October 2007

Drew Nellins

features

An Interview with Shalom Auslander

It’s no secret that Shalom Auslander is a very screwed-up individual. It’s a fact to which he will gladly attest. Fortunately for readers, he can tell you exactly why. A terrific essayist, short story writer, and memoirist, Auslander examines his battles with God and his family—often the two are inextricably bound—in his wonderful new memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. In this clear-eyed look at his unhappy youth in a strict Jewish Orthodox family, he considers the seemingly endless fallout that still colors his life and relationships today. He brilliantly manages to make his grave subject hilarious without being glib, and serious without being grim.  

Though already known for the clever stories in his first collection, Beware of God, it should be clear to anyone who reads it that Foreskin’s Lament will be the book to cement his reputation as a capable and thought-provoking author.

It is worth noting that Auslander spoke with me on the Jewish New Year, under tremendous threat of divine retribution. His willingness to risk himself with such recklessness is appreciated.


Well, first of all, I really liked your books. Both of them. I thought they were great.

Thank you. Do you mind if I ask why?

You and I have very similar God paranoia.

It's weird how there's a lot of that going around. It's on everyone's mind again. There was a time when it felt like it wasn't, but it's back.

I noticed in one of your recent Nextbook essays you quoted Flannery O'Connor. Are you a fan of her work?

I am. In fact, I was just reading an article from an old issue of “Studies in American Humor” from the 70’s. It had a story on her, and I was amazed to find out -- it was a similar thing I'd read about Kafka -- that once when she was reading “Good Country People” to a class, she couldn't stop laughing. She was in tears. That was really a confirmation of something for me.

You know, while I was reading Foreskin’s Lament I kept thinking of her introduction to Wise Blood, where she talks about Christ as a ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the back of Hazel Motes' mind. Always being pursued by religion. It sounds like that’s how you felt. That's sort of how I felt too.

It's weird isn't it? It's weird that so many are coming out with that.

It’s interesting. Almost everyone I know reached a point in their youth at which they said of their religious upbringing, “Well, I just don't believe any of that shit anymore.” Personally, I never did reach that point, which is why I think I like your writing so much.

It does seem like some people get to a point, probably in their early teens or something when they start to understand that it's not all true or it's not all meant to be true or whatever. It's not the most personal thing in the world to them. To me, it was very personal. I never went through that phase either.

A friend and I, we talk a lot about God, experiencing God in our lives. But we’re also constantly acknowledging that if we are talking about experiencing God in any real way, we also have to take into account what other, less fortunate people are experiencing of Him: people starving in Mogadishu or digging diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Right. I think that gets ignored or overlooked. There are people who believe very strongly and then there are people who believe that they shouldn't believe very strongly.

For me, it was like: it might be a better way to get through to people coming from where they come from and saying, “Okay, I believe it all. Floods, creation, I believe it all.” Because now they have a bigger problem on their hands: Why is He such a prick? If you want to say He doesn't exist, you can argue back and forth. But even if that’s what you're arguing for, that there's this son of a bitch out there who fucks with you, who's just nuts... if you're right, what do you win?

You deal with a lot of these themes in Beware of God, your first collection, particularly the story where the guy dies and experiences the afterlife.

Right. That story has the silliest premise, which is that the guy dies and finds out that God is a giant chicken. But in the end it has, for me, a very personal resonance because he comes back knowing what he knows and doesn't have the heart to tell his family, who are having a certain amount of joy in these traditions. He can't tell them that it's not true.

That's the trouble. It's easy to just slam the door on it. But there are people I know who find solace in it. And, certainly, the idea that there’s a God seems like it should be right.

It’s an odd way of thinking, considering religion in these terms. “I know better, but I still can't quite get over it.” Foreskin’s Lament is filled with this sort of thinking.

You know, it's the Jewish New Year today. So, we don't observe anything, but we worry about it a lot. And we've come up with a couple of traditions that we do that we're happy with, that any other Jew would laugh at. We go to an apple orchard and we pick apples and we make certain things to eat. It's a lot of fun for our son. Afterwards, the nanny came over so me and my wife could go for a hike. And we go, and it's a beautiful day. It's perfect. The dogs are running through the woods with us. So we come back down the mountain and we come inside. We call for our son, he's not there. We call for the nanny, she's not there. And my wife, who didn't grow up with this kind of religion, says, “Oh, you know what? She probably took him down to the pond. He loves it down there.” And I'm thinking, you know, Great day for an abduction. If you were God, don't tell me you wouldn't fucking think that.

Right. Of course.

That's how every day is. “It's quiet. Too quiet.”

Right, part of the problem is with Judaism itself. At least in Christianity, there's so much talk about forgiveness, you can sort of reason that part of the forgiving being done is our forgiveness of God for being so irrational.

“And thou shalt let me off the hook.” That kills me about some of the commandments, right? So this is what I always thought: it would be a much better religion -- any of them -- if it was: “We shall not kill.” Including Himself in the commandment. The way we have it now, it's more like, “You don't kill, I'll do whatever the fuck I need to.”

But it's so important to some people. Personally, I don't know what I'd do without some concept of God. I don't know that I'd be able to go on living. It's that important to me.

That's because you're a bitch.

Exactly!

Because that's what it makes you feel like. The other side of the argument. Everybody I know, from all different places on the map, all different lives, have said exactly what you just said, “I know I shouldn't, but I do. I'm not sure I want to think there's nothing else out there.” So when I hear these polls and hear people say “What a crazy fucked up country. Sixty percent believe in God or something.” I don't know. I don't buy the person making that judgment.

The problem is that I want to argue both sides. If someone who was religious came back a month later and was an atheist, I'd argue the religious side. It’s nuts. I can jump back and forth.

You’re going out a limb to say that you believe in anything. You don’t walk in the door at a party and announce that straightaway, you know, that you’re not a friend of reason.

It’s definitely not fashionable. At best, maybe it’s interesting because it seems idiosyncratic.

No, it’s not interesting at all. It’s not interesting in Westchester to be black. I don’t think so.

My trouble is, and this might just be that I’m an asshole, but if more than five people start agreeing vehemently with each other, I start doubting the whole thing. On one hand I think, religion gave me this idea that God is out to kill me any second. On the other hand, what it also caused in me is the inability to trust any groupthink or even an idea that is agreed upon by more than three people. It’s ridiculous.

Go on richarddawkins.net, just for a laugh. It’s got nothing to do with his writing at all. It has to do with just the way people are, believers in anything. Read the forums. They’re hysterical. Even when I agree with what they’re saying, it’s hysterical.

It’s like, “Oh, did you see that thing on Salon.com? They completely took RD out of context. That’s not what RD says.” And they quote RD, and they argue about what RD really meant. Switch it to G_D and it’s a different forum. It’s the same thing.

Foreskin’s Lament is so much about coming to terms with your family’s concept of God. Do you think you could find comfort in another religion?

I can find comfort in an idea, in a thought, in a notion. But I’m not sure that this store stocks my brand. Whether it’s Christianity or Judaism, it’s not what I’m looking for.

So is it important to keep it alive, the idea of a Creator?

That’s the trouble. It’s important to me personally, but I wish the rest of the world wouldn’t believe in Him. Because I trust myself. I’m not going tell my kid nasty shit. I’m not going to blow myself up. I’m not going to start claiming land is mine because God says so. I’m not going to get there. I’ll believe it because it makes me feel a little better about myself; everybody else just go with Dawkins. He’s right. It’s much safer down that road.

So is religion ever rewarding?

Not for me. Well… it must be. I’m sure Hitchens could tell me a hundred ways of getting this secularly, but this thing I think I did get out of religion, the good thing, I mean -- down at the bottom of the bag in the corner there was a good thing -- and I think it was that there is just a perspective that this isn’t all there is. There’s something more to it. There’s a reason for it. I don’t know... otherwise it feels like I would get really bogged down with my Xbox and just the shit that matters today.

So it gives you a more global perspective somehow?

Well, “global” just because if I say “eternal” I sound like a fucking lunatic. But something bigger than just “Here’s my job, here’s my car, here’s my house.” You know, I can hear the responses to that already, but I just know that, if I got anything good from religion, I got that at a very young age. I mean, it may be good in other ways, but those ways might come later. Maybe not. When I think about the things I got out of it -- because I know there must be something -- that seems to be the biggest one.

Is it true that you started writing at your shrink’s urging?

No, but he helped me get to a place where I could write what I wanted to. In the beginning, before I began that process, I wrote but I didn’t know what I wanted to say or if I could say the things that I thought. I think that, for me -- and I don’t know about anyone else; I don’t know a lot of writers -- but for me, I had to go through a lot of shit, a lot of understanding, a lot of time before I felt comfortable putting it down, having enough distance from it. And that’s the great thing about it writing, that the act of it gives you distance as well. But I couldn’t have written much sooner than I did, and I couldn’t have written some of the things that came out while I was writing it, because he encouraged me.

This is before you wrote the stories in Beware of God?

Yeah. I wrote for magazines, but it didn’t have anything to do with me as an individual. It was about whatever, Israel or politics or news stuff. I wrote for Esquire, but it was always sort of sticking the gun out the window and shooting at everyone else. It wasn’t very focused. It was my shrink who suggested that I keep shooting, but shooting at the right people. And when I turned the gun the other way, I found I was able to take a shot or two at myself. That’s when interesting stuff started happening.

I’m wondering if it ever stops being a catharsis. Is your writing always going to be about purging this stuff, or is the memoir the end of that for you? Is it out of your system?

You know, it’s been a bit upsetting actually because it hasn’t been as cathartic as I thought it would be. I pictured writing, “blah blah blah blah blah” and then “The End” and then just standing up with my arms open. You know? Cured! I’m done with this issue! Now I can write the next Harry Potter.

But it doesn’t work that way. It helped, and it did what it had to do, but if I purged everything I don’t think I’d write anymore. Because I don’t have a lot of fun coming up with stories. I’m not that kind of guy. It doesn’t feel right to me, thinking, “so there’s this guy…”

What do you mean? If you’re not the kind of writer who’s good at coming up with stories or likes to come up with stories, what do you like about writing? Just the purging? Just the catharsis?

Yeah, I mean it’s just fun to take yourself in your hand and hold yourself out at arm’s length and look at yourself from different sides and say, “That’s funny” or “That’s fucked up” or “That’s interesting.” And then write about that. But it’s always sort of “Now, how do I do this as a story.” You know? There’s always that, kind of, “Ugh!”

It would be a lot easier to... I say this sometimes. I live in Woodstock and the local station plays a lot of, um, I don’t know if there’s a genre name for it, but it’s sort of juvenile pop, political rock music. And sometimes I think, “Christ, that would be an easy job. Just to spout all these simplistic ideas. It’s like, “Here’s a guitar. We don’t need soapboxes anymore.” Like in a thousand years, parents are going to tell their kids to get off their guitar. That’ll be the expression. “Get off your guitar.” That’s what we use today. So, yeah, that would be nice. It would be easy to get up there and rant and rave. But I don’t know that that works. I don’t know that it sticks.

Does the reception of the Foreskin’s Lament mean anything? Does it change anything for you?

I so wish I could say that the answer to that is: No, it doesn’t matter. I wish I was that kind of guy.

I remember reading a story about Beckett, Beckett after one of his plays, Not I… and the crowd just fucking hated it. They left, they were going out emergency exits. They were booing him. By the time the thing was done, there was nobody left in the audience. This story was told by the actress. She was kind of just crestfallen and feeling awful. And she goes back to her dressing room and she’s sitting there, she’s trying to think of what her next job might be and Beckett walks in and he sits there across from her and it’s all very solemn, and he looks at her and he says “Marvelous!” That nailed it. It was his vision. It came to life. That was all that fucking mattered. But, yeah, that’s not me. There’s no story like that. My story ends with me in the back room trying to cut my wrists when the actress walks in. I’m more focused on things I don’t want people to say than the things I do want them to say, but it would be so much cooler if I said, “No, I don’t give a shit.”

What will change if the book does do well? Will you feel any different about yourself if it gets a warm reception?

Honestly, I’m really happy. My life is incredible without any of this.

That surprises me. That’s the last thing I thought you’d say.

I think all the rain in my life fell in the first twenty years, so it flooded for two decades. And that fried some wiring inside. So I’ve got twenty years of sunshine after that. I’ve got a great marriage, a beautiful son. I know that it’s everything I need. But there’s still a lot of flood damage, you know? The cellar is fucked, but the house looks great. I know that. And it makes me feel complete and good. But there’s, you know, mold.

So, when you think of yourself, you think of yourself as a happy person?

...no. I think of myself as a person who should be happy. I’m aware that I went from a life of no love and of seclusion to a life of expression. I know that. These are all good things. But I’m waiting for the bad ending. I have no contact with my family. So there’s been a price to pay.

Will that ever change, do you think?

It changed because this is my family now. My wife and my son. It changed in that regard. As far as the old family, I’m not sure it matters to me anymore. I mean, I’m sure psychologically it does, but I’m a lot happier with it just being over. There were times when I was just begging them to understand me. “Go away, please! I know it hurts. It hurts me, it hurts you. It sucks, but this is the case.”

And now, that’s resolved? For you, it’s as resolved as it can be?

You know, I don’t know. I’m 37. I’m sure when I’m 68, I’ll say, “What a fucking asshole I was back then.” I don’t know. Time passes, people get older, bad things happen. There are all those things yet to go through. And I’m sure all those things will change the way I think or thought the time before that. And that’s fine. That’s being alive.

Does having a fucked up childhood make you more confident or more wary as a parent?

I’ve seen parents who let the pendulum swing to the opposite side. So there’s no discipline. “I’m never going to shout at him, I’m never going to correct him.” And it becomes the same as “I’m never eating pig.” It becomes its own little prohibition, but it’s just an equal and opposite problem. I don’t know. I’m sure I’m going to fuck up. I’m sure I’m going to make mistakes, but ultimately my love for my son isn’t dependent on what he eats with milk. So I’m already a step ahead of my parents. I used to question myself before he was born. You give yourself these little... what’s the name of that board game where they ask you ethical questions?

Scruples?

Yeah. So you go through this sort of one-on-one game with yourself about raising a kid. And me and my wife would do this, saying “what if this, what if that.” I used to test myself, trying to imagine as best I could, the worst possible situation and if that would make me not love him anymore, the way religion had affected my parents’ love for me. And what I picture it is him coming home Hasidic. Can I live with him? Would I still love him? If Paix comes home in eighteen years and says -- he won’t have to say it because he’s going to have a long black coat and eighteen kids walking behind him -- and I would have to separate my dishes if he’s going to eat here with me. Well, I know I’d separate the fucking dishes. But it certainly wasn’t that way with my family. If Paix says, “No driving on Saturday?” If that’s what you want, kid, that’s fine. No skin off my back.

It’s strange because you know now, as a father, that it really is your family’s loss.

Well, you know I tried to convey this with Foreskin’s Lament, because it’s what I actually realized after going through a lot of this: there is no hero in the book, and there’s no villain really. No one wins in these kinds of situations. So, when I sat down to write the book, that was my whole question: how do you do this so that nobody wins? And it wasn’t really until my son’s first birthday, until I’d been working on this thing for a couple of years at least, where I realized, “This might be the winner. This child is who I’ve done this for.” Whether it’s religion or family, I don’t think I’ll ever recover from either. But I thought, “Here’s the winner. It may not be me. It may not be my mother or my father.” At that point I realized that the book had something that was sort of like promise in the end. Which isn’t necessarily what it needed, but I needed it to know that my life wasn’t just this cycle of: bad family, self-destructiveness and bullet in the head.

You sort of mocked that structure in an essay you wrote for Nextbook, the requirement for a happy end. This hopeful moment in the end where everything could turn out okay.

“And then I realized that the men who gang raped me were ordinary men. Just like me….”

By the way, I meant to mention that I like that essay in which you cite the Julian Gough piece in Prospect. When I read his piece, I e-mailed him and told him he was terrific, that it was like Franzen’s essay, only better.

That’s a reference that only Bookslut readers know. It makes you question your life when you get that reference.

That’s hilarious. The minute I said that I thought, “Will he know that? Of course he will.”

But I’m unhappy that I do.

Anyway, I love what Gough said about the value of humor. And I love what you said in your essay on the subject: that the reason comedy trumps tragedy in the end is that comedy is written with perspective of time, which also equates to wisdom.

The madness of it all is that it seems that we look at it the opposite way. That it’s silly. All I know for myself is that I don’t go to tragedy looking for relief and I don’t go to tragedy looking for any kind of answers.

What do you go to then?

In fiction, I go to -- and this is the let-me-show-you-my-record-collection bullshit -- Heller, Elkin, Vonnegut. It’s all dark, but it makes me know I’m not crazy. Ivan Brunetti. He does -- I don’t know which term to use that would not make him want to kill himself -- graphic novels, cartoons, comic books? He’s hilariously dark. He has three or four comic books called Schizo. I can’t believe that I’m the guy who has comic books in plastic with the cardboard, but there you go. I’ve got four of them, and they’re originals. I go to them a lot. Anyone who’s part of that Bill Hicks world.

So are there any authors you like who you would label as “serious”?

Um… it’s funny, because I know they’re considered serious, but….

Yeah, it’s such a bullshit question.

We just spoke about it. In the first group, I would put Flannery O’Connor and Kafka and Beckett. I don’t think these guys are serious. They’re writing about serious things, but I don’t know if they’re approaching writing in a serious way.

But what they’re doing is so difficult. What O’Connor is doing is so careful, so precise. It’s not easy. She treats it as a craft. It’s almost seems wrong to sit down and to take that too lightly. One wants to take it seriously.

But I think that’s because we associate those things with that word. But it’s not necessarily right. You might be very serious about something that’s funny to you. Godot is based on something silly, but he didn’t fuck around when he was directing it. He was very, very, very precise with it. I think I’m fairly serious with things I think are funny because it’s so important that they come out right. The frustration, of course, is that people say, “Oh, it’s a funny book.” They don’t realize that you’ve been busy doing something.

One story from Beware of God that struck me as so deeply serious while still being funny is “Prophet’s Dilemma” which really asks the question whether you can turn your back on God and just explicitly tune out his voice.

That’s why I think that story is kind of hopeful. Because you can. You can ignore it, and it will just go away. I tell my three-year-old that about the wind or whatever. It puts it into perspective.

It’s funny that that’s where hope lies for you.

Right. Ignoring it.

The take-home lesson is “pretend like you don’t hear it.”

It’s like you’re giving God a “time-out.”

I like that. This is a movement whose day has come.

Sometimes this is the main reason I care about the book, that it does well: that I’d love to have a hand in helping that movement along. I think it’s out there already, but, you know, it’s reckoning time, a little bit. God’s been a complete asshole for so long. People do whatever they can when they believe in this thing to keep its temper from going off the deep end. And you know what? Now, it’s time to add some points up.

Good luck. I hope you trigger that movement.

I’m going to look into that. See if it’s ever been done.

The problem is that as soon as more than three people join up, you’ll start to question it and hate it.

Yeah, I’ll be the first one killed. For questioning. “Wait guys, maybe it’s not His fault…” BANG!

That would be a good story at least.

Yeah. I’m going to look into it…..Alright, my son’s back and I haven’t seen him all day, so I’m going to go.