October 2009

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Michael Greenberg

Last year when Michael Greenberg published Hurry Down Sunshine, it seemed impossible that anything new could come out under the classification of Memoir / Mental Illness. It had long been the territory of competitors, writers battling it out to be crowned the king of all misery. The writing was often an odd brand of machismo, and the scars brought out for display were often unhealed, still festering wounds.

Greenberg's memoir stealthily sidestepped all of the bravado and was a quietly brave and literary account of the summer his teenage daughter suffered from a psychotic break. It was so much more mature and thoughtfully formed book than the ones it may accidentally share a Dewey decimal with, it almost needs its own category.

Now the column Greenberg has been writing these past few years for the Times Literary Supplement are being collected in Beg Borrow Steal: A Writer's Life. His tales of barely surviving as a writer/cab driver/interpreter/cosmetics salesman/whatever was around, of trying to create an artistic life that could also support his children, and feeding the imagination and his work are written in the same wise voice. They defy their category and become something unlike any column you've read before.

Greenberg was in Berlin for the Internationales Literaturfestival, and we sat down for coffee to discuss his new book.

Welcome to Berlin. You're here for the literary festival, yes? What do they have you doing?

Last night I did something for Hurry Down Sunshine, my story about daughter's psychotic break. That was fun. They had this amazing actor who read dramatically from the book in German, and it was mesmerizing. Even I was mesmerized. I felt like I understood German while he was reading. It was a very odd experience, like when you understand a language in a dream? It was like that, it was wonderful. I was interviewed with a simultaneous interpreter. I used to work as a simultaneous interpreter in the criminal court in New York, so it was really nice having this woman doing to me what I used to do for doomed criminals, which was whisper everything being said into my ear. Simultaneous interpreting is very intimate. I was told be careful, the other day my interviewer was telling an author how much she didn't like his book. I seem to have dodged the bullet, she was very nice to me. She had great authority, like a German Doris Lessing. The festival is very congenial, very unpretentious. They serve free alcohol.

Of course they do.

But all the time! It's a nice feeling. I'm here until Friday.

What else are you going to do in Berlin while you're here?

I'm doing an event tonight for Beg, Borrow, Steal which is going to be published here. I don't know. I'm friends with my German editor, she's here from Hamburg, so maybe I'll take a day trip. Not museums, really. I don't think of Berlin as being a museum city.

Really? Berlin has amazing museums, I would recommend really any of them. Even the small ones are perfectly curated. 

You know Joseph Roth's book? What I Saw? Pieces about Berlin. It was so funny, I came here in March when Hurry Down Sunshine came out here with a very different title. It translates directly as The Day My Daughter Went Mad.

Oh nice.

I mean, that's the title. Like a testament. The photograph on the cover is a snapshot of a father and a daughter. It's a very flattering snapshot since it's not me. It's some handsome young 40-year-old guy with a very trimmed beard and his beautiful daughter. And the snapshot is jaggedly cut down the middle. It's a nice cover in a way. It was coming out simultaneously in a lot of different countries, and everyone in Germany... you know, they set you up with these interviews, one after another, and every interviewer in Germany asked me about being Jewish. Nobody asks about that anywhere else, because the book's not particularly Jewish. And they're being nice, but it was such an interesting kind of thing. I had to explain to them that being a New York Jew was the one happy story of the Jews in the 20th century. This is an expansive story. It's not one shrouded in tragedy.

How did they ask the question? What's it like being a Jew?

Yes. Basically. My editor was telling me -- she was born in 1967, so when she was in third or fourth grade they would do six weeks on the Final Solution in school. This is an example of the Germans getting it wrong. Then they tell them, "If your parents were over 16 during the war, or anyone you know, your uncle or your parents' friends, when they tell you they had nothing to do with it, they're lying."

Oh my god.

All the kids go home and they become spies. They start going through their parents' stuff, looking for evidence. Germany, you know. Somehow they always get it wrong.

I guess it's uncharted territory, how you walk past that in the modern age.


Now you have Beg Borrow Steal, a collection of your essays from the Times Literary Supplement. How did you decide how to arrange the essays?

They're arranged very carefully to read in a sort of consecutive, narrative kind of way. You know, I've written probably 150 columns, and these are 44 of them, and they're all having to do with the writer's life. In how I define writer's life, which could be just a certain kind of voyeuristic interest in other people, which is an essential element, or it could be financial troubles and becoming a professional writer, an almost impossible road. It's kind of set up to roll from one piece to the next.

And how did the trimming process go?

I took all of the pieces that I felt were publishable. That were collectable. And I was very kind to myself in that regard, which was a first. Then I just threw about half of those away and stayed away from anything that was topical and started thinking about them in a kind of autobiographical way. I felt like it was an episodic autobiography. In fact, it could be a fragmented autobiography without a time sequence. Remember Dylan's autobiography Chronicles?


I love the way he did that actually. I thought maybe I could do something a little like that. I was trying to mask the idea that this was a collection. I actually do think of them as one piece. It's sort of the same narrator, it's very often the same sensibility. It's a very particular kind of column. Nothing like it exists in the United States that I know of. It's a particular kind of European thing.

And you're still doing the column. How do you decide what you're going to write about? Do you discuss it with your editor?

No, I never discuss it. It's just something that has to have a personal grip. When I was given the column, the editor said, "You can write about anything you want. It has to be in the first person. And it has to somehow contain some personal necessity." Sometimes you have to manufacture personal necessity. One of the ways I chose these was that none of them manufactured personal necessity, they all legitimately had that element. You just think about what really is gonna make an interesting column and really engage you. My last one was about going to the beach in New York. I grew up around these very crowded beaches and I love these beaches that are just heaps of flesh. Every person that you pass on the street every day is suddenly half naked and it's very jarring. I grew up near a beach like that, so that column worked. I remember talks about how language is inadequate to describe erotic scenes like that, and the really great descriptions of that are from artists. Reginald Marsh who used to go and draw Coney Island in the '20s and '30s. You get into it. That piece I immediately knew had full body.

The one I sent in on Monday is about going into the last existing livestock auction within easy driving distance of Manhattan in Hackettstown, New Jersey. It's an amazing scene with Halal butchers buying goats, a slaughter auction exactly the way it was when it was created in the Depression. Then I combine that with a story about woman I know who grew up in East Texas, a comedian who became a vegetarian at age 7. In East Texas, that's like becoming a communist. All the reasons for becoming a vegetarian. That's the way it works. It usually has to have two or three disparate elements and somehow conjoin each other and meet in a not so obvious way. It's my natural way of thinking, so it was never very difficult for me. It's difficult to write a good one, and I work very hard at it, but I was never short of subjects. I never thought, "Oh shit, what am I going to write about this week?" As it happens, I'm giving up the column after six and a half years. I'm only doing two or three more. It's very difficult to give up. Like we were saying before, it's the organizing principle of your life.

What made you decide?

I just felt it was time. It's very difficult to do big project stuff when you have a column. I'm very nervous about giving it up, I hope I didn't make a mistake. But sometimes you have to. I know there are going to be eight or nine times a year when something happens and you just... I was beginning to think in 1,300 word chunks -- you have a column, you know. It was beginning to become easier to put a column together. Somehow that loss of anxiety -- it wasn't a loss of anxiety, it was a diminished anxiety -- I felt was a bad sign. I think when that happens, you're ready to go somewhere else.

Are you still writing fiction?

I am. I'm writing a novel right now.

Is the novel why you're quitting?

One of the reasons, but not the only reason. I wanted to do other kind of work as it came up. Mainly I felt that I had exhausted it. It still has a lot of energy for me, but I felt I was getting there. There's a conventional wisdom about columnist, that if you have a column you never give it up. I have a pang, even as I'm telling you this. Because my editors were great. TLS was such a great place to write for. My editor was so fantastic. Everything he ever did was improving. We never had a problem at all. My editor was very quick because I'd hand it in Monday morning London time, a couple of queries, turnaround Tuesday, proof, goes to print Tuesday afternoon and it's published Friday. I guess if you're online it's not really very impressive. But I always thought there was something juicy about it. You know. It's print.

Print does still exist in some corners of the world. You mentioned the road to becoming a professional writer, and there's that great scene in your book with the young writer who rattles off her writing resume as if she thinks there is a road to becoming a writer, and she's on her way. I'm wondering about the other road, then, the other way to be a writer. I'm wondering how to frame this question.

I know what you're trying to ask, I think.

Good, then maybe you can answer your version of the question because I'm stumped on how to ask it.

The different ways that people are writers...

Yeah, because there does seem to be pressure these days to go at it with a checklist. You get your MFA, you get published here...

Yeah. It's a complete illusion this professionalism. It's not really a profession. It's barely a viable profession, really. You know the way I went about it was very difficult, and the only reason I'm still a writer today is because I'm so fucking stubborn. I had very few chances open to me, so I made it very difficult dropping out of high school, I didn't have the option of teaching, so I had to make my way. I had a family very young, I was a father when I barely turned 21. I just did what life threw at me.

I had a serious disappointment when I was in my late 20s, a novel I had worked on for seven years was bought by a publisher, who I won't name, with some fanfare. Then the publisher changed hands and the editor-in-chief who had taken it on was let go and my book and several others were sacrificed. It was very difficult for me to recover from that. My second child had been born and it was very hard for me to go on as a writer. That was a bad piece of luck. I think I took it harder than I should have. It took me too long to recover. I lost a sort of confidence, it took me a long time to get back to it. I would start a book and not finish it, something was missing. Now I know exactly what it was: I was not attacking the work. I was tentative. I lost my belief that I actually could be a writer. I started to become apologetic, even to myself. Terrible thing. It doesn't make it to the realm of tragedy, but it's a terrible thing for a writer to become apologetic to him or herself. It's one thing to be apologetic to others just to get rid of a question. On the other hand, I never pursued another occupation that could have replaced writing, as if I were afraid to take on a real career, because it would have been death to me as a writer and I didn't want that to happen. I created a tough period for myself and crawled my way back to respectability.

How long did that take?

Fifteen years. I was doing hack work as a writer, ghost writing, script doctoring. I was doing other work that had nothing to do with writing. I was living in a housing project down on the Lower East Side near Chinatown with my two children from my former wife. I was very guilty, I felt very guilty about consigning my family to this existence because of my stubbornness. In the end it was the best thing I could have done. My son got so much from that, he can speak to any strata of society. It's been the great boon to his existence, professionally too. I didn't know that at the time, all I could think was that I came from the middle class and here I was this déclassé... There were a lot of identity questions to deal with.

I hated the whole period. I suppose it made it stronger in a certain way. There's something about being an autodidact. One is, there's the classic autodidact who has very little subtlety. He's come to his ideas by himself and really clings to them. There's the other side of the autodidact, which is, what you've learned you really own, because you came to it by yourself. You can develop your own sensibility, and it's less derivative. It's less predictible. I think that made me stronger as a writer, going at it that way. I didn't plan it. No one plans a writing life. I think that's what I managed.

She was a perfectly nice young woman (the woman who rattled off her writing resume), perhaps a talented young woman, I don't know. Her approach to writing seemed very alien to me. You get a job at one of the back desks of the New Yorker or a fashion magazine and does some writing after going through a very expensive program. It was all kind of laid out. It's not really the way a writing career is made. And writing careers are almost never folded into publishing career. I think that's a funny bedfellow. There are cases. Doctorow had worked as an editor. Morrison had worked as an editor. But those were exceptions. Publishing used to never have anything to do with writing. You went into publishing because you wanted to be an editor. Now that line seems to be blurred. Maybe it's good, who knows. Maybe you get better editors. I haven't noticed that.

When did you make the decision to write the story of Hurry Down Sunshine?

Eight or nine years after the summer it describes, the summer of '96. I never thought I'd write about it. There are a lot of reasons not to write about something like that. Good reasons. I had the blessing of everyone involved, which was lucky, but still. You still betray everyone when you write about them, in a way. It really is a betrayal. You're telling their story for them. You're probably getting it wrong. How could you not? I had my reasons for going ahead.

You had been a fiction writer up until that point, yes?

I started out as a fiction writer, yes. In the process of crawling my way back to respectability, I did it mostly with nonfiction.

Did you ever think about fictionalizing what had happened?

No. I didn't think it would work as fiction. It had to be nonfiction. It had to be life as lived, as it was. I think it had to be real. It just wouldn't have had the authority, it wouldn't have had the impact. I don't think of myself as the memoirist type, and I don't think of this as a traditional memoir. It's about a particular event, and everything in the book flows into the channel of the event. I've said this elsewhere, but I did feel this particular aspect of literature on madness, which is a considerable literature, was missing this kind of close-up, in the vortex of a severe crack up, but not in the crack up. It's underrepresented. Some people have done it, but it wasn't done in a literary way, in a considered way, in a writerly way. People write about their own experiences of being psychotic, which goes back at least as far as Richard Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. That was one reason. The other one was, there were a lot of dramatic elements to the story, very simple dramatic elements that were very compelling.

You think at best you're going to be entertaining, that's what literature is, even at its best it's a higher form of entertainment. You never think you're going to write something useful. Here I think I've written something actually useful. People tell me it gave them a sense of companionship. It's a very lonely experience, the kind that I describe. A lot of people go through it, but they go through it in a lonely way. That was deeply satisfying. That'll never happen to me again. I didn't think that would be the case when I was writing, so it's been a very nice, gratifying experience.

Have you gotten letters?

Lots. Lots. They just kill you.

I love the section about James Joyce and his daughter. I thought that was nice how you tied it in.

Such a moving story about Joyce and Lucia. Extraordinary. He was so interesting. There were a lot of stories I was thinking of putting in, but didn't. Lowell I put in because it was so similar to my daughter's experience, classic manic depression with an emphasis on mania. There was the case of Bertrand Russell. One of the things about psychosis is that it's very tied to logic, it's a perverted form of logic. Logic itself is a kind of perversion. We can turn anything into a logical conclusion. It's a very useful tool, but it's another kind of tool that can turn us into these cold sacks, which is absurd. And psychosis is the extreme example of that, it's excessive logic. Bertrand Russell, who was the last great logician of the philosophers, had a son who he was very proud of. He created an experimental school for him, sort of an English version of a Waldorf school. His son went mad. He had madness in his family, and he did the opposite of Joyce. Locked him in a back ward, never had anything to do with him again. I thought there was something so interesting about his complete rejection, but I never put it in.

Speaking about responsibility to the people involved, I saw you were quoted in a New York Times article about Julie Myerson and her memoir about her son. Did you read her memoir?

Yes. I thought it was a very honest and searching book. I thought it was a book written with open and good intentions. But it turned into a mess for her.

You said in the article that you would not have written that book. Why not?

I wish I hadn't said that, I felt like I was throwing Julie under the bus. Did it seem that way? I wouldn't have written that book. If my son had had a drug problem, that was not a book I would have written. But that doesn't mean that she didn't have a book there. I thought it was very interesting, her attempt to tie it into the past, I thought she was trying to do something. I don't think she was aware of how the book would be perceived, and she was blindsided. It was open season on Julie. I was in England when it happened. I think it's just a very tricky proposition, writing about people who are close to you. But it's not just the problem for the memoirist. I think it's a problem of the journalist. It's an ethical question that a writer has to face, and people get very self-righteous about it. As I said, when it's a mother, there's a lot of pent up hostility. She was really unfairly attacked. Once it became clear that you could attack her as a mother without being counterattacked, she was dead. Did you read Julie's book?

No, but I watched many interviews where the interviewer just took out a razor.

It was a hanging. I think the ethical question in general is... Janet Malcolm writes very eloquently about this. You know the first line in her The Journalist and the Murderer about how if you're a journalist you're sitting with someone, coaxing their story from them, you're completely sympathetic, you're interested, you're seducing them with the quality of your attentiveness, and all the while they're thinking that you're his friend and his confidante, and you're thinking how you're going to shape this into a narrative that suits you and your purposes. Right there, a betrayal of some kind occurred. I think journalists who pretend this doesn't happen are lying. I think it's a very interesting question. I have no trouble living with writing about people that are close to me and possibly betraying them. I'm aware that they might not like what I've written and I've had many experiences where that's happened. Sometimes you think you're flattering them. My wife Pat doesn't like Hurry Down Sunshine. Even though you would think my description of her is very sympathetic. She doesn't like the idea that she's a character in a book. It upset her. There's a little bit of soul theft there. It's not if you're being loving or not, that's not really the issue. The issue is that you have the final word on an experience that isn't yours. Experience is really what we have, that's the thing we own most. But it's an unavoidable transgression for a writer. If you don't do it, don't be a writer.