Jake Halpern grew up in Buffalo, New York and attended Yale University. He has written for The New Republic, The New Yorker, Commonwealth and The Jerusalem Report. His newly published first book is called Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava Side Inn, and Extreme Locales. Jake Halpern currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Braving Home tells the stories of five extraordinary people who have chosen to call locales that are harsh or dangerous their homes. The singular men and women who chose homes like: Princeville, North Carolina, which rests on a flood plain that periodically submerges the town; A fourteen-story high rise in Whittier, Alaska that is surrounded by acres of unending wilderness at the end of a two-and-a-half-mile-long railroad tunnel; Royal Gardens, Hawaii, which rests on the edge of Mount Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano; Decker Canyon in Malibu, California, situated in the nation’s biggest fire corridor and Grand Isle, Louisiana, in the Gulf of Mexico in the path of every storm that comes down the pike, it is Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island.
Robert Birnbaum: In the last month or two I have talked to a number of writers who are in their twenties. And without forethought about it, I stumbled across concerns about a generational fault line or a way of distinguishing twenty-year-old writers from thirty-year-old writers and perhaps others. Is that something you have thought about?
Jake Halpern: The thing about being a writer is that essentially you are very isolated. So that other than reading, you don’t have a sense of what other writers your age are doing. In terms of the differences in the writing of a twenty-year-old or a thirty-year-old writer I can only speculate.
RB: Okay, let’s focus on what has influenced you.
JH: Right, that I can answer more easily. I read a book shortly after college called Baghdad without a Map by Tony Horowitz. Who, when he was a young man, in his late twenties, turned down a series of not very exciting job possibilities—writing in the business section or covering local school board elections —and headed off to Cairo to make it as a freelancer. In some ways, it’s an absurd notion because he barely scraped by and there wasn’t much work for him to do. But he wrote and he traveled around and he had these incredible adventures in the Middle East, and he took those adventures and compiled those into that book which is a humorous, thoughtful fantastic book that ended up becoming a New York Times bestseller. He has this kind of self-deprecating humor. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. I remember reading that book and feeling greatly inspired. Feeling that I shouldn’t waste my time taking the traditional route. I should take his lead and throw myself out into the world and write about and try to go about it by that route. There was another influence I had. A guy named Ted Conover did a similar kind of thing. He was even bolder, in a way.
RB: He wrote New Jack City.
JH: Yup. Where he works as a prison guard for a year and a half. As his senior paper, he rode the rails, as a hobo for six months and that became his first book, Rolling Nowhere. I was inspired by these stories of these young men, roughly my age, who bucked convention, bucked the working-your-way-up-the-ladder to go out and have adventures and write about them in a moving, humble and great way. So I feel that kind of journalistic thing, a brash twenty-year-old was very much an inspiration to me.
RB: That’s not the route most young aspiring writers are taking. The people you are describing are doing what writers used to do. But in your own case you did spend some time at The New Republic.
JH: I did. I spent a year as an intern at The New Republic, and I would say that was a really important year. I think it is hard to just completely go from the outside. I spent that year doing a lot of grunt work, filling the water cooler, I was faxing, I was…
RB: Did you know how to do that stuff before? [laughs]
JH: Uh yeah, there were some humiliating times. We had to serve tea sometimes. It was hardly adventurous. Let’s put it that way. But it was enough to make me understand…first to make some good contacts in the journalism world and eventually the publishing world and also to give me a sense of how the professional writing world worked. It was an education. That was my journalism school. And it was a hell of a lot cheaper. That was a good experience. But other than that, I didn’t go to the writing workshops or get an MFA .One editor actually told me after I sold my book, "Sometimes really great stuff comes out of the writing workshops, but sometimes people who start in writing workshops never leave writing workshops." That always confirmed a feeling I had that maybe I would get stuck or that at these places one might critique oneself to death.
RB: You went to Yale?
JH: Uh huh.
RB: I recently talked to Ben Cavell, and he told me that he regretted not being more involved at the Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper. Did you work on the Yale paper?
JH: I didn’t because I didn’t know I wanted to be a journalist. I took a lot of writing classes. A fiction writing class —a fantastic fiction writing class with Robert Stone—which was amazing. That was my senior year. I really enjoyed the class and at the end of the class I met with him for office hours and I said, "I want to become a writer. What do I do?" I was thinking he would suggest an MFA or writing workshop or program or getting a job. He said, "Join the Peace Corps. Get out there and live. Experience life a bit." Which in hindsight was really good advice. I said, "I want to be a writer, but I don’t want to be one of these wannabes who sits around the café with their black French cap musing all day long."
RB: They call them ‘berets’.
JH: The other thing he said to me was, "You got to wanna be before you can be." And that was just really powerful to me. You don’t just arrive, you have to struggle and go through that long unemployed somewhat humiliating stage where you have nothing to show but your dream. I didn’t join the paper, but I had some great writing experiences that I really valued in college.
RB: You’re from Buffalo, New York, and you attended
one of those esteemed institutions in this country—at least
esteemed by the people who have attended them. I guess I forget
what I wanted to ask…Since I began this skein of young writers…
I would expect to have a certain kind of respect for a young athletes
or actors, maybe even young entrepreneurs, but for one thing, why
would I think that any young writers had anything to say to me.
The one thing being that they have accomplished that magical thing
and published a book.
By having done that—no small feat—I now take you more seriously than I would my five-year-old son. On the other hand I still have that holdover reservation about what you know.
JH: The answer is probably not much.
RB: [both laugh] Good answer. Me too.
JH: I actually came to see that as an asset. I had a real wide-eyedness about me that when I visited these places in my book which I were extremely intense places to visit, an erupting volcano, a hurricane island, a flood plain, a fire corridor—visiting these stalwarts who won’t leave. I was nervous, of course, about how I was going t o relate to these people, and my goal was to live with them if I could. And I didn’t exactly know how I was going to pull that off. They took to me precisely because…they almost took me under their wings, in a way. They got the sense that I didn’t really know exactly what I was doing. And I didn’t really have a lot of airs about being a great writer or someone who demanded a lot of respect. I was kind of just there, wanting to hear their story and that kind of naivete or youthfulness or lack of experience factored into my favor in terms of them taking a shine to me, as number of the characters did.
RB: I wonder if you have fallen into the temptation of performing a certain task, of being a good enough journalist to get some good stories and now that you have done it and you are talking to me have you become more self conscious about what you do? Do you think about your technique?
JH: Yeah, I think I do. The big struggle in this book was to try to render the stories in such a way that they were interesting, provocative but also gave the people in the book a sense of dignity. I got very close with the people in the book. Each one of the five characters in the book I have now known for almost three years. And it is not just a one-time thing. I have called them back. They call me back about the book. I have visited each of them twice. Jack, who lives surrounded by lava, invited my wife and I (we just got married) to honeymoon on his lava-encircled inn. I have real relationships with these people.
RB: Did you go?
JH: We’re going to go in March. I have convinced my wife to go. But the prospect of starting again, I feel like …if this book succeeds, the reason it would is that I really got to know the people in the book. And the prospect of starting over again and building the trust and getting to know the background of the families is daunting. I also don’t know if I will be able to build the same kind of relationship. Because the next book will be a different kind of subject matter. So there is something overwhelming, I am not sure yet how much of what I learned is going to translate into the next thing.
RB: You said if this book succeeds. What is your criterion of success?
JH: I don’t know. It’s a really hard thing to know. We have gotten some good things. It’s been chosen as a Book of the Month club [selection] and it’s a Borders Original Choices and an Amazon breakout book…
RB: Amazon, feh! Here’s my editorial aside; I was looking at an Amazon ad for Harry Potter, "Don’t be the last one on your block to read it!"
JH: That’s great.
JH: What can you say. These things are kind of ridiculous…
RB: I don’t want to cut you short, but you may start mentioning starred trade magazine reviews and Booksense but am I to infer that your sense of success is based on the commercial success of the book?
JH: I don’t know what my sense of success is.
RB: Are you happy with your book?
JH: Uh, yes.
RB: Is your editor happy with your book?
JH: She is happy with the book.
RB: Is your wife happy with the book?
JH: She’s happy.
RB: Your parents?
RB: How many more people do you have to please?
JH: I read this really interesting profile of Paul Simon in the New Yorker in which he has come up with this new album, and it was about him trying to sell this new album that he is working on. It has a different sound than his other stuff, and I guess he has had some trouble selling it. The whole thing at the end was, they asked him, "How do you measure your success?" He was grappling with this. He has such wild success in the past, just because this album doesn’t reach the great commercial success that his previous ones doesn’t mean it’s not as good. Obviously the most important things are that I like the book and the people I work with and my family and people I wrote about and a few of my friends, my mentors, that’s really important. I know in my heart of hearts that’s all that should matter, but it’s human to want more.
RB: To want acknowledgement.
JH: To want acknowledgment in some way, but that’s a very tricky thing because that’s ultimately totally out of your control. And I feel myself pulling back and saying, "Don’t focus on that as your standard of whether it’s good or not."
RB: It is a tough call. You tell the stories of five people in Braving Home. Are these the only people that you considered? That is, were there other stories and these are the ones that you settled on?
JH: Yeah, definitely. These are the five finalists, if you will. I compiled what was an enormous three-ring binder.
RB: And after that, were there actually places you visited and people you talked to that didn’t make the cut?
JH: These are the only five that I visited. What I did is, I compiled many and went through them and made phone calls and did all the research I could do without actually going there and then picked my five. And then I showed up, I wasn’t always sure what the story would be. There always is a story; it’s just a question of finding it. There were a lot I ended up not doing.
RB: The overarching theme is that there are people dedicated and attached to their homes in rational and irrational ways and these people on the face of it—well, it’s not irrational is it?
JH: Well, it’s all about perspective, the way I see it. I was thinking about this on the way over here. When you actually visit these places—let’s take the story of Thad Knight. He lives in this town called Princeville, North Carolina. It’s the oldest all-black town in America, and it’s built on a flood plain. It gets swamped by water every so many years. From the outside, from the comfort of this room in Boston, talking about Princeville, it seems absurd to live there. And when I went down there shortly after the flood the place was destroyed and my reaction was, "Why would anyone still want to live here?" I ended up living with this guy Thad Knight, who was the one guy who never left. The amazing thing that happened to me, that over the course of my stay in Princeville with Thad, I became caught up in the personal drama of his stand to stay there. He was this pioneer who had moved his trailer back amidst the wreckage. As he was staying there and as he began to make the first efforts to rebuild his house, his family, who he had been estranged from, started coming back to help him out. He kind of brought back his church community and all these things that were part of the dram that was precipitated by this flood and by his decision to stay there, I became increasingly swept up and feeling that it was amazing what Thad was doing. He was on an intense personal journey that had been launched by his staying. Even when writing it I was deeply moved by his story and then I called him back after I had written the story to ask how he was doing and he said, "You know the water in the river is up high again. I’m just not sleeping that well at night." And then my rational perspective came back and I said to myself, "What is he doing there?" So I feel like it’s perspective. It made sense to me when I was there and I was caught up in it. When I remove myself to the outside and have some distance from it, it seemed to come back into focus again I became aware of the impracticalities of him being there.
RB: You made it clear that Thad Knight was not going to be happy living in parking lot with a lot of other refugees. So what was his alternative? His decision was the best for what he was presented with.
JH: I think it was. There may have been options practically speaking for the people in the book in their minds there were no options. And I think that for Thad and for many of the people in Braving Home. His identity, who he was, was deeply invested in this place in which he lived. He had grown up as a sharecropper. He worked much of his adult life to own a home with carpeted floors and heat and indoor plumbing. This was a major advancement in his life. It’s where he brought up his family. The cemetery out back is where his forbears were buried. Princeville was part of Thad. If Thad left Princeville part of him would be lost.
RB: It was interesting to note that when his house was being rebuilt that he was asked if he wanted a fireplace. And he replied, "I’m done chopping wood."
JH: Yeah, I would think a fireplace was a nice touch, high class.
RB: This just occurred to me — is it the case that Prince [or the artist formerly known as] donated money because of the name of this town?
JH: Yeah, that’s right, exactly [both laugh]. The town formerly known as Princeville. It became this rallying cry. It was like the town had been forgotten. No one knew that it was the oldest all-black town in America. And it came out and somehow it just tapped into the media. And it became this cause celibe and Prince got involved.
RB: So you put together the stories of five people like this. The constant is that they have identified with a place that is at risk amid life threatening and they stay. Anything else they have in common?
JH: Right. I would divide them into sub groups. Three of them fit into a group that I would say had a deep history in that place. All of them came from specific ethnic groups that over the generations had formed a hardened, grizzled pioneer kind of existence. The Cajuns in Louisiana, the old homesteaders in Malibu, even the freed slaves in Princeville. These were tough American groups of people that learned to grittily bear it. And also learned the tricks to living there. The Cajuns knew how to ride out a hurricane and where to build their houses and what to do when the storm came and the Deckers in Decker Canyon in Malibu had been fighting fires since the 1880’s. They knew how to use the gunnysacks, the barrels of water. In many ways, that’s an interesting component. The Deckers, who fight the fires, are using techniques that were used in the 1880’s and they adopted those from the Plains Indians. They really tapped into nature, and that really intrigues me. The other two stories, the volcano in Hawaii and the high rise in Alaska were people deliberately seeking the ends of the earth, to have the isolation it afforded. That’s the way I broke it down.
RB: How long did it take you to do?
JH: Start to finish about two and a half years.
RB: How do you feel now? Are intending to always keep track of these people?
JH: That’s so hard to know how long you will stay in touch with people. I do think I will stay in touch for a long time. The thing about being a writer is that you are isolated and you don’t have that big social world. These people over the last few years have constituted a large part of my…I do think I will stay in touch with them. I feel…I guess I feel…also more American somehow. I grew up in the Northeast and went to college in the Northeast.
RB: Wait a second here!
JH: Well, Buffalo…
JH: You’re saying Buffalo is not the Northeast?
RB: First of all that was without scorn or ridicule. I grew up in Chicago. So this is not snotty New England chauvinism. I would think many people would view Buffalo as Midwestern.
JH: It’s more similar to Boston than any of the cities I visited in the book.
RB: Close to a body of water, cold winters, loser football teams—oops that’s not true.
JH: Compared to the Black Belt in North Carolina. The Cajun bayou, a volcano in Hawaii…all very exotic and seems like very different parts of America.
RB: Not very urban.
JH: That’s true, I never really had much contact with rural Americans, to be honest with you.
RB: The Northeast strikes me as America’s psych experiment, so many people in such close proximity. At Whittier, Alaska a couple of people observe that three years seems to be the limit that most people can handle there. Any theory about that?
JH: Yeah, I was curious about why it takes people three years to crack. My sense is that the first year people come to this high rise surrounded by miles and miles of Alaskan wilderness because they are definitely on the run from one thing or another and they are glad to be there and away from whatever it is. The second year they are there they are still caught up in the momentum of the first year and really trying to make it work. And you don’t want to move somewhere just for a year. By the third year the claustrophobia of living in this building and everyone being in your business, being snowed in it just becomes overwhelming to people and then the famous Whittier cracking occurs. People just lose it and have to leave.
RB: Speaking of cracking up, what’s next for you?
JH: I don’t exactly know. I think I will do some freelance journalism. I have some ideas for another book. They are still in the formative stages. Another non-fiction book, I think I have a lot to learn within non-fiction.
RB: So you do have aspirations to write fiction?
JH: Yeah, thoughts. It would be fun to do something else. It would be fun to try something new and be challenged in a new way. I’m not sure how I see myself doing it, but yeah. I think if I did it I would do realistic fiction in which I immerse myself in something but have the freedom not to follow the facts, I think that would be a neat thing to try. But right now I feel like I am beginning an apprenticeship in how to write non-fiction and I don’t want to get off just yet.
RB: One thing that seems to me to endemic to twenty-year-olds is identifying things with buzzwords or a few parametric facts. That is, if I know your favorite group and book, I can make a lot more assumptions about you than people used to make on such slim information. Is that a fair assessment of the way people who are your age judge each other?
JH: I’m not sure.
RB: Do you know what I mean?
JH: Not exactly.
RB: A lot of things stand as shorthand for your values or identity. The kind of music you like, or the fiction, the car that you drive, the clothing you buy, stand as representation of a greater body of values…
JH: The classic is Amazon where they take a synthesis of what CDs you’ve bought, what books you like, and it spits out suggesting what you should buy. It seems people definitely latch on to these identifying factors, these bits of information and they synthesize. In terms of pigeonholing me, five things about me, I think I avoided that with this book, because it’s so hard to describe. There are not a lot of other books where you visit five people in these ridiculous places. The only comparison that was made was in Publisher’s Weekly, they said it was kind of done in a Charles Kuralt fashion. I’m too young to remember Charles Kuralt. My mother had to tell me what that meant.
RB: There’s a long tradition of road books in America starting with De Tocqueville, but you are more concerned with destinations than the getting there.
JH: Right, this is not a road book. That’s not to say that I didn’t entertain thoughts of that. The characters that I visited were so much more interesting than me and their challenges were so much more interesting than my getting to their house. It seemed stupid and self-important [to write about traveling].
RB: As long as I’m thinking of it, what kind of music do you like?
JH: Oh, I don’t know, that’s hard to say. I am a big Van Morrison fan. I like Billie Holiday. I have eclectic taste. I like a lot of Motown and Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding and stuff like that.
RB: How did you come by those preferences?
JH: My parents, I grew up with that and the high school I went to has a fantastic kick-ass gospel choir. I just developed a real love for that kind of music.
RB: Would that separate you from your peers?
JH: I feel like I am always kind of
queer…my friends are all into Radiohead, "Halpern, we don’t want to listen to your Wilson Pickett." I feel like I was born in the wrong time for my music.
RB: And what was the last novel you read that impressed you?
JH: I’m proud to say this. I read East of Eden before it was on Oprah’s list. I read a book called Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, I think is his name…A 1950’s suburban Connecticut life but in
a way that was a dark depiction of this family. The family falls upon hard times and Yates alternates the perspectives almost in a Rashoman kind of way, you are getting the perspective of each of the characters and he gets into their minds in such a way that is really amazing. And having aspired to try that in my book. I was blown away at how effectively he did it. A great book.
RB: Richard Yates is something of a tragic figure and there is a new authoritative biography that has just come out. Speaking of Rashoman, now we will try to pigeonhole you by your cinematic taste?
JH: At the risk of cliché I really love the Lord of the Rings series and…
RB: I am glad you didn’t say Buffalo 66.
JH: I thought that was terrible. I thought that was awful.
RB: Joe Queenan says that’s the best sports movie ever made.
JH: God, I was really disappointed. I saw a movie called Nowhere in Africa. A German film that won best Foreign Picture. It was about a German Jewish family that flees Nazi Germany just before the borders close and move to rural Africa and start over. It was the kind of movie that afterwards my wife and I were arguing strenuously about the moral issues involved.
RB: Really, what kind of relationship do you have?
JH: We’re newlyweds. It’s fiery. At the end, the main character, after they have been in Kenya, the letters stop coming from their family in Germany and they realize everyone is dead. The husband decides he wants to move back. It’s to me, as a Jew, inconceivable.
RB: They didn’t know?
JH: It brought me there. I love movies that whisk you away. And it did.
RB: Okay, when you socialize and are introduced and they ask, "What do you do?" Your answer is?
JH: I stammer. I say I am a writer, but I have gotten to the point where I hate it. It sounds like an obnoxious thing to complain about having to explain what you do. It is cumbersome. You say you are a writer and then "What do you write?" "Well, I’m writing a non-fiction book about…" and then I can’t not explain it and then people don’t quite know how to react.
RB: Do you get defensive?
JH: I felt more defensive before I sold my book. Then I went through a period where I gloated, "I just sold my book." It seemed interminable, my unemployment, in my head. Now I just say it…
RB: Why don’t you just carry your book around with you.
JH: Yeah exactly. You may recognize me from the inside jacket cover. Writers, in general, they can be a rough lot. Kind of pretentious and kind of difficult…
RB: Not like the rest of humanity.
JH: I guess so. It seems like writers…
RB: One could argue that writers if not smarter are at least more articulate.
JH: Maybe, maybe.
RB: That means that they can articulate their own obnoxiousness, whereas others just scream and rant.
JH: That’s right. I try to be as articulately obnoxious as I can when I am introduced.
RB: Let me get this right. You are contemplating your next book; you’re just not sure of it.
JH: Yeah. I would say so. I am learning not to talk about things [that aren’t firm].
RB: Well, god willing or something like that I’ll talk to you for the next book. Thank you.
JH: Yeah, that’d be great.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing