Interview: Benjamin Anastas, Author of Too Good to Be True

Ben Anastas author photoBenjamin Anastas has published two well-regarded novels: An Underachiever’s Diary in 1998 and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance in 2001. He then went through a kind of rough patch, and his new tome, Too Good to Be True, accounts for that time. While one is tempted to dismiss Anastas's travails as being commonplace, it does call one to consider George Orwell's insight that everyone's life is different when viewed from the inside. What distinguishes Anastas's tale of woe is not so much what has befallen him but what he takes away from his troubles, as well as his authentic accounting of it. Thomas Mallon says it better than me:

“What might have been a piece of niche self-pity--the boo-hoo travails of another belletristic, still-young Brooklynite--turns out to be a remarkably clear-eyed search for the deeper and more distant causes of a bad patch that extended itself much too far.”

In the conversation that follows, Ben and I extemporize on creative nonfiction, the best interview he has ever done, catastrophe memoirs, low-residency programs, Margot Livesey, Frank Conroy and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Martin Amis's Lionel Asbo, Keith Richards memoir, Life, the recent World Series, and, that's right, more.

Robert Birnbaum: Does your mother still live in Cambridge?

Benjamin Anastas: She lives outside of Northampton. But my father lives in Boston. I love Boston.

RB: Sure. I think living on the Cape would be nice.

BA: Yeah, that would be nice.

RB: That’s when you become mature and can live without the excitement of urban nightlife.

BA: Speaking of which, I had a great afternoon on the Cape with Paul Theroux once. I was interviewing him for a magazine piece, and he was one of the best interviews I have ever done. Most people you interview, they show so little curiosity about you and what the project is—he asked me as many questions as I asked him. It was fantastic.

RB: There has been an expanding proliferation of author interviews—do the 10 people who still read care that much?

BA: (laughs) Yeah, the 10 people read every single one.

RB: I am still pondering the theory that there are always and only 400,000 people who read.

BA: Right, right.

RB: Okay then, we’re talking. Have you read anything that I've done?

BA: Yes.

RB: Good answer. So the transcription is relatively faithful to the actual conversation, except I excise my long-winded opining—which is offered mainly to goose the chat.

BA: I’m happy to have a goose.

RB: Your book prompted me to consider--as a sidebar, I am currently reading Evison’s book, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, in which the protagonist suffers grievous disruption, the death of two children, a divorce—

BA: Novel or a memoir?

RB: Novel. So I am thinking, your book is skillfully written, but as people have imitated and fabricated Holocaust stories your book is of the genre of personal disaster memoirs and opens up the possibility that they don’t have to be true—well-written and dramatic disaster stories. (both laugh) Now you are free to write some more.

BA: Well, I have been thinking about it a lot. Obviously, there were real practical reasons for writing the book. The first of them was that it became impossible for me to write fiction. I felt like my life was just crowding me in from so many different sides, uh, that it became impossible for me to write fiction. And also just because part of the book is about my life in publishing and about how my career sort of cratered, but also there’s the reality that if I had sat down and spent another five years writing a novel, uh, who would have been interested in reading it?

Too Good to Be TrueRB: It appears your agent wasn’t helpful. Did you have the same agent for this book as for your previous work?

BA: No, I have a new agent now. He is a memoirist himself.

RB: Oh, I know who that is.

BA: Bill Clegg. So I really felt like I had no other choice. It was either write this book or stop writing. I figured I would find something else to do. But in thinking about it, it crossed my mind calamity has been a part of memoir before it was known as memoir. Go back to captivity narratives in the 1600s and 1700s. There were people writing about—women writing about being taken captive by Indians and witnessing atrocities and taken by force to Canada. Not only having contact with all these savages but papists—which is worse? Living among savages or among the papists, you know? There was a real prurient interest in what that calamity was like—what living through it was like. So this interest in extreme situations, personal disaster is universal.

RB: Well, at least you avoided the drug-addiction angle or dumpster diving. (both laugh) But you did a bang-up job portraying the undiagnosed disease known as poverty. It’s a real illness, an affliction.

BA: It is. Part of what makes life in America so tough is that poverty is automatically viewed as if you have done something wrong. And I am not saying that I didn’t make some really bad decisions along the way—I take full responsibility for being a financial idiot. But then again, there were certain guarantees that I understood to be in place that were never in place.

RB: Barbara Ehrenreich has already brilliantly written in Nickel and Dimed exposing the myth that if you are poor it's your fault. Needless to say, her story falls on deaf ears if people are disinclined to accept the preponderant evidence.

BA: That’s an interesting thought—Paul Ryan reading Nickel and Dimed.

RB: Instead of Ayn Rand. So you write this book. It's not clear to me—when you realized you wouldn’t be able to write fiction, you decided to write this book?

BA: Well, I didn’t even realize I was writing a book at first. It was literally—I found myself in these desperate straits.

RB: So you are just, at first, journalizing?

BA: Yeah, uh huh.

RB: And when did you realize that it was coherent enough to sustain a book?

BA: It was three or four months in—of course, I am a writer, so in the back of my mind I was probably hoping that I would have a book from the very start, but I didn’t know. I started and abandoned so many book projects over the past 10 years, so I was at a point where I didn’t really trust my instincts anymore. It was three or four months in and I stopped writing longhand and started typing what I had onto the computer and looked at it and realized that there actually might be something there.

RB: Did your girlfriend read it?

BA: She did, at that point.

RB: As a writer, having writer friends and writer contacts, were you close enough to anyone in those circles to show this to?

BA: I did have this new agent, and I showed him the pages, too, and he said, “Keep going, please keep going, this is great.” But I didn’t cast widely in terms of who I showed the book to. It was really just those two.

RB: Has anyone labeled this book as creative nonfiction?

BA: It’s funny, nobody has used that phrase, “creative nonfiction,” but definitely it is.

RB: Well, “creative nonfiction” is a controversial rubric.

BA: There is this assumption, and it seems strange to me, especially with this book, which is so selective in terms of what it tells, and it's so kind of crafted people have this assumption that they are reading life unmediated, and it’s been surprising to me that there hasn’t been more talk in the reviews, more talk about the way it is structured and how crafted it is. It's just sort of: “Here’s a guy who went through a really hard time and this is really raw and it’s going to sear you.”

RB: The raw part is the painfulness and harrowing nature of being poor—not having a safety net. The language isn’t raw, the narrative isn’t raw. That would be part of the debate about creative nonfiction. Writers know this is mediated, but people who are not experienced in constructing narratives of any kind—people who believe what they read in the newspapers—they think that’s the truth.

Particularly with memoir there is the assumption that...the writer is just sawing off a piece of life. An arm or some of the lower leg, getting a nice little hunk and putting it on the page for you.

BA: Uh huh, uh huh.

RB: We don’t train people to look at the world that way.

BA: You’re right. Particularly with memoir there is the assumption that you are just getting—uh, the writer is just sawing off a piece of life. An arm or some of the lower leg, getting a nice little hunk and putting it on the page for you. (laughs) It’ll ooze its blood and its pus. (laughs)

RB: It’s the prose that distinguishes. Your situation is not particularly unique—

BA: No, and I make that clear.

RB: So if it weren’t presented in a manner that made the reader want to find out more, what happens, what you did, what would be the point?

BA: That’s true. If I had written a day-by-day account of life in the fall of 2010 until the spring of 2011, which was when I was working on the book, nobody would want to read it. It would be ridiculous. It would be the same thing over and over again. Like: “This morning I woke up and went online and checked or Mediabistro, and I applied for 10 jobs that I know I am never going to hear back about, and then I sat down…”

RB: It's odd the way people recount their lives. My fourteen-year-old son, when asked to say what he did for a slice of time, will say, “Nothing.” I know what he did—played baseball, went to the Y. Somehow he doesn’t think in terms of what has happened. Maybe it is difficult to retell the highlights?

BA: If there was one real dynamic experience in your son’s life, he would forget everything around it, but he would remember the experience itself. What amazes me is how much my six-year-old son remembers...compared to him I forget—a six-year-old mind is like a trap.

RB: I don’t believe we forget anything.

BA: Really. Where is it? (laughs)

RB: That’s the thing. It’s a question of triggering that recall. You don’t have everything at your fingertips, but you can recall. I regularly recall things that have no apparent connection to the present moment, so there must be some prompt or spark that gets me to the entrance of my high school one fall day in my junior year—something I haven’t thought about in years.

BA: Oh sure, that happens to me, too.

RB: So we didn’t forget.

BA: It happened to me today on Brattle Street. (laughs) I haven’t been back in Harvard Square in a long time.

RB: When was the last time you were there?

BA: Jeez, I don’t know. Café Algiers is still there.

RB: Casablanca is totally different. What’s that small one on Bow Street? Pampas?

BA: I don’t remember. I passed the Star Market and had a memory of spending a whole Saturday in front for Little League with one of those big jars asking people for change.

Ben Anastas RB: How are you now? How’s your life?

BA: Good, good. It’s much better. I am teaching this year at Bennington College, and I am also still teaching one class at Columbia. Also teaching in the low-residency program at Bennington.

RB: Adjunct positions?

BA: Bennington is full time for a year. Columbia is as an adjunct. Yeah, I am going to stop. (laughs)

RB: OK. What was the transition from your job as a fact checker? Writing this book?

BA: I was fact checking up until the school year started in August.

RB: This August.

BA: Bennington offered me this position for the fall and spring semester, so I stopped the fact checking.

RB: What does Sven [Birkerts] do there?

BA: He is the director of the low-residency program.

RB: Those programs are such a great idea.

BA: It’s a great program.

RB: There’s also Warren Wilson and Columbia College in Chicago.

BA: I knew a little about the low-res program before I started teaching there. Having gone to a full-time two-year program I had thought, “Well, low residency, how can they ever build a community?” In some ways the community among students is even stronger. They are together for these really intense times in January and June for 10 days of workshops and classes and readings, and then they go back to their lives. But [then] they have this very intense e-mail correspondence.

RB: With their instructor.

BA: With me, too. But with their classmates also. So you get the best of both worlds.

RB: The real world is in there somewhere.

BA: You don’t leave your life behind—you still live your life—your family, your job.

RB: There was a boom period for writing programs—

BA: It's still booming.

RB: What explains that?

BA: It's gotten harder and harder to get into these programs. There are more and more undergraduate writing workshops and more undergraduate writing majors—which I think is a mistake.

RB: In an era of diminished expectations for everyone, how could someone pursue a writing career knowing that the prospects for making a living are slim? Less than a college philosophy professor.

BA: (laughs) It's true. Um, I don’t know.

RB: Is it the glory and the glamor?

BA: The glory and the glamor is writing itself.

RB: These students are truly dedicated to the art?

BA: Uh, huh, uh huh, yeah. They are, absolutely.

RB: Not the low-res people, the undergrads.

BA: Yeah the undergrads I teach are completely dedicated to it. And they are already as juniors and seniors thinking about applying to graduate school. Which has gotten to be a dicier and dicier proposition—it’s so hard to get into a graduate program. It’s hard even for my best students. There is a strange and abiding prestige, a strange and abiding cultural juice that comes from being a writer. Having seen the reality of it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. (laughs)

RB: It does seem to spark the “And what do you?” conversation more than if I told you I was a physician.

BA: It's true. It’s amazing how many, for example, doctors I have gone to see and met for the first time: “What do you do?” “I’m a writer.” “Oh, well, I have this story I wanted to write.”

RB: Yeah, they all think they are Robin Cook.

There is a strange and abiding prestige, a strange and abiding cultural juice that comes from being a writer. Having seen the reality of it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

BA: It's particular to doctors. (laughs)

RB: Well, they tend to be smart and frequently have an inflated sense of their capabilities. (both laugh) They have the confidence to think they can write.

BA: It doesn’t happen with attorneys as much.

RB: Scott Turow—was John Grisham a lawyer?

BA: Yeah.

RB: There was a Boston attorney, Barry Reed, who wrote The Verdict that was made into a movie with Paul Newman and James Mason. So, when did you complete Too Good To Be True?

BA: It all happened pretty fast—I started writing in the fall of 2010 and finished the first draft in the spring of 2011.

RB: Have you tried to write fiction since?

BA: I actually haven’t. I have been working on the book and doing a lot of teaching. I have been making notes for a novel. I am writing fiction next. For sure. I miss writing fiction.

RB: Did this free you up?

BA: I hope so. We’ll see.

RB: Well, some financial relief.

BA: Not so much that. It certainly helped a little bit. But the most important thing was getting a job. (laughs) To be honest.

RB: Are you fiscally more intelligent?

BA: Definitely. Although there is this basic structural problem—I live in Brooklyn, which is now the second most expensive place to live in the U.S. It's still incredibly rock stupid for me to live there.

RB: Are you still with the woman who was part of your life in the book?

BA: No.

RB: Sorry to hear that.

BA: Didn’t make it.

RB: Your son lives there?

BA: He’s in Brooklyn.

RB: Did you ever get a divorce?

BA: I did get a divorce.

RB: Has that relationship calmed down? More congenial?

BA: It was, until the book came out.

RB: (Laughs heartily)

BA: It's been less congenial lately. (laughs) The funny thing is that I hadn’t told her that I was writing this book. But when it first went out to publishers, she had it immediately—even before I had a book contract.

RB: What is she, an editor?

BA: She edits a literary magazine and teaches.

RB: And The Nominee (BA’s name for his ex-wife’s writer boyfriend)?

BA: Is still writing and teaching at various places.

RB: He’s a character in this story—did he ever communicate with you?

BA: Not really. He responded through my ex-wife and her lawyer. (both laugh)

RB: Dare I ask?

BA: I will say this: my ex-wife actually gave me some really helpful feedback from the first draft of the book that went out to publishers. The structure wasn’t where it needed to be. It was a lot more vindictive, and she said to me, “There are places in this book where I don’t even recognize you. It didn’t seem like you as a writer or as a person.” That really woke me up to what the book needed.

RB: It's commendable that you actually heard her and took her to heart.

BA: Well, it helps that we have this child together. Every time I talk to him or see him I am reminded of my ex-wife’s really great qualities.

RB: Being a participant in that kind of relationship I can attest to it being a challenge. So what are your aspirations at this point?

BA: I want to write this next book. I can’t ever think past the next project. I just want to get back to writing fiction. One of the things that was so helpful about this book was that it helped restore my relationship to writing, which had gotten all out of whack.

RB: Meaning you’re more disciplined? More conscientious? More...?

BA: I'd really lost touch with what I loved about it. There was something about going back to a pen and a notebook—which is how I started writing in the first place. I still remember this—it was the summer before my senior year in high school and I decided I was going to write a short story. I had a yellow legal pad. And I sat down and started writing in longhand, and that was the first piece of fiction I wrote, the first conscious piece of fiction, and the first time I thought, “Maybe I am a writer.” But going back to that way of writing and that relationship to the ideas and the words, the kind of slowness, the inability to go back and correct the way you can on a keyboard—delete, delete, delete, and write again—you can’t do that on a page. That helped restore my original relationship to writing and language itself.

RB: Is writing hard?

BA: Yeah. It’s still hard. It’s harder than ever. Really.

RB: How is it harder than ever?

BA: It's funny, I just saw Margot Livesey last night, who was my first workshop teacher at grad school, and she said, “One of the things that was terrifying about you when you were a grad student was how much you wrote.” I was constantly, constantly writing and producing. But I was also not editing as I should. I was just letting it all flow out.

RB: I agree with the idea that first you get something on the page. When I write longhand, I become more focused on my penmanship than what I am writing.

BA: My penmanship is beyond hope. There is literally no one else alive who can read it. And I can’t even read it half the time. So I have written some things since I finished the book. I have done them on the computer—I haven’t gone back to writing longhand. Although with the novel I may try a combination. What really works the best for me—this might be a little too technical—is back when I had a computer with floppy discs and a dot matrix printer, I would always print out an extra page or roll out an extra page after and would edit what I had printed and fill up that extra page in longhand—to me that was the ideal combination.

RB: Who were some other of your teachers? Can I assume that Margot was an influence?

BA: She was. Mostly in the sense that she was a helpful counterpoint to, say, Frank Conroy’s teaching. (laughs)

RB: You had Frank as a teacher?

BA: I did.

RB: He was a wild man.

BA: He was so weirdly inspiring. I will never forget the first program-wide meeting we had when I first got there—my second or third day there. He got up in front of all of us and—he kind of had the shakes—even then before he got really sick, he was a ruin of a man. He had really paid for his commitment to literature. Those workshops were really contentious. I was 22 years old when I was there. Much too young to be in grad school. Most of the other students were adults—early 30s. They had traveled and seen the world and had had jobs and done things that I had never done. It seemed to me that they had much more authority than I had. But also because they had been out in the world, this was their two years, their chance to make it. So there was a real viciousness about the way the workshop ran. Which was very hard to handle. Margot was a nice counterpoint to that. She didn’t abide that in her classroom and didn’t let it happen. Where Frank really encouraged it.

RB: Who do you read for inspiration?

BA: I read all the time. I have been trying to read more this year—I got out of the habit, being a parent.

RB: New stuff or old?

BA: A combination. Also, I read a lot for teaching. I am teaching a travel-writing course. So I have been steeped in my favorite travel books. Yesterday was a great day because I got to teach Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia for the first time. I love revisiting his books.

RB: I recall someone saying that all writing is travel writing.

BA: I think that’s true. I go back to my favorite writers—the last new novel I read was Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo. But I have a big stack of books by my bedside that I need to attack.

RB: I try to avoid stacking—at some point they become intimidating.

BA: I liked Lionel Asbo. It has plot flaws and things like that, but I liked it.

RB: I found it to be the most readable of his novels since The Information.

BA: What about The Pregnant Widow? You should read it—it’s so good. I interviewed him once; it's intimidating what a good talker he was. I felt like, “What’s wrong with me that I am such a bad talker?” (laughs)

RB: I wonder if it’s a British trait. There was also Hitchens. I can’t think of any Americans like them. Maybe Gore Vidal. A wide general knowledge and spectacularly original way of looking at things.

BA: And just always the gift for the memorable phrase—a way of summing things up.

RB: When I spoke with him recently, he asserted, “The key to reviewing is in the quotes.” Without them you have no thesis.

BA: That’s true.

Publishing with Amazon was a bit of a gamble that I am really happy that I made.

RB: Was the level of competition at Iowa different than elsewhere?

BA: The difference—I’m not sure how Iowa is now. It's probably less competitive, but the different programs consciously did more to discourage what is natural in grad students—the backbiting, the sniping, the competition. Iowa encouraged it in the sense that we knew that we were all ranked and we could tell where everybody was based on what kind of financial aid job they had. I knew I was lower third L. That was your first year, and you were doing everything possible to move up the ladder for your second year. That meant that somebody else had to be knocked off. (laughs) So it was a bloodsport.

RB: And now you live in Brooklyn with a heavy concentration of writers. Do you have friends that are writers?

BA: Some.

RB: What is that like at this point? No more competition?

BA: I don’t feel it. Again, it’s just natural. You walk into a bookstore, you want to see your book there—you don’t want to see everybody else’s. You are constantly aware of where you stand just in terms of who has the best teaching jobs, who has the best placement in the book stores, whose books are being talked about the most. I found that way of being in the world so incredibly unproductive and so consumingly numb I have managed to find a way not to be like that.

RB: I found your description of one character’s behavior toward you as “peeing on your leg, twice” charming. Another writer—was that unusual?

BA: (laughs) The Nominee was unusually open about it. Part of what I write about in the book was that I wasn’t protecting my territory.

RB: That kind of behavior makes me wonder about your judgment that writing students are in it for the art.

BA: Oh, I am not sure that they are necessarily in it for the art.

RB: What then?

BA: They are in it—the art as a means to something. They are in it—I went to this James Wood reading/lecture at Columbia and they let one of the students do the introduction. And it was incredible—the way he talked about Ben Marcus, who runs the program. He referred to him as a rock star. And then he referred to Wood as a rock star. There is this sort of star system. The students can be very invested in that.

RB: Well, Martin Amis used to be referred to as the Mick Jagger of literature.

BA: Right. He has the velvet suits to prove it.

RB: I always wondered why Jagger wasn’t referred to as the Martin Amis of rock n' roll?

BA: (laughs) They had no Kingsley. By the way, did you read the Keith Richards book?

RB: No.

BA: It’s really good.

RB: I have only read a couple of music books—Hadju on Billy Strayhorn, Crystal Zevon’s bio of Warren, Peter Guralnick on Sam Cooke, and Arthur Kempton on Rhythm and Blues. There seems to be a plethora of musician autobiographies right now.

BA: They are all trying copy the example [of Richard’s Life]. So I apologize for giving the impression that students are all in it for the art of it. That’s not necessarily the case.

RB: I think of all the snarkiness that seemed to prevail in the last few years. I think of the reaction to Jonathan Safran Foer and his early success. Eggers also was a target of antipathy for reasons not clear to me—especially given the good things he has done.

BA: I know—think of what he has built. He could have just taken the money and run.

RB: The network of 826s is amazing.

BA: That’s true. My friend Ethan Nosowsky, who published my second novel, is now running McSweeney’s press.

RB: He was at Graywolf?

BA: He was. Now he is at McSweeney’s, their editorial director. It’s amazing to me that they seem to be in it for the long haul.

RB: Eggers did a wonderful magazine called Might back in the mid '90s.

BA: What’s amazing is if you look at a copy of Time Magazine now, it kind of looks like Might. A lot of what they did was really influential.

RB: I suppose one could draw a line to The Onion and the Stewart/Colbert axis of satire. Without them, American media especially would be really tiresome. The docility of today’s TV audience is discouraging.

BA: Yeah, it's just receiving, receiving, receiving.

RB: My late father-in-law was amusing because he frequently yelled at the TV—he was vexed by the commentary and coverage. (laughs) A sign of life. I pretty much just watch sports. Last night's World Series game makes it worthwhile.

BA: I missed it. It’s nice to see these smaller franchises in the World Series.

RB: They seem to have personality. I was fascinated by Barry Zito (SF Giants pitcher). He was sitting on the bench apparently having a conversation with himself.

BA: Even more than Mark Fydrich?

RB: Different—on the mound he is stoic and focused. Fixes his cap, looks in at the catcher. And he has a graceful delivery that rarely tops 86 mph.

BA: It’s wonderful that he has found himself again.

RB: Anyway, what’s next for you? How extensive is your flacking tour?

BA: Not that extensive—publishing with Amazon was a bit of a gamble that I am really happy that I made. Also, because there is so much bad feeling out there about Amazon, there aren’t a lot of bookstores that will actually carry the books.

RB: Is that why there is disguised distribution by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt?

BA: Part of the reason—it’s the imprint New Harvest. They smartly used HMH for the production.

RB: Who is an editor there?

BA: Ed Park—the great Ed Park.

RB: Young guy—who else?

BA: Carmen Johnson, and the editorial director is Julia Cheiffetz, who had actually published Ed Park’s novel. There’s a small editorial team. It’s been great to work with them. How often do you get to work with another novelist on your book? Ed’s a great editor. And also all the experience he had working at The Believer. But it has meant that I can’t go from bookstore to bookstore—the bookstores won’t have me in. Tonight I am going to Gloucester for this great organization called the Gloucester Writers Center, which is in Charles Olson’s old house.

RB: Wow, bookstores won’t carry the book…

BA: A lot of independents just won’t carry the book. It’s not in the Harvard Coop.

RB: That’s silly.

BA: Barnes and Noble won’t carry it. They’ll sell it online. That’s how much they hate Amazon.

RB: In part, the book business has itself to blame.

BA: The publishers do for sure.

RB: Also, the great proliferation of small presses and imprints is greatly aided by Amazon. Well, it's possible in a few years you’ll pass this way again—thank you.

BA: Thanks a lot. It’s been fun.

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