Adam Langer on Musicals, Real Estate and Faith

Adam Langer is the author of Ellington Boulevard as well as the cult-hits Crossing California and The Washington Story. He will be reading and signing copies of his book as part of the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival on Monday, September 15 at 8:00 pm. He answered a few of our questions in-advance of his appearance this Monday.

Q: Your prior books, Crossing California and The Washington Story were firmly rooted in your old West Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago. Ellington Boulevard is a thoroughly New York novel specific to a unique neighborhood. Was it much of a shift to go from Chicago to Manhattan?
No more than it was a shift to move from Chicago to Manhattan. As a writer, I am very cognizant of the role of place, and since I was living in New York, it made sense to write a novel set there. The major shift was in moving from writing about the past to the present, but that was liberating to some degree. Writing in the present allows you to incorporate everything you see and hear and smell and not worry about whether you might be using anachronisms.

Q: Did you really get your real estate license as part of your research? Have you helped sell/buy any properties?
I attended real estate school and passed my tests. Basically, I did everything except get the license because, in New York, you actually have to get a job with a real estate company in order to sell real estate. And since I really wasn’t planning this sort of career move, it seemed disingenuous to go on job interviews for a job I wasn’t going to take.

Q: I kept thinking of the musical Wonderful Town while reading the book, and music plays such a large part in the novel – it’s even subtitled, “A Novel in A-Flat.” So, can we expect the musical version of Ellington Boulevard? And why A-Flat?
There are a ton of musicals that informed the structure and content of the novel, but Wonderful Town was certainly one of them. But there are elements of and references to Company and Saturday Night and Candide.My favorite musical composers have always been Weill, Sondheim, and Bernstein. And I like to think of this book as a blend of their work-Weill’s irony, Sondheim’s sense of alienation, and Bernstein’s indefatigable optimistic spirit. A-Flat obviously plays on the word “flat,” meaning apartment, but in some ways, it’s an appropriate key. Not a lot of major works are set in b-flat and those that are tend to be idiosyncratic and usually more upbeat than the more familiar b-flat.

Q: The characters in Ellington Boulevard all seem to have a complicated relationship to their work-life, whether they are an academic, a real estate agent, a theater producer, a literary editor or a musician. What do you think is the relationship between the idealism of a profession and the economic imperatives of simply living in NY or any city?
Sometimes it can be hard to maintain optimism when one realizes that even the most idealistic-seeming professions are still, ultimately, businesses. And this applies to academia, theater, publishing, and so on. But writing a novel or a play is in itself an optimistic act, an act of faith. The moment the economic imperative becomes a factor in the artistic act, the artistry bleeds out of it a bit. And yet, the reality is there. Hopefully, while one is working, one can block it out of one’s mind, at least for a little while.

Q: One of the most outrageous characters in the book is a newly-Orthodox Jew. I have a hard time figuring out if he is the most or least principled person in the story?
Well, yes, he’s quite principled. I just don’t share his principles.

Elisa Albert, Darin Strauss, Peter Manseau and more Great Fiction coming in September

One of the best parts of my job is being able to read in-advance many of the authors we end up bringing for the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. For a four-eyed, lit-geek like myself, sitting on the Metro, reading a book emblazoned with “Advance Uncorrected Proofs: Not For Sale” is as close as I come to getting behind the velvet ropes of life. I may not score any invites to an inaugural ball, but I got to read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America weeks before it hit the shelves. Yeah, the ladies dig me.

So, I am having a great summer riding Metro, reading the lineup for the LitFest. I’ve even missed my stop a couple of times. The schedule for the Festival, running September 14-24 is online now and tickets are on-sale tomorrow. I’ll just mention below some of the books I’ve been able to read. In the coming weeks, we’ll have more detailed posts about the books and authors, as well as interviews and hopefully some multi-media, web 2.0-savvy content for you.

In this post, I’ll start with fiction. I’ve found time to read Darin Strauss‘s button-pushing novel More Than It Hurts You, which centers around a suburban Long Island Jewish couple, Josh and Dori Goldin, brought into tragic conflict with the Dr. Darlene Stokes, a brilliant African American doctor who treats their son for a mysterious ailment in the Emergency Room.

Elisa Albert‘s The Book of Dahlia is way too funny for a book about a young woman slowly dying of a malignant brain tumor. I think I may have dated Dahlia in college, or at least someone like her–damaged from divorce, blinded by low self-esteem to her own beauty, crazy mother, more than mildly self-destructive. She dumped me, with sentiments not unlike Dahlia, “What kind of loser would be so kind to someone like her: someone so obviously fucked up, problematic and issue-ridden? Would laugh at her stupid jokes? Would look at her and see anything but sheer ugliness? Would assert he dumbshit notion that everything would be okay? She dumped him in the most callous way imaginable. No explanation, no care–no returned phone calls, no email.”

Peter Manseau‘s first novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is perhaps a natural follow-up to his award-winning memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun and Their Son. Like Manseau, the narrator of the story is a young Catholic from Boston who ends up working at an organization dedicated to saving Yiddish books. However, the story truly takes flight in the “memoirs” of Itzik Malpesh, a Yiddish poet that the young man meets and whose story he translates. The story of Itzik’s birth, and how his life was saved by the butcher’s daughter Sasha Bimko becomes the pivotal moment of his life and his poetic destiny, which carries him from Kishinev to Odessa to New York and Baltimore. The “translator’s notes,”  inserted between episodes of Itzik’s life, serve as a counterpoint for the ways in which language can both reveal and hide the truth, just as characters in the story reveal and hide parts of themselves.

I’ve still got more fiction to read, including Adam Langer‘s Ellington Boulevard and Eileen Pollack‘s collection of short stories, In The Mouth. But next Thursday, I’ll post about some of the non-fiction we’ve got coming.

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