and have people say, ‘That was great. I loved that. Where did you find that?’ And it’s been confirming to find people interested in caring about books. People come out on a Tuesday night for a reading and they don’t know you from Adam and they have read a little review of something or maybe they have read the book.

RB: And having readings where you sense most people haven’t read the book?

BJ: That’s been fine. I have enough salesman in me to feel like I want to engage you in what’s interesting in the book. I started out the tour by teaching in high schools during the day and then doing readings at night. I know exactly what a high-school kid knows and how to draw them in and I was very comfortable there, and at the adult readings I was much stiffer because I didn’t know what kind of demands on attention I made.

RB: I’ve started to do public conversations with writers at Brookline Booksmith largely because my experience is that most readings are flat and even if on occasion the author performs well, the audience is not prepared to engage the writer with good questions. Do you find that?
Ben Jones, by Robert Birnbaum
BJ: Right. I usually find that if you can get a couple of people to ask questions then everybody has a lot of questions. And so you ask if there are questions and tell another story that draws people in and gives them something to ask about. I heard Saul Bellow read just after I graduated from college up at Marlboro and it was a packed room with 200-250 people and he read for a while and then he asked if there were questions. And one person asked a completely inane question and I was so horrified, ‘This is Saul Bellow, how can you ask that question?’ [laughs] Of course I didn’t believe you could ask Saul Bellow a question, so I didn’t ask him anything.

RB: You had such a reverence for a writer you felt like you couldn’t engage him?

BJ: Right.

RB: Wow. That’s a failure of your upbringing.

BJ: It’s taken a long time to shed. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer, I thought they did something different, they sat down at their desk and some magical thing happened that I didn’t have access to. I spent a long time reading literary biographies to get access to that. That’s been a nice part of this, to meet other writers and talk to them and to connect. When I was younger I thought in order to write the things that I thought were amazing—I thought they [writers] must live lives of such terrific fullness that they wouldn’t want me to come into it. I’m getting over that. But I took a long time.

RB: Don’t you marvel at the stories you read about other young writers who have approached someone regarded as a master and struck up a friendship? Maybe that’s what television does, that it doesn’t encourage approaching people or only in a certain way?

BJ: The corollary to that is that it rewards nerve more than talent. It was also frowned upon at Yale. Yale did not regard creative writing at all. It was dismissed. All the creative writing was taught by visiting writers, not by any of the faculty.

RB: Why this attitude by Yale? Too busy turning out spooks?

BJ: [laughs] The department was very canonical around academic achievement. It was an interesting moment with Gerry Howard. When I met him at lunch for the first time, we connected around Harold Bloom. He said, ‘Who did you take at Yale?’ And I said, ‘Oh, Harold Bloom.’ And he said something to the effect of what an ass Harold Bloom was, and he told a story about trying to get him to write an introduction for Hart Crane. And we united and for me literary achievement had been tied to academic achievement. And Gerry has had a great career with a whole set of really great writers, and it’s not academic and it’s not journalistic. And I saw, ‘Oh, right, there’s a middle ground here that has a different kind of literary merit that’s not academic.

RB: We may not be talking on tape [again] for five, eight, 10 years.

BJ: [laughs] I hope not. I hope it will be a little bit quicker. I don’t know—it’ll take the kind of time that it takes.

RB: That’s the nice thing about a day job.

BJ: I’m reading Cheever’s stories as I am reading the journal. And you see the bad ones. And you think, ‘Boy, I have to write some bad ones.’ I have to get them out. I feel like I won’t write a good novel until I write my third one. The first one to get it out, and the second to learn something—because you can finally pay attention—and the third one, you start to write good ones.

RB: Are you finding anything instructive about the feedback on The Rope Eater?

BJ: Not too much. Not too much. I haven’t gotten a lot of substantive criticism around character development or structure. I thought about trying to find a way to have someone pay me to go to graduate school as a means of focusing and getting a book done and a way to support a family at the same time and thinking about whether it would be productive. Trying to find that balance.

RB: After having written a novel, you are thinking about going to a writing program?

BJ: Right.

RB: Are you still thinking about it?

BJ: [laughs] Just to find a way—

RB: To buy yourself two years.

BJ: Right, just to clear out the space to do it.

RB: Well, good, let’s say this is part I, and part II will be somewhere down the line.

BJ: Right. Two years. We’ll call it two years and see how I do.

RB: All right, good. Thanks.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum