An Interview with Bruce Bauman
Bruce Bauman is not afraid to say what he means. In his writing and in person there’s a passion and conviction that is impossible to ignore. His novel, And the Word Was addresses issues like faith, guilt, bereavement and theology with a touch of humor and sincerity. As we journey with each of the characters down the life path they are destined for, it becomes next to impossible not to alter our own ideals and take note of the change in our own acumen.
As an adjunct professor at Cal Arts MFA writing program and one of the senior editors for Black Clock, he spends most of his time helping others. Whether Bauman is traveling the world so he can do research for a novel or spending time at various writer’s colonies across the country, he is in constant need of mental stimulation. It’s because of this inherent need to create and gain knowledge that he can construct such complex worlds for his characters to inhabit. And the Word Was asks a lot of questions of its main characters and its readers. Bauman examines why we believe what we do, our philosophies in life, cultural divisions and rituals, even the complexities of the social and political landscapes we inhabit.
When I first met Bruce at his reading, he told the room that many people think he’s a cranky. As I ate lunch with Bruce and we discussed the issues of publishing, marketing, politics, teaching, Black Clock and touring, I found that Bruce Bauman is not a cranky guy, but rather someone who really cares about what he does.
How many years has it been since you went to India?
Gosh, I think it’s been six years this year. We went in 2000.
You went with the intent of writing and researching?
Yeah, I wrote a proposal. Years before I’d written a version of the book where the character runs to France, not India and it didn’t work. And then I said, “India! India is the place.” I’d gotten the character of Levi together which also wasn’t in the first book. I didn’t know how that was going to come out yet. I had written "Chambers of Commerce" as a short story apart from a novel and then I realized it should be in this book. So, I wrote a proposal to the Unesco/Ashford Foundation which supports writers and artists and dancers to go to countries around the world and it’s done out of Paris. And I found out later that they don’t give it to Americans because, you know, they don’t like us but they liked my proposal and so it funded my whole trip. It paid for my flight, my 4 months. I stayed at a beautiful artist’s colony plus a stipend. Suzan came too. She was accepted at the colony so it was the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had. I just got there, slept for 20 hours and was writing everyday, going out all the time, meeting hundreds of people, walking the streets. It was one of the most fascinating, wonderful, depressing, confusing experiences of my life because that’s India. One minute you’re totally enthralled and the next minute you going, “Get me on a plane, I gotta get out of here!”
India’s poverty and crime is beyond what most of us are aware of. What was one thing that stood out the most for you? From what I know it’s pretty depressing.
It’s still bad. We’re going to go back but the summer is the only time I’ve had off in the past few years and I’m not going to India when it's 2,000 degrees and it’s raining. The extremes are probably getting more extreme. I still read the Times of India online. I’m still sort of obsessed with it. Five hundred million people who live on a buck a day. After about the third or fourth month, Suzan was really depressed about the poverty and the pollution. She got a really bad bronchial cough. The middle class is three hundred million people, the size of the United States and its nothing -- it’s like 1/3 of the country. It’s so complex. There are a couple of people who came who were supposed to be a part of the residency and they left there for a few days because they couldn’t handle it. They didn’t want to leave the colony because...
Real life is right outside your doorstep.
It’s really intense. You’re in this beautiful place behind the walls and the guards are there, which is really typical of many places in New Delhi -- even in the wealthier and middle classes. It’s an overwhelming sensory infusion of sounds, sights, smells and poverty and wealth and power and languages. It’s just an assault that I love. I say this not in jest sometimes but it’s true, you know? I think I must have kind of a hard ass. I accepted it the way I think you accept chaos. The kids made me really sad. That was the saddest part. Where we stayed the guy who ran the place, he’d have kids come and they’d have teachers painting and they’d eat their first meal on a plate that they ever had. They’d never seen a bathroom. They are so cute and full of energy. It’s really heartbreaking. It’s almost as if they have pimps. And they’re put on drugs when they’re really young. I didn’t know this. I was really ignorant of it. There was a guy we met who ran the school and he was the one, when I was giving those (kids) all money, he was the one that said, “Stop!”
As an outsider, how could you possibly know? That’s such a tough situation to be in. You want to help.
I think I’m a smart guy. I grew up in Queens. I think I know what’s happening. Suzan and I started carrying food. We took a whole bunch of bread and the kids think they’re in heaven. It just breaks your heart. But they’re such cool kids. What’s really scary is they know nothing but they know a lot more English than I know Hindi. They’re smart as hell! We met so many different people. We met a guy who had never been to college and he spoke English, German, French, Hindi, another Indian dialect. The system was going to keep him as a tour guide, which is not a bad job, but that’s what he’s going to do for the rest of his life. He taught himself five languages! I’m lucky if I can say, "crêpe."
We’re lucky if we can learn one!
India is a country with immense possibility where when things go wrong, they go really wrong.
The health care in India is as bad as the book makes it sound?
Well, the health care is this: You can get the best health care anywhere in the world. The hospital I used in the book -- that’s real. That’s a real place. The New Delhi Public Hospital is based on a few places I visited. It’s real. It’s beautiful. It’s meticulously kept. It’s so clean. Doctors are terrific. There are hospitals in India that have the most modern equipment -- doctors with the greatest educations anywhere... People go over there for surgeries all the time. The problem is (and this is what I was terrified of) if you have a car accident and they take you to the wrong hospital...
You’re pretty much dead?
Yeah, you’re dead meat. There are so many things that can go wrong. They are so overworked and overwhelmed. The people lower down, I’ve found in the scheme of things, the people who are working in those menial jobs are not equipped. They’re not equipped in a lot of hospitals here. It’s just the extreme. If you go to one of the private hospitals in New Delhi, I’m telling you... I got Delhi belly, Suzan got Delhi belly, you know, you go there (private hospitals). But they fix you up in 10 minutes. You have tea while they analyze your “specimens” and figure out what bug you have and give you the exact kind of medicine and two days later you’re fine. You do that here and you’ll be sick for about a month in this country. If something happens and you go to one of the other public hospitals, it’ll be tricky. I did a lot of research on all of the Indian and Jewish aspects of the book.
You deal with a lot of cultural elements in your book, not just historically based ideals about culture, but the religious center of what binds a lot cultures together. You talk about Greek myth, Indian culture, and many aspects of Judaism. How long did it take you to research these various elements of the book?
It’s a fairly complex question. The first answer is I spent most of my life reading. So quite a lot of what’s in there, I already knew from reading. Then, I took what I basically knew from reading, experience and studying and wrote the book. I don’t know how many times I re-wrote it... but I reached a certain point where I did more research to make sure what I knew was right. And I was wrong a lot. Some things were good and some things were a little off and some people might argue with me now about the way I interpreted them. I have no problems with interpretation. After that I had some friends who were Jewish scholars read the book, I had a whole bunch of questions that I gave to Indian academics, one of them read the book and I don’t think the other did, but he answered my questions. Then I talked to people and had people who know physics read the book. The physics people criticized me pretty heavily. (Laughs) Of all the elements in the book -- that probably is my weakest. If you talk about quantum physics and how Einstein will someday be reconciled, well, that can’t be one of them told me. I’m saying you’re confined by things and what you know. For me, people would say things all the time for years about “this can’t be” and then along comes quantum mechanics and quantum physics and throws everything out of whack! I’m an outsider who is certainly no math whiz and has a basic stance. I’ve read a lot of books and am a big fan of physics. But it’s like, I made this [book] and this is the way I want it, so hit me.
It’s fiction. It allows for some bending of the rules.
I went for it that way. And some of the Hindi names I used, I had some Indian people tell me... one guy, of all the people I asked to read it (who was Indian) and was a very strict academic was saying that you can’t use this name here because no one would have that kind of name and then I’d ask a different academic and they’d say, hey, it’s fiction. It’s like telling Pynchon he can’t have one of his crazy names. I just flowed with it. Even more than interpretations in Judaism or Greek mythology, Indians have so many interpretations. Even for a myth as simple as the Myth of the Ganesh. I heard interpretations all over the place.
Your main character in the book, Neil Downs, seems to run into people from various parts of the caste system. It’s such a prominent part of the way things operate in India.
We did that. We ran into people who would tell us that the caste system is disappearing.
It was really hard for me to see that. I mean, I know that there is sort of an affirmative action program and it’s so harsh. I never know how far to go on this. I don’t believe you make anything up, everything is based on something but sometimes you don’t know where things come from. But that’s just people. I know sort of where Levi came from. It was sort of inspired by a statement I heard from a Holocaust survivor but his whole philosophy is this odd mix of conscious and unconscious. I know what I want say but I’m not always sure where it comes from. His name is a purposeful pun. Furstenblum and Levi is an anagram of live and evil. All that stuff, all the names mean something.
At first glance it’s not something you’d expect, but now that you mention it, I can completely see that especially with Neil’s character. They all have a small hidden meaning that reveals something about them, right?
Yeah, you know Neil Downs kneels down and my favorite in the book, which no one has ever commented on in an interview or anything, is the Prime Minister of India. His name is Prime Minister Sowat.
Yes it is! You really did think about this aspect of things! There’s a Dan Brown book out called Angels & Demons. I haven’t read it but my other half has and it’s all about anagrams. It’s really interesting.
I pick everything with a purpose. My primary goal and responsibility as a writer is, one, to entertain people in that they read a good story. I don’t want them to be bored. I fucking hate boring shit no matter what it is. Whether it’s pedestrian shit or intellectual shit, if it’s boring I’m gone. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious. Leslie Fiedler said to me, “The primary responsibility of a writer is to tell the truth of his time.” I try to tell the truth of the times. This is something I think most writers aren’t doing now because they are too ironical and irony without any seriousness or sense of empathy or pity, which is sort of Aristotle’s definition, isn’t the truth. It’s a half-truth. This doesn’t mean I’m not being ironical but I’m also trying to get to a deeper truth about what is truth. What is language? What is history and how is it interpreted? And communication, which is the main source of the problem between Neil and Sarah (in the book). His lack of communication and language and in love and in many different ways. If you look in my room it says, “Tell the fucking story” and I have it right in front of me on the wall. Otherwise I just go off -- and I know that I just don’t care about political correctness. I don’t care about whose feelings I fucking hurt in a way. I don’t want to start to be insensitive because it’s a novel but you have to just tell the truth. It’s my belief that the salvation is getting to a truth. But after that I try to have a lot of fun by making up names and there’s numerology in my book. Those chapters, those numbers, they all mean something and it’s just for me. Nobody else.
It’s great to play with form or any aspect of writing. How great is it to give energy to those aspects of a story or piece that you are writing?
You write it and you construct it and look at it and for me, in my studio I put up pages that go up to the ceiling. I put them up as I’m writing so I can walk into the book. There’s nothing else on the walls but the paper on the wall, the desk, the computer and me. Then trying to see if the story is working and after I worked with Judith (who owns Other Press) she made me justify -- and this is really hard -- why each chapter went where it did. The story chapters and the Levi chapters play off of each other. There’s a dialectic. There’s an inner conversation.
Let’s talk about teaching and what it’s like to be a writer who also teaches. How do you find the time to do both and devote yourself equally to both? Or is that possible?
The hardest part about teaching is each student is different and it’s such a short period to judge student’s strengths and weaknesses as writers. For most teachers you have biases and your own tastes. If you don’t know how hard you can critique them or how hard you are on them, you can lose them. Or if you don’t know how they’ll respond.... the most talented, well you don’t want to fuck them up with my advice. But there are the ones in the middle who are fragile and you also don’t want to screw them up. But there are other who you have no choice but to kick their ass. There are other personality and skill levels and how they respond is different from person to person. They pay a lot of money to go to Cal Arts and they deserve to get the most out of (the class) they can.
Do you ever feel like there are students who would benefit from taking classes from other instructors? Sometimes there are certain teaching styles that click with other personalities better.
Yeah, some students of mine, I’ll tell them, “you should be taking classes form John Wagner or Steve Erickson or take them along with mine because they’ll connect better.
In response to the first part of your question, it’s about apportioning time and putting a certain time limit on what you can do. You have to learn to set boundaries because if you give up all of your free time, how do you have a life when you give up all the time and energy you have teaching. You’ve mentioned other instructors you know who are in teaching positions that as a result aren’t writing as much. I like teaching and if I had unlimited funds in my life, I’d probably teach a lot less.
Tell me about how you became involved with the Cal Arts publication Black Clock. You’re the senior editor there along with Dwayne Moser. How did that come about?
Well Black Clock is Steve’s magazine. It’s his vision. He works his ass off. It’s a work of art to him. The rest of us are just trying to follow. Let me just say too, I was a fan of Steve Erickson before I ever worked with him. I’m not just saying that because we work together. I think he’s one of the greatest writers around. I really do. He’s up there with some really great authors. As for Black Clock, we all work very hard on the magazine and when it started, we had a no submissions policy because we wanted to establish ourselves as a quality magazine, so Steve got writers to contribute to the first issues and now that we’ve kind of put ourselves out there and developed a name for ourselves, we can accept submissions.
Tell me about how you determine what stays and what goes at Black Clock?
We are looking for the submission that is as good as the worst story in the bunch, if that makes sense. At least four people read each piece. Some people... they just don’t have a clue what makes a good story. Steve is really the arbiter of that. The amount of stuff that is really good is astounding, but the ones that really pop... well, there aren’t that many.
I’m sure it’s a tough thing to sit and read story after story and you want to help so many people publish but you can’t pick every story. It’s a difficult process as a writer to know that you have a greater chance of not being published than the other way around.
A lot of people have helped me along the way and I try and help as many people as I can. The people here in LA have been really helpful and I think it’s really important for people to know there are a lot of really nice, helpful people. It’s so important! I actually think that there are people who won’t help and who are nasty and condescending. It doesn’t hurt to help people and it’s really gratifying. I like to and it’s hard for me because I don’t have a lot of time, but I want to do it.
Let’s talk about the publishing world. What are your thoughts on the state of things for writers trying to publish their work?
This is from what I understand about the majors, is that you have to sell x-thousand, not x-hundred amount of books for them to keep it in print! And unless you’re a superstar or your book becomes part of the college coursework no one can sell a thousand copies of a book a year. Or two thousand or three thousand until you reach that sort of elevated level that maybe 10% of writers reach. I know so many people whose books are out of print that are so good. There’s a really big downside for me with Amazon and the used book business. I go nuts when I see my book being sold used all the time now because it’s been out. Hardback for one year and paperback about four months or so. I go to book clubs and I see people with ARCs or used books and I just lose my mind because I need to sell books, everyone needs to sell books. But books from 10 or 12 years ago that are out of print. That’s really good because you can find those. But, the big majors make no commitment to keep great books in print. People forget about them and they go away. One of the reasons I went with an independent press was because they said they’d keep my book in print or paperback. I believed that. And they’ve kept every promise they’ve made to me so it’s really, really important to me that people can find my book in five years when it’s selling a few copies a year.
I think that’s a whole lot better than, “We don’t have that book.” It’s a tough thing. Take Dalkey Archive Press, for instance. They keep books in print that you can’t find. Granted you have to order directly from them sometimes or you can find some indy bookstore that will stock it or order it from them, but they are great about keeping titles in print that a lot of places don’t even have in their inventory. Or Alibris for the older stuff.
Barnes & Noble and Borders... I know more about them now than I’ve ever, ever wanted to know about them in my life! How even for major publishers, they don’t always pick them up. I don’t know how they make their decisions on what books to carry and ones they won’t. My book is at a lot of Barnes & Noble’s on the east coast and west coast, but nowhere in between. The most distressing thing for me that I’ve seen that they’ll order five or seven copies and it sells out but because it doesn’t have (and this is so technical -- I just found this out a few weeks ago from someone who works at the Santa Monica B&N) I don’t have what’s called a “model number” which means that I don’t automatically get re-ordered. So they’re not thinking about reordering your five or seven copies. They are thinking about reordering what’s selling one thousand copies. That’s the way the chains work and it’s not going to change. If you’re a literary fiction writer or qualified or classified as one, like I am, unless something miraculous happens, that’s going to be my career. I’ve accepted it and I’ve done okay, my book’s done okay. I’m getting to write what I want but in the bland scheme of things, that sucks!
There are a lot of writers I know and I’d say of all of them there’s maybe one that doesn’t fit into your scenario. Every single person who’s writing is experiencing the same thing in regard to books and sales and print runs. It’s tough. And these are great writers! The Tod Goldbergs, the Gina Frangellos. It kills me.
There are a lot of books that don’t sell well from good presses or small presses that don’t get a good review or don’t get picked up by the blogs and things that sell books. I’ve seen some really good books come and go and they don’t even sell 1,000 copies. It’s really demeaning. And I had a really good publisher for And the Word Was .
Even with a great publishing house, there’s still this struggle. It’s almost inherent in publishing, no matter what.
You know, Norton distributes Other Press, so it’s got a major distribution chain, which a lot of smaller houses don’t have. Which, the whole system is messed up but where the fault actually lives... I don’t know because the American public doesn’t read to the extent I think they should. And they don’t read serious books.
The popular work that people read, it’s not brain surgery. I’m glad people are reading, but it’s what they’re reading.
It’s not challenging. I think it’s somewhat different than it has been, but I don’t know how different. I recently said to about four or five friends when we were out (all of whom were very well read) I said, “Can you name a great novel from every decade of the last century? And you can’t repeat yourself. You can’t use Hemingway twice.”
I like that question. I couldn’t do it off the top of my head.
It was really hard. I said, “You want to do something really hard? Try doing it from the last century! Try doing it from the 1800s.” What books last? What books get read in the present and in the future? That’s our battle.
It’s such a grab bag. I equate the literary/publishing issues with those of the music industry because I think it’s a similar pain in the ass. It’s not about who’s a good musician or who’s a great songwriter but about numbers and what sells. It shouldn’t be about numbers, just like it shouldn’t be that way in publishing, but it just is. I have to scratch my head. It’s disappointing.
It’s disappointing but I’m of two minds about this. If the latest chick-lit, mediocre book sells one million copies and supports good literature... Take Burt Lancaster. If doing The Pirate made him be able to finance The Sweet Smell of Success then that’s great. And if publishing chick lit makes it possible to print really good novels or nonfiction -- I’m not sure if it’s going in that direction. And it’s so hard because of the dominance of the chain to find books in a way that people used to find them by wandering around in bookstores and finding books. You know what I did for so many years was I went to all these indy stores when I lived in New York and they’re no longer there. The whole thing is I try to make a very serious distinction between the business of writing and just writing and if you don’t make that distinction, you’re dead. I remember when I was writing... whatever it was, I would think about will this agent like it? Will that one like it? Will anyone like it? I wrote it just for fucking me. I see too many students, I see too many writers I know thinking about editors and agents and the public. “Will the bloggers like me? Will the New York Times like me?” The thing is the chances of getting written up by anybody are so fucking small anyway if you’re not writing for yourself, you’re doing something completely wrong. Go do something else.
Most of us aren’t writing the great American novel but even if we’re writing a short story we all have to realize that it might not get published and should be okay with that. If a work finds its way to a publishing house or a magazine, so be it, but there’s something to be said about the inherent need to write when you are a true writer. It shouldn’t become about anything else.
It’s very difficult. Creativity and creation is such a difficult thing. I actually learned a lot from watching my wife (artist Suzan Woodruff). She just does what she does and she’s been really lucky that people are loving it now. For a while people were telling her work was this and that and her comment was, “too bad” you know? She and I are different in this way. Sure she’s frustrated when she’s working but when she’s working she just goes into this zone and is so happy and satisfied. I don’t think, even when I’m writing and I’m really into it that...
It’s not quite like that for you?
No. (Laughs) I’m still torn by too many neuroses. I still do get something out of it or I wouldn’t do it. Writing is hard for almost everyone I know, but if you don’t have the great need to do it or the great want to do it and get something out of it... go do something else! There’s nothing romantic about being a writer, let me tell you.
It’s frustrating to be a writer. You always feel torn between needing to read more and wanting to have time to do nothing but write. I don’t know if you’re like me but it’s tough when you sit down to write. Some days that’s a really great thing, when the words come out and other days not as good. You think you have nothing good to say, nothing to offer.
You know you live in the world of wanting people to see what you do. Some writers don’t believe you should take part in your publicity. I worked really hard on my book. I worked hard on mine (publicity).
Of course you’d want to work on your publicity!
I know a bunch of writers who won’t do it. I got an email from a really well–known writer telling me I was getting too involved.
Really? What was your response to that?
Just like I said, I’ve worked my ass off. My publishing company is working really hard. It’s one of the reasons I chose them and I think I owe it to my book to do the best I can. I’m not out there whoring myself. I’m honestly talking about it. I’m out there doing things.
It’s years of your life you spend writing a book, unless you’re Joyce Carol Oates, you spend so much of your time working on a novel, why not publicize something you’re proud of?
I have a couple of friends who are very, very shy. It’s difficult for them. And if they were asked to do Oprah, I’m sure they would do it. It would be tough for them, but they would. Just as it is for me. I think you saw how hard it is for me to do my readings.
It’s not your favorite thing.
It’s like an ice pick in my head. You know, I don’t eat. I’m really cranky. After that last one at Skylight, I was saying, “I’m so glad this is my last reading!”
It’s still tough to get up there and do the readings and to do the tours. What’s the most difficult aspect of that process for you?
You get some really weird shit happening. You get odd questions.
Do you have anything out of the ordinary you want to share?
The oddest thing is the opening quote (from the book) is from the bible. The New Testament. And I was doing a reading in Virginia at a women’s college (Randolph-Macon) which was also in Lynchburg, which is also the home of Jerry Falwell, and the audience was great. It was a really fun time. They asked good questions and I’m signing books at the end and someone comes up to me and he’s got the book open but not to the page that you would sign but where the quote is and he said to me, “Do you know where this is from?” and I said “Of course I know where this is from,” and he said, “What right do you have to use this?” I said to him, “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a Jew and we had it first.” The quote that he was looking at was from the Old Testament. It was the quote about Abraham and Isaac. But I said, “We had it first, you just have it on loan from us.”
Did he stick around or I’m assuming he probably left?
He just looked at me and thankfully a whole bunch of people came up and asked me to sign because I was worried about the religious fanatics in Lynchburg that might show up. He was obviously from Falwell’s college at Liberty University. The one question that was never asked at any of my readings, which amazed me (given the subject matter of the book), was whether I personally believe in God. And I never had a reading where someone did ask out loud or come up to me afterward and want to know if I had a son who’d died. I found it extraordinary that people would ask that. Thankfully, the answer is no. But what if the answer had been yes?
In the book, there are several awkward situations regarding Neil’s son’s death and in certain scenarios various people are aware of the death but no one is quite sure what to say about it, if anything. There’s this underlying assumption that some readers make about some direct parallel to your life. It can’t just be fiction. To have someone ask such a personal, private question to your face is a bit disconcerting, no?
I did another reading where there was a group of women that were convinced that the book was based on me and that I must have had an affair with an Indian woman. I said, “No I was in India for four months and my wife was with me the whole time and no, I didn’t have an affair!" And they didn’t believe me! They really didn’t. There’s been a lot of that and then there have been a lot of people who’ve asked me if the Levi Furstenblum character is real. I mean they’ve Googled Levi Furstenblum.
Does it come up?
It comes up with my name, thankfully. But that’s not the only problem. There were one, maybe two editors that rejected the book at big presses who weren’t sure if he was real or not.
It some ways that has to be a good feeling to know that you wrote such a convincing character.
It’s been a good feeling when other people have said something but when editors who work at big publishing houses didn’t get that, it’s not such a good thing. My reading stuff has been pretty normal and the questions in the discussions have been really good.
I’ve got a lot of personal, nice e-mails from people I’ve never met. I find it extraordinary considering that book isn’t running off the shelf. It’s probably, in the publication experience and everything; it’s been by far the most rewarding. One of them was from a Holocaust survivor. He’s become my buddy. He’s a really famous doctor and he wrote this e-mail and sent it to the publisher and to me. We’re buddies now and other people too. It’s been a strange crossing of Holocaust survivors, Indian women, and people with lost children and other writers. I didn’t know Joy (Nicholson) before she read my book. She wrote me a fan letter. We’ve become best buddies. She read the book. She heard about it and it was really odd. She wrote me the nicest letter and then wrote something on Beatrice.com. And then we spoke on the phone after that and we were reviewed together in Los Angeles Magazine and then we finally met. That’s been an incredibly rewarding thing. That’s been by far the best -- the kind of personal response. Knowing I wrote the book out of my own struggles with my own problems that sort of were communicated to someone else and it reached some kind of chord with them. I also got an Episcopalian priest.
You confront some serious issues in your novel. Did any of your fan mail mention anything specific?
I had some people say they were happy that I was writing about certain things, confronting issues and that made me feel really good. It makes me really happy. I want to say that the culture of India for me, it’s really complex and what I put in the book are my impressions and also, I really saw how similar America and India really are. We are both facing these really huge, huge problems that I don’t think our government or our leaders are facing. They’re in a lot of denial. To say that the pollution problem in India or China is their problem and not our problem is absurd. I read something the other day that something like 25-35% of the pollution on the West Coast is coming from China? We’ve got to get our shit together and instead of doing that we’re arguing or shooting at each other.
The response you’ve had is impressive, especially considering how volatile a topic religion can be. With the different religious issues you touch upon in the book, you don’t seem to be alienating people with the writing.
I think I’ve alienated a few people. I’ve got those too. There are religious people -- there are Jews who have not been happy about what I said, but you know, they don’t have to read it, they don’t have to like it and they don’t have to recommend it to their congregation.
There are sections of work you have interspersed in the novel that came from a short-story you published. Is that right?
The original thing for "The Chambers of Commerce" was just part of the Levi chapters, was just a short-story that I had written and it wasn’t part of the original story of Neil and Sarah. When I realized I wanted to put this Levi Furstenblum character in this is how the unconscious is magical to me. I thought, “Of course! Levi wrote that story for this book. How can I put this in? I began breaking it up and then came all of these philosophical -- the "Mystical Mistakes" part of his works, which just opened up the whole story. There’s another interesting thing, one editor said they wanted me to just take all that out and make it just about Neil and Sarah. I said, “That’s not my story.” It was someone in mainstream publishing. It was fun to write a philosophical novel.
I think it really adds a whole separate dimension to the book. It truly makes it so dense. Not that it isn’t heavy and thought provoking without all those philosophical writings.Yeah, it made it better. I know there are people who did not read those parts. They just wanted to know what’s going to happen. But they told me that. If you write with a purpose because you have a message, that’s bad. And if people get more out of it because they’ve read those parts, that’s good, but you know, I’m not a polemicist, although I could be but I try not to be in my fiction. I prefer to put out questions. I’m not smart enough to say I have any damned answers. I just want people to think.