Writer Nicholas Dawidoff is a graduate of Harvard University and has been a Guggenheim Fellow and, very recently, a Berlin Prize Fellow of the American Academy. Early in his career he worked at Sports Illustrated, and he is now a regular contributor to a number of magazines including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and The American Scholar. Dawidoff has authored The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg and In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. His two latest books are Baseball: A Literary Anthology, which he edited for the Library Of America, and The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World.
Nicholas Dawidoff’s grandfather, Alexander Gershenkron, came to the United States in 1939, twice having been displaced from his home by political upheavals; first from his native Russia and the second time from his adopted home of Vienna. After a brief stint in California and with the US Government in Washington DC, Gershenkron was recruited by Harvard University and as an economic historian became a legendary scholar at that institution. As Dawidoff states in what follows, “I hoped that people that would read this [book] would look at the way he lived his life and the way he thought about life and it would be a source of examination for them too. That’s certainly what my grandfather got out of books and what I get out of books. It’s not just entertainment, it’s also really useful.”
It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us. Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but still I reach out to them.
-Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
Robert Birnbaum: Why did you call this book The Fly Swatter?
Nicholas Dawidoff: In the prologue there is a scene in which I describe my grandfather out on the screened-in porch of his summer house in New Hampshire. And I talk about his approach to killing flies. He had a variety of different fly swatters. They all are different colors, but otherwise they are identical. My grandfather gave different entomocidal capacities and qualities to these different fly swatters. In other words, one was better for wasps…
RB: Is that a recognized word?
ND: Entomocidal? I don’t know, that’s what I used. Insectocidal? So, one was better for wasps. One was better for bumblebees. I love that story because it’s typical of him. What was so appealing about my grandfather is that he was someone who took the ordinary events in life and made them his own by making them much more dramatic, much more colorful, much more vivid than they otherwise would be. That’s why it was so exciting to be around him. Everything you did with him was an opportunity for imaginative exploration. That is one of his greatest and most unusual qualities. On a broader level, the story of my grandfather’s life is a story of someone—to put it mildly—who is very assertive, who early in his life had many setbacks. If you have to flee two different countries by the time you are a man in your early 30’s you are someone who responds either by—well, I don’t know how most people respond—but my grandfather responded by being very aggressive. He used adversity almost as an opportunity. This is true in his personal life. It’s also true in his most famous economic theory. A theory that suggests that there are real advantages to backwardness—this is a theory of industrial development. Countries which develop later often have advantages. He was interested in people who are put in adversarial situations and what they would do with it. Again that strikes me as an opportunity for aggressiveness. Finally, my grandfather loved baseball and fly swatters in baseball are the great hitters. That’s what they used to call Babe Ruth. The Great Fly Swatter. My grandfather was so fond of baseball, and one of the things he liked about it was that it was a game so rich in entomology.
RB: Your choice of title seems very personal. Given your grandfather’s stature, his forceful personality, with a title so personal are you reaching out to a readership?
ND: Oh, I don’t know. There is always much discussion with titles. My editor and I felt of all the many titles that I thought of—we just wanted a title that seemed lively and vivid. I think it is that. I think maybe what you are saying is that it is a little bit elusive as to exactly what it means.
RB: Well, it is quickly explained in the book.
ND: Sure. I think it need not be anything more than enticing. What does Angela’s Ashes mean? What does The Corrections mean?
RB: What were some of the other titles?
ND: The Advantages of Backwardness. The Gershenkron Effect. At one point there was the dreaded Hallmark title of The Grandfather Stories. I thought of calling it just Shura, which was his nickname. Many of them [discarded titles] are lying in ditches all across the states in which I travel.
RB: The Norman Maclean epigram that opens The Fly Swatter comes from his book A River Runs Through It, which you include on a list of books you indicate helped you in writing this book. How did it help?
ND: There are several books which are books about family which I looked to again and again as I was writing this book. Every book on that list of sources helped me in some significant way. I read a great many books about family, both novels and other writers who have written about their own families as I was writing this book, because I wanted to think hard about how to do it. The most obvious problem in writing about family is that there is no inherent interest in my grandfather. That’s not exactly true because he was a prominent academic. But that still makes for a fairly small readership. The people who knew my grandfather respected him immensely. To say that my grandfather is a famous person is pushing it. He’s a prominent person in miniature. I conceived of my book as book about family, a personal book, something that was halfway between biography and memoir. So I called it a biographical memoir. It’s really a reconstruction of a life. I knew him as my grandfather, it’s the reconstruction of Alexander Gershenkron. I was curious who he was and everybody I knew who knew him was curious too. It was a recurrent theme in meeting people after he died. We’d start to talk and it would quickly evolve into lots of questions. The most difficult thing was how to structure such a book—it’s not interesting to me to write a book that has a linear chronological narrative. That certainly wasn’t going to be true here. I felt that I had different responsibilities than somebody did who might be writing about Mozart or John Adams. Anybody who is writing about those people has certain biographical obligations that come with notoriety. There are a series of events that have to be explored in significant detail. Usually there is a skeleton of a life that has to be fleshed out. I didn’t feel that way about my grandfather. What was significant about him is that he lived for other people as some sort of model. His was almost an emblematic life. That’s the way he lived and that’s who he wanted to be. I thought that’s who he should be as a book. It should be about a series of ideas even as it was a story of a man’s life. The books that I kept reading and rereading were three: One is Calvin Trillin’s Messages From My Father, another is Ian Frazier’s wonderful book Family. When you talk about the possibility of what you can do with family and a life, that book tells you that you can really do anything. Finally, most useful to me, a book that I read year after year, is Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. It’s called a novella, but it’s really a thinly disguised family story. He changes some of the details, and he was very honorable person, so he called it a novella. But it is truly, for the most part, the story of his life.
RB: The Maclean epigram doesn’t quite fit for me because in the end your grandfather doesn’t seem to have eluded you. You came to a clear reconstruction of his life.
ND: Well, thanks. This was really my last chance. The second part of that phrase is “still I reach out to them.” I thought of it as an active epigram. It expressed both the experience of going and looking for him, the experience of living with him and the experience of getting to know him as well as I could. The same is true for Norman Maclean. His brother may have eluded him in life. But, retrospectively, anybody who reads that book has a fairly good understanding of the Maclean family. And they don’t. I mean, there is so much about my grandfather that’s forever mysterious. Things about him that I will never know. But, I think I know him as well as I could know him. I don’t mean to be ambiguous; I just think that’s the nature of knowing. There is a funny story in the book about an Oxford don who comes to Harvard, and he is talking about historiography, and he eventually says that there is no such thing as history because there are only the details we know and scattered somewhat arbitrary details. So what do we really know? It’s a post-modern idea of history. You could also say that about a life.
RB: You also say in the book that you couldn’t tell if he was kidding.
ND: Right. Well, they couldn’t tell. All these Harvard professors listening to this Oxford professor and they have no idea if he is kidding.
RB: I am curious about the family members who helped you. I can’t remember if you directly quote your mother.
ND: Oh yes, I do. My mother knows more about my grandfather than just about anybody. One of the quotes that I like the best is a long one and it talks about his perception about what was going to happen to her perception of his perception of what was going to happen to politics in the US in the wake of the shift to the hard left in the ’60s. And she says, “My father was a real liberal, but he was concerned about what was going to happen.”
RB: He predicted the Reagan Revolution. What about your cousin's contributions to the story?
ND: I think anybody in the family would have to say that of the grandchildren, I knew him the best. I spent the most time with him, and I needed him the most because of life with my own father I reached out to him. The stories that my cousin, Jonathan, told me were stories that were familiar to me also.
RB: I assume that you wouldn’t write a book that disturbs your mother. Can you elaborate on her feelings towards this book?
ND: I hoped not to disturb my mother, but I didn’t know. Paul Samuelson, my grandfather’s friend, the great economist, said to me as I was beginning this project, “You know, Nicky, you do this and by the time you are done you are really going to have problems with your mother. You are really going to upset her because your grandfather is not quite who you think he was.” Which was frightening in one respect because I didn’t want a great divisiveness with my mother. On the other hand, it was exciting because while I adored my grandfather as his grandson, as a writer I want my grandfather to be as complicated and vivid and difficult as possible. I wanted him to be a good character. I had no aspirations to write a panegyric. So I wrote it and my mother was incredibly helpful all the way along. I was astonished. She answered every question anytime I asked her. We talked at great length and when she thought of things she would write me letters. When I showed it to her she really liked it. It is by no means an entirely flattering portrait. Something that is true of my grandfather is also true of my mother as well. They both really believed in truth. My mother is a great reader, as my grandfather was. And they know that real people are not perfect. They have edges and complications.
RB: As you say, this is a story about family. What did you think the reader would take away from The Fly Swatter?
ND: I hoped that the reader would think that it was a good story. That was something that I thought about a lot over the years as I was working on it. I had this conception of it. It’s like that chimney over there [points across the street] I can see it up there. But how am I going to get there because everything I have is the grain of a such a wonderful story, but how will I make it so that it is that? And when I finished the first time, it wasn’t the story I wanted it to be. I showed it to no one and started over and I rewrote the whole book. I also hoped that in some way or another that some of the messages from my grandfather’s life would continue to serve him even in death. What was so unusual about him was that he was someone who really thought deeply about how to live life. I hoped that people that would read this would look at the way he lived his life and the way he thought about life and it would be a source of examination for them too. That’s certainly what my grandfather got out of books and what I get out of books. It’s not just entertainment, it’s also really useful.
RB: Who is the reader that is going to read this kind of book?
ND: I hoped that it would be a reader who wanted to be engaged by a compelling person and a good story. I didn’t have rarified aspirations for a readership. It’s an odd thing, but I don’t think about any particular reader. There is no constituency that I am thinking of. I have very democratic hopes for my readership. I think that my grandfather was an unusual and interesting American life and I hoped that a lot of people would think that it was unusual and interesting themselves. I’ve never been attracted to writing about famous people. I did it once in my book on country music. In one way or another country music never really got its due. Blues and jazz are taken so seriously as great forms of American music while country music is seen as something kitschy or tacky. I thought the great country musicians were making music that was just as profound. To me, I think Hank Williams is ever bit a genius as Cole Porter. But by and large, I am more interested in writing about what I call “real life” characters. People who are truly interesting people but not well-known. And there are selfish reasons for that. One of the selfish reasons is that they [the characters] are mine. But also I am not so interested in fame. Maybe it’s the times that I am living in. There is something about fame that seems to dull people down.
RB: This is a very well-written book about a very compelling individual, telling a much bigger story, but I have a lot of trouble seeing this as a book that will be adopted by a lot of people in a culture that is currently lionizing Ozzy Osbourne. And I don’t think they exist side by side, if that’s what you are going to say…
ND: I’m more optimistic than you are. I am not talking about book sales. I am more optimistic about the culture. What makes me happy is to see the success of The Corrections. Because it is a really serious book, really grappling with significant and complex themes in its time and lots of people are getting a lot out of it. It’s not selling so many copies just because it’s a good story or just because it’s well-told, although it is both. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a serious book too.
RB: This is, of course, cynical, but there is the phenomenon of the bestseller that isn’t read. I wonder how many of the 800-900 thousand Franzen books have been read?
ND: That may be true but I can’t do anything about that. I’m just trying to write the best possible book I can. I am trying to write books that feel to me personally ambitious and that are interesting enough to keep me engaged over the many years that it takes to do it right. This book took 5 1/2 years, start to finish. It took 5 1/2 years and that’s a fairly good percentage of a person’s life. If you are going to engage in something that takes that long, you better be really sure that it interests you. Selfishly, I don’t think I could choose a topic that I didn’t believe in and didn’t think was nuanced and subtle enough to last over that time. Do I think this book is going to be a runaway bestseller or even sell as well as my first book, the story of Moe Berg, did? I doubt it. But how do I know? I can only just put it out there. I mean, look at A Beautiful Mind. There is the same dilemma in country music, the good stuff isn’t necessarily the stuff that sells. We are in a culture that bifurcates between what’s pop and what stays. A lot of what stays, stays for a long time. I know what my publisher says. They think that this is a book that will be around for a long time, and it might not have an enormous readership at any one time, but they hope that it will have a steady readership.
RB: You are lucky to have a publisher that takes that position. Most publishers give their releases a small window for proving themselves. Early in your book there is a place where Shura suffers a “vexation.” This is not a common usage. Did you give some thought to this phrasing?
ND: I think the thing is, that part of the fun of writing books is experimenting with language. Although I don’t think anyone would call me a pyrotechnic writer. I try and put a lot in each sentence and spend a lot of time with each sentence. I want each sentence to sound like me. My grandfather’s hatred of cliches is definitely my hatred of cliches. I really like to play with language. I really like to see what language can do, and I like to be precise. I really want words to be active and be somehow the spirit of language to represent the spirit of the subject. That’s not in any way unique to me, but it’s something I think a lot about and I sweat a lot over. Each sentence I write, it seems to me I write more slowly. This is not because I am trying to be more complex. I see more and more potential for language. Maybe as you husband and compress all the potential into whatever you are going to make it just takes longer.
RB: Fiction writers will talk about their intentions towards transparency, that the reader is not noticing the writing while reading the work. In your book I found myself frequently pausing to note what you did. For example when you are describing your grandfather’s office, you use the phrase, “a turmoil of books.”
ND: Not only did I want the books to be everywhere, but I wanted them to be alive and active because were an active force in my grandfather’s life. They weren’t just things that he read. They were things he engaged with. That is one of the secret messages in his life. This was somebody who couldn’t confide in other people. Instead, he really did have an active and lively relationship with literary characters. So when I was thinking about his office and his studies I wanted the books there to be in disarray, and I wanted them to be almost breathing and moving around, and have electricity to them.
RB: You quote The Uses of Adversity, the unpublished memoir of your grandfather, “But the annals of a man’s happiness are short and simple, much more to talk about and much less memorable than the joys of childhood and the confusion and heartache of adolescence.” [p 81] This is the last entry. When was the memoir written?
ND: It’s not exactly clear because it’s not dated. It’s a manuscript. I think it was written in the early ‘60s.
RB: You quote it at point where he has just met his wife-to-be…
ND: Right. The memoir only covers the time in his life from early childhood until he successfully romances my grandmother. But then it stops and there is no more of it.
RB: Something else I am not clear on. Was your grandfather Jewish?
ND: His father was Jewish. His mother was Russian Orthodox. He was essentially a Christian.
RB: That is clear in the book. But I saw a reference to an article you published in American Scholar where you visit Isiah Berlin and they refer to both your grandfather and Berlin as Jewish immigrants from Russia.
ND: That’s not accurate. That’s accurate by some Nazi definition. My grandfather had to leave Austria because his father was Jewish. But it’s just as true that he was part of the opposition and he was a Socialist and he was stateless and many other things that could get you killed at that time in Austrian history.
RB: In talking about your grandfather’s time at Harvard you state that Harvard allowed him to be who he was, to be himself.
ND: My grandfather was really good at conceiving of communities. He conceived of Harvard as an ideal academic community. He was someone who, anything he lent himself to, it had to be the best. So America became the greatest country there ever was. The Democratic Party was the greatest political party there ever was. The greatest institution in the United States was Harvard University. The most wonderful part was…
RB: …the economics department.
ND: And within the economics department the best thing to be was an economic historian. It was an incredibly romantic way to go through life and it meant that in the late '60s he became incredibly disappointed when he became an outcast in that community. For quite a while in the ’50s and early ‘60s he was someone for whom Harvard really worked. He could become someone whom within that huge collection of prominent and shimmering intellectuals, he was different. He was the Harvard professor who knew the most. He was this unusual and exotic guy who had all this knowledge. Sitting at the Long Table [at Harvard] there are these people arrayed and Paul Samuelson says, if you are sitting at a round table, wherever Gershenhron was sitting, was the head of the table. For that kind of knowledge to be appreciated you have to have people who are up to it and can engage it. That was true at Harvard.
RB: You point out the motivation for buying his New Hampshire house was because somebody said to him, “You are an economist and you are renting…”
ND: He hated debt. Upon deciding to buy this property he went and taught summer school and worked like a madman to make money so he could pay off his mortgage really quickly.
RB: And yet though he was frequently asked, he wouldn’t write articles for popular magazines?
ND: No. Most important to him was the ethical code of what it meant to be a scholar. And part of being a scholar meant that you participated in a scholarly community. As some of his friends and students cracked, “The more obscure the publication, the better.” He liked being a famous person who was also an obscure person. He liked that sort of dynamic, that tension of being both things. Prominent but also obscure. Witty and funny but also harsh. He liked to live with tensions of personality.
RB: A man of contradictions. But who isn’t?
ND: Exactly. That’s definitely true, but what’s different is that some people’s contradictions are more vivid than other people’s. And that’s what makes my grandfather a real-life character. Every thing about him was so vivid. The contradictions are vivid, his personality is vivid. His life is vivid.
RB: How would he fit into Harvard now?
ND: Well, I’m not there now. Generally speaking—and this is just my sense—American universities have become more specialized. Something my grandfather would have resisted. Also, Harvard has always been an ambitious place full of ambitious people, it strikes me now that it is more professional than it ever was. It’s like the comparison between the OSS and the CIA. At one point it was a more freewheeling place. Just as the OSS was a more freewheeling intelligence agency. That’s not to say that it was entirely freewheeling. The CIA is a real bureaucracy and while Harvard to some degree is a bureaucracy, I’d be talking out of my hat if I said how much. My sense of it while I was there was that it was a much more professional place. People have so many responsibilities and obligations they have less time for leisurely thinking.
RB: I wasn’t looking so much for an evaluation of Harvard. Your grandfather comes across as a real original. I wondered if you weren’t giving the institution too much credit for what he was.
ND: I’m not saying that it’s only possible at Harvard. I’m saying at that time at Harvard, for him, Harvard was really the best. At that time until now Harvard is a place that has the ability to hire people that are really, really good at what they do. And surrounded by all these really talented people, it was an opportunity for my grandfather to excel. He liked that, he liked that he was surrounded by all these intelligent, eminent people for whom he could perform.
RB: Did he read more than 5000 books in his life?
ND: I think it’s possible, but if you do the math, maybe not. It’s really discouraging when I sit down and think about it. I’m a pretty fast reader—a faster reader than he was—and I don’t know how many books I’ve read.
RB: Couldn’t he have read more than 150 books a year from his childhood on? Especially a man who would read on a street corner, go to bathroom and restaurants…
ND: That’s all true. But he was also teaching. He was writing. He was reading periodicals. This is what he said…
RB:…a man who had the ambition to read the 3 million volumes in the Widener Library. (laughs)
ND: Nobody’s read—this is just a joke.
RB: Who says there are 3 million volumes?
ND: I’ve seen various different claims in various things that the library publishes. And, of course, it’s changing everyday. Oscar Handlin could tell you today how many books they have. It’s a liquid number.
RB: I take it that since you did at least one rewrite of this book, that you are happy with this published version, that you have attained what you set out to attain?
ND: Yes, I think so. I did the best I could.
RB: When did you first think you wanted to write this book?
ND: That’s a great question because it was always sort of latent. I wanted to know more about my grandfather. It’s a funny thing. My evolution in terms of how I think about writing books—it probably sounds absurd, but for quite a while I had this idea that in writing books that it wasn’t good enough just to write a book but you had to write a really good book. Not everybody could write a really good book, and who was I to say I could write a really good book? How did I know if I could do it? In writing my first book, about Moe Berg, there was this constant—it was lots of fun and I was thoroughly engaged in doing it—I was also wondering all along, “Do I deserve to be doing this?” Everybody who writes books, I assume, writes the best book they can write but I always feel—it’s kind of personal and sounds convoluted—I always feel as though there is a book out there that the material can be. And it’s up to me to some how get it there. I can see it in conception, it’s like a star out there. It’s as though the whole thing is sitting there in my mind, both what it will be and what it is in all it’s fragments and how can I make the fragments better and will I be successful doing it. And I think with this book, yes.
RB: Let me come from another angle. If you started to write this book today would it be the same book?
ND: I don’t know. I have no idea. I didn’t really completely answer your previous question. The way I actually began to write about this book was in two ways. First, I showed my grandfather’s memoir to my editor. He didn’t think it was publishable and he said, “You should think about writing about your grandfather sometime.” This was very exciting news for me. When Moe Berg was published—it’s also an exotic unusual secretive, obscure person with many conflicting personal qualities—I began hearing from a lot of my grandfather’s former students, saying to me, “You think Moe Berg’s an interesting guy. You should check out your grandfather.” When I reported this to my editor, he was even more excited and he said I could do it. That felt like I had permission. I don’t know why it was that I felt like I had to have permission but I did. I really wanted him to be behind me when I was doing this.
RB: Is that him saying, “If you write it, we’ll publish it”?
ND: He would hope to publish it. I wouldn’t want him to publish something he didn’t think was good. But I feel like at some point or another—I don’t know how long it will take, that if we agree that I’m going to do something I’m going to make it good enough. Once I commit to a book—it takes me a long time to commit to my subject—once I commit I am going to stay with it until it is publishable. As well as I can, among other things that’s how I pay the rent.
RB: Why don’t you write fiction?
ND: I don’t say that I won’t write fiction—again, this is personal—I grew up in a very poor family. I grew up with a father who didn’t support his children and I had a very strong sense that in becoming a writer it was a precarious existence. And I wanted to always be someone who earned a living. If I was going to write books—I knew that in writing books if I was going to be paid anything for these books—they would have to be non-fiction. That’s the nature of the business. I had always written journalism from the time that I was a kid. I was writing for school newspapers from 1st grade on. I was the editor of my high school paper. I was an editor on both college newspapers. I learned to tell stories as a teller of true stories. This book especially could well have been in an earlier generation a work of fiction. Somebody like Ian Frazier telling the true stories that he tells, he is using many, many of the narrative elements familiar to fiction writers. I know that he feels more comfortable telling true stories. That’s what, he would say, unleashes his imagination. For me, I wouldn’t rule it out. So far this has been fun. I’ve been able to support myself. It’s been interesting. I care very much about the people and the places I’ve been writing about. But I’m interested mostly in writing about characters. Obviously, fiction is all about character as far as I'm concerned.
RB: Since Moe Berg keeps coming up, is the movie going to be made?
ND: I don’t know, they just keep getting horrible screenplay after horrible screenplay. George Clooney really wanted to make it. And that would be great.
RB: Sure, the paperback would have his picture on the cover like Paul Newman on the cover of Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool.
ND: I would be able to have a house in which I had an office. (both laugh) I would be able to hang up all my clothes.
RB: Were you putting together the baseball anthology while you wrote The Fly Swatter?
ND: Yes. The anthology only took a year, start to finish. The way the anthology worked was I wrote to everybody I could think of and asked them for suggestions for things that could be included. As things came in I read them. I had never done that before, had two big projects simultaneously. The anthology I kept for mornings and weekends and my grandfather the rest of the time. By that time I was rewriting my grandfather’s story, six hours a day on it was plenty. It was actually good for it to have something else to do. It was a little bit of a release.
RB: How did the project come to you?
ND: The Library of America just came to me. They interviewed me twice.
RB: You are a big baseball fan.
ND: My first job, I wrote baseball for Sports Illustrated. Moe Berg is to some degree a baseball book. Right now, I seem to be writing a spring and a fall op-ed for the New York Times each year in which I comment on baseball and every once in a while I write a piece for the New York Times Magazine on baseball. I mean, I love baseball, I don’t want to be a baseball writer all the time, but I am really interested in baseball. Baseball compared to other sports, they don’t compare with the richness of writing.
RB: How did you edit the baseball anthology?
ND: How did we cut it down? It was hell. It could very easily have been two volumes. In the end, there are definitely things that deserve to be in any anthology which aren’t in there. I don’t apologize for it because I made the book I could make. That’s what makes it such a good anthology. It’s not all of it, it’s just a lot of it.
RB: You graduated college and went to Thailand?
ND: I went to work for Sports Illustrated and then I got this fellowship and then I went to live in Thailand for a year. Then I went back to Sports Illustrated, briefly. Then Dan Frank and Pantheon offered me my first book contract. I wanted to write books. That’s what I wanted to do with my life and I thought if I stay at Sports Illustrated I’m only going to be able to write sports books. I even felt some level of reproach because it’s such a great job for people who love it and I didn’t love it. I thought, "I can do this, but I am taking the place of somebody who would really love this." I thought I would have to go to work for the New York Times or a publication like that before I would be allowed to write books about just anything. And then I got offered a two-book contract.
RB: You do still manage to have pieces in The New Yorker and other smart magazines.
ND: Yes. I have been lucky so far. Between magazine, grants and Moe Berg sold pretty well. All those things—I don’t have a luxurious life but I am able to afford my writing habit.
RB: What is the Berlin Prize?
ND: Do know the American Academy in Rome?
ND: It is a more recently created version of that where a small number of people [artists and writers] live in this big mansion outside Berlin.
RB: What does the Berlin Prize require of you?
ND: The only requirement is that you come there and you work. You have to give a public presentation. I also had to give a private presentation, just to the other fellows in which I talked about my work for two hours. And you have to participate in the community. There are about ten meals a week and you are really supposed to come to them and all Academy events. It’s hoped that in one way or another you will participate in the intellectual life of Germany, if there is some way that you can. I, for example, was part of two forums. One on globalization and literature and the other was about whether or not America has a real culture? A very German question. The Germans on the panel turned out to be more enthusiastic about American culture than even I was.
RB: Before Ozzy Osbourne or after?
ND: I’ve never had a TV, so I don’t know about this Ozzy stuff...
RB: It doesn’t filter through to you?
ND: I hear about it a little bit. But I don’t have a TV, I’ve never had a TV.
RB: You quote your grandfather as using the Austrian phrase "Desperate but not serious." Does that phrase suffer in translation?
ND: It probably does. But I read it only in translation. One of the things it is linguistically playful. I just like that about it and that’s why I remembered it.
RB: German doesn’t strike me as a playful language.
ND: There’s a lot of playfulness in German. Certainly, there is a lot of severity. But there is also, “Alles ist quesa,” which means, “Everything is cheese.” That’s a whole philosophy of how you look at the world. It’s not all shit.
RB: Can you talk about some of the books that you are considering writing?
ND: I really can’t. It’s my superstition. One similar to the one I developed in college when I started having girl friends. I never really told anyone who I liked until I knew that she liked me. The same sort of thing happens with books. I really don’t like to talk about it until I can do it. I feel shy about it until I can make it. What I did in Berlin was that I did a lot of research before I left and I had this massive file of notes and I have been moving the notes around and trying to make them into something that will work as a subject. But I am still not sure. The mayor of Berlin asked me the other day and I feel really silly saying this to people. I’d love to be able to talk about it. It feels important to me so that if I run into you three years from now you don’t say, “So you were going to write that book about my dog. What happened to the book about my dog?”
RB: Gee, I’m not that kind of guy.
ND: You’re not that kind of guy, but I’m that kind of guy.
RB: Are you a New Yorker?
ND: I live there. I don’t know if I’m a New Yorker. I’m a New Yorker like so many people are who grew up somewhere else and then they come there. I don’t know if I’ll live there all my life. I like living there. It’s a lonely life sitting there all day, everyday writing by yourself. It’s lively and vital right outside the door, there’s a huge community of people who are doing what you are doing—I have lots of friends who are writers and I talk to them a lot. And that’s my trip to the water fountain, when one of my friends calls. Also, because I am still pretty young, it’s helpful to have my agent and my editor close by.