Seriously Questioning…Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman was born in Minsk, Belarus. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Travel + Leisure, the London Review of Books, New York magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian, among other publications. He is the author of the novels A Replacement Life, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal, and Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, which was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and his newest book Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and Dinner Table (A Memoir with Recipes).

On May 21, he will be speaking at House of SpeakEasy’s Seriously Entertaining showThe Root of it All, alongside Damian Barr, Eve Ensler, and Kevin Young.  We spoke to Boris ahead of the show.

What is your earliest memory involving reading or writing?
A small bedroom in Minsk, Belarus, in 1980-something. Writing desk, fold-out bed, Persian carpet on the wall, Persian carpet on the floor. On all fours over the latter, yours truly mesmerized by the sports pages of Nedelya (The Week). The first and last period of my life that I would be (consumed by professional sports, that is), though, to this day, I retain a fascination with the raw, elemental nature of the contest involved: “The separation of twenty-two previously indistinguishable men into two adversarial uniforms, the pride of a city behind each, was a gnomic, primitive message from some other dimension in which, as the pig slaughterer whose summer cottage we rented had so essentially put it, ‘there will be you—and there will be them’,” as I wrote in Savage Feast, my most recent book.

What is your favorite line from your current work?
Not necessarily my favorite, but the one that came to mind just now: “My hunger has been good for my work, and a near calamity for everything else. At least I know not to rely on it.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
There’s nothing sweet about rejection, but you’ll be a stronger person, in ways that go well beyond writing, for having figured out a way to keep going. Be an animal about the work: No dabbling, no waiting for inspiration. And: Get as far away from popular culture as you can.

What writer past or present do you wish you could eat dinner with?
I prefer to experience writers through their books. In real life, they are rarely who you thought they would be. And why should they be?

What are you reading right now?
Philip Roth’s Collected Nonfiction. Never have I appreciated an author’s nonfiction more while disliking some of his fiction less. Well, David Foster Wallace.

Are there any quotes you use to inspire you?
It changes all the time, and my memory is terrible, so unless I inscribe it on my arm, it’s not going to inspire me for very long. (And if you do inscribe it on your arm, by virtue of its omnipresence it will become invisible and meaningless, so that’s not the solution, either. Why I never put any photos on the shelf.) So the most inspiring thing is ideally something in the book I’m reading. In this case, to open a random page in the Roth: “Think of the art of the adulterer: under tremendous pressure and against enormous odds, ordinary husbands and wives, who would freeze with self-consciousness up on a stage, yet in the theater of the home, alone before the audience of the betrayed spouse, they act out roles of innocence and fidelity with flawless dramatic skill.” That’s a wise person speaking. The intelligence and articulateness of that line is what’s inspiring — it makes you want to be intelligent and articulate in turn.





Adam Rapp: “I don’t think parents take too well to my books…”

Adam Rapp is one of those polymaths you read about. A playwright, novelist, musician, screenwriter, director, basketball player…

He’s written a couple dozen plays, including Pulitzer Prize finalist Red Light Winter (2006); The Metal Children (2010), which starred Billy Crudup in its New York premiere; and Nocturne (2001), an icy portrait of grief which prompted Variety to label Rapp one to watch “with keen interest”. His books fall into both the young adult and adult-adult categories. They include The Year of Endless Sorrows (2006); 33 Snowfish, a tale of sexual abuse that the American Library Association chose as one of its 2004 highlights; and Under the Wolf, Under the Dog (2004), which was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and winner of the Schneider Family Book Award.

The Children and the Wolves, published in 2012, is a particularly intense brew. The writing is by turns visceral and tender. Take Wiggins, who emerges as the central character:

Sometimes I imagine myself in a pickle jar, floating in science juice. Barely alive with see-through skin. My heart like a little white raisin.

But later:

I imagine a soul is a little perfect crystal egg floating in your chest. Somewhere deeper than where they put your heart.

Wiggins is complicit in the kidnap of a three-year-old, I might add. Fortunately, he comes good: sickened by a moment of skull-mashing violence by his sadistic friend Bounce, he decides to free the child. It’s a Day-Glo fantasy of pharmaceuticals and neglect — almost Ballardian at times, but Ballard filtered through Palahniuk. Or Philip Ridley on speed.

I spoke to Adam this week about his work.

Charles Arrowsmith: You spent your adolescence in military school and playing basketball. How do you think your upbringing has directed your writing?

Adam Rapp: Well, for me, military school was an incredibly isolating experience. At 14 I was separated from my family, and thrust into an unforgiving system of relentless structure and discipline. And I deserved every second of it. I was a fuck-up. I was admitted late to school so I started out a few weeks behind all the other new boys, which immediately put me at a disadvantage. I was also small for my age. I was the runt of my freshman class. All this to say that I felt like an outsider, always looking in, trying to find my way in, and perhaps forced to form my own thoughts about things at a very young age. I think all of this led to wanting to write. Looking through a peephole at the rest of the world and having a lot to say about it.

CA: Many of your novels fall into the bookstore category of “young adult fiction”. Is this a useful classification?

AR: Probably not. I don’t think parents take too well to my books — a lot of them are about kids railing against authority, their community, or themselves for that matter. The “Young Adult” market is controlled by adults, not by kids themselves, so there’s a lot of gatekeeping going on. There are many terrific, progressive librarians and teachers out there who champion and curate “difficult” novels, but there are also a lot of reactionaries who try to keep my books off of lists, away from their local bookstores and classroom shelves. I love the idea of teenagers reading my books — I hope they pass them around in secret — but I don’t think my “YA” stuff should necessarily be classified as such.

CA: Philip Roth wrote in American Pastoral about the “indigenous American Berserk”, a species of violence that’s emerged out of American culture that’s extreme, sudden, remorseless, sinister. I feel a lot of your work taps into this, especially The Children and the Wolves. What does the “American Berserk” mean to you?

AR: There seems to be this unarticulated expression of violence in our country. Teenagers are killing each other in high school cafeterias, gymnasiums, parking lots. I think it stems from the deepest, most cellular roots of consumerism. There is so much insane advertising imagery — sex, drugs, violence, the lunatic dreamscapes of masculinism, etc — that is attached to products of middle-class ascendancy. We are born into a culture of “want”. There is this fallacy that if we can acquire those sneakers, rock those jeans, or sport that high-end designer jacket, we will somehow be delivered to happiness. Americans are born into this contract with the world. It used to be catalogues and magazines and now it’s on our computers, our phones, and other devices that we curate ourselves so we can have easier access to making the perfect purchase. The perfect car and the perfect house and the perfect wardrobe and body perfection and anti-aging and on and on and on. For teenagers, this combined with the pressure to test well and have sex and satisfy parental legacy and NOT stray from the programme of success seems to breed a new kind of revolt. Teens are constantly told what NOT to read and what NOT to eat and what NOT to do with their free time. They are rarely taught to actually question things, but rather forced to accept traditions of curriculums, aptitude testing, athletic excellence, etc. The relationship between young people and the possibilities of a future American life are grim. We are starting to destroy ourselves. Kids are literally aiming our own guns at other kids in what is supposed to be the most civil, intellectually progressive context of American life — the education sector. There is a savage animalism that is starting to emerge in younger and younger ages. Perhaps there is a perverse lack of balance in American life, a profound lack of questioning our own methods — we’re the greatest nation in the world after all! (Sorry for the cynicism…)

CA: Your play The Metal Children seems to confront your own experiences with censorship. [Adam’s 1997 novel The Buffalo Tree was banned in a Pennsylvanian high school in 2005. The New York Times reported]. Do writers have responsibilities?

AR: Yes. Whether it be through fiction, journalism, film, TV, theatre, whathaveyou, our responsibility is to attempt to tell the truth as artfully, intensely, and humanely as possible. Sometimes this requires expressions of brutality, sadness, violence, or lunacy. The best writers don’t shy away from darker terrain. There is incredible eloquence and pain in great writing. Entertainment is fine, as is humour — both are essential to storytelling — but those who are merely aiming to give pleasure through writing should sell pantyhose and cupcakes.

CA: You’ve worked a lot in different media: film, music, TV, theatre, novels… Do you feel the need to change it up? Do you write where the work is? Do your ideas, when they arrive, come pre-packaged in a particular form?

AR: The crossing over started to happen in my early thirties when I realized I couldn’t stay solvent by just writing fiction and plays. I started out writing fiction. When I was still in college I began my first novel. I wanted to be a novelist — it’s why I moved to New York. But then through exposure to Off-Broadway I got bemused by theatre and started trying to write plays. And then things went well on that front for a while so the West Coast came calling. I resisted some opportunities but ultimately started writing and directing film and writing for TV. The money is good in TV. And the writer in the TV world has tremendous power. The money should be that good for fiction and theatre too, but it’s just not.

CA: What are the last three books you read?

AR: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Light Years by James Salter, and John Heilpern’s biography of John Osborne.

CA: Thanks, Adam!

Adam Rapp will appear at our next Seriously Entertaining show, Falling for Perfection, on June 23. You can buy tickets on the City Winery NYC website. Be sure to follow Adam on Twitter.

Don’t Throw Momma From The Train

Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day

I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the said Joint Resolution, do hereby direct the government officials to display the United States flag on all government buildings and do invite the people of the United States to display the flag at their homes or other suitable places on the second Sunday in May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.

So wrote President Wilson on May 9, 1914, a hundred years ago today, marking the institution of Mother’s Day in the US (read the full proclamation here). It came about through the sweat of one Anna Jarvis, moved by her own mother’s death to campaign for wider recognition of the role of mothers in society. Later, as the holiday became increasingly commercial, she came to regret her exertions and mounted a series of spirited attacks on those who sought to exploit it for profiteering or fundraising, including Eleanor Roosevelt. She lost: according to the National Geographic, Americans will spend nearly $20 billion on mom this year. According to Hallmark, it falls behind only Christmas and Valentine’s Day in terms of greetings cards bought. But whatever the ethico-capitalist standings of Mother’s Day, its centenary seems a particularly apt moment for reflection.

This being a literary blog and your loyal blogger a lazy thinker, I decided to google “mothers in literature” for inspiration. What did I find? Horror! “The 10 best bad mums in literature”, “Bad mothers in books”, “The 10 Worst Mothers in Books”, “12 Of The Most Horrifying Mothers Of Literature”… Something of a pattern, and not a cuddly one. These lists — written mostly by women, incidentally — are generally humorously intended, or implicitly self-questioning. But it got me a-thinking. Is this harmless festive frippery or further evidence of the misogyny deeply imprinted in our sociocultural fabric?

Fairytale mums — and their sterile Disneyed descendants current today — are pretty much the catalogue of ur-mothers in our literary tradition, and they’re nearly all dead or wicked. Flip to fathers, on the other hand, and among a to-be-expected share of wicked and tyrannical types you’ll also find the sage and the just, the heroic and the complex. There are complex and brave and wise women, too, of course, but they tend to be the yet-to-settle-down crowd. But then it’s all very well moaning about sexism in the Brothers Grimm; zip forward a few paradigm shifts and where are we now?

I recently read a great Vulture article on punctuation that quoted the famously throwaway description of Humbert Humbert’s mum in Lolita: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…” This in turn reminded me of a letter in which Truman Capote wrote of his own mother:

[She] was very beautiful. She married a fairly rich man, a Cuban, and after I was 10 I lived with them (mostly in New York). Unfortunately, my mother, who had several miscarriages and as a result developed mental problems, became an alcoholic and made my life miserable. Subsequently she killed herself (sleeping pills).

The similarities are weird. Both emphasise physical beauty; condense exquisite suffering into parenthetical phrases; end in death. Much like our fairytale forebears. Elsewhere in the great American canon, there’s Holden Caulfield declaring that “mothers are all slightly insane”; Philip Roth’s Portnoy-mère; Cathy, mother and madam, in East of Eden; even Daisy Buchanan, who declares that the best thing her daughter can grow up to be is a beautiful little fool. These aren’t flimsy characters but they sure do fit a type, and it’s not a positive one. Indeed, it’s tough to think of a single great book written by a man in which a positive mother-figure lives happily ever after. There’s no doubt a Freudian reading of all this that I’m resisting making.

But is it all doom and gloom for the American mother? Fortunately not. Who can forget Margaret March in Little Women or Steinbeck’s Ma Joad? Or even the more complex figures of Sethe in Beloved or Eva in We Need To Talk About Kevin, women who survive their respective novels even if at great cost.

The real task is not one of tallying, of course. There will be plenty of counter-examples to what I’ve said thus far. But the point remains that we’re as quick — if not quicker — to start blaming mother as we are to celebrate her, and I’m not sure that’s really in the spirit of things. And I mean how many wicked stepmothers do you actually know? Why aren’t we reading about the silent majority of mothers, the wonderful, loving sort that we actually see on a daily basis and many of us are lucky enough to have? To save yourself from the scorn of Anna Jarvis’s ghost, it’s clear you can’t head to the florist or confectioner this weekend. But if you’re book-shopping ahead of Sunday, do be careful what you buy!