Q: How did you become interested in spelling bees? What, if anything, do they reveal about American identity?
A: I became interested in spelling bees in 1997, after reading an essay in which they were described in the context of generating lots of losers rather than a single winner. I'd had several friends who had been involved in spelling bees as children and had related various awful anecdotes about their experiences; these two things combined to convince me to visit the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. that year to see the thing myself.
Spelling bees were invented in the United States and to this day the United States is the only country which has spelling bees: how that reflects upon American identity depends on your mood when you think about it. A kind conclusion one could draw is that spelling bees are an indicator of the importance language plays in national pride and identity. The prevalence of competitions in general shows the American need to be better than anyone else at something, whether it is selling cars or memorizing state capitals or knowing how to spell dvandva. A less kind conclusion can be drawn if you consider the fact that the spelling bee was invented as a gimmick to sell newspapers. To this day the spelling bee is sponsored by Scripps Howard, a large newspaper syndicate; a child can not participate in the spelling bee circuit unless they attend a school with an approved newspaper sponsor. From that angle, spelling bees can be seen as evidence that Americans will stop at nothing to make a buck, even if that involves subjecting children to a high-pressure competition involving obscure words they will never again have the need to use and whose definitions most of them never learn.
Q: Talk about how your experiences observing the national spelling bee, as well as getting to know the contestants and their families, help shape the characters in Bee Season.
A: I spent two days at the national competition watching the bee, interviewing contestants, and eavesdropping on parents. The character of Eliza began to take form while I was watching the final rounds, as did several of the supporting characters within the book's spelling bee scenes. The general intensity of the environment there helped build my confidence that there was, in fact, a novel to be written here. Being at the hotel among the contestants and their parents felt very much like inhabiting a secret alternate universe that few people knew about--as if I had undertaken some kind of National Geographic-type excursion.
Q: Why did you set this novel in the early 1980s? What makes that particular period of American history vital to the Naumann family's story?
A: I set the story in the early 1980s because that was when I was the approximate age of Eliza and Aaron, so it allowed me to draw upon my own memories of childhood. I'm not sure the time the novel takes place is essential to the story. If I could have written the book without setting it specifically in space or time I think I would have--the larger issues of the book (identity, the search for meaning in life, the quest for community) transcend those details.
Q: Much of the novel centers on the coming of age of the Naumann children, Eliza and Aaron. How much of Eliza and Aaron do you see in your own experiences growing up?
A: Anyone who survives past the age of 13 would have experiences in common with Eliza and Aaron; though they face the challenges of growing up differently, both are yearning for acceptance while trying to figure out exactly what acceptance means, what sacrifices it requires, and what sacrifices they are willing or able to make to attain it.
Q: At one point, Eliza thinks that the dictionary has made the spelling bee superfluous. How has the art of spelling changed today, especially in light of computers? Do spelling bees mean the same thing today?
A: One thing spelling bees have the potential to do, and will always have the potential to do, is provide a unique vantage point from which to understand language as a whole. There are kids who study for the bee by learning word roots and derivations, and these kids get a pretty cool history lesson along with a skill that can actually help them later on in life. For the majority who approach spelling bees through rote memorization, the spelling bee has been and will always be pretty much useless.
The significant change that computers have wrought upon the culture of spelling has come not via the spell-check function of word processing programs but through the insidious automatization of that function: your computer can now correct you as you type. In the past, people were at least made aware of their errors and exposed to the proper spellings of the words they had flubbed; the computer alerted you to the error but it was up to you to make the proper correction. With the automated function, people are not necessarily even aware of the fact they have misspelled a word; mistakes are passively reinforced with the eventual result that people will become increasingly dependent upon their machines to help them simulate competency.
Q: How did you get interested in Jewish mysticism? Talk about how you researched some of the religious texts that the father, Saul Naumann, studies and translates.
A: I took a class in Jewish mysticism in college and some of the stranger aspects of it--especially the beliefs and methods of Abraham Abulafia--stuck with me. It was only after I returned from the national bee that I realized its uncanny resemblance to Abulafia's techniques. It was at that moment Jewish mysticism entered the story, as well as the character of Saul. For research, I re-read some of the stuff I'd read in that class six years before, particularly the work of Gershom Scholem. I also found a book in which some of Abulafia's texts had been translated into English.
Q: What is your background in non-Western religions? What research did you do in order to write about Aaron's explorations of other faiths?
A: My background in non-Western religions was and remains fairly minimal. In a way that made it easier to write Aaron's character since I was pretty much starting out from the same place he did. I did some minimal reading about Buddhism and nothing at all about Catholicism--a result of that was that I got a letter from a reader informing me that the kind of Catholic service I describe in the book doesn't really happen anymore. The biggest part of my research involved learning about Hare Krishnas. I read a few books about them but, more importantly, I visited a Krishna temple posing as someone interested in joining. I spent the afternoon being led around by a really nice female devotee who answered my questions and gave me free stuff.
Q: What do you see as the parallels between religious and personal faith and something like a spelling bee?
A: Faith of some sort (in oneself, in someone else, or in something larger) generally comes into play when undertaking an action that involves risk. The higher the level of risk involved, the stronger chance that faith is also involved. In the case of the National Spelling Bee--in which 150 kids have survived a nationwide winnowing and now very publicly attempt to be the one remaining speller in a contest that initially involved over 9,000,000--I would say that those kids probably have faith in a combination of things, ranging from their personal abilities (augmented by hours and hours and hours of studying) to various higher powers. The winner of the 2000 bee, for example, was a born-again Christian who, whenever he was asked for his autograph, preceded his name with the words "Jesus Lives."
Q: How did your own sense of yourself as Jewish play into your development of the Naumann family, and the different members' approaches to Jewishness?
A: Having been raised in an observant Jewish household, making the family in Bee Season Jewish was a matter of convenience along the lines of choosing to set the story in the early 1980s. For the purposes of the story's larger concepts, the family could have just as easily been Hindu or Catholic. Making the family Jewish allowed me to rely upon my own memories of observance, including attending services.
Q: As Eliza becomes more proficient at spelling and "opens herself up to the letters," she seems to evolve into a different person. What do you see as the relationship between coming of age and mastering language?
A: I relate Eliza's growing proficiency with spelling to the general childhood and adolescent experience of growing to appreciate one's strengths and becoming more self-confident as a result of this knowledge. I've never really thought much about the mastery of language in relation to coming of age, though it sounds like a great thesis topic.
Q: Where do you see each of these characters in ten years?
A: Where these characters are in ten years depends a lot upon how Saul reacts to the actions Eliza takes at the story's end. Ten years from now, the family could be in a much better place than they are at the story's end, or the story's end could have marked the beginning of a downward spiral; it all depends upon whether or not Saul interprets his daughter's actions as a wake-up call to what's been happening to the family.
Q: Bee Season is written in a quirky third-person voice and the world of the Naumanns is permeated by popular culture references that bristle against the spiritual longings of each character. What writers and books have influenced you in the development of this style?
A: David Foster Wallace was both a structural and narrative influence; I was just finishing Infinite Jest as I began Bee Season and I pretty much stole his structural use of small sections of text that carry the reader from one place to another as the story proceeds. Other influences are less direct but would probably include Donald Barthleme, and J.D. Salinger and a whole slew of other writers I admire and consciously or unconsciously attempt to emulate in one way or another. I'm a huge admirer of Nabokov, for example, and I can only hope that some of him has rubbed of on me.
Q: Your next book deals with a particularly virulent early twentieth century flu epidemic. How did you come to this topic?
A: I don't feel that I come to topics; it's more the other way around. I feel like spelling bees found me, as did the 1918 influenza epidemic. I first read about the 1918 epidemic in a newspaper article about two years ago and I've been pretty much obsessed ever since. Because novels take so long to write, a degree of obsession is an essential guard against boredom.