Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Read This Book: My Father's Bonus March

My Father's Bonus March is a haunting memoir by a great writer, Adam Langer. It's the story of a son trying to know and understand his enigmatic father, who was obsessed with writing a book about the Bonus March of 1932, when 20,000 WWI veterans went to the Capital to demand compensation.

I was fascinated by the Bonus March, something I had no idea existed. Why do you think your father didn’t really finish it? And do you think it meant so much to you because it was a project the two of you could do together?

I think that one of the most important lessons I learned from writing this book was not to settle for or even seek definitive answers. Throughout the majority of the book, I struggle with the question of why my father wanted to write this book and why he never did. But towards the end, I come to realize that the process of searching for answers is much more rewarding and informative than any single answer could be. Was it because he never intended to finish the book? Was it because he ran out of time? Was it because the book was only ever a dream? Was it because the definitive history of the Bonus March, published in 2004, made his project no longer necessary? Through asking these questions, I know more about my father than any yes/no answer to any of those questions could provide. As for why it was important to me, I think it ultimately has less to do with my hopes for what we could have done together than it has to do with images and myths I had about my family that have turned out to be only images and myths. I grew up with the idea that my father could do anything he wanted to, anything he put his mind to, and the fact that he didn’t complete the book seemed to contradict this idea. But the truth is that we’re all limited and the fact that my father didn’t complete his book doesn’t or shouldn’t detract from everything he did accomplish in his life.

How difficult was it to make the transition from writing fiction (the superb Ellington Boulevard, The Washington Story, and Crossing California) to writing nonfiction? How did the process differ?

I started out as a journalist, so it wasn’t much of a transition. I started writing for newspapers and radio stations when I was in my early teens and worked for more than a decade in Chicago in journalism. A lot of my fiction has been informed by journalism and my attention to detail, my sense of dialogue and interaction comes from stories I have written and people I have encountered as a reporter. What made this a bit more difficult than other journalism projects was the fact that it was my own family history that I was investigating, and I felt a responsibility to honor the relationships and friendships that my father had made over the course of his eighty years and to accurately capture the voices that informed his world. The process was a bit more painstaking than it usually is for my novels, which are usually written in some sort of euphoric burst of energy. It’s a lot easier to write while blasting Bob Dylan and Nirvana than it is to write while blasting “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”

You traveled all over the place for this book and dipped into the past, but while trying to understand your father, I wonder if you can talk about the revelations you had about yourself. (For example, I was fascinated that your brother tells you this project means more to you than it probably did to your father.)

I think I’m more conscious of the reasons I want to write, and of the stories I want to tell. But that’s not only because of what I learned about my father and the Bonus March, but also because I am aware of my responsibilities as a parent of two young daughters. I take a very different approach to parenthood than my dad did. I don’t’ plan to become some deadly serious writer without any irreverence, but I do need to interrogate myself every now and then to ask why I’m writing what I’m writing, which is something I didn’t always consciously do beforehand.

I was impressed by the narrative structure. Ostensibly about the Bonus March and understanding your father, the book becomes a meditation on human connection, complete with some oral histories, and some documentary scenes. Was this a conscious decision or did this structure simply evolve because the narrative demanded it?

My initial intention was to do a shot-for-shot remake of CITIZEN KANE with every scene corresponding to one of the DVD Chapters. I was going to begin with a documentary scene, move to an aerial shot of Xanadu, cut to a scene in a library, cut to a death scene, cut to a reporter (me) doing research. The reason for this was because I think Orson Welles’s film is the ultimate film about the ultimate unknowability of mysteries that vex us. Also, because it’s my mom’s favorite movie. Ultimately, this structure became unwieldy and gimmicky and I needed my own structure and couldn’t suppose another’s on it. The structure has the appearance of being somewhat freewheeling, but it’s actually been very deliberately planned. It’s less about a chronology of events than a chronology of understanding. One of the things I came to learn as I was writing the book was how understanding doesn’t happen in one smooth narrative arc; it happens haphazardly, with pendulum swings, flashbacks, contradictions, and so forth. I could have written a much more straightforward book beginning with how the idea for the book developed, how I went about my process, how the individuals I met and the research I did changed my perceptions, ultimately ending with some revelatory moment. But that would have been a lot less honest of an approach.

What I also love is the history of your becoming a writer, from the melodramatic early plays to the early stories about linebackers. Although you thought you would be a doctor, it’s clear in this case that writers are born. I’m wondering if the writers desire to make story of what we don’t understand or to fill in the holes in our lives (in this case, your father) was the main impetus for your being a writer?

Not so much with the stories of linebackers, I don’t think. I’m not sure if that was my initial motivation, particularly because a lot of what I used to write had little do with family history or my neighborhood. I always had a love of stories and of theater. From a very early age, I remember sitting with my mom and reading such books as THE PLANT SITTER and THE BLUEBERRY PIE ELF, seeing productions of everything from PINOCCHIO to A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. I don’t always write to fill gaps or out of some great longing. There’s some of that, but I approach writing much as I do reading, which I pursue for so many different reasons—to learn, to escape, to change my own perceptions, and so on. As for my main impetus, well, I don’t think I’m much better at knowing my own self definitively than I am at knowing my father. But it’s the process of the search for answers that’s exciting and rewarding, and that’s what I pursue through reading.

What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask you?

What’s your next project? A novel. What’s it called? The Thieves in Manhattan. When’s it being published? In July. What is it? Probably the closest thing to a thriller I’ll ever write. What music have you been listening to while answering these questions? Elvis Costello’s “Pidgin’ English” and “Lighthouse” by The Waifs. What’s for dinner tonight? Pizza. Are you making it yourself? Yes, the dough is rising now. What’s in the dough? Flour, olive oil, yeast, salt, and corn meal. Corn meal? Yes, it makes the dough much crunchier. What kind of tomato sauce? Fairway brand Marinara. You bought the sauce? Yes, sorry to say.

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