Jewcy Interviews: Stuart Nadler And The Book Of Life

Stuart Nadler’s debut story collection, The Book of Life, reads more like the work of a seasoned veteran, less a writer publishing his first book. Read More

By / November 22, 2011

Stuart Nadler’s debut story collection, The Book of Life, reads more like the work of a seasoned veteran, less a writer publishing his first book.  Playing with the age-old themes of family, faith, and love, Nadler’s work has been compared to John Cheever and Bernard Malamud, and The Book of Life has drawn critical praise across the board.

Can you give us some of your background, both just to get to know you as a person, and as to how you got into writing, if you feel comfortable?

I fell in love with books early. That’s the beginning of my wanting to write. The first book I remember really loving was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I had a set of classic books abridged for kids. Treasure Island,The Count of Monte Cristo, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Robinson Crusoe. That sort of thing. They were short, squat books. They had pictures on every other page.  That was the start, I’m sure. But, looking back on it, I don’t know why I got it in my head that I wanted to write fiction. It’s so tortuously difficult. And that’s when it’s going well. But I grew up in a town with a good public library, a good public school system, and access to good bookstores. That said, I don’t remember a thunderclap of a moment where it dawned on me that this was something I had to do. Like all good addictions, it got ahold of me before I really knew it.

These stories rely so much on place, not just in sense of creating a setting, but in place as a character, in the contrast between city life and rural life, in the question of Home. Can you expand on this theme, and how do you feel place fits into your writing?

It certainly wasn’t my intention while writing these stories to evoke some higher meaning from the idea of place. A story has to take place somewhere, and for most of these stories that somewhere was Boston, because I know Boston, because I like Boston, and because I felt comfortable thinking and writing about my characters living there. For the others that take place in New York, or Rhode Island, or on an apple orchard in Massachusetts, I worked off the same general notion. I wrote all but one of these stories while I was living in Iowa, and to be brutally honest about it, a lot of the choices I made regarding where these characters should live were based purely on some combination of wish-fulfillment and homesickness. Writers do this all time, of course. With food, cigarettes, European cities, terrific hotel rooms. One of the wonderful benefits of fiction writing is the idea that you can try to write something into existence.

One can’t help but notice that most of your stories involve infidelity to the extent that infidelity begins to assume the status of a character. Did you consciously choose this theme, and regardless, what roles does infidelity play in these stories?

More than focusing on infidelity as a single, specific idea, the larger issues that preoccupied me while I worked on these stories were the concepts of sin, error, and temptation. Infidelity is simply one way this gets manifested, but my characters are tempted by alcohol, by the possibility of reconnecting with someone from their past, or by the notion that someone new might solve their problems. As is the case with most story collections, I didn’t start working on these stories with the idea of this book already in my mind. Most story collections happen after the fact, when a writer goes back to see what he’s put together. This is one of the reasons why I love story collections. They can represent a writer’s preoccupations in ways a novel doesn’t. And this is what happened to me. I had a group of these stories that all obsessed over the same kind of temptation. That was the genesis of the collection – finding those moments where the stories shared common ground, where I felt there was some cumulative conversation occurring.

You often use what magicians would refer to as a reveal, or what poets refer to as a turn. There are many secrets brought up in the beginning of the story only to be revealed at the end.  Besides the creation of suspense and tension, what role do you see this aspect of your writing playing in your stories, and life?

As a reader, I prefer a story that presents its conflicts right up front. And I remain a firm believer in the power of the plotted short story. So these small structural things that you’re noticing were the result of aesthetic decisions I made to get the stories where I wanted them to be. The best piece of advice I ever received on writing was from Marilynne Robinson, who told me simply to write the kind of fiction I wanted to read. It’s such an obvious simple thing, but that remains my guiding principal. So much of short fiction has moved recently toward the incidental, and while I love those stories when they’re done well, it’s not something that I’m really able to do. I just can’t write the perfect ten or twelve page story that ends with a beautiful glancing epiphany. I would love to. But I remain, despite my best efforts, attracted to the loose, baggy forty-five pager. And, as for secrets? Secrets are interesting!

Do you see yourself as Jewish writer, and if so, what does that ambiguous term mean to you?

I would love to know what that term means. I suppose it must mean something different to everyone. Or else, I missed the memo. But, I’d shy away from wearing any label, not because this particular one disagrees with me, but because the whole idea of labels feels outdated to me and feels, by its nature, constrictive and reductive. In my experience the minute an artist feels comfortable with a label is the minute they want to take the label off. I feel that way. I’ve just finished a novel that’s different in so many ways from the stories in this book: it takes a broader look at American society, at history, at the ways people fall in love and struggle and try to define their lives. That’s what interests me as a writer. Trying new things. Challenging myself.

Another one of your prominent themes is that of disconnection, whether it be through death, or in relationships due to the inability to communicate? Can you explain this prevalence?

I’m not sure I see it as an issue of people being unable to communicate as much as I see it as the simple fact that my characters are unwilling to communicate. In The Moon Landing, Charlie doesn’t call home to his parents because he’s ashamed of his life, and because he’s still working through his addiction, and because, obviously, he blames the large dysfunction in his life on his parents’ drinking. The same thing goes for Jonathan in Visiting. He can’t call home because he can’t understand his father’s suffering, and can’t connect with him. And for Henry in Catherine and Henry. He can’t reconnect with Catherine because of his guilt. I kept writing about the idea of estrangement because it fascinates me, and because it’s so common, and because it’s so heartbreaking. Estrangement is the worst side-effect of love. If there were a warning label for a relationship, or for a pet, or for a friendship that you hold close to your hear, that’s what it would read: this might end; you might go twenty years without talking. It’s part of our story now, especially lately. Technology has made it easier for people to communicate, but it’s also given us more opportunities to ignore the people closest to us.

You narrate all but one story from the perspective of men. Was that a conscious choice, and again, regardless, why do you think this is so?

I wanted to write about fathers and sons – the difficulty of parenting, the challenges of meeting your father’s expectations, the enduring difficulties of aging and grief and death. So that certainly necessitated writing from a man’s perspective. That said – the choice I did make in Catherine and Henry to write from a woman’s perspective was key. She was a great character to write, and I had a blast writing her. I’d love to keep working from a woman’s perspective, but more broadly, I’d like to keep pushing myself to write characters that are different from me. That’s the core, and the heart of good fiction, I think. And it’s why I pushed myself to write from characters much older than myself – in Winter on the Sawtooth and The Moon Landing.

In many of the stories, you tend to shy away from writing about the most dramatic choices in the book, whether that be choosing to commit adultery or something else, you let these dramatic moments happen in the silences between words, why?

Part of this is certainly because of the form. The short story doesn’t accommodate a long sex scene very well. And part of this was my choice. I think we all know how it works in the bedroom. I don’t feel especially compelled to linger there. The short story depends on a certain economy, and these short stories, specifically, depended on a certain pace. As a writer and a reader I always find myself drawn more to the aftermath of some big action, as opposed to the moment by moment minutiae of something sordid. There’s a big, important distinction there, and its one I feel keenly aware of when I write. Writing about a boxing match, for instance, is far less interesting than writing about how the fighter feels after he’s been knocked out. The same goes from writing about infidelity. I don’t really care how the sex is. I care about how guilty my character feels afterward. I care about the drive home when my character’s thinking about his wife. I don’t care about the moment in Catherine and Henry where Henry sleeps with the hooker. It’s just not interesting. What’s interesting is everything afterwards. And to be honest, I’ve always felt a special affinity for Hitchcock’s notion that the thing you don’t see is always scarier than the thing you do. That’s why people still watch Psycho. And that’s why a movie like Rosemary’s Baby still scares the hell out of me.

So much of your book entails a struggle with memory, both in the content of the stories, and in the structure of the stories. Can you speak more about the place of memory in your writing?

I haven’t thought much about this, to be honest. Part of what makes a first person narrative so interesting, I think, is this idea of memory. That’s the relationship the narrator is striking up with the reader: here’s what I remember. Part of the structural conceit that I kept going back to in these stories hinges on that notion. Going back and forth in time. Jumping forward. Jumping back. In a way, this is how memory works. Memory is never fluid or linear. We remember what we do in bursts, in tiny moments. And we’re spurred to remember in much the same way, I think. Someone’s perfume smells a certain way, a lawn mower makes you think of being twelve, someone’s accent sounds just like your third grade teacher. I can’t say that I wrote the stories thinking about all this. But that’s what happens when you make certain choices in your work. You make them because you like the aesthetic, and because you want your reader to experience the work a certain way. For some of the stories that go back and forth in time, I made the choice because I love that feeling of dislocation as a reader, of being in one place, and then a moment later, being in another place and time altogether. But you’re right: that’s how memory works.