A Conversation with Jay Cantor Author of GREAT NECK
Q: How did you decide to write about this time period in US history? A: It was the most interesting, most exciting period I've lived through. Not necessarily the noblest or the most fun—though it was, indeed, good to be young. In the Sixties, it seemed like everything might change, how we lived, what our popular (or counter) culture would be, how the races got along with each other, what romance—or, okay, sex—would be like, whether we could (with the right drugs) see God and find out what He wants from us. You name it. It was a giddy and terrifying time. I felt it would be careless of me to be given something like that and not use it in fiction.
Q: Why did you choose a group of young people from Great Neck, Long Island? Does it have a personal relevance for you in any particular way? A: I grew up in Great Neck, which seemed to me, and most of the Jews who lived there, a very heaven. From shtetl to suburbia—and such a suburb! Great Neck had, still has I think, a reputation for being filled with privileged princes and princesses, for a vulgarity too, though that looked to me mostly like high spirits. People's attitudes towards the place are mostly unfair, envious and stereotyped. Everyone knows, for example, that it's the most protected place in the world. And it is. But that doesn't mean it's safe. The parents of my generation of kids were all ready to sew their jewelry into their clothes in case they had to flee. Which was wrong. But the winds of history blew through the place anyway. The fears of the parents, for example, made the kids dream about how the world had to change if the Holocaust were never to happen again.
And Great Neck has always been a place for dreams. It was West Egg for Gatsby, where he dreamed of Daisy and how he could change himself, and all he might be. And for the Jews, that followed it was the place of the American Dream, too. Dreams, though, like in Gatsby, always take a lot of odd turns—especially when it became for some of the kids a dream of making justice, of being important (and, yes, self-important) in history. Starting from Great Neck was also a way for me to write about Reform Judaism, the dream of which was to live in the modern world, in history, by the light of the prophets. Which leads to the dream of making justice again, and all its self-deception and sublimity.
The novel GREAT NECK only begins in the suburb, though. The dream of making justice (and yes, of being important) takes the characters to Mississippi and Cambridge, Massachusetts; to death row—one of them as a lawyer, and one of them as a prisoner.; to the anti-war movement; to Soho and the art world's attempt at transcendence. The book takes in a lot of ground and a huge number of characters, gay and straight, men and women.
And black and white. I found that you can't tell the story of the dreams of the Sixties without including what happened to black America. African-Americans provided the deepest impetus for a lot of things then—and now—and I think if left out, you tell less than half the story (and yes, I think most books about America only tell half the American story). When it comes to the Sixties, the civil rights movement, for example, was a second founding for America, an example of heroism and community that's difficult for my characters, or for my country, to live up to. My characters, for example, think they're getting letters from one of the saints of the civil rights movement—after he's dead, though, written from the grave. And maybe they are. They have the idea that the only way to ease his pain in the grave is to do what he would have done, to make justice whatever the cost. History—good and ill, tawdry and heroic—it's mostly made by people following some seemingly insane dream. And I suppose the quest never turns out the way people think it will, which I hope makes for a surprising and interesting story.
Q: In your position teaching at Tufts University, you are in constant interaction with students the same age as your characters in GREAT NECK. Did this influence your work in any way? Do you find the younger generation today in the US drastically different than those in the 60's? How do they differ? How are they similar? A: As a teacher you mostly see the students who choose to take classes with you, so I only see one subset of what's going on. The students I see are as idealistic and confused and experimental as you'd wish. But the world around them is different. The adults aren't as searching perhaps. But it's important to remember that all of that is changing again now, as I write this. As I guess it always is.
Q: How would you describe your writing style? A: I don't think I can. For one thing, I like books that have a lot of different styles in them, a lot of ways of telling their story. GREAT NECK includes comic books, for example. (One of the characters is a great comic book artist, and the style in which he tells the stories of his friends lives weighs on them, makes them think that perhaps they should be super heroes.) I guess I like stories best where you can get into the character from a lot of different angles. I also like it when there are lots of details of their world and I can sink into their story, just live there for a while.
As for my sentences, I like them to take in different realms, and, if possible, to be very good humored. Funny, that is.
Q: GREAT NECK is a lengthy work of fiction. How long was the process of writing this novel for you? A: Thirteen or so years of very hard, very concentrated work. I wasn't wasting my time. Well, I may have been, of course. But I mean I was working all that time. Really.
Q: Who are your literary influences? A: Too many. The great modernist writers, for sure. Like them, I focus on how people think, the way they dream and how those dreams form them. But I try to bring some of the modernist tricks, their attention to how the story is told, into a more straight-ahead story—one with anti-war demos, bombings, bank robberies and murder trials.