Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Peter Golden talks about WHEREVER THERE IS LIGHT, chocolate chip cookies, rock and roll, and so much more

 Peter Golden wrote five interactive fiction novels for computers as part of a joint venture between Imagic and Bantam called the Living Literature series. His first interactive computer novel, Another Bow, was a Sherlock Holmes mystery set aboard the S.S. Destiny and was a Waldenbooks best-seller. He's also the author of Comeback Love, and I'm thrilled to have him here. Thank you, Peter!

I always ask what sparked a particular book? What was it about this one that haunted you so much you had to write about it?

My grandparents knew the Jewish gangster, Longy Zwillman, in Newark, which happens to be where I was born. I'd heard stories about him as a child, and he intrigued me—his desire to blend into the upper reaches of society and still be a gangster—to assimilate and not to assimilate, to be a WASP and a Jew. It was a situation that much of my parents' generation found themselves in, and for years I had this character kicking around in my head: his name was Julian Rose, and he was a protégé of Longy's, younger and anxious to do something besides bootlegging and strong-arm hustles.

I knew Julian was going to fall in love and—again for many years—I had this woman flying through my imagination. Her name was Kendall Wakefield. She was an African American who had grown up wealthy during the Depression, an era of rigidly enforced segregation and widespread lynching. By and large, this is a segment of the black community that has been ignored in fiction. ( The first woman of any race ever to earn a million dollars on her own was Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C. J. Walker, an African American who founded a company that created and sold beauty and hair products to black women.) Kendall's grandfather had been a slave who made a fortune in the catering business in Philadelphia and founded a college on the South Florida plantation he'd run away from as a boy. Kendall's mother, the president of the college, was the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Education.

I wasn't sure how Julian and Kendall would meet until one day I recalled some research I'd done twenty years ago about how traditionally African-American colleges had rescued German-Jewish professors from the Nazis. So that was the missing piece: Julian's father was a professor, and when Julian went to visit him and his mother after their arrival from Berlin, he met Kendall and a thirty-year on-again off-again affair began.

Still, I can't say that either of these characters haunted me, and that was your question. The haunting was rooted in something that James Baldwin wrote many years ago. I'd read it in high school, and I've been pondering it, on and off, since then. In the essay Baldwin observed that "the question of color. . . operates to hide the graver question of the self. That is precisely why what we like to call 'the Negro problem' is so tenacious in American life."

In my mind, this explains why, despite the enormous contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to our culture, we never seem to escape those mournful chapters of our history. Racial conflict is about something far more profound and far more difficult to conquer than our feelings about black and white. The question of race goes to the flawed heart of our humanness, our attempt—and often our failure—to define ourselves in the shadows of our deepest faults, struggling to balance our sadness and rage and narcissism with the hope of our grandest dreams, our faith in tomorrow, our belief that, even though we are only a single star in an infinite array, our life has meaning.

Is it any wonder why those who have given up, who can't get past their powerlessness and see a better day on the horizon, find an outlet in hatred? Racism is just part of that language—a language, tragically, that has an inexhaustible vocabulary list.

 This is why I eventually place Julian and Kendall in postwar Paris. Their racial conflict was inescapable in America—even in bohemian Greenwich Village. Paris was far more welcoming to African Americans and generally indifferent to mixed-race couples. Yet I found that their conflicts followed them across the ocean and tried to explore why this happened.

 This is again, a passionate, moving, heart-wrenching story of love and so much of it is about how the past impacts the future. Do you think we can ever escape our pasts, and should we want to?

I suppose whether one wants to escape his or her past depends on that past. For those who prefer some distance, or at least a glimmer of perspective, the possibility of a complete escape is, at best, a fairy tale, and a hazardous one at that. You ignore the more painful twists and turns of your memories at the peril of finding yourself trapped in the gloom of a rackety funhouse, bumping into walls and staring into mirrors that distort your present and often make it unbearable—not an especially fruitful exercise.

 I always wonder if writers learn anything from their last book that they can put to good use in their newest. Sometimes, if I’m lucky I do, but often I don’t. What about you?

You have more experience handling the nettlesome intricacies of the trade: for instance, structure and pacing. Alas, at the same time, if you care about the artistry of your work, your standards will go up and surpass what you've learned. So in some sense you are a perpetual beginner. That's the beauty of being a writer. And its burden.

A lot of the novel is about the possibility of art to act as a salve against loss.  Does your writing do that for you?

Writing is how I live, mostly in peace, with myself. I have no idea how I'd manage without it. Art—all art, I believe—is one of the two answers we have to the cruelty of the world surrounding us. The other is kindness.

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

My next novel. It's about an young American disc jockey who winds broadcasting rock and roll into the Soviet Union and discovers more than he ever wanted to know about his family's past.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Would you like to come over for dinner? We're having chocolate-chip cookies.

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