Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Bruce Bauman talks about Broken Sleep, living riskily, writing out of nightmares and daymares, and so much more
First, the praise:
"Big-thinking...a postmodern epic." —Kirkus Reviews
Now, the story. A writer friend, Leslie Lehr, emailed me to tell me that I had to contact Bruce Bauman, that I had to read his book, that it would knock both my socks off, and maybe my boots, too. So I did, and she was right. Broken Sleep, now in paperback, is the kind fo read that changes you. (You'll catch a glimpse of what I mean when you read the interview.)
Bauman is the author of the novel And the Word Was. Among his awards are a COLA (City of Los Angeles) Fellowship in Literature, a Durfee Foundation grant, and a UNESCO/Aschberg Fellowship. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, BOMB, Bookforum, and more.
I'm delighted to have him here. Thank you, Bruce!
I always am curious about the creative process. What was it like writing Broken Sleep and how did it differ from your previous book, And The World Was? Did anything surprise you in the writing? It feels to me that you took such risks in the writing—and they all paid off beautifully.
First, thank you so much for this opportunity and the terrific questions.
I’d like to quote one of my mantra’s, which comes from Grace Paley (also one of my lit heroes) -- Be Risky. Write a work of truth. Remove all lies.
Every time I write something that that feels safe, feels like I’m lying to myself or I am lying about the characters -- the characters like to lie about themselves -- out it goes. It’s my purpose to let the characters lie but somehow make sure the reader knows the truth. (I hope that makes sense.)
Some things both books had in common. Both were initially inspired by the Bible.
Word started off as two stories, one about Neil Downs losing a son and playing off the Abraham/Isaac child sacrifice myth and the other about Levi Furstenblum, who wrote about the Holocaust. When I combined the two, the book finally made sense to me and took off.
For Broken Sleep I had the stories of the Insatiables and Alchemy Savant (who had come to me years and years ago in a dream as Twilight Fingertips) and of turning the Biblical Moses story - born a Jew raised by an Egyptian - upside down. When the idea, and I don’t understand how this shit happens, came to me that Moses and Alchemy were half-brothers -- Shazam! Nine years later -- a book!
Both of those combinings surprised the hell out of me.
Word had a completely different ending than I’d contemplated and first wrote. I knew it wasn’t working. It was the ending I wanted not the one the characters demanded.
With BS, something unexpected happened on virtually every page, which is exactly what I want.
Both books were rewritten many times.
The biggest difference in writing the two books was this -- I was excited while writing Word and got a lot of satisfaction but it is, I’d say, a mournful book. BS was so much damn fun. Yes, it was hard, writing is hard and there’s plenty of sadness and regret in the book - but my prevailing emotion was joy. You know, you can dance to it. Word, I think has a dark humor. BS, well, I hope is funny in a lot of different ways.
I can explain many things about Broken Sleep—obviously there are many conscious choices I made and created – chapter headings, anagrams and other word games, the insertion of other writers’ words, the religious allusions -- but there is so much I can’t explain. I put my pages on the walls from floor to ceiling so when I walk into my studio I walk into my book. The world of the book. And on good days something exciting happens. How or why the creative process works baffles me. And I’m kinda glad it does.
Library Journal raved in a starred review about Broken Sleep, calling it both a “nightmare and a dream.” Can you talk about this please?
That phrase made me very happy because that is exactly what I’m hoping a reader feels after reading the book.
First a bit of personal information because it’s the kind of personal information I think informs the creative process rather than leads to a psychoanalytic deconstruction of the writer and his characters.
I’ve always been an insomniac. Even a young kid and teenager I’d sleep maybe 6 hours and get up Sunday mornings to watch the Late, Late, Late show on Channel 2 in New York. (That is where I first saw a Greta Garbo movie- Ninochtka, which made me want to get the hell out of Flushing and to Paris. Garbo is an important character in the novel.) I’ve also always had screaming nightmares, though I have much fewer now than ever before. But I’ve also had beautiful dreams. Dreams have given me so much of what is in my fiction. I have 25 notebooks filled with dreams and daymares.
I wish I could play music because I’ve heard the sound of the Insatiables in my dreams – the band came to me in a dream as did the names Absurda Nightingale and Ambitious Mindswallow. (I had been reading Pynchon at the time.) But so much of the inspiration, scenes and ideas came out of my dreams, nightmares or that in-between sleep-wake state.
I used to keep a pen and pad by the bed because I wake quite frequently with ideas. Sometimes they suck. Sometimes they’re great. Half the time I couldn’t read what I wrote so, who knows? Now I keep my phone handy. (Not much fun for my wife who often kicks me out to the other room.)
Now, in the book I tried to both linguistically and with content create that dream or nightmare atmosphere. Salome’s prose and “logic” is I hope often dreamlike or nightmarish. My favorite dreamlike chapter is the one chapter from Alchemy’s POV. But if he is the representation of the successful American Dream, his final scene is the demise of his dream.
The relationship between Moses and Jay -- and I love Jay, the character who has gotten the least ink of the major characters, but I think holds much of the book together -- is at first dream-like, then nightmarish and then well, somewhere in between.
I’m approaching this answer with some trepidation but I was nervous about using the phrase An American Dream on the title page because it can be called pretentious or overused. But it was heartfelt. (Michael Silverblatt, speaking on Bookworm said “This is a novel about America from the 60s on…” And also “a parable of America right now.” I was more than pleased to hear him say that.) Heck, at one point I even thought of calling Alchemy … America Savant.
America has been and continues to be the dream of the world, despite everything, I believe that. I don’t think there has ever been a country with more power to do good. The French like to brag they gave us liberte, egalite, fraternite but they came after our revolution, and Locke inspired Jefferson to write “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and all mean are created equal. The statement was obviously a lie in reality, but the ideal was and remains true. Despite the sins of slavery and women as practically chattel, no country ever began with such high ideals. And we are making progress. The Nathaniel Brockton/Bohemian Scofflaw character is to the embodiment of the great 60s generation who did so damn much good. They are too easily ridiculed now.
This is what sometimes I and so many of my radical persuasion fail to see- the dreamers of the 60s have gotten us closer and closer the ideals of America. Some tangible, some not. We’re in the midst of it, so it’s hard to see how Obama as president is mindfuckingly world changing. It is simply beautiful. It is the American Dream and no one, no matter how much Mitch McConnell, the Koch-sucker brothers try to undo the will of the people, the majority of Americans voted for a black man for president. But those regressive forces sure will keep trying to change the course going forward.
Now, in my perhaps egocentric way, in the telling of a good and very personal story that is primarily about human relationships, I tried to represent that belief in progress in the book and also show that America is capable of tremendous evil and destruction. And the future is not clear whether the dream of America or the nightmare of America will prevail in the 21st century.
To me, so much of Broken Sleep is about who we really are, how and why we do or don't belong to others, and how our lives are combined or separated.
Yes, I believe you are right about Broken Sleep being about who we are etc. But, as in life I hope the characters in the book, are in a constant process of finding out who they are.
We are all connected. Like it or not. I think Word touches on that in a more obvious way than BS. But we are also totally separate and alone. It’s a contradiction, a duality I have not figured out. I’d say writing is the way I’m hoping to find, struggling is more accurate, an answer to the question of belonging and to many others.
Do you believe in destiny?
Only in (my) novels. And even then… the Insatiables have a song called “No Destiny.” So…
Sometimes, I want to, but no. If you believe in destiny as in preordained by Gods or some mystical force that, I think, probably denies free choice. I don’t think we have much in the way of free choice, less than we want to believe. But there is some choice. In the Duino Elegies Rilke wrote “Don’t think destiny is more than what’s packed into childhood.” That’s one loaded sentence and it’s haunted me for decades. But I get it.
If you mean destiny predicated on the past and a set of circumstances -- maybe. Between genetics and the first few years of family life, free choice is not an option. Then, as we age, and have more control or seeming control, yet so much has already been determined. So, are the choices we make truly free? I don’t know. A lot smarter people than me have not figured that one out.
And there is randomness. It’s everywhere and mostly it’s terrifying. Was the person who had the flu and was cursing out some guy who coughed in his face on the subway because his boss was gonna be pissed because he was going to miss an important meeting, still cursing the guy on the subway and his bad luck because that’s the day the WTC was blown up and that’s where he worked? Is that destiny or randomness?
I met my wife though a series of the wildest, unforeseeable circumstances. If one of a dozen things had not occurred over a dozen years, we’d never have met. The romantic me calls that destiny. The rational part of me knows it was a random set of happenstances that just worked out great. We acted on the randomness, the opportunities of the moment and 24 years later it’s best thing that ever happened to either one of us and I don’t care if it was fate or randomness. There’s lot of strange and unpredictable meetings in the book—or what might seem strange to some -- but not to me. My life has been filled with the oddest, most illogical and unexpected meetings and events.
Leukemia, biological and adoptive mothers, and the yearning for more life infuse your novel. It also felt to me that living life fully has a cost. Would you agree?
Absolutely. It comes back to risk, the more you risk, the more you live, the higher the cost. But there is a high cost for inaction as well. Alchemy is all risk and lives passionately. Victory or death is his motto. He pens the songs “More” and “Chicks and Money” which are both a joke and his truth. And he gets huge rewards and pays the highest price. Moses is reticent, often internally paralyzed, and plays life safe. And still, he gets life-threatening leukemia. Salome gives everything she has to her art, and in some ways it is ruinous to her emotional life and her relationships to her children – but she has to make art. And Ricky McFinn aka Ambitious Mindswallow, who often, especially early on, appears to be completely selfish and shallow, keeps losing people he can’t admit he loves and he’s devastated each time.
Living life to the fullest also means to me, allowing yourself to love and be loved which kind of leads to the central question -- How do you live life to the fullest and live morally and kindly? I could make the crazy case that Malcolm Teumer would say he has the fullest life of anyone in the book—he’s rich, he had a lot of kids (some even appear to love him), traveled often, had a lot of women, lived a long, long time -- yet he’s a reprehensible human being who it seems did not pay a high cost for the fact that he also killed people. Not high enough price for sure.
So, there is living life to the fullest and living life to the fullest with kindness and empathy. It’s not easy to do. Not easy at all.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The presidential election. If you take out the “killed people,” (which admittedly, is no small thing), from my description of Malcolm Teumer he sounds a helluva lot like Donald Trump. Not one of the four remaining presidential candidates exudes Kindness. Not even Bernie, who makes a one sentence appearance in the book, and I’ve been a fan of for 20 years. The lack of kindness in American political and cultural life, the lack of empathy, of generosity of spirit I think, not financial collapse or terrorism is the greatest threat to what I have always believed is the promise of America. The only two presidents in the last forty years who were truly kind and empathetic were Carter and Obama. One lost after one term to an avuncular sounding man, who in his deeds was selfish and mean spirited. And Obama is hated by a substantial minority of the country and his presidency has been hindered by thinking he was dealing with rational people. Bill C said he “felt our pain” but it was lip service.}
America and the world can’t afford another calamitous presidency like that of Bush Jr. We’ve underestimated Trump long enough, he can win. Ted Cruz, who I actually think has a more than decent chance to win the election against Clinton, is a younger, even creepier version of Dick Cheney. It wouldn’t surprise me if that guy jerks off to fantasies of end times.
I’m getting ready to start another novel – that’s pretty obsessive. Actually there are so many things that I obsess over, I’ll just leave it at that for now.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You mentioned the religious allusions before, what purpose do they serve?
A book has to survive on the ability of the writer to get the reader to want to turn the page because the story is compelling. But I like it when there is or can be more. So, the biggest purpose they serve is me having fun throwing clues in the book about less obvious themes. I love that as a reader. People can pick up on them or ignore them as some inexplicable meanderings. (Jordan Blum, in his review in Pop Matters, called it a Family Drama of Biblical proportions – and said the book s echoes “the layout of many religious texts.” Yep.) Word, in its story line was directly about belief and faith and how to live with or without belief in god.
Broken Sleep is less obvious thematically, but from the introduction which mentions the Book of J, to Salome’s claim, through DNA travel, to have communicated with people who were at the Crucifixion, to chapter headings taken directly from the Bible to some of Alchemy’s lyrics, to his last words… maybe there’s something else happening…
You said you have so much fun writing this book? Was there anything that was the most fun?
Not sure about most, but different and really fun was doing the entire Insatiables’ discography, making up albums and song titles and all that. And writing lyrics. And then putting together Salome’s artist CV. Both were adrenaline rushes. And took a looong time. Probably the most fun of all was inhabiting the souls and living the lives of artists or rock stars.