Tad Crawford is the founder of Allworth Press and the author of a dozen nonfiction books including Legal Guide for the Visual Artist and The Secret Life of Money. In September 2012, Arcade Press published Tad's first novel, A Floating Life, which Kirkus Reviews described as "odd, offbeat, strangely shimmering." He lives in New York City.
Why is your novel called A Floating Life?
The unnamed narrator is adrift in his life. His marriage has fallen apart (yet he’s forced by finances to continue living in the same apartment with his wife), he interviews with a seven-foot-tall chef in a steam room but fails to get a new job, and not even the magic of modern medicine can cure his erectile dysfunction. He apprentices with an elderly Dutchman named Pecheur who builds model boats sold in a hard-to-find shop called The Floating World. After the devastation of World War II, Pecheur felt lost and worked as a boatman on the rivers and canals of Europe. On the night of February 1, 1953, his heroism in the face of a hurricane helped save much of Holland from flooding. That night Pecheur discovered his life’s work as an engineer seeking to channel nature’s destructive power into protective and saving forces. The narrator begins to find meaning in his own life as he takes up the work of his mentor, ultimately traveling to a storm-battered volcanic island as far from the centers of civilization as imaginable. As he says, “I discovered that the floating world was about far more than illicit pleasures. Called ukiyo in Japanese, it grew out of the Buddhist concept of a world filled with pain and came to mean the transient and unreliable nature of our world, how fleetingly it floats in the illusion of time.” In this transient and unreliable world, the narrator seeks his own depths and the purpose of his life.
How do you normally write? Did you tweak any aspect of your writing process when creating this book?
My prior books lent themselves to an overall plan. While there was much to discover and create in the writing process, I was guided throughout by knowing the shape of the book and how it would end. A Floating Life was an utterly different experience for me as a writer. I had no idea what came next or how the novel would end. I was as lost—and engrossed—in the novel as the narrator is in his floating life. The thread of the narrator’s deepening connection to Pecheur represented to me the growth of the narrator’s consciousness. But the unconscious is a far vaster territory than the conscious. I wanted to portray the unconscious imagery and process that accompanied this inner deepening. So a dachshund brings a lawsuit against the narrator, the narrator (despite being male) gives birth to a baby, and bears devour the narrator in his bed. To use this imagery required trust that it would enhance the story and a relational sense much like that of an abstract painter balancing shapes and colors against one another on a large canvas. Not knowing my destination created a wonderful, frightening sense of freedom. After all, if I didn’t know the ending, anything might happen. Because of this, some interesting pieces had to be cut when I began editing and saw that certain risks taken hadn’t actually succeeded in creating stories integral to the novel.
Who was the first writer you tried to imitate?
I remember discovering D. H. Lawrence in college and having great admiration for his writing and the passion with which he lived his life. Under this intoxicating influence I wrote a number of poems. I was perplexed and hurt when a literate friend said he didn’t like the poems. I couldn’t see that my hero worship made the poems sentimental and not at all like the writing of Lawrence himself. If I had to say now who has influenced me, I would point to writers like Kafka, Beckett and Mann. Stylistically, it would be difficult to say what unifies authors such as these (although Kafka and Beckett both contain much that is absurd—as does life). For me, they all dared to plumb beneath the surfaces that surround us, to seek the deeper meanings that are elusive and teased into consciousness only by fearless and continuous effort.
Is your fiction political?
My fiction isn’t political in the sense of Republicans or Democrats or even of “isms” such as communism or fascism. If politics require taking individual responsibility and acting in relation to a larger community, then A Floating Life has a political aspect. For example, Pecheur has chosen as his life task the taming of the destructive forces of nature. When Pecheur dies, the narrator takes over his charitable foundation, continues his good works, and tries “to support scientific research that would advance Pecheur’s dream of harmonizing the forces of nature.” The novel also has an “ex-centric” aspect in the narrator’s leaving behind established views of society when he travels to an island far removed from the urban center of New York City. On this volcanic island the narrator finds two soldiers—one American and the other Japanese—who have been stranded for more than six decades since the end of World War II. Originally adversaries, one soldier is the prisoner of the other, but at the heart of their connection is love and a willingness to sacrifice. The desire for human betterment, the bond that joins the narrator to Tex and Tsukino-san and makes him willing to sacrifice, is ultimately political.
You studied economics and law and then made a career of writing and publishing. What constitutes success for you?
I don’t experience success as static. I’ve always enjoyed projects, whether the creation of a book such as A Floating Life or the creation of a company such as Allworth Press. To finish a project is a kind of success, but the pleasure of completion passes fairly quickly. For example, seeing a printed book that I wrote is nice enough but has a “pastness” about it. What I value most is the process of creativity, the deepening of understanding and expression that occurs when I return again and again to a project. I experience this as an inner communion as ideas, feelings, and realizations rise from hidden depths. Failure and an inordinate amount of work are aspects of this, but the sense of building and moments of discovery are sufficient rewards. I’m also happy that my nonfiction books (such as Legal Guide for the Visual Artist or The Secret Life of Money) have been helpful to people. Success for me turns on having the freedom to do the next project—and also on being receptive and willing to wait as the project reveals its dimensions.
Photo: Susan McCartney
More from Tad Crawford
Visit Tad Crawford at tadcrawford.com.
Purchase A Floating Life.