Marc Estrin

Marc EstrinMarc 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?

ME: [laughs]

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.

RB: Nothing?

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: No.

RB: [laughs]

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.”

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.

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.”

RB: [laughs]

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.

RB: Wow.

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.

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.”

RB: Do you know Gerard Jones’s [by now infamous]
website Everyone
Who’s Anyone
?

ME: No.

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.

estrin2RB:
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—

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: 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?

ME: 100%.

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

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