Marc Estrin is a writer, cellist, puppeteer and activist living in Burlington, Vermont who, as he describes, has had a “squiggly career path”—finally coming to writing at the age of 57. He is currently working on, among other things, his next novel. His first published novel, Insect Dreams, picks up where Franz Kafka leaves off. Here’s Estrin’s synopsis of that story:
The metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa was surely one of the momentous transformations of modern times. Kafka’s burning vision of the future ended with Gregor being swept into a dustbin. But what if Gregor was to survive and live to challenge the wrongs clouding humanity’s horizon? In Insect Dreams, Gregor—rescued by profiteers—will sharpen his mind against the minds of Wittgenstein and Rilke, dance to the crazy rhythms of Prohibition, and appear as a surprise witness at the Scopes trial. Eventually, he’ll meet FDR, join the brain trust, and move into the White House. But a talking cockroach with an ethical agenda can wear out his welcome, and soon Gregor is reassigned as a risk management consultant for the Manhattan Project. What follows is nothing less than the explosive birth of contemporary existence—and the culmination of a tale that is as intellectually ambitious as it is warmhearted and funny.
Marc Estrin’s second published novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler, chronicles a young man’s journey through the late 20th century burdened by an infelicitous appellation. Again, Estrin sums up:
At once a chess master, a linguist, an athlete and an innocent in love, Arnold passes through the racial tensions of Mansfield, Texas (home of the author of Black Like Me) in the 1950s, the anti-war movement at Harvard, and both the Upper East Side and the Bowery, meeting Noam Chomsky, Al Gore, and Leonard Bernstein in the process, and finally learning the meaning of meaning.
This conversation took place on the banks of the Squamscott River and ranged far and wide over a terrain of culture and history including the Bread and Puppets theater, Senor Wences, Charles Dickens, the Dalai Lama, Brahms, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck Mahler and Das Lied von der Erde, fin de siecle Vienna, Alexander Gershenkron, Leonard Bernstein, Arnold Stange, the Mozart Requiem, the edenic aspects of Vermont, Congressman Bernie Sanders, Unbridled Books, Hans Christian Anderson and as you will see below, much more.
Robert Birnbaum: —today is 28 July 2005, talking to Marc Estrin and we’re rolling—you were saying—
Marc Estrin: I just started a reading series at the public library, organized around classic books. I recruited ten of my friends to present one a month. I had lunch yesterday with the guy who was supposed to read Silas Marner. I said, “Well, are you ready? It’s September. It’s Silas Marner.” And he said, “Oh, I thought it was Ethan Frome.” “It can’t be Ethan Frome because we put on the poster Silas Marner.” “Couldn’t I read from Ethan Frome and tell them it was from Silas Marner?”
RB: Those are the kind of friends you have?
RB: Writer friends?
ME: No, just people who are good readers. The idea of this series is to get more CDs for the audio collection in the library, which is very poor, mostly best sellers. It’s a little self-serving: I drive a lot and I need books I want to listen to.
RB: I’ve taken to listening to the audio version of books after I have read them. I found my grasp of the audio is a different experience. And it’s quite pleasurable and fills in some spaces.
ME: It makes driving completely different. I drive to rehearsals all the time. Music rehearsals or Bread and Puppet. Two hours [of driving].
RB: Do you listen in the same way that you read?
ME: Clearly not. On the other hand, there is something even better about listening, especially—for instance I have been tracking the Dickens novels. The people they have reading Dickens can make minute class distinctions with accents. You don’t get that reading it yourself. It really highlights the class issues.
RB: Let me backtrack. You are a cellist/activist/novelist and puppeteer. Anything else?
ME: I wrote a book about Bread and Puppet. What is a puppeteer? It’s somebody who does this and this or somebody who does that—
RB: Señor Wençes.
ME: Oh, the best. [both laugh] “Back in the box!” No, Bread and Puppet is an enormous phenomenon. Not only are the puppets huge but so is the idea. Being a puppeteer, in that sense, means belonging to a global, world community of people who are politically active artists and have related life style commitments and are, one way or another, doing more than entertainment. It has nothing to do with entertainment.
ME: Well, it’s entertaining for people when they come to see it. But the larger thrust is way beyond that. So I put thirty-five years of stories about Bread an Puppet in this book and…
RB: Is the list I recited complete?
ME: I have a really squiggly life path and every bend has left traces. I started out studying science, and I was a theater director. And then I did work with the puppets and I went to UU seminary. I’ve done medical work, ambulance work. It’s all there and all winds up in the books. What I am doing now is basically politics, music and writing.
RB: How much training did you have to play the cello? That’s not exactly a pick-up instrument.
ME: Right. I took it up late—in college—but with an adult commitment as to what I wanted to do with it. And it’s just paid off immensely. I’m in many performing groups and I live with a lot of very great music that, in a way, is a specific antidote for the horrible politics I deal with. I had this vision last year, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Here’s the solo violin singing gorgeous stuff over the pulsing chords, and I’m filling it in, buoying it up—and it was so healing—but not just generally healing. It felt specifically directed at the kind of abrasions and lacerations I get from the daily news and what’s going on in the world.
RB: Are you that affected by . . . that sensitive to it—it’s not exactly like you are a young man. You’d think you would have developed some calluses and tough skin.
ME: The openness to the suffering has never changed. It’s always been that way. The suffering just changes its face. Which I suppose is what keeps it fresh. But dropping napalm on kids in Vietnam and burning up the orchards of the Palestinians has the same degree of detestable violence. It’s just always changing and is always there and—
RB: Why do some people care and others, apparently most people, don’t?
ME: [long pause] Well, of course, that’s the question, isn’t
it? And there is no single answer, but there are a lot of phenomena
that explain it—depending on whether you are in a rich country
or poor country, what class you are, how you have been treated,
what your parents were. It’s huge—the overall name of
it is “disassociation,” and there are many reasons for
it, some of which are completely intentional. We’ve been had.
I just started writing a new with that theme—about how we
have all been written by others.
RB: What do you think of Mark Twain’s observation, “we each of us contain secret kindness.”
ME: Well, if I didn’t believe that, then I’d have no hope. A lot of my writing and political work is trying to find that in people and open it up—make the correct incision as it were. Yeah, it would be completely hopeless. The Dalai Lama once said, when asked about his religion, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
RB: I saw him on Larry King once. That was a hoot. I loved his relentless joviality in the face of King’s banal bluster. He did say that he practiced kindness.
ME: ”Kindness” is a simplification that cuts so deeply and across every doctrine. So yeah, it’s the unkindness of people that really continues to get to me. Especially when it has vastly devastating results.
RB: You mentioned you were working on a new novel. You have made mention of at least one unpublished novel—
ME: I have four. Four that are “finished” but unpublished. Finished for me is that it has a beginning and middle and an end. And I like it. And that “finished” is in quotes because my editors have to like it enough to bring it out—which might involve major or minor work. So “finished” is not finished.
RB: Are you malleable in the editing process?
ME: You know I was birthed in fire here. My first book, Insect Dreams, was nine hundred pages when it went in, and five hundred pages when it came out. So that was a good way to start. [laughs] But I have immense faith and trust in both the smarts and the attitude of Fred Ramey, my editor, and I’m as determined to stick with him as he is with me. He’s been my writing teacher. I never did any real writing before—articles, press releases, sermons, stuff like that. I certainly never wrote fiction. And in fact, I never read much fiction. And I have been trying to make up for my illiteracy right now—in the car [laughs], or on the treadmill—to fill in all these gaps. Which is I why I am listening to Dickens now. I never experienced Dickens before. Imagine that! Sixty-six years old—
RB: I can. I’m very bad in classic literature. Most of my knowledge of Dickens is through books like Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and what other writers tell me about him.
ME: I don’t know if you want to go there, but I can recommend Dickens to you as a mind-blowing experience at every level. Word, phrase, sentence, character, conception. Plotting. Dickens often makes me feel—remember this is my first experience—I’m in love, all right—he makes me feel “why bother writing? It can’t get any better.”
ME: It can’t get any better. And then I think, well, there were a few people in our time who did significant work . . .
RB: Who do you think?
ME: Kafka. Or Beckett. Or Joyce. They weren’t walled in by the enormity of Dickens, There was still further enormity. And so—not that I’m Beckett or Kafka but I won’t quit just because Dickens existed. But he is phenomenal. I would be very interested in what happens with someone of your literary energy after you have read David Copperfield at your age. Or any of them—Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend. They are astounding—nothing short of that.
RB: I do hear people wax euphoric about other writers—Proust, James, Trollope.
ME: I understand.
RB: The idea that someone who is a current practitioner of fiction would be so in love with a writer from the past is obviously interesting to me. Especially as I am so caught up in the contemporary literary world. You call it energy; I call it mania. You see the books coming in and all the subsidiary information and meet the writers and I almost want to take up an honest job that has nothing to do with reading so that I can just read accidentally and serendipitously.
ME: As a writer and also as a musician, I consider myself derierre-garde. The core of my musical love, although I have a lot of experience and attachment to twentieth-century music, is in Brahms. That’s where, as a cellist, my heart is—
RB: Not Bach [thinking of the 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites]?
ME: At another level—spiritually, Bach, clearly. On the other hand, I believe that [Alban Berg’s] Wozzeck is the greatest piece of twentieth-century music. I have a very, very wide ear for not being insulted. I’m into Charles Ives. But nevertheless, my own musical heart commitment is backwards. And my writing is—
RB: What do you think of Mahler?
ME: I absolutely love Mahler. I put my love affair with Mahler into Arnold Hitler.
RB: That’s where I was reminded of him. Since my college days it has been hard to dispute that he is a great composer but other than Das Lied von der Erde I have never been—I always thought his music was overblown. And forget Bruckner. It’s too much for me.
ME: Well, I don’t know. If you can feel that Das Lied, which I think is the greatest Mahler work, and especially Der Abschied at the end of it—if you understand what he is getting at, it seems to me you are available to the rest. There’s a really interesting thing going on, the Vermont Mahler project. A guy named Dan Weiss organized it out in Seattle and then got a job in Vermont and brought the idea to Vermont. The problem with Mahler is that the orchestral forces he demands are so huge. Most people who play in Vermont play in smaller community or university orchestras and so don’t get to play this stuff. So Dan’s idea was to bring together many orchestras to read through all the Mahler symphonies.
ME: And we have been doing that.
RB: Do you have to borrow musicians from Maine for the 8th? The so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”?
ME: We haven’t done the choral symphonies yet but that’s the plan for next year. Start with the 2nd and then do the 3rd and the 8th. Everyone sniggers when you say that. But there are choruses that might do it. Just reading through the symphonies has been such a gift. Even though we haven’t worked up any performances it’s very revealing—because what Mahler writes in the orchestral parts is more than anyone, short of Ives, writes—his directions. He was writing those directions as a conductor. There are not three successive measures that don’t have something in it that is a spiritual guide for what you are playing. Reading the parts with these directions is like playing under Mahler. No other composer writes parts like that. So it’s very, very wonderful. The 7th is famous for being the least-loved symphony and we just played through it twice, six weeks apart, and I have learned a lot about what’s going on in this odd work. It isn’t clear how anyone can deal with the enormous wash of “how’m I ever gonna get into this music?” I sort of feel like that with Bruckner. The thing is to concentrate on one thing and if Das Lied gets to you, then just listen to it, listen to and listen to it. And you’ll understand Mahler. You don’t need nine symphonies. And then do the Kindertotenlieder or something like that. Something related.
RB: Getting back to you, you have four novels unpublished, which—
ME: And this new one . . .
RB: Insect Dreams is the first novel published.
ME: The next novel coming out, Golem Song, was the first one I wrote. And while I was trying to peddle it—what do I know? How do you do this?—
RB: Where were you when you began?
ME: Sitting at my computer—eight years ago. I sent out many, many queries and spent a lot on xeroxing and nobody wanted it. So I started Insect Dreams, and in my later query letters made mention that I was working on that project and that’s what I got a hit on—”I’m not interested in Golem Song, show me Insect Dreams.” I only had a few chapters, but that’s how I found an agent, and then the agent found Blue Hen, and Fred, and that started the ball rolling.
RB: You sent stuff to an agent and that’s how you found an agent?
ME: I queried many, many people. The number of agents that will even bother to answer—agents or editors—it’s so alarmingly rude.
RB: Do you know Gerard Jones’s [by now infamous] website Everyone Who’s Anyone?
RB: Gerard was trying to get published and kept track of his correspondence and then created this directory of publishing people with annotations of his own contacts with various of them. It’s hilarious and daunting.
ME: Fabulous. Jeff Herman’s book is useful that way, too, because of the kinds of questions he asks—Guide to Agents and Editors. He sends out questionnaires with questions like “what would you be doing if you weren’t an agent?” Or, “who is your client from hell?” So you get a picture of who the agents and editors are—as people. I found a publisher for the Bread and Puppet book without an agent. And I just started editing a book on the recent capital punishment case in Vermont. In July we had a guy in Vermont—the first person convicted and sentenced to death in 50 years—as a result of Ashcroft’s—
RB: There isn’t a death penalty in Vermont.
ME: There isn’t. This was a federal prosecution.
RB: Didn’t you publish something about that case?
ME: On my blog.
RB: Somewhere else?
ME: Counterpunch, yeah. We hope to bring out a book on it. The question is will anybody be interested [in publishing]. I don’t have an agent at the moment because I’m pretty well set up with Unbridled Books—at least for my fiction. But as far as fiction goes, I’m sure there is stuff that’s just out there that is just as good as mine, but unlooked at because the market seems to be collapsing for literary fiction.
RB: I don’t think that’s true—maybe viewed though traditional lenses. I just saw something quoted from Wired that more that half of Amazon’s book sales come from—a brick and mortar store will have 130,000 titles. More half than of Amazon’s sales come from beyond those 130,000 titles. More than half—
ME: I find that very interesting. Two things, though—if you are not in those 130,000 then the burden is on the author, way more than otherwise, to sell that book. I’m completely incompetent in that area. I can do readings, but in terms of publicizing myself and getting out there, forget it. I wouldn’t do anything. If I self-published I’d wind up with a box of five hundred books in my basement. But you know, many of the reactions I did get from agents and editors were, “This sounds very interesting. I wish I could take this on, but I am having to shrink my literary fiction list because et cetera, et cetera. People want things that make money—memoirs and self-help and whatever it is. But it ain’t literary fiction. So that’s what I mean by a shrinking market. Most of those 130,000 are not literary fiction.
RB: This might be implicit in what you are saying but I am coming to a point where I want to be less conscious about the business, about those strategies or as Russell Banks pointed out in a chat, concerns about the delivery system. I was actually asked to be on a panel on “How could publishers make books more appealing?” I guess publishing better books was too obvious.
ME: Maybe, maybe that wouldn’t be so attractive.
RB: Right. I just want to read the books and there will always be more than enough of them to read and to talk about, and to experience my life in the context of weaving all that stuff in. The rest of it seems to me as Dagoberto Gilb once said, carpenters “talking about hammers.”
ME: If I hadn’t landed such a nice relationship with a small committed company that seems to be successful, I don’t know that I would continue to do this. But you look at boxes of manuscripts piling up and you think “What am I doing this for?” My something of an answer to that is, “It’s fun. And it takes up my day. It justifies my existence.” So I guess I’ll continue doing it. But I remember when Fred looked at nine hundred pages of Insect Dreams and he emailed me. The very first message was, “Marc we love this book. But we are not going to do it.” “Why?” “Because you are not going to want to make the changes we would like.” So I looked at the manuscripts—I had two, and I had a third nonfiction manuscript, and I looked at the boxes and I am thinking, “Either I am going to make more boxes for these shelves, or this might get published. So let’s see what I have to do.” I said “ok, I’ll make the changes.” I made a mental reservation that if I didn’t like it I didn’t have to sign off on it. For the moment I would follow Fred’s nose and see where things went. But the question “Am I going to get published, or am I just going to make more boxes?” is a real question. And I think you have to face that, if you are going to continue writing. I don’t feel compromised by it, but I do feel it’s a question that needs to be addressed.
RB: In my readings of your novels, I wondered about your affinity for fin de siecle Vienna—Wittgenstein, Mahler, Musil?
ME: My road into anything is the music, and I love the music of that era. It’s very complex, modulatory, emotional, intellectual—it runs the gamut. With that general orientation, you have to bang into Wittgenstein and the whole gang of that time.
RB: He was apparently a good musician.
ME: He was a good clarinetist. His brother [Paul] was the great musician in the family. It was the music that led me naturally in to that arena, and the area is so rich that you could generate millions of books out of it. I always did like Rilke, though.
RB: Is the story apocryphal about Wittgenstein being able to whistle long musical pieces and stop and start at any point?
ME: I don’t know, but I almost can do that. I do know a guy who can whistle the three part fugue at the beginning of the Messiah all by himself. Two out of the corners of his mouth and hum the third. And I heard that myself with my very ears in an alley at Woods Hole.
RB: Whistling is a disappearing art. Toots Thielmann, a jazz guitarist, whistles. Does anyone perform as a whistler?
ME: Well this guy wasn’t virtuoso whistling—this was the ability to whistle two things at the same time and hum the third. He probably hasn’t gone on the Letterman Show.
RB: So Golem Song, then Insect Dreams, then The Education of Arnold Hitler—
ME: And four others.
RB: You have real people in your novels—apropos of nothing, during the Harvard Strike you have the famous Russian-born economist, Alexander Gershenkron, giving a moving speech. Was that a real event?
ME: Oh yes, absolutely.
RB: His grandson Nicholas Dawidoff wrote a wonderful memoir, The Fly Swatter, of him.
ME: That’s a true story and I wanted to throw the whole speech into the book. Those are some of the nine hundred pages that got tossed. I had to write a précis instead. But that was a great historical moment.
RB: And the interludes with Noam Chomsky—
ME; Well, if you are in Cambridge in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and you are interested in language and politics as Arnold is you are bound to bump into Chomsky. And I know he is quite generous with his time. The talk between Chomsky and Arnold is made up, obviously—but I’ve read a lot of Chomsky—
RB: His political stuff or his linguistic stuff?
ME: Both. I have also read detailed descriptions of his classes, his linguistics classes. I feel my portrayal is true to him, the way my Leonard Bernstein is true to Bernstein. I’ve read everything Lenny wrote, seen every video tape. I have listened to probably three-fourths of his recordings. I have a good feel, I think, and tremendous love for what he did in life.
RB: I saw him give the Norton lectures in ‘73 or ‘74.
ME: I watched tapes of those. We disagree about tonality, but those are tremendous documents of soul and intellect and performance and pedagogy. Very amazing. On the other hand there is some horrible stuff about him in the book.
RB: His infamous flirtation with the Black Panthers as in Tom Wolfe’s famous essay.
ME: That, and other things that many of his friends were really dismayed about, his kind of going off the deep end . . .
RB: His profligate homosexuality?
ME: That’s one thing—because it was hurting other people. It’s a really fascinating end—whether you call it tragic or not—to participating in life at such a deep, deep, deep level and at the same time being bathed in fame and privilege. So it was a teaching life even there.
RB: Was Tanglewood his festival?
ME: He certainly was important there. It was Koussevitsky that started it. He was Koussevitsky’s great prodigy and protégé and wore his ring [laughs]. Sometimes people who have written about my books have compared them to—who is that runner who eats chocolates, there is a movie—kind of a simpleton?
RB: Forrest Gump.
ME: Oh, right. I hadn’t read it, but I saw the movie—which I thought was pretty good. But it doesn’t seem to me that my characters bumping in to famous people is motivated in the same way. That is, it’s not a schtick as in Forrest Gump—or in Zelig—which my books have also been compared to. Jeez, even I have met a bunch of famous people. If you are in a certain place at a certain time, doing certain things, or if you already know certain people—like when Gregor [in Insect Dreams] gets involved with Roosevelt as a result of the Insect Sonata, Roosevelt being the governor of New York . . . Well, Gregor is naturally going to meet all the people he subsequently meets. They’re part of FDR’s circle. And similarly when Arnold is in Cambridge in 1970, interested in semantics and politics, he is going to meet Chomsky. Seems inevitable to me, not some arbitrary author schtick.
RB: I guess the operative misunderstanding is that famous people only know famous people and know no ordinary people—so how could Noam Chomsky know Arnold Hitler.
ME: He doesn’t. Arnold knows of him, and lives in his world and goes to him and that’s how you meet famous people if you’re not famous. But it’s true famous people tend to know famous people, to a larger degree than most. Since I have become a writer I have met other writers. You get put on panels or whatever. So all of a sudden I know famous writers. I never knew famous writers before.
RB: We grew up before this massive explosion of celebrity.
ME: They were celebrities for a reason.
RB: Exactly. Now anyone can be celebrity for a few moments. I remember a TV commercial where a woman would come on and say, “Hi I’m Ruhla Lenska.” And I be doing some version of scratching my head—who was this person? Today, I don’t know who any of the people are that are talked about.
ME: Of course, that’s one of the signs of aging. One of my unpublished novels is about a guy who wants to become young again and in fact does. So I was reading a lot on aging and Jean Amery’s book, On Aging, has a whole list of things that go along with it. One of them is not recognizing the current cultural denominations.
RB: Musically, I look at the CDs in stores and I don’t know any of them. So what was it that moved you to write The Education of Arnold Hitler?
ME: Just a stupid idea. “Wouldn’t it be funny if your name was Arnold Hitler?” I just mentioned that to my wife and she said, “yes.” And that was it. And what I had in mind at the time was Arnold Stang. Remember him? There would be this guy who talks like this [Marc imitates the way Stang talked] and his name was Arnold Hitler. And that was the story and I really don’t know what made me take it seriously enough to think about. But the book grew in its own way, and after a hundred pages, I found out what I was doing. I could never write a short story. You have to know what you are doing before you start.
RB: You could never write or wouldn’t try?
ME: I couldn’t write a short story. People say, “You should submit to magazines and get out there.” I don’t have any short stories. I can’t write them. So if they don’t want novel excerpts, forget it. It takes me along time to figure out what’s going on or why I’m doing this or what it is. It’s usually a tiny, isolated idea that starts things. Insect Dreams is a big, big exception to that. That book came to me in its entirety from 3 to 5 in the morning.
RB: So in terms of Arnold, the book starts off in Italy where Arnold’s father maims his future mother.
ME: It starts off in Texas when they are taking Arnold to sign up for kindergarten.
RB: Oh my, I don’t remember that.
ME: While he is standing there watching them burning a cross on the lawn I ask the reader who these people are that have Arnold by the hand. And then we have a little back story of how George Hitler met Anna his mother. But the very first part of the book gathers around the word “nigger.” It’s Arnold’s first word that has something other than denominative meaning. And he has to struggle with this word—and much of the first part of the book is in Texas and doesn’t have to do with Hitler at all but with racism. It was the back story you were thinking about, and I’m glad it struck you as important.
RB: I certainly remember that they were taking him to school and the cross burning and that school was virulently racist. But I don’t know how I got the sequence wrong. Oh well.
ME: The choice of Mansfield, Texas was completely serendipitous. But it turned out to be so rich—
RB: —have you been to Texas?
ME: No. It was all book and Web research. Arnold starts school in 1955. Brown vs. Board of Education is 1954, so right in Mansfield there are nine blacks that try to get into Mansfield High School. And they weren’t accepting them—the demonstration was real. This is a year before Little Rock, and there is all this hullabaloo about Little Rock. But Mansfield spends another eleven years not allowing a black in to the schools. So Mansfield was very, very rich for the book. The other wonderful thing that was serendipitous—do you know the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin?
RB: Sure. They made a movie of it with James Whitmore.
ME: Griffin lived in Mansfield and they ran him out of town as a result of that book. So it was wonderful to come upon Mansfield as a place—
RB: You took Arnold to the Kennedy assassination.
ME: Why not? It could easily be. A class trip. Who were the kids there? They were on class trips. The stuff that I wrote about it is just more—I have seen the films where the cops drop their motorcycles on the grassy knoll and you see the smoke coming from the shots over the grassy knoll fence. It’s such a wonderful example of “this didn’t happen. “But I saw it with my own eyes.” That was a good way to begin Arnold’s distrust for the government. That is a theme that runs through all the Vietnam stuff.
RB: How much was The Education of Arnold Hitler edited out?
ME: Not anywhere near as much as Insect Dreams. By then I was writing with Fred on my shoulder.
RB: So you learned something about concision? Or you just knew what he was going to hector you about?
ME: It was a little of both. But there is somewhat a disagreement over style. For instance, I liked the 900 page Insect Dreams because I like books that go off on tangents.
RB: Give me an example.
ME: Any of Thomas Mann. Or Tristram Shandy. You have essays here and there and so the thrust, the vector of the plot is, not secondary . . . but it is only the spine and out of the spine come the nerves, the vertebral nerves. And then going off into the kidney, for a chapter. [laughs] I love to spend time with an author that wants to tell me unpredictable stuff. On the other hand, I have to take Fred’s wisdom about this because what do I know about what works for anyone but me?
RB: I don’t mind the kind of books you are describing.
ME: It’s not just length. It’s the notion of having excursions from the plot.
RB: Length, for me, suggests that there is not a straight line narrative.
ME: Take a book like Infinite Jest. That is a not a book with a lot of excursions in it.
RB: Right, it’s a book with a lot of footnotes.
ME: And there are three stories that are integrated and they are proceeding along and he is telling each story linearly. Granted you jump from one story to another, but the writing is so brilliant it supports those leaps—I finished that book and wished there was twice as much. So it isn’t so much a question of how many pages but of what’s going on in those pages with respect to the “story.”
RB: Exactly, length shouldn’t matter.
ME: Well, you’re a reader and it isn’t clear—especially with literary fiction that is pushing the envelope for readers—that you can push all that far. And it is more reasonable to write a four- or five-hundred-page novel in terms of people actually reading it and not using it as a doorstop. It’s not my particular reading taste, though.
RB: I thought that The Education of Arnold Hitler didn’t have to end where it did—it could have gone further.
ME: Yes, well you are on to something that’s bigger than you know [laughs].
RB: Which is there is another Arnold Hitler book?
ME: Which is that it didn’t end like that at all, as I was writing it. Right now it ends with a big festive wedding and all the characters being brought together again. I had written a book in which Arnold is burned to death in his bunker and is lying there as a corpse. I took the description right from Hitler’s body in his bunker—and that was the idea with which I wrote most of the book up until the very end where things changed around and you got a wedding. It wasn’t Fred, or anybody, that advised me to do that. My original plan was just too obvious. But the book originally started with a prologue in which Arnold’s corpse is discovered with a gasoline can, and his hands chained behind his back. And the question was, “Well, how did we get there?” The original story started with his childhood and wound up with his corpse. But I felt it was too ironic. Here’s this guy who has been fleeing from other people’s interpretations of his name for his whole life and he gets burned to death by neo-Nazis because he doesn’t live up to his name? Very ironic, Marc. And then Dickens came in, because I was thinking how generous Dickens is to his characters. Even the most villainous have beautiful and surprising facets to them. And I wasn’t being generous to Arnold at all. I was being mean. So I thought, “Why don’t I try a happy ending.” And it was a hell of a lot more fun and I got to bring all the characters together and Lenny Bernstein caters it from Zabar’s. It was way more interesting and in a certain sense far richer, even if perhaps slightly less plausible than the original ending. But you know, the whole thing is only mildly plausible.
RB: Why even mention plausibility when you have in the story, Arnold’s communication with distant grandfather in a very odd way?
ME: Well, there is plausibility and plausibility. What’s plausible is not so much related to external possibilities but rather to what the book is drawing the reader towards.
RB: You live in Burlington. Lots of writers in Vermont—now that you are published do you run in to other writers more?
ME: Definitely. I became a fellow in fiction at Breadloaf because I didn’t understand how one would teach writing. I wanted to experience that. And I did a stint at Wesleyan, too. It’s interesting but it isn’t the way—I probably won’t do much of that. It’s hard for me to critique other people’s work. I don’t like to tell anybody that they haven’t done a good job. It’s not kind. But I met a lot of writers and keep in touch with some.
RB: Do you read trade publications?
ME: I don’t.
RB: You read review periodicals.
ME: Yes, I read them to turn me on to material I don’t know about. Much of my writing comes from serendipitous stuff. I go to a book sale, there’s something for ten cents. I can afford that. Then all of a sudden there it is—a chapter or a novel I hadn’t thought of. That’s also why I read reviews.
RB: You feel informed by the reviews?
ME: Not necessarily about the books but about the subject matter. “Oh, maybe I could use that . . .” Reviews expand my world beyond that of this back country hick I am.
RB: How much of your life is spent in Vermont?
RB: You don’t go anywhere?
ME: No, I hate traveling. [both laugh]
RB: You say you drive a lot—where do you go?
ME: I drive to rehearsals; I drive to Bread and Puppet.
RB: Is Vermont paradise for you?
ME: Well, it’s wonderful. It’s politically interesting and politically not horrible. It’s beautiful and the people are fascinating. One of the most fascinating and best things for me is the participatory nature of Vermont. Which means—I remember once that there wasn’t a recording that I really loved of the Mozart Requiem. So I said, “I’ll do a performance and see what’s in it.”
RB: Of all the recordings not one?
ME: I wanted something that was a little different an I also wanted to learn it as a conductor. So I made some phone calls and before a I knew it, I had a chorus of forty-five people and a chamber orchestra. And I conducted the Mozart Requiem. If I were in New York the notion of wanting to conduct this piece to see what’s in it from a conducting point of view would be outrageous. As it would my playing in any serious groups in New York. I’m not a conservatory musician. I’m not that good. So in New York, or Boston or whatever I would be a consumer whereas in Vermont musically and in terms of theater and politics I am a player.
RB: Louis de Berniere talks about performing music and enjoying as much if not more than writing.
ME: I have a certain kind of stable balance—which is that the music keeps me from being too depressed by the politics and then makes space, psychological nondepressed space, for the writing.
RB: Vermont sounds utopian. You want to build a house, you call up some people and then you build a house.
ME: That’s true and that happens a lot. You have to live outside Burlington, though, where 50% of the roads are dirt. My son is doing this now in Putney, on a mountain. He has cleared land and having people help him, and he’s putting up a house with the lumber he’s cleared. You can still do that. It’s is quite wonderful.
RB: What about Bernie Sanders?
ME: I have a serious critique of him—and I have been on his shit list for years as a critic from the left. Bernie Sanders has great domestic working class politics, consistent and countable on—but in foreign policy, he’s never seen a bomb he doesn’t like. We are out there a lot to his left, and he is very intolerant of people who are not really behind him. My wife and I published a monthly political journal for a while. He doesn’t say hello to us on the street—or to the anti-war vigil he walks past almost every day.
RB: He probably knows all of his constituents.
ME: Well not all, but you do just walk into politicians’ offices when you want to talk to them. It is like that in Vermont.
RB: You have no wanderlust whatsoever?
ME: I do have theoretical wanderlust. Some of the most interesting times in my life have been touring with Bread and Puppet. But I have never been able to just be a tourist. If had something to do, doing it in Germany or Switzerland or Venezuela makes it way more interesting and those experiences stick with me. I like practicing my languages. On the other hand travelling now—and especially airports and people with guns protecting us with hateful eyes—it’s intolerable to me. I don’t like being there at all. My favorite Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Old Oak Tree’s Last Dream,” is all about the nightmare of being uprooted . . .
© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing