The Proust Questionnaire is a series of questions about ambitions, fears and proclivities popular in late 19th century drawing rooms. Marcel Proust once answered such a questionnaire; since then, it has been appropriated by television (James Lipton asks it of his guests on “Inside the Actors Studio”) and magazines (Vanity Fair asks the questions of a different celebrity each month). Here I pose the questions to myself (along with a couple that Proust didn’t answer).
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Once I thought I had achieved perfect happiness. I was drunk and eating a tower of shellfish. It was a false aleph, though.
What is your greatest fear?
Dead things. I am terrified of dead things. Unless they are on a plate with a spice rub and dipping sauce. And ghosts.
What’s your new book about?
Stations West begins as Oklahoma’s first Jewish settler, Boggy Haurowitz, arrives in Oklahoma Territory in 1859. Full of expectations, he finds the untamed region a formidable foe, its landscape rugged, its resources strained. Four successive generations of Haurowitzes, intertwined with a family of Swedish immigrants, struggle against the Territory’s “insatiable appetite.” The challenges of creating a home amid betrayals, nature’s vagaries, and burgeoning statehood are no match for the overwhelming lure of the nascent transcontinental railroad. Each generations rides the rails, and each returns home to find the landscape of their youth, like themselves, changed beyond recognition. Amid the founding of the West, Stations West’s characters attempt to forge and maintain their identities as Jews, as immigrants, and as Americans.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Not knowing when to shut up.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Know-it-all-ness. Though I tolerate it in myself.
Why did you write a book of historical fiction?
Cleaning out my grandparents’ house in Oklahoma after they had passed away, I found a slim volume titled The Jews of Oklahoma. [How slim was it?] It was so small it was bordering on pamphlet status. (Seriously, I have a book on the Jews of China which is thrice its size). I read about Boggy, the first Jewish immigrant in Oklahoma, and the incongruity of that man in that place sparked something that turned into a story and, 12 years later, is now published as a novel.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Toilet paper. Never skimp on toilet paper. It can ruin everything.
On what occasion do you lie?
When answering, “I’m good, how are you?” It’s impossible that anyone’s mental state can be summed up by the limp “good.”
Why did Stations West take so long to get published?
Thanks for reminding me. It took a while to find its home, kind of like a wandering Jew (get it?). First I had to finish it several times. Then I had to write two other books. Then I found an agent. Then I had to finish it again. Then she couldn’t sell it. So then I sent it around to small presses myself. It was further rejected. Then I worked with the University of Oklahoma Press. Then my editor there died (RIP Kirk Bjornsgaard—you are greatly missed). Then, finally, Michael Griffith put out a call for historical novels for the fiction series he edits for Louisiana State University Press.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’m always working on changing myself for the better, but I got stuck in 2002 when my New Year’s resolution was to stop offering unsolicited opinions. I’ve been re-resolving yearly ever since.
If you could change one thing about your family what would it be?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My 35th birthday. I’m still here, baby!
Will non-Jews like Stations West?
Unless they’re weird. What motivated me most in telling this story was its universality. These characters are struggling to assimilate while at the same time clinging to their heritage, the same dance we each perform every day. Their struggle is writ large; it is the story of the West and of America itself.
If you died and came back as a person or a thing, what do you think it would be?
Seltzer water. Obviously.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Not knowing yourself.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Who is your favorite heroine of fiction?
Beatrice. Or Emma Bovary.
Yes. Oklahoma is actually fascinating– its statehood is recent history (1907). The 46th state was settled by a land rush, where the government lined everyone up and shot a gun to signal open season on plots; it is perhaps the most American of all statehood stories. First come, first served. It was a microcosm of the new world, and the site of the first parking meter.
Who are your heroes in real life?
People who get shit done.
What is it that you most dislike?
Capers and the airline industry.
What is your motto?
It used to be: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Now, I’ve adopted my brother’s: “Sometimes you win, and sometimes you join the circus and the dwarves grow on you.” (It sounds better in Spanish.)