Writer Darin Strauss graduated form Tufts University and attended New York University in creative writing. His first novel was the highly regarded Chang and Eng, and he has recently published his second novel, The Real McCoy. Strauss has published three short stories in McSweeney’s and is at work on a story collection. Darin Strauss lives in Brooklyn and teaches at New York University.
Robert Birnbaum: You also have a book of short stories coming out shortly after this novel?
Darin Strauss: I started writing short stories recently because I rushed to get this book out. The publisher really wanted to get it out in June. So I obliged by writing the end in a burst of manic effort. I think it worked out. I don’t write like that often, and I liked the way it turned out, and I don’t think it was a compromise. After that experience I was sort of burned out, and so to get back into writing I started writing very short pieces trying to work up to something bigger.
RB: Aren’t writing short stories harder? I’ve been told they’re harder to craft. It’s more of a marathon effort to write a novel, but you have more latitude and can be a little sloppier—the errors in a short story are more magnified.
DS: I think that’s probably true. It’s a question of economies of scale. If you read something that’s 500 pages, and you a read a page that isn’t great, you have the force of inertia—you aren’t going to necessarily stop. But if you read a bad page in a 5-page short story, you are not going to want to read on. I have trouble crafting things, that’s not really my strong suit. I don’t consider myself a short-story writer, although I’m giving it a shot.
RB: If publishers aren’t inclined to publish story collections and you aren’t compelled to write stories, how did you end up obligating yourself to do them?
DS: It was part of the give and take in the negotiations about foreign rights. They offered me a deal for the second book. Then my agent asked for the world rights. They said fine, if you give us a short-story collection, we’ll do that. So, I was happy because I have short stories around and I thought, “Oh, it’ll be a place to get them published.” But then I looked at them—I guess the word for them would be juvenilia—so I had to start from scratch. They were not as good as I had thought.
RB: Will they ever see the light of day?
DS: I hope not.
RB: Why are you saving them?
DS: Nostalgia, I guess. There is always something you can steal from them. Sometimes when—I think when you are young—you might have a good idea but not the wherewithal to say it. So I go back and see if there is a good idea there.
RB: Have you reread your first novel?
RB: Will you ever?
DS: I can’t see myself doing it now. It’s kind of an exercise in frustration. You see things you would have done differently. And you read it so many times when you’re working on it that you are so familiar with it. Every time I happen to look at—if someone asks a question about it, I’ll look through it—I’ll immediately remember every sentence on a page. I could see if I have children that I may want to read it with them. One of the quirks of having a book out, it’s interesting to think that 16 generations of your family will read it even if no one else does. It’s kind of a legacy. I think you get to know a person really well by reading his books.
DS: That’s why reviews are so personal. You work on something, however many years—two or three years—if you work so hard on something for such a long period of time you become so invested in it. Hopefully you are giving it your all and so all different facets of your personality make it in there. I try to make it [my book] funny and sad and introspective. So if people don’t think it’s funny or introspective enough, then that’s where they comment on you. I think. I’m not one of those people who can say they don’t read reviews. I do. And they get to me. I’ve been really lucky with reviews. The ratio of good to bad has been very fortuitous. Even good reviews are often qualified; sometimes you read a good review that’s poorly written and that will sting you.
RB: What about a good review that missed the point of the book totally?
DS: It’s worthless. A good review that gets the book wrong has zero effect. A bad review that gets the book wrong has an uncanny effect. A positive review that gets the book right, the way you want it to be gotten, is minorly satisfying. It’s a relief. You say, “Whew. My faults haven’t been exposed.” The joy you get in a good review is incredibly outweighed by the angst of a bad review. It’s not even close for me.
RB: Okay, let’s play this out. What about a negative review that is correct about your faults?
DS: I have to say that I haven’t had that yet. (both laugh) That sounds arrogant and like I haven’t had bad reviews. Sometimes good or mixed reviews will do that. Actually that doesn’t hurt as much as a bad review that gets it wrong. I had one review in the Washington Post—I probably shouldn’t name names but I don’t care—for Chang and Eng. It was the worst review I got for that book. I thought what the reviewer criticized was so ridiculous. I dedicated the book to my girlfriend, I named a character after my girlfriend and I thanked my girlfriend in the back. I named a character after my friend Jeff and thanked him in the back. So the whole review was about how she hates games playing in fiction writing and what was I doing naming a character after my girlfriend. And, could I write a book or am I just obsessed with these childish games? I couldn’t understand why having fun and playing was excluded from the practice of fiction writing. It doesn’t mean you don’t take it seriously. Ulysses and Lolita are filled with game playing. Much more elaborate than mine. It was just a silly thing I did for my girlfriend. But then I went over to my friend Jeff’s house—and I was really stung by this review because I thought it was a dumb thing to take someone to task for—he had had it framed. “I said, “What are you doing? It’s the worst review I ever got.” And he said, “But when am I going to be mentioned in the Washington Post?” So every time I go over to his house it’s there to remind me. The other thing was that she [the reviewer] said there were 5 words that I used that weren’t in use at the time of the narrative. Which she was wrong about. I had checked the OED. Luckily, some linguist saw that and wrote a letter in my defense and they printed the letter.
RB: I thought one of the lessons that young writers are taught is not to read reviews?
DS: You can’t help it, though. At least, I can’t. Maybe I’m a masochist. The problem is we don’t have a culture of criticism in this country anymore. I have a lot of friends in magazines and it seems like except for the big places, Time, Newsweek, and the Times, a lot of local newspapers or smaller magazines throw book reviews to young people who are trying to get in to writing there. So, they are writing with no critical background. I had a professor, Lee K. Abbott, he talked about donee’ , the world of the book. A lot of critique in classrooms doesn’t take in to account the donee’ of the book. If someone comes into a class with Star Wars you can’t dismiss it by saying, “Well I don’t believe in space stories.” You have to see if it succeeds by its own rules. I think too much criticism today is people saying, “Oh I don’t like that book. So I’m going to give it a bad review.” A friend of mine, a young woman, wrote a really good book about men and the sea. And then it was given to someone to review who had written a similar book. So, of course, she was going to give it a bad review because it was her competition. I feel like there are so many things like that. Either it’s someone who has no sense of what it is a critic is supposed to do or has an axe to grind. I was told that reviewer at the Washington Post who reviewed my book hates people who went to creative writing programs.
RB: (laughs) That would be a lot of writers.
DS: She thinks they are a waste of time, which they very well might be. Her saying I was immature and doing this grad school trick of playing games was her way of grinding her axe. It’s very frustrating. Reviews are the only place you are where you are going to get the word out…
RB: Oh I don’t know. Only a handful of places seem to have commercially potent reviews…I stopped reading reviews except if it is written by someone of whom I would read anything they wrote.
DS: Sometimes novelists have the biggest axe to grind. As great a paper as the Times is and it is a truly great paper—I’m amazed they put it out everyday—it’s a great read everyday, which is amazing. But they are not infallible. A terrible review in the Sunday Times is very hard to get over. It’s scary. My book just came out and it’s been reviewed, but I’m waiting anxiously for the Times review. And the publisher has anxiously talked about it.
RB: I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung in that there is a recognition that books have a longer life than movies and CDs?
DS: But the publisher is the one who makes the book available and they are making decisions. So you are a slave to that. It is amazing though that having done this second book, people come up to me and say they are reading my first book, That doesn’t happen with music, especially today. Young kids—I teach at NYU—I feel weird saying that, I’m only 32, even 15 years ago I had sense of music that had come before. Today there is no legacy to music that came out 5 or 10 years ago. I was talking to my class about Kurt Cobain and some of them didn’t know who he was. I thought, “You’re the target audience. Obviously, you don’t know about the Beatles.”
RB: I have trouble grasping this contraction of the range of cultural literacy.
DS: Maybe it’s the explosion of TV stations?
RB: And radio music formats.
DS: MTV is not one to foster nostalgia, they just get the new thing out there. I guess they’ll pick one or two acts that they will stick with like Madonna or Michael Jackson, but everything else it’s Now and that’s it.
RB: For a young man, your first two books are about people and places and times that are far away from your own realm. The story of how you came to write Chang and Eng has been documented. How about The Real McCoy?
DS: Well, I was…I didn’t set out to be a historical novelist. I actually went to graduate school at NYU and studied with Peter Carey and E.L. Doctorow, probably two of the greatest historical novelists or at least two very good ones. I didn’t even think about writing historical fiction, so I really didn’t pick their brains about it. But the most important lesson I took from grad school was that there are a lot of competent writers out there, very few inspired ones but a lot of competent ones. But they were not telling interesting stories. They were talking about their own lives and transmuting it into fiction.
RB: Or New York City.
DS: Yeah. I grew up outside NYC and went back to NYC after school. So I thought I could write about a middle class white kid in the suburbs, goes to school in Boston and goes to live in New York City or something like that. But that’s not a great story. I went in search of these big stories. I can’t decide if I’m just too close to it or there is something about today, that isn’t a grand age. So it’s hard to find these big stories.
RB: You mean you don’t think the OJ Simpson trial or that Monica woman were big stories?
DS: Yeah, I guess, but they didn’t have that lyric quality. I’m attracted to the larger-than-life stories, and I guess we don’t live in a lyrical age or something. I also like stories about identity. I didn’t realize that either when I started writing. I guess it’s an obsession. If you are lucky, you come to your subject and write about it over and over. I don’t think all good writers do that, but a lot of good ones do—Philip Roth has been writing similar stories, looking at it from different angles. And Saul Bellow, whose constant theme is how to survive being a thinking person in society. I was attracted to Chang and Eng because I saw Siamese twin girls on TV, interviewed. In the middle of the interview, they said, “We’re a big girl now.” That was a landmark moment for me. I thought of how interesting it would be to write a novel about these people who don’t know if they are one or two people. In their own heads they weren’t sure if they were singular or plural. I think all of us are different people at different times and what a perfect metaphor for that. The second book [The Real McCoy] is about this guy who takes on this grand identity that’s totally different than the truth of who he is. He is this skinny, unsophisticated kid from rural Indiana. He impersonates this boxer, moves to New York and becomes this sophisticated film-flam artist and world champion fighter.
RB: I didn’t understand how McCoy made his fight with Ryan a championship fight.
DS: I think there is a part in the book where I explain it. I hope I explain it clearly, maybe not. One thing I thought I made clear was that boxing was nefarious back then, it was barely legal. So McCoy has a deal with the Coney Island Athletic Club and their backers to get the fight accredited as a championship fight.
RB: Unbeknownst to Ryan?
DS: Right. And that actually happened. People would set up these fights…
RB: There were only press people there. How was it a benefit? Don’t people have to buy tickets and create gate receipts that are then donated?
DS: Right. That’s how Ryan figures it out. McCoy was hoping Ryan would not realize it.
RB: Was there a real Virgil Selby who was the basis for this story?
DS: I heard the story of a guy who was supposed to be the basis of the phrase “the Real McCoy” and was held up as a symbol of truth in America at a time when artificiality was coming into the culture. People were scared of the quick changes that were happening to American culture. And so he was held up, as a symbol of genuineness but he, in fact, wasn’t named McCoy. So I took that and made a story out of it. To such a degree that I changed the name from Norman to Virgil because I wanted it to be a mock-heroic epic. There were elements of Virgil and Gilgemesh. He would be known as Virgil or Gil. Gilgemesh is a story about a guy who is literally on a quest for immortality and Selby wants to become famous, which is the 20th century version of immortality.
RB: You chose the change of century for the date of this so-called championship fight. That’s a time laden with meaning.
DS: Millennial changes certainly are. Century changes are less so, but still at that time people were being very conscious of entering a modern world. I was trying to say something about the century, with him. He is a flim flammer. He is someone who is hungry for fame, and so his career coincided with the rise of America from this backwater country into this great world power. And the birth of the idea of the American entrepreneurial spirit, the go-getter spirit. Flim-Flamming is the dark underside of that. Con men are a particularly American phenomenon. Con men as we know them didn’t exist before this time. Not only were the con men American but their victims were always American. Sometimes they would go all the way to Europe to set up these elaborate scams just to go after American tourists. There was this thing about Americans that was so trusting. It says so much about America that we have it in us to have this dark version of entrepreneurialism and have the ability to invent any story we want in order to make money.
RB: Are you working with a narrow definition here? Fraud isn’t only practiced by Americans?
DS: Fraud isn’t, but the con men as we define it now, someone who would invent a story, pull a sucker in, pull a con and leave, that’s an American thing. I’m sure there have always been wicked business dealings. I read a book a called The American Confidence Man which came out in the ’30s by a professor of linguistics and sociology who immersed himself in the con culture and studied it as if he were studying a foreign tribe and came back with this lexicon of strange terms he found and behavioral traits. A good con would always involve someone being greedy and thinking he was duping someone else. And so we have this avaricious nature, this ability to create any story to make money and this wide-eyed naivete.
RB: In the middle of your novel you write, “People needed someone. The 1900’s were a moment of unprecedented artificiality, of simulation and back-and-front dishonesty. 35 years earlier day-to-day life had been more or less as it had been for generations. But now horses had been replaced by cars, candles by electric light, mail boxes by telephones, live theater by pictures etc.” Why are you calling these things artificial?
DS: People were really freaked out by the changes because while we might not view it as artificial, hearing someone’s voice on a telephone wire seemed unlike what nature had intended. Building a machine that speeds down the road faster than a horse, these are things that people thought were the opposite of genuine, whatever that is. And so that’s where the phrase ‘Real McCoy’ came in. We use it today, but it doesn’t have the same weight it held back then. I recently read an essay by Milan Kundera where he talked about theses within fiction, essays within fiction and how they are more playful than real essay and the author isn’t necessarily making a point as much as furthering the narrative. So that’s the narrator’s take on it.
RB: My question has to do with how people contemporaneous with the character/narrator saw these things. So in addition to some people feeling this was the brilliant light of progress there were the fears and attitudes that you mention?
DS: There was a whole movement against Coney Island. People even saw Coney Island as a shock to the decency of America. The funhouse mirrors, the strange lights and the air blowing women’s dresses up, rides to nowhere, just for fun. It seemed strange and un-American in the way people thought of America. America thought of itself as a rural farming Puritan place and to have this was a departure and unnatural.
RB: You also are clear about how dangerous New York City was at the turn of the century. Luc Sante did a book about this subject in the 1870’s.
DS: Yes, it was called Low Life. I haven’t read it. I’m careful not to do too much research. That was one thing that I got from Doctorow. He said in class once, “If you are writing fiction, do the least amount of research you can get away with.” When I heard that, I thought that he was being flip because people laughed in the class. I think that when I was writing the first book and this one, it came to me—the meaning of that hit home. If you do too much research, a) you feel this pressure to put it in and it’s going to read like a text book and a novelist’s first responsibility is to make the story interesting and move along and not to veracity and even exhaustiveness, b) you are supposed to be original and have a new take on things. If I read Sante’s book about New York, I’m sure my book would have ended up sounding like that. With Chang and Eng, the beginning of the book takes place in old Siam. The family lived in a houseboat on the Mekong River. I didn’t know anything about that and didn’t want to. So I wrote the entire section without doing a lick of research. Then I went back and did some research to make sure I didn’t make any errors.
RB: What is an error?
DS: Using a word that wouldn’t have been used at the time or material or technology. Or food they ate that people in that country didn’t eat…
RB: It doesn’t matter whether Teddy Roosevelt actually met McCoy?
DS: I’m very dogmatic about this. If you say it’s fiction then you can do whatever you want. I did have some mistakes in Chang and Eng. I got a letter from someone saying, “In your story you have a Christmas tree in North Carolina in 1843. Everyone knows that there weren’t Christmas trees in North Carolina until 1844.”
RB: Everyone knows?
DS: Yes, everyone knows. So there are always people like that. I apologized to that person for my sloppiness. I was lucky enough to sell the book to Thailand and I’m sure there will be more errors pointed out. That’s never stopped writers. Kafka never came to America but his Statue of Liberty had a sword instead of a flame. There is a lot of speculation about whether that was a mistake or a statement about America. I don’t think America was this militaristic power at that point, so I don’t know if it would have been a statement about that. Maybe it was a statement about the nature of government.
RB: Or statutes.
DS: I read an essay—I think it was by Doctorow, incidentally—that said that most statutes in Prague have swords and Kafka probably just assumed that. But who knows. It doesn’t detract from my appreciation of the work.
RB: It strikes me that there is no way of setting a rule about responsibility to historical fact.
DS: I talked to David Gates [a writer]. We were talking about historical fiction and he doesn’t read it. I asked, “Why not?” Referring to Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, he said, “Why would I want to read what Carey says about the 19th century when I can read Dickens?” I don’t think that holds water. Dickens was talking about his time and good historical fiction talks about the present day but tries to refract its messages through an oblique mirror.
RB: Carey is not writing about the past with the same intent.
DS: Yeah, he has a story to tell. He’s commenting on today’s society in a way that Dickens never could have and more importantly, Dickens never tried to tell the story of the Kelly Gang, and it’s a good story, so why not let Peter Carey tell it. It’s unfair to compare them. Until recently most great works of literature were works of historical fiction. They weren’t called that because we didn’t classify them in that way. But Homer was writing about an event that happened a thousand years before him. Shakespeare never wrote about his contemporaries, he always chose a historical context for his plays. War and Peace is about Napoleon written 80 years after Napoleon. Historical fiction is very valid. I’m very wary or try to be aware of not beating the reader over the head with messages but still trying to say something about society and I think historical fiction is a good way to do that.
RB: The added benefit is that it puts the juicy, lively, vital stuff back into what many Americans seem to see as a body of information that has to do with names and dates. It makes history more appealing to grasp it as a body of stories about people that lived before us.
DS: As I said I like good stories and they are hard to find. So why limit yourself and say, “That’s a great story, but I’m not going to write about that because it took place a long time ago.” Anytime that you can find a good story that’s asking to be told, why not jump on it? I think my next book might be contemporary, but it might not. I’m still looking around.
RB: Why did your publisher seemingly rush to publish this book in June?
DS: That’s when Chang and Eng came out, and there’s going to be a lot of stiff competition in the fall. Zadie Smith has a book coming out and Michael Chabon. Who knows? I don’t understand the vagaries of the book publishing industry, They said they really wanted it and I thought I could do it. I would have certainly gotten it in with no problem if it weren’t for September 11. It was such a psychic blow to everyone, myself included, that I couldn’t write for three or four weeks. I couldn’t do anything but watch TV. I live in Brooklyn so I had a view of the towers. So really it was strange. I had just moved to Brooklyn. My girlfriend, whom I live with, was out of town. And there was no way to get around. So I was sort of trapped, alone, for a week, just watching. I didn’t try to write. I’d wake up at 9 AM; I’d turn on the TV and see if anything new happened. Then somehow without me knowing it was 9 at night, I had sat there for 12 hours and it didn’t seem like any time was passing. I learned something about how the human mind deals with shock. When I saw the buildings with the holes in them I didn’t register that a lot of people were going to die. I just thought, “I can’t believe there are going to be holes in the World Trade Center for 6 months.” And then one fell. Even then I couldn’t get my mind around it. Either it was too much of a mental leap or I was in shock but I said, “I can’t believe there is only going to be one trade center forever.” Obviously, if one falls the other is likely to fall. I couldn’t even fathom it. Then I started questioning the relevance of my book.
RB: For me, watching those events on TV made them less real. It seemed like a special effects highlight reel. Especially the virtual tape looping of the planes hitting the buildings. I didn’t watch much of it all, may 10 or 20 minutes. Except for a brief scan through Univision [Spanish language TV] which showed people jumping from the buildings, in some case holding hands. Beyond harrowing…
DS: Oh my god. People holding hands, that’s the saddest thing. I had been up there a few months before and I had a visceral memory of how high it was. It seemed so much taller than the even the Empire State building. Looking out I had this incredible sense of vertigo, even though the glass was like a foot thick. I could barely lookout the window. Imagine the hell that had to be behind people for them to make the decision to jump rather than face what was behind them.
RB: Are you an eternal New Yorker? Will you always live in New York?
DS: I lived in Boston for 4 years for school and then I lived in Colorado for a year after college and then London for a total of a year. But I always seem to come back. My girlfriend really hates it and we live together, so I can maybe see getting out eventually. September 11 has made me feel more affection for the city. Growing up here there was always a grudging love—it seems cheesy—but I feel like the city needs our affection. But it also freaked me out and I want to go somewhere safer. It’s sad to admit that. As I have been touring, in most cities not on the East Coast, it seems like a theoretical fear. The sadness is genuine but the fear especially seems conceptual. In New York, the Brooklyn Bridge is closed because there is a bomb threat today [or things like that]. My girlfriend works at Newsweek, and 2 or 3 times they were evacuated because of anthrax [scares]. It really gets to you, it really does. Riding the subways afterwards, I wish I could say I didn’t racially profile, but on September 15 when a Middle Eastern looking guy with a back pack sat next to me, I was angry at myself for feeling nervous-because what’s great about New York and the country is how diverse it is and how accepting we are. That was I was what I was most proud of, New York…
RB: How far ahead do you think in your life planning? Any plans to reinvent you?
DS: The difference between a con man and a writer is that a writer thinks up these elaborate stories and puts them on the page but a con man has the guts to see if they really work. A bad review for a con man is you get busted and go to jail. So I don’t think I need to reinvent myself, if I keep doing these stories.
RB: Were your youthful aspirations to be a writer?
DS: I didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer until I went to college. I had some really good professors. I went to Tufts. I had Jay Cantor for creative writing. Alan Lebovitz and Jonathan Strong. They instilled in me, the desire to write.
RB: Do you read much?
DS: Oh yeah.
RB: What do you read?
DS: I don’t read much contemporary fiction, but I have started to read more. I tell my students the key to being a writer is reading as much as you can but reading like a writer, which is different than reading for enjoyment. Reading with an eye to why is this working or not working. If it’s not working, how would I improve upon it? I can I use that in my own work. Often if I’m stuck, I’ll take a morning off and read. Not to lift anything directly, but to get an idea. People now are so cowed by the notion of plagiarism that they are afraid to admit they are influenced by somebody. You have to have models and influences; sometimes reading a story you don’t like will jar your imagination. Reading is the key…
RB: Is there a book or writer that you think is unheralded or warrants more attention?
DS: I don’t know about unheralded, but someone who should be better known in this country is Bruno Schulz. A Polish Jew killed in the Holocaust. His work reminds me a lot of Isaac Babel who I like a lot. I’m really attracted to people with energetic language like Saul Bellow, Babel, Nabokov. Philip Roth got me in to writing although I don’t know if would go back to his books now.
RB: These are writers that you reread?
DS: Uh huh. Or whom I tried to emulate in some way when I was figuring out what kind of writer I wanted to be. Especially Roth, because I don’t come from a family of readers and writers. So to read someone coming from a similar background as me writing interestingly about the way suburban Jews talk, I found that liberating.
RB: I’ve never read Philip Roth. I have major gaps in my reading. No Updike or Nabokov.
DS: I’ve only read a few Updike books. Nabokov and Roth, yes.
RB: I’ve read a lot of Cormac McCarthy.
DS: I’ve never read any Cormac McCarthy. Not one word.
RB: Lots of Elmore Leonard.
DS: No Leonard either.
RB: I’ve read all of Dave Eggers.
DS: Me too.
RB: Sadly, people who read acknowledge that they are never going to read everything they want to read in a lifetime.
DS: You have to. Now I feel bad you read my book and not a book by Nabokov. I think you made a mistake.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing