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S2: I remember talking to my editor, Judy Clain, after I’d finished the book, and I was we were doing some edits and I told her I couldn’t write any more material because I didn’t know where the mind of this book had gone. And I didn’t recognize any more the person who had written it, the language, the syntax, all of it, which was so effortless during the composition evaporated.
S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.
S1: Isaac, we just heard the voice of Adductor, who you spoke with this week. But before we get to that wonderful interview, this is the first time we’ve chatted since you submitted your manuscript, which is, of course, a cultural history of the method. Are you still thinking about Stanislavski or are you are such thoughts banned until you get it back for revisions?
S4: They are definitely not banned because, you know, I just can’t stop thinking about it. Things are going well. Those last two weeks were very difficult. I mean, in that I was working very hard, but they were very fun. And, you know, it was a joyous process. It was just all the time I knew exactly what I was doing. I was taking care of my kid, recording what we needed to record for working and working on the manuscript. And that was it. And there’s a nice clarity that enters when you’re that busy, you know? Yeah. And now I’m in a moment where I have no clarity. I don’t know when I’m getting notes back. I don’t know what the next steps of the process look like yet. So now it’s about figuring out, well, what is my day to day going to be? And some of that’s going to include more research. The subject is infinite, and I’m sure I will be reading up on it all the way up until the book is published to make sure that I know what I’m talking about. But it’s a lot of other stuff, too. It’s freeriding. I’m doing writing for no clear purpose for the first time in two years, you know, and stuff like that. I’m just trying to get back in touch with all the other parts of myself as a as an artist.
S1: Amazing. This week you spoke with adductor. I haven’t yet read or seen his work, but I feel like his name is everywhere this year. What do listeners need to know about him?
S5: Well, I think the starting point is probably his play, Disgraced, which brought him to national prominence, had a successful run on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize. And it’s a really tricky play on its surface. It’s one of those one couple goes to another couple’s house for dinner and all hell breaks loose. Arlo, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, right? We think we know that play, but it’s actually instead a kind of deep and complex and interesting play about identity and assimilation and self-loathing and racial anxiety. But it deals with all that in a kind of very deft way. It’s only 90 minutes long and it builds towards this conclusion that is kind of deeply troubling and haunting. I don’t want to spoil what that is, because actually one of the wonderful things about the play is that it’s very readable. If you picked it up, you could read it and it wouldn’t feel mind boggling the way some plays can. And it’s very easy to get one’s hands on. So you should go get that and read it. He’s written a few other plays since two of them, The Invisible Hand and Junk, are both really about the financial system and debt and its effects on America. And actually the second of those junk you’ll hear a talk about, although not by name in our interview, it’s the play, the reception of which kind of drove him to write Homeland. This homeland is what the bulk of our interview is about, and that is a novel that is written in the style of a memoir. And its narrator and protagonist’s name is a doctor. And he shares many of ads, biographical details, but is not actually the same person. And he uses that framework to explore the really the Trump era and what it means to be an American in this moment, from the point of view of someone who’s a lot like him, the child of immigrants from Pakistan, who’s a middle aged, very successful writer, et cetera, et cetera and so forth.
S1: Interesting. So and writes novels and plays. And I’m having a hard time thinking of other contemporary writers who work both sides of the page, so to speak. My friend or our mutual friend, Sarah Schulman, has had plays produced off Broadway as well as writing novels and all kinds of other nonfiction. But she’s kind of superhuman. You’re the theatrical expert, though, is it as rare as I think it is very rare.
S5: I think it’s less rare in England, honestly. And I think it’s more often that you see people from other media turned to writing for theatre like Ethan Coen of the Coen Brothers has written for the theatre. Denis Johnson wrote a bunch of plays, you know, et cetera. I think it’s more common for folks to go in that direction than the other way around.
S1: Now, why, though, isn’t writing, writing, whatever the form, is it about something structural, like needing connections in the theater world to get the things you write produced?
S5: You know, we talk about this a bit in the interview, but frankly, no, I am not sure that writing is just writing whatever the form theater is extremely difficult to write for. Well, because the number of tools or means you have to tell your story are extremely restrained. All you really have is whatever the characters or actors say and whatever visually is going on. You don’t have any interiority. You can’t you know, it’s very hard to manage time. There’s there’s a lot of very specific challenges to that form. And I think that’s the real reason. The other thing is that it’s an incredibly difficult business to break into. And so I think that there’s a certain way that it discourages people and they might choose other other forms to write in.
S1: Yeah, well, this week it’s my turn to remind our listeners about the importance of Slate. Plus, if you enjoy this podcast and the rest of Slate’s journalism, please consider supporting us by joining Slate Plus. And those of you who are already members will hear a little more from ISIS conversation with Ed Aktar. One of the benefits of membership. And you can get two weeks free right now. Just go to Slate dotcom slash working plus. All right, now let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Ed.
S4: A doctor, thank you so much for joining us on working today. Oh, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me. I thought we could start at a very basic level. Do you have a, like, daily writing practice? And is that practice the same when you’re between projects versus when you’re working on a specific thing?
S6: If I’m writing actively, it’s nine to two every day at my desk, I mean, the thing that I always say about it is that I need to be somewhere specific at a specific time so that the muse knows where to find me, so to speak. It doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to get a lot of work done. But if if I’m not there and I’m not regular with it, then I don’t know that I’m ever going to put myself in a situation where I can get work done. My fiancee, who is not a writer or at least has not been a writer most of her life. Well, when we first started living together, she said to me, I’m shocked at how little a writer actually writes, I, I watch you do nothing all day.
S2: You sit on the couch, you sit at your desk. What are you doing there? I mean, you’re not doing anything. I said, well, I’m waiting, waiting to write yet. So much of the writing process is not writing. Yeah, that’s exactly right. And that’s that’s I think she finally sort of like really gets she gets the good side of that. But she sort of saw the bad side of it first. But but then in between projects, it’s really complicated because I find that if I can keep that nine to two rhythm and even though I don’t have anything to work on, I will generally tend to start working on something sooner. But I’ll often sort of like fall away from it and I’ll do other stuff in that time because I don’t have a specific thing that I’m working on. So, yeah, that’s the challenge is to keep the nine to two consecrated.
S4: Are there particular rituals you have? Is there like a way you like to start your writing day other than sitting down at the desk?
S6: Yeah, I mean, I pretentiously, you know, but it’s not for pretentious reasons, but pretentiously read Shakespeare every morning. I mean, that’s and there is a real reason for it. I find that if I spend some time working through sort of Shakespearean verse, it can be as little as a sonnet. If I spend 10, 15 minutes working on that, the language moving through my brain is a lot more developed and a lot richer and more unexpected. Then if I don’t do that, if I don’t do that, it’s like not having had my cup of coffee, if you will.
S4: So in Homeland El-Aziz, your new novel, the character who shares your name but is not necessarily, you know, has a very involved daily writing practice involving a lot of journals. Both of what happens in his day and his dreams are those techniques that you yourself have tried or they pulled from someone you know, or so I have been.
S2: There have been periods where I really do do that pretty regularly and then there’s periods where I don’t do it at all. And then my journal is full of, well, I should have done this today, but I didn’t or I’m going to do it tomorrow, then I don’t do it tomorrow. And but but I do keep a pretty I have in the past and, you know, I still do sometimes. I think that’s probably the sort of theme of this, of all my answers, that I do it sometimes and I don’t do it others. Yeah, of course is is that is the dream journals. And, you know, sort of I started keeping track of my dreams in my early 20s, and I you know, I was waking up every 45 minutes every night writing a dream down. And that lasted for about four years. So I’ve got literally thousands and thousands of dreams in boxes.
S4: And this is the technique where you tape a pencil to your finger. And that I’ve been I sort of takes you up. Yes, I do. Because I tried it. I tried it. After I read that section of your book, I try to I was like, well, I got to see if this works. And I got the worst night’s sleep of my life and it totally worked. Yeah, it was a crayon in my case because. Yeah. Oh my gosh. Because it was my child, you know, that’s what I had. That’s what I had the carpet to my finger. But I do because you don’t.
S2: Because you don’t even have to use that crayon to write. It’s just the fact that it’s there that reminds you that you’re going to that you’re going to, you know, recall it. Yeah, I’ve used that technique.
S6: But but it’s most you know, mostly that was something that a mentor of mine told me about and which he used to do was Gutowski actually told me to do this and and and he used to do it. I did try it a few times, but it turned out I didn’t really need to because just the fact of wanting to remember them, it was Gutkowski that told you to do this.
S4: I mean, that’s amazing.
S6: Kotowski was very insistent with me that the one thing I could do while I was working with him was that I could really pay attention to my unconscious and that he and I could have conversations about what was coming up, not just from a like a personal point of view, but like how the unconscious works, how dreams, images and language work in a different way in a dream sort of dream reality than they do in daily reality.
S4: And for our listeners who don’t know who Kotowski is, could you sort of summarize him and explain how you came to study with him?
S2: Yeah, Kotowski was one of the great theatre directors of the twentieth century. You know, sort of generally speaking, I think folks tend to say Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht. Vessel Lord Mayor Hold and Jerzy Grotowski, and sometimes they say about Peter Brook for one of those people, right. But he was really one of the pioneers in the in the 50s, late 50s and 60s of a kind of intense theater that he called a pure theater, which was now there wasn’t any lighting and there weren’t really costumes. It was really just the actors sort of creating the reality out of their own being. And he was kind of legendary, kind of cult like figure who then disappeared from the theater and stopped doing shows in the 70s and started working with actors on these techniques. You know, he used to say that he and his actors had figured out how to live fully on stage, how they they’d figured out how to get to the top of Mount Everest while they were on stage. But the challenge was now how to do that in life. So using a lot of performance techniques, in some cases ancient performance techniques to awake in higher states of consciousness, if you will, and most famously, at least most certainly in my case, for most Americans, he was the subject of my dinner with Andre because that movie that, you know, Andre Gregory and Wally Shawn made, where Andre is working with this Polish director in a Polish forest and he’s having all these amazing, almost hallucinogenic experiences. So I studied with the with years. I worked with his assistant for a year, 1993 in Italy. I met him through Andre Gregory. Actually, Andre came to Brown to give a talk. And I asked him I asked Andre if he would put me in touch with with Jerzy Kotowski. And he did.
S4: Well, you definitely took your shot, right? Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah. The wild thing about that is that, you know, when you went to go study with Jerzy Grotowski, were you thinking, I’m going to be a playwright novelist at that moment, or you think I’m going to be an actor and director or I wanted to be a director?
S2: You know, I had I had studied directing in college. I directed a rejected three plays. And I and I was rehearsing for, you know, the student actor colleagues of mine first play. I rehearsed for five weeks. My second player rehearsed for for two months. And all the all the people on campus. What the hell are you doing with these actors for two months? I said it’s not enough. Time is not enough time.
S4: Stanislavski rehearsed Hamlet for three years. Yeah.
S2: Gutowski rehearsed apocalypses configures for two years. Right, right. You know his great production.
S4: So I guess I bring this up because, you know, you went to go study one thing and you made a life doing another thing. But the lessons from the first carried over into the second. This really profound way instead of, you know, you’re necessarily going and getting like writing, training, you know what I mean?
S2: Yes. Yes. Well, I mean, I think if you had told me when I was either in Italy or had just come back from Italy and it was you know, I was in Paris for a while. I spent a little time, an hour in Michigan State to do silly and a little bit of time with Peter Brook and then came to New York and I started working with Andre and it was teaching acting at that time with him. And if you told me that that time that I was going to become a Broadway playwright, I would have told you, put a bullet in my head right now. I was probably the enemy, right? Always everything seemed to be torn down. Exactly. You know, the commercialization and sort of, you know, hundred and fifty dollar tickets. And, you know, that was just not my jam. It was not what it was all about. But it’s interesting that I think you sort of get out of your own way. I had lots of ideas about what I thought I wanted to do. And it turned out that this kind of weird combination of very high and very low is actually, whereas it’s very natural for me.
S4: So moving on to the to the book, specifically to Homeland Elegies, where did that novel begin for you? What was the germ of the idea that led to it?
S6: It was a poem by Leo Party. I was in Rome. My mother had recently passed away. My father was, you know, drinking himself into a stupor every day. He was five vodkas in by 11:00 a.m. and he had become impossible to sort of like to be around and to connect with. And Trump was president. And I had been through this experience in New York of having written a play, which I hope to was going to illuminate some of the ideological changes around money and incentive that would help us all understand a little bit better, maybe the better questions to ask about why Trump wasn’t our president, only to have it for the most part, at least by the New York critics. Have those questions summarily missed in some really profound way and that felt, frankly, insulting and felt like it was this thing of, you know, why aren’t you writing about Muslims? And because that’s what I allegedly have been writing about. So there was all of this stuff that was kind of swirling inside me, both both personal and political. And I ended up in Rome in a kind of need to sort of get out of the country. It was right at the beginning of twenty eighteen. And I had jet lag at the American Academy of in Rome where I was staying, went down into the library and found this book of poems by Labor Party. And I read the first poem, which is called To Italy, and it’s really a exhortation to his fellow citizens, fellow countrymen to remember, you know, where they come from and what they are made of.
S2: And I remember thinking at the time, would it be possible to write in a vote to have a voice, to find a voice that could, I don’t know, sort of bring together the entirety of what I imagine the American population to be the citizenry, my fellow citizens, could I address them all as a whole? And when I remember going to sleep that night, you know, thinking what a grandiose thought. But I woke up the next morning and there was the first sentence of this book was already sort of beginning to you know, it had already started to form itself. And I wrote the overture within the next two and a half days and I was off and running. I didn’t really know what it was I was writing, but I knew the voice was coming through me.
S4: Yeah, how did you find that voice that was going to address the country like you think about, like Dos Passos USA trilogy, where he finds a bunch of different voices and he fragments them and it’s arranged in this way. But here it is, you know, a first person that is addressing the country. I mean, it sounds like some of it was intuitive, but how did you find that voice?
S2: It was totally intuitive, but I think it was you know, it’s hard to say. I mean, I I guess I imagined that I didn’t feel antagonistic toward my fellow countrymen, countrywomen. I felt in solidarity and I felt that something had happened to our country. And it was not something that had happened to me. It was something that had happened to all of us. And it wasn’t about certain people getting excluded. It was about something that had taken place that had affected every American. And so it was, I suppose, and in a way, the argument of that overture is, yes, I’m a Muslim American writer and it’s been hard to be Muslim post 9/11. But even that didn’t prepare me to understand what it really happened to this country. It was only when I started to see clearly what was happening to all of us that I started to understand what had changed.
S4: So you have this idea, this voice is coming to you’re writing it down, it sounds exciting, but you I assume you’re not quite sure that there’s a novel there yet, right? I mean, you have projects that you abandoned because you follow them and you hit a dead end, or is there a certain point where it clicks over and you’re like, this is a book, this is a play, this is whatever it is?
S2: I think of the last 10 or so years I have been disciplined. You know, I’ve been writing for 35 and I think in the last 10 years I’ve been disciplined enough to know that I’ve made a certain mistake very often, which is that I have tended to start writing too soon and that when I write too soon, I will often discover that I don’t really know what I’m writing about and that I’ll get about a quarter of the way through something or half of the way through what I imagine it is only to discover that there really isn’t anything there. Right. So this has happened to me so many times over the years that I don’t do that. I just I spend many, many months preparing the ground, preparing the bed, sort of, you know, finding out what’s really going on, who the characters are, what these ideas are about, where they connect. And even if I haven’t worked out an entire plot, I’ve spent sometimes up to 10 months just prepping. Right. And then when I start writing, I know that there’s something there to be to keep moving through. But in this case, I think I was working so closely to myself, to my own experience. And also I you know, it’s it’s hard to describe because I remember talking to my editor, Judy Clain, after I’d finished the book. And I was we were doing some edits and I told her I couldn’t write any more material because I didn’t know where the mind of this book had gone. It was when I finished it, it was gone. And I didn’t recognize any more the person who had written it. And I did the language, the syntax, all of it, which was so effortless during the composition, evaporated and I couldn’t do the same things anymore. So in a weird way, I don’t I was inhabited by something and I don’t know what that thing is. But I do think that this sort of coherence or incoherence of the narrative through line is substantially a function of things that I have been thinking about for so many years. And I did worry at times that the book was going to feel. To disjunctive or it was going to feel too incoherent or but I always I think from the almost from the beginning and certainly after I’d finished the Trump section I the section about my mother, I felt like, OK, there is an arc here and I know what that arc is because it largely echoes the arc, both of myself and my parents’ lives. I’ve just got to figure out a way to thread this and find a way through it.
S4: So it sounds like when you were done with it, it almost was like it was written by someone else totally. Did that make revising it easier or more of a challenge?
S2: Well, it it it meant that that I wasn’t there wasn’t a substantial conversation about rewriting the book. So it was going to be what it was going to be. And if my agents and editor didn’t like it, then that was it. I wasn’t going to rewrite it then I would, you know, I suppose, figure out some other way to just get it out there and live with the consequences. It it what I did do was it was one hundred first draft is one hundred and twenty two, twenty three thousand words and then final drafts about one hundred and eight. So I cut 15000 words out of it but that was it.
S1: We’ll be back with more of ISIS conversation with that actor after this. We have a very special episode of Working Coming Soon, Isaac Ruman and I will address listener questions on work matters big and small. If you need guidance or inspiration or anything else as profound or as silly as you like, please drop us a line at working at Slate Dotcom or give us an old fashioned phone call at three or four nine three three work. That’s three or four nine three three nine six seven five.
S7: OK, let’s rejoin Isaac’s conversation with adductor.
S4: One of the just very basic creative decisions that shapes the whole book is that it’s a novel that is written in the style of a memoir, right? It’s written like a memoir, but it’s actually a novel. Yeah. Which I will say, you know, as a sort of I found a delightfully destabilizing reading experience.
S2: But but I was with some people are some people have not been is delighted by the destabilisation.
S4: Yeah. Yeah. So I guess I’m wondering how you arrived at that decision and how you realized you were going to play with those two forms and kind of mix them up?
S2: I think it was it was so organic. And I really just sort of I haven’t had a real chance to sort of like explain this, because a lot of times I sort of people ask me, you know, what was your intention? Then I kind of come up. I give them the ex post facto decision that I made about how to talk about what I did, as opposed to reflecting the actual process of how it happened, which was that I wrote this overture, which was in a voice that was so much like a certain kind of voice that I have, and that was using some facts of my life. But that was also twisting some things to make points write like some of those places that my father loved to go are true and some of them are not. We never went to Philadelphia, but my dad was obsessed with the Kennedy brothers and we did go to Brooklyn. So it was like, you know, figuring out rhythmically how to sort of to to complete a gesture or complete a phrase or complete a thought would sometimes require me concocting something to add to something that was true. And so the procedure of working for my own experience, using my own voice, but then adding details that were totally concocted for certain purposes, dramatic and otherwise, was something that I did from the get go. And then I didn’t stop myself from doing it as I went forward and as I didn’t stop myself from doing that, I started to realize it was not going to make sense for me to use another name because the guy won a Pulitzer and he’s a playwright and he is a father, is a doctor. Heart doctors got a mother like all it’s all me. But so much of this is also added, added sort of concoction. So then it’s me, but it’s not me. And I’ll write it in memoir style, but I’ll call it a novel which will give me the freedom to write whatever I want. And in the process, people won’t know the difference. And that’s OK. It’s not OK for my life, but it’s OK for the book.
S4: Yeah, did you have any reluctance about that? Because people might confuse the details with with your life because, you know, like, I’m sure you get asked all the time, oh, is this true? Is that true all the time. Is this a stand in for this person? Is that a yeah.
S6: And I think, you know, I worked through the dimensions of that question in thinking about my father, because what I was doing to myself, I was also doing to my father. I was I was concocting things in his life as well and. The record, you know, my father in the book is doesn’t have the name of my father, my own father’s name was Massood in the father in the book is Secunda. But it doesn’t matter people. You know, he was a heart doctor, the heart doctor in the book. And people just are going to assume and I thought to myself, well, the purpose here is not for me to express something about myself, but for me to try to have a meaningful conversation about what’s happened to the country. That’s why I’m writing this book. And if if my dad understood that, he wouldn’t mind. But I think because I’m doing this to my father, I’ve got to do it to myself and I have to do it in a way that’s not about making me look better. So there are some things in the book that are not true that. May hurt the readers opinion of me, but I had to put them in there almost in us in a way to sort of balance this this alchemy with my own father’s image.
S4: You know, there’s a kind of boomlet in what’s called auto fiction, right. There’s a lot of a lot of people are starting to play around with the borders of fiction and autobiography. And, of course, there’s a rich tradition there. You know, there’s Tim O’Brien, stuff like that. Are you a writer who seeks out other works that are doing something similar to yours, where you like reading up on Ben Lerner or whatever? Or do you actually not want that when you’re working on something?
S2: Well, I’ve had I’ve had some pretty some pretty strong examples in mind as I was working on the book, you know, and really the two biggies were were Philip Roth and Marcel Proust and the quality that I wanted to capture, which I think is present in Proust and in Roth, is this sense that the text feels like the extension of consciousness of the writer, that there doesn’t feel like you’re reading a text. It feels almost like you’re you’ve entered into the mind space of the writer himself, himself. And then this. In this case, the masculinised performance is obviously part of part of the the mise en send. So that is to say his self makes sense. But I think that that was what the quality that I had been looking for, that level of transparency where where it feels like thought and feeling are effortlessly unified in the way that they often feel when you’re just in your own head. And so that is the reason why the memoir felt like the right form to ape, if you will.
S4: Right, you know, when you say that, it strikes me that even when we read autobiographical nonfiction, personal essays, memoirs or whatever, the eye on the page is heavily constructed. It just you know, it’s always even if the writer isn’t thinking about it that self consciously, it’s still a constructed projection of the self. And, you know, here you have this protagonist who shares your name and some but not all details of your life. But he’s also a character in a novel. Right. And you also had this goal of wanting thought and feeling to kind of coexist in this way where we moved back and forth behind them. So how did you go about constructing the character of a character?
S2: That’s I mean, it’s a good question. I think I was always cognizant of him being a character in a dramatic story. So as a playwright, I think I was always observing his behavior, even though it was being reported first person and my parameters in my sort of gauges for being interested in his behavior were the same parameters engages that I use when I’m watching any one of my characters and which would constantly push his behavior into more and more dramatic territory, that the actions had to be sharper and clearer and the reversals had to be stronger. He would say things in in in opposition to other characters that, you know, if I was feeling it more from the inside out, I might have toned down or I might have pulled back. But again, I was I was, in a sense, watching him on the stage of this this story.
S4: Right. Because in art experience, it’s heightened. You know, it’s that old thing of like, you know, you’re not you don’t watch Hamlet make a salad or whatever that’s grieving his father. Right. It’s insane that you mentioned the stage because obviously you’re also a very accomplished playwright on top of everything else. And you started in the theater. And when you’re creating a character in the theater, there’s someone else who’s going to bring that to life. And you also don’t have interiority at your disposal as one of the writer’s tools. So is there a different process for you when you’re crafting a character just out of dialogue than when we have access to their thoughts?
S2: I think so, I think that, you know, I often say that writing a play is just a more demanding form to play. Writing is more demanding because do you have less latitude? You’ve got to tell the story in dialogue, which means there’s just certain things you’ll never be able to do. Like you just you can never get away with certain things. And the level of attention to what the audience is gathering from what they’re seeing is so high you can get away within a novel sort of, you know, tilling the ground once and telling it again until they may get it the second time. They may get it the third time, but they’ll get it at some point. And I think in this particular instance, it was I don’t know, I guess it was the Met. It was balancing this ever present now with the construction of dramatic scenes, events and circumstances that we’re going to continue to propel the story forward, even though it wasn’t clear what the story was, because it isn’t always clear what the story is. A lot of times, you know, there is a way in which I was consciously borrowing from television, episodic structure. You know, each of the chapters is a self enclosed narrative and each of them has an a story that completes within the chapter and also moves a B story along from one chapter to the next. And so it’s a kind of you know, I’ve been joking. It’s less auto fiction and more a literary version of reality television, which I think is is true, even though I say it tongue in cheek. But I think that that movement forward that’s sort of propelling the energy forward was something that I was attuned to dramatically. And so I was I was using all the same tools that I use as a playwright to think about story in the book for that reason.
S4: Yeah. You know, I was very struck by the book’s structure while reading it that, you know, there’s a way in which I mean, yes, because each of the chapters are self-contained, but it’s also digressive and discursive in a way that feels somewhat essayistic rather than novelistic in terms of its progression. And I was wondering how you worked that structure out, about which digressions go where you know, where the mind is going at any given point. Do you do a lot of outlining in advance before you write or or what?
S2: I do and I did in some like the very final chapter about my father’s court case, malpractice lawsuit. There was a fair bit of prep that was done for that chapter, for example, the Asia chapter about syphilis and and my mother’s death that happened very early and 9/11, that happened very organically. But it turned out that at that point it was clear there were certain dissonances that needed to start moving into resolution. And so the arc I had turned the halfway mark of the book and I knew where I had a sense. I knew that the final chapter would be about my father and that was going to be long, about 100 pages. And that between now and then, I had certain things I needed to do before I got there. So there was a lot of sort of conscious awareness of what digressions are helpful and what digressions are not. You know, the 9/11 sequence at Three Thousand Words sequence where he recounts the day of 9/11 to this Pakistani American lover that he has that was unexpected. And yet I had been accumulating data, stories, textures and anecdotes for 20 years about that, thinking that someday I would actually write about 9/11. And then I didn’t realize it was going to be in this book.
S4: And it would be at that point, you know, we’re so often told not to write about things that recently happened to us or about current events. Yeah, you know, art, in our art, we’re not supposed to do that. Art is in heavy quotes for listeners who can’t see my hands here. And of course, your book is doing both very directly. It’s very, very directly about now. And the present moment is always changing. One of the things that’s changed is with any luck, the presidency of Donald Trump is is ending now. Yeah. Is it weird to contemplate your book in relationship to the ever changing now? Is that a what is that experience like for you?
S2: You know, I think I’ve never been daunted about writing from the present because of my early obsession and fascination with Brecht, and Brecht rewrote his plays in the afternoon based on what was happening in the street so that every night they were different. I think that there’s something about that. You know, Shakespeare in many ways is doing the same thing. He’s commenting so clearly on events in the political, the politics of the moment. But in the case of Shakespeare, even more than Brecht, you know, his treatment of those particulars touches to some universal. And so we don’t really even need to know those reference anymore. I don’t know whether that is the case or not with with my work. I mean, I think oddly, Donald Trump finally being defeated feels to me like the appropriate there’s there’s a kind of a belated ness in the book, a kind of a mourning of a passing of of a moment of an America, of a vision. And I think that that Trump completes that in a way. And I I don’t know. It just feels to me like this moment is really the right moment to read the book. In a way, it was almost too close earlier because Trump is such an important sort of muse, a spiritual muse of the book, that it’s only with a little distance from him, that I think the book can really exist on its own. But I don’t know how that will feel in a few years, you know? Well, we can’t know exactly. Exactly.
S4: Well, er, Doctor, thank you so much for coming on working and sharing process with us. Oh, so much fun.
S1: Isaac, early on in that wonderful conversation, there was a moment where I could kind of hear you leaving your body when Ed mentioned having spent a year working with your secret task, you and Ed did explain who Grotowski was. But I’m still craving a little bit more specifically. I want to know what you are, a man who has just finished writing about Constantine Stanislavski and the method feel when Ed talks about having worked with him. Was Grotowski in the habit of working with young Americans fresh out of college?
S4: I don’t think so. I mean, certainly that somehow a convinced Andre Gregory to, you know, phone Gutkowski, I assume I don’t quite know is I think how he wound up there. You know, it’s not like there was an internship you could just apply for on the not yet really existing consumer Internet in the early 1990s. So Gutkowski is one of the most important theater directors and theorists of the 20th century and names the others over the course of the interview. Right. You have Stanislavski of Meyerhold, you have Brecht, you have Kotowski. There’s also AHTO, who is not really a director, but a theorist in there. And at its time, Gutkowski is ritualistic actor, focused, quote unquote. Pure theater was massively influential. I mean most famously was very influential on Peter Brook. Marat Sade is an adaptation of Gorski’s techniques to a kind of different kind of theatre. As Ed mentioned, he left making theatre to kind of become a guru. He’s the guru in the woods that Andre Gregory has studied with him, my dinner with Andre. And because of that, I forgot he lived that long, to be completely honest. So part of why my soul left my body at that moment was like, oh, my God, that’s right. He was still alive at this moment. So you know that there is a connection still to that legacy of someone who is not of the eldest generation of theatre like Peter Brook is remarkably still with us. Andre Gregory, while Shawn, people like that was just incredible to me. It’s it’s a lost it’s a lost legacy that we have this connection to. And it was just it was amazing to hear.
S1: So you and I had talked a lot about the fictional nature of his most recent book, Homeland Elegies. For those of us who haven’t yet read that novel, could you give us some examples of how that plays out? I mean, as a reader, were you always clear what was fiction or indeed that he was pulling on threads from his own life story? I mean, I wouldn’t know that his father was a heart doctor.
S4: Yeah, I mean, that’s part of the. Joy, for me of reading the book, it’s a really destabilizing experience to read a novel that’s written like a memoir. It’s just a really you’re just you sort of don’t have the same formal reference points that you’re used to. And then at the same time, you know, the narrator is explaining himself in the world in this very direct way that nonfiction does, that fiction normally finds kind of in bad taste or something and tries to avoid, you know, often in a first person novel. The character is not aware that they are telling a story to anyone. You know, there’s often this sort of weird fiction that you’re kind of in their head that’s you know, that’s not always true. That’s often true here. That’s negated. It’s like the author’s name is an actor. The character’s name is a doctor. And he is talking directly to you in a very, you know, pointed way. And so I made a decision early on that part of the artistic project of the book was that ambiguity between what was real and what was not, and that it was kind of betraying the book to try to find out what the truth was that the book is taking place in and trying to explain a moment in which we are often unsure what is true and what is not, in which our president is constructing a sort of parallel society built on lies, and that living in that discomfort was part of what the book was asking of me as a reader and what I owed.
S1: Well, and it kind of reminds me, I’ve mostly come across this with poets. You know, poets write in their work, they publish the work. If anybody reads it, they’ll often assume that the person in the poem or the maybe there’s just the voice in the poem is that writer. And I’ve known, you know, poets, people approaching puts up and saying, are you OK? You know, do you do you need help? I didn’t realize you were like, it’s it’s not me. And it is just shocking how often as readers we feel that desire to to associate the writer with what they produce. And so for him to kind of put his name and, you know, to tell us these are some things that are very similar to my real life, I can see that that would be the word that you use destabilizing.
S4: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that art can give us if we’re open to it, is a feeling of deep uncertainty, just dwelling and not knowing the answer, not knowing what’s right, not knowing what’s real. Yeah. And I think that’s very scary. I mean, I think it’s very anxiety producing. Right. It’s that whole thing of like when I get out of bed in the morning, how do I know there’s a floor there to meet me and I’m not going to fall to my death? Yeah. And so, you know, I understand the impulse to want to assume that it’s real, to want to assume the portrayal is endorsement, which is a common fallacy with art, you know, to give another example. But I think that if we can work to hold off on those impulses, I think that there’s something else that we can gain from art that’s really quite wonderful.
S1: Yeah, I loved hearing about his fiance’s response to his work routine that it seems like there’s a lot of doing nothing in the writer’s life. But it also feels like part of the way that working from home has allowed us to see what our partners are roommates do all day, which is disappointed some and impressed others.
S4: It’s really a great point, you know, and I should say, I’m in the opposite boat where the the person saying, God, you did nothing today is me to myself and my wife, who has white collar corporate job and is in meetings all day and works her ass off and never takes breaks. And everything like that is often the one saying to me, no, this is part of your process. You know, this is not not doing this. Watching a movie that’s related to the book is part of your process or, you know, thinking is part of your process going on a walk as part of your process. She’s the one who has to remind me of that. And it’s something I’m really, really grateful for. Now, you got a good one. No? Well, yeah. I mean, it’s good because in myself, there’s the there’s that other voice, you know. Yeah. One of the things I’ve had to learn, particularly during writing this book, is respecting the parts of the process that don’t look like writing or aren’t immediately productive and to know that those are important and to have faith that that’s going to work out. And that’s that’s part that’s that’s an ongoing process for me. And I think that that’s not limited to creative disciplines. You know, lots of our listeners do not are working in other fields and everything like that. And I think the terror of downtime is something we have to combat really actively, because it is really important to give ourselves space to think to for the subconscious parts of our brain to make connections we wouldn’t otherwise do. That’s important in any workplace, in any job. It’s not just about art. And I really believe that there’s this kind of war on idleness going on right now. We’re a war on downtime that’s really mistaken that that, you know, whatever those productivity gains supposedly are, there’s a cost to them. That is really unfortunate.
S1: Yeah, hard. I agree. And I also think that in this country, you know, there’s a I know a dislike, I guess, or a sort of a meanness with vacations and vacations, Protestant work ethic. Yeah. They’re so necessary. They’re so important. People take vacations. If you in a job that gives you vacations, take them.
S3: We hope you’ve enjoyed the show, if you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and then you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you a sleepless pitch slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero odds on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. But more important, you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial right now at Slocomb Working.
S4: Plus, thanks to add actor to Whitney Tazi, who provided valuable research and to our amazing producer Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with musician Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche. Until then, get back to work unless you need to take a break to allow your mind to kind of do its own thing, in which case don’t. Hazlet plus subscriber’s Isaac Butler here, thank you so much once again for supporting everything we do here on working and we have a little bonus treat. We’re talking with Ed about the sort of year in review that we’re doing right now. I’m working. So was there a particular cultural work or works or experience that that had particular meaning to you this year that you would put in your two, 20, 20 year in review?
S6: Yeah, I you know, encountering Daniel Mendelsohn’s little book, three, three rings, it’s a beautiful book is really kind of such a wonder. That book about Eric Auerbach, the Great, really in many ways the founder of Comparative Literature, whose masterpiece Mimesis is a study of representation in Western literary tradition. And in when I first encountered that book, was a real leap forward in my own understanding of form and understanding of building an impression for a reader on a page sentence by sentence, and how one went about doing that.
S2: And one of what I loved so much about Daniel Mendelsohn’s book, which is really about Eric Auerbach, who ends up in Istanbul fleeing the Nazis, doesn’t have a library and so has to work from memory and is is basically, you know, his book is Twenty two excerpts going from Homer to Virginia Woolf and through the entire literary traditions, really kind of a work. It’s a magisterial work of analysis and comparative literature, but it’s something that he created in a way because he was stuck in Istanbul without a library and it then became this. And this is the story that Daniel Mendelsohn tells, and he does it in such a beautiful way. The book is called Three Rings, so I can’t can’t recommend it more highly. When did you encounter the Auerback? I read the Auerbach before right before I wrote Disgraced and it was really disgraced was the first internalization of me understanding how to use language not as a extension of an illusion of that that you’re trying to but but that you’re constructing an illusion. It’s not that you’re using language and you’re just saying, OK, well, this is happening on a stage. And that stage is very much like where I am in the audience. It’s just that they’re in an apartment, you know, this sort of naturalistic tendency that we have to sort of weird languages mimetic in an obvious way. That disgrace is the first time we started to use language differently. And it was really because of our Alaba. You mean to like construct the character through the particularities of their dialogue or construct a different a different state of consciousness because you’re constructing reality differently. You’re not you. You’re the decisions that you make, for example, to get rid of what would otherwise be the kind of language that people would speak in a certain way at a certain moment, that those decisions start to have corollaries for how the reality is being received and understood by the audience and that that that that the terms that they’re using to judge, you know, so much in the American theater, folks are are being asked to assess the theatrical reality on the same terms as if they were watching something in real life or as if they were watching something, say on television that there’s a naturalistic mimesis of of human behavior. But but with disgraced, everything started to get so pared down. And that turns the narrative turns were so sharp. And that was in part because I was trying to create this height. This you said it earlier, this this subtle heightening sense, a compression. And so anyway, that’s my message to the first place that I sort of started to understand consciously how a writer was going about could go about doing something like that.
S4: And do you feel like the Mendelssohn book has led you to an even though you already love the Auerback to a new level of appreciation with it?
S2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally, totally. And it led me back to Auerbach I Red Auerbach again. How was that. Oh, so great. And it’s because it’s so rich. It’s such a rich you know, I went back in the second chapter is about the story of Isaac and in in the Old Testament, which I am a fan of, as you might imagine. Yes, you should read that chapter. It’s brilliant. It’s an absolutely brilliant chapter and it’s sort of the construction of the sentence structure in the way that peristalsis works. These phrases that are going that are joining one after the other sort of reflects a certain. A certain marriage of high and low, that was not something that was it was new in a way, and that speaks it’s in it’s fascinating what he’s able to do in the way he’s able to tell the story of shifting modes of reality and shifting modes of speaking and and the rhetorical registers that writers will use in order that are accepted in a society at a given point. And then there’s a writer that will come in like, say, Dante, and we’ll use the vernacular and what the vernacular shift, what that shift does to what the audience is experiencing as the reality of the story that they’re that they’re ingesting. That’s really fascinating. Hit the subtlety with which he can tease out these really fundamental things.
S4: Amazing. Well, now I have two great book recommendations that I’ll have to go to my bookshop cart. Well, thank you again for joining us for this little bonus section and sharing your thoughts on those books. Thank you so much.