Jake Halpern

Jake Halpern 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?

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.

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?

halpernJH:
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.

RB: Okay.

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?

JH: Yes.

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.

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 a number of the characters did.

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…

RB: [laughs]

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?

jake halpernJH:
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.

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.

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

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