A Conversation with Frederick Busch
Karen Novak is a novelist whose most recent work, Innocence, was
published by Bloomsbury in 2003. She lives in Mason, Ohio.
Karen Novak: Your earlier novels, Closing Arguments and The
Night Inspector, also deal with war and its aftermath through memory.
Why is the act of remembering war such an important aspect
of your work?
Frederick Busch: War is the largest public convulsion we know.
It cannot be ignored. It invades every aspect of the lives of citizens
whose nation is at war or is a battleground. While I find myself
drawn to writing about domestic events, interior conflicts, I also
wish to establish such moments in the most dramatic exterior
context. I believe that I attempt that binocular view because of my
pleasure in reading the novels and journalism of Charles Dickens;
his commuting between private and public life is exemplary to
me. So, I think, I end up writing about small events that are huge
in my characters lives and, simultaneously, trying to throw the
light of giant solar flare-upssay,warson those lives.
As to why my characters remember wars, or why I supply the
recollection for them: Our lives, no matter how forward-looking,
are lived to some degree in terms of the past. The past is never
over, as Faulkner said. How we understand and come to terms
with the pastwhether it is an individuals childhood or a nations
war or a peoples fondness, say, for enslaving Africansdetermines
who we become. Fiction is about time, and novels chart how time
passes in us.We name and understandwe write, you could say
what happened; as we try to understand or merely to survive our
past,we re-create it.We are each the protagonist and the author of
the novel about our life.
KN: Alex is a psychologist digging into memory; his mother,
Sylvia, works breaking up earth and one day happens upon longburied
bones; his wife, Liz, is trying to find the painting yet to be
on a large canvas. Do those efforts compare with writing this
FB: I knew from the start that Liz (on whom I have a crush, by
the way) would be a painter. I needed her to be an artist, just as I
needed Alex to be a doctor who treated the mind. I wanted one of
them to be working from an artistic vision, from some kind of
commitment to expression of interior responses to the world,
while the other would be required to work expressively too, but
with a responsibility to focus on someone elseshis patients
In other words, Liz could fantasize all she wished to, if that
was what her art required. But Alex, I thought,would have an obligation
to speak for the patient.What he did, of course,was speak for
himself instead. His ethical lapses are enormous. On the other
hand, we need to admit that what hes doing is what we all do:
thinking more about ourselves than about others. But he is supposed
to be strong for his patients, to sacrifice, for the fifty-minute
hour, his own needs; he wants to, but he cant.
While Alex fails to do his job well, he does my job rather niftily.
He reminds me, on a tiny scale, of the director in Fellinis great
film 8½: He is confronted, simultaneously, by his childhood, his
adult life, his mistress, his wife, his work; he faces them, or versions
of them, and imagines aspects of themcreates and re-creates his
own life and the lives of those he lovesand comes to terms with
it all. In that sense,Alex is like an artist, yes.
KN: The novel ends with the fate of a major character left undetermined,
except through Alexs assumption of what has happened.
Readers, accustomed as we are to having our mysteries
solved, may have difficulty with leaving Nellas fate an unanswered
question. Can you explain your reasons for leaving her out
FB: I wasnt writing a murder mystery, the conventions of which
seem to include wrapping up each characters fate. Alex has gone
so far off the ethical track with Nella that he has all but killed her
on his own. And life does not solve every puzzle or rescue each
endangered soul. I was writing, you could say, a realistic novel: I
wanted it to display some of the shaggy sadness of our lives.And I
wanted Alex, at the end, to be seen as a good man gone bad, a man
who did bad things while intending the good.Thats why even on
the final page, in the closing paragraphs, as he thinks of Nella, the
language is But he had thought of the war: the war in which he
began, and the war that even now goes on within him. He ignores
poor, endangered Nella, and he thinks of himselfhence the
But with which he interrupts the thought of her. She is lost to
him and since he is the core of the novels consciousness, she gets
lost to us.
KN: Physical settings have near character status in your novels.
Here the placesNew York, Piel, the Tile and Brick Works
seem essential to the narrative for reasons beyond staging or suspension
of disbelief.Why is the sense of placement so necessary to
A Memory of War ?
FB: I dont like to ask my readers to see and hear my characters in
the abstract. I want the characters actually to seem to exist during
the time my readers are good enough to care about them. The
places of which I write, where I claim my characters live, are ways
of forcing the characters to express themselves memorably. So
Sylvia lives in the stink of stale cooking and soiled diapers in what
is virtually an outhouse in the hall outside her flat; she moves
through cold fogs over slick cobblestones, and my readers, I hope,
can feel the footing of the wet stones and smell the ocean salt on
the fog; if they do, then they can feel the characters themselves.
These realities faced by the characters become, if they work, a kind
of sensual argument for the characters existence. I want the reader
to hear and see and smell and feel the world of these people-onthe-
page; I want the reader to believe.
Poor Sylvia, on her hands and knees, digging up bones with a dark, Baltic pleasure in her pain and in the pathos of what she has found: She knows that she
and her lover will be bones; she is desperate to feel everything now
because she feels time roaring through her, knows that her affair
with Otto must one day be over, that she will one day be alone. So
the hated Tile and Brick Works becomes a holy ground of sorts to
her, and she knows the heft and grain of the cold soil intimately
because she needs to.The reader, in turn, can know Sylvia, to some
extent, through that place as well.
KN: Toward the end, one of the characters remarks that these are
times of enormity.What made 1985, the year in which the novel
is set, more a time of enormity than other years?
FB: Most obviously, with regard to 1985 as a time of enormity,
I had in mind President Ronald Reagan, who, over the protests of
Elie Wiesel and other spokesmen for Shoah survivors, laid a
wreath on German graves in Bitburg; he was trying to support the
German chancellor and maybe to say, with certain other politicians,
that the Shoah was done,were all friends now, a few million
are dead, but lets get on with it.That was an act of astonishing stupidity.
It was a major revision of history, pretending that among
those graves were not buried forty-nine Waffen SS, men who
served in the same outfit that staffed the killing camps. Running
through the novel is a concern with seeing history as opposed to
revising history. But enormities are committed by characters on a
smaller scale: Liz may see Alex in that way, and surely Nellas father
must think that of Alex with his daughter; Slowackis stories of
Vietnam and Alexs lapsing off while his needful patients pour out
their confusions might also fall into that category.
KN: Research, fact, and invention have a huge presence in the
novel. Can you describe how you went about the massive amount
of research Memory of War required? How does a fiction writer
choose among facts to create what Alex terms a version of life or
FB: Second question first: Each of us chooses among facts to create
a version of a life or of lives. A couple argues. He remembers
her calling him a disgrace. She claims that she in fact told him that
she didnt want to make him seem a scapegrace. He says she bullied
him. She claims the opposite. What really happened? Each
creates a version of the event, and it becomes the truth of that moment
for him or for her.When a fiction writer is choosing for his
characters, however, he shapes their recollections, the novels version
of the story of their lives, in a cold manipulation; his purpose
is to put the characters in danger, of one sort or another, and see
what they do to themselves and each other as events transpire.
I did a great deal of research for this book. I talked to psychologists
and corresponded with them, I read texts that Alex might
have used at Michigan, I queried police officers, studied topographical
maps and street maps from the 1940s; I consulted newspapers
from that time and place, history books, a translator, Polish
dictionaries, some unpublished memoirs. What I chose to use, in
the construction of these lives, is what would make the characters
vivid and plausible, what would help to make them matter, and
what enlivened my own imagining of them. The Brick and Tile
Works did exist. I dont think Land Girls farmed there, but I was
charmed by the idea of an urban farm, so I insisted it into being;
with Sylvia there, I was offered interesting opportunities for her
dalliances with Otto, and I was able to pay homage to the residents
of Barrow, a city for which I have great affection, and especially to
the brave souls who endured the World War II bombing raids. I
tried to respect the realities of history, but also, since I was not
writing history but fiction, I permitted myself to create historical
events as long as I felt that I was not trivializing the great truths of
endurance, courage, loneliness, and suffering that are part of what
happened in that war.
KN: You put the reader in the role of traditional analyst to Alex.
We witness the telling and revisions of the intimate stories that
comprise his understanding of his life. In doing that, you also make
us aware of the real psychic distances between individuals, how
limited our access is even to those we love most. It seems risky in
these times of televised counseling services and antidepressant
medications to ask the reader to comply with such profound helplessness.
Was it an active artistic choice on your part, or is this how
Alex spoke to you as a character?
FB: I distrust any assurances, whether by clergy, video quacks, or
licensed psychologists, that we can easily know one another.The
great endeavor of a human relationship is in learning the other
person over time, with respect for the dark differences between
lovers or friends; and the great sorrow of lovers surely must reside
in the fact that we cannot quite get to each other, to the world
under the sleeping eyelids of the other one, to the dreams and terrors
that people cannot speak of with any ease. I loved the paradox
of Alexs being such an unknowable man to the women who loved
or needed himNella and Lizwhile his work required that he
help people bridge the distance between them and those they
loved. I often seek such paradoxes in my workin a novel, for example,
called Rounds (1979), where a pediatrician becomes responsible
for the death of his own child; or The Night Inspector,
published twenty years later, in which the protagonist,William
Bartholomew, is an ex-sniper, a man who specializes in seeing, yet
is so maimed in the Civil War that people cannot bear to see him.
Such tensions are useful in displaying the secret corners of characters
KN: Alexs perhaps half-brother,William, terms his times as the
age of the memoir. Twenty years on, it seems memory is even
more of a commodity. A great many resources are being poured
into capturing the memories of those who survived times of
enormity.How do you think we should approach these collected
recollections? What are their value to us?
FB: Many contemporary memoirs seem to have been therapeutic
for their writers, and of course you cant begrudge people their
efforts to feel better. But great memoir writingPrimo Levis The
Drowned and the Saved, or Stuart Hoods Carlino, about imprisonment
in Italy during World War II, or Paula Foxs Borrowed Finery,
about imprisonment in a neglected childhoodalways creates
with precision a single life lived and raises it to greater importance.
It doesnt indulge in phony poetry or operatics about suffering; it
creates the particular, and you end up seeing matters cosmically.
I engage with memoirs for what I have called elsewhere their
binocular vision:We see the little and the great at the same instant.
Important memoir writers tell us of themselves, but they show us
the vastness of existence. Many memoir writers cant do this;
theyre locked into the small. I seek memoirs that will teach me
more about being an honest person in the scary, huge world.
KN: In the scene where seventh-grader Alex presents the William
Carlos Williams poem as his own work, his teacher instructs him
to redo the assignment, to write something you couldnt otherwise
say. Do you feel that A Memory of War says something you
could not otherwise say?
FB: I wanted very much for this novel to say something I could
otherwise not say. I want to write fiction that is artful, and I believe
that art is how we try to say what we otherwise cant. In that
regard, art and prayer work similarly, I think. My Miss Casey in
this novel is my love song to an actual Miss Casey who taught me
English in the seventh grade. And her fictive injunction is actually
my own. It is the definition of the writers job.We must try to do
no less.And if writers come close to anything like success in saying
the unsayable, then they serve the reader as well as themselves.