Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robb Forman Dew Talks about Being Polite to Hitler

I first met Robb because of a letter I wrote to her. Instantly, she responded, and she was so warm and friendly, that I kept writing to her. We've become friends--and she's truly one of the most important people in my life. A brilliant writer, she has the ability to tunnel so deeply into her characters' lives that you swear that any moment, they are going to ring your bell. Being Polite to Hitler moves through memory and history, the political and the personal with effortless grace. I loved the book--and I love Robb, too. Thanks, Robb, for answering my pesty questions.

Being Polite to Hitler is funny, moving, and so, so blazingly alive, thanks to your gorgeous, evocative prose. What’s most wonderful for me, is Agnes, who I’ve devotedly followed through the first two novels, who actually reaches her 70s in the novel, with an inner life that is just as sparkling as her outer one. When you began writing about her, did you ever expect her to end up the way she did?

When I began this trilogy I didn't think Agnes would be the focus of any one of the volumes. I had in mind something along the lines of Faulkner's Snopes trilogy. I thought I was going to be able to illustrate the rise and fall of a family within a community. But Agnes just...well, she had a world view that I hadn't imagined tackling, and I became more and more intrigued. And, as a matter of fact, in the first draft of BEING POLITE TO HITLER Agnes died. But it was too neat. No one dies that conveniently, and the last line of the book popped into my head and bothered me for weeks while Agnes was still dead.

This is your third book centered on the extraordinary and wonderful Agnes (and her family) of Washburn Ohio. The times have changed and we are now in post WWII America, with a familiar cast of characters. Did you always see these books as a trilogy?

I did see them as a trilogy, but initially there was a novel that precedes THE EVIDENCE AGAINST HER. It began about 1830 with the Scofield family, who were hard-scrabble farmers in Pennsylvania. But I suddenly found myself trapped in what is always referred to as "Historical Fiction," and I didn't want to have to wrestle with those assumptions about what I was after. Of course, then people assumed that EVIDENCE was historical fiction, which drove me crazy!

You have an enviable ability to show just how fluid time is, but I’d also say that you have a knack for showing how fluid family is, as well, and how people continue to impact the lives of others. Would you comment on that?

I'm often asked that question, and I once found myself arguing with my students, in a class I was teaching at Iowa, that if Henry James did say that a writer couldn't use a universal narrator (which my students had been mysteriously talking about as a "universal P.O.V.") that he was simply wrong. I had been so worried about not having any idea what a P.O.V. was that it took me quite some time to make my point. I don't think that is exactly what he said, because whatever works, works! I wish I had a choice in the matter, but I cannot think of time as static, nor can I think of a person as ever separate from his or her experience.

The problem for me is that everything that is always true, is always true all of the time. I work very hard to separate the pointless from the significant in conveying character and family, and at one point in the novel previous to this one, my husband was reading a section for me--which I couldn't do without, but which I don't always accept graciously. He came to find me and spread the marked pages out to show me. "You know, sweetie, I just don't think the history of WWII is your story," he said. I was appalled, because I had become fascinated with various treaties and little known meetings.

"How can you SAY that? I need my audience to know what's going on in the world..."

"Well," he said, "but, you know, there are other sources." Charles teaches American History, and I threw away about 150 pages which would have been deadly boring to anyone but me--and would even have been boring to me the second time around.

I love all the history threaded through the narrative. What was the research like for you, and given the historically rich periods the novel covers, how did you decide what to use and what to discard, particularly as the events impact the characters?

Don't you think that we are entitled to the memories of, say, our grandparents? If we live in a household that is saturated with the stories told by the people we live with, then those stories, filtered through their telling, and also filtered by our affection or dislike of the story-teller...Well, it's absurd to imagine that those stories aren't possessed by us as memories, too. I was about six years old when my parents and Red Warren and Cal Lowell--probably Peter and Eleanor Taylor, Alan Tate--I can't remember exactly who was there--but they and my parents and my uncle got into what turned into a spirited discussion in which eventually they settled on the fact that if a person preferred Benny Goodman to Artie Shaw, then it was inevitably the fact that that person would prefer Tolstoi over Dostoevsky. And vice versa: If you liked Artie Shaw then by rights you must prefer Dostoevsky over Tolstoi. I wasn't old enough to understand what was being debated, except that it was being debated with deeply earnest intensity. I was an argument that was never resolved in my extended family, and it was a moment that I claim as a memory of my own.

I loved doing the research for the first book, because the book was dependent on my perceptions of that era. I became fascinated--oddly enough--with the huge Corliss engines eventually built by Scofields and Sons, a company, of course, which was invented. In fact, I spoke to a wonderful woman in Dayton, Ohio, at The National Cash Register Company which houses the last extant Corliss engine, and she went down to the works and held her phone out so that I could record what it sounded like. I was astounded at the sound--a sort of smooth, muscular, loud--but purposeful--noise. I drove my friends crazy insisting that they listen to it over and over.

As it turned out, though, I only described that sound very briefly in one paragraph of the book.

What I particularly loved about this novel is the way the minute details of family life play out against the monumentally terrifying political events—i.e. the threat of nuclear war, the social change of the 50s and 60s and the 70s that is undermining all that has come before. The family seems to evolve even as the times do. Because it all feels so seamless, I wanted to ask you about your process. How much of a novel do you know before you sit down and write? Are you an outliner or do you fly by the seat of your writing pants, so to speak?

My sense of being dismissed as a "domestic" writer had become increasingly annoying to me. I was 52 when I began this trilogy. For one thing, people betray their bias when they refer to a book as domestic--Jonathan Franzen is, in my opinion, consumed entirely with domestic life and its fluctuations within a frightening and changing framework, but no one would ever describe his work as domestic fiction. But I had put myself in the position of being considered less than...well, I hadn't had the courage to express my whole point of view. I have virtually no education; who was I to make pronouncements? And finally I thought it was time I grew up and had my say. Not that anyone was waiting around for me to do so, but I needed to try to make my case. I'm not at all sure I've succeeded.

I've always thought that the profound and the mundane were one and the same thing. We all live our one, insulated life--there's no choice--and suppose you gave birth to a baby at the same moment, say, that John Kennedy was assassinated? In your life your child's birth is far more profound, but in the life of the world babies are a dime a dozen. But it seems to me that it's far to easy to dismiss the personal as unimportant as opposed to the universal. My fiction is about character--what people are like and how they became who they are--and I was determined to attempt to make people see that.

I love the provocative title, Being Polite to Hitler, which is about staying safe, hiding your terror, and appearing to do the right thing—an impossible act given the changes flying all about the characters. Can you tell me how this title came about?

As a matter of fact, that was a saying in my household. A sort of code, really. When we were off to see people we didn't especially want to see, or going to some event we dreaded, it was referred to as: going off to be polite to Hitler. Little, Brown really wanted me to change it to...well, to anything else! "IN THE GARDEN," was one of their favorites, and I still don't know why--unless they meant something along the lines of the garden of life. My editor liked my title, but whomever is the head of LB was dead set against it. I ended up in tears to my long suffering agent, threatening to withdraw the book from publication--which I couldn't possibly have afforded to do, and somehow or other my editor persuaded Little, Brown to let the title stand. I think LB thought it would antagonize whomever they think is my natural audience. I hope they're wrong!

You and I have had many conversations about the writing life vs. the publishing life—and both are, indeed, different species! Do you personally see hope for the future of publishing?

I grew up among poets and critics and writers--and also among readers. Reading simply was more relied upon as entertainment and fulfillment. We'll never see that intensity again But I've always thought there was a core group of serious readers of about 20,000. I think that number won't change much, but we will have a whole different genre of reading, I think, that isn't intended to be anything but entertaining. I think that's fine. And, anyway, it's inevitable. But I would hate to be young and becoming a writer now. I don't think any but a very few can make their living doing it. I can't even find anyone with whom to discuss fiction with me except other writers! It used to be one of the greatest pleasures of my life--well, and thank god for email, because as you know, discussing books is invaluable to a writer. And just fun!

What is obsessing you now? What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Oh, well. I've backed myself into a peculiar corner with all these characters still roaming around in my head. I've been obsessed with the idea that I may never be able to shake them off! And I'm so glad you didn't ask me what I'm writing next!

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