February 2006

Angela Stubbs

features

An Interview with Paul Mandelbaum

Paul Mandelbaum is wearing many hats these days. It would make sense then when he’s about to embark upon something new and interesting, risky even, that he’s put on the hat labeled “brilliant.” Mandelbaum has a headlong, no-turning-back confidence to his writing and stylistically, he’s one of the most adventurous writers I’ve yet to read. Often traditional in his approach, he breaks all barriers when it comes to his unique way of storytelling. Without any warning, he’s off and running with his energetic prose and kooky characters. While he’s great at creating real life scenarios, he’s even better providing interesting landscapes for his characters to inhabit. If you add one part writer and one part good listener along with all of Paul Mandelbaum’s other writerly attributes, you get a novel as polished as Adriane on the Edge.

He’s been on staff at the Baltimore Magazine, taught and studied at the Iowa Writer’s workshop program, edited the literary journal Story and currently teaches in the UCLA Writer’s Program. A lover of jazz, the French, India, and the East Coast, Mandelbaum takes each of his passions and manages to incorporate them into his latest work, Adriane on the Edge. This novel, told in what feels like small stories, follows the life of Adriane Gelki, a twenty-something on the verge of many things, including figuring out who she really is. After her parent’s simultaneous death (her father’s shot through the head over his reckless gambling debt and her mother’s drug-induced suicide with a note she left on the back page of a Martha Stewart Living magazine), Adriane begins to take inventory of her life and realizes that she’s coming up short. Mandelbaum takes us on a tumultuous flight to Canada for wood-fired bagels, a French pornographer’s house for capers (amateurish as his work may be), war waging for the right to be godmother of a lesbian couple’s baby; sex parties gone awry and even a short trip to India for a proper canine burial. Paul Mandelbaum is a master at his craft and a bit of a comic in disguise.

Garrett in Wedlock was Mandelbaum’s first novel-in-stories, which seems to have paved a road for short-story writers to broach the novel form in a way that still holds onto some of the same short-story structure. Adriane on the Edge exemplifies the desire we all have to be individuals, to live life without regrets and of course, to be comfortable with some of our quirks, flaws and foibles. Paul Mandelbaum has just returned from his East Coast tour of Adriane on the Edge the night prior to our interview. We discuss his trip, the French, and why he’s carrying around a bottle of Lemon Pine-Sol while enjoying chocolate croissants and a café au lait.

What’s that you’ve got there?

Oh, the bag. I just got back last night and all of our clothes smelled like mildew.

From the East Coast?

Yeah. It gets really damp and now all of our clothes smell terrible. I’d forgotten about how damp it can be!

Lemon Pine-Sol. Good tip. I’ll keep that in mind. Let’s talk about where you went on your book tour.

My East Coast mini-tour was Boston, Philly, Baltimore and D.C.

And they were all Borders? Or no?

No.

Independent?

The first two were independent and the other two were Borders.

Adriane on the Edge was published by Penguin Books, a larger publishing house. Do you feel it’s advantageous to go with a bigger house or a smaller press like, say, Sarabande?

There probably are all kinds of trade-offs. I mean, one of the benefits of publishing with a larger house is that there are probably a certain amount of books they’re placing that you get automatically by virtue of the fact that the chain buyer says, "I’ll take whatever the standard... across the board number is" -- maybe, I don’t even know if that’s true. I’m just making it up as I go along. I suspect though that may be true. And so in that sense smaller houses don’t always have that advantage. And then on the other hand you can probably get more personal editing attention that a smaller house might not be able to market a book as broadly, that they make, you know... have a good sense of how to go for a niche that the book is really trying to go for.

Right.

So, I’ve published books with both large and small houses at this point now and I can certainly say that there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

I could see that there would definite pros and cons depending on the kind of book or story compilation that it is; one might be better suited for a particular kind of book or story than the other.

Yes, and ideally it’ll find its way to the house that it’s well suited for.

It’s a tough market for a short story and even say, a novel-in-stories. Do you find that with your first novel-in-stories that you had a tough time because of the label it was given?

As in finding the publisher in the first place?

Yes, the publisher.

It was a difficult time and it is in the order of difficulty that we’ve discussed -- disparate short stories, connected stories or a novel-in-stories and then the novel. It mostly boils down to the fact that the more disparate elements you have in the book the harder it is to summarize in the media in a sentence or two.

Exactly. It’s difficult for them to put “This is about “fill in your topic here.”

And that’s all you get! Most of the time in terms of the sales person that place the books in the stores or getting little blurbs in different magazines or newspapers or whatever its degree to which you are able to summarize something in a sentence. You stand a better chance in terms of marketing.

It is true! A compilation of short-stories you can’t really summarize in a short paragraph or couple of sentences usually.

Yeah, well your agent and you will think long and hard about a way that you can summarize -- even if it means leaving a few of the stories out of the description (laughs).

Joe Meno mentioned when he was marketing Hula Girl, the book felt very noir-ish and his idea for cover art depicted it as such. Then sales came in and threw a Hula Girl on the cover. He called it a “dumbing down, watering down of the book” in the name of having the book reach an even larger audience, thus misleading the general readership, if you will. Do you find this to be an issue for you?

I have no problem if people buy my book based on the picture.

Well, hey a lot of people like Chihuahuas. It’s very popular right now, no?

And the dog in the book of course is a Sheltie and there was a point very late, late, late in the game when my editor asked me, “Would you like to change the dog in the book to a Chihuahua?” And I said, “I’m sure most readers don’t take the cover art completely literally.”

That’s funny.

I love that picture. I think they got it from Getty Images and the Chihuahua conveys some of the kind of anxious humor that the book has in a way that the Sheltie couldn’t depict in a picture and so I’m very happy with the cover.

Did you have any ideas going into Adriane on the Edge as far as cover art was concerned or no?

I didn’t for Garrett in Wedlock but oddly enough... since you asked, the book I’m working on now I do have an idea but it’s probably something that I won’t get to do though because it’s too expensive.

But you do get to bring that to the table.

Well that doesn’t mean they’ll listen to me. I just have an idea. I mean the first cover, the cover of Garrett that they sent to me I was asked, “What do you think?” and I said, “I like it. Here are a couple of suggestions,” which were, you know, completely ignored and so I realized when the second cover for my second book came out and they showed me the cover and said, “What do you think?” they really just meant “say you like it and we’ll move on.” And fortunately, I do like it. So that’s great.

You mentioned Baltimore being on your mini-tour, which also happens to be where Adriane’s story takes place. You lived there for a period of time. Is that right?

I’ll give you the whole run down. I was born in Manhattan and moved down to the D.C suburbs in Maryland when I was 6 and that’s where I grew up. After college I moved to Baltimore and worked for Baltimore Magazine and then moved to Iowa to go to the Writer’s Workshop for the MFA and stayed there for a few more years. Then Minneapolis for a year and Cincinnati for a year. And now, LA. LA with my fingers covered in chocolate. Moving to Iowa was the first time I had ever lived away from the East Coast. It was very traumatic for me.

What made you decide on Iowa?

I learned to like it quite a bit. But at first I was pretty freaked out by it. Just by the change.

Well, the writer’s program there is pretty great, but I imagine there’s not a whole lot to do, except write, so maybe that’s a good thing?

Iowa City is more exciting than you might imagine. It’s a university town and there are people from all over the world. So, there was that and then also the other thing that I discovered was I don’t need that much excitement.

So, you’re a low-maintenance kind of guy?

Yeah.

How was the MFA experience at Iowa for you?

The one not-so-good thing about Iowa... and I don’t know if this is something you’ve heard or not is that it feels very competitive. I was sort of oblivious to things but I kind of didn’t really notice it the first year I was there, but the second year I was there I figured out what people were talking about. One of the weird things about Iowa is the different levels of financial aid and that everybody knows what everyone else’s deal is. But some people did have financial aid and some didn’t and it is tough. I was able to make it without going into debt. And whenever anyone asks me about doing anything in an MFA program [aid]’s sort of one of those things I’d urge them to consider. It’s one thing to become a doctor because it’s a profession that you can expect a payoff.

A career.

Doctors can pay back their debt, but to rack up debt to be a starving artist doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

There’s no real promise even with an MFA for work or publishing. One could always take up a job with Neighborhood Enhancement department.

Neighborhood Enhancement... yeah, it doesn’t seem to do much for Adriane, but you know, you might like it (laughs).

I know Adriane on the Edge has been labeled a novel. Do you feel in your heart that Adriane is a novel-in-stories?

I personally think of it as a novel-in-stories. That’s just me. That’s how I submitted it. But they (the publisher) thought it was certainly more novel-y than Garrett in Wedlock since it’s all from her point of view. You know, the sales people just don’t... well, they get the dry shakes when they hear the words, “novel-in-stories” and said, “We really want to call it a novel” so I said all right. That’s okay. Around the same time my agent sent one of the chapter/stories to Glimmer Train Stories for the anthology which had published one of the Garrett stories a year earlier. They took the story. I referred to the book as a novel-in-stories, and I was very amused to notice when the issue of Glimmer Train came out, “novel-in-stories” had been changed to “a collection.”

Even in the lit journal world the title or genre of a work is still a big issue. It’s actually an across the board theme.

I’m afraid, yes. You’re right. Every literary form or venue has their own readership in mind. And that’s fine with me. I’m happy with that.

Do you feel when you’re writing a novel-in-stories that linking all of the stories together with a single point of view is easier in your mind than attacking it from various points of view?

I think it’s easier in my mind -- I think the way you phrased it is crucial. I think as I got more and more into them it proved not to necessarily be actually easier but it was very useful. I started writing Garrett in Wedlock and then I put those stories away for awhile while I worked on the First Words anthology and then I got out the stories and I made this really stupid decision to try and turn them into a regular novel and I ended up with half a dozen half-baked stories with some crummy filler stuff in between. So that went back into the drawer. And then I got it out again and I looked at the half -baked stories and tried to focus on what attracted me to each of them and it was very useful to me to think of each part of the book as a separate story. It helped keep me honest in terms of actually shaping something that would matter to a reader, something that they would care about, not just putting that day of reckoning off. It’s one of the reasons why I think it’s quite useful for beginning writers... fiction writers to try and write a number of short stories before they try to write a novel.

It’s a daunting task to set out with such a huge thing that is the novel form. Charlie Baxter is someone who has made the graceful transition between taking two short story characters and turning them into the meat of a novel like Saul & Patsy.

I’m a big fan. I’ve only heard him do a reading. But what a nice guy.

You mentioned putting away Garrett for awhile and working on other things. Did it take you longer to write Adriane’s story than it did Garrett’s?

Yeah but only because it took forever to write Garrett. I worked on Adriane pieces on and off for about 5 years.

When you were writing Garrett and introduced Adriane’s character you decided she was worthwhile enough to explore?

Yeah there was something about Adriane’s voice when I was writing from her point of view in the Garrett book that really stuck with me. She made an impression on a lot of journal editors when I would send out those Adriane chapters that ended up being with Garrett and some earlier -- not particularly good versions of it from a few years earlier. There was something about her that even though editors wouldn’t want to take the story they noticed about her and liked her. She made an impression. She does seem to have that affect on people. Including me. It felt like a very strong voice in that a lot of books don’t seem to start that way.

Sometimes characters do find their way into their own world and own story when they are a part of something else -- a larger work.

Yeah. She kept sort of rattling around in my head wanting to have more pages.

There are a lot of tragic things that happen to Adriane in the book and yet, there is a great balance of humor and tragedy. A tragicomedy of sorts. She deals with some fairly dark moments but it’s all sprinkled with a touch of humor and you do that well.

I’m glad you like the humor of it. It’s that balance that you just mentioned that attracted me to it. That balance between. As you’ve said, a lot of what she has to deal with is very serious and occasionally even dark but on the other hand the tone of the book is almost chipper, almost Nancy Drew-like. This sort of fluttering, blithe air. And something about making them somehow co-exist. I like the way it seems to create a sense of humor. It could have felt very morose to not have a lighter tone. The thing that’s hard about it, of course is you don’t want to be ever making fun of the character. You don’t want the humor to be at her expense. So, I would always be trying to not have her be the object of the humor but rather having the situation be the object of the humor.

Without overtly dwelling on her past, I felt there were moments where Adriane’s character maintained some of the same bad habits as both of her deceased parents but only to go about having bad habits that she could ultimately control. In a way, to right their wrongs.

Oh, that’s good! She’s a difficult person to have as a friend but good-hearted enough and interesting enough to... she’s worth the trouble of keeping her in your life.

She’s needy but in a good way. And she loves French food, French men. You must be a Francophile of sorts, no?

My mother grew up in Paris. There were many times as a kid that I went there. I always kind of associated French culture with my mother even though she was never formally a French citizen. But I always thought of her as French and going to France with her and on my own a couple times, you know it was just like a place that I always kind of felt at home at.

And the French really are big on Americans assimilating when they visit. If you make an effort they respond quite well.

They’ve held onto that cultural moment when French was the language. And you don’t let go of that too easily! And I took French all through grade school but even when I went to Vietnam a few years ago, it was fun to sort of use my French there and see how much of it came back to me.

You chose Montreal as the city that Adriane travels to go on a first date with yet another French guy.

On her date, yeah. She’s got a first date with someone who lives in Montreal. There are a number of plot points in the book that were chosen, I know this is a stupid and inexcusable reason, but they were inspired because they actually happened and there was this real life corollary. In fact some of Adriane’s adventures had happened to a woman friend of mine who had shared one with me over the years in long, sort of disburdening phone conversation and not that I was scribbling away at the other end of the phone -- I wasn’t even thinking about these things as material when they’d tell me about it. I mean, I’m a decent friend! Actually, very early on I had a friend who had this first date with a guy in Montreal and it went badly, very quickly and so she got out of there and while she was in Montreal she has this goal of getting some of these Montreal wood-burning oven bagels and bringing them back with her.

Much like Adriane does on her trip to Montreal.

Not for her friend like Adriane does, but just for her. And on the plane, the cleaning crew threw them out when she stopped in New York. She was just beside herself about it and so she went into this whole huge, traumatic thing with the airline where she did get someone to send her some replacement bagels from Montreal! And she was telling me this story and very shortly thereafter it was very clear to me, maybe less so to her that the lengths she was going to to replace these bagels was serving as a stand-in for this romantic disappointment. And it was that kind of parallelism where the protagonist is not fully aware. I was thinking, “I should write a story about that.” And I eventually got around to it.

It’s a great story, especially Adriane’s version.

Well, I showed it to my friend. I want to keep my friendships! I have about three friends whose lives I sort of pillage for Adriane material (laughs). Sometimes you have to take certain pains to protect them and their privacy. Actually there was a friend of mine, this same friend of mine who went to this sex party that had a lot of similarities to the one in Adriane’s story. At one of my East Coast readings I sort of found myself kind of thinking about the actual basis for the material and talking about the sex party. In the front row of this reading is my friend’s mother! I don’t think there was any reason for her to suspect that I might have been...

In the book you mention the Greater Baltimore Polyamory Society. Just out of curiosity, does the GBPS exist?

I don’t think so. I actually know two, not one but two friends who have gotten involved in the polyamory stuff over the years. One of them is the female friend who went to that sex party and then there was the male friend who lives in the D.C. area and I just found it fascinating. What fascinated me the most about it are the rules. It makes sense in a way. In order to break certain boundaries these groups feel like you have to agree to the ground rules because they’re kind of breaking other rules. The guy who I am friends with simultaneously belonged to a group called “Radical Honesty” and it turns out there’s a lot of co-mingling between the Polyamorous and the Radical Honesty people. One of the things about Polyamory is that it only works if you subscribe to the Radical Honesty stuff; you’re sharing everything with your partner. There’s no adultery or anything because it’s all laid out in the open. It’s just too much work. You should probably just remain faithful!

I thought it very Adriane to be dishonest about being honest with her date for the sex party at the Polyamory Group in Baltimore. In order for her to go about this whole honesty policy, she has to break one of the rules -- drinking alcohol. She feels maybe that the rules don’t apply to her?

She has such a problem with who she is when the book starts that she convinces herself, well, she doesn’t really know what she wants to do but she knows it needs to be different. It gives her some hope in her mind during this misguided period in her life that we focus on, that some area of her life will work out in some way that she likes. Most of the things that happen to her are really exaggerated versions of the things that sort of happen to everybody. As you very rightly pointed out with the polyamorous, it’s that same dynamic that we’ve all experienced in relationships over trying to talk ourselves into accepting something that maybe we would save ourselves some heartbreak and time if we would just, “you seem like a nice person but...”

I’m not sure how regretful she is about her actions. She talks about her perfect world. What did she call it? Piafville?

The utopia where nobody has any regrets. Je Ne Regrette Rien. The famous Piaf song. She regrets things she’s done as the old Adriane, but she may very well come to regret some new Adriane things too. This idea of not having regret is very intoxicating to her. It’s just so foreign.

In her mind, Adriane tends to live in places like Piafville. She’s constantly trying to live without regret in her relationships.

She was building up this guy (the French Pornographer) in her imagination but at the same time she had a boyfriend and it was not a great relationship but she hadn’t broken up with him. So there was kind of this dual psychological mechanism going on in her mind where she was tapping into that desirability of going on a lunch date with a French guy but at the same time she was kind of talking herself into the undesirability of the relationship with her current boyfriend. It was just fascinating to me the way she was doing this dance with herself. It just seemed like a slightly exaggerated version of something similar I’ve done. We just have a knack when we want something we figure out all kinds of ways to get it.

You have a knack for extracting these fabulous moments from people’s lives and turning them into situations that are true to the human condition. That’s the true sign of a good story.

I’m delighted you felt that way. The way you were describing the book reminded me of the way I gather material over the years and there will be an anecdote that has happened to a friend... I guess the question really does boil down to, “Where’s the potential in this that becomes not just an anecdote about my friend, but a story about the reader?” What is it about this story that a reader of either gender is going to be able to recognize when they read the story? And that’s the tough part. The fun part, but ultimately excruciatingly difficult.