writers institute logo

Volume 12, Number 2

An Interview with Author Susan Choi
By Jack Rightmyer, reprinted with the permission form The Sunday Gazette,
Februaruy 10, 2008

Susan Choi readily admits her first two books were a struggle to write, but her latest novel "A Person of Interest" (Viking, 368 pages, $25.95) was almost effortless.
"My first two books I really labored over them, learning how to create characters and write a story," she said in a recent phone interview from her home in New York City, "but I was excited every time I sat down to write this book, probably because I liked the main character so much even though he's a deeply flawed individual."
Choi was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 novel "American Woman," which was loosely based on the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army.  Her most recent novel again borrows some plot lines from a famous American crime, the Unabomber killings.
"My father was shocked to find out that the Unabomber was Ted Kaczynski," said Choi, "because the two of them had been classmates in a doctoral program in mathematics at the University of Michigan in the early 1960's"
In her new book Professor Lee, an Asian-American, becomes a 'person of interest' by the FBI, who are investigating a series of bombs from the Brain Bomber, a technology hating psychopath reminiscent of Ted Kaczynski, who was arrested back in the 1990's as the Unabomber.  Although Lee is not involved in the crime the suspicion exposes many of his weaknesses and personal entanglements over the years that have led to his emotional isolation.  Lee begins to wonder if the bomb that killed a colleague was meant for him.  This causes him to act a bit oddly which arouses the suspicions of the FBI, and soon the entire college community.
"My father spent a lifetime in academia," said Choi, "so I know personally how alienating that life can often be.  I also borrowed many of my father's traits when creating Professor Lee.  Life my father it was important for Lee to be an immigrant to this country.  It didn't matter where he had come from, but I needed a character who didn't quite understand all the nuances of American society."
She did just enough research on the Unabomber to help her create a story, but she wasn't as interested in the bomber as she was in Professor Lee.  "Ted Kaczynski is certainly a fascinating character," said Choi, "but I think Lee is even more interesting, the way he has ended up so lonely and isolated.  He and the Brain Bomber are similar because they really don't care so much about what outsiders think."
The research she felt was essential was how the FBI conducted their investigation of the Unabomber.  "That's the part I needed to know," said Choi.  "What has always fascinated me about that case was how the Unabomber's brother David turned him in.  That's a novel right there."
On Tuesday Susan Choi will read from her new book at 8 p.m. at the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany's uptown campus.
One of the only struggle she had with 'A Person of Interest' was the ending.  "The ending changed radically from where I initially thought it would go," said Choi.  "At one point Lee's daughter Esther was going to be a character, but by keeping her offstage the novel seemed to work on a stronger emotional level."
An enjoyable part of reading the book is how it moves through time back and forth from the present to the past.  "i think it's a very linear novel," said Choi, "and it's not difficult for me to write this way.  It's sort of a symptom of the way I think.  It's also a great way to show a reader what a character is like."
Choi thought that by now she's be blazing away working on a new novel, but her ideas are coming slowly.  She's also the mother of two young children which is taking up a lot of her time.  She has also taken a year off from teaching.  "But I'll be back next fall, teaching undergraduates at Princeton," said Choi.  "I love teaching.  A full load is too much, but a few classes are perfect for me.  When I'm teaching too much I don't have the energy to write, but a few classes will often inspire me to write."
She is looking forward to returning to the New York State Writers Institute.  "I came up to Albany in April of 1999," said Choi.  "I did a reading from my first book 'The Foreign Student'"
She is also looking forward to seeing New York State Writers Institute Director Donald Faulkner, who taught her when she was an undergraduate at Yale University.  "When I read up there in 1999, I remembered an audience that was very appreciative and seemed to know quite a bit about books and authors."
Her advice to beginning writers is to write a little bit every day.  "I know that's such a typical writing class piece of advice," said Choi, "but it's very powerful.  Even writing just a paragraph a day is beneficial.  Early in my career I used to wait for a good idea and then I'd begin writing, but now I realize I get good ideas just from the act of writing."

An Interview with Gregory Maguire
By Jack Rightmyer, reprinted with the permission form The Sunday Gazette,
March 10, 2008

When Gregory Maguire was writing ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,’ back in the early 1990’s, he often daydreamed about how successful the book was going to be.
“It took a lot of courage for me to take such a beloved story like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and put my own imagination into it,” said Maguire in a recent phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.
Up to that point he had been writing popular children’s books, but ‘Wicked’ was a departure.  “It was my first book for adults,” said Maguire, “and I kept imagining how this book was going to be the next big thing.  I fantasized that it would be a cult novel like ‘The Lord of the Rings.’”
He laughed that writers do that sort of thing because it often takes a risk to try something new.  “We might be afraid, but our imaginations tell us to do it,” said Maguire.
What he never imagined was his book becoming the basis of the biggest theatrical event of this century.  The play ‘Wicked,’ which opened in 2003 received ten Tony nominations, and has become a world-wide phenomenon.
“The play probably would never have happened if I hadn’t received such a good book review in 1995 in the L.A. Times,” said Maguire.
The New York Times gave the book a horrible review.  “I felt decimated to read that review,” said Maguire, “but five days later the L.A. Times came out with a glowing review and everything changed after that.  When the movie people read that review, they really got behind the book, put up some good money, and it eventually became the play.”
According to Maguire there are plans to bring out a film version of Wicked in the year 2014.  “That’s the ten year anniversary of its Broadway debut,” he said, “which is exactly what happened when the play ‘Chicago’ came out as a film a few years ago.  Since Wicked is breaking attendance records all over the world, there’s no need to rush a film out now.”
On Thursday Gregory Maguire will read from his work at 7 p.m. at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus.  A book signing will be held at the University Art Museum following the reading.
Maguire, who grew up in Albany, was very happy to see his book turned into a musical.  “I’ve always loved the theater,” he said.  “I used to sing in the choir at St. Vincent de Paul’s Church when I was in my early twenties.”
Since he had the rights to his novel he could have insisted on writing the play, but he chose to give the producers the freedom to create a play based on his book.
“I didn’t demand creative updates,” said Maguire.  “I did want to sit in on some of the auditions just to experience what that was like, and everyone who auditioned was wonderful, so I wasn’t much help there.”
He knew the play was going to be good when he sat in on a read through shortly before it opened in San Francisco.  “The characters were all on stage and whenever they spoke they would stand up on their chairs,” said Maguire, “and when they were offstage they would just sit down.  I thought it was terribly moving and funny, but I didn’t realize the spectacle of the production till I finally saw it performed on stage.  I’ve now seen it at least 34 times in the last four and a half years, and each time I see it I come away liking it more and more.  I can see why people keep going back to see the witch fly at the end of Act 1.”
Gregory Maguire is certainly more financially comfortable today than he’s ever been, but he continues to write for two reasons.  “Writing helps me think.  I’m very concrete,” he said.  “I think in plot with characters and moral dilemmas.  If I couldn’t write I wouldn’t be able to think through some of my thoughts.”
The second reason he writes is to react to current events.  “Writing is cheaper than going to a psychologist,” said Maguire.  “I’m deeply engaged in the world and writing allows me the opportunity to express my thoughts about things that bother me such as this war in Iraq, why we do harm to children, and global warming.  Instead of keeping my rage inside I’m able to write about it and get it out.”
Although he has now written some successful adult novels, he still writes for children and young adults and has great love for children’s literature.  “Since 1987 I’ve been the co-director of Children’s Literature New England, a non-profit organization which tries to elevate awareness of the significance of literature in the lives of children.”
The organization conducts an annual one-week institute in which it brings together teachers, librarians, college professors, writers, illustrators and people in publishing to honor and celebrate children’s books and their serious literary themes.  “We should never forget those first books that had such a profound impact on us as children,” said Maguire.
His most recent book for young adults “What the Dickens” is a whimsical fantasy about a rogue tooth fairy, born alone and outside his pack, who tries to find his place in tooth-fairy society.  That book came out last fall, and he is putting the finishing touches on the third book of a projected four book ‘Wicked’ series, which will be out this fall.
“I never intended for this to become a ‘Wicked’ series,” said Maguire, “but I just kept finding more and more stories in the original Oz books.  This one is called ‘A Lion Among Men,’ so you can imagine who it’s about.”

Marie Howe
Making the Sacred Familiar

Marie Howe’s poems are like the secrets your best friend told you, like words that listen back, like reassurances:

                        ...This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
                        wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my                                wrist and sleeve,

                        I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
                        Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold.  What you called that

                        What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to                                   pass. We want
                        whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and                               then more of it. (from “What the Living Do”)

Always attuned to how the ordinary details of life are underscored by an imperative toward reflection and gratitude, in the words of Stanley Kunitz, Howe is “a religious poet, that rarity among writers of her generation.”

Howe’s first book, The Good Thief (1988) is a gathering of admissions; her poems reveal the innermost perceptions of their speakers always imbued with her graceful understanding of human nature. Given its title, The Good Thief immediately cues its readers to Howe’s ethical and spiritual concerns that dominate her body of work.  Like the good thief Dimas in the Gospel of Luke, her poems in this collection beg the following sly questions: what are they taking from us, and what are we being protected from? Howe’s poems respond by interrogating our protective mechanisms—like secrets, denials, and loneliness—and prying open our understanding of inner life.  Indeed, Howe’s retellings of Biblical stories and motifs including Genesis, Exodus, and angels serve to underscore her general interest in religion.  But more specifically, the book keenly reflects on the nature of existence.

Many of the poems in The Good Thief plunge into the myriad aspects of loss including growing up, forgetting, and forgiveness.  Aptly dedicated to her family, Howe often juxtaposes family life and childhood reminiscences with the universe of the spirit.  Told in first person, the poem “What the Angels Left,” for example, offers a surreal portrait of its speaker’s landscape.  Here, the metaphysical realm literally intervenes with its speaker, a person who is constantly finding scissors, and having to figure out what to do with them.  This sort of hyperbolic, absurdist tone is less common in Howe’s poems than the eerie discomfort she provides here.  Often, her poems bring to light moments of trauma and change for their speakers, but ultimately seek out modes of healing.  On The Good Thief Margaret Atwood notes, “Reading it you feel interest always, delight often, and occasionally that cool wind at the back of the neck that makes you think there's one more person in the room than there actually is.”

Her second book, What the Living Do (1998) is divided into four sections, which offer a chronology of loss.  These poems continue to explore the loss of innocence in childhood as her first book did, but are also deeply elegiac, marked by the deaths of her friends, mentors, and brother, John. What the Living Do celebrates legacy and survival after loss, while it also acknowledges grief and regret. As with The Good Thief the father figure is a recurring theme in the poems, often savage and an object of the speaker’s sympathy.  Howe’s poems grappling with John’s death from AIDS are the tenderest part of this collection.  In “The Cold Outside,” she writes of John's perspective: “Soon I will die, he said, and then/what everyone has been so afraid of for so long will have finally happened./And then everyone can rest.”  Certainly, Howe’s book in part memorializes her brother, but there is a restlessness in the way her poems circle back to thinking about his death. A restlessness that ultimately keeps grief and longing present.  Complementing this poetic work,  Howe co-edited a volume of essays with Michael Klein called In the Company of My Solitude, a book detailing the experiences of AIDS patients. 

Her newest book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (2008), continues in her stylized lyric mode that weds together the plainness of everyday life—with startling observations: the violence between couples, the death of a mother, and students discussing the place of the United States on the world stage.  Shifting from her approach to religion in her first book, and exploration of mortality in her second, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time primarily looks at how life experience is shaped by gender.  Motherhood is perhaps one of the most vibrant themes in the collection, coinciding with Howe's recent personal experience as a mother of an adopted girl.  Engaging with female perspectives, Howe's work presses us to consider gender inequality, sexism, and violence against women.  Tom Sleigh writes, “Marie Howe has found a way to write American speech that is as lucid, entertaining, and savage as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her language is always deeply rooted in the social world, and it never turns away from the most difficult moral problems.”

Howe was born in 1950. She enrolled in her first poetry workshop in 1980. She received her MFA from Columbia where she studied under Stanley Kunitz.  She currently teaches creative writing, and has taught in various writing programs at institutions including New York University, Columbia, and Sarah Lawrence.  The Good Thief was selected by Kunitz as the winner of the Lavan Younger Poets Prize, the National Poetry Series.  What the Living Do was selected by Publisher's Weekly as one of the top 5 books of the year.  She has won NEA, Guggenheim, and Bunting Institute fellowships.  Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and most recently in the New Yorker (January 2008).

Campbell McGrath
Astute observations of contemporary America

Campbell McGrath’s poems are marked with concision and seeing:  they at once render the familiar vivid through his electric details, intimate awareness of space, and astute observations.  Known best for his prose poems, McGrath’s work nevertheless always carries the concision of lyricism—particularly through his ability to startle readers with paradoxical couplings, tumbling wit, and contemplative turns.

Rooted in observation of contemporary America, McGrath often turns our attention to the geographical variety and beauty of the natural world while criticizing the homogenization and violence of culture.  Reviewer Joel Brouwer summarizes McGrath's body of work by noting his poems “are set in locales from sea to shining sea and make remarkable use of geographical places as mirrors (by looking deeply at a place, the poet discovers new territory inside himself) but also as stages, even soapboxes, from which [he] delivers his barbed and witty commentary on contemporary culture.” McGrath's seven full-length volumes of poetry include Capitalism (1990), American Noise (1994), Spring Comes to Chicago (1996), Road Atlas (1999), Florida Poems (2002), Pax Atomica (2004), and Seven Notebooks (2008).  He also wrote a chapbook, a forerunner to Florida Poems, entitled Mangrovia that was published by Short Line Editions (1999).

His first book Capitalism weaves together pop culture references ranging from Ansel Adams to Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Attuned to words, McGrath includes a range of oral and textual sources in this book including lyrics by Woody Guthrie, lines of poetry by Carl Sandburg, and a meditation on William Carlos Williams. Drawn largely from his MFA manuscript, McGrath comments, “It’s very much about the concerns of a 25-year-old guy in America, doing his thing. It’s a matter of really writing about what you care about and know about, and that changes as your life changes.”  This autobiographical element is maintained throughout his works, following into Spring Comes to Chicago—a book McGrath bases on his experience of the city, one that he has returned to many times.  “The Bob Hope Poem,” a long and ambitious piece that dominates the collection, received critical acclaim and marked McGrath as a poet to really pay attention to.

American Noise, McGrath’s third book, also examines culture—but here more so than other volumes, his attention is turned toward icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jack Kerouac.  William Matthews writes Sly, passionate, funny and smart, and not in alternation but all at once, Campbell McGrath’s poems are genuine, accurate, American, eccentric.”  McGrath’s subsequent book Road Atlas foreshadows his style in Seven Notebooks by drawing from the conventions of travel writing.  McGrath makes the claim that the book is less about style than its subject matter: “Road Atlas is about travel beyond America, and fatherhood, and place, and even more than that it’s about the form of the prose poem.”  David Biespiel from Hungry Mind Review applauds the book, noting “From Brazil to Manitoba, Las Vegas to Miami Beach...McGrath charts a poetics of place and everyday experience. Road Atlas is personal, provocative and accessible—the finest work yet from “the most Swiftian poet of his generation.” 

His next book Florida Poems was composed between 1993 and 2000.  While two long poems overshadow this work, the collection is varied.  In McGrath's words, it's about “realizing that the fountain of youth is Florida's identifying myth. And that there is a fountain of youth, and in Florida it's the very youthfulness and newness of the culture. Human culture is potentially the fountain of youth.”  Shifting his focus from landscape to time, Pax Atomica is an homage to 1962, the year of his birth.  Reviewer Mike Chase reflects, “For a writer whose poems sometimes read like long, confident, inexhaustible guitar-solos and riffs on American culture, these anxieties are surprisingly candid and even touching.”

His latest work, Seven Notebooks, chronicles the consciousness of a year in the life of the speaker—capturing diverse moments in his life through a serial, diary-like form.  The documentary-styled writing records a broad range of experiences in different cities (such as Miami and Chicago, as in earlier books):  a dialogue in a writing workshop, landscape portraits, and literary meditations.  Over the course of Seven Notebooks the reader can trace evolutions in the speaker's perspective.  The poems are often self-reflective, and sensual in their details, and move between formal modes (like tercets) to the elastic, muscular prose poetry McGrath excels in creating.  Divided into seven 'notebook' sections, each one considers the work of a canonical poet, such as Walt Whitman.  Outside magazine calls him “an acrobatic, exuberant poet, part Walt Whitman, part Tom Waits...a writer who could help save poetry from academia and get the rest of us reading it again.”

Campbell McGrath was born in Chicago in 1962.  He grew up in Washington DC, received his MFA from Columbia in 1988, and now resides in Miami where he teaches creative writing at Florida International University.  His poems have been anthologized in many places including New Voices: 1984-1988 (The Academy of American Poets, 1989) edited by Donald Hall, Poets of the New Century (David R. Goodine, 2001) edited by Roger Weingarten and Richard Higgerson, and  No Boundaries (Tupelo Press, 2003), a collection of prose poems by twenty-four American poets edited by Ray Gonzalez. A collection of his prose poems, Heart of Anthracite, was published in 2005 by Stride. His work has also appeared in places such as the New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Antaeus, and Ploughshares.  His distinctions include the Kingsley Tufts Prize (1997), the Cohen Prize (1997), a Witte-Bynner fellowship (1998), a Guggenheim fellowship (1998), and a McArthur Genius Grant (1999).

An Interview with Russell Banks
By Jack Rightmyer, reprinted with the permission form The Sunday Gazette,
April 14, 2008

When Russell Banks began working on his fifteenth novel “The Reserve” (289 pages, $24.95, Harper Collins), he set out to explore the time period of the 1930’s and he also wanted to write a novel about class struggles.
“What surprised me in my research was that there was a whole class of people that wasn’t affected at all by the Depression,” said Banks, in a recent interview from his home in Saratoga Springs.
The story, set in the Adirondacks, revolves around four characters, Vanessa Cole, a notorious thirty-year-old, twice-divorced adopted daughter from wealthy parents who is a summer resident of the exclusive Tamarack Wilderness Reserve, Jordan Groves, a famous local artist loosely based on real-life American artist Rockwell Kent, Groves’ wife Alicia, and Hubert St. Germain, an expert wilderness guide and one of the faceless Adirondack locals who live hand-to-mouth during most of the year and in the summer serve the rich residents of the Reserve.
“Writing this book allowed me to look at the world through the view of these wealthy summer residents.  Many of these wealthy families have been entrenched in the Adirondacks now for over a century,” said Banks.  “They certainly weren’t the decadent summer rich that one would have found in Newport, Rhode Island.  These people loved the outdoors.  They were the environmentalists up there, and their agenda was a powerful one.”
Banks acknowledged that things haven’t changed much in the Adirondacks since the 1930’s, and the wealthy seasonal residents are still often in opposition with the local people today.  “I’ve lived in the Keene Valley for twenty years,” said Banks, “and I’ve found myself through the years being on both sides.”
Banks has struggled for years with the issue of class.  The 67-year-old author grew up in working-class towns in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.  His dad was an often violent, hard-drinking man, and before becoming a writer Banks worked as a plumber and a shoe salesman.
“What class do I belong to?” asked Banks.  “I can go down to the local bar and have some beers with the local guys who get up early every morning and work manual labor and live week-to-week scrambling for work to support their kids.  Most of them don’t have health insurance, but these aren’t my problems, and I really can’t claim membership with them.”
He also is a member in the exclusive Ausable Club in the Adirondacks and lives part of the year in West Palm Beach.  “I don’t belong in that class either,” he laughs.  “Just last week Northern Trust Bank paid me a good sum of money to travel to Florida and talk to their clients, but these aren’t my people.  Still, the money was good.”
It’s exactly what his character Jordan Groves often felt.  “Groves is an ardent leftist,”said Banks, “and yet the people who can afford his paintings are the very people he would like to attack.  Groves identifies with the poor and the oppressed, but they can’t support him.”
Writing this book Banks came to understand that to truly be an artist and a writer you can’t belong to any class.  “I obviously can’t belong if I’m going to write honestly, convincingly and objectively about them,” he said.  “This book forced me to view the world through the eyes of the people I’ve never identified with, those with extreme wealth.”
Surprisingly, the character he became closest to was Vanessa Cole.  “She was the most wounded of all the characters,” said Banks, “and she had suffered a lot of psychological damage.  I also think that despite all her failings, she was the character that really seemed to know herself, and when I was done with the book I felt my greatest grief for her.”
In the last few years Hollywood has discovered Russell Banks.  Two of his books “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter” were made into successful films, and he is currently working with Martin Scorsese, who is producing the film version of “Cloudsplitter,” his novel about abolitionist John Brown, and Scorsese will also direct Banks’ novel “The Darling.”  Banks has written the screenplays for both.
“My experience in film has been a good one,” said Banks,” and it’s been fun to learn how to write screenplays.  It’s taught me how to tell a story much faster than I could before.  Right now I’m adapting my 400-page novel ‘The Darling’ into a 120-page screenplay.  I’m forced to cut out so much as a screenwriter.”
As a novelist Banks savors writing sentences and paragraphs.  “I love the pacing of a novel,” he said, “and the intricacies and complexities of writing a long, detailed story.”
He does admit that writing novels can often take over your life.  “Sometimes I think about a novel all day and all night,” said Banks, “but with a screenplay I can work on it four hours and then get on with other things in my life.”
As a novelist he developed a long time ago an affection for language.  “If I had started as a screenwriter,” said Banks, “I’m not so sure I would have developed that.  I actually began as a poet and that taught me to pay attention to the sound of words.”
He and his wife, poet and editor Chase Twichell, have lived part of the year in Saratoga Springs since 2001.  “I live half the year here and half the year in the Adirondacks,” said Banks.  “For a few years after I stopped teaching at Princeton in 1997, I stayed up in the Adirondacks for the whole year, which got pretty lonely, and I realized urban life is kind of nice.”
Saratoga has been a good fit for him.  “I travel a lot,” said Banks, “and that’s much easier to do from here.  I also have a 94-year-old mother who I take care of up in Keene Valley so I can’t be too far from her.  This is an easy place for me to shuttle back and forth from.”
Banks also admits to having quite a few friends in the area.  “I’ve had a long association with the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore,” he said.  “There are a dozen excellent writers within a 30-mile radius of here, and Chase likes the town a lot.  We both realized that good restaurants and good stores do matter.”
When he thinks back to how far he’s come as a writer he finds himself getting a bit superstitious.  “This all seems to have happened pretty much outside of my control,” said Banks.  “I wanted to be a writer when I was young, but I never imagined this type of a lifestyle.”
He feels very lucky that his books have found a loyal audience.  “I’ve been able to write the books that I want to write,” said Banks.  “I know some wonderful writers out there that haven’t been so lucky.  They’ve labored on some excellent books and those books have never found an audience.”
When he finds a story to write about, he still gets as excited today as he did over forty years ago.  “Each one is a new beginning,” he said.  “Each story is a new discovery, and I want to know where it will take me.”

Russell Banks is finishing his second draft of the screenplay of “The Darling,” and he has a new novel that he wants to get working on.  “I’ll throw myself into the work when I’m up in Keene from May through the fall,” he said.  “I love to write up there.  That’s when the isolation works for me.” 

A writer in exile gains a voice in English
By Elizabeth Floyd Mair
, reprinted with permission from the Albany Times Union,
April 27, 2008

Horacio Castellanos Moya is a Salvadoran author widely considered to be one of Central America's greatest contemporary fiction writers. He's been living in exile since 1997 when the publication of his novel "El Asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador" ("Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador") earned him anonymous death threats.

Moya will be in Albany on Tuesday night to read from his work and take part in a discussion with two other novelists-in-exile as part of The PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature (see story on Page J2). The event is presented locally by the New York State Writers Institute Visiting Writers Series.
The threats could have come from any corner, since "Revulsion" criticized the entire political spectrum, exposing human rights abuses by both right-wing forces and leftist guerrillas. The book took on issues that were quite sensitive at the time, the author said in a recent phone interview. It pointed out, for instance, that the founder of the ruling party was also the founder of the death squads, and that leftist guerrillas had killed 500 or 600 people they believed to be informers. "But the problem wasn't what the book's narrator said," Moya explained, "it was the way he said it. Very sarcastic and ironic -- beyond ironic: cruel, really. Holding the country in contempt."

Since 1997, Moya has lived in five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, Germany and now the United States. "I keep moving around," he says. "I'm a kind of nomad." He is the author of eight novels, and his work has been translated into German, French, Italian, Portuguese and, soon, English.
Moya's 2004 novel "Senselessness" (160 page; $15.95) will be published in translation by New Directions in May; it will be the first full-length work of his available in English. It tells the story of a writer who agrees to work on a project for the Roman Catholic church in an unnamed Central American country, copy editing a 1,100-page report on the widespread torture and massacre of indigenous villagers committed by the army a decade earlier. He soon learns that the job involves anguish of a completely different sort than he had bargained for.

With its long sentences and even longer paragraphs, and its perfect sense of black-comic timing, the book's style is distinctive, as in this story of the soldiers' interrogation of a deaf-mute villager: "The poor deaf-mute had the misfortune of being interrogated by soldiers who didn't know he was deaf, the misfortune of getting beaten to make him spill the names of those who had collaborated with the guerrillas, in front of the other inhabitants of the village and without saying a word the deaf-mute was beaten without saying a word after each question the sergeant who commanded the unit asked him, without anybody in the village daring to tell the sergeant that the deaf-mute couldn't answer even when they tied him to that tree in the plaza and the sergeant began to make incisions on his body with a saber ... "

The seed of the idea for the book was planted years ago when the author read several actual reports documenting atrocities committed in Guatemala. "What was interesting to me," Moya explains, "is how a project like that might work on the mind of someone who is not involved emotionally at the beginning -- someone who is not a militant or a human rights activist, but who is just passing by and getting a job."
Little by little, the voices of the survivors begin to haunt the book's narrator, not only when he's at work, but night and day. He begins to copy down some of the more disturbing and evocative lines from their accounts into a small notebook that he carries with him in his breast pocket. The "senselessness" of the title seems to refer both to the endlessly creative forms of cruelty detailed in the report and to the gradual infestation of the narrator's mind with violence, anxiety and paranoia.
"It was a senseless idea," Moya concludes, "to take that job."

Moya lives in Pittsburgh as the writer-in-residence of City of Asylum-Pittsburgh and taught a course last semester in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. City of Asylum is a consortium of cities around the world that provide a place to live, a stipend and assistance with finding employment to writers who have fled their countries for fear of reprisal for their work. Just three cities in the U.S. offer sanctuary to writers; in addition to Pittsburgh, these are Ithaca and Las Vegas.
In the year and a half that he's been living there, Moya has been able to complete another novel. For him, at least for now, his home is in Pittsburgh. "For me home is not a place any more, in the sense of a fixed place. It is a state of being in which you feel a kind of safety, and a good energy for doing your work."

Elizabeth Floyd Mair is a freelance writer living in Rotterdam and a frequent contributor to the Times Union.

Pen World Voices
The festival of international literature features leading figures of world literature who have endured political persecution in their native lands: Nuruddin Farah of Somalia, Horacio Castellanos Moya of El Salvador and Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, University at Albany Uptown Campus, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany
Admission: Free

Info: 442-5620; https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/

The Book Show
Nicholas Delbanco Interview 1995

Douglas Glover: Welcome to The Book Show.  I am your host, Douglas Glover, of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University at Albany as part of the State University of New York system.  My guest today is novelist Nicholas Delbanco, speaking to me from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Nicholas Delbanco was born in England, the son of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.  He came to the United States when he was six in 1948.  He lived happily and uneventfully until he went to Harvard, where he became a wunderkinder, an overnight sensation, publishing his first novel, The Martlet’s Tale, when he was only twenty-four.  For all intents and purposes he wrote a novel a year for the next seven years, started the creative writing program at Bennington College, and won the gamut of available prizes and awards, the Woodrow Wilson, Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts.  His most notable books of this period include the three novels, the critically acclaimed The Sherbrookes Trilogy, the story of an old New England family, once wealthy, now in gothic decline.  In the mid 1980s, Delbanco began to slow down a bit, a relief let me tell you, for some of us more pedestrian writers.  He wrote two non-fiction books, The Beaux Arts Trio and Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France, and two story collections, notably his most recent work of fiction, The Writers Trade and Other Stories, published in 1990.  He also finally left Bennington to direct the creative writing program at the University of Michigan.  Delbanco as a man is suave, polished, and a bit of a dandy, if I may be so bold.  I guess that means simply that he dresses better than I do.  Erudite and gracious, he writes with an anxious élan.  Staccato rhythms, a lucidness in alliteration and an amazing accumulation of dense, precise detail, all combine to give his writing a modernist edge, a beauty which draws attention to itself, a vivid complexity and intelligence.  But Delbanco is not just surface pizazz and pyrotechnics.  He writes great character and knows that character is story.  He has almost a Dickensian imagination for these fundamental narrative structures.  And this is nowhere more evident than in his new novel, his first in I guess, fifteen years, In the Name of Mercy, just published this month by Warner Books.  In the Name of Mercy is a dazzling medical thriller, a detective novel without a detective, a sad and provocative book written under the sign of Dr. Death himself, Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist who only a month ago, assisted in his twenty-fifth suicide.  In The Name of Mercy is about “mercy” killing, but “mercy” killing at this very moment when medical science has provided us with the means to prolong the lives of the elderly and the grievously ill, at the same time as fiscal and budgetary pressures are forcing doctors, hospitals and governments to withhold that technology.  It’s one thing to say, as doctors once did, “We’ll do everything we can to save a patient,” but technology has given us the power to save patients who may not want to be saved and money considerations are forcing decisions about who should be saved or not, irrespective of who they are.  Money and power corrupt, as Nicholas Delbanco well knows, and that’s the crux of In the Name of Mercy.  Nicholas Delbanco, welcome to The Book Show.

Delbanco: Well, thank you Doug.  It’s lovely to be here even though I’m at a distance.  But one comfort in that is that you called me a dandy when you can’t see what I’m wearing.  It’s sort of a remnant of a shirt and a pair of shorts left over from working in the garden this morning.  So it’s nice to have an excuse to come on in and talk to you about books.

Glover: Now, In the Name of Mercy takes its form from the thriller genre in a way.  It’s a kind of a “who done it.”  In the first two pages, the prologue, you have two bodies, a man and a woman, we don’t know if it’s a murder suicide, or a double suicide.  John Donne’s poems are open on the table and Mendelssohn in the CD player.  What made you write it this way?  I know in the past that you’ve written books and modeled them on sort of traditional forms, on traditional stories, the prodigal son, in The Martlet’s Tale, and so on and so forth.  Were you doing the same thing here, this time?

Delbanco: Actually not.  In really all of those early books, that you so kindly referred to as my wunderkinder period, I would think of them as closer to apprentice texts, by which I mean I was following previous models and attempting to replicate previous forms.  Now, it’s perfectly clear that there are forms and even formulas for the murder mystery.  But I hadn’t been familiar with them except as a casual reader and I’d never tried this sort of thing before and it isn’t as if I were consciously imitating some previous text.  As a result, now I sort of cheerfully set out to write this book quickly, because it seemed like a contemporary issue and not one that ought to take me a decade to grapple with.  I did find myself spending a lot of time puzzling over presentation.  For instance, that prologue to which you refer in which there are two dead and unidentified bodies whose identity we’ll only come to understand or learn very closely to the end of the book.  That prologue was not there to begin with, I added it maybe a year ago into composition because I felt that I was in danger of slipping into the old novelist’s habits of telling tales without turning them into riddles, and I needed a kind of dramatic opening beat.  The one option that you didn’t include when you described those two bodies was that it might be a double murder as well as a murder suicide. 

Glover: Oh, yes.

Delbanco: I’m quite resolutely aspecific there. 

Glover: Yes.

Delbanco: So I do want that question to be at the back of the reader’s brain for at least the first hundred pages or two hundred pages.  And this mystery is meant to be one in which it’s not so easy to identify or locate the killer.  There are forms of the mystery story as you know in which we see who does the killing early on, immediately, and the form of the mystery consists of how does this person get caught?  I think in television terms of the old Columbo series where you saw the act being enacted, really, underneath the credits, and then the whole question is how did Peter Falk come to catch the criminal, but we knew who the criminal was.  There’s another kind of murder mystery that’s very familiar to us all, in which the answer is, or is supposed to be unclear until the final page, and then some brilliant someone solves it for you and everything falls retrospectively into place.  I was sort of trying to chart a middle course between those two and that had something to do with the shape of the whole.

Glover: Now, this is a slight aside.  Just last night I was going through the book and on page seventy-eight, I counted up the bodies at that point and there were nine so far and that was less than a third of the way through the book.  There are a truly amazing number of bodies in this book.  It’s like a Greek tragedy.

Delbanco: Well, as I don’t need to tell you, as a novelist, and as one who’s engaged in this sort of endeavor, one of the problems with killing all of your characters off so early is that these are people who you’ve spent some time on rendering vivid and suddenly they’re gone.  Or, you learn to love them and they can’t come back, except of course in flashback or retrospect.  Indeed, in most books, it seems to me, when there are deaths, it’s because the novelist has grown weary of that character and can’t figure out how to get rid of him or her.  But in this case I did have something like a serial murder or a systematic series of murders, and so, yes, that was an issue.  Hey, I killed almost everybody off; I kept one or two around at book’s end, for the sake of a sequel [laughs].  But in fact, it was an issue to me, how many people I laid low.

Glover: But it’s interesting, first of all, you don’t have a detective.  You eliminate that form of the genre, this is not really a genre book, but anyway, you go to third person multiple point of view.  You have an amazing number of bodies, also an amazing number of points of view, an amazing number of other well fleshed out characters, many of whom are fleshed out and then killed, right away.  And that seems almost a Dickensian tour-de-force, of invention in some ways.

Delbanco: Well thank you and thanks for noticing it.  I think in fact that is the principle technical both problem and perhaps success of the book, that I don’t have a single central character who acts as “the sleuth.”  When you think about the mysteries that we’ve even glancingly mentioned so far, really almost every example of the form that I can think of, there’s almost someone who sets up “the problem.”  Now that someone might be a habitual sleuth, like Agatha Christie’s heroine, or Hercule Poirot, or Sherlock Holmes, or any of the figures in…even John le Carré has George Smiley recurring again and again.  So you know you’re in the presence of a habitual inspector, as it were, who’s going to come to the bottom of it on the last page.  Or there are other kinds of books in which it’s not a professional witness but rather somebody who happens to get caught up in the story and implicated by it, whether it’s somebody who has to try and prove his own innocence, as in Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, or somebody’s lover or parent or child has been killed and who makes a personal vendetta out of tracking it down, or a journalist.  There are almost any number of supervisory consciousnesses that tend to track us through the thicket in the wilderness of the book and tend to act as a kind of guide for the reader.  And in many ways, I think what was both most interesting and most difficult for me is that I didn’t do that.  I created a world, or tried to, in which there was a protagonist, certainly, he’s the doctor at the center of the novel and the one who begins it almost exclusively, but it’s not as if he knows what’s happening either.  Indeed, he’s a principle suspect.  And he’s part of the world that the reader has to make sense of.  So that if the book succeeds, and you’re suggesting that in this regard it does, it’s because the reader tries to make sense of it.  And I think that in many ways when you’re confronting a major life problem not as a reader, but as a witness to the world, that’s exactly the way one solves it, not because someone has told you how to, but because you look at the options available and you come to make your choice.  In this case, the choice is who’s doing the killing and whether or not he or she should have. 

Glover: With that I want to interrupt just momentarily to let everybody know, let our listeners know, that I’m speaking with the novelist, Nicholas Delbanco, author of the brand new book, In the Name of Mercy, just published by Warner Books.  To go back to that, we really haven’t set this up very well, or I haven’t.  But it takes place in the medical world, in a hospital and a neighboring hospice.  The bodies that pile up are mainly patients, some of whom have been killed, or have committed suicide, it’s not clear sometimes, some of them have died of natural causes, some of whom are murdered.  After that initial opening, though, where the bodies appear, there’s a couple of chapters, where things begin to be set up and you begin with this terrible, sort of horrific, sad death, a doctor Peter Julius, a gerontologist, is watching his wife, Julia, die of melanoma.  This sets up the whole thematic issue of the novel: when is it right to help someone to die?  It sets that up, but it sets it up in a stunningly graphic, detailed way.  The doctor is a doctor and he’s watching someone he loves die in an objective and medically detailed way.  It’s an incredibly sad and touching passage.  Prior to coming here today, I read this autobiographical essay that you wrote and you mentioned that your mother, in 1974, died of cancer.  And there’s this one passage, you say, “The forces of medicine, money and love were arranged to do battle with something the size of a pea in her brain.  It was no contest, the pea won hands down.  Unnumbered hours by her bedside notwithstanding, I was not there the day my mother died.  The readiness is all.  I have written of this obliquely.  Someday, perhaps I will face it head on and at length.”  Two things.  One is that phrase, or sentence, “The readiness is all,” repeats in the novel.

Delbanco: Yes, I can’t actually quote it in its entirety, but it’s a famous phrase, and I’m borrowing it shamelessly from Hamlet, when he says, in effect how, “Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart,” when he says to Horatio, I’m a little nervous about this fight I’m going to be having, there are bad auguries.  And Horatio says, “Don’t do it,” and then Hamlet says something to the effect that there’s a special providence in the fall of the sparrow, “It be not now, ‘twill come, and if it be now then it will not come later, the readiness is all.  Let be.”  And that’s the great and even characteristic Shakespearean heroic response toward the prospect of imminent death.  It’s exactly what Caesar says when he defies augury and leaves Calpurnia behind, and goes out to the forum.  So that phrase, “The readiness is all,” possibly should have been in quotes, maybe it was.  You’re quite right to remind me, though I had in fact forgotten, that I had predicted about a decade ago that at some point I would try and face this head on.  I don’t think that my mother’s death is in any obvious way connected to this novel, she did die twenty years ago and in circumstances very different from any of those that are here described.  But in an important way, it sort of structured the whole concern or the focus.  And there’s one crucial way in which it did so, that we haven’t yet mentioned, which is that my elder brother who is a doctor at Beth Israel hospital, was really my collaborator and expert witness in all this.  He it was that gave me all the detail that the book contains about medicine.  I wasn’t previously competent in that and I’m still not so sure I am [laughs], but I vetted it through him…

Glover: …You sound like you could pass now. 

Delbanco: Excuse me?

Glover: You sound like you could pass now, just put on a white coat.

Delbanco: Well, I may be able to get away with it; I certainly didn’t try to without his supervisory attention.  So that this was in that sense a family affair and in that sense, very definitely it was a kind of indirect homage to, or acknowledgment of, the death of our mother, more than twenty years ago now.  Let me return, if I may, to what you graciously described as a powerful opening beat of the book, in which Dr. Julius watches and then assists his wife in dying.  Without giving anything extra away, because I do, as I said before, I spent a whole lot of time trying to turn this into a mystery.  I think it’s fair to say that the novel does open with what I take to be as gracious and decent and generous and humane an act of dispatch of a woman by a man, he kills her, or assists in her death.  And the novel ends, or at least comes close, its climatic moment is also an act in which a man dispatches a woman, but it is about as obscene and savage and unjustified as it lay within my competence to imagine.  And in a sense, the whole action of the novel is…the trajectory describes from the one to the other, they are a pair, a set of scenes in a way, but everything else has changed.  And what I want the reader to do is see how they sort of mirror each other, but how one of them is an atrocity and one is an act of decency. 

Glover: Right, there’s that very pleasing circularity, circle of the novel, where even the object, the book of John Donne’s poems, the Mendelssohn, comes back as you move towards the very end other novel.  But everything, of course, as you say is altered, the whole tone.  I know the savagery at the end is amazing.  We’re getting close to the end; there are a couple other technical things that you do so well that I want to draw people’s attention to because I think they’re very interesting.  And we’re not going to get to all of them.  But there’s this.  One thing is the incredible density of detail.  Some of the medical detail, in fact, you get to the point where’s there’s almost a poetry of medical detail, some of which we may not understand, but we trust because of the authority and the rhyme and the kind of poetry of the language. 

Delbanco: Thanks for noticing that, I felt that very strongly when I was reading medical texts, and the abstracts that my brother would send me, for instance.  Even though I don’t really know what it signifies, there’s a ring to that language and it’s very hard not to think of as almost incantatory.  Some of that is true of legalese also, and of scientific jargon, but I think that the medical profession is precise in ways that you and I only intermittently can try to be.  And I was very moved by that language and incorporated it as I could. 

Glover: I also think that every good writer in his or her books sticks in something about how he or she wrote the book, so I pulled up this passage, later, very near the end of the book, you say, “The poetry is in the data, as Arthur told her, dying.  The art in the flat fact, we live by little details, not by large abstractions, we believe that our personal story might stand for a general truth.”  That seems like almost a credo for you. 

Delbanco: Well, I can’t think of a better way to sign off than to have heard you repeat that.  Yes, of course...

Glover: We’re not quite signing off.

Delbanco: …the greatness of art is exactness, it’s the naming of names.  It is not kind of, heady or breathy abstraction, it’s as much precision as our imagination can render.  And that’s why these shapes flip so thoroughly close through our minds on the desk.

Glover: We have a tiny bit of time left and I wanted to add to this, to carry on just this little theme here, this technical theme.  That there’s other things that you do.  First of all, when you do character, you do a great kind of…for each character who is important, who has a point of view, you do a great punted biography.  You slip that into the text very quickly and efficiently and dramatically.  But then you have a lot of these characters that are dying, and you slip into their points of view as they die, so that we don’t…of course, we’re not in the murderer’s point of view.  There’s only two people in the room, right, the murderer and the guy who’s dying.  So you slip in.  And what you do there, you render dying…you move into a kind of stream of consciousness, where, again, the language is detailed and highly charged with poetry.  So I’ll read a tiny bit again.  This is a man dying of AIDS.  “Kidney failure, just kidding kiddo, steak and kidney pie, kid gloves, Kid Gavilan, but not Kit Carson, new kid on the block and what was that Durante song, Inkadinkado?”  Did I say that right?  “Kidney trouble, kidney stone, I own or used to swim in once and share and share alike, a kidney shaped and bright blue swimming pool, kick the kid’s knee, kid the can, no, what he meant was kick the can,” and so on. 

Delbanco: Right.

Glover: So that’s another sort of technical move that you make that enlivens the novel intensely.

Delbanco: Well, thank you.  Partly that was because I had to keep the identity of the murderer secret. 

Glover: Right, of course. 

Delbanco: So I had to have each of these people sort of staring face forward in their increasingly hallucinatory moments and not notice who, or not be able to identify for us who it was that, as it were, pulled the plug.  And as you remember at the end of each of those passages and chapters there’s a refrain, “there was no one in the room.”

Glover: Right.

Delbanco: By which I mean both the person is dead and the murderer has left.  And that too was an attempt to hold off for a while before we identified that particular lethal shadow. 

Glover: And with the word shadow, we will close. 

Delbanco: Okay.

Glover: Thanks so much for being on the show.

Delbanco: And thank you for having me, it was a real pleasure.  Take care.

Glover: My guest has been Nicholas Delbanco, author of the brand new novel, In the Name of Mercy, just published by Warner Books.  We at The Book Show welcome your comments and suggestions.  Just drop me a line, care of The New York State Writers Institute at the State University of New York at Albany, Albany, New York, 12202.  Or email me directly at [email protected].  This is Douglas Glover, saying so long for now from The Book Show

This episode of The Book Show was produced by public radio station WAMC in cooperation with the New York State Writers Institute at the State University of New York at Albany.

Transcribed by Eva Romero, 1/31/06