Novelist Adam Mansbach discusses his relationship with his grandfather and its connection to his writing life

December 1, 2007

After my grandmother died in the winter of 1999, I began spending summers with my grandfather so he would not be alone. It was no great sacrifice; since the early sixties, my grandparents had been spending the warmer months in a beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, the island to which much of their once-wide and now greatly diminished social circle repaired at the close of each academic year.

My grandfather was the kind of man people had theories about, the kind his descendants formed study groups to discuss, as if he were a difficult novel. Some of his accomplishments were matters of public record, though he waved a dismissive hand at them all. He’d graduated high school by fifteen (“soon as you could read and write, off you went”), been the youngest American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials (“I got there at the end; I didn’t do anything”) traveled to Panama to mediate between the government and the builders of the Canal (“The headline read ‘Kaplan Arrives,’ but the real work was done by others”). He’d taught three future Supreme Court Justices during his quarter decade at Harvard Law School, then sat on the bench of Massachusetts’s highest court. He was ninety that summer. He would not retire for another five years.

But the facts that most fascinated me were those to which history had little access. The silence he forged into a weapon he wielded for weeks at a time when he felt wronged. The year he’d spent chopping wood in Upstate New York after graduating City College and before beginning Columbia Law School. The way his genius had exempted him from so much in life—turned him into the man in the chair atop the hora dance, passed from one protector to the next, and how that had forged and crippled him. My whole life, he’d seemed almost visibly stooped by the weight of his regrets, lamenting his decision to prioritize work over family and wishing he could do it all differently. And yet day by day, year after year, he did not.

That summer, as we sat before a muted television, watching the Red Sox break our hearts again, I asked my grandfather all I could think to. During the days, I holed up in a bedroom seemingly built to avoid the sea breeze, working on a novel about grandfathers and grandsons that had yet to find a reason for existing. I knew only that the generation I was trying to understand would soon be gone, and that when it vanished the world would be stupider and less elegant, absent the force of intellect and character men like my grandfather possessed.

Why he opened up to me, I cannot say. Years before, his four grandsons had partially liberated him from the “do not disturb your father” doctrine that ruled our parents’ childhood, barging into his study and demanding his attention—and he had loved us for it. Perhaps this was an extension of that; twenty-plus years later, I still would not leave him alone.

He was incredulous at my interest in Bronx stickball rules and his experience of being the first Jew admitted to a Cambridge health club, but as the months passed he reached more willingly into the recesses of his perfect memory, and I learned things no one in my family had ever known. He’d written a humor column for the City College newspaper, for instance: twice a week throughout his senior year. I made a trip to New York to find and photocopy them. We read each one together. My grandfather had believed he’d be a writer then, and with good cause: his language was marvelous. He was funny. Suddenly, his marriage to my grandmother, a poet and a legendary wit, made sense.

Little of what I learned found its way into my novel. But in some larger sense, his story was my book; his story was his generation; his story was me. As we spoke and laughed and sat together in silence, I began to understand why I was writing. I was exploring my greatest hope and fear: that my grandfather and I were exactly alike.

Adam Mansbach, author of The End of the Jews, coming March 2008.

Posted in First Person | Link | Print

Jessica Queller, author of Pretty Is What Changes, files a report from the WGA picket line in Los Angeles

December 1, 2007

After a year spent writing a memoir about cancer and genetics, I welcomed the offer to fly to Hollywood and join the writing staff of the frothy new TV show Gossip Girl. Chronicling the antics of rich and racy Upper East Side girls seemed the perfect antidote to the months I’d spent chronicling illness. I’d previously written for shows like Felicity and The Gilmore Girls so I knew the ropes—I expected to be cooped up in a writers’ room day and night, inventing stories about cotillions and cat fights, boyfriends and Barneys shopping sprees. For five months, life went as expected. Then on November 5, 2007, I found myself carrying a picket sign under the hot sun, chanting, “We are the Union, the mighty, mighty Union,” like a regular Norma Rae.

I am not a group person, and I do not an allegiance toward any institution I’ve been a part of, such as my high school or college. However, I do have a passion for justice and a very loud, theater-trained voice. And I do—I discovered—feel immense pride in being a member of the Writers Guild of America. To my utter surprise, I’ve been like head-cheerleader on the picket line – jumping up and down, shouting at traffic, “Honk if you support the writers!” I’ve been flashing my biggest smile and waving like I’m Homecoming Queen at the cars and trucks as they honk and drive by. I’ve been expending all my charms to stir my fellow hot, tired writers into chanting, “Hey ho, hey ho, without the writers there ain’t no show!” rather than limply walking back and forth in silence. I never dreamed I’d be marching and picketing and chanting for any cause. And yet here I am—the picketing poster-girl.

The main issue at stake is a writer’s right to be compensated for the reuse of her work, whether it’s sold as a DVD or streamed from the Internet. Imagine writing a book and being told you will not be compensated when it is released in paperback. This month alone, Gossip Girl episodes have been streamed 1.2 million times from the CW network’s website. Victoria’s Secret handsomely pays the CW for ad space, but the writers do not get a cent.

The night the WGA contract expired, three thousand writers filled a hall in downtown L.A. to get briefed by our leaders on what was to come. The energy was electric. Gossip Girl writers sat in a row behind Bionic Woman writers and in front of the writers of Chuck. From Mad Men to Men in Trees, every television writing staff was present. Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of the film Traffic sat on the dais representing feature film writers. In my experience this coming together was unparalleled; all of us amassed in one room made it abundantly clear that, though the work of a writer is often solitary and lonely, we are all a part of a collective enterprise, something much bigger. There was also the feeling that we were on the precipice of something historic. A veteran British film writer took the microphone, warned that strikes are ugly and that we should “gird our loins.” We laughed at the biblical invocation, but our applause was thunderous—we were united and ready for battle.

The first few days of the strike, we came out in droves, passions high. On day two, I joined a massive group of writers on a suburban street where Desperate Housewives was shooting. We marched in circles, shouting “Eva Longoria, who’s gonna write your storia?” until our voices grew hoarse. The racket finally forced production to shut down. Though we were steadfast in our cause, this demonstration felt counterintuitive. A lifetime of obeying, “Quiet on the set!” and suddenly you’re told to make as much noise as you possibly can to disrupt filming? It was like entering an upscale china shop and being told to grab Limoges plates and smash them on the floor.

Jessica, left, picketing with her friend, writer and actress Jennifer Westfeldt in LA.

Near the end of week two, the reality of a long strike began to set in. The writers at my location outside of Warner Brothers loyally held up their signs and ambled up and down the street, but the chanting had died down. The euphoria of battle had already turned into the drudgery of manning one’s post. Then on Friday John Edwards marched with the writers, cheering us on in our fight against the goliath corporate conglomerates, and by the end of the day the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers agreed to resume negotiations. With that little bit of progress, our spirits rose.

Tomorrow we march en masse on Hollywood Boulevard. Nobody knows whether we’ll be marching for another seven days or seven months. My friend Rebecca made T-shirts for us to wear that read, “I’m a striking writer.” We’re planning picketing performance art for week three to spice things up and entertain our comrades. But mostly, we members of the WGA will be girding our loins.

Jessica Queller, author of Pretty Is What Changes, coming April 2008

Posted in Dispatches | Link | Print

Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage, writes about some of her favorite books

December 1, 2007

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

A brilliantly cut diamond of a novel about two Americans who go to live in an isolated village in Mexico. A complex story told in a simple and affecting way, with profound emotion and simply lovely prose.

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin

This is a nonfiction history of how human beings could have done, and sometimes are doing, things differently. Not a history of wars, but a history of individuals and opportunities written in exuberant, probing, and always intelligent prose.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

A masterpiece of Russian literature, this is the story of what happens when the Devil comes to Moscow accompanied by a naked red-haired girl and a giant black cat. It is also a wonderful retelling of the life of Christ.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

I first read this beautiful extended essay on nature and the meaning of life when I was fourteen. It was one of the books that helped me to become a writer.

Poems by George Seferis, translated by Rex Warner

The Rex Warner translations of Seferis are the great translations of this Nobel Prize–winning Greek writer. I’ve spent a lot of time in Greece and these poems helped me to understand both the past and the present of the country. Gorgeous, surprising, lovely writing.

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges

A powerful, intelligent book by a man who, as a journalist, was dangerously enamoured of war and its danger. But this isn’t only a “personal” book—it is a meditation on the terrible cost of war for all of us.

The Redundancy of Courage by Timothy Mo

An amazing novel about the brutal military takeover—and the ensuing guerilla insurgency—of an island close to Indonesia—which can only be Timor. The characters in this book are simply incredible, as is the story itself. I still wish this novel had won the Booker Prize, instead of only being nominated for it. And I still think about the meaning of the title . . .

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Sparks

Like candy for adults! A delightful, slightly creepy novel about a young woman novelist who is hired to be the secretary for the Autobiographical Association, with unexpected results. Sparks manages to do something very complicated—write a novel within a novel—in under two hundred pages, while showing the reader a very good time. It’s also a wonderful affirmation of the lives of women artists.

The Untouchable by John Banville

More candy! This novel is about the lives of Cambridge spies, one in particular, who leads not a double life but a quadruple one. The mystery of who reveals him as a double agent for Russia powers the book, but the real delight here is Banville’s delicious prose.

The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore

A humorous, inventive, often mesmerizing novel about a man who is a synesthete: his memory is unrelentingly exact, and he sees spoken words as explosions of color that often leave him bewildered. Adding to his frustration is his mother’s slow descent into Alzheimer’s. A man who remembers too much tries to help a woman who remembers too little, and the result is unexpected and surprisingly hopeful.

Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage, coming April 2008.

Posted in Reading List | Link | Print