Interview with Jordan Stump, Translator

May 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jordan Stump is Antoine Volodine’s translator.  He’s many other things – professor at the University of Nebraska, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the author of numerous articles… today he’s a guest of this blog.  I’m both honored and grateful to him for taking time out of his busy semester to answer my questions.

Jordan, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.  My first question is:  how did you first come to read Volodine (and company)?  Was it as a translator or as a reader, or as both?  What interested you in the author and which is your favorite novel?

I was in Paris, looking over the new arrivals in my favorite bookstore (Compagnie), and my eye was caught by Des anges mineurs.  It was published as part of the Editions du Seuil’s “Fiction et Cie” series, which is always a good sign, and I liked the odd look of the very short chapters and the strange names that served as their titles.  I bought it, went off to a bench in the Luxembourg gardens and started reading, and I was immediately enthralled.  I’m always reading as a translator—I can’t read a book without wondering if I want to translate it, and how I might do it—but when a book really grabs me I forget that, of course, and approach it simply as a fervent reader.  I loved the strangeness of that book, the very peculiar blend of “sci-fi” (for want of a better term) and Tibetan ritual and the grim realities of existence at its most banal.  And I loved the humor, of course, and the deep sadness.  By the time I finished it I’d decided it would be my next translation project.  That book—Minor Angels, in English—remains one of my favorites, but I also love Bardo or not Bardo and Nos animaux préférés; those latter two haven’t yet been translated into English, but perhaps their time will come.

Have you had the opportunity to consult Antoine Volodine during the translation process or do you have to resort to other sources?  From what I’ve read on the internet (and of course, if it’s on the internet it must be true!) Volodine is one of the author’s many pseudonyms – which makes me wonder if he’s trying to retain a certain amount of anonymity.  I realize that it’s common for translators to work without the author’s input (for example if he/she is dead), but I would think it can be particularly difficult if the author is alive but unavailable.

Oh, he’s very available, and extraordinarily helpful.  He’s a very open, unassuming guy, funny, enthusiastic, fond of extremely modest Chinese restaurants: nothing of the enigmatic loner about him.  I always try to work with the authors I translate (in part because I’m a big fan, and meeting an author whose work I love is a real thrill for me), but I think Volodine has been the most helpful of the bunch: always eager to hear my questions, and intent on coming up with concrete answers.

I’ve read that Volodine is also a Russian translator (though some readers believe the author he “translates” is just another pseudonym). Do you detect a Russian influence in his writing?  And if so is it something you consider while working on your translations?

It’s hard for me to say that there’s a strong specifically Russian influence, but it is most certainly true that there is a very strong influence of a kind of non-specific foreignness.  Somewhere he says something to the effect that his books read (or should read) as though they were translations from another language.  There is still, in France, a certain notion of “literary style,” and that’s absolutely what he avoids, which isn’t to say that he writes in some authentic vernacular, either: he writes in a language that is entirely approachable but at the same time marked by certain quirks.  That’s what you have to think about when you’re translating him: you don’t want to turn him into poetry, and you don’t want to flatten out his writing so that it reads effortlessly.   As I remember, I asked him if he had any thoughts about what the general tone of Minor Angels should sound like (that’s a question I always ask writers); he answered, “Tired.”  I see exactly what he means, but try getting that across in a translation!

Are you ever concerned about how the book you’re working on functions in relationship to Volodine’s other books – or do you approach every book as an individual, stand-alone project?

I look on them as stand-alone works.  His output is vast and varied, and any scholar of his writing should be interested in the whole of it, and how each part functions with respect to the others.  But they work perfectly well on their own—you don’t need to know anything about Volodine or post-exoticism or anything to fall in love with his books—and that’s how I prefer to think of them.

Speaking of post-exoticism – is there a seminal text that provides the key to this movement?  For example, Le post-exotisme en dix leçons  is the one title I keep coming across again and again.   Is it a mistake to believe that all his work is concerned with/falls under the category of post-exoticism or does he also write stand-alone novels?

I’m not sure there really is a seminal text.  Le post-exotisme en dix leçons is a wonderful book, and a useful addition, but (predictably, I suppose) it doesn’t answer many questions, or give many explicit lessons.  Post-exoticism is (to my mind at least) a genre that defies explicit definition.  Some readers will want to see all his works in that context, but it would be terrible if you had to know all about post-exoticism to appreciate his books.  Thankfully, that’s not how it is at all: any one of his books can be read, can fully signify, can offer an extraordinarily rich and haunting experience, for anyone at all, whether they’ve ever heard of post-exoticism or not.

Are you working on a new project at the moment that you would like to talk about?  What other French authors do you read for pleasure and/or recommend?

 I’m working on a new project that I’m finding so difficult I prefer not to think about it, much less talk about it!  In my opinion, the three great French writers of the early twenty-first century are Volodine, Eric Chevillard, and Marie NDiaye.  There are a great many others, of course, but those are the three I would strongly urge people to read more of.  NDiaye is a particularly underrated writer here: she’s got a little more attention on our shores recently, but she wrote a lot of fantastic books before Three Strong Women, and for the most part those have gone untranslated.  I’m hoping to do my small part in remedying that.

Thank you so much Jordan!  And, dear readers, there’s exciting news on the horizon.  This May the second book to be released by Two Lines Press is Marie NDiaye’s collection of 5 short stories All My Friends, translated by none other than Jordan Stump.


Jordan Stump, Professor (Ph.D. Illinois, 1992), is the author of articles on the Marquis de Sade, Georges Perec, Marie Redonnet, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, among others, and of Naming and Unnaming: On Raymond Queneau (University of Nebraska Press, 1998). He has also published translations of novels by Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Patrick Modiano, Christian Oster, Antoine Volodine, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Jules Verne, and Honoré de Balzac. His translation of Claude Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes (Northwestern University Press, 2001) was awarded the French-American Foundation’s annual translation prize in 2001, and in the fall of 2006 he was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His interests include literary theory, the contemporary novel, the ontology of fiction, and literary translation.  –  courtesy of the University of Nebraska’s online directory.

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An Interview with Margaret Carson

July 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

Margaret Carson is a fixture in the NYC translation community.  Most readers probably know her from her gorgeous translation of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds but (to quote her Words Without Borders biography) she’s also translated fiction by  “José Manuel Prieto, and Matilde Daviu, plays by Virgilio Piñera and Griselda Gambaro, and poetry by Mercedes Roffé and Nancy Morejón”.  She’s a member of the PEN Translation Committee and a fierce advocate for translators and translated literature .

BSR:  Margaret, thank you so much for offering to answer some questions.  We keep bumping into each other at NYC literary events – always to do with translations.  It seems to me that there is a very active community of translators in Manhattan.  I wonder if you might talk about that?

MC:  Yes, there’s a lot going on in New York! And lots of the action in international literature is happening at small independent bookstores, which are run and staffed by book lovers whose enthusiasms happily extend to works in translation.

There’s at least one reading series in New York that specializes in translations (the Bridge Series, run by Bill Martin and Sal Robinson at McNally Jackson Bookstore), frequent readings and presentations by foreign authors all over town, events sponsored by universities, book festivals featuring international literature, and plenty more. Hardly a week goes by when there’s not some event that touches on literature in translation.

BSR:  Do you think translators should be involved in the promotion of translated/international literature?

MC:  Literary translators have a lot to add to the mix. Some of us are already active on the literary scene, helping to promote books in translation, and we’re wondering what else we can do. How do we get more recognition for our work and build a reputation? It’s still sadly true that many times the names of translators don’t appear on book covers, and book reviewers often fail to mention the translator or to comment on his or her work in the body of the review. Translation is basically taking apart and rewriting a book in another language, and many of us wish that reviewers would engage more with that.

BSR:  We first met after the ‘Walker in the City’ panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, – which you and Sergio Chejfec were a part of.  It’s my understanding, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that not all translators have the type of access or personal relationship that you’ve had with Sergio Chejfec.   Do you think knowing the author as a person – in addition to knowing his work – influenced your translations (particularly since a auto-biographic component seems to inform Chejfec’s writing)?

MC:  The response to My Two Worlds has been terrific. Lots of credit goes to Open Letter for getting the book out there and for building up a readership base for Sergio Chejfec. The fact that Sergio lives in New York and is willing to get involved in the translation and promotion of his books has also helped. Of course, it’s a great novel and deserves the attention, but you never know what path a book will take after it’s published, especially a translation.

Most of the authors I’ve worked with have been extremely generous about answering questions. In the case of Sergio, I was new to his work and that added to the challenge. Sometimes my queries were not so much linguistic (“what does this word or phrase mean?”) as they were about how a sentence was developing, what the thought was behind it. It’s often reassuring when you’re translating to feel that something is clicking into place, that you “got it” in English. But on the other hand you realize that when something clicks it may be because it’s a predictable solution, something commonplace in English, and you ask yourself: would a writer whose subject matter includes the experience of language itself want this to be so neat? Answer: no, so you have to go back and make your English do more, even going beyond what seems “correct.”

About the autobiographical elements: I was careful to put a distance between the first-person narrator of My Two Worlds and Sergio Chejfec, the author. Maybe they’re similar in some ways, and it was helpful, for example, to see and handle the Art Deco cigarette lighter that’s described at one point in the novel, but I enjoy the fictional artifice. With his essays, though, it’s different. Recently I’ve been working on an essay in which Sergio tells the story of his last name and talks about his father. It’s clearly a non-fictional space with another kind of exploration, nothing like the fiction.

BSR:  Do you have an opinion as to why Argentina seems to be such a hotbed of authors?  It seems that everywhere you look a new Argentine author (or a new edition of an old book) is being published.   Of course there is Borges & Cortázar… but there’s also César Aira, Sergio Chejfec, Eduardo Sacheri, Juan José Saer… just to name a few.

MC:  There’s great literature all over Latin America, but yes, Argentina has an extraordinary literary tradition. I’m not sure what factors explain it, but at least when I was in Buenos Aires a few years ago, there were plenty of bookstores, large and small, as well as cafés where people can read, write and talk about books, all signs of a healthy book culture, along with a remarkable number of individuals who seem to have read everything. That doesn’t explain why there’s been great literature in Argentina, but it seems like a necessary condition. And keep in mind that we’ve only seen a small part of that literature—the part that gets translated into English.

BSR:  How do you feel about the future of translation and translated literature in the U.S.?  To me it appears like translations and international books are showing up in more bookshops and getting more attention every year.  I have no hard evidence to back that up, though.

MC:  Neither do I, but your question made me take a look in four bookstores within walking distance of each other in the Village — St. Mark’s Bookstore, McNally Jackson, Three Lives, and NYU’s bookstores. I admit, not a very representative sample of bookstores across the U.S., but I was heartened to see that a good number of translations were on the front table or equivalent. We still need some hard evidence, but I think your impression is correct.

My question to you: do you think bookstores should group translations together, or should they be part of the general mix of books?

BSR:  Hey I thought I was supposed to ask the questions! :-)  But, since you asked – I think translations need to be shelved with the general mix of books.  We both attended that panel at the PEN World Lit Festival this past April on Reviewing Translations – and I think we’re in agreement that the translators name should be right on the cover with the author’s.  After that, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea to separate translated books out of the general population.  Most readers are just looking for a good book, maybe in a specific genre, but I believe there are very few readers who browse for books by specific languages.  Though that would be kinda’ awesome.  I’d love to walk into a bookshop and say “I’m in the mood for something… I don’t know…. Japanese.  What do you recommend?”  I might just try that next time I’m in McNally Jackson.

Now, back to my questions.  As a member of the PEN Translation Committee have you seen a greater appreciation, demand for translations and/or skilled translators?

MC:  I think there’s an increased demand for great translations, though there’s no consensus on what that means. And also an increased demand for re-translations. But those are general observations, not really related to my being on the PEN Translation Committee. Our central concerns there are to advocate for the translator, to increase his or her visibility, and to raise awareness of literary translation on the whole.

BSR:  How do you accomplish that?  Are there any events planned that readers can attend or participate in?

MC:  And here I’d like to mention two panels coming up this fall the PEN Translation Committee has organized to help carry out these aims:

The first will be at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 23, and will highlight recent translations into English of poetry and fiction from North Africa (exact time to be announced).

The second will be on Thursday, October 4 during the ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) conference at the University of Rochester. We’re assembling a panel made up of people from the world of publishing, book reviewing and book selling, to discuss how translators can best navigate the literary landscape and collaborate in the marketing of their translations.

BSR:  Thank you again for answering my questions!  I guess we’ll be seeing each other at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival.

MC:  Thanks so much for this chance to talk to you!

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Four Questions For Victoria Cribb

May 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

Victoria Cribb is a translator, one of the few who specializes in Icelandic literature.  She’s translated the novels of Sjón, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gyrðir Elíasson into English – receiving praise from the likes of A.S. Byatt.  Victoria was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding her work on From the Mouth of the Whale (which was shortlisted for this years Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

BSR:  Victoria, first, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions.  I read in an interview Sjón gave to Fabulous Iceland that the main character of From the Mouth of the Whale was an actual man – Jón the Learned – who lived in the 17th century . Yet, it seems to me that Jón is a foundation onto which the author has layered a multitude of ideas and elements: Icelandic mythology, Jonah and the whale, alchemy, even a little Paradise Lost. There’s so much going on… did the density of ideas and influences make it a particularly challenging novel to translate?

VC:  It certainly did, and invariably there will be many influences that I have failed to pick up. But, for me, part of the pleasure of translating Sjón’s work has always been immersing myself in his sources, learning about the background to his texts and marvelling at what he has done with them. In this case, I was already familiar with seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and the medieval works referred to. And any English speaker brought up on Shakespeare has some sense of the early modern world. When I read the book for the first time, I kept thinking of the furiously polemical 1590s author Thomas Nashe and turned to him for stylistic inspiration, only to discover that Sjón does in fact quote Nashe at one point in the story. And of course Google is an invaluable resource for tracking down the more obscure references – bezoar, boramez and so on, often redirecting one to online editions of original works. When my own research fails, I can always go to the fount of all wisdom and ask Sjón himself for help, but that is cheating and part of the fun is trying to find out the answers for myself.

BSR:  I’ve been told Sjón speaks excellent English.  Does that put any additional pressure on you as his translator?  What do you feel your collaboration brings to the table?

VC:  Far from regarding it as an additional pressure, I find it a huge advantage that Sjón’s English is so good – unusually good, even by Icelandic standards. Most Icelandic authors are sufficiently competent in English to review and criticise translations of their work, so I have come to rely on a certain degree of collaboration. Since this is the fifth book I have translated for Sjón, he trusted me to do my best rather than reading over every word of the manuscript, though I think he also felt it would make him anxious if he found too many mistakes. I sent him lists of queries, as usual, sometimes providing him with alternatives so that he could choose the one that best reflected his meaning, and we discussed various possible translations of problematic words and phrases, so I can’t always remember whose suggestion was adopted in the end. I’m strictly a prose translator, so I tend to go wailing to him with the verses, especially if they require rhyme. In previous books, Sjón has polished my feeble efforts or even translated the verse himself; in this case, my partner came to my aid as Sjón was busy!

BSR:  Speaking of verses, some of my readers may not know that Sjón is also a poet.  Did you read or translate any of his poetry in preparation for translating From the Mouth of the Whale? Do you see similarities between his poetry and prose fiction?

VC:  I have to claim ignorance here. Back when I was a student I read some of Sjón’s poetry from his earlier surrealist days but I have mainly been engaged in translating his prose. As mentioned above, we’ve now collaborated on five novels, all of them historical works, their settings ranging from the ancient world to the recent past. The surrealist vein is still palpably present in these novels, however, for example in Jónas’ meditations in part IV of From the Mouth of the Whale, which I think brilliantly evoke a seventeenth-century mind grappling with ideas about the connectedness of all things, which anticipate modern scientific discoveries.

BSR:  Finally, for readers who love From the Mouth of the Whale and want to further explore Icelandic fiction, are there any authors you personally enjoy and can recommend?

VC:  There are so many Icelandic authors who deserve a larger audience, but I would feel awkward having to single out any one writer from among those I know and translate. To be safe, I’ll opt for one who’s no longer with us – Halldór Laxness, an obvious choice as he’s the country’s Nobel laureate. Readers who enjoyed From the Mouth of the Whale might appreciate The Bell of Iceland, translated by Phil Roughton. I am shamefully out of date when it comes to the current Icelandic literary scene, having spent the last few years immersed in medieval sagas for my PhD. From what I hear, though, there are a number of exciting young authors emerging, and Amazon’s publishing arm is planning to bring out a long list of Icelandic titles, both old and new, in the near future. Given the presence of Icelandic books on the lists of several established publishers in the UK and US, there should be plenty of opportunities for English-speaking readers to become better acquainted with the country’s extraordinarily vibrant literary culture.

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Jürgen Fauth, Author of KINO

April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments

KINO was wonderful.  It’s the kind of book you wish your book club would choose to read, – one that will be a catalyst to move the discussion in dozens of different directions.  Unfortunately I’m between book clubs.  So, instead, I decided to go directly to the source.  And Jürgen Fauth was kind enough to oblige.

Thank you,  Jürgen, for answering my questions.  I read in your author bio that you were born in Germany.  While writing KINO did you consider yourself a German expatriate living in New York?  How did that perspective (if at all) influence KINO?  And  are there plans to have it translated and released in Germany?

I grew up in Germany and came to the U.S. in my twenties. Most of the book was written while I was living in New York on a Green Card, and the idea of immigration (or rather, emigration) was one of the things that interested me about Kino’s story: when and how do you decide to leave your country? How do you know things have gotten so bad that you have to get out? There were huge waves of people leaving Germany right after Hitler took power, but many more stayed, and I always wondered what that must have felt like at the time.
Now, I don’t want to equate the two at all, but like many others, I was very unhappy with the direction the U.S. was taking while George W. Bush was president. I marched against the Iraq war early on, but it was odd because I wasn’t a citizen, so I felt as if my opinion didn’t really matter. Around 2004, 2005, I remember thinking, “if this gets any worse, I’m going to leave the country.” You may remember, a lot of people were saying that kind of thing at the time, but I had a German passport and could have gone with relative ease. But I didn’t — and now I’m a citizen. In my book, the question whether or not Kino should leave Germany and why he decides to stay turns out to be central for our understanding of the character, but there isn’t a single simple answer.
And, yes, I’d love to translate the book and publish it in Germany.

There is so much going on in KINO – so many ideas in play.  I’ve been dying to know – did you start with the ideas and the story developed around them? or did you have the basic plot structure and the ideas evolved out of it?

It was a back and forth process — at first I just wrote, but as the story got more involved, I had to stop myself and attempt drafting something like an outline. I came up with a general shape for the story and a few central elements, without really knowing how it would end — it was more like a general roadmap, and it kept on changing as I filled it in. Whenever I got confused, I went back to the beginning and told the story to myself in chronological order. It was a messy process that took several years, and I was lucky enough to have some terrific early readers who helped me making sure that the way the story unfolded made sense. I wasn’t sure how it would all come together until I was done.

Rather than playing Florence Nightingale to her sick husband your heroine, Mina, chooses to go off and have an adventure.  It’s horrifying, but at the same time exhilarating.  I mean, if she hadn’t made that choice then there wouldn’t have been much of a story, would there? Mina is independent, confident, self-destructive, selfish…  she breaks all kinds of stereotypes on what it means to be feminine.  Was that your intention?  Or were you mainly developing the theme that selfishness is necessary to great art? Is Mina meant to be an example of that?

I wouldn’t say that Mina’s character grew out of any theme, and I’m not sure that I consciously made her “strong.” She certainly has her share of flaws — but if a male character acted the way she does, nobody would bat an eye. You’re right, though, we’re not used to seeing a woman leave her sick husband behind and make the kind of choices she makes. I wasn’t trying to make a point though — I just thought it fit the character, who, after all, becomes infatuated with her even more selfish and self-destructive grandfather.  It’s interesting that you bring it up, because some of the big publishers who turned the book down said they didn’t think Mina was “sympathetic” and “relatable” enough. Again, I don’t think anyone ever asks those questions of a male protagonist.

I love history.  KINO had me reaching for my copy of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts.  During your research you immersed yourself in books and films on 1920’s-30’s Berlin – what would you recommend?

There’s a good history of the Weimar years called Before the Deluge, by Otto Friedrich, that I kept coming back to. Leni Riefenstahl’s autobiography is fascinating and entirely untrustworthy — you’ll want to follow it up with a biography, like the one by Steven Bach. My favorite art book on the period is Voluptuous Panic by Mel Gordon. The Ufa Story and Patrick McGilligan’s Lang biography were essential, but they’re not necessarily fun reading. For fiction, I’d recommend Christopher Isherwood’s books and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. As far as movies go, there are too many to list. The recent Metropolis restoration is spectacular, especially if you can see it with live music. Die Nibelungen was also restored but hasn’t come to the U.S. yet. I’d see Murnau’s films — Nosferatu, Sunrise — and of course Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box. And something with or by Riefenstahl — her Olympia movies are gorgeous, and you should see one of her mountain films, like The White Hell of Pitz Palu. I’m keeping a tumblr where I post a lot of this material, even whole movies, so if you need more inspiration head to

I discussed in my review the idea of the effect of WWII, the Nazis and the Holocaust on ordinary German people.  The ones who remained in Germany, joined the party and, like Kino, tried to get on with their lives.  Every artist creates – or is continually creating – their own, personal narratives (mythologies even).  Families do the same thing.  There are multiple versions of Kino’s “narrative” – some more and some less flattering.  Was this something you were consciously exploring?  Was it territory where you felt a need to tread lightly or the exact opposite?  Because I would think that in Germany – even all these years later – narratives are being (or have been) developed within families?  As I read KINO I kept asking myself:  are all the stories about Kino meant to true, or are they all meant to be false, or is it somewhere in between?

Growing up German, with grandparents who lived through those years, it’s a question that’s always been on my mind. You’d like to think that ordinary Germans – such as your own family – didn’t have much of a choice, couldn’t really have done anything to stop Hitler. They weren’t Nazis, but they weren’t heroes, either, and in my family, the stories were always about just getting by, keeping your head down and doing what you could. My grandfather always told us how he had disobeyed an order to shell a cloister at the end of the war. But you don’t know what kinds of things they aren’t telling you, and it’s impossible to know what you would have done in their stead. It’s something that’s always haunted me. And I’ve seen the same kind of thing in some of the biographies I’ve read — Fritz Lang’s story about when and why he left Germany, for instance, does not hold up to close scrutiny. It’s a nice myth, but it doesn’t seem to be true.
In the light of all that, it was important to me that Kino’s story should stay ambiguous as well, that readers would have room to make up their own minds.

Thank you, Jürgen, for being so generous with your time and answers.  Before we end, would you mind talking a little about the literary community you co-founded, Fictionaut , and how it works?

I’ve been involved with literary magazines for a long time, as reader, editor, and as writer submitting work, and I’ve always wondered how the Internet might reshape the litmag. When social media started appearing, I thought, “Aha! Here’s a new way to run a magazine!” Fictionaut started as an experiment to see if you could crowdsource the editing and selection process by allowing anybody to post their work and then letting favorites and comments decide what is presented on the front page. And lo and behold, it works — writers are using Fictionaut to publish work and get feedback, and our recommendation engine ensures that readers can easily find interesting writing when they come to the site. Since we launched, Fictionaut has attracted a great community of talented writers, and there are thousands and thousands of wonderful stories and poems on the site now.

Still want more KINO?  Of course you do!  Follow the link to a special invitation from the novel’s heroine, Mina Koblitz.

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Beatitude Blog Tour: Interview with Author Larry Closs

January 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

My review last week made it pretty obvious how much I loved Beatitude.  So when TNBBC’s The Next Best Book Blog asked if I wanted to take part in a book tour I said yes.  I had the opportunity to ask Larry some questions about his novel, his connection to the Beat generation, and where the hell he got not one, but TWO previously unpublished Ginsberg poems!??  Here’s what I found out…

BSR:  Larry, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.  While I’ve always had an interest in the Beat Generation, it wasn’t until I read Beatitude that I began to see the Beats and their lives as a 20th century heroic epic. They’re so easy to romanticize:  the brilliant writing, the never-ending road trip, the camaraderie between the men. But they also did a lot of damage—to themselves and those around them. There’s a dark side to their story, filled with hubris & tragedy. Can you start by talking about that?

LC:  The Beats are, indeed, very easy to romanticize, but the reality was often otherwise—for them and for many of those associated with them. In contrast to the wide-eyed wonder, ecstasy of experience and laissez-faire liaisons were depression, addiction and loneliness that resulted in seriously damaged souls. Disaster was never far away. Jack Kerouac’s friend Bill Cannastra died at 28 when he leaned out of a subway car, drunk, and struck a pillar as the train pulled of the station. William S. Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head during a game of William Tell. Lucien Carr, a friend of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, stabbed David Kammerer to death, allegedly for aggressive, unwanted advances.

Unrequited love was a constant theme of the Beats, in a variety of configurations. Ginsberg was in love with both Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and although he had a sexual relationship with Cassady for years, it was never the romantic ideal he would have preferred. Ginsberg was also in love with Burroughs for a time—unfortunately, not at the same time that Burroughs was in love with him.

Women who traveled in the Beat orbit generally faced much of the same, in addition to particularly contrary expectations. The Beat Generation was basically a Boys’ Club, the members of which welcomed a woman’s open-minded attitude about sex and intimacy but otherwise held her to the restrictive norms of the 1940s and 1950s. Memoirs and autobiographies by Kerouac’s wives and lovers (Joyce Johnson, Joan Haverty, Edie Parker and Helen Weaver) and Cassady’s second wife (Carolyn Cassady) reveal what it was like to love someone who often was and wasn’t there, literally and figuratively.

All of this contributed to the larger-than-life quality that permeates Beat literature. Every great story traffics in extremes—extreme tragedy, extreme joy. The Beats had plenty of both to draw on and their journey is all the more fascinating for their willingness to expose how they did and sometimes didn’t deal with either.

BSR:  Who’s your favorite member of the Beat generation? I noticed that in the novel you (and your characters) focus a lot on Ginsberg, Kerouac and Cassady… but Burroughs only gets passing references. Until the end, that is, when Ginsberg explains him and his writing so beautifully.  I suppose what I really want to ask is:  what are your feelings on Burroughs?

LC:  What attracted me to the Beats was their search for truths in everyday experience. To that end, I find Kerouac and Ginsberg to be the most insightful and transparent. I like Ginsberg a lot but I lean toward Kerouac because, as a writer, I connect more with prose than poetry. So, Kerouac is my favorite.

Like all great literature, the Beats’ work stands on its own, but it is enhanced immensely by even a passing knowledge of their lives, since so much of their lives inspired their best work. Knowing that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were great friends, I was intrigued by all three and curious to see how they aligned or differed. I read Burroughs after I’d read Kerouac and Ginsberg and I was taken aback by how utterly opposite his writing seemed. In contract to the frankness, spirituality and hope of Kerouac and Ginsberg, there was defensiveness, horror and doom with a dose of the blackest humor I’d ever encountered.

It took me a long time to realize what Ginsberg says about Burroughs in Beatitude—that it was all just a cover for the same tremendous vulnerability displayed by Kerouac and Ginsberg. The last journal entry he ever wrote says it all: “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. Love.”

BSR:  Beatitude tells two stories: the history of the Beats (and their relationships to each other) and Jay & Harry’s relationship. How did you make the connection between those two narratives? Did you decide you wanted to write a novel about the Beats—or did you begin with the story of Jay and Harry? Which came first—the chicken or the egg?

LC:  My original idea was to write a novel about two young men who become friends based on their shared fascination with the Beat Generation. Early drafts had very little background about the Beats but I began to realize that not everyone was as familiar with references that I considered general knowledge due to my own interest.

There was a story that recently made headlines, for example, about Jack Kerouac once suggesting to Marlon Brando that he buy the movie rights to On the Road and that the two of them should co-star: Brando as Dean Moriarty, Kerouac as Sal Paradise. That wasn’t news to me—it’s in just about every book about the Beats ever written. At one point, it was in mine. But it was news to most. Likewise, I once mentioned the story of Kerouac writing the first draft of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot scroll to someone—a story I was certain everyone knew—and he said he’d never heard it.

So, as Beatitude evolved, I began to include more and more information about the Beats to make it a self-contained, self-explanatory experience. At the same time, as I continued to write, Harry and Jay’s relationship grew more complex, thanks, in part, to the presence of Jay’s girlfriend, Zahra. Reading through the manuscript-in-progress at one point I was suddenly struck by the parallels between the lives of Harry, Jay and Zahra and the lives of Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg. That realization added a whole other layer and took the book in a new direction.

BSR:  I really enjoyed the interview with Ginsberg at the end of the novel. There was something very touching about this man sitting there in an apartment surrounded by photographs and talking about these people he’d loved. How did you research that conversation? Is it complete fabrication on your part or did you cherry pick from existing interviews?

LC:  Anyone who knew Ginsberg well will tell you that he was a man of many dimensions. For me, he always brings to mind the verse from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, one of his favorite poets: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes, but few are fearless enough to expose all of them. Part of Ginsberg’s genius was to make himself simultaneously vulnerable and unassailable by being completely open about each and every one of his idiosyncrasies. I wanted that to come through in my depiction of him.

I encountered Ginsberg several times and interviewed him once, though the interview was never published. I’ve read as many books about the Beats— collections of letters, interviews and biographies—as books by the Beats. I used all of those as the inspiration for the Ginsberg who appears in Beatitude and to write the interview with him near the end of the book. I did not use quotes from other interviews because that would have required reprint rights and fees. As for the setting, there are, luckily, a lot of photographs of the Beats—many taken by Ginsberg himself—and I studied various photographs of Ginsberg’s apartment to create a plausible fictional version.

BSR:  And those unpublished poems by Ginsberg?  How did they get to be in the book?

LC:  I had a recording of a poetry reading that Ginsberg did at MoMA in 1995, when Beatitude takes place. In the novel, Harry, Jay and Zahra attend the reading, and, to bring the scene to life, I featured excerpts from several of the poems that Ginsberg performed. To clear the rights to the excerpts, I submitted a list to Peter Hale at the Allen Ginsberg Estate. Peter discovered that two of the poems—“Like Other Guys” and “Carl Solomon Dream”—had, surprisingly, never been published (“Like Other Guys” appeared only as a 26-copy broadside). Peter directed me to Ginsberg’s literary agent at The Wylie Agency, and after the rights were sorted out, Wylie offered to let me include the full text of the poems in an Appendix. I was, of course, thrilled that two poems by Allen Ginsberg would be published for the first time in my first novel. For a Beat aficionado, it doesn’t get much better than that.

BSR:  Throughout the book Harry has a problem categorizing his love for Jay—and the fact that it could exist as anything other than romantic. I’m not trying to say that Harry isn’t in love with Jay—he obviously is. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to say that he loved Jay more than Jay loved him. It’s just a different kind of love—a concept which I think you deal with brilliantly through the course of the novel.

Which made me think:  Those same societal preconceptions could make it very easy to categorize Beatitude as LGBT literature – simply because it deals with romantic love and intense friendships between two men.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

LC:  As its name suggests, Rebel Satori Press, my publisher, focuses on books that explore “revolutionary personal transformation” through inspirational fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Rebel Satori’s specialty imprint, QueerMojo, is home for cutting edge works of particular interest to the LGBT community. Interestingly, the founder of Rebel Satori, Sven Davisson, felt that Beatitude belonged under the Rebel Satori imprint, not QueerMojo.

Since its publication, Beatitude has been reviewed by a multitude of mainstream and LGBT publications, websites and book-related blogs. In one of the very first mainstream reviews, the writer described the book as “gay literature” in the first paragraph. Shortly after, a reviewer on an LGBT book site wrote that she “would probably not label this novel as ‘gay’ if asked.” In your own review, you write that Beatitude “shouldn’t be pigeonholed as any one thing: as a love story; LGBT lit; a memorial to the Beats; a book about NYC. Because it’s all those things and more. There are multiple layers to the story Closs has given us, and it’d be a mistake to allow ourselves to get caught up in just one.”

I didn’t set out to write a “gay novel.” I’m not even sure what makes a novel “gay.” A gay writer? A gay narrator? Two gay characters? Three gay characters? What’s the tipping point? How many gay characters does it take to screw in a…? Is a gay novel about an experience that only an LGBT person can have? Putting prejudice, bigotry and religious nonsense aside, what experience would that be? When Brokeback Mountain came out, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were constantly asked what it felt like to kiss another guy. Ledger was so exasperated by the question that he finally snapped: “It’s kissing a human being. So fucking what!” The point is: Remove gender, sexuality, race, class and nationality from the equation and human experience is universal. I read and relate to plenty of “straight” novels but I’ve never thought of them as such. No one does. They’re just novels.

The three most famous works produced by the Beat Generation writers illustrate the issue: Kerouac’s On the Road generally isn’t considered a gay novel, although it features gay characters and gay sex. Ginsberg’s “Howl” isn’t classified as a gay poem, although there’s plenty of graphic gay imagery and Ginsberg himself was openly gay. Naked Lunch by Burroughs, who was also openly gay, is often categorized as a gay novel—nearly everyone in it is gay—but the novel is more famous (notorious) for its relentless hallucinatory psychosis and that usually trumps the gay label.

Are novels gay by virtue of who writes them or who reads them? It’s like a Zen koan. Two monks observe a flag flapping in the wind. “The flag is moving,” says one. “The wind is moving,” counters the other. Their master overhears them and says, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

To me, Beatitude is a novel. Like it says right on the cover. But I know that readers will view it through their own preconceptions, which is entirely appropriate, because how preconceptions affect the ability to view things accurately is one of the themes Beatitude explores.

Larry Closs is the author of Beatitude, a novel, and a New Yorker who often wanders far from home. Follow him on his website, FacebookTwitter, YouTube and Instagram (larrycloss). 

Click HERE for the next (and, sadly, the final) stop on the BEATITUDE blog tour.

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