A General Love Of Books: An Interview With Benjamin Markovits
Interview by T Bunstead.
3:AM: All four of your novels have had an academic aspect, whether it is writing about teachers, from the point of view of academics, or bringing to life set-text Byron and his nearest and dearest. Could you imagine yourself creating something without academia so woven into it, and why do you think academic subjects are so creatively suggestive for you?
BM: Good question, by which I mean, I find the answer embarrassing. The truth is, I’m the child of academics and grew up, like many people, knowing nothing better than the world of school. It’s helpful to know a world well if you want to write about it, so I write about teachers, professors and students. I’d distinguish between the The Syme Papers, which is properly a campus novel, and the other books, though. Even high school seems to me to belong to a different kind of thing than university: everybody goes to high school, after all. And the Byron novels don’t strike me as very academic. They have more to do with a general love of books, and the kind of people who view their lives through books.
3:AM: Now you find yourself teaching Creative Writing. Is it your view that someone can be taught to write well?
BM: I think writers can get better, and that if you put people in the position to reflect on their work they will improve. Whether that’s the same as teaching someone to write well, I don’t know.
3:AM: A. S. Byatt said that she thinks the rise in creative writing courses and tepid autobiographical writing in particular is because of the “disappearance of God” — more people desperate to make sense of things by “writing their own story” in the absence of a universal one. It could also be to do with the proliferation of these courses in the sense that they put aspiring writers in contact with tutors who, keen not to impose their own values and interests, will inevitably implore students to write what they know, and the middle class worlds of those likely to attend these courses will by default be quite safe. Your views? A worrying trend or just new trash?
BM: Write what you know isn’t bad advice. Actually, I find that few of my students attempt the safe middle-class novel: many are interested in different kinds of genre fiction, sci-fi, historical fiction, etc. That said, I like safe middle-class novels: I like books in which not much happens. The trouble is, they are very hard to do. People don’t always know their own worlds very well, either. It’s also hard to be objective and insightful about oneself.
3:AM: As an American with Jewish roots working in London, can you give any insight into what’s happened to Woody Allen in his last couple of films?
BM: The middle stuff is wonderful: Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan. Even some of the later work: Crimes and Misdemeanours, Husbands and Wives. All terrific movies. Maybe the truth is, they ain’t easy, and we should really ask ourselves, how he managed to produce such a string of classics in the first place. That doesn’t really answer your question, though. Some of the later movies feel to me less intimately autobiographical than the earlier ones. Maybe he no longer sees movie-making as a way of addressing the immediate questions in his life.
3:AM: Someone wrote about the characters in Either Side of Winter existing in a “post-Buber universe”. Buber is mentioned in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, in an illuminating dialogue between non-practising Jew Neil Klugman (it is suggested he is aligned with Buber) and his girlfriend’s orthodox mum. Is Buber’s thought more known about in the States, and would you say it is related in any important ways to your thinking or intellectual upbringing?
BM: I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Buber. I love Goodbye, Columbus, which seems to me one of the great American novellas, though I first read it after writing Either Side of Winter.
3:AM: David Peace’s The Damned United seems to have taken the sports novel out of the no-go area for serious writers with its persuasive interiorisation of one of Britain’s great football managers, Brian Clough. You played basketball at a professional level, write regular sports features and said in another interview that the person you would most like to sit with at a dinner was Michael Jordan: can you ever see yourself trying to write the mind of a sports personality?
BM: I’m at work on a sports novel now. The trouble for me is that my interest in sports is basically non-literary; and I have to keep reminding myself to stick to what seems relevant from a literary point of view. I like writing about failure, and athletic failure seems to me as good a kind of failure as any: maybe better, because it’s so hard to fudge it.
3:AM: Have you ever had to abandon a work and why?
BM: I have unpublished pieces in the cupboard. Sometimes they get abandoned because other people abandon them; I mean, editors. But I pick them up later and look them over to see if there’s anything useful. I often abandon starts to novels, before I’ve worked out the proper way forward. Beginnings are hardest. Novels, as they get longer, tend to offer a richer vocabulary of character and situation to work with, and become more rewarding.
3:AM: In Either Side of Winter characters consistently “defer pleasures” in order to prolong them, a really interesting riff. Do you find it possible/ desirable/ necessary to write themes in, or is it something that comes more unconsciously through engaging with a character?
BM: I like deferring pleasures myself, and I suppose I feel an affinity for characters who do. The other thing is, I believe readers can get by on very little event, so long as they know what it is they are waiting to find out. Deferring pleasures is one way to make them wait. About themes: I never liked the word much as a student, but I see its use. Basically, I pick a story because it allows me to address questions that interest me. So, for Either Side of Winter, I wanted to write about happiness, and each of the stories involves some kind of pursuit of it. I suppose that makes anxieties about happiness a theme, but it’s a theme in everybody’s life, not just my book.
3:AM: What writers have you read and enjoyed recently?
BM: I’m reading Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America. He writes well, and his point of view changes remarkably little through the decades: which suggests it was pretty strong and flexible to begin with.
3:AM: The crucible: Francis Bacon’s Chelsea studio was semi squalid, my girlfriend has to hoover and dust and throw open windows before she can work in a space; do you have any just-so pagoda?
BM: I have a study with a view of the street. Mostly, I like to keep my desk cleared, but it doesn’t always stay uncluttered. I’m more particular about hours. I like to write in the morning; then I can enjoy the rest of the day.
3:AM: What’s next for you?
BM: I’m working on a basketball novel right now. And then we’re off to America for a year: I’ve gotten a fellowship to work on the third novel in my trilogy of books about Lord Byron. I haven’t lived there in almost a decade. I’ll go and practice my accent.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
T. Bunstead works in TV as a video editor and translator and is engaged part-time on the Creative Writing MA Programme at University of London’s Royal Holloway College.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 24th, 2008.