‘The Setting is Provincial’

Writing from my hotel room in Amsterdam, the final day of my short overseas reading tour. I’m staying at the Ambassade hotel. Flipping through the guest book yesterday, I was floored to see the names of countless authors who have stayed here before me: Tobias Wolff, Wally Lamb, Jhumpa Lahiri. To name a very few.
Maybe 20 feet from my window is the Heren Gracht, one of the many canals sluicing through Amsterdam in a series of diminishing U’s. Right now, the Frederik Albert boat is passing by, long, low, glass-covered, Dutch flag waving at the rear. It’s a gray day. The row houses across the canal are dark inside.
I read last night from “Pulp and Paper” at The English Bookshop here in the city. There were about a dozen people packed into a bright, intimate space, surrounded on four sides by books. British, mainly. An Aussie. A couple of Americans. The shopkeeper, a native of South Africa.
Maybe it’s being over here that suggested it. But I decided to do something different. At the start, I told a story I’d read in the introduction to Gunter Grass’s “Tin Drum.”
(I know Grass admitted a few years back that he was conscripted into the Waffen SS as a teenager, and he recently wrote a poem assailing Israel for its threats to attack Iran, but he is also Germany’s most famous living writer and public intellectual, a Nobel laureate, and, so on my flight into Berlin, I’d decided to read the introduction.)
Grass says that in the summer of 1959, he met the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff at a hotel in Zurich.
“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” Wolff said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?”
“I don’t think so,” Grass replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces–”
“Say no more,” Wolff broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”
I told this story last night before reading from “The Herald,” my story about the Central Jersey newspaper reporter — perhaps the most provincial in a book of provincial stories set in New Jersey and New York.
The anecdote gave me confidence somehow. That I had standing, in a way, to come to Berlin and Amsterdam and read these stories. It answered, in part at least, a question I’d posed to myself: why am I here?
And it has me thinking about what’s next for me. The novel I’m working on is set in Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ve never been there. (Though I hope soon to go.) I’ve always struggled with this as a writer: how to imagine, faithfully, the things beyond our experience.
The dictionary definition of “provincial” is: “of or relating to a province.” Also, though: “limited in perspective.”
Perhaps it’s in this sense, imagining the life of a single person — their loves, their hopes, their fears; their daydreams and the ways they combat boredom — that writers find the courage to begin.

Reading Fiction in Berlin

I have to admit, I really didn’t know what to expect at my reading Tuesday night in Berlin.
I’ve done maybe 20 readings in the U.S. since “Pulp and Paper” was published in October, but this was my first event overseas. I was reading in English, of course, at an English bookshop. But, still, I wondered, would my stories translate well? Would a German audience “get” the humor? Would they laugh at the Mr. Potato Head joke?
I was staying with a friend in Berlin, and we’d scouted out the book shop the day before. I was reading at Saint Georges Bookshop on Woerther Strasse, in a cafe-lined section of the city. It was, it turned out, a Bank Holiday May 1, and so Paul, the proprietor was opening the store just for my reading.
Almost immediately upon entering I loved the vibe. Long, narrow shop with floor-to-ceiling books, lined up or slanting into one another. A well-worn brown leather couch in the back, and milk crates on the floor filled with books. A stepladder propped against the wall, and billboards pinned with notices. I particularly loved the selection near the front: novellas, presented alone, not in collection, with sparse, bare white paper covers with perhaps a splash of color. I picked up Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which I’ve read, and Yukio Mishima’s “Patriotism,” which I had not. I also picked up a slim hardcover volume entitled: “Instructions for American Servicement in Britain 1942” which contains this excellent advice:

You will find that English crowds at football or cricket matches are more orderly and polite to the players than American crowds. If a fielder misses a catch at cricket, the crowd will probably take a sympathetic attitude. They will shout ‘good try’ even if it looks to you like a bad fumble. In America the crowd would probably shout ‘take him out.’ This contrast should be remembered. It means that you must be careful in the excitement of an English game not to shout out remarks which everyone in America would understand, but which the British might think insulting.

(I think I’ll try that next time I’m at a Phillies game. “Good try!” J-Rol! See how that one flies.)
The day of the reading, I arrived a bit early. Paul set up the rear of the shop, and pretty quickly the store was crowded — my friend had invited a number of friends and colleagues, but there were also a few walk-ins. Paul sold wine, beer, and juice, and we mingled for a half-hour before everyone took a seat and the reading began. There were about 30 people there — every seat taken — far exceeding my expectations.
I read “Funnyboy” first. And what struck me, as I got into the story, was that the German audience seemed to “get” the humor in a way that even many American audiences have not. They laughed at the various punchlines. But they also laughed at the bitter, cynical voice of the first-person narrator. I don’t think that’s something that’s ever happened before. And I had to wonder: was it something cultural? Is there something in the German experience that makes the bitter vitriol of a mourning father more funny? (I should say — I agree with them; it is funny, in the way that gallows humor is funny. It’s just not something audiences generally seem comfortable laughing at.)
Surprisingly, perhaps, the more difficult moments for me in the reading came at the implicitly Jewish references.
Maybe that has to do with how we’d spent the previous two days. We’d visited the low-key memorial at the train station near my friend’s house in the southwestern part of the city — which just happened to be the spot from where Berlin’s Jews were deported during the Holocaust. You can read on the rust-colored iron walkway a long line of data:

28.10.1942/100 Juden/Berlin-Theresienstadt

And on, and on.
And then we walked through his lovely garden neighborhood. There were birds cooing and parents pushing baby strollers, and the scent of flowers everywhere in bloom on the air. And every so often, we would stop in front of a house and he would point out a subtle gold square inlaid into the sidewalk with the name of the Jew who had lived there, along with his or her fate. So:

Dr. Fritz Demuth … Deportiert Auschwitz


Bertha Dessauer … Murdered Auschwitz

These memorials were powerful for there understatedness. And, marking the stately homes of Jews who once lived very ordinary lives on these blocks, there was something about them infinitely more powerful than even the grandest of memorials or museums. Someone was taken from that house, right there, and shipped from the train station down the block, near the outdoor street cafe, to their death in a concentration camp. And not so long ago. It was impossible, looking at these squares, to think of “us” and “them.” Suddenly, it was all “us.”
And there I was, 70 years after these Jews were deported and murdered, a Jewish author reading in the heart of Berlin. I know so many have come before me with Jewish books. I know that Berlin is a place today where Jews live normal lives. I know Germany has been a stalwart ally of Israel, reckoning in countless ways large and small with its murderous recent past. My book is not specifically Jewish in theme. And yet I must admit, I hesitated when I got the reference to the “cheery beery bim bom” Acura. (The description comes from a song any Jewish child would know.) When I said the name of the protagonist — Levi Stern — out loud for the first time. When I spoke the name of the love interest, Melanie Mendelsohn.
Standing there, reading these stories, I was marking myself as a Jew; perhaps even, in some miniscule way, contributing to history’s new march, helping Berlin inch forward, toward whatever the future holds.
They applauded at the end. Several times. I’m more thankful than they could know.

How I Fixed ‘Mainlanders’ After 13 Years

The question came from the right side of the room: “Why is it that ‘Mainlanders’ took 13 years to write?”

I was at Politics & Prose a few days ago, and I’d just finished reading the first third of ‘Mainlanders,’ a coming of age Jersey Shore story. I’d spoken about the fact that one of the reasons I wanted to read ‘Mainlanders’ in DC is because it was the first story I submitted to my fiction techniques course at the Johns Hopkins MA in writing program 13 years ago. And, I explained, it was the very last story I finished before sending my collection to my publisher earlier this year.

Why, a woman wanted to know, did ‘Mainlanders’ – a story about adolescent yearning – take so long to write?

A very good question.

‘Mainlanders’ is about two boys, Nick and Tubby, from fictionalized Bay City, NJ. They grew up at the beach. The beach is all they’ve ever known. Tubby’s father is mayor (and plumber), and Nick’s is captain of the Miss Bay City fishing boat. They have the hots for two girls, Anna and Caitlyn — tourists they spied on the beach while bodysurfing one day.

The basic story arc is straightforward: Nick and Tubby fall head over heels, and make their move — asking the girls on a date.

And yet it would be difficult, honestly, to count the number of failed drafts of this story over the years.

The main reason: In most early drafts, the girls were flat-out mean to the boys. I realized earlier this year, after a fantasic critique from a trusted reader, that the story would work much better if readers empathized not just with the boys in their quest, but also with the girls, the objects of the boys’ desire. If readers could feel for the girls as well as the boys … if they could think, in effect, You know what? I get Nick and Tubby — but I also get Anna and Caitlyn … I understand why everyone does what they do … well, then you really have a story.

I went back to work, trying harder to work through the girls’ motivation. I dialed down the meanness. The girls became much more likable.

Thirteen years later, I finished the story.

Tough Question at Prairie Lights

Halfway through my reading at Prairie Lights in Iowa City last night, a woman raised her hand and asked about my story, “Funnyboy.”

She asked, essentially, whether Missy Jones — a sort of bumbling high school cheerleader — is really just a stereotype. A flat, easy characterization the relies on and propagates false assumptions. It was a fair question, respectfully asked — even if the questioner seemed somewhat annoyed by the portrayal.

My answer to her: You’re right.

I’d only read the first third of the story. Up ’til that point, the only view we have of Missy Jones is through the eyes of Levi Stern, a bitter, sarcastic, angry father who blames her for killing his son in a traffic accident. Levi’s perspective is absolutely one-dimensional. He views Missy, to that point in the story, as the stereotypical achetype of a high school cheerleader. And worse.

It’s not until later in the story (the part I didn’t read) that Missy actually comes in as a character. My hope is that once she’s actually there, on the page, she starts to take shape as a flesh-and-blood person, by the end fully-formed, one perfectly at odds with the stereotype Levi expected to find.

It left me thinking about the what happens, at a reading, when we read only part of a story. Our stories, and our characters, are vulnerable to partial- or mis-interpretation. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s part of the point of a reading: accessing a small part of a larger whole on its own terms, listening to what that part alone has to tell us.

I certainly learned something. And I’m thankful for the question.