I first stumbled upon the novels of Harvey Havel during a recent ebook sale. Since that time, I’ve reviewed one of his novels and talked to him over the phone a few times. Personville Press is in the process of re-publishing ebook versions of two Havel novels which were previously released in print (apparently the original publishing company disappeared and left Havel hanging). Although born to Pakistani parents, Harvey doesn’t write about a lot of ethnic or immigrant themes (though he wrote a trilogy starting in Bangladash and ending in the USA). His novels are realistic and sometimes harrowing. He has dabbled in a lot of things — a memoir about the relationship with his mother and a series of philosophical/political essays about virtue and the fissures in US society. He has written about football players, poets and drug addicts. He has a great ear for how people really talk — especially those who are outcasts or down on their luck. Havel’s writing is hard to classify. His books describe the ordinary struggles of working class people — and perhaps his fiction comes off sounding strident. I’ve always been struck by Havel’s candor in describing life disappointments. Even in this interview, Havel is open about his personal demons and publishing woes. His literary output seems prodigious for someone who hasn’t turned 50. His prose has always struck me as more workmanlike than lyrical, but he’s great at telling an engaging story. In the interview Havel acknowledges a literary debt to Norman Mailer, but I see hints of Bellow’s chattiness, Steinbeck’s plain language and the William Kennedy’s stories about outcasts (in fact Havel lives in Albany and has crossed paths with Kennedy on more than one occasion). Born in Lahore in 1971, Harvey grew up in NYC and Western Connecticut, attended Trinity College and Emerson College creative writing program. He has done various kinds of jobs (mostly teaching). Harvey remains dedicated to writing novels even as he waits for the reading public to catch up. This interview was conducted by email over several months in 2020)
Growing Up & Literary Influences
WHAT WERE YOU DOING IN YOUR TWENTIES?
I had just finished college up in Hartford, Connecticut, and on my 21st birthday, I decided to become a fiction writer. I was under the delusion that, one day, I could become a great American writer like Hemingway and Mailer and Kerouac and my other literary heroes. It was a recession that year, during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush, I remember. I wanted nothing more than to avoid the shitty job market and go to writing school to avoid having to work. I finished writing school in Boston in 1997, and after that, I went to New York City and frequented places where artists and poets hung out, like the Bowery Poetry Club and the Nuyorican Poets Café. I went to tons of open mikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I carried a guitar around for a blind musician named “Norris” who was the lead singer for a band called the Ebony Hillbillies (God, how I miss him)! I worked very hard on my writing, but no one wanted to publish me at all, to my great disappointment. I was crushed, because I thought I would be able to make a living at it. How wrong I was! No one was interested in my work except for Norris perhaps. Thirty years later, I still can’t make a living from it. The New York City artist’s scene didn’t treat me well at all. I worked at CBS News on and off, and while doing so, other artists in New York City and even the high cost of living in nearby Bergen County, New Jersey basically chewed me up and spit me back out. I also developed a terrible drinking problem that I still have to deal with. I never want to experience those years again. They were horrific.
YOU RECEIVED A MASTER’S DEGREE IN CREATIVE WRITING FROM EMERSON. DID IT HELP YOU MUCH OR INFLUENCE YOUR APPROACH TO WRITING?
I actually learned a lot from writing school, but these types of MFA programs are very expensive, and there is plenty about these programs to which I now strongly object. But when I arrived at Emerson, I thought I already knew how to write fiction better than everyone else there, like the typical smug, arrogant first-year writing student. Actually, I really had no idea about how to write anything. I used weak passive verbs, for instance, and I told more than I showed, for example. Also, my style was hardly comprehensible, and one of my writing instructors had to do a complete line editing of my prose to show how none of my stuff made sense to anyone who understood the English language. Very importantly, an experienced writer/student in one of my workshops said that my writing was rushed. (Interestingly, another local writer said essentially the same thing after reading my books a few weeks ago). I should have listened to that guy in workshop way back when.
But what I really got out of writing school had to be the direct advice from my writing instructors. These were Christopher Keane, an accomplished screenwriter, Andre Dubus III, whose books they make into Hollywood movies now, and especially DeWitt Henry, whom I consider to be the most well-read and intelligent person I have ever met. When I gave him my full-length manuscript for my first book, he told me the next day what was wrong with it, and his explanation took all but five minutes. Five minutes! The guy is amazing, and he was also the Executive Editor of Ploughshares back then too. I’m serious, the guy has read every book ever published, or so it seems. I’ve sent him every one of my books over the years. I can only hope that he approves of them.
Other than that, MFA programs are really what you make of them. You can get by without lifting a finger, but then they become a real waste of time and money. You gain the most just by learning one-on-one with professional writers.
HOW HAS “BOOK CULTURE” CHANGED SINCE YOU WERE IN COLLEGE?
As far as literary fiction is concerned, not a thing. The same multicultural-themed books that stress identity politics and political correctness have continued to be popular over the last 30 years. Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of good writing is still studied at MFA programs. Unfortunately, certain themes, styles and subjects are stressed, while other great books are ignored, buried, or forgotten.
The real hope, though, is in commercial fiction. More experimental fiction, science fiction, concept writing, and fantasy have taken off in recent years. While I do see hope in these, the commercial fiction market
I’VE GOTTEN TO THE POINT WHERE I DEFINE COMMERCIAL FICTION SIMPLY AS “WHATEVER DOESN’T WIN AWARDS OR GET REVIEWED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES.”
Many writers do view this amorphous genre known as “Commercial Fiction” differently, simply because it is so far and wide-reaching. It is hard to narrow its focus or to categorize these books when it comes down to their type or subject matter. But I think you’re right. “Commercial Fiction” is the stuff that falls outside what’s in Poets and Writers Magazine or The New York Times Book Review or taught in MFA programs and writing workshops. It doesn’t take into account mystery or crime novels, espionage, horror, science fiction, romance, fantasy, and an entire host of other genres that are considered too low-brow to be designated as literary fiction. Harold Bloom’s list of books in the American literary canon is generally considered to be “literary fiction” and therefore above “commercial fiction”. There’s an assumed snobbery involved here, but it can be funny if one views it as a really absurd statement.
I remember really enjoying Anthony Lane’s yearly survey of books that made the New York Times’ best-seller list in the New Yorker. I had great laughs over these articles, usually published every year, as I remember them. But folks in literary fiction often look down upon their commercial fiction colleagues, and while this is a shame in many respects, commercial stuff makes so much more money for the publishing companies than the literary books that often put people to sleep. Hopefully, a good writer will be able to combine literary talent with a capacity to entertain. Great books can do both very well.
The Literary Life
I’VE GOTTEN STUCK ON SHORT STORIES FOR THE LAST 30 YEARS AND HAVE ONLY RECENTLY STARTED TO MAKE THE SHIFT TO LONGER FORMS. YET YOU DIVED ALMOST IMMEDIATELY INTO THE NOVEL (AND EVEN TRILOGIES). ARE YOU HAPPIER WORKING IN A MORE EXPANSIVE GENRE — OR DID YOU DO IT PRIMARILY FOR COMMERCIAL REASONS?
I never dove into writing long books for commercial reasons. I simply wanted to be a great American writer, rich or poor. I thought I couldn’t do that as a short story writer. Actually, short-story writing is how an author is supposed to start. You place several short pieces in magazines or journals. You get noticed by an agent or an editor (or these days, an agent), and then you keep writing short pieces until you can put together a collection of your own. Then, after you make a name for yourself among critics and industry insiders, you write your first novel. I did everything in reverse, because I had unrealistic expectations and overvaulting ambition. Yes, I wanted to be a great American writer, silly me, but as a result, I really found my element in longer works despite having no readership to speak of. I love immersing myself in large projects and not coming up for air for a while. It turns out that no one’s going to buy long novels by an unknown author. I have come to terms with the fact that I may never be commercially successful, but I still have hope that I will be a great writer. I take it on faith. I somehow have come to believe that many people will read my work and enjoy reading it one day long after I’m gone. What else could a writer ever want but that? Money means nothing compared to this.
DO YOU HAVE ADVICE TO THE YOUNG WRITER (WHO PRESUMABLY WILL BE DEALING WITH DIFFERENT TECHNOLOGY, POLITICAL CONCERNS AND SOCIAL STRUCTURES).
Make sure you pay the bills. It is hard to write from a position of abject poverty, especially in a hyper-capitalist society such as ours. Arts for art’s sake lost its validity a long time ago. Money speaks louder in this age than art. I wish it were different, but it just doesn’t change, especially if we are members of the Western world. Perhaps it has never changed. Only a handful of authors make it, and this is nothing new in America. So make sure to pay the bills, eat well, and live a good, healthy life so that you can live to write another day and not face the utter loss associated with poverty and sickness. Keep yourself healthy and don’t forget that you have to live your life as well as write your greatest works. There is no avoiding it. Artists cannot live in a vacuum. We still have to survive. And always remember from Hemingway that “living well is the best revenge.”
ASIDE FROM THE FACT THAT EACH BOOK IS A DIFFERENT BEAST, HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY BIG CHANGES IN YOUR WRITING OVER THE DECADES?
Ever since I left writing school and departed from the world of literary fiction, I think my work has gotten somewhat less artistic, more plot-oriented but easier to read. I had figured the goal was more to entertain an audience and not weigh readers down with narratives that are too rich and grave with meaning. My stories have gotten simpler, less complex, riskier in terms of what is considered to be good taste, and less involved in what good books ought to be like. My recent books have been much better researched, although artistically they still leave me unsatisfied.
IS YOUR UPCOMING 9/11 NOVEL THE FIRST YOU’VE HAD TO DO A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF RESEARCH ON?
I had to do a lot of research on the genocide in Bangladesh by West Pakistan in the 1970s for Orphan of Mecca Trilogy, and also much research was done on Mister Big, which is a book about a football lineman and his fall from grace after an injury. When I first started out writing, much of my work was simply creative and imaginative, but now, I am using research more and more to write my books. I am currently doing this for The Queen of Intelligence, which is the September 11th book. I find the research absolutely fascinating. Now if only I could write the damn thing when the time comes to sit down and get to the real work.
WHAT KIND OF WRITING HABITS DO YOU HAVE?
The rule of thumb is to write every day. But we also have to make sure we don’t dip into poverty or illness because of it. We still have to have shelter and food, good health, and the things we need to survive. So I have always tried to write every day, but admittedly, I also have to pay the rent, do things for friends, read at events, go to the library and read books, comb the internet for news, take care of my sick parents, et cetera. Writing every day is a good goal to have, but one shouldn’t forsake one’s quality of life or the needs of others in one’s life either.
Right now, I am burnt out from publishing two books back-to-back. Also, to make ends meet, I am editing manuscripts for money and doing research for my next novel about the events leading up to September 11th. The editing takes up time, and the research will take up more time than that, maybe a year or two. Then the actual writing of the next book starts, and who knows how long that will take. So the rule of thumb is to write every day, yes, but we have to deal with certain realities too. We can’t write all day, every day, or else we’d end up with a humongous collection of unorganized work on a hard drive. It just doesn’t work that way. I know some writers who are senior citizens who have manually typed works over the course of several decades, and now they have no idea where their work will go after they pass. We have to be practical about balancing regular commitments with writing daily sometimes.
Right now, I am not writing. I am editing manuscripts and doing research, as I mentioned. Back in the 1990s, as a young and naïve writer, I wrote for six hours a day. I was a hermit who soon turned into a madman. I had no life at all. Be very careful to take care of yourself. It is a much different world than it was during the writing industry’s hey-day of the 1950s. Back then, a young writer could write for six to eight hours a day and get away with it. Back then, getting paid for writing was much, much easier.
I ONCE READ THAT CHARLES DICKENS TOOK LONG DAILY WALKS (AND SOMETIMES AT NIGHT). DO YOU FIND IT NECESSARY TO ENGAGE IN SOME KIND OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY OR HOBBY TO BE CREATIVE?
Taking long walks really helps. I get to think a lot. Sometimes I’ll listen to music or watch an inspiring movie, but other than that, not really. For me, though, I just listen to music, sit at my desk, and cry! Discipline usually works for me – just sit there and squeeze the blood out of my brain and onto the page, as a writer once said.
IF I READ ALL OF YOUR BOOKS AND THEN SPENT THE AFTERNOON WITH YOU, WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD MOST SURPRISE ME?
Realizing how much of a manic-depressive I really am. Even though the sun is shining, there is still gloom and doom hovering over us. I am a born schizophrenic who has been in 13 psych wards, spent 60 days in jail, been to five alcohol rehabs, was at one time wealthy as a younger man, and declared bankruptcy twice (and might be headed to another).
You’d be very surprised to know that my high school class voted me “most likely to succeed” and how incredibly wrong they were. You’d be surprised to know that I am an Indian/Pakistani, because you’d think I were Italian, Spanish, Mexican, or Portuguese visually, or at least a Black or White American from reading my books. You would also notice that I talk a lot more about existential, real-life issues of survival rather than more flighty, intellectual issues and ideas (even though I spent my life thus far writing novels). In other words, while we’re having dinner and discussing my books, I’d be worrying about how I’d pay my share of the check.
You’d also be surprised that I grew up partly in Alphabet City, New York, back when it was the most dangerous neighborhood in Manhattan – so dangerous that taxi cabs wouldn’t pick up any customers there. Maybe you’d even be surprised that I speak English at all and do not work pumping gas in New Jersey, or help my family run a shitty, roadside motel, or sell Lottery tickets, scratch-offs, and overpriced cigarettes at your local convenience store. I think you’d be surprised that I actually wrote novels, short stories, and essays at all. You’d probably think I had entered the country illegally by stowing away in the cargo hold of an Air India or PIA passenger jet. And lastly, you never would have known that, when I was a young man just starting out as a writer at 21, I wanted to be just like Norman Mailer, and that I even acted like him back then too — to the rolling eyes of my wise writing instructors at my writing school.
Being a Pakistani-American Author/The Immigrant Experience
THE LITERARY WORLD (AND THE ARTS IN GENERAL) HAS ALWAYS SEEMED PRETTY ACCEPTING OF USA AUTHORS WHO WRITE ABOUT THE 1ST/2ND GENERATION IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE. DOES BEING PAKISTANI-AMERICAN COME WITH A LOT OF BAGGAGE?
I do not write about the Pakistani immigrant experience. The subject doesn’t interest me at all. I just write about everyday Americans and the American experience through mostly White-American and Black-American characters. I do not write about Pakistani or Indian-Americans. I did write about the Middle East, such as the Islamic religious/political thriller, The Imam. I did write about the genocide in Bangladesh. And I am working on a book about September 11th, which is set in the Middle East. But other than that, the immigrant experience is hackneyed subject-matter that really ought to have been put to rest in the late 1990s.
I am more interested in writing about the everyday struggles of black and white Americans. There is no way I will ever land a publishing deal with a traditional publishing house because of it. I can make it fine on my own, by the grace of God.
HOW DID FAMILY MEMBERS AND RELATIVES REACT TO YOUR WRITERLY AMBITIONS?
At first they laughed at it; now they are mostly angry. They insist, at the age of 50, that I get a real job. And because I don’t have a real job and have hardly any income, probably won’t ever get married, and don’t have any children, they treat me like a child. But I love my parents dearly, and they reluctantly put up with me when I ask them for a loan every now and then or when I get into legal trouble. But I get shit for it all the time. I can still hear them yell at me to “get a job” or to make money instead of wasting my time writing novels.
Orphan of Mecca Trilogy
YOU SET VOLUME 1 OF ORPHAN OF MECCA TRILOGY DURING THE STRUGGLE FOR BANGLADESHI INDEPENDENCE. WHAT GOT YOU INTERESTED IN THAT?
I had no idea that I would write about Bangladeshi Independence when I started the trilogy. I simply had a picture of a young, barefooted orphan from Mecca, dirty from the streets, making it to our American shores somehow. That’s all I wanted to write about. The stuff about Bangladesh is more of an afterthought that follows that original concept. At the time. I believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had already started, and the times demanded that I write something about the Islamic experience in America. For some reason, like a Ouija board, the pointer guided the trilogy towards the subject matter of the creation of the nation of Bangladesh. It was never my intention to write about it at the outset. Weird, right?
DID YOU FIRST CONCEIVE OF IT AS THREE BOOKS? DID THE FINAL RESULT DIFFER MARKEDLY FROM HOW YOU FIRST IMAGINED IT?
I had a long book in mind, and it was simply a more practical matter that I divided the book into three parts. I thought it would be more digestible that way, because each part was set in different places. Part One is in East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, while Part Three is on the streets of America, for example. It just makes the trilogy easier to read.
For some reason, though, I’ve always wanted to write long books like the pros always do. (I have no idea why). After I wrote Mister Big, one critic said that it was “comically long,” as though he knew of my secret desire to write the great long novel, like Les Miserables, War and Peace, or Moby Dick. And so, embarrassed as I am to admit it, I did want Orphan to be a great, long trilogy. I simply wrote these books all out at once and divided the entire long manuscript into three parts. Isn’t that something an amateur would do? Well, I’m still an amateur at this stage of the game, so as much as I hate to admit it, that’s what I did.
WRITING A BOOK (OR TRILOGY) TEACHES AN AUTHOR SOMETHING — MAYBE A LOT OF THINGS. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF WRITING THIS TRILOGY.
Endurance as an author, plain and simple. I learned to endure the long book and to continue writing it even though I was terribly exhausted and had nowhere to take it. Mister Big is the same way. It is forced, ‘the mind bleeding on the page,’ as one poet put it long ago. For some reason, I just had to squeeze my brain until it hurt, even though I have never been up to the task of writing a trilogy, of all things. Trust me, the final result was not planned. The readers of this trilogy ought to notice how each book that follows is shorter than the one before it. That’s the author (myself) gasping for breath as I try to swim the last laps of the heat. It was hard to write, and I really don’t mind admitting it. Hey, “if the writer doesn’t suffer, the reader will,” and so, I suffered on purpose and maybe for no reason (if the reader turns out not to like it).
Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill: Romantic Delusions & Sexual Politics
WHAT WAS THE EASIEST BOOK TO WRITE? THE HARDEST?
The Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill, (my latest book) was the easiest to write. A lot of it is based on a real character with whom I did have a real relationship, and it was the first time I had written a book based upon my own life experience. I finally gave myself permission to do this. All of my other books deal with issues that are important to me personally, but those books, their plots and their characters, are all imagined. A lot of Gypsy really did happen. I wrote it quickly, and it was easier to write because the material was already there.
The hardest was probably The Thruway Killers. I really tried to combine the writing of a good plot with real and well-rounded characters. With literary fiction, plot usually follows character in terms of priorities in a novel. But in this case, I tried to make them both important, because I really needed The Thruway Killers to be a good, entertaining read. Luckily, the book was received well, and it turns out that the plot was probably the most inventive I’ve ever written. I am better at developing characters than planning out strong plots. I wanted to do both, and I hope the reader benefited from that. It is very hard to do both successfully. We usually get one or the other – character in literary fiction or plot in commercial fiction. I wanted to do both, because I believe the most successful novels tend to go in that direction.
WHAT PROTAGONIST OR CHARACTER VIEWPOINT HAS BEEN THE HARDEST TO WRITE?
My protagonists are usually flawed men, and I guess I can identify with that, because I am a flawed man, like every man is. Male protagonists are the easiest to write for me. I guess I don’t have much experience writing female characters, so I would say that women are the toughest to write for me. But this is all about to change, because with the next book, The Queen of Intelligence, the protagonist is a female CIA asset. The only protagonist that I came close to writing is in The Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill and the character of Gypsy. But while she may be considered to be the book’s protagonist, we actually see her through Charlie’s eyes.
THE CENTRAL RELATIONSHIP OF CHARLIE AND GYPSY
One of the harsh criticisms of the book is that its theme is really an old trope of how the woman in the relationship leads to the demise of the man. And while there is truth to that, there is always the initial hope on the reader’s part that the portrayed relationship
I think of the movie Pretty Woman for some reason, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. This was more fairy tale than anything else, but it is my personal view that reality is usually quite the opposite. Take Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights or even Othello and Desdemona, a relationship doomed to failure, because we already know the outcome before we even begin. Love’s tragedy of this kind is much easier to write about and to feel genuine, because I believe it is much more prevalent in our world, and we remember it the most, because it hurts and is felt much more than love’s successes. In that way, love’s failure is always much easier to write about in a genuine way. Dysfunctional relationships and the need for a couple to preserve what they have permeates our world to a greater degree than the perfect couple and their perfect love and their perfect life. It’s just never that easy. Our most passionate relationships, in my humble view, are always star-crossed. In that sense, no, it wasn’t hard for this book to try to feel genuine. But whether or not the relationship in this book actually feels genuine is up to the reader to decide, ultimately. I hope I did an adequate job of it.
THERE IS A STRONG LEVEL OF ECONOMIC ALIENATION AND DESPERATION IN GYPSY. WOULD GREATER FINANCIAL SECURITY HAVE BEEN SUFFICIENT TO HELP THE PROTAGONIST REALIZE HIS ROMANTIC DREAMS (AT LEAST A SCALED VERSION OF IT)? OR ARE ALL MEN (RICH AND POOR) EQUALLY SUSCEPTIBLE TO THIS KIND OF ROMANTIC PROJECTION?
I don’t think money would have helped this relationship at all. More money may have strung it out a little more and given them both a false sense of security, but a romantic dream is more about staying together even without any money, and deep down, a man already knows this.
I remember in Albany, there was an elderly couple who lived in an old beat-up van and had street-parked it off Western Avenue in uptown Pine Hills. When I saw them sitting in the front seats, their white hairs tangled messes and all of their earthly possessions piled up in the back of their van, I really thought that what I beheld was a couple that had fulfilled their romantic dreams. Poverty couldn’t break this couple through many years of being together. They couldn’t exist living apart. The couple had become one and needed each other so thoroughly that even through homelessness and hunger their love had survived. Financial security may have helped them, but it didn’t necessarily aid or abet their romantic dreams any more than being totally broke, down and out, and being homeless in a van. In my view, love is on a much higher level that transcends wealth, but then again, I’ve never been in love before, so I can’t really say. I’m just lucky and privileged enough to see examples of it from time to time.
While money is important in any relationship, it really doesn’t mean anything to a man. It isn’t the ultimate, in other words. For a man, the opposite has to be true in order to have his romantic dreams realized. He desires a woman who will stick with him even when he’s broke and down and out, like the woman in the van did for her man. And this wasn’t just a fucking fairy tale either! It was real.
THIS NOVEL SEEMS WRITTEN MORE FOR A MALE AUDIENCE THAN A FEMALE AUDIENCE. DO YOU AGREE? WHAT’S THE MOST INTERESTING THING THAT A FEMALE READER COULD GAIN BY READING THIS NOVEL?
You’re right; I do think it is written more for a male audience than a female one. Females don’t need Charlie. It is usually the other way around. Charlie needs Gypsy. Heterosexual men hunger for a woman like Gypsy. They need Gypsy to totally drive them crazy and nearly ruin their lives. That’s why men love this kind of woman in the first place, and that’s how such a woman can easily control and overpower a man such as Charlie. Also, men need to be touched by women. They need to feel their skin upon theirs. And because these sirens call, men are easily destroyed by women of this kind as well.
Most heterosexual men can relate, as literature is peppered with many great examples of this. Nabokov’s Lolita comes to mind. By reading this book, females
HAS TV OR FILM INFLUENCED YOUR WRITING MUCH? WHAT NON-BOOKISH THINGS HAVE EXERTED AN INFLUENCE ON YOUR BOOKS?
Remember that book by Nick Hornsby, High Fidelity? I grew up on all kinds of media. I watched television all day and all night, like in that hit HBO comedy series Dream On. I watched everything, and I listened to very loud rock and roll music constantly and repetitively. I drove my poor mother nuts! And I must have seen a thousand movies at the theaters. I read mainly in school, but I also read many books outside of school too. By the time I got to college, I was ready for the asylum.
At first, I had to write my books visually. I wrote the movies that played in my head. That’s how greatly movies and television influenced my writing. I was all the visual image. It was only over the last twenty years or so that books took a clear and commanding role in my writing life. Now I really can’t stand movies or television, and neither do I trust the two forms of media. I trust books, and I am a certifiable news junkie. In fact, my friends have to yell at me to shut off the news and stay away from newspapers. Nowadays, I just turn on the TV for the noise. It helps with the loneliness and the silence of writing.
But politics and current affairs definitely shape my writing. So does
IT ALMOST SEEMS THAT THE FASTEST WAY TO GET A STORY MADE INTO A MOVIE IS TO WRITE ABOUT A FAMOUS PERSON OR A NOTORIOUS CRIME. DOES THAT HORRIFY OR SURPRISE YOU?
Actually, the entire “New Journalism” movement was built on stories of notorious crimes and famous people, and the writers who penned such creative work are probably my favorites – Wolfe, Capote, Mailer, Vidal, etc. For me, these are the greatest writers that America has ever produced, mainly based on their ability to infuse
But movies are different. Biopics about famous people have always been staples of the film industry, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that screenplays are often made based on the lives of famous people. When I was much younger, I used to love going to these biopics and thinking that, one day, I could be like the persons depicted on the screens. And of course, these portrayals are usually highly romanticized, almost heroic, depending on who these people are. Nothing of the sort ever happened in my life, but watching these biopics did, nevertheless, inspire me to follow my dreams and pursue all of the things that landed me into a lot of trouble later in life! But I don’t think one has to write about a famous person or a notorious crime to get a story made into a Hollywood movie.
Getting a screenplay accepted by an agent or a film studio, (let alone having that movie greenlighted), is a one-in-a-million chance in itself. It’s like winning the lottery. But if a nascent screenwriter really believes in him or herself, I would say go for it, but knowing full-well that he or she shouldn’t bet the house on it. Movies are tough to make in general, and instead of just writing a screenplay for it, it would be much better if the writer also raised or borrowed the funds to hire the director and the actors to produce the damn thing on his or her own. This would be the far better route as well as the fastest – not necessarily by writing about a famous person or a notorious crime. Because in my opinion, it’s the story that matters, not the subject.
YOUR FICTION HAS ADEPTLY TACKLED SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ISSUES. DO YOU WORRY ABOUT SOUNDING TOO PREACHY?
When I wrote my first book, Noble McCloud, one reviewer didn’t like the book at all and remarked (paraphrasing Louis Mayer), “if you want to send a message, send it Western Union.” Back then, I was heavily involved in politics, and I considered myself an activist just like most other writers and artists in New York City during the neo-liberal heyday of the 1990s. But after I received that criticism, I really believed that the critic was right, and so now I try to avoid social messages that interfere with or supersede the stories and the characters I am writing about. If I do want to establish a political point of view, though, there are many ways to do it using subtler means than the type of overt moralism that used to mar my earlier work. While I am still proud of that earlier work, I should have toned it down for the reader.
CAN YOU NAME A NOVEL BY SOMEONE ELSE WHICH ACHIEVES THE OPTIMAL BALANCE BETWEEN THE ARTISTIC AND THE POLITICAL?
I love, really love, Norman Mailer’s work. That whole post World War II generation is where my true heroes lie. And from the other end of the political spectrum, even Thom Wolfe’s satirical fiction is excellent. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is another good example, although that’s poetry, with his view of “Moloch” and other interjections of political and cultural outrage. There’s the great Arthur Koestler, Frank Norris, and John Steinbeck, and we can even go far back as Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. And that’s not to mention the Black American writers, such as Wright, Baldwin, Ellison, Wideman, Morrison, Baraka, Hughes, and almost every writer of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.
Then there’s Orwell, Kipling, and especially Athol Fugard who railed
Science fiction can often do that as well.
Sci fi writers can criticize the hell out of any society or political condition and advance plenty of political and philosophical ideas, which is why I love reading them from time to time. I have written several science fiction
Staying Sane in a Covid-Infected World
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU ASK YOURSELF THE MOST?
Where are all the women? When do I get to drink all the booze without any consequences? Where’s the good life that had been promised to all writers? When do I become the rich and famous author featured on the cover of GQ Magazine? In other words, where is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Well, I’m definitely not traveling along the arc of a rainbow, and there is definitely not a pot of gold at the end of this journey. Quite the opposite, I’m afraid, but a job well done so far, if I could say something in my defense.
WHAT HAS SURPRISED YOU THE MOST ABOUT THE COVID CRISIS? HOW ARE YOU ADAPTING? IS THERE ANY KIND OF ACTIVITY YOU ARE EAGER TO DO AFTER THIS DAMN THING IS BEHIND US?
Actually I found it very easy to adapt to the COVID crisis. I found myself complaining very little, doing what our leaders told us to do, and keeping my big mouth shut. Of course, it is not over yet. The first thing I want to do is attend a reading at the NYS Writers Institute here in Albany. And then, I want to go to a reading where my poet friends are.
HAVE THERE BEEN OCCASIONS WHERE THE STRUGGLES OF A WRITER’S LIFE REALLY GOT TO YOU? HOW DO YOU THINK THAT YOU’VE MANAGED TO STAY IN THE GAME?
Every day it gets to me. It’s all I think about. The writer’s life is rife with misery and suffering. It promises nothing and tells us to like it. It’s dark. It’s the road less traveled without the sunlight of happiness on it.
And if some young kid comes up to me and asks if he or she should be a writer, I would tell that kid to get a job and
But I’ve managed to stay a writer for so long because (thank God) I have had a fixed income and an education that gets me by every month, made possible by my parents who came to this country and endured much hardship to provide a good secure life for me. Secondly, because I am disabled, I receive some Social Security income. So, even though I can’t work, I do get help for living expenses from a government to whom I am forever indebted and grateful, (even though I have criticized the hell out of it every day of my life). But aside from that, I have stayed in the game, because I am really not geared for anything else. I remember reading a survey in a literary magazine that covered what all of these rich and famous artists would be doing if they suddenly had a real job. Poet Donald Justice said that the only thing he could really do was operate a small drawbridge. See, I’m much the same way, because once you start writing full time, good luck trying to be competent in anything else! Once a writer, always a writer. Get out while you can!
Robert Nagle is founder of Personville Press and has been blogging for more than 20 years. He has done extended interviews with a literary giant, a songwriter and a movie critic. He writes a semi-regular column (Robert’s Roundup) about low-priced indie ebooks.