Last year, I wrote this Favorites on Friday post about books so good you stay up late to finish them, specifically Darin Strauss' new book Half a Life. This is the essay-length memoir featured on This American Life, the book Elizabeth Gilbert called 'staggering and unforgettable'.
I was first aware of Darin at NAIBA conference last September when all the authors were invited to stand up and introduce their upcoming book in two minutes or less. Unlike me, who had grabbed what I thought was a packed suitcase from my DC trip but was in fact empty and left me scrounging around Atlantic City outlets late at night searching for something writerly to wear, Darin looked like a seasoned, veteran author. Which is to say he was wearing an air of authority, a serious expression and a really nice tweed jacket. If I remember correctly, there were even suede elbow patches.
Half a Life was recently released in paperback and I had a chance to interview Darin, talk about his book and writing in general. Please enjoy the interview below:
CKH: When one has a life-changing event like the car accident in Half a Life, it's easy to imagine that it colors many experiences with a broad brush stroke. How difficult was it to choose what to include and what to leave out when telling this story?
DS: It was hard, as any story is hard. I tried to think of it as a novel -- a story with an arc, and characters, etc. Then I tried to structure it that way. All the same, because it was all so close to home, I needed a lot of editing help with this one. A friend, David Lipsky (a great writer himself) was a HUGE help in this, and everything else.
CKH: I read Half a Life in one breathless evening; I couldn't put it down. You have other books that are fiction and have very well-paced plots. What were the biggest differences for you between writing this and fiction?
DS: You're a nice woman. I tried to minimize the difference. Only the obvious one remained, I hope, by the end: that one was invented, and the other was as close a representation of the truth as I could manage. Or, better to say it was the truth of my memory of the event.
CKH: What is the writing process like for you? Which parts are your favorite and which feel more like work?
DS: It's all work. If it comes too easily, I'm generally suspicious of it. (And generally for good reason.)
CKH: There is a very moving scene in the book where you revisit the scene of the accident with your infant sons. What do you expect or hope they will learn about you when they read this story later in life?
DS: Wow. I don't know. I don't think you can make any good book answer to one simple lesson. I hope it's a story they can relate to, and that they come to know their old man a little better.
CKH: I picked Half a Life up off my nightstand stack because I try not to read fiction while I am in the first draft of writing a new novel. It's all about consistency of voice; I'm the person who starts unintentionally mimicking the accent of those talking to me. Do you have similar rules or quirks?
DS: I try to read as much as possible, actually. I feel like if a lot of voices filter in, it'll make an interesting mix. If you have enough influences, the mix is original, and that becomes your voice. A little Bellow, say; add a little Nabokov and Lorrie Moore, a touch of Martin Amis and another of Hemingway; bake for ten years -- and voila!
CKH: My brother was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness when we were both in college and I was afraid he would die when I was living abroad, working in an orphanage in Eastern Europe. All that year, I dreamed about coming home and carrying his dead body around with me for months to make up for the time I was gone, imagined taking his physical body with me through upcoming life events like a really macabre "Weekend at Bernie's". You mention feeling Celine's presence at important moments in your life. Do you still feel she is with you? Has the book being out, doing interviews, talking about her, brought her closer to your life or has it allowed you to make some peace and create some distance?
DS: I think both, in a weird way. I'm more conscious of her than I've been in a long time, because I'm often talking and writing about her. But the whole thing -- writing, talking about it, listening to people who've contacted with similar stories -- has been therapeutic.
CKH: I ask everyone this question; lots choose not to answer. Do you have a favorite word? Least favorites?
DS: 'Closure' is a least favorite. I like most of them, though, if they're used well.
CKH: What has been the most surprising thing about the writing world for you?
DS: How inconstant it is; the same book can be a masterpiece in the Chicago Tribune and a dud in the Rocky Mountain News. Maybe it lost something on the trip west.
CKH: I find I am more gentle with even my bad guys when I write now that I have kids--everyone was someone's future, someone's precious everything. As a father--how has this shaped your treatment of characters since having children?
DS: I can still kill them off with relish, I hope. But it affects my choice of plots. My third book --- More Than It Hurts You, about a mom accused of poisoning her child -- might be one I'd choose not to do now. But I hope that's not the case. I actually like that book, at least in hindsight.
CKH: The week before my debut novel came out, I was completely shredded in the comments section of a guest blog on Lisa Belkin's NYTimes Motherlode column. While it was hard to read, I realized it was a gift since these readers were attacking me for a parenting choice, hitting me where I lived, questioning my abilities as a mother, and it made lukewarm reviews of my novel so easy to take--"So, what, you don't like my made-up characters?" Is it harder for you to read criticism for your memoir, for the laying bare of yourself and the real events in Half a Life?
DS: It is, but people have generally been really nice, so I think I've gotten off pretty easy.
CKH: Last question, I promise. What's coming up next for you?
DS: I'm doing a literary novel for Random House, and a young Adult adventure series with David Lipsky, the friend and genius-grade writer I mentioned above.
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BIO: A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, and a winner of the American Library Association's Alix Award, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and numerous others, Darin Strauss is the internationally-bestselling author of the novels Chang & Eng, The Real McCoy, and More Than It Hurts You, and the NBCC-winning memoir Half a Life. These have been named New York Times Notable Books, Entertainment Weekly Must Books of the Year, and Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon, Chicago Tribune, and NPR Best Books of the Year, among others. His work has been widely anthologized and excerpted. Darin has been translated into fourteen languages and published in nineteen countries, and he is a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU's creative writing program.