I was a late bloomer when it came to reading. Everyone around me seemed to pick it up with Dick, Jane and Spot in the first grade, I remained back in the special reading group until well into the second grade. Looking back I think this might be due to the fact that Dick and Jane just hovered there in white space without any background. They existed in no place. Once I discovered that books and stories could transport you to another place I became a voracious reader.
As writers we all know that Place can be not only the background, but also a supporting character to the work. It gives our characters elements by proxy. Fitzgerald’s New York, Faulkner’s South, Steinbeck’s California, Kansas via Capote and the Wyoming of Proulx. All vivid places, travels and landscapes drafted in words.
I have two favorite places that make me feel secure though they might seem as opposites of one another. The safety of my writing room and the bustling streets of NYC. That’s just the way it comes down for me. I would guess that the safety of my writing room is obvious, but the fact that you can walk the streets of NYC, anonymous and inspired… A thrilling place for a writer.
Robert Westfield’s Suspension is a book that charmed me in the fact that it features both of these places. The hero of the story, a Hell’s Kitchen shut-in. We see the city as a backdrop known just outside of the secure four walls of the main character’s apartment.
As a book it all made me smile. Dark humour, farce, cultural observations, a bit of paranoia, a reclusive hero and a journey within a modest apartment.
I’m still smiling.
These days, any book that makes me smile certainly makes me want to talk to the author and share them with my Litpark friends.
Litpark pals, meet Robert Westfield.
LR: Hello Robert, Welcome to LitPark.
Suspension seems a mix of many things, but your love of NYC runs through the whole. A tribute to the city in some ways. Was this intended as a tribute to a post-911 NYC?
RW: I didn’t necessarily set out to write a tribute or, as it states in the jacket copy, an homage…though I wouldn’t argue with the terms; I set out to write about the emotional fallout and instability of that period. The majority of the narrative takes place during the nine months before September eleventh and the nine months afterwards. There has been an enormous attention paid to the day itself, but I was more interested in writing about the aftermath. It was a conscious decision to have Andy lock himself in his apartment a month before the attacks…we see Andy walk up the stairs at the end of that chapter and lock his door, there’s a sentence-long reference to the morning of September eleventh and then the next chapter opens in November. I was fascinated that fall by how people coped, how they struggled to find a new kind of stability in a stunned, shaken and now topsy-turvy world. Each of the characters in the novel responds in a different way to this loss of control, to the fear, hysteria, paranoia that comes with the awareness that most of your life is being decided by other people behind your back.
LR: Your love and knowledge of NYC seems great; Have you considered writing a hipster tour book? (I’m imagining it like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees)
RW: Definitely. I’ve been giving tours of New York since ’97 and would love to put that decade of experience and research onto the page. The project I’m working on now is a hybrid of sorts…part tour book, part collection of stories that are interwoven through a four-day itinerary. My goal is for the readers to feel as if they’ve gone on a tour of the city by experiencing it through the minds of ten or twelve characters. Each of the characters has an aspect of American culture that I want to engage. Overall, I want the book to explore New York, cities in general and what it means to travel away from home, what it means to be a tourist.
LR: You clearly enjoy the literary history of NYC. Any favorite legends you’d like to walk us through with a few words?
RW: In a city of competing and collaborating egos, one of my favorite anecdotes comes from Sherwood Anderson who, after publishing Winesburg, Ohio, moved to St. Luke’s Place, a few doors down from the literary god of the time, Theodore Dreiser, whose name was abbreviated “The.” One morning Sherwood Anderson gets the courage up to knock on “The Dreiser’s” door. And the author himself opens it. As soon as Andersen begins introducing himself, the door is shut in his face. Shocked, humiliated, outraged, he goes off to a few local pubs and drinks. Hours later, when he returns home, he finds a note from “The Dreiser” apologizing, explaining how nervous he’d been when he found himself face-to-face with such a great writer like Anderson.
In time for the holidays, here’s one of my favorites and explains why images of “Old Christmas” are almost exclusively Victorian. (Credit for this goes to Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, which is a profound cultural history of the holiday and not related to the silly and shallow War on Christmas books.) Before the 1820’s, Christmas was a completely different holiday. The roots go back to the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a harvest holiday when Saturn was released, chaos reigned, the streets were full of bacchanalian revelry, and masters and servants would switch places for the duration. This served as a social gauge and was understandably popular with the servants. Hundreds of years later, a monk placed the birth of Christ atop this pagan tradition in an attempt to smother it. Religious leaders were riled, asking what shepherds would be tending their flock by night in Syria in late December? When the Puritans came to New England, the holiday was outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The way the holiday was celebrated for centuries was with marauding members of the lower class knocking on the doors of the wealthy, caroling or wasailing in order to be invited inside to partake of the best wine and food the house had to offer. Think trick-or-treating. In the rapidly growing city of New York, there was a move to alter this tradition. The Knickerbockers, a wealthy social set with literary interests, which included Washington Irving (America’s first full-time writer and the man whose fabricated history of New York introduced the fictitious Knickerbocker family and the name “Gotham,” a man so respected that one bank printed his face on currency to attract investors and a developer named a street after him to lure residents to the newly laid out Gramercy Park), decided to celebrate the holiday the way their Dutch forebears did. Of course, it was all phony. The Dutch did have a St. Nicholas Day in the beginning of December (or at least the Catholic Dutch back in Holland did), but the New Yorkers pulled in several disparate harvest traditions and invented others. A poem was crafted…A Visit from St. Nicholas…the patron saint of New Amsterdam (the Dutch name for NYC). Whether Clement Clarke Moore penned it or someone else as was recently claimed, it was a radical poem that cast Santa as a worker (he smokes a short pipe, and everyone at the time knew that only workers smoked short pipes…they broke off the stems to fit them in their pockets while the wealthy left their pipes hanging on the tavern walls). In the poem, Santa (the worker) is someone who leaves gifts instead of guzzling your wine and is someone who comes down the chimney allowing you leave your front door firmly closed to the street. But what’s most radical is the idea that instead of masters switching places with servants, the children switch places with their parents. So these writers, mainly in Greenwich Village and the area now known as Chelsea, are responsible for turning this raucous street holiday based on class into a cozy domestic one centered around the family. And with it comes the birth of consumerism…the first goods in the history of manufacturing to be given away by the purchaser were Christmas gift books; the cult of the child; and the countless traditions we now consider centuries old. Who says poets can’t rock the world?
LR: As writers we all work with solitude, your protagonist rationalizes finding a Walden-esque existence within his apartment; Do you work this way yourself?
RW: Andy comes up with all sorts of justification for locking himself in his apartment, but in seven months doesn’t produce anything other than cranky letters and word games. I hope I’m far more productive. I used to be able to write anywhere at any time. I could sit at the kitchen counter and draft stories or scenes as my family yammered around me. I could borrow a friend’s computer and blissfully work while she rearranged furniture to paint her living room. I could have full conversations, which I later didn’t remember… “Sure, I’ll help you move that couch, just give me a few minutes.” Nowadays, I need to be alone, away from distractions, drafting on the computer with phones off and my Internet temporarily disabled. I can still brainstorm and edit in cafes or bars or on the subway, but when it comes to drafting I have to be alone. I prefer when I can work uninterrupted for a few hours each morning and then be more social for the rest of the day, but I do often disappear for a few weeks at a time. I don’t restrict myself to my apartment…I walk through parks, swim at my gym, stroll through museums…but yes, weeks can go by without “touching base” with friends or family. It was easier when writing plays, because, for one, they’re shorter, and I was more frequently meeting up with actors and directors to discuss the script or read scenes aloud. Writing a novel, however, requires longer, lonelier periods of isolation. For me at least.
LR: In addition to Suspension you are also a playwright. Anything going up on stage soon?
RW: I’m creeping back to it. I was just informally commissioned (for “informally commissioned,” read “not paid but asked nicely”) to write a play for four actors. At this point, I’ve written: “A Play with Four Actors.” So far, that’s all I have. It needs some work obviously. I’m also currently collaborating with a Dutch actress on a play about a woman she knows on an island in Croatia. This play is much farther along: “A Play for Nanette. Setting: Croatia.” Again, there’s work to do, but this will hopefully be co-produced in New York and Amsterdam in the next year or two. We’ll see. Hey! Wait a second”¦if I make this one a play for four actors”¦
Thanks for coming by the Park!
Robert was born in Maryland in 1972 and spent his early years in Japan, Hawaii, California, and West Virginia before his family returned to Maryland and settled in Bryans Road, a small, one-stoplight community south of Washington. In 1990, Robert moved to New York to attend Columbia where he twice won the college playwriting prize as well as the fiction award and the Henry Evans Traveling Fellowship which funded a writing/research trip to Greece and Italy. He spent his twenties catering, temping and leading tours of New York while writing for the theater (A Wedding Album, The Pennington Plot, A Tulip Economy, and A Home Without). He was the writer-in-residence for The Working Group and a dramaturge on Marc Wolf’s award-winning solo play, Another American: Asking and Telling. Suspension is his first novel. He currently lives in upper Manhattan.
When not locked in the pantry evading anxiety attacks and sacrificing large quantities of peanut butter cups and Stewart’s Root Beer to the most recent copy of Writer’s Market, Lance Reynald can be found doing what most un-agented writers do all day; practicing signing his name with a Sharpie on 5X7 cards in hope that creative visualization will pay off in a book deal. Once the Sharpie huffing wears off he settles in to finishing up a shopable draft of POP SALVATION, the story of a boy who wanted to be Andy Warhol. He also distracts himself plenty with his blog at Myspace.
Okay, guys, you can friend Robert at Myspace. And if you’d like to catch him in person, his next appearance is December 5, 5:30 at Labyrinth Books, New Haven, CT.