“You’re furthest from home when you’re at home”
Three Potential Masters:
I first met David Leo Rice two years ago, in a workshop taught by the novelist Patrick McGrath. Rice pretty much immediately distinguished himself as one of the most fully-formed artists in the room. Since then, I’ve been following his career closely. He’s continued to show me things I’ve never seen before. To me, his works aren’t just exercises in imagination, but explorations of what is imaginable.
I’d argue this is most true in Rice’s recently published second novel, ANGEL HOUSE. The story follows Professor Squimbop, a sort of psychopomp who sails across an Inland Sea in his floating mansion, the eponymous ANGEL HOUSE. Whenever Squimbop makes anchor in a town, said town has just one year to survive. During this time, Squimbop lectures the town’s children about the futility of life, inviting them to sail away with him in ANGEL HOUSE instead of being consumed in the town’s collapse. Usually, his pitch is quite successful, but this time Squimbop encounters unexpected resistance in the form of two nine-year-old filmmakers, whose Pretend Movie, entitled The Dream of Escape, seems to bolster their spirits against the prospect of giving in to his promise of relief.
Somehow, all of this is kind of hilarious.
As Rice’s only epic-length novel to date, ANGEL HOUSE takes an especially deep dive into his obsessions: movies, mysticism, comedy, and artistic identity. Rice agreed to speak with me about both the story and its sweeping thematic content. In the course of this conversation, we also discussed several of his other works, including his Room in Dodge City trilogy, his novella The Emergency Hotel, and his newest novel, The New House.
We conducted the interview where we first met: The New School. Specifically, the courtyard of the Eugene Lang building. The day was gray, and everything seemed kind of watery. We spoke for hours, interrupted now and again by campus tour guides and sparrows. Something about all of that felt appropriate.
I. On The Interchangeability of Towns
THE BELIEVER: A lot of your work is haunted by this sense that any one town—maybe I should say any American town—can be safely interchanged with any other. Many of your characters drift from town to town, without being sure if they’ve arrived anywhere new. Where does this idea of interchangeability come from?
DAVID LEO RICE: There are two sides to this phenomenon and they’re both true. On the one hand, there’s an infinite sameness, and every town is interchangeable.
On the other hand, there’s a “homing” impulse in people, a tendency to turn any place—however mediocre, even if they hate it—into something sacred, and thus unique. Sacredness doesn’t mean that they have to love a place, but just that they feel the houses in their town are definitive of what houses are. The place where you grew up becomes the Platonic ideal of a place.
BLVR: I see. So it’s less that you’re in love with your house and more that, “this is now my template for the concept of house.” Would you say this template is decided pretty early in life and never really changes?
DLR: A hundred percent. I’m interested in drifter characters, but my own experience is really the opposite. My whole childhood, I always lived in the same town, in the same house.
BLVR: And this was an American suburb?
DLR: Well, Northampton’s interesting, because it’s kind of both a town and a city, which shows up in ANGEL HOUSE as the “Town’s City.” Northampton is technically a city in the sense of jurisdiction, but it’s only the size of a suburb, despite not being “sub” anything. There’s no other city that people are leaving to go work in.
And not only is it not subordinate to anything, it’s actually the place people come to. People from all around come to Northampton, MA to work and shop and go out, so it’s a regional capital. I’ve been all over the world, and everywhere you go, you meet people who’ve been to Northampton. I’ve never gone somewhere and not met someone who’s been there.
BLVR: You’ve never gone someplace and run into someone who’s like, “Northampton? Never heard of it.”
DLR: Right. Northampton is pretty unique.
BLVR: It almost sounds like a good thing. Like, there’s some kind of positive charge that pulls people in. But in your work, it’s almost always the exact opposite. Wherever we go, there’s this negative charge, and people are certainly drawn to it, but it’s in the way they’d be drawn to the gallows.
DLR: That’s a good way of putting it. It’s the center of the maelstrom.
BLVR: Yeah, man. It’s quicksand. You make it sound cool here, as we’re talking, but the towns in your stories always behave more like traps than, uh, desirable locations.
DLR: If you have a morbid cast of mind, there’s this way in which the things that you’re writing about have a gallows-like quality, but also you have love for them, which you need to sustain in order to continue to write about them. Even people who write about wars must have some sense of being attracted to war.
You can’t have a subject, or be subject to whatever you’re writing about, without having that complex relationship of love and hate. Like a human relationship.
II. Unrelievable Dread
DLR: When I taught at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I used to give people an assignment to write a story with absolutely no conflict. And either they’d just fail, or they’d ostensibly succeed, at least in terms of what was on the page, but the sense you’d get from these works was a kind of ambient, encircling presence of dread. Like something terrible was happening offscreen.
I think about this issue a lot in relation to the horror genre, which I’m sometimes associated with. I appreciate that, but don’t 100% identify with it. If we think about the most traditional kind of slasher horror…
BLVR: Right, that’s not really you.
DLR: And the thing about it is that if something really violent happens—let’s say you’re being chased by Michael Myers, and he stabs you—you can say, “Well, this is bad, but it’s only this bad. This is the exact thing that I was afraid of, and now it’s here.”
So in a way it’s a relief, but I’m more interested in that dread being unrelievable.
BLVR: There’s never any catharsis.
DLR: Right. And this relates to mythic ideas of heroism, dying violently in battle. On the one hand, it’s a bad fate, but on the other hand, it’s a fate to be longed for, because it’s seen as a meaningful form of death, as opposed to wasting away. I think that’s a kind of propaganda of how violence is supposed to confer meaning onto our otherwise nebulous lives.
BLVR: That rings really true with your work, because it’s not ever clear what any particular event means, and the characters have to think about that. Do you necessarily know what it all means? Or is it more the feeling for you?
DLR: Yeah, it’s more the feeling that whatever happens had to happen. And if you’re made to feel that something had to happen without knowing why, to me that’s deeper than knowing why. It takes you into the realm of mysticism.
For example, if you took Eraserhead, and paused it at any moment, and showed that moment to a four-year-old, they could probably tell you what’s on screen. There’s no individual moment in which it’s unclear what’s going on. And yet an infinite number of dissertations have been written about what it all means, and they basically amount to nothing. To me, that’s the highest compliment you can pay a work of art: the “what” is very clear, while the “why” is unclear, but not gratuitous.
Lynch once said, “I’m trying to make mysteries that really are mysteries.” Which means that you feel that as much as can be known about it is known, but it’s still mysterious. This is a risky game to play, because if you fail, you’ve created something that’s just confusing, that’s presented in bad faith, that’s just jerking the audience around.
BLVR: Yeah, you create an onslaught of images that individually make sense, but don’t actually cohere.
DLR: That’s the thing I want to flirt with, but avoid.
BLVR: So, the answer to the question of “why” isn’t “there’s no reason;” it’s more like, “I’m giving you some lines to color in yourself,” with the assertion that they will amount to something.
DLR: Yes, that’s right. You know, I majored in mysticism in college. One of the best courses I took was a course on the Book of Job. That professor believed this story was about senseless suffering, and the idea that any attempt you make to understand it will fail.
Job thought he had a contract with God. He believed he’d done everything right and therefore deserved to be rewarded. He spends the whole book talking to his friends and advisers, saying, “There must be some mistake. Maybe God has me confused with someone else, or maybe I accidentally sinned.” None of which is the case.
So, eventually Job goes to talk to God. The professor read out this scene in the original Greek, and then he’s like, “the translation of this interaction is, Job goes up to God and says ‘I thought we had a deal, why are you not honoring your side of the bargain?’
And God replies, ‘Not only will I not answer your question, I won’t even admit that it is a question.’”
That moment just resonated with me so deeply. It’s like a Bergman film. And I think that’s why I always try to maintain a spiritual agnosticism in both my life and my work. I steer clear of both radical atheism, to say that “because these things don’t make sense, there is no sense,” or any kind of benevolent Judeo-Christian system, any belief that if you’re in God’s good graces, you can know why these forces exist.
The middle path, which I think Job illustrates, is to say there are forces that exist—and you can tell that they exist, it’s not like you just have to take them on hearsay—but you can never parse them.
BLVR: You can never parse them, and you can never understand them.
DLR: And I think this is the essence of the creative process. You are trying to sync up with something that you perceive as being actually there. Maybe it’s just a part of your mind, but it still feels “other.” It’s something you’re trying to coax onto the page, saying, “I’m willing to go wherever this takes me.” You try to develop enough skill to say, “I can kind of keep up with it, but also not guide it.” It’s a willingness to subjugate yourself to—I don’t want to say a “higher power,” but it’s definitely an “other power.”
BLVR: Your characters also seem to have a similar thing going on, where they are aware of or drawn in by some kind of other force, and the intuitive thing for them to do might be to try to resist, or just stop doing whatever’s bringing them such misery. But that’s never what happens. They always stay on the path, for better or for worse.
I can only think of one counterexample: the Mayor in ANGEL HOUSE is supposed to go on this nightly pilgrimage to a place called the Blind Spot, which is a painful and humiliating experience. One night, he stops making it, and the consequences are horrible. Is the implication here that those characters who resist whatever force you’re channeling as an author are worse off?
DLR: It’s interesting how you would evaluate “worse off.” On the one hand, if we take the Mayor in that instance, he causes a lot of suffering to the town and—insofar as he is the town—to himself.
But in another sense, that decision might be the most meaningful move he’s ever made, so maybe it’s actually worth it.
BLVR: Oh, I see what you’re saying now. If we evaluate this purely based on outcome, it looks like it was a horrible mistake. But we don’t know that, because it’s not like things were acceptable before, either.
DLR: Yeah, exactly. And we don’t know what the alternative is. I saw an interview with Kazuo Ishiguro, and they’re asking him about Never Let Me Go. The kids are stuck in this school where they’re being farmed for their organs, and someone asked him, “Why don’t they just leave?” To which he replied, “Why don’t you?”
There’s something deep about that. One way of looking at life, if you don’t want to have a mystical schema, is just through psychology. My father is a psychiatrist, so I grew up with this idea of repressed understandings. That we all have these doubles, or that we are our own doubles, in a way.
People are always their own worst enemy. They may be the sole source of their own suffering. They’d be totally free if only they would stop doing this to themselves.
But that would almost be analogous to saying, “They’d be totally free if only they killed themselves.” You can’t choose which double you are. It’s both or neither.
BLVR: That’s a macabre thought.
DLR: But it’s also a kind of acceptance, right? Maybe that’s one of the Mayor’s fatal flaws: he can’t accept himself in his totality. He thinks he can have a town, a life, that’s all good, and just cut out all the bad stuff.
BLVR: He thinks he can plug the hole in the center of the town and make this kind of utopia.
DLR: Right, and that’s why utopias inevitably become dystopias. A genuine acceptance of real life is to say that both of those things are going to exist. You can never just hedge your bets, you have to throw yourself into things knowing there’s going to be a certain amount of bad outcomes.
III. Movies vs. Film
BLVR: It seems to me that—perhaps unusually for a prose writer—you talk about movies as often, or even more often, than you talk about books.
DLR: Now that you mention it, I don’t think there’s any reference to books in ANGEL HOUSE.
BLVR: Movies are the sole entertainment, they’ve replaced literature.
DLR: Nobody in ANGEL HOUSE is even literate, except when it comes to writing movies. And sometimes emails.
But you ask a good question. It’s because watching movies is passive. It enters your mind both earlier in life, in that you can watch before you’re able to read, and on a deeper, more involuntary level. You have to have your wits about you in order to read, whereas you can be in almost any state of mind and watch movies. Whether you’re an infant, whether you’re drunk—there are all sorts of ways movies just pervade us. And since this is a book about childhood, those primal influences are key.
Movies also have an interesting relation to houses, which in turn make up the towns I’m so drawn to. Within the house, it’s almost like the brain is the TV, showing these often very bizarre images. The house is supposedly the bastion of normalcy, and yet, within the house, there’s this font of deviance and mystery. The TV is the subconscious, showing what the house really thinks.
BLVR: As I look at the cover of ANGEL HOUSE, I see almost literally that idea. We’ve got a picture of this house from which this mysterious purple light shines, with TV static in the windows.
DLR: I’m always thinking about Freud’s idea of the uncanny, which is the idea that your house is also the place of greatest fear and misery and mystery. It’s the refuge, but also the thing you’re trying to take refuge from. You could call it the house, or you could call it the self. It’s the most infected place. You’re furthest from home when you’re at home. That idea is crucial to me.
And it’s also true about using language to write. On the one hand, it’s the most familiar thing to you. It’s the medium that you communicate your most basic needs in. But on the other hand, if you’re trying to write something strange, you’re trying to use that language against itself. You have to overcome your familiar phrasings and thought patterns to do something different with language. To be not-at-home inside of language.
BLVR: What I want to know, though—what is your relationship to movies? Because it’s clearly not the average person’s relationship. Does film have any special bearing on your childhood? And is your attitude towards film somehow connected to your attitude towards Northampton?
DLR: Yes, it’s all connected. Growing up, I often felt that the two sacred temples of my childhood were the video store and the bookstore.
BLVR: And the video store is literally a temple in ANGEL HOUSE.
DLR: Yeah. And the book is dedicated to Pleasant St. Video, in Northampton. The video store and the bookstore represent the two hemispheres of my mind. The bookstore, I think of as a morning place. It’s filled with light, and smells like coffee and fresh binding. An aboveground place, and an aspirational one, insofar as I always dreamed of my own books being on the shelf there.
The video store is the opposite. It’s a dank, partly sunken place that smells like beer and sweat. There are secret, shameful things associated with it. It has a downstairs and then a backroom and then a locked room… it’s a chamber of secrets.
The town in general became a kind of movie set when I was growing up. And that’s a reflection on my personal relationship to movies. Seeing the town—and, by extension, the world—as a set was a really important aspect of my becoming a writer. My father being a psychiatrist brought in the whole idea that people are acting, concealing their true motivations. And my mother is an architect, so that brought in the idea that buildings are constructed, and so, in a sense, fake, which led to the idea that it was all a set for a movie that was being directed.
BLVR: Maybe a movie about you.
DLR: Right! It was a kind of pleasurable paranoia.
IV. On Adolescence
DLR: I felt a lot as I was writing ANGEL HOUSE—which was between age twenty-three and twenty-eight, mainly—that I had to fight to maintain the right to my own imagination. I had had this extremely vivid adolescence, where I still believe that myself and two other friends were on a kind of other trip, that we weren’t on the same wavelength as most people. We had experiences that really were revelatory, and then we travelled together all over the world for a year.
That crystallized it, but it was also a farewell tour, because then we were going off to college to engage with a more conventional scheme of the pursuit of success.
After college, when I started this book, I had the feeling that if you wanted to retain some of that visionary quality you had when you were nine or nineteen, then, by the time you were 29, you had to have actually done something. I was very wary of being just a dreamer, which is what many of the characters in ANGEL HOUSE are.
There’s this famous idea of the “27 Club,” with all these artists and musicians, like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Basquiat, etc, all dying at twenty-seven. I relate to that: I think that, in order to reach your 30s, some part of you has to die and (hopefully) be reborn as someone else. Those years are definitely the end of something important, a key dividing line, which is why so many youth idols can’t cross it.
Another way to put this is that, by the time you reach thirty, you need to accept some master. If you want to avoid being scooped up by the most banal forces in the world, you have to preempt them by saying, “I’m going to be the master of my own project.” But then you actually have to do it, and that may involve putting yourself through something horrible.
BLVR: I guess, put a different way, if you have no master, then your master is everything.
DLR: Right. Your master is gravity. You’re just going to sink to the bottom. And Northampton was an important place to grow up in on that level also, because it has both kinds of people. It has a lot of highly accomplished, enviable people: Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies all lived there, and Emily Dickinson lived in Amherst, one town away. Kelly Link lives there, and so on.
But on the other hand, it has a huge quantity of ex-hippy or still hippy sixties people who washed up there. And they mean well, and are admirable in their way, but they’ve entered a holding pattern where they’re unable to get any traction. They could claim that they never wanted to, that they were just trying to drop out or whatever. But I’m not sure that’s true.
Now that I’ve moved away and finished the set of works that are explicitly about small towns, my feelings about it have crystallized more. I feel like I’m more of a fixed quantity, more like an observer, looking at other things that are in flux. The stuff I’m working on now is more about the outside world.
BLVR: Isn’t it funny how those things just seem to go together? You tell yourself that you’ve passed adolescence, and then the protracted adolescence of early adulthood, and then you no longer really feel like the protagonist?
DLR: Right. And that’s why fascist myths appeal to adolescents. Because it’s like a sham version of adulthood in which exactly that claim is made: that you can be a real man, and not a scared little boy, but you’d still be the protagonist of your own heroic drama. And I would put forward that being a real man, in actuality, is accepting your fairly limited ability to influence the world. And that you actually have the most power if you’re not trying to foist yourself onto things, but rather behaving more like a scientist—you have to become interested in what is actually happening, not in what your fantasy of the world might be.
I feel good that these small-town works are coming out and speaking to people. Now, I think the question is: once you’ve done that, and you realize that it’s better than not having done it, but that you’re still someone in the world—that you haven’t transcended the world—what’s next?
How do you take on the world now that you’ve arrived in it?
BLVR: Along those lines, I hear you talk about the way you grew up, and the place you grew up, and one of the ironies is that you would think—well, I would think—you’d see the “exciting” part as getting into Harvard and bringing this adolescence in this somewhat sad place to an end.
But for you though, it seems to be the reverse. Even now, in your thirties, you seem to look back on your hometown and that phase of your life, and see something in there that’s worth writing about. Meanwhile, from what I can tell, college has got no play in your works.
DLR: I think the mythic fantasy of leaving your small town to seek your fortune in the big city only exists from within the small town—as soon as you actually do it, you’re living in reality, which is never the same as The Dream of Escape. As for Harvard, I only have good things to say. Harvard was great. Maybe that’s why I don’t write about it.
V. Narrative Coherence
DLR: Part of the challenge of doing this book was to use standardizing systems of power, like Harvard, to amplify my ability to do strange things without being made less strange.
There’s a similar problem within the work itself, in terms of narrative coherence. To what degree can I write something that actually makes sense, but is communicating something really dark and weird? To me, that’s deeper than something that just looks weird, because that’s going to turn most people off.
I don’t think of myself as an experimental writer, because I don’t see it as an experiment. I see it as an attempt to actually tell a coherent story that just goes places most stories don’t.
BLVR: Yeah, I wouldn’t label your work “experimental.” In at least one way, it’s fairly conventional, right? It has a plot. It’s tethered to the point of view of a couple of characters. There’s usually at least some manifestation of good and evil, even if it’s not always obvious which is which.
DLR: Definitely. And I also really believe—and this relates to the idea of seeing literature as a kind of film—that there’s something behind the text. Language, for me, is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. So the kind of writers that are just purely playing with language, I find interesting, but I’m never going to be that moved by them.
The things that move me are the things that actually seem to have a world. Maybe that’s a mystical belief, too. When people describe dreams, I tend to think of those dreams as real events, not just descriptions.
BLVR: This is a strange question, and I apologize for it in advance: when you set out to write a story, do you feel almost like it already exists somewhere?
DLR: Yes. And I would say the motivation to write it comes from a kind of pain of saying, “if it exists in that other place, but not in this place, and I’m the only one who can fix that, I can’t say no. I have to do something.”
That place, whatever we want to call it, really is the place of ideas that have not been thought yet. It’s a place truly of the unknown, like the depths of the ocean. So as soon as you think of an idea, it shouldn’t be in that place anymore, and if you leave it there…
BLVR: You’re, like, derelict in some way?
DLR: Yeah. It’s like you’re letting it rot. It’s like some animal has crawled up on the edge of the sea and you won’t help it out.
BLVR: It’s the beached whale. You have a good story about one of those.
DLR: Or, in a weird way, it’s the opposite of the beached whale, because the beached whale wants to go back into the sea. This wants to come out. It’s like humanity emerging from tidal pools. Which actually is the opening image of ANGEL HOUSE.
BLVR: Yes, it is. Soul-melt is culled up from the bottom of the sea, and it becomes the towns, which I guess are in some sense Stories. They have an artistic significance.
DLR: And they retain what Freud calls the “Oceanic feeling” that’s somewhere in our mind. Whether it’s the amniotic environment of the womb, or our deep origins in the sea—I’m really interested in conflating the life cycle of an individual human with that of humanity itself—it somehow exists in our psyche, even though we’re not sea creatures, and have to live out our lives on land.
BLVR: For some reason, birth is always associated with water.
DLR: Yes, it’s a water event, and movement into the dry world is usually accompanied by crying.
BLVR: Another big thing I wanted to talk to you about here is comedy. Have you done any standup?
DLR: I never have! A part of me would like to, but no, I never have. Actually, the one time I have was in second grade, where I had this thing called Dave TV, where every so often I would take over the lunchroom and give this almost Monty Python-style TV report on weird things that were going on around school, or in the world. And it was a known thing. The teacher would be like, “now it’s time for Dave TV,” and I would just do it.
But I’ve been on a hiatus since then.
BLVR: How about the way that comedy features in your fiction?
DLR: For me, comedy is an attitude about the world that is actually true, but has to be drawn out in order to be seen. So I would say that I believe the world is, in some regard, comic. Which doesn’t mean that it’s frivolous. The idea that comedians are sad people is something that I can relate to and understand.
But there are things that the world is trying to articulate through us that can only be articulated if you have a sense of humor. If I extend comedy to include things like circus and pageants and carnivals and masquerades, and that kind of stuff—for me, Fellini is very important—there’s something I find fascinating about that, because it’s both a natural condition of the world, that life just is carnivalesque, but also, as a real carnival, it’s very unique. The circus doesn’t come to town all the time—otherwise it wouldn’t be a special event.
DLR: So, on the one hand, the circus represents a very small subset of lived experience, and an aberrant experience at that. But on the other hand, it represents some crystallization of the essence of existence itself.
And I also think particularly of very long books, of which ANGEL HOUSE is by far my longest—an epic has to have a comic dimension. Pynchon, Dante, Don Quixote, certainly Ulysses, Tristram Shandy, Rabelais… those books are all goofy. Constant pratfalls and fart jokes. They mock their own seriousness, which is one of the things I’m least impressed with in the work of David Foster Wallace. He tried to write a totally self-serious epic and failed. He even called it Infinite Jest and didn’t make it funny!
BLVR: I love the detail about Dave TV. I’m still on that. So, you may have answered this already, but I want to talk about it more. I think we’re in a moment in our culture where everyone is a little bit on edge, on guard, and it feels like there are some things that we can’t joke about anymore.
The question of what humor does is being opened up and reexamined. You’re joking about some very dark stuff here, man. Just really grim. Things that would be tragic in other works are comic in the land of David Leo Rice.
Is there a line for you? Is there something that can’t be made funny, or shouldn’t be made funny?
DLR: I might say that nothing should be “made” funny. Funniness is intrinsic and expresses itself through everything.
The really important point—and there’s probably no way to express this on a mass political level—is that there has to be a difference between seeing the humor in something and not taking it seriously.
For me, humor is actually a way of taking things seriously. In fact, it’s the only way. This is a big problem with left and right, politically speaking. The right would say, “this stuff isn’t serious,” which is clearly not a good way forward. The problem with the left is that they say, “if you see any humor in this, it means you aren’t taking it seriously,” which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and sends people over to the right.
It seems to me the way forward is to say, “there are really serious things going on,” none more serious than death, on the level of the individual and of the planet, and yet what—in essence—is funnier than the fact that everything we do will eventually come to nothing?
I’m interested in this idea of odd and even levels. The basic schema is that every odd level—1, 3, 5, going on to infinity—is a version of the previous odd level, but a deeper or more self-aware version. Same with the even levels.
So, if you take humor, you could say level 1 would be the least evolved level, which is laughing when we don’t want to take something seriously. It’s either polite, nervous laughter, or the cruel, ironic laughter of the far right, like thinking that people being murdered is funny.
Level 2 is the opposite: this is thinking that everything is so serious that if we laugh, we’re part of the problem. Then level 3 is a return to laughter, but with a deeper self-awareness. We laugh not as a way of not taking something seriously, but actually as a sign that we do take it seriously. Like all the studies that found that laughter helped people survive being in concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Level 3 is like Fellini or Beckett saying we’re all freaks in our own way, and there’s something funny about that. I don’t think we’d accuse Beckett of offending anyone. But if someone found him not funny, I would say they’re not really reading it. Same as Kafka. That’s someone who’s genuinely funny—there are lots of stories of Kafka laughing so hard at his own readings that he couldn’t continue—and yet no one would say that the subject matter is trivial. It’s actually some of the most serious subject matter there is, and yet its mode is comic. That’s a key part of the Jewish imagination.
VIII. Jewish Imagination
BLVR: In terms of the Jewish imagination, The New House, your book about an itinerant family of outsider artists, is your most explicitly Jewish. To what extent would you say that your Jewish background has informed what you do as an artist? Because while it’s obvious in New House, it might have more subtle expressions elsewhere.
DLR: Definitely. We were talking before about this shift from an inward phase to an outward phase, so New House is a transitional work because it’s trying to modulate this shift. It exists in the same mythic small-town world as my earlier books, but it’s more explicitly aware of being a real thing in the real world. Rather than saying, “the real world is just a backdrop,” there’s a harder edge of reality in New House, which the characters have to deal with.
Now that I’m done processing my adolescent visions, at least for the time being, I have to exist as an adult of a certain type in the world. And that just loops back around to identity, and in this sense, Jewish history is tied to my love of drifters.
BLVR: Oh, I see.
DLR: You know, people who are never really rooted where they are because they’re not from there.
BLVR: That makes a lot of sense, actually.
DLR: Like the Dodge City narrator, though I wouldn’t say he’s Jewish exactly.
BLVR: It seems like if you were to give your drifter an explicit quality like that, it’d almost create too much of an anchor for him. It’d make him, in some sense, not truly adrift. Because there’d be some part of himself he could latch onto.
DLR: Right. That’s the irony of international Judaism, which is to say, “we are drifters that are anchored in our drifter-ness.” That’s the paradox. And I actually think that paradox is a good thing if you embrace it, and the way to embrace it is through literature, culture, scholarship, etc.
In terms of my literary influences, I’m very drawn to Eastern European fantastical literature. Bruno Schulz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, obviously Kafka. Clarice Lispector, as a Ukrainian-Jewish writer who lived in Brazil. And other Russian, Polish, Jewish authors. The paintings of Marc Chagall. There’s something in that world that I feel an ancestral pull to, given that that is where my ancestors are from. I don’t know if thoughts can be passed down genetically, but maybe they can.
DLR: It could be that there’s something about your imagination that is actually inherited. I think it’s kind of true. There’s something, as soon as I read about it, like a magical Polish village—I have this weird sense of nostalgia that’s tinged by horror. Schulz was murdered by the Nazis in his little village, as were a lot of people. But something about the idea of turning this Polish village into an American town full of demons and spells and living folklore is what I wanted to do with Dodge City and ANGEL HOUSE.
BLVR: That sounds about right.
DLR: So, in that sense, I think all of the work is Jewish. But with regards to the characters in those books, I think they’re really just Americans. I don’t think they have a specific identity beyond that. If a word like “Judaism” showed up in ANGEL HOUSE, it would seem out of place.
BLVR: It would be a little weird, because it seems like all religion in ANGEL HOUSE has been replaced by movies. And the mode in which the movies are worshipped is either very capitalist, or loosely Christian.
DLR: Right. I think it’s a more Christian book. The Jewish history of Northampton is almost nonexistent. Basically, it’s a hyper-Christian town, and historically one of the key sites of American Protestantism. It’s where Jonathan Edwards gave his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon. I definitely grew up in that Protestant cultural milieu, which is also deeply imprinted on me.
IX. On Bedtime Stories
BLVR: So, the question I’m about to ask, I ask everyone at the end of an interview. We get this advice in writing books that says you have to be writing every single day, preferably at the same time every day, and that’s how you lure in the muse. In your experience, is that true?
DLR: I try to always think in terms of sessions, not time of day. A session, for me, can be a period of time, or it can be a concrete task, like, “my session for this morning is to revise Chapter Four.” This comes from being read to as a child. Your parents say, “tonight we’re going to read up to this moment, and then you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see if they escape.”
BLVR: Did your dad really do that to you?
DLR: Well, see, that’s funny. My mom is the real reader.
BLVR: Is she? Interesting, because what you just described sounds like something a psychiatrist would pull.
DLR: My dad’s not a reader in the usual sense. He’ll read everything I write that I show to him, but he’ll discuss it purely on the level of psychology. He talks about the characters like real people, rather than through reference to other literary works. My mom is the opposite. She’s the one I’d always go to the library with, and the one I now buy books for. So, when I was a kid, she would actually read things to me, but she cared more what she was reading. She would only read me whatever was seen as age appropriate.
My dad didn’t care about that. He’d read anything, but he’d fall asleep after a page or two. So, that was the tradeoff. I could hear whole chapters of Narnia from my mom, or one page of Joseph Conrad from my dad.
BLVR: You can have an infinite amount of what your mother considers appropriate, or one page of whatever you want.
DLR: Exactly. And I would really deliberate over which to choose.