What kind of historical research did you do on Richard Nixon and the era of his administration for the novel?
I did a lot of research, everything from reading books by and about Nixon, of which there are hundreds, to visiting the Nixon Library—which has a great Web site as well—and enormous amounts of information/documents available. What’s really interesting is that more information, more documents keep being released. The White House Special Files Unit was created in 1972 to provide secure storage for politically and personally sensitive materials—those files are still slowly being uncorked. Also, I grew up in Washington D.C. during Nixon’s time, so my childhood was very much influenced/affected by his presidency. Among what people forget about Nixon is that he opened our relationship with China—and it so happens that I was among those at the National Zoo the day Pat Nixon welcomed the first panda bears to this country.
What are your thoughts on alternative criminal reform programs? How did you come up with The Woodsman program that George takes part in?
The classic model of putting people behind bars and throwing away the key seems pointless. People serving time in prison should be given an education, job training, and skills to enable them to succeed outside of prison. I think of crime as a social issue in many ways and wonder whether if we better prepared people to work and care for themselves we’d have less crime. I am in favor of prisons that have working farms where inmates learn to grow their own food and places where families can gather. The isolation of the prison experience isn’t helpful in the long run if you’re expecting inmates to return as functioning members of society.
This novel is full of wonderful moments of physical comedy. Is it difficult to write physical comedy? Who are your comedic influences?
Would it be too ironic to say Harold Pinter?
When you’re working on a project, do you think of the book or story you’re writing as a “foul thing” you need to expel (as Harold says of his own book on Nixon)? Or do you think of it in gentler terms, like a child you’re bringing into the world? Do you experience the writing process as an act of cathartic release?
I wish I experienced it as a cathartic release. It took me seven years to write this book—if it was cathartic, I think I’d be either ecstatic or dead at this point! I think of writing fiction as a wonderful kind of travel experience—I get to inhabit people who are very different from me and move through their lives and explore ideas that I find interesting—but often from very different points of view. The truth is I love being in the middle of a novel. It’s the beginning that’s difficult. In the case of this book, writing about Harry, a man who doesn’t know himself well, was hard until Harry literally began to open up, and then it all got a lot easier.
Early on in the novel, Harold wishes he could talk to Don DeLillo about Nixon. Later Harold spots DeLillo around town on a couple of occasions, finally working up the courage to speak to him. How much of an influence has DeLillo been on your writing?
Don DeLillo appears in the novel for several reasons—the first being because he’s an amazing writer, and I especially admire his ability to blend fact and fiction, something that I attempted to do in this novel on a larger scale than I ever have before. Also, because DeLillo in reality lives not far from where I imagine the novel to be set, it’s plausible within the frame of the book for DeLillo to literally pass through. And in some ways the irony of DeLillo as both a writer and a character appeals to me. DeLillo himself is quite shy, slightly cryptic in conversation and affect, and I just am in awe of him—so it’s a tip of the hat to a master.
I noticed the repeated use of the word “downloading” to refer to characters in conversation, such as on p. 467 when Harold is on the phone with Amanda: “She’s downloading information, letting each bit go . . .” Why this use of tech language to depict human interactions?
We have adapted tech talk as human talk—we go to dinner and download our friends on the state of our lives. When informing others of things, we say I’m going to upload you. . . . The real question is when and how we’ll find words for emoticons. . . .
How do you get inside the head of a character like Harold? How much does character development steer the plot in your work?
I always spend a lot of time thinking about a character’s history: their life up until the moment the book begins, what’s been won or lost over the years, their view of themselves and their own lives. Harry always seemed to me like someone waiting for his life to begin—not fully realizing that in fact he is responsible for his own success or failure. I don’t really think about plot, I think about my characters and their lives and the journey they’re on—and off we go on an adventure. . . .
How did you go about developing the voice and style for Nixon’s fiction?
I thought a lot about Nixon’s background, his Quaker history and his values—including the fact that he came from a family where two of his brothers died when he was quite young. There is so much about Nixon’s success anddownfall that is specifically related to the time period in which he lived—Nixon’s life span is an interesting one in terms of the social/cultural/economic and technological development it encompasses, from the tape recorder to the television. Also, there are many stories about Nixon having a bit of a drinking problem and perhaps not being very nice to Pat. So I was able to thread some of the more difficult material into fiction rather that putting it in the body of the book and perhaps distracting the reader.
Your novel offers both a state of the union on the Great American Novel and a commentary on the state of the American nuclear family—where do you think we are and where are we going?
Ahh, the big questions. Curiously, I am often asked about the difference between fiction written by men and by women—the assumption being that only men can write the Great American Novel. And while perhaps traditionally men have written the larger social and political novels while women have tended towards exploring the domestic and more interior experience, May We Be Forgiven does both: it asks big questions about social structure, health care, education, and the prison system, and also explores the domestic world of raising children and maintaining relationships. Grace Paley, my teacher and mentor, once said to me, “Women have done men the favor of reading their work and men have not returned that favor.” I think in many ways she was right—women read books by men and women and yet fewer men read books by women. Anyway, the point is, the American Novel is alive and well and being written by a broad range of talented writers.
The American nuclear family is also clearly a subject close to my heart. So many people feel disappointed by their own families and are increasingly building families of choice—constructing social/ familial units made of friends and extended family that they choose to spend time with. One of the things that I like about this novel is how Harry manages to build a life that includes everyone, from children to older people to the couple that own the local Chinese restaurant—it truly takes a village.
Your work is often described as “dark” and “controversial.” Do you like to write within this sort of territory because that’s where you feel most comfortable, or is it that you’re most interested in writing about things that frighten and disturb you?
My work is also often described as both transgressive and deeply moral—which I think is what’s both interesting and confusing for some people. I think work described as shocking or controversial means that it touches a nerve, and I can’t imagine wanting to write anything that didn’t touch a nerve. What would be the point of spending years writing a book only to have people say, Oh, that’s nice, and not be prompted to talk about the ideas in the book, to debate the subject matter? I have no interest in specifically frightening or disturbing anyone, but I do very much always want to write fiction that encourages people to look at themselves and the world around them differently.
More interestingly, I think, is to point out that all of my books have at their center a rather traditional moral core. In the end it always comes down to talking about what kind of a person are you—what do you expect of yourself and others and what role do you play in your community? I’m a big fan of people being able to do for others what they might not be able to do for themselves.