Saturday, April 5, 2008

[Interview] Howard Waldman

Howard Waldman was born in Manhattan in the United States. When he was 22 years old, he moved to France where he taught European History and later American Literature to French students.

His work includes the novels, Back There (Bewrite Books, 2005); Time Travail (Bewrite Books, 2006); The Seventh Candidate (Bewrite Books, 2007) and Good American Go To Paris When They Die (Bewrite Books, 2008).

In this interview, Waldman talks about his concerns as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I decided on a writing career as soon as I learned to write my name. That breakthrough happened early in the last century in PS 89 (Manhattan) at the age of four. Consecration came at ten when a school magazine published a piece of mine, strongly influenced by Edgar Wallace, a popular writer of thrillers. A precocious start, apparently. Unfortunately, more serious writing had to wait nearly a lifetime. It was only on retiring that I started work on the first of my four novels.

Why such a long wait?

Besides natural laziness, perhaps one cause was the fact that as a teacher of literature at a French university I was in constant contact with celebrated books. It proved inhibiting. My critical sense was stronger than my creative urge, so subconsciously I probably compared my pathetic first-draft efforts to the finished products of admired authors. If I could have seen their own defective first drafts, the paralysis might have lifted. Alcohol, which deadens the carping critical sense, might have done the job too, as it did for that long roster of famous American writers addicted to the bottle (names on request). But I was too prudent a man to use whisky as a dissolvent of writer’s block.

How would you describe your writing?

My novels don’t seem to fit into the established genres, subgenres and cross genres beloved of so many publishers. So I guess by default they can be called “literary; although it’s a term with overtones of snobbery that makes me wince.

Granted, too many generic books are mass-produced products promoted with the same ballyhoo techniques as any other commodity. Still, that divide between generic and literary fiction is somewhat artificial. A so-called literary novel can be pretentious and boring. A generic novel can be excellent. For example, Huck Finn, commonly regarded as the greatest American novel, was long categorized as an adventure book for children. Raymond Chandler transcended the supposed limitations of the detective novel. So did H.G. Wells, [Kurt] Vonnegut and P.K. Dick (to mention just a few) for science fiction. What counts, ultimately, is quality, whatever the label.

Who is your target audience?

The notion of writing a jackpot bestseller never once entered my mind. More modestly, I hope for an audience that won’t forget what I’ve written minutes after they’ve closed the book.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

I can’t say any writer has influenced me, or if he has it’s unconsciously. I try my best to project a unique voice. Anyhow, among the writers I admire: [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline, [Anton] Chekhov, [Jorge Luis] Borges, Philip K. Dick (at his best as in Ubik), and [William] Faulkner. I could go on and on.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I was born in Manhattan but married a Frenchwoman and have spent most of my life in France.

Two of my novels (Back There and Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die) deal with the theme of Americans, alive or dead, in Paris; another novel (The Seventh Candidate) is set in an imaginary country but the inspiration for that country was largely France.

When an American background is evoked (as in Time Travail) it’s the lost America of the mid-century, the America of my youth. I remember it perfectly.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

That every word should do its job in the sentence, every sentence in the paragraph, every paragraph in the book.

Trying to achieve these aims meant that each of the four novels took me about three years to write, a painful process of revising, revamping, deleting, polishing, etc. Theoretically it could have gone on forever but I haven’t got forever, so at one point I said, “enough” and sent the thing to my publisher.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

I’ll ignore the usual metaphysical challenges facing someone getting on in life and concentrate on writing problems.

First, the biggest challenge is that I work in absolute linguistic isolation. Outside of my wife, none of my family or friends has a solid enough knowledge of English to read what I write. This isolation poses marketing problems as well. No book-signing sessions, no public library contacts, no radio or TV interviews, etc.

A creative challenge was to describe resurrection, as I necessarily have to do in Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die. I’ve no idea what it’s like, assuming it happens at all, which I devoutly hope is not the case.

How do you deal with these challenges?

I can’t really deal with the problem of linguistic isolation although I’m active on a writer’s site (Bibliophilia). Concerning the exploration of after-life, as I’ve said, the trumpets of resurrection haven’t sounded for me yet. Promoting my novel seems as difficult a trick as resurrecting.

Do you write everyday?

When I was in the full swing of writing my novels I wrote every day, hours at a time, regular as clockwork. When I wasn’t working on the novels I was thinking about them. Monomania. Obsession. How did my wife stand it?

What is your latest novel about?

Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die is about three men and two women who materialize, stark naked and young again, in a dilapidated bureaucratic room overlooking the quays of Paris and who make the posthumous discovery that “Good Americans go to Paris when they die” is more than a humorous adage.

Their joy is dampened when they learn that a possible processing mistake has been made by the other-side Préfecture de Police bureaucracy, inefficiently managed by Prefect d’Aubier de Hautecloque and poorly supervised by the doddering Supreme Echelon. For if, indisputably, the Newly Arrived are Americans and have died it’s not sure they had all been good in their former existence.

While waiting for an administrative ruling on their fate -- transfer to the Paris of their twenty-fifth year or back to no-being -- the Five are placed in Administrative Suspension and wait. Years drag on. They decide to escape.

Let me stop here. I mustn’t give it all away.

How long did it take you to write the book?

Like all my other novels, Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die took me about three years to write. It is published by BeWrite Books.

A word about my publishing problems. I submitted my first novel to ten big U.S. publishers at enormous cost in postage and with predictable results. I gave up when a fellow-writer told me that all of these publishers had long done away with a human Submissions Editor in favor of the Kirubawaki XL289 Manuscript Slush Pile Processing Machine. This ingenious apparatus recycles all submitted manuscripts to paper on which it prints the form rejection slip. I redirected my saved postage money to Irish whiskey for consolation.

Fortunately Jacobyte Books, an Australian [print-on-demand] POD publisher, accepted my first book and then a second one. Later Jacobyte merged with my present publisher BeWrite Books based in the U.K. They are very serious and supportive people but of course as small publishers they haven’t got the promotion budget of the Kirubawaki folks. So I have to do my own share of promotion.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Four of the resurrected Americans had lived in Paris at different dates: 1900, 1937 and 1951. For biographical reasons I had no trouble handling the 1951 scenes, but doing justice to the earlier periods required considerable research, historical and iconographic.

Another difficulty was imagining the timeless other-side Prefecture de Police where the Americans land, with its infinite stretches of dusty corridors and zombie-like functionaries.

That historical research and the creation of a posthumous world was, despite the difficulties encountered, what I most enjoyed.

What sets the book apart from others you have written?

Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die is my first attempt at fantasy.

In what way is it similar?

The protagonists of Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die have the possibility of returning to their youth and repair damaged love. This theme of the quest for time past occurs in two other of my novels -- most obviously Time Travail with its machine-assisted evocations of America in the thirties and forties of the last century. In Back There, the aging hero evokes memories of a vanished Paris and a vanished love and through creation tries to salvage it all.

What will your next book be about?

Will there be a next book? For the past year I’ve been concentrating on short stories and flash fiction. In some ways they are more exacting forms than the novel.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

To have wanted to write seriously all my life and to have started doing it so late in the day.

How did you get there?

By doing it.

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