ML: First of all, let me say that I think these books are amazing. I reread all three of them in a whoosh in preparation for our talk, and it was a delight. When Adrian in The House Beautiful finally reads his dead father’s journal, he says, “This is the book I’ll never stop reading.” That’s how I felt about this trilogy. There’s such great stuff in here. I’ll never stop reading these books.
AB: Wow, that is very sweet. You’re probably the first person in the world that has ever read them back-to-back like that.
ML: They stand independently, though. Each one is a separate narrative, linked by your unlikely hero, B.K. Troop. By the way, I also wanted to say that while they read quickly, I also didn’t want them to end. So there’s a double-pull for the reader, both forwards and back.
AB: When I write fiction, my goal is to leave out the boring bits. I want to leave out the stuff that I want to skip when I’m reading a novel.
ML: So what is the literary heritage of these books? What kind of books would you say they are?
AB: I think they are the descendants of a kind of storytelling that the English Victorians knew well. The sort that keeps the reader engaged. So much modern fiction has long detours into what are virtually essays. Philip Roth can engage you in American Pastoral with a compelling story, but then he thinks nothing of spending thirty pages discussing the history of the tanning industry in Newark. I want what the author has to say to be embedded in story, and not delivering from a soapbox or in an essay.
ML: Sometimes you manage in just a single line to accomplish what we might want from an entire essay. I found myself separating your witty moments in the vein of La Rochefoucauld, from your more profound moments, which are in the vein of William Hazlitt. For example, when you talk about a silence that would make Helen Keller squirm. Or when you describe a guy with scarred eyes taking off his dark glasses and B.K. Troop says, “Seeing his scars I was flooded with compassion for anyone who had ever seen him this way.” Those are both on the La Rochefoucauld side. A line more reminiscent of Hazlitt: “More heroes had perished that day in the sands of the Middle East, and some of our own troops too.”
AB: John Gardner wrote about it really well in On Moral Fiction. He talks about these places where the novelist leaves the story and diverts into an essay. And the author has no doubt that at these moments he is at the highest pitch of his creative powers, when in fact he is at his lowest. He cites the example of Tolstoy interrupting the spellbinding story of War and Peace to pontificate on the nature of history. In abridged versions of the novel, these sections are reduced or simply removed. And for good reason. I recommend people skipping over them, unless they’re Tolstoy scholars, because it’s just deadly boring. The opposite of storytelling.
ML: There are other non-plot elements that you do include, though. I’ve noticed in book clubs that readers tend to not discuss the writerly surface, the texture of the prose. People get over-involved in plot, and a lot of books are written to indulge this single-mindedness. You seem to have found a way to deploy your psychological observations and stylistic flourishes without slowing down the story.
AB: Besides wanting to leave out the boring bits — where the story stalls — endless descriptions of nature at which many readers start to skim — I also wanted at some level to make it (page by page, line by line) delicious and diverting and purely pleasurable. Because it takes place in summer, I sometimes think of The House Beautiful as a beach read for smart people.
ML: Well, I read them all on the beach. And I wanted to mention one particular stylistic flourish that links the books: B.K. Troop’s hilarious descriptions of wine.
AB: Oh, yes.
ML: Here are some of my favorites: “A Kenyan Chablis renowned for its slow start and marathon finish….” “A cup of Lacryma Christi — a cedar ladle of vinegar tannins punctuated by three hard thumps of iron….” Or a Napa Valley Cabernet described as “A spritz of diesel tour bus; whiff of retired investment banker.” You’ve taken absurd wine review descriptions to a depth that no one has ever dreamed of.
AB: I have a couple of wine lovers who every now and then send me outrageous descriptions that they think rival B.K.’s. It’s a world so absurd that it’s tough to parody.
ML: Getting back to what you said earlier about descriptions of nature, I’ve noticed that there’s almost no landscape description in your books except as kind of social commentary. Or as what a teacher of mine used to call psychoanalogy. But I notice you do have a little subset of observations about trees. You mention “the ugliest man to breathe the exhaust of trees….” And in a photograph Adrian is looking at, “a tree laden with ice wept its burden to the ground.” But my favorite is B.K. discovering the “shaggy foreskins of the palm trees.”
AB: I like the foreskins. The second of those lines you cite is B.K. alluding imprecisely to a line in Tennyson’s “Tithonus.” (“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,/The vapours weep their burthen to the ground.”) And B.K. does this a lot. I’m very free with his literary thievery. B.K. is a plagiarist of the first order. He doesn’t steal only from the greats. In the first two novels, he’s also pillaging the manuscripts of two different young writers he knows in order to write the very novels we’re reading. He admits it without shame. At the end of Death by Sunshine, when he talks about the rain falling on Los Angeles, he steals from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” when the snow falls all over Ireland.
At one point B.K. tells us that a literary critic has, in regard to his plagiarism, described him as the “last gasp of Western civilization.” I like the idea that B.K.’s brain is a sort of a mix master, blending all of his literary influences, his wide readings, his favorite quotations, into one rich brew.
And as for landscape descriptions, you’re absolutely right. He doesn’t describe the landscape very much because he is one of those people who notice everything about their fellow Man and almost nothing about their surroundings.
ML: A real New Yorker.
AB: Exactly, because there are few surroundings in New York aside from walls of glass and concrete. He also rarely mentions music — just a little bit in Christopher. Because he is a word person. Music just isn’t a big part of his life.
ML: B.K. is someone with a voice — a little like Kramer in Seinfeld — that can magically incorporate anything. He can turn out to know anything and it would seem to fit. So when he says, “Aw, but how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul,” which is pure Keats, it reads like it’s just him in one of his self-important riffs.
AB: One of the great joys of writing B.K. is that he can go both very high and very low in his comedy. He has as much Sancho Panza in him as he does Don Quixote. At times he mystifies and exalts the dreariness of life around him. He will elevate a completely mediocre young man into a kind of demi-god. At other times, his comedy is utterly coarse — either sexually or digestively so.
ML: He’s this hateful, unreliable narrator that we end up loving. And he kind of outs himself on his own callousness, which is just all of ours. In The House Beautiful, when he’s contemplating the distress of his young Asian lover Pip, whom he won’t allow to move in with him, he says, “the young man’s agony was so acute it was absolutely impossible for me to take it personally. Clearly its source predated our meeting by many years. It lay in the blasted tunnels and boiling paddies of his boyhood. Napalm turned inward I called it, and I was the victim of its indiscriminate blowback.” Then comes the great line, with my emphasis: “Still, his agony saddened and bored me, and I longed for it to end.”
AB: B.K. is writing this book from a vantage point of many years, so he now knows that Pip is not, in fact, Vietnamese — and yet he indulges in every imaginable Vietnamese metaphor. He stays very true to his ignorance at the time. This goes on throughout all the books. He’s so unreliable, so wrong about so many things.
ML: But that brings me to a thing I really wanted to ask you about this business with Pip, and his being wrong about Pip’s ethnicity and yet laying on the clichés. Actually that happens with every category of human: every race and gender and, of course, B.K. himself. You seem to have gone out of your way to include every minority, complete with the negative stereotypes, and yet somehow to lead us beyond that.
AB: He definitely doesn’t discriminate in terms of whom he discriminates against. He’s a bigot towards everybody. It was funny — one of the only notes I got from the publisher on Christopher was in regard to a line of bigotry. B.K. says that Christopher’s wife’s agent was a “Hebrew drizzlepuss by the name of Esther something.” And they said, “Can you cut the word Hebrew?” So I changed it to something like “a frizzy-haired drizzlepuss by the name of Esther something-Stein.” I thought it was hilarious that B.K. craps on every nationality and religion and they only got squeamish when I said the word ‘Hebrew.’
ML: It is a project of yours — because even though B.K. is a homosexual, he does go after dykes and gays, too.
AB: And he has no idea why the lesbians don’t like him. He says that dykes are monogamous unto death — like tapeworms and geese. And yet he has no concept of how offensive this is.
I don’t know if it was a project of mine exactly, but I just decided that no one would be safe, that he wouldn’t hold back on anyone. And yet, he’s so kind to most people once he knows them even a little bit.
ML: In a sense it seems like you’re constantly rewriting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Its narrator looks out at a horrific world, pitilessly described, but the one point of possible faith or promise is, “Ah, love, let us be true to one another.” And that loyalty and kindness seems like that’s the thing that is finally held out in the books as an ideal. B.K. has that loyalty and kindness toward everyone in the end, and that’s why we end up loving B.K. no matter how hateful he is.
AB: You have to remind me, but have we ever talked about “Dover Beach” or does it come up in one of the books?
ML: No, but you recited “Dover Beach” to me on the seventeenth floor of Skadden Arps in 1985.
AB: Maybe, in the spirit of full disclosure, we should talk about this for a moment. Reveal the fact that we worked together at a law firm called Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom, and they were– What did you say?
ML: They were evil.
AB: They are, I believe, still the largest law firm in the world.
ML: Right: mergers and acquisitions, and crushing small companies for profit. At least that was their reputation at the time.
AB: We worked there at a time when Skadden was really starting to explode in its growth. They were so feared as the legal representation for takeovers in the ‘80s that they made millions of dollars just in retainers. Because if you retained them, then they could not represent somebody to take over your company. It was like protection money.
The entire support staff of paralegals and proofreaders was made up of artists, and among the people that worked there when we did was Michael Cunningham, who won the Pulitzer for The Hours; Bill Condon, the film director; Glenn Ligon, who sells paintings now for a million dollars; Byron Kim, a painter; Lee Morrow who wrote the definitive book on the Tony Awards; the late Damien Bona who wrote the definitive book on the Oscars; Michael Engler, a bigtime TV director and producer; Louis Belogenis, a celebrated saxophonist; Amy Aquino, fine actress and co-Secretary-Treasurer of SAG-AFTRA. But that’s just the beginning. The list goes on and on.
ML: It’s an amazing thing, and most of us were on the lobster shift. Midnight to 8:00 a.m. — when everyone moves around like a sluggish lobster.
AB: Actually mine was 11:30 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. And we called it the graveyard shift.
ML: The graveyard, the lobster: death feels close either way. And I remember, it was just an amazing situation because we were singing and people were playing the guitar, and there was a lot of hilarity and the reciting of poems, and there was a lot of throwing of Dixon Ticonderoga number 2 pencils like darts up into that ceiling so that they would stick. There was dancing in the corridors — and unfortunately there was a little bit of proofreading work too.
AB: Yeah, there was proofreading all right. I think at about any given time there would be at least eight to twelve paralegals and proofreaders working, most of whom went to Ivy League schools and were fairly accomplished with big dreams. We were doing different things, all working together. My joy in that camaraderie was sort of dampened by the fact that I was terrified I would never get out of there. I didn’t know if I’d ever have a career. You probably enjoyed it more because the pay was good, the people were fun, and you knew you were going to have a future.
ML: But you were too full of inward mobility not to have upward and outward mobility as well. I remember you saying at one point of some chubby proofreader who had left the room, “With all that fat, she must be holding onto a lot of anger.” Everybody looked at you, thin as a rail, and went, “Well you must be awfully pacific.” Because you were skinny, fierce, and brilliant.
AB: [Chuckling] That’s so funny. Ah, that’s funny. I was pretty direct.
ML: Remember that?
AB: Of course I don’t. It’s such a blur.
ML: I was struck by your knowing “Dover Beach,” which of course I loved, and I remember reciting quite a bit of Keats to you and was happy to find another Keats lover.
AB: When, after over twenty years, you and I reconnected on Facebook, I wrote to your wife that I always said you were the only person I knew that had a beautiful mind — and that was before that phrase was used in the movie. You were ridiculously smart, and I remembered anecdotes you had told me all those years before. For example, the woman in India you met who had never washed her hair in her entire life.
ML: That was Switzerland. Moik Shiele. She was one of the greatest weavers in Switzerland and she claimed that the hair was self-cleaning.
AB: I said “Was it beautiful?” And you said, “No, it was a rat’s nest.”
ML: It looked like a helmet.
AB: That’s too funny! I remember you reading some of my work back then, and I have this memory where I had written something like — I can’t remember the exact phrase — but it was something like, “We christened the endeavor….” And you said, “I would go with, ‘inaugurate.’” It was some fine distinction like that, but it resonated powerfully for me. It actually inspired me to slow down and be more careful in the words I chose, because you had chosen the perfect word.
ML: You remember Alice, the proofreading supervisor?
AB: How could I forget her?
ML: She had this quality that whatever you had that was bad — it was like high-low poker — she could always claim she was dealt a worse hand. So for instance, someone came in one time and she goes, “Oh, Glenn, you look really tired. What’s wrong?” And Glenn Ligon says, “Alice, I’m beat; I got two hours of sleep last night.” And she sighs, “Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a solid two hours.”
AB: She used to give us shoulder massages and I would ask about her grandchildren, so she would just keep talking and talking about them and not stop massaging.
But let’s get back to the present. In your work, you write a lot about creativity, is that right?
ML: Yes, I have a book out called Stairway of Surprise: Six Steps to a Creative Life. The title is a phrase borrowed from Emerson, who wrote, “I shall mount to Paradise by the stairway of surprise.” It offers exercises of consciousness to take yourself to your edge. The book dares you to be more creative, in whatever field.
AB: I always try to write from my edge. In Death by Sunshine, B.K. is also writing from his edge. For one thing, it’s the first of his books that he hasn’t basically stolen from someone else. B.K. is also writing a novel, in the sense that he wakes up every day not knowing who the murderer is, so he’s improvising his days. That is exactly like a novelist venturing into the unknown. And the irony is, as I was writing it, I also had absolutely no idea where it was going with the story. I was in the same position as my protagonist. And the reader. All of us were venturing into the unknown together.
I wonder if you had any sort of insights into the creative process that these books suggest.
ML: I think there are two key things.
First of all, as Nietzsche said, “What signifies delights.” You make it clear in these pages that you are laughing or smiling on the events as you write about them. You seem to take pleasure in the surprise of the unfolding meaning, the plot twists, the sudden literary allusion. So the reader also feels, “Oh, cool! This is a new realm we’re coming into.” That pleasure in fresh signification.
Second, you write convincing dialogue. Ideas seem to come from within dialogue. I can’t help thinking you are yourself a dialogic person who gets your own ideas in the flow of conversational back and forth, since that happens so easily for the characters. The conversations between them seem like laboratories of invention — which leads, in turn, to a lively interchange between reader and text.
AB: Yes, and that happens a lot in screenwriting, too. You find that if you hear their voices when you’re screenwriting, then things will often happen that you didn’t expect, that are born from the dialogue.
ML: You also say something in The House Beautiful that I found suggestive with regard to creativity. You say that Adrian, unlike some other denizens of house, has the soul of an artist because he has “the hunger for an alternative universe.”
AB: I was at one of these book conferences and somebody asked, “What’s the best training for a writer? Should I take one of these writing workshops?” And I found myself saying, “The best thing you can do to become a writer is to have a childhood filled with chaos, anxiety, and uncertainty.”
I really believe that when a child looks around and sees chaos and madness, it makes him recoil and create an alternative universe in his or her own head. Actually, I focus on this idea in my latest novel, which has not been published yet. Suppose an alien came down and walked into the study of a novelist, and saw him sitting at his desk, and asked, “Well, what is he doing?” You would have to reply, “Well, he’s seeing a world, a story unfolding, inside his head. And he is making marks on the page so others can see what he is seeing.” I mean, that really is pretty close to autism and schizophrenia. Hours and hours and hours of sitting alone in a room transcribing so that other people can see the story playing out in your head.
People tell me all the time how disciplined I am because I work pretty much every day from dawn till lunchtime. I tell them it’s not like I’m some noble person that’s disciplined; it’s a profound compulsion. It’s like a person who works out five times a week — it becomes an addictive way of life. And it’s when I’m happiest and most at peace, and it fuels me then to finish writing and go upstairs at noon or whatever it is, and really be there for my wife and kids because all is right with the universe.
ML: You’ve clearly worked to be in that position. Most writers I know have never managed to create such an organized system. Claude Monet, I believe, had the kind of highly civilized life in which he didn’t struggle or race around. He had his hours of work, and then he had his cup of coffee, and then he had his game of Pharaoh or whatever.
AB: I think about Somerset Maugham. He had the longest writing career of anybody in the history of English letters. He was a professional writer from his early twenties until his early nineties. When I read his biography, it stunned me that he did exactly what I did. He woke up very early. He worked until lunchtime. He had a civilized lunch. And then in the afternoon when I read scripts and take a nap, he would answer his correspondence and lounge by the pool, and then he’d be refreshed. He could actually socialize at night, which I don’t do much anymore now that I have kids, but I used to do. Because I napped, I could go out at night and have a full social life. Sure, I was a little drowsy, but the coffee would then blast me off, and then the next nap would renew me again. And I’ve done this now since. God…since I started making a living twenty years ago.
ML: On that earlier theme of alternate realities for the artist– As a psychologist, I deal with the alternate worlds of my patients. If people have suffered abuse, or if, as you were saying, life was adequately chaotic or anxiety ridden, they tend to form inner worlds distinct from the visible, audible world around them. Multiple personality disorder is the extreme, but shy of that, there are many other kinds of dissociative states. People can really go elsewhere to the point that they have a profoundly disordered relationship with the consensual world of space and time.
AB: Fascinating. Yeah, I believe that. I think that for artists, though, where it’s not just a question of madness or retreat, there has to be some balance between the world around them, what they’re taking in, the external world, and their desire to make something out of it. Kay Redfield Jamison writes about this eloquently in Touched with Fire. The idea that the most successful artists are those who combine mild depression with mild mania. The mild mania is what gets them out into the world, gets them dreaming up projects, believing they can do anything, living impulsively in some way; and the mild depression gets them to slow down, gives them time to reflect on that experience and to start forming the ideas that become the germs of art. If it’s too extreme, of course, the depressions are paralytic and tragic, and the mania debilitating and reckless.
ML: Right. Absolutely. We would all prefer to have some highs and lows, just not too high or too low.
AB: And I think I do have that. I mean I have had mild mania — like when I’m finishing a screenplay or other project, it’s hard for me to sleep. I’m not a manic person who stays up three nights in a row, but I might get five or six hours sleep for weeks on end — because I have trouble not thinking about the thing I’m finishing, you know? I’ve never had a serious depression, where I felt like I couldn’t work or I couldn’t function, but I definitely go into periods that last six weeks where I’m much more meditative, much more subdued. So I think that’s just a biochemical line to draw.
ML: And as Emerson said, “our moods disbelieve one another.” A particular mood is a particular way of looking at the world. It reveals things in a certain way. Heidegger’s idea is that there isn’t such a thing as objectivity in philosophy, but every kind of philosophy is a mood.
AB: It’s the same thing with a manic person, who can’t ever conceive that he will be curled up in a ball on the floor when the depression hits.
ML: Right. What they imagine is that the truck won’t stop for them. In one of the books, you say that we spend the first half of our lives trying to regain control of our emotions and the second half trying to cover them over.
This ‘recovery of affect,’ as it’s sometimes called, really is an important goal. Children have these intense feelings, but in normal adulthood you lose the intensity of emotion. I remember this was a theme of yours back in our Skadden, Arps days. There was a proofreader who had just broken up with her boyfriend, and she was distraught. Everyone was sympathetic and consoling her. But you said something that really shocked me. You said to her, this girl in tears, “Okay, you’re sad, but isn’t there a part of you that’s kind of thrilled at the adventure to come?” And I was like “What? You can’t say that. We’re supposed to be nice to her.” But I also thought, it’s interesting to explore all the ranges of emotional experience, rather than stick with the headline.
AB: And what did she say? Do you remember?
ML: I have no idea. But that’s a theme actually in the books, too. For instance, Adrian envies Mary for the intensity of her breakup with Toby.
ML: Just the rawness, he says, is something to aspire to.
AB: B.K. also makes a similar point in Sunshine: that when you’re young and you have a breakdown, it’s another chapter in the grand drama of your life, the novel that is unfolding of your life. There’s an element of romance to it, and there’s even a secret voice in you that wants more tragedy or more death because it will just add to the romance. Then when you get old and the book of your life is played out, there are no more surprise endings. It just becomes incredibly pathetic and awful. B.K. has these horrible crashing depressions in old age. They are just earth shattering. Here he is almost seventy years old and he’s crawling around, chewing the carpet. Then he emerges from the torment like a baby lizard, winking in the sun. And he believes that he has been redeemed and all will be well. Then suddenly he sees his naked body in a random mirror, and it’s so hideous he has to go back in his bedroom and cry for another three weeks.
ML: A painful but funny moment of narcissistic despair. By the way, I wanted to mention a great emotional sequence in The House Beautiful. Mary and Caroline have just gotten together, and the way you describe the tenderness between them, it is so touching it actually made me weep.
AB: I’m glad.
ML: Now in terms of psychology and psychotherapy and the reading of fiction, ever since the Greeks, the idea has been that it’s therapeutic to have the cathartic identification with the characters on the stage. It really matters that you bring across these little micro-moments that are intensely personal but that actually everyone can relate to. Like when Mary is going to break up with Toby and she says she was about to utter “inevitable words delayed for far too long.” There’s universal: that feeling for the inevitable truth, the words that must be spoken.
ML: There are so many things in this series that examine the micro-psychology of an interaction; they add a certain power of magnification. This is the overlap, maybe, between the reading of fiction and the doing of psychotherapy.
AB: God, it’s so tempting to just read over those moments. We read so quickly now. I’m always shocked when people read something and they’ve just finished it two weeks before and we’re talking about it and I realize, “Oh my God, they don’t remember anything.”
ML: That was my problem with my book club. They would ask questions like, “What happens to her after the end?” I didn’t care what happens to her after the end. I would always say, “Wait a minute. What about how this thing is written? What about all the style and insight that’s packed in here?”
AB. It happens all the time. Book clubs also love to ask what part of the story really happened.
Now, let’s go back to “Dover Beach.” I found it so interesting that you mentioned it, only because that was like, you know, the first poem I ever fell in love with. It’s still with me. I use it extensively in a screenplay I sold last year that is currently being mangled up and mauled by a studio. But I use that poem as a centerpiece of the movie, in a way. It emphasizes the power of human connection in spite of everything. So even B.K., at the end of all the madness, makes a simple bond with someone his own age, and it actually gives him some hope.
ML: Right: “Love let us be true to one another.” In all three books, B.K.’s great virtue is his loyalty to the tenants in the building. You have someone say (and now I don’t remember who says it): “Is it not a fact of our modern age that the family we cherish the most are not the ones who share our noses and tempers, but the ones with whom we share the minutia of our daily lives.” And that’s just what B.K. lives for, in the end, and why we actually love him. He creates this supportive family of lodgers.
AB: There is a woman who’s very important in my life, who is like a B.K. mentor to me. She bought me the Oxford Book of English Verse when I was sixteen. I dedicated Christopher to her. When I was in high school she must have been in her mid-forties. She was an orphan. And though she didn’t often impart wisdom in this way, she told me, “It’s really important that you don’t expect your friends — any one friend — to give you everything. When you choose your friends, you’re arranging a group of people that will give you the things you need in life, but don’t expect everything from any one individual.” And I think it’s true of spouses.
ML: Absolutely. Well, there are books pointing out that the burden of marriage is now too intense. People expect that they’ll get everything from their spouses.
AB: A lot of married people stop having friendships, or they only have friendships in couples, you know? I have male friends I see separately. I also for instance have a female friend — her husband is a really kind, good human being — but I’m the person she can go to and say wicked hilarious shit. And I laugh and she laughs and I say wicked stuff too. When she’s that way with her husband, he just says, “Save that for Allison.”
ML: That’s so great. We all need that. Maybe it’s like the artists of Skadden, Arps.
AB: Well, I was just going to say, I did think about how we were all together at Skadden. There’s a point, especially when you live in New York and your family isn’t nearby and especially if you’re single, that the network of your friends becomes your family. And Skadden was certainly a family for all the good and bad that that implies. That’s sort of what the fraternity of artists is like. And I think for B.K. that is his family, the place he spends his love, and he’s also sad because it’s never requited. You know, only Adrian came to the goodbye party he throws for himself when he moves to Los Angeles to seek fame and fortune. None of the other lodgers even shows up.
B.K. doesn’t really know how badly he offends people: his lack of hygiene and his flamboyant clothes, his obnoxiousness and his continual snooping. He doesn’t know why he can’t find any gay men that want to live in the House Beautiful. It’s clear they’re fleeing his advances, but he doesn’t really know it.
ML: People always flee him, and he’s clueless.
ML: Thinking of B.K., though, I found myself writing down Henry James’s injunction to his nephew. At the end of James’s life he was asked to summarize his wisdom and he famously said, “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” And as I was writing that down, I was writing B.K., B.K., B.K. And I thought “Wait, there are three B.K. novels, is this Allison’s code or something?”
AB: God, I wish it were. I would be so impressed with myself. I wish it were. It’s brilliant.
ML: Be kind and B.K.! And kindness is really our local godhead, when there’s no external god anymore: the human kindness or the making of this intentional family. It’s what Goethe called “elective affinities” — the chosen relationships that come to be more important than the genetic ones.
AB: B.K. certainly does show a loyalty to people. It’s only in the third book actually that his loyalty is really misplaced.
ML: You mean to Calvin?
AB: Yeah, I mean in the first two books, while neither of those boys is particularly extraordinary, still they are good, grateful souls. Calvin is by far the most deeply damaged.
ML: He’s evil.
AB: Yeah, he’s evil.
ML: And he’s engaged in the one evil that it is very clear that B.K. is against: abuse of children. I think you do a service to the non-gay readership here, because you make a crystal-clear distinction between homosexuality and pedophilia.
AB: One of the fans of the book out here, who had his book club read the book — he’s a gay man in his fifties — said to me that “It’s just so rare to ever read a book that includes a gay hero who’s elderly.” And that’s even in the book, when this vicious kid on a train says to him that nobody wants to read a book about an old fag, not even fags want to read a book about an old fag. So it’s ironic that these books really do not deal with homosexuality very often.
ML: They deal with it just by having B.K. as the protagonist.
AB: Right. They focus more on the lives of people around B.K., and even when they focus on his life, it’s not the homosexuality specifically. But there is a stigma attached to any book with a gay main character. I don’t think Confederacy of Dunces would be an international bestseller if Ignatius Reilly were gay. It’s a stigma the books will have to live with.
ML: But you’re doing something to change the stigma by giving us a main character who is gay and complex: loveable, despicable, admirable, and hilarious.
AB: None of it was thought out. I just loved his voice, I loved him, and I had to keep writing him. And you know I would probably write another one except that it’s so hard to keep writing books. Very few people really care. You know what I mean? It isn’t like there’s a groundswell for another B.K. Troop novel. The number of people who have read the three of them is so miniscule.
ML: Really? I think it should be translated into every language and everyone should read them.
AB: Well I’m going to leave that up to you. You can be my publicist. The first book, maybe 12,000 people read it because it was a Random House book and it was in a lot of stores. Then the second was published by a boutique publisher and sold only a few thousand copies. And then Death by Sunshine comes out and with no promotion. It largely lives in the sphere of the internet, promoted by an indie L.A. publisher. So really it’s just going to be a matter of having faith that in time these books will reach a wider public.
ML: Well, they should really be in a deluxe boxed set. Are they available on Kindle?
AB: Yup. All three are now available on Kindle from one publisher, Writers Tribe Books, the publisher of Death by Sunshine. He’s not currently publishing House Beautiful and Christopher in paper, only on Kindle — but they’re still very available in print. I have the rights back to all three books, so WTB will eventually publish all three together. They will have a single home.
ML: These are going to be classics. When everything else is gone, these will be around. They’re too much fun to disappear. But there are also big themes you work through that we haven’t touched on. In Christopher, it’s overcoming the relationship with the smothering and invasive mother. With Adrian, in The House Beautiful, it’s about the relationship with the brilliant but broken and absent father. Both characters are innocents. Not the case with Calvin in Death by Sunshine.
AB: Right, he had horrible parents, a horrible upbringing.
ML: Yeah, so his own horribleness is not without reason. It’s not like Iago where there’s no reason for the evil.
AB: In the first book, B.K. progresses from being madly in love with Christopher to treating Christopher as a friend. With Adrian, the young man in the second book, he says, “We can’t be lovers because he’s like my son.” In the third book, it’s “I can’t be sexual with him because he’s like my grandson.” It’s obvious that Calvin will never be a romanticized project. So what does he do? B.K. enters the stream of time and starts to bond with a man his own age. So there’s a process. He becomes less of a codependent mentor, living through these inappropriate love objects, and he actually becomes a somewhat healthy human being.
ML: Although I have to say I don’t want him too healthy. I love how hopelessly he wants to hit on these young men, so he styles himself as their mentor but he’s such a disagreeable one. At the same time, though, he’s actually spouting all this real wisdom – Keats, Shakespeare, whatever’s rattling around in there.
AB: You know, whenever I contemplate writing the fourth one, the one idea that sticks in my head is the idea that he spends a couple of years with Gabriel (the Chinaman as he calls him) — and then Gabriel dies. Playing the role of the theatrically grieving widower to the hilt, B.K. moves to New Mexico and he ends up in crispy pleated jeans and cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and is living in some little town in New Mexico. Then one day he finds a baby on the doorstep. That’s the only idea that’s ever made me want to write another one.
ML: Sounds promising. It reminds me of the famous Zen story where a monk is accused of fathering a child by the girl in the village, and so they insist that he raise this child although he had nothing to do with the girl and, well, I won’t ruin that story for you either.
AB: What I find most interesting about this idea for another B.K. book is that B.K. believes that the whole town thinks the baby is really his. Which of course is completely insane, because he’s both seventy-seven years old and flamboyantly gay. And it’s only as I’ve gotten older, that I understand the whole Eugene O’Neill idea that people’s capacity for self-delusion is staggering. I know a couple of B.K.’s in my life, a couple of people who are I would say older than fifty-five, who really have absolutely no concept at all how they are perceived. They posit themselves as beautiful, as viable, as potent, as all these things, and they’re just shunned and terrifying. And so the older I get, the more I see how B.K.’s do exist. In fact, they’re all over the place.
There’s one guy I know who I believed to be the closet to B.K. of anyone I’ve ever known, recently said, “Oh dear God, I’m turning into B.K. Troop.” And I thought, “Well, if he can say that, then he can’t be B.K. Troop.”
ML: It reminds me a little of the Maggie Smith character in “A Room with a View” who is something awful and says, “Oh my goodness, I’ll never forgive myself” and her niece says, “That’s what the trouble is aunt, you always do forgive yourself.” You know, I mean there are certain people who do have a superficial self-awareness, but really it doesn’t change a thing.
AB: Yeah. They see it for one second and then the clouds go right by and it’s all back to normal again.
ML: Right. I’ve worked a lot with dying children, children with AIDS for many years at Harlem Hospital. I was the chief psychologist in pediatric AIDS at Harlem Hospital. And I wrote a lot about the issue of disclosure of diagnosis to children, like who tells the child they have AIDS? This was before multi-retroviral treatments and such.
AB: Was this before you had kids yourself?
ML: No, no I already had one. So I worked there for nine years doing this, and I went all over the world lecturing about disclosure of diagnosis and psychological treatment of childhood AIDS. And it turns out that you can disclose something and even be honest about how it all happened. Not that anyone wants to tell a kid, “Well, actually your mother traded sex for drugs and then transmitted the virus to you.” But you can get to a state of openness that actually is healing, where such truths are uttered, and people are weeping and it’s all open and clear. The next day, it just shuts right down and is never mentioned again, because the truths are too unbearable.
AB: You just can’t live with that much awareness.
ML: You can’t live with that much truth. On the one hand the truth has to come out; on the other hand we can’t handle the truth.
AB: Well, actually it comes up in O’Neill, that idea where somebody has to face that their pipe-dream is bullshit, that thing they’ve been saying every day, like that one guy his whole thing is he’s going to walk around the block one day, he’s going to leave the bar and he’s going to walk around the block, and he talks about it every day. And he finally does and it’s shattering. People very often have to survive their own self-delusions, and there’s only so much they can handle about the truth. It’s like Blanche Dubois too, in Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley says, “You’re full of shit. Look at you. You’re living in a dream world.” And then at the end she goes to the mental hospital and she’s right back to her old ways. You were saying before that thing about the diminution of affect, the loss of feeling as you get older. Maybe the fact that B.K. gets very weepy, and is having more and more feelings as he gets older, is a good sign for his mental health.
ML: It’s great that he’s an older man with so much passion.
AB: And a lot of older men though, guys that never cried, they cry at the drop of a hat once they become grandfathers. I’m already there. I’m weeping at telephone commercials. And I never had deep feelings in my twenties except after big breakups and now that I have kids especially, I can get moved to tears very easily. I think of it as a gift.
ML: I think it’s a good thing as long as you can be moved to tears on the upside as well as the downside. You know, be quick to laughter as well as quick to anger. But the key thing is both the recovery of affect and taking one’s foot off the sustain pedal. To be able to go through an emotion that’s intense but brief is something that adults really have to learn. A baby or a small child may weep intensely, but they won’t milk it or use it for the moral high ground.
AB: And if they get a chance to express it, there are no grudges.
ML: But if we, as adults, are so lucky as to have a feeling, we tend to nurse it, milk it, play it every which way to personal advantage.
AB: Kids are such great teachers, as you say. They can hate you, they can scream, they can yell at you and three minutes later they crawl up into your lap and they’re just as happy as can be.
ML: Yeah, it’s so wonderful. In that way it makes sense to say, “become like little children to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” Not in terms of loss of bowel control.
AB: And not in terms of fighting over a goddamned toy and punching each other in the head. But B.K. would learn a lot from raising a baby.
ML: He’ll watch over the baby like a hawk.
AB: Right and he can be his god-grandfather. Or great-grandfather maybe.
ML: I hope that happens. So we’re back to the idea that not just in youth, but in middle years or even old age too, the family of origin may not have the inevitability it used to have.
AB: Well you’re also talking to someone whose father died when I was twenty and I haven’t spoken to my mother in twenty-five years. I’ve actually thought someone should teach a workshop and help people, adults, to creatively disengage from their parents.
I truly felt like an orphan most of my adult life. There’s a part of me that thinks, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a father who gave me some guidance in my twenties when I was kind of floundering?” But my mother being very much like the mother in Christopher, I only felt liberated as far as that goes. I never thought, “Oh, woe is me.” And then I kept running into people over and over who are full-grown adults: fifty, sixty years old, still like Woody Allen, still tortured by their ninety-year-old parents. I’m glad I have the memory of Thanksgiving dinners in New York, for instance, where friends would toast what we were thankful for and virtually every person would say “I’m so thankful to be with all of you, and not to be with my family.”
ML: Well the obvious last question is, what about turning these books into movies?
AB: I wrote Christopher into a screenplay. It got great reactions from people who had never even read the book. But it’s very hard to get an indie film together with a gay hero, especially one as outrageous and fat as B.K. Troop.
I’m just about to direct the film version of another novel of mine called Undiscovered Gyrl. I have high hopes for this in terms of what it will do for the book. If it goes well, maybe one day I will have the opportunity to direct Christopher, or someone else will.
In screenwriting, you don’t get any real authorship; you’re just one of a group. So I’ve channeled my need to be an author into my novel writing. But I’m hoping in the third act of my career to get the same pleasure from directing.
ML: I look forward to the results!