Wow. Can’t believe I’m here with you.
Get over it, kid.
Seems like you’ve been busy lately. Three books out in less than a year.
Crazy timing is all. I’ve been working on The Man With Two Arms for eight years. It’s been my big project since March of 2003. I had literally given up on it after reading an essay on the ANC (Author/Narrator/Character) Merge, by Rick Reiken. His vehicle into the essay was about his first novel, a book that’d never been published. He said he’d resigned himself to the fact that it was the novel he learned how to write on and that it was simply not going to be published. The essay was damn helpful but I absolutely hated reading that part about the first novel not being published. After I put the essay down, I was like, Yep, The Man With Two Arms was my learning novel. Within a week I got a call from the acquisitions editor at The Overlook Press asking me if I had any novels hanging around.
Meanwhile, I had been putting stories together at a clip of one every two months and during my first residency as an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson, I had a breakthrough moment that helped me figure out how to tie the stories together into what would eventually become my novel in stories, How to Hold a Woman. I came home from that residency, belted out three more stories, and got the book close enough to catch the eye of the editors at Other Voices Books.
A former student of yours calls this your glow period.
Yeah. I sort of like that. Though nothing feels like its glowing if you don’t have a current project going.
Do you have something going now?
Right now I do, but Jesus, there’s times while I’m trimming the hedges and calling the roofer and doing the mini tours and the book clubs and grading a stack of English 9 papers and not working on anything, and meanwhile I’m doing an interview and the thought balloon over my head is like, do you realize I might never write another word in my life? I might be finished? In a great little interview with Tina Brown, Roth says he’s prolific because he hates the low-level panic that sets in after he’s finished a book and he’s between projects.
Do you really feel that way?
Constantly. That was the primary motivation for me to go to school for my MFA after I’d already had a book out. I wanted to make sure I had another project going.
What were other reasons for the MFA?
Craft. I didn’t know anything about writing. I did things in The Logic of a Rose that I had no idea were wrong. And it took seven years to write and publish. I didn’t want that to happen again.
Before we get into The Man With Two Arms, tell me about Polyphony H.S., the student-run, national literary magazine you founded in 2005.
Well, there’s nothing else like it in the world. We’ve just reached the submission deadline for volume VI. We’ve got 70 high school kids from around the country on the editorial staff. Every submission we receive gets comments from three of these editors. We’re introducing young writers and editors to the world of professional literary magazines. I get a huge kick out of my work with these kids. I wish a few angels out there would recognize the value of this magazine and make it so that I could quit my day job and just do this.
How can we find out more about Polyphony H.S.?
You can go to www.polyphonyhs.com.
Okay. Tell me about The Man With Two Arms.
Really? Is that how you want to begin?
I mean, is it fair to say it’s a baseball novel?
I think it’s fair to call it a baseball novel, but I’d hate for someone to not pick it up because they don’t like sports books, or because they don’t like baseball. There’s something in this book for artists and scientists and sports fans and parents and husbands and wives. I worry that the title and the cover might not be of interest to some readers because it looks like a certain type of book.
To judge it by its cover, it does seem to appeal to a different audience than How to Hold a Woman.
Exactly. My fear with that book was just the opposite. That men might read the title, see the cover, and think it’s a book for women.
The Man With Two Arms is a book about balance in many ways.
I think it is. At least that’s how it started. It started as a short story. I was having a catch on the beach with my son and he was playing around like he was a lefty and he looked pretty good throwing with his weaker arm, and I started thinking What if? What were the possibilities if a player spent his boyhood on concentrated bi-modality? But when I started writing the story, I had fifty pages or so written before the kid was even born, and I had become interested in the kid’s father. The book was already turning into something else. It kept the idea of balance, but it also took on this idea of how we shape one another.
You’ve said this novel was a Beast. What did you mean by that?
It was impossible to write. Mostly because I knew very little about craft when I started writing it. I had 225 pages of it written when I finally sat down to write an outline for it. It’s the first piece of writing for which I ever really felt the need of an outline. I’m not sure I’ll ever write another novel.
I suppose I can’t control that. My guess is that a project might reveal itself as a novel one day, much like an idea reveals itself, pretty conspicuously, as a poem or a short story or a novella. I just hope it’s not for a while. Frankly, the actual scenes about baseball were the hardest parts of the novel to write. I have amazing respect for good sportswriters. It ain’t easy.
I’ve heard a few people tell me they found mistakes in this novel, that it’s not flawless.
Really? No shit. People say it’s not flawless because it’s not flawless. You should have those people take a look at my life. They can draw circles around all the mistakes they find. It’ll be like a fucking venn diagram of idiocy.
That’s pretty much what I did tell them. What do you want this novel to do?
I want it to change the fucking world. No shit. That’s what I want it to do. I want people who are muddling through their lives to see the beauty in the muddling. I want men to love their wives and girlfriends better. I want boys to be sweet to girls. I want wives to read this book and make sweet and surprising love to their husbands from out of the blue. I want fathers to watch their sons and daughters play ball and dance and do their homework and cry at the beauty of all of it. I want chests to swell with love. I want colleges to give a chance to a kid who scored a 17 on the ACT. I want it to change the fucking world. That’s all.
Okay. Good luck with that. Last question, I heard somewhere that you write while standing up.
That’s not a question.
Do you write while standing up?
No. You’re thinking of Philip Roth.
That’s the second time you brought up Philip Roth.
No, it’s not. You’re the one who brought him up this time.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure I saw you standing up and writing once.
That was on the green line train to Harlem. There were no seats, and I had a great idea about something.
What was your idea?
A weekly TV show called Hugs and Punches. The show starts off with six people entering a coffee shop, one at a time, and finding someone in the café that they know. They hug at the beginning of the show, but by the end of the show, one of the people in one of the pairings ends up punching the person he/she hugged at the beginning.
Good thing you wrote that down.
I know, right?