As a representative of the Association of Jewish Libraries, I had the unique opportunity to interview Austin Ratner about his new novel. His previous novel, Jump Artist, received the Jewish Book Council Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2011.
Barbara Krasner (BK): On behalf of the Association of Jewish Libraries, hello and welcome, Austin. Thanks for joining me in this cyber discussion about your second novel, In the Land of the Living.
Austin Ratner (AR): I appreciate the opportunity for an interview and for your thoughtful questions.
BK: What inspired the idea for this book?
AR: When I was in college, I consulted my creative writing teacher about a problem I imagined was unique to me: I had lost my father when I was so young I could not remember him, yet I had a recurring urge to write about him, his death, and how he lingered in my thoughts and feelings. I asked my teacher if he had any advice and I was surprised by his response. He told me that he too had lost his father in his earliest years and that everything he wrote related in some way to this loss, but he cautioned me against trying to write about it directly. As I get older and more experienced with the difficulties of writing and selling fiction, his advice seems only more sensible. Nonetheless, I could never quite exorcise the urge to write directly on this topic. That is what In the Land of the Living is about: a traumatic loss in early childhood and how it can dominate the thoughts of a person for the rest of his life.
AR: While The Jump Artist also dealt with the lingering effects of emotional injury, it was in many ways a more straightforward story. It was about one discrete period of an adult man’s life. The premise of In the Land of the Living meant linking together two lives—a father and a son—that only intersected on earth for a few years. That posed technical challenges to me as a novelist.
BK: What was the greatest challenge? The greatest satisfaction?
AR: For all the lip-service paid to the importance of child development in our society, I do not find most people to be particularly psychologically literate about it or particularly interested in thinking about it. I view it as a personal victory that I was able to write directly and truthfully about the underserved theme of childhood loss and its residua, and to get it into print with a major publisher in both the U.S. and France. It’s the most civilized response I think I could mount against this particularly helpless experience. Several years ago, when I wrote about the theme more autobiographically in The New York Times Magazine, I heard from all kinds of people who felt as I did. I hope I speak for them as well as to them.
BK: What thought process did you use to set up Isidore as a knight (and the chapter headings)?
AR: Picaresque medieval romances like Le Morte D’Arthur use grandiose chapter titles that confer legendary significance upon everything the knights do. I used such titles in Part I of my novel in the same spirit that Cervantes uses them in Don Quixote: to satirize quixotic, heroic, romantic ideals—or at least to draw a contrast between them and the more sordid and brutal reality. Whereas Don Quixote often undermines the heroic ideal by comic failures, the brutal reality of what happens to Isidore undermines the heroic ideal in a particularly tragic way.
BK: The relationship between Leo and Mack fascinates me—how one event can shift the foundation of a relationship. How did this come about? Was it difficult or easy to write? What led to the choice of Leo as your protagonist?
AR: The relationship between the brothers I think is really important to help aerate the protagonist Leo’s internal warfare with his own past. With Mack in it, the narrative is not only about Leo and his past but about another person too, and Leo’s interactions with his brother are a narrative strategy for telling the story of Leo’s relation to his own past in a dynamic, living, present-tense sort of way. Brothers share a certain history, and so a brother can be a living representative of one’s own past, and a way of interacting with one’s own past in an external way.
BK: One of the characteristics I’ve noticed about your writing is your specificity, for example, the scene in the New Haven Public Library: “But this library couldn’t save him, with its shabby little collections, its early closing time, its oblivious teenage librarian doing her homework, making fat redundant loops of blue ballpoint ink on some wide-ruled notebook paper.” Does this come naturally to you or do you insert these details strategically?
AR: We recently started reading Charlotte’s Web to my younger son. Its details create a persuasive fictional dream in a way that many other children’s stories don’t. Charlotte’s Web is of course by E.B. White, the master himself, co-author of Elements of Style. That classic writing primer says: “The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”
BK: What do you want readers to take away from In the Land of the Living?
AR: If I’ve emulated E.B. White’s use of detail, I couldn’t aspire to the beautiful simplicity of his story structure—and the reason perhaps goes back to the decision not to back away from a direct, realistic treatment of childhood loss despite this subject’s enormous psychological complexity. Literature has perhaps moved on from the deep introspection of modernism, but the emotional terrain of childhood loss requires such deep modernist introspection, wherein a persuasive fictional dream of inner life occupies the foreground and a diverting story the background. I hope readers enjoy the story and the humor in In the Land of the Living, but the more important thing to me is whether readers experience a persuasive fictional dream and feel they’ve encountered another real consciousness in the book. A persuasive fictional dream is always more diverting to me than a conventional story anyway.
BK: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you go from med school to the Iowa Workshop?
AR: This question always makes me think of Gonzo in The Muppet Movie. He tells Kermit and Fozzie he’s going to Bombay, India to become a movie star. They tell him: you don’t go to Bombay, India to become a movie star, you go to Hollywood, where we’re going. Gonzo says, sure, if you want to do it the easy way. I always wanted to be a writer, but I did not take a direct path. There are worse paths, though, than the one that leads through a medical career. Somerset Maugham said that medical school was the ideal preparation for any fiction writer.
BK: What’s your typical writing schedule? In other words, how do you write?
AR: When I am not crippled by self-doubt, I write automatically, like I eat and breathe and sleep. The trick for me is to combat the doubt. Then the words come and work gets done and something gets created.
BK: Thanks, Austin, for a great interview. I can’t wait to read your next work.
For more about Austin Ratner>>>