really enjoyed your book; I gave a copy to a friend of mine who is from
Long Island, and he devoured it.
Yeah, the Long Islanders tend to either love it or hate it.
I take it you've had mixed reactions?
A lot of times when I do readings, people ask me, "Do you really hate Long Island?" Generally I tell them, "I don't hate Long Island, it's just this particular suburban experience that seems really disheartening and doesn't offer many options to the youth of the area. I have nothing particular against Long Island, but that happens to be where I'm from. Sometimes people on Long Island seem offended that I've said such things, but what are you going to do?
Are Harlan's experiences--and your own experiences and observations--unique to Long Island?
Yes. I grew up in a very particular part of the Island, amid lower- middle-class housing developments. We were about an hour from Manhattan, the center of the universe, but nobody ever thought of going there. We never even considered it an option. Long Island is very insular in that respect. You don't feel like there's any life outside of it, and for kids at my income level in that part of Long Island, the palette of possibility, the number of things you had to choose from, was so narrowly limited that life seemed pretty bad coming into adolescence. It didn't seem like there was anything you could do to remove yourself from those circumstances. I think that's a lower- middle-class suburban phenomenon more than anything else, but like I said, what makes Long Island special in that respect is the proximity of this great, untouchable urban center.
Why is it untouchable?
Growing up, Manhattan was just this scary place that my friends and I associated with really big things that were beyond us both culturally and otherwise. It's was always strange watching the news while growing up, because there wasn't any Long Island news. All the news was in Manhattan news or the other boroughs. So you sort of feel like you're not a part of that experience--you're marginalized, in a way. I'm sure that's true of a lot of suburban sprawl in general.
Then the Amy Fishers come along and Long Island is back on the map.
How loosely are the characters in L.I.E. based on your friends and acquaintances?
There's a lot of stuff that I know in there, and all of the locations are real locations. I didn't change the names of places and that's partially what's gotten me in trouble. As for the people in the book, there are definitely amalgams of all sorts of things that happened and lots of stuff that didn't happen, obviously.
I did have one friend come to a reading and heckle me from the audience, saying things like, "That didn't happen! I never said that!" It was very strange because I didn't think that the section I was reading from bore any resemblance to this guy's life. People associate themselves with things in the book that I don't associate them with. There's been a little bit of fallout from that as well.
Will we see any of these characters again in your writing?
A couple of the characters might make cameo appearances in the novel I'm working on now. But one of the great things about publication is that this book is over. I can't work on it anymore. It's kind of nice to leave L.I.E. behind and be able to have new ideas in my head and think about new characters and experiences.
You used interesting conventions throughout the book, such as italics throughout the narrative, which brings to mind The Sound and the Fury.
Oh wow. Well, we all want to believe we're influenced by Faulkner.
The italics in my book are sort of like punch lines. They're supposed to be a direct pipeline to the author, to let the reader in on the fact that the person writing the book is aware of how ridiculous Harlan's experience sounds. The writer is one level up and he's making a commentary. The book has other meta-fictional devices where the writer is sort of in the story in weird ways; the italics are supposed to be connected to that whole idea. So anything that is purposely cliché, or that could function as an extended metaphor about Harlan's experiences, is italicized. The italics are supposed to make you chuckle, but are also supposed to remind you that somebody is writing this story, and that they know more than the characters do.
I love the one-act play, the chapter called "Sunday Dinner". Can you comment on that?
That's a little more than midway through the book and I'd already played around with different structural devices. There are a few stories that are standard narratives and other that do this narrative leapfrog. Since the book is already syncopated, I felt I could get away with things that I couldn't in a standard narrative.
The play was both meant to be funny and was--since it's not reality-based--an opportunity for me to play around with each character's psychology. It begins with Harlan sawing through his own head to get to his brain--Harlan's been trying to figure himself out throughout the whole book. Since I'd already taken a lot of chances throughout the book, this was an opportunity for me to blow things open and go crazy.
Who is the narrator of this book?
I think of there being a single narration throughout the book, the italics being very much related to that. The narrator in many respects is David Hollander, able to have the distance from this experience to make a running commentary. In terms of point of view, it's really third-person hyper-omniscient. The narrator is able to jump into the head of anyone at any time but is also able to constantly make commentary on their thoughts and their actions. The style of the book, that voice, drove the whole story toward its conclusion. It's very meaningful for me as a writer looking into the future because I feel like I've found my voice with that particular narrative technique. The new stuff I'm working on uses the same type of narration.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a second novel that takes place completely on islands: Long Island, Shelter Island, Block Island, Manhattan, City Island in the Bronx. It's tentatively entitled No Man Is. It has the same sort of omniscient narration as L.I.E. but is also more of a standard narrative. It doesn't jump around as much. It revolves around several characters as opposed to one protagonist.
Is the title of this novel ever misconstrued as "Lie"?
All the time. But I knew that might happen. I think it's cool to find out within the book that it's also this other thing, this highway. It stands for other things; there's that chapter where Harlan is thinking, "Life in Exile" and comes up with all these acronyms. But yes, the title was something I was always sure about, since I started the book. The first three chapters were actually my thesis at Sarah Lawrence college, where I got my MFA.
And now you teach at Sarah Lawrence?
Yes; I teach a fiction writing workshop to undergraduates. I've actually been teaching writing in various contexts for several years.
How do you teach writing?
You can't really. You can encourage talent more than anything else. My class now runs like a typical college workshop in that we mostly read one another's work and make commentary. I bring in examples. I'm having a lot of fun; it's a great class.
I also teach in the New York City public schools through an arts organization called Teachers and Writers Collaborative. I've worked with everything from third to twelfth grade. The way it works is that you have a ten-week residency. You go into the schools one day a week and do these little creative writing projects with the kids. You're a visiting artist and it's fun time for them. They get a chance to experience writing as something that is not just another school subject to be utilized and shelved away. It's exciting for them; it's exciting for you. It's a dreamy job.
Most of my life I've done manual labor; the reason L.I.E. took so long to finish is that after grad school I was working 60-70 hour weeks doing plaster work in Brooklyn. I'd come home exhausted and I'd be lucky if I could lie on the couch and watch TV. Teaching definitely affords me a little more time and space. I can budget time for writing, which is important.
What do you write on and with?
I handwrite everything in these little black journals with no lines on the pages. Black pen. I find that if I write on the computer, it's already set in print. It already looks finished and I have a hard time changing it. If I handwrite I feel freer to cross out the stuff that really sucks; hopefully what's left doesn't suck quite as bad and I work with that.
I read that you are also a musician?
Yes. I play guitar. I'm from Long Island, so what else would I do? I've been in several bands. I am in one right now but we never actually play together because our drummer moved far away.
I think music is the king of the arts. My first objective was to be a rock and roll star, but it didn't quite pan out for me. I'm sure I'll always play.
What was your band like?
Rock-based but with a lot of odd time signatures and a lot of strange changes. We were compared to Frank Zappa and Primus. Intricate rock, I would say. I like to just strum three chords and sing too on my acoustic guitar. I have eclectic tastes.
Interview by Laura Buchwald