- ⇢ Laurent Binet, HHhH. tr. by Sam Taylor.
- ⇢ Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
- ⇢ Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son
- ⇢ Lydia Millet, Magnificence
- ⇢ Zadie Smith, NW
- ⇢ Laurent Binet, HHhH. tr. by Sam Taylor.
From the Publisher: HHhH: "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich," or "Himmler's Brain is called Heydrich." The most dangerous man in Hitler's cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the "Butcher of Prague." He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible — until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of History. Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet's captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gabćik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich's car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church. A seemingly effortless blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet's remarkable imagination, HHhH — an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman — is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history. HHhH is one of The New York Times' Notable Books of 2012.
Tara Rose Stromberg, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses HhHH, translated by Sam Taylor, with the author, Laurent Binet. HhHH is among the final five selections, in the category of Fiction, for the 2012 NBCC awards. The interview was conducted via email.
TS: HHhH is considered a novel, though it deviates from the traditional approach to historical fiction in its unusual structure and candid engagement between the narrator and reader. As a writer, do you feel constrained by the rules of genres, or do you feel that those rules are meant to be broken?
LB: Yes, of course, the rules are meant to be broken (that's why first you have to know them). But this is the essence of the novel as a genre to be metamorphic and to embrace a huge territory. What is common between Rabelais', Sterne's, Balzac's, Kafka's, Calvino's, Sebald's, Bolano's, Bret Easton Ellis', William T. Vollman's novels ? Not much? But they are all novels.
TS: What is it about Prague and its history that drove you to such a powerful and personal exploration into Operation Anthropoid?
LB: My personnal life brought me to Slovakia then to Prague and I developed strong feelings for that area and the people living there. However, Prague, the city in itself, is fascinating enough. So is the Operation. Both together, it is just marvelous material for anyone who likes writing, telling, reading or hearing tales. (Or watching of course, I'm dreaming about a movie … )
TS: In the novel, you frequently struggle against turning Heydrich, the parachutists and other historical figures into characters, or "inventing" details from their lives that may or may not be the truth — that to do this would “be the clinching proof that fiction does not respect anything." Why was it important for you to directly address the issue of fictionalizing history?
LB: First, it was just a question of loyalty, but it is also about knowing what you're talking about : the real persons who lived once in the real world or characters inspired by real persons? I just wanted to stress that this a true story, not just "inspired by." Of course, there are wonderful fiction stories but, all other things being equal, I feel more moved when I know it really happened.
TS: You give the reader intimate access to your storytelling process, as if to alleviate any doubts we may have on your credibility as narrator. Did this structure come about organically as you researched, or was it something you planned from the very start?
LB: I didn't plan anything but that way was obvious for me from the first lines I wrote. I couldn't have done it in any other way. That process was totally genuine for me, it was definitely not that I was thinking about how I could tell the story in an original way. I can't imagine writing anything without the author interfering the narrative.
TS: One of my favorite quotes from the book is, "We build ourselves with memory and console ourselves with memory." What would you say is the relationship between memory and history? How does memory influence your writing?
LB: Memory in that case is a metaphor, actually, because we don't remember things we didn't live, such as WWII, right ? We collect some information by studying History. Some of that information, I believe, deserves to be not forgotten and that's why it is important to work for that, one way or the other. Actually, everything from History deserves to be known. Anything that works towards recalling History is a good thing, because knowledge makes you wiser and deeper. It is as simple as that.
TS: Would you say there's a difference in how we view literary genres such as fiction and non-fiction in the United States as compared to France, or to Europe as a whole?
LB: Yes, because in France nobody talked to me about metafiction or metanovel. In the US and also in England I can hardly answer a question without those words coming up. I feel US and English critics are more interested in technical questions, such as questions of genres. I love that. In France, the approach of critics is much more "impressionist," a noble word for "vague."
TS: In a recent interview with The Guardian, you mentioned that you've always hated being told by schoolteachers to separate the author from the narrator. Do you think an author chooses to reveal him or herself in their work, or is it inevitable?
LB: It is inevitable, so why bother to invent a narrator who looks pretty much like you but is not you. At the same time, I like Kundera's theory about the "experimental egos" and my favorite living novelist by far is Bret Easton Ellis, who does it all the time. Of course, I'm full of contradictions, but who isn't, right ?
Tara Rose Stromberg currently studies nonfiction writing in The New School's MFA program. She holds a BA in Film and Television from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and has worked as a producer in post-production and advertising for the past seven years. She lives in Brooklyn.
- ⇢ Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Ecco).
From the Publisher: A ferocious firefight with Iraqi insurgents at "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal" —three minutes and forty-three seconds of intense warfare caught on tape by an embedded Fox News crew — has transformed the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad into America's most sought-after heroes. For the past two weeks, the Bush administration has sent them on a media-intensive nationwide Victory Tour to reinvigorate public support for the war. Now, on this chilly and rainy Thanksgiving, the Bravos are guests of America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, slated to be part of the halftime show alongside the superstar pop group Destiny's Child. Among the Bravos is the Silver Star–winning hero of Al-Ansakar Canal, Specialist William Lynn, a nineteen-year-old Texas native. Amid clamoring patriots sporting flag pins on their lapels and Support Our Troops bumper stickers on their cars, the Bravos are thrust into the company of the Cowboys' hard-nosed businessman/owner and his coterie of wealthy colleagues; a luscious born-again Cowboys cheerleader; a veteran Hollywood producer; and supersized pro players eager for a vicarious taste of war. Among these faces Billy sees those of his family — his worried sisters and broken father — and Shroom, the philosophical sergeant who opened Billy's mind and died in his arms at Al-Ansakar. Over the course of this day, Billy will begin to understand difficult truths about himself, his country, his struggling family, and his brothers-in-arms — soldiers both dead and alive.
Halle Murcek, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk with the author, Ben Fountain. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is among the final five selections, in the category of Fiction, for the 2012 NBCC awards. The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13.
Halle Murcek is originally from the Midwest. She graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Denison University and is currently working toward her MFA in fiction at The New School.
- ⇢ Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son
From the Publisher: Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother — a singer "stolen" to Pyongyang — and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy's loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself "a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world," Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress "so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like." In this epic, critically acclaimed tour de force, Adam Johnson provides a riveting portrait of a world rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.
Brian Morgan, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses The Orphan Master's Son with the author, Adam Johnson. The Orphan Master's Son is among the final five selections, in the category of Fiction, for the 2012 NBCC awards. The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13.
Brian Morgan thanks the NBCC for this opportunity. He holds a BFA from The New School and is a Fiction MFA candidate.
- ⇢ Lydia Millet, Magnificence
From the Publisher: A woman embarks on a dazzling new phase in her life after inheriting a sprawling mansion and its vast collection of taxidermy. Pulitzer Prize finalist Lydia Millet is "one of the most acclaimed novelists of her generation" (Scott Timberg, Los Angeles Times). Salon praised her for writing that is "always flawlessly beautiful, reaching for an experience that precedes language itself." This stunning new novel presents Susan Lindley, a woman adrift after her husband's death and the dissolution of her family. Embarking on a new phase in her life after inheriting her uncle's sprawling mansion and its vast collection of taxidermy, Susan decides to restore the neglected, moth-eaten animal mounts, tending to "the fur and feathers, the beaks, the bones and shimmering tails." Meanwhile an equally derelict human menagerie — including an unfaithful husband and a chorus of eccentric old women — joins her in residence. In a setting both wondrous and absurd, Susan defends her legacy from freeloading relatives and explores the mansion's unknown spaces. Funny and heartbreaking, Magnificence explores evolution and extinction, children and parenthood, loss and revelation. The result is the rapturous final act to the critically acclaimed cycle of novels that began with How the Dead Dream.
Matt Choate, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Magnificence with the author, Lydia Millet. Magnificence is among the final five selections, in the category of Fiction, for the 2012 NBCC awards. The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13.
Matt Choate has worked as a journalist, copywriter, editor and radio producer. He wrote for FIFA during the first Football World Cup in Africa, raced cars in Abu Dhabi, and produced the country's most influential business radio show. Then he helped to start a pirate radio station in his hometown of Jo'burg, South Africa. He is currently an MFA student at The New School Graduate Writing Program.
- ⇢ Zadie Smith, NW
Zadie Smith, NW (The Penguin Press).
From the Publisher: This is the story of a city. The northwest corner of a city. Here you'll find guests and hosts, those with power and those without it, people who live somewhere special and others who live nowhere at all. And many people in between. Every city is like this. Cheek-by-jowl living. Separate worlds. And then there are the visitations: the rare times a stranger crosses a threshold without permission or warning, causing a disruption in the whole system. Like the April afternoon a woman came to Leah Hanwell's door, seeking help, disturbing the peace, forcing Leah out of her isolation… Zadie Smith's brilliant tragi-comic new novel follows four Londoners — Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan — as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their London is a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone — familiar to town-dwellers everywhere — Zadie Smith's NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.
On behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, Ben Janse interviewed Zadie Smith about her novel NW, and its final-five selection in the category of Fiction for the 2012 NBCC awards. The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13, and revised via email.
Ben Janse: NW is a novel of five sections in which each section has such a unique and interesting style and voice. I was wondering if you could talk a little about how this came about?
Zadie Smith: It was always part of the plan. It was one of the reasons I began it … to write a novel of interruptions. To create in prose the feeling I have moving through London: a series of discrete shocks. It would have been much easier to slide all the characters under the same singular, smooth omnipotent voice — but I wanted to recognize in prose the radical differences in my characters' experience.
BJ: What do you think the benefits are of a fragmented novel as compared to a more cohesive novel (in terms of style/voice/structure)?
ZS: I don't think about it that way, there's no particular benefit, it's just a different kind of thing. Different stories require different types of telling. And this story, I felt, required a fragmentation that another story might not. I don't really have a preference for one form over another.
BJ: So, NW seems to have two main themes: the impossibility of long-term romantic happiness and class struggle, specifically those from similar backgrounds, who rise, who sink. What interested you in these topics?
ZS: Well I wouldn't say I'm so pessimistic about long-term relationships (laughs). I don't know … to be honest that wasn't really in my mind. I never think about romance, really, in life or in fiction. It's a subject that doesn't hold much interest to me for some reason. I'm more interested in human relationships in the sense of: "how can I really believe this other person is real?" And that's as hard a question in friendship or family relations as in what people tend to call "romance." As for class, yes I'm always thinking about class. The way that class shapes and determines our opportunities or lack of them. That's an obsession born out of my own experience. For better or worse it seems to turn up in most things I write.
BJ: Do you think authors owe it to their readers to be socially conscious in their novels and attempt to address the social issues of the day?
ZS: No. I don't think authors owe their readers anything, or vice versa — it's not that kind of relationship. That said, I personally enjoy writing that attends to the present. I can see that the historical past comes with its own gravitas and weight, and that many writers rely on that as ballast. And to many readers, too, the present feels weightless, 'trendy,' un-literary. I find I like that problem. I like taking on the challenge of a reader's contempt for his own times.
BJ: What was the hardest thing to write in NW?
ZS: All of it. It was a difficult book to write. It was difficult fighting my own tendency towards smoothness. Smoothness can be a great advantage in a novel, a great asset to keep things bobbing along at a certain pace; but it can also be a way of being glib, of passing over what should be more closely examined. I wanted to create a different quality of attention in my reader.
Practically speaking, too, it was just a long process. Seven years is a long time and I had other obligations. It's different writing with children and without, different writing at my age as compared to when I was 22. But despite the difficulties I found it to be by far the most rewarding writing experience of my life so far.
BJ: In this novel the language can get quite playful. Do you feel you were more experimental with language in this novel than in your others?
ZS: Not really. For some time I've been trying to become more clear and to be less wasteful at the sentence level. That was my main thought as I was writing. Maybe some of the sentences in my other books have a more familiar structure and these seem more unfamiliar — but there's nothing particularly experimental about them, I don't think. There's nothing especially strange going on, no surreal events, just people, living, talking. Perhaps they're talking freely more than they are being stage-managed by an omnipotent narrator. But read in a certain way it's no different than what you hear when you walk down the street every day.
BJ: What's up next for you?
ZS: Well, in the near future, a baby, in a few weeks or so. And then … I don't know. I have a novel vaguely in mind but I think it might be a long time before that happens. Life gets in the way. Apart from that, just reading, the same as always. Reading, taking in what I read, trying to mix it with experience, and then applying that to a page.
BJ: Is there anything you've been reading lately that's really been striking you?
ZS: I'm reading a lot of science-fiction. The book I have in my mind is set in the future. So I've been reading a lot of Harlan Ellison, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delaney, things like that. It's fun. It's nice to read things that I'm not reviewing or thinking about critically. Just for pleasure. That's been good.
BJ: Do you do research for your novels and if so, what kind did you do? How do you go about your research (online, libraries, other documents, travel, interviews, etc.)?
ZS: I write in a library, and if I need something, the books are there. But most of my work doesn't involve much research. I'm not sure what research for fiction amounts to in the age of the Internet. I look up facts online, and if they seem wobbly, I check it in a book, like everyone else. Research feels a grand name for it. But mostly I try to leave facts alone!
Ben Janse lives in Queens, and is an MFA student at The New School Graduate Writing Program. He is working on a novel about railbikes, camouflage, living in the jungle, paradox, trees that grow over things, and infinity.