Seven Questions For: David Bezmozgis

Bezmozgis (c) David Franco [Free World]David Bezmozgis comes to the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival this Sunday along with Nadia Kalman (The Cosmopolitans) and Haley Tanner (Vaclav and Lena) for the panel discussion “Glasnost’s Children” which examines new fiction on the Russian-Jewish experience. Bezmozgis has been getting lots of acclaim ever since his debut collection of short stories, Natasha and in 2010 was named to the New Yorker’s list of “20 Under 40” highlighting the most promising fiction writers under the age of 40.  What about his new novel The Free World? Well, The New York Times said:

Might it be overstating the case to include this first-time novelist in the same sentence as such fine writers as Mr. Roth and Mr. Michaels? Well, Mr. Bezmozgis’s taut 2004 debut collection “Natasha and Other Stories” suggested that he might well be of those authors’ caliber; “The Free World” goes a long way toward confirming this status.

We asked him the Seven Questions over email and got the following. I’m willing to bet he’ll be more loquacious at the panel discussion.

1)    How would you describe what you do to someone from the 19th Century?

The problem isn’t describing it to someone from the 19th century, the problem is describing it to someone in the 21st century.

2)    What did you want to be when you grew up?

Remarkably, this.

3)    Is there a book you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read?

Many. But I’ll go with Proust.

4)    Woody Allen, Pro or Con?

Pro, pre-1990s; con, post-1990s.

5)    What’s your favorite non-English word?

Basta

6)    What issue do you wish other people knew more about?

How about the definitions of fascism and socialism? Those words get thrown around a lot. Often interchangeably.

7)    Historical figure, living or not, that you’d want to share a bagel with and what kind of bagel?

You mean we’d have to split one poppyseed Montreal bagel? Well, somebody ancient. Cleopatra. Or King David. Or Socrates.

Read all of the Seven Question interviews.

Lit Fest ’09 Update: It is Upon Us

After slaving away in our offices for the last number of months, the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival is finally upon us. This coming Sunday, October 18, we kick off 10 days of the best and brightest of this year’s Jewish-related book releases. And in case you have missed our numerous blog updates, our official website and our Twitter feed (@DCJewishLitFest), here are some of my personal top choices (that is, if you can only attend a few out of our 10+ programs):

10/18 – local blogger Melissa Ford (yes, that’s right, the wife of CPO Josh Ford) joins us to discuss her new book Navigating the Land of IF: Understanding Infertility and Exploring Your Options. Visit her blog Stirrup-Queens for a little taste and then buy your tickets.

10/22 – Past Imperfect: New Jewish Fiction truly captures what this Festival is all about. Showcasing great writing, interesting personalities and Jewish tradition. Three authors (yes, THREE) come together from the West Coast, the Midwest and the East Coast to talk about their individual books. Moderator Professor Sheila Jelen will help tie all the books together with her questions and insight. Buy Tickets.

10/24 – LitFest breaks out of the 16th Street J and moves to Hillyer Art Space for a night of spoken word poetry performances by featured artist Jake Marmer and then locals. Looking for an activity to fill your 9pm slot? Buy tickets to this program and bring your friends!

10/27 – Dara Horn. I have no words. Not only does her personal biography (award-winning, published author at the age of 25) make me want to cry, but her writing is just beautiful. All of her books are well-researched, well-written and just good stories! She is a Jewish writer who is completely content being part of that category – and we love and thank her for  that. Buy your tickets to hear her talk about her latest book, a piece of historical fiction about a Jewish soldier during the Civil War.

And how can we even mention the Festival without talking about our Closing Night author? Historian and GWU Professor Emeritus Howard M. Sachar graces our stage on 10/28 to speak about “Current Israeli Myths and Realities: The Way to Peace.” What exactly does that mean? Well I guess you’ll just have to buy your  tickets and find out!

Presidents Day: Our Annual Salute to A.L. Levine

Re-posting this from last year, because even back in February 2008 I couldn’t have predicted how prescient this novel was in many important ways. And looking back now, I am tempted to say there’s a striking similarity between A.L.’s years in sales and our current chief executive’s experiences in community organizing. Whatever. In the interim A.L. has started getting some more love — Ben Greenman at Nextbook had a nice appreciation just after the election saying what I had suspected back in Iowa: that a novel about a Jewish President prefigured many aspects of the Obama candidacy. I only hope more people come to appreciate in the coming years.

Barack Obama may very well become the first African American President, or alternately Hillary Clinton may become the first woman elected President. It is even possible that John McCain may become the first, well, really really seriously old white guy to be elected President (72 on inauguration day). It is safe to say however, that the first Jewish president is yet to be on the ballot.The Wanting of Levine

So for the time being Jewish Presidents belong to the realm of fiction, which brought to mind Michael Halberstam’s 1978 bestselling novel The Wanting of Levine. It is long out of print, though it appears in the catalog of the Montgomery County Public Library system. When I went seeking a copy this weekend, the librarian I consulted noted the book had not circulated in five years and was probably long-gone from the shelves. Lucky for me, she was wrong.

Set ten years in the future from its publication date (and twenty years before our current quadrennial contest), the novel presents a United States that is well on its way to being a second-rate power. Energy rationing is in effect, standards of living are declining, racial violence is increasing, individual states are involved in border wars over trade and tariffs — there’s a general sense that things are going to hell very quickly. To top it off, the Democrat’s front-runner for the nomination has just stabbed his wife to death in a drunken rage. Enter the mercurial figure of A.L. Levine, until now a back-room DNC committeeman after a fortune made in sales and real estate development. When circumstances thrust him into the spotlight, Levine begins his own unlikely candidacy.

The novel is one-part political insider fiction, one part-late seventies sex romp, one part liberal Jewish wish-fulfillment and one-part a canny take on the rhythms of political enthusiasm and what Americans want from a President. Written as it was in a pre-AIDS, pre-Reagan, pre-Internet and pre-collapse of the Soviet Union (just to mention a few epoch shaping “pre’s”) era, the novel obviously has limits when applied to today’s political landscape. Certainly, Levine, with a libido Bill Clinton could only envy, would not be electable, never mind even runnable in today’s climate.

But certain aspects of Levine’s character — his “firstness” to coin a phrase, his lack of governing experience, his personal charisma do bring to mind the current campaign. In one stump speech he says:

This is the first time I have run for office. It’s an advantage not to be a politician because like all occupations, politics puts a mark on a man. Politics is a worthy, noble profession, but a lifetime in it requires so much compromise, so much dealing, that a person tends to forget what his real principles were in the first place. … Compromise is necessary, but a lifetime of it leaves a mark. It is fine for a career in the Senate, but not necessary or even desirable in a president. I am, I believe, experienced in politics, but not a politician.

Later, with his inauguration impending, Levine speculates to himself about what a great President might be in these times and perhaps anticipates the appeal to “purple states” and our first bi-racial President:

Something always had to give. In that he felt his strongest hope. If there is anything I can do, he thought, it’s to mediate, to intercede, to explain. What the country needs is a middleman, and as a middleman I’ve had two-thousand years practice. Without a middleman, without someone who genuinely felt for both sides, the country was going to tear itself apart, the young at the throat of the old, the freezing at the throat of the conservationists. The defenders of privacy clashed with the legions of the right-to-know. The right to bear arms collided with the right to avoid being shot to death at a stop light…Each American had his passion, and each clamored for attention, shouting, “I’m right! I’m right!” and demanding, insisting, that the government ensure his claim to the right–while denouncing the spread of government.

It is a novel thirty years on, that is as breath-taking for what it gets right as for what it gets wrong (Mexico figures large in the novel, but in geo-political terms it more resembles modern Venezuela). It captures the spirit of the contact sport that is American politics, while at the same time, is unafraid to cop-to the sublimated desires of the body politic.

Michael Halberstam was the brother of renowned author and journalist David Halberstam. Michael was an internist in Washington, DC when he wrote the novel and was tragically murdered a few years after the book’s publication in dramatic circumstances.

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The Detail of a David Grossman Inscription

I sat enthralled today – listening to the “lecture” by the brilliantly human, jet-lagged David Grossman (a co-presentation of Nextbook at the Washington DCJCC and American University’s Center for Israel Studies program).  In my opinion, Grossman is the resonating moral center of the universe – the model of public introspection.  So he starts with a story about a short, elderly character in a novel of his and the “interiority” of a writer struggling to inhabit and be inhabited by characters who are totally different from his own experience and persona. David was sitting on a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus six years after he wrote about this character and suddenly heard a section he wrote about her read aloud on the radio news “culture corner” that the driver was playing.  A particular detail of an extra wooden pedal he’d given the character for her Singer sewing machine struck his creative memory – at just the moment that the driver changed the station to the delight of his fellow passengers.  Grossman absorbed the insult to his book and to himself – and then jumped back into looking at what he had written about this short woman’s need for the booster pedal, as the kind of detail that is a link in a chain of writer’s attentions to human needs that make up the human texture of a story.  He was then off onto a tour de force exploration of the interior journeys he experiences moving between small character detail and the enormities of parents and children, the Shoah, and the Israeli-Palestinian entanglement, among other topics and passions

There is joy and despair and disappointment in every life, in every world drama.  Grossman writes and talks brilliantly about the joy and despair – the human challenge of it all.  He is never a disappointment.  So I purchased his novel The Smile of the Lamb, to have it signed – and exchanged a few sentences with him about the kind of dialogues we do here at the 16th Street J.  He said, oh, I will sign it and write something. After he signed, I asked him a bit more about how the detail of characters and the world situations come to him and influence each other.  (It happens as it happens.  It’s not planned).  Then a quick L’hitraot and I snuck away to read this inscription:

“To Stephen: For every thing you are doing to bring the two people to listen to each other. Thank You! David Grossman”

Thanked by David Grossman for maybe a glint in my eyes – a quick expression of yearning and purpose!  I’ll read the novel, pay attention to character detail and the big picture – and cherish those words of encouragement always.

Stephen Stern is the Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs at the Washington DCJCC.

Darin Strauss Gets Late Late

He doesn’t do much reading in this interview, but you can appreciate the absurdity of the situation when Darin Strauss somehow ends up as a guest on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show. Expect a slightly more literary experience when Darin reads from More Than It Hurts You on Sunday, September 21 at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.

Darin actually recounts the experience on a blog he wrote for the summer leg of his book tour.

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, Testing Empathy

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia: A Novel as well as How This Night Is Different, a collection of short stories which won the Moment Magazine Emerging Writer Award for Short Fiction.  She is the Fiction editor at Nextbook.org and an editor-at-large for Jewcy.com. She spoke with us via email about The Book of Dahlia which she will be reading from and signing at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival on Sunday, September 21 at 4pm.

Q: Dahlia seems very much like someone I might have known growing up upper-middle class and Jewish in the burbs (actually my first reaction was that I think I dated her at some point). Were you afraid that some readers would fall into the trap of thinking of her as just a JAP (and I don’t like the term either)?

A:  The job of the novelist, as I see it,  is to show us the whole of a character we might otherwise assume we know at first glance — to uncover the layers that make humans the complex, sometimes baffling creatures we are.  Dahlia is of course a recognizable cliche (though she would probably argue vociferously against “JAP”), and she hopefully confronts and taunts the reader as such, acting as a narrative challenge.  Like all “unlikable” narrators, who force the reader to go beyond easy categorizations .  Ultimately the novel is a test of the reader’s empathy.  Not all readers are “good” readers in that they’re capable of having their empathy thusly tested, but writing to the lowest common denominator would be a giant waste of time, so screw that. 

Q: Reading your book made me think of Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, I was wondering if that book was an influence and if in some ways, Dahlia is a post-Sontag character? It seems Dahlia is constantly trying to convince everyone, and perhaps herself that her illness is not a metaphor, but an illness?

A:  Illness As Metaphor was hugely influential — the character of Dahlia pretty much coalesced via Sontag.  The notion that, culturally, there are illnesses we vault (poor thing!) and illnesses we abhor (should’ve used a condom!) is a fascinating one.  And yeah, how can we help but internalize that to some degree?  Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich was also very much at the forefront for me.  The living are generally so utterly terrified and confused by the spectre of death.  We go to great lengths to deny, distance, sanitize, and remove ourselves from the inescapable reality of it.  Which plays into Sontag’s theories, too, since how better to distance ourselves from death than to ascribe it often blatantly random ideas of cause/effect? 
And how fun, I thought, to confront all of the above with one furious, profane, flailing dying JAP?

Q: So you would call her a JAP? I ask not as a gotcha, just interested in what a trigger word that can be…

A: No, just playing with you. 

Q: Fair enough. Dahlia’s mother, Margalit, is something different from the stereotypical Jewish mother, and yet I doubt anyone will be nominating her as the redemption of Sophie Portnoy. Did it ever occur to you, that with Margalit you were simultaneously holding up for judgment two of the American Jewish community’s most sacred shrines: mothers and Israel?

A: Margalit’s a fictional character, and therefore theoretically immune to moral judgment.  In real life there are good mothers and bad mothers and everything-in-between mothers.  There are nice Israelis and not-so-nice Israelis.  There are thoughtful, sensitive clergy-people and sociopathic clergy-people.  There are Jewish people who are ethical and intelligent and Jewish people who are not so ethical and not so intelligent.  Point being, the novelist has zero responsibility to represent only the good in the world at large or in any particular demographic.   The Old Testament would be a damn short book if that were the case.  (Not to mention a snooze.)  As would the Iliad.  And The Catcher in the Rye.  And on and on.  If any reader’s ultimate understanding of mothers or Jewish mothers or Rabbis — or the State of Israel itself! — hinges on a single work of fiction, we’re in trouble.  It’s a story about particular, specific people, not a sketch of an entire demographic.

Q: Any thoughts about your own death? Have any opinions on the pros and cons of a fast vs. slow demise?

A:  That’s a difficult one to tackle in a brief email exchange with a relative stranger to be made public on the internet!  I’ll say that I try to be present in my own life with my loved ones while maintaining an awareness that I am in fact going to die.  As has everyone who’s ever lived.  As will everyone I love.  And if that awareness can help me live/love more fully and be more present and appreciate life more, excellent.  Fast death vs. slow death?  Barring suicide, we have no say.  So… onwards.

Q: Last question and then I’ll see you in DC. Would you have been friends with Dahlia if she were a real person?

A: I’ve been friends with several Dahlia-types, but they tend to be the kind of friendships that burn out, for obvious reasons.  but because she’s a character I dreamed up, it’s fairly easy for me to love her unconditionally

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