Describe your latest project.
When father was ill and dying, I asked his permission to use material from a memoir he had written for his family and friends in the novel I was then writing. He said yes, and I integrated his stories about growing up during the Depression in rural Minnesota and his experiences as a soldier during the Second World War into The Sorrows of an American. The character of Lars Davidsen is based on my father, and so I've come to think of Erik Davidsen, the book's narrator as my imaginary brother, a person with parents similar to mine, who writes about the year following his father's death and his struggles to understand both his father's life and his own.
The narrative is organized around several secrets that unravel over the course of the book. Erik and his sister, Inga, discover a mysterious letter written in 1937 by someone named Lisa to their father begging him to keep his promise and never reveal what happened to an unnamed person who has died. Inga, a widow, finds herself entangled in a story her husband had kept hidden from her as she worries about her daughter, Sonia, who remains adamantly silent about both her father's death and what she saw from her schoolroom window on September 11, 2001. Erik realizes that the young artist he has fallen for and who rents the garden apartment of his Brooklyn brownstone, Miranda Casaubon, is keeping secrets of her own. She and her five-year-old daughter, Eglantine, are being harrassed by someone who leaves disturbing photographs outside the house, and Erik suspects that Miranda knows the identity of the stalker.
I think the novel is finally about the past in the present, the ghosts that haunt families from one generation into the next. As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Erik confronts the traumatic memories of his patients as well as those that tormented his grandfather and father and which have affected him deeply. His search for answers takes him back to his immigrant roots, his childhood, and into the strangeness of his own dreams, where the dead are ressurrected. In one way or another, all the characters are trying to make sense of fragmentary emotions and memories that often resist explanation.
The Sorrows of an American was written as a fugue with reccuring themes and counter themes, associations, and rhythms. The form became a way to accumulate meaning through repetitions that emerged as I wrote the book: fathers and children, listening and deafness, recognition and blindness, the pain of speaking and the pain of keeping silent, the ambiguities of memory, loneliness, the music of feeling in the human voice, coldness and empathy, the fantasies that distort our perceptions of others, illness and recovery. The epigraph comes from Rumi. For me, his words summarize the novel's journey: "Don't turn away. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That's where the light will enter you."
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I worked for a medical historian on the Upper East Side in New York City when I was a graduate student. When the doctor interviewed me, he asked what languages I spoke. I said I spoke Norwegian, and had studied German and French. The old man leaned forward and inspected me. "Do you speak Persian?" "No," I answered. He looked shocked. "Not a word?" I confessed to knowing not a word. He hired me anyway and sent me off to the medical library to do research that seemed to have no focus. One day it would be leprosy, the next housemaid's knee, and the day after that, the plague. I enjoyed researching diseases, but began to suspect that my employer simply liked having me around, liked scrutinizing the index cards I filled up with notes, liked correcting what he felt were character faults ? such as my interest in Foucault whom he detested ? and that he paid me six dollars an hour for my presence. The research was entirely secondary. A strange job.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
I have heard writers say that writing fiction is a form of lying. I passionately disagree. Fiction, when it is good, is a door to the truth (with a small t). I once wrote that writing a novel is "like remembering what never happened." It is an imaginative form of memory. Memory and imagination are closely related neurologically. People with memory impairment from brain injuries also have difficulties imagining things. The writer's search for a story that is emotionally true is a wrenching business, and when it works, it is possible for the reader to recognize something she could not have recognized without that particular work of art. That is why fiction can lie, can turn away from its own project, and become mere deception.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"In the arts feeling is meaning."
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity was sent to me last year by an editor at Cambridge University Press after a conversation we had about philosophy at a dinner for a mutual friend. I just picked it off my shelf two days ago and am reading it now with great pleasure. Rorty is lucid and, for a philosopher, optimistic. I'm reading a lot of philosophy these days, and he is new to me.
Why do you write?
I write because I need to do it, and because when I'm doing it, I feel most deeply alive.
Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
As a child I idealized Harriet Tubman. I am a great admirer of George Eliot's fiction, and also of her mind. She was a true intellectual of her day, a translator from the German, and more than that, a person of great kindness. Lou Salome is another brilliant woman of spirit for whom I have always had a weak spot.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I have a real love for visual art and return in my mind frequently to images by artists as diverse as Giorgione, Vermeer, Chardin, Goya (always Goya) but also Gerhard Richter, Louise Bourgeois, and Joan Mitchell. Giorgione is an artist of profound ambiguity and elusive feeling; Vermeer, the greatest translator of the ordinary into the miraculous; Chardin turns humble objects like bowls of strawberries or cloves of garlic into signs of universal humanity; Goya is the radical artist of brute honesty; Richter, a mournful intellectual of plural realities; Bourgeois, the tough explorer of internal spaces, and Mitchell, a grand colorist of emotion.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Books that all turn on the question of intersubjectivity: the "I" and the "you"
Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bahktin
Between Man and Man by Martin Buber
The Child, the Family, and the Outside World by D.W. Winnicott
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Jurgen Habermas
Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self by Allan N. Schore