Daniel M. Jaffe: An Interviewer’s Reflections
Daniel M. Jaffe
Thanks to the generosity and trust of my editor, Lauren Roberts, creator-goddess of BiblioBuffet, I’ve enjoyed a free hand these past two-and-a-half years in selecting authors to interview each month. A rare and treasured opportunity.
In recent weeks, knowing that I’m about to mosey on to other projects, I’ve been reflecting on my “Talking Across the Table” column, on the conversations I’ve relished with 30 authors of fiction, nonfiction, literary translation, memoir, poetry, and plays. No summary can do justice to the wealth of insights and wisdom these writers have offered, so I thought to cull from the interviews a few memorable observations made about the questions that most preoccupy me as author: why write or translate? What does the creation of literature do for us, and what do we hope our work does for our readers? Some thoughts from the experts:
Alexis Levitin: “I am basically a very happy pessimist. I keep on translating, I keep on lecturing, I keep on discussing literature and life with everyone I can find. But at the same time it seems to me that America is becoming more and more deracinated from both the earth, the world of the basic elements, and from the strong cultural roots of our Western tradition. At my college, in a classroom of forty students, there is usually only one who has ever heard of Cain and Abel. It makes it a bit difficult to discuss that wondrously complex and deep-rooted sin we all have tasted, envy. So, I find myself slipping into the Slough of Despond at such times, and that too is an interesting sin, isn’t it, sloth, or more familiarly despair. As for translation, it does seem to be gaining some visibility at a few campuses, at least. And there are a number of valiant small presses scattered across our country that are tenaciously dedicating themselves to the publication of literature in translation. So, can we slay the dragons of commerce and technology? No. But we can go on living in the valley of our making. It is a good place.”
Edith Pearlman: “There are very few artistic endeavors and sports that do not have an amateur component—think of painting, singing, theatricals; think of tennis and soccer and baseball. There are opera companies that are largely amateur; there are even amateur architects. Writing as a hobby can be taken up as seriously as writing as a profession. The craft can be studied, practiced, and mastered for the pleasure of only a few readers, just as the amateur pianist has only a household audience and the tennis player no audience at all. A few readers? I am happy with one—that is to say, all my work is directed towards an imaginary ideal reader, literate but not scholarly, wishing to be entertained, unresentful if he is at the same time enlightened.”
Suzanne Lummis: “That way of noticing the oddness or loveliness or some particularity in the commonplace . . . this is something that contemporary poetry's pretty good at. Come to think of it, it may be the outstanding quality of the poetry of our times, the way many of today's best poems insist that we look again at these seemingly ordinary, even lowly, things, objects of bland domesticity, brutish creatures and insects, scuffed street corners . . . Whatever once seemed too low for the subject of poetry can now be the subject of poetry.”
Diane Lefer: “And the politics. The political themes are now much more overt in my work. The characters don't usually express my own opinions. I hope the stories don't preach or judge. Issues of race and government affect us all everyday in our daily lives, and I think the sociopolitical aspects of our lives too often get censored out of fiction . . . We're so afraid of being labeled political rather than literary.”
Leo Cabranes-Grant: “You have to work against stereotypes as much as you can. I use them, I play with them, I deconstruct them. What counts is to detonate them: to show the complexity behind the simplification. Every human being is asking for the same: ‘please, do not simplify me.’ My biggest concern is that, in order to be politically effective, sometimes we have to set aside the complexities of human motivation, the network of contradictions that creates our personality. When I write, I look for the ‘liberal’ trait in the ‘conservative,’ for the ‘conservative’ trait in the ‘liberal’; the ‘masculine’ moment in the female, the ‘feminine’ moment in the male; the ‘American’ expression in the ‘Puerto Rican,’ and vice-versa. In that sense, the transvestite—like a bisexual person, or a mestizo (person of mixed racial heritage)—is a perfect incarnation of those co-existing tensions; like the émigré, the body of the transvestite lives in two or more spaces at the same time. We all live that way, but not everybody dares to deal with it.”
Felice Picano : “We . . . believed that literature would help us identify as gay, and this would aid us in becoming a socially aware and active minority. Thus we might eventually obtain gay legal and medical rights, or at the least keep ourselves out of jail, and keep us away from the prevalent anti-gay violence of the day. It might also help make us healthy and safe and nurtured; and possibly, even though it seemed only a remote dream then, help us be contented and free.”
Ruth Knafo Setton: “And although I am a Jew born in Morocco whose writing is grounded in the experiences of being a first-generation immigrant who grew up in a multilingual home, I hope that my writing transcends boundaries of gender, religion, nation. I am also a woman, who writes as frequently about men as about women. For those who search for ethnic role models, I find that I am not ethnic enough! And some of the most passionate, perceptive responses to my writing have come from people who know nothing about Jews or Morocco, but who tend to be outsiders in their communities, wherever they are. I’ve gotten letters from readers in Korea, Japan, India, Lebanon, Spain and Czechoslovakia, to name a few, who have told me that The Road to Fez’s story is their story . . . I am a writer who happens to be a Moroccan Jewish woman, but who is obsessed about who, what, why and how we love. In that world—my true world—our universal language is our desire to connect.”
Patricia Nell Warren: “When I was a Reader’s Digest editor, I spent several years between 1964-1971 in fascist Spain, working with the Reader’s Digest Spanish edition there. It gave me a lot of insight into a traditionalist society where state religion has hard-wired people’s emotions and attitudes for 500 years. But Spain also has her powerful liberal freedom-loving persona, and that part of her national character and aspiration was already straining at the limits of General Franco’s dictatorship in 1969 . . . It was in Spain that I also realized I’d have to stop cowering in my own closet and come out . . . which I did a few years later.”
Linda Legters: “I believe many writers start out with stories of catharsis, even if these stories are autobiographical in only the broadest sense. My stories were also this. A way to discover the writing self, and that attempt to make sense of life’s complications and confusions. As Joan Didion wrote, ‘I write to find out what I think.’ And feel. And have seen. Now my stories are more, shall we say, observational. I like to watch. My sister gave me a t-shirt which reads ‘Careful, or I’ll put you in my novel.’ Unfortunately, this is true. I see everything as material. All the absurdity, all the pain, all the humor.”
Laurel Ann Bogen: “The bane of my existence is to be considered ‘self indulgent—I’d rather cut off my arm than be thought so. In poetry, I am able to explore the emotion surrounding events or ideas more easily than just thinking, which tends to make me very anxious. The discipline of writing focuses my attention in a way that gives that emotion structure so that I can deal with it.”
Samantha Dunn: “I had to go to places in my psyche that I didn’t even realize existed, chambers and hallways that were not always comfortable or pretty or pleasant in any measure. I’ve realized that is one of the things that makes memoir writing unique—it was essentially a form begun (there is debate here) by St. Augustine in his Confessions.”
Lisa Dale Norton: “The memoir becomes the ‘truth,’ the story you show the world, the official reality you then walk forward inside. I think we need to be very careful as writers of memoir about what the truth is we make. What is the story you tell about your past? Is it the story you want to live for the coming years? Because once codified it will overtake all other memories, all other possibilities, all other truths . . . The question becomes for writers of memoir: Who would you be without your stories? And the lesson is: Be very careful of the stories you tell about who you are. So shall you become.”
Melody Mansfield: “To stay away from my personal, literal, life is another rule I’ve made for myself. In general, I much prefer to be surprised by the predicaments my characters find themselves in, and to be surprised by the ways they find their ways out again. But in this case, I’d gone through such a dark time—cancer, divorce, new digs, new town, new job, financial devastation—that I eventually found that I needed to shape parts of that experience into some kind of an artifact—in order to put it away and move on . . . I think I was trying so hard to create happy endings in my real life that I allowed an inauthentic brightness to infect my work. And, as a result, my writing really sucked. I mean a lot. So I decided to try to come back to writing from a different angle. I wrote ‘The Bulk of Men’s Brains’ . . . about the terrors of opening up to the uncertainties of life and love again, and that gave me the strength to delve back into the muck and write ‘Black-out.’ And I had to tap into the ‘harsh realism of post-surgery details’ as you say, in order to really bring it back. But I also wanted to shape it into something that had its own integrity, apart from my life. I think of it as my ‘depressing divorce story’ but it allowed me to begin to see the world again. And own it again.”
So . . . why create literature? In order to discover ourselves through our work, perhaps even so as to create ourselves, to take ownership of the world around us in an attempt to understand, and to encourage readers to join us in refashioning the world, and healing.
I have gained much inspiration from these and my other fellow authors. My thanks to each, and to Lauren Roberts, and to our BiblioBuffet readership for the opportunity to share.
Editor’s note: I am going to miss Dan very much. When I first proposed the idea of his writing for this web site—at the time it was little more than a vision—he immediately said yes. That kind of trust between a writer and editor is to be valued. And Dan proved himself not only the consummate professional but a fine man and a wonderful friend. I wish him only the best as he moves forward with his writing, and expect to hear a lot more about him in the not-too-distant future.
Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension Writers Program, and was recently interviewed on their blog. Dan’s web site is here. Contact Dan.