Interviews · 04/05/2016

Bookmarked Authors Interview

This spring, Ig Publishing will release the first four titles in their “Bookmarked” series. In these books, authors are invited to write about a book that influenced their work and lives. In this first wave, Curtis Smith writes about Slaughterhouse-Five, Kirby Gann takes on A Separate Peace, Paula Bomer writes about The Man Who Loved Children, and Aaron Burch tackles “The Body,” a novella from Stephen King’s Different Seasons. In this interview, the authors discuss the project.

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Tell us about your history with this book. What led you to pick it? Was it a book from your younger life — or did you come upon it later, after you knew more about craft and the pulled strings of writing? Can you take us back to that first time you read it?

Paula Bomer: I first read The Man Who Loved Children while on vacation in the Dominican Republic where I have a small cabin. It’s where I read most intensely. I read it because Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay on it, and I wanted to read his essay, but of course, I wanted to read the book first. So that’s what I did. It blew my mind. That was two or three years ago.

Aaron Burch: This, as with a lot of these questions, actually, is in part dealt with, or maybe more attempted to be answered in the book itself. I don’t yet know how others’ books turned out, but mine became in part a kinda meta exploration on working on the book itself.

As I mentioned to Ig when I first pitched Stephen King’s novella, it was a little bit of a cheat — to really write about, and wrestle with, the movie based on the “The Body”: Stand By Me. The movie is one of my favorites, if not my singular favorite. I remember my first viewing of it, and I retell this story in the book. I know I read the novella a few years later, though I remember it less specifically.

Kirby Gann: Most of my book wanders around precisely this, the time in my life when I first encountered A Separate Peace. I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school, and was already interested in writing even though I had no idea how to go about it, at least as fiction. Basically my writing at the time consisted of song lyrics. ASP was assigned for class, and it unveiled something for me — like it gave me permission to consider my own life and experiences as worthy of being explored in fiction; the two boys at the center of the novel felt as accessible to me as my own friends. Knowles was writing about concerns I felt, too, and that fact alone amazed me.

Curtis Smith: I went on a Vonnegut kick in high school. I read all the offerings in our school’s library — and somewhere along the line, I bought my own copy of Slaughterhouse. I loved his other novels, but Slaughterhouse was the one that spoke most directly to me. That’s forty-some years ago, so I’m a little foggy about the exact reading, but I know it made an impact.

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I’m assuming many years had passed between your first reading and the start of this project. When you returned to the book, how did it hold up? Did anything about this revisiting take you by surprise?

AB: Though I’ve rewatched, talked about, and quoted the movie a ton over the years, I didn’t revisit the book until I started teaching a “Rhetoric of Growing Up” Literature-based Intro English class a few years ago. The theme reminded me of Stand By Me, which reminded me of the novella it was based on, and so I added it to my syllabus. Halfway through the semester, reading it alongside my students, was the first time I’d reread it in over twenty years.

I think what took me by surprise was how well it stood up — how strong I still believe the central story to be, and also how many interesting “writer moves” King does in it, which luckily gave my students and I plenty to talk about.

KG: I found myself resistant to reading it again, and kept putting off doing so. Knowles’s quiet style, his steady restraint, made it difficult for me to enter the novel properly — his style, though it expresses utmost clarity, felt almost brittle to me, and plot-wise conveniently contrived; definitely I felt that if I were to be reading the novel for the first time, I wouldn’t have liked it as much. Yet it was perfect introduction to how a novel might be written. However, I still found aspects to admire — one example would be how Knowles handled the character Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, who’s the first of the boys at Devon to enlist, and then he snaps, comes home a “psycho.”

CS: I returned to it as someone who’s published a number of his own books — and being more aware of craft and technique, I came away admiring Slaughterhouse more than ever. It’s a real virtuoso performance, a tightrope walk between genres and tones and moods. It’s funny and sad and dripping with humanity.

PB: The book more than held up. It was amazing diving so deep into it while writing my own book about it. I guess the only surprise is that I started to perhaps use humor a bit toward certain parts of the book in my understanding of it. Franzen writes that it’s a funny book and when I first read it, I totally disagreed with him. I still do, for the most part. I don’t think it’s as funny as he does. But I think humor was helpful in surviving a deep immersion into the horror that is the novel. Also, I wrote mine at such an intense time in my life — a traumatic time in my life — and that greatly affected my approach to The Man Who Loved Children. Whenever I write, where I am in my life is a huge part of how I read and write.

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When you were first asked to be a part of the project, was it this book and nothing else? Or was there some agonizing and/or last-minute coin tossing?

CS: I was also considering 1984 or Lord of the Flies, but Slaughterhouse was my first thought. I’m glad I stuck with it.

KG: Robert Lasner asked me via email to name a book that I considered fundamental to my writing life, and A Separate Peace immediately came to mind, even though I had not read it in over thirty years. Still I recognize it as the book that pushed me toward writing, and writing novels in particular. That said, I did begin to waffle somewhat once the project had begun — there’s so little to be said about the novel that hasn’t been said already; the risk of choosing a book that’s readily covered by Cliffs Notes and other story guides. Therefore my Bookmarked text follows a very personal narrative line, almost like a memoir, in which I write more about that time in my life when I first encountered the novel, and the way I responded to it, rather than tackling aspects of the novel itself.

The other title I considered was Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. That book made a more readily apparent impact on my life and sensibility, not only my writing. But I was fairly deep into my manuscript (and struggling) when I started to consider other titles, and so it wasn’t feasible. Perhaps I’ll do another volume in the series some day, and take a look at TSS.

PB: This book was one of a few ideas and the editor and publisher preferred it because so little has been written about The Man Who Loved Children and it’s been getting some attention. It’s a lost classic. I had thrown out Anna Karenina and The Bell Jar and — I forget what else, maybe a Jean Rhys novel. I’m so glad I wrote about Stead’s book. It was the right thing for me. It was a gift, actually, to be able to write about it. I’m grateful.

AB: I’ve always admired the 33-1/3 books, and while I’ve dreamed of writing one, it has been a more theoretical than practical dream — when it comes right down to it, I don’t think I actually have much interest in writing thirty thousand words about a single album. Similarly, I’ve read and admired the Boss Fight Books series, and I have actually put a little more thought into how I might tackle one of those, even though I haven’t really played video games in twenty years. When this project came up, I was honored, and excited, but no book came to mind. Curt mentioned he was going to be doing Slaughterhouse Five, and Kirby was tackling A Separate Peace, and I realized I don’t really have a book that “made me want to be a writer” like I assumed was why you’d each chosen those. One that came to mind was Fight Club, which I read soon after high school, and which I loved. But, I thought, my Bookmarked book on that would be a slightly longer version of, “I was nineteen, I loved it.” But, thinking about it, I remembered how I found that book because I’d read an early report that David Fincher had optioned it, and I loved Fincher, so I’d picked it up, and then it got me thinking about books that were turned into movies, and Stand By Me is probably my favorite movie of all time, and how great would it be to turn my love for it into a book? From there, it was full-steam ahead.

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I’m guessing this kind of writing is different from your regular work. Did you feel any extra pressure, an allegiance to this book that meant so much to you? Or an allegiance to the people who, like you, loved it?

PB: It’s funny because I think of myself primarily as a fiction writer — I’ve had three books of fiction published and have a few more on the shelf so to speak — but in 2016 I have two books of nonfiction coming out, this book on The Man Who Loved Children and an essay collection that remains untitled. Writing this book was incredibly challenging. Overwhelmingly so in some ways, and in good ways. It’s similar to the essays I write, but of course it’s very much its own animal. And it really is an animal of a book. I engage with my feelings about Franzen and his feelings about the novel and my feelings about the novel throughout the book. It’s one of the themes, my “relationship” to Franzen.

CS: I did. It’s a high standard to live up to. I wanted to write something in somewhat the same vein — serious but comic, disjointed yet woven with uniting strands. Most of all, I wanted to write a book that would embrace the humanity I love so much in Vonnegut. I tried hard to do that. I hope I succeeded, at least somewhat.

KG: Yes, it was a difficult, because I was writing in a way I’d never written before; as I mentioned above, mine is almost a memoir. For most of my life I’ve written fiction only, and have resisted straightforward autobiography. Finding a form for this was completely different from the same task with a novel.

As for allegiances: nope, I didn’t feel that at all. What I found interesting was how different the novel seemed to me now as opposed to what moved me so much as a teenager. In a lot of ways this manuscript is the most personal work I’ve ever done, and so the only allegiance I felt was to myself and my own history and to the composition of my book.

AB: Not too much while writing it. It felt hard, because I don’t really write about myself that much, I have very little if any interest in writing nonfiction or memoir, and yet that was what mine turned into, so it was a lot of struggling with how much of myself to allow onto the page. That was the struggle almost entirely through the writing phase, and then finally, near the very end, I did have something of an “oh shit” moment where I stopped and thought about how many others love Stand By Me and “The Body” as much as I do, and I hope they like this book. I hope they think I did it justice. I hope they aren’t like, “what the hell is this, I love Stand By Me, why am I reading a memoir about Aaron’s childhood and marriage and approach to teaching??”

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In the end, did you find the project easier or harder than you expected? How so?

AB: Both? Harder in the ways that I describe above, but easier in that once I allowed myself to, well, write about myself, it came pretty easily. “It’s just a rough draft,” I kept reminding myself. “Put it all down and delete everything you want to later…”

KG: I found it harder than expected. Also it took me much longer than anticipated. What made it difficult was my experience writing fiction, and being totally self-conscious in writing what I guess we would call “creative nonfiction.” The two genres are much further apart than I would’ve guessed. In fact part of my book is written in third-person, and reads like fiction; it was the only way I could get comfortably approach the boy I used to be.

CS: I was nervous at first, but once I started writing, it really started to flow. I knew the major strands I wanted to include, but once I started digging, I kept discovering new ideas begging to be included. I set aside a year for the project, but I found myself pretty much finished with a couple months to spare.

PB: I expected it to be hard and it was. Really fucking hard. Hard emotionally and hard from a writing perspective to organize my discussion and — well, shape it properly. I find shaping story collections very satisfying and feel confident in my ability to do so. This book I wrote with zero confidence. But, finishing it, it’s so close to me, it’s like my third arm right now. A third, ugly, broken arm. I love it. I’m so excited for it to be in the world.

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Let’s say the author of your book had a chance to read your take. What would you want them to say?

KG: Well, perhaps he would appreciate that the final third of the manuscript comprises a speculative biography of the man. Speculative because there isn’t much information out there. It surprised me to learn that no biography had been written about John Knowles, a writer who we could argue is no longer fashionable (all of his work save ASP is out of print), and yet there’s no doubt he contributed at least one major work to American Literature. I searched out what was available about his life and followed the reviews of his work — Knowles was a prolific author — and was struck by the sadness and likely frustration there; he was financially secure his entire life because of ASP, and yet that book became his albatross, everything he wrote afterward was placed in relation to his first novel. And found wanting. It surprised me too to learn that he stopped writing (or at least stopped publishing, whether by his own choice or the failure to find a willing editor is unknown) in the 1980s, though he lived up to 2001. So maybe he would say, after reading my work, “Thanks for taking me seriously, and for reminding readers how hard I tried.”

PB: I think without a doubt Christina Stead would hate my book. I’m OK with that. I do hope Franzen reads it and loves it, but — hm, not sure. I think he might put it down after page 5 and — yeah. That breaks my heart. He breaks my heart.

AB: Just that he liked it. That he was happy “The Body” meant so much to me and that I did a good job using it to write a kind of “guide/walkthrough/reflection on personal experience.”

CS: I hope it would be along the lines of one of Vonnegut’s favorite quotes, something his favorite uncle used to say — “Well if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

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Paula Bomer (paulabomer.com) is the author of the story collection Inside Madeleine (Soho Press, May 2014), the novel Nine Months (Soho Press, August 2012), which received exuberant reviews in The Atlantic, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere. Her collection Baby and Other Stories (Word Riot Press, December 2010), received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, calling it a “lacerating take on marriage and motherhood… not one to share with the Mommy and Me group”; Kirkus Reviews deemed it “a worthy, if challenging, entry into the genre of transgressional fiction”; and O Magazine referred to it as a “brilliant, brutally raw debut.”

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Aaron Burch (aaronburch.tumblr.com) is the author of Backswing and the Founding Editor of HOBART: another literary journal.

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Kirby Gann (kirbygann.net) is the author of the novel Ghosting (2012), which was included in the “Best of Year” lists from Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness, and a finalist for the Kentucky Book of the Year. He has published two other novels, The Barbarian Parade (2002), and Our Napoleon in Rags (2005), and co-edited the anthology A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play, which was a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award (Anthologies). His work has appeared most recently in The Louisville Review, The Oxford American, and The Southeast Review, and stories are forthcoming in 2016 in Ploughshares and Post Road. In 2015 he stepped down as Managing Editor at Sarabande Books, a position he held for eighteen years, and now pursues freelance projects in book design, typesetting, editorial, and production management. He teaches in the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.

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Curtis Smith (curtisjsmith.com) has published over a hundred stories and essays, three novels, five story collections, and two essay collections. His latest books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Communion (essays, Dock Street Press). He lives and works in Pennsylvania.