Prologue: Make Straight the Paths

 Ciara Neal, bleary eyed at the bar, was vaguely aware that her friends had left. In fact, all the customers were gone except her, and still Fran didn’t call closing time. She hovered nearby, clearing off glasses and muttering. Something about a priest. Then a word that managed to penetrate Ciara’s brain fog.

“Did you say ‘vigilantes’?”

“Drink this.”

Fran slammed down a coffee mug in front of her. It didn’t smell like coffee. Didn’t taste like any tea Ciara knew of. Presumably it was the same stuff that Fran swilled down every night. If she had to guess, she’d have said it was brewed from tobacco leaves.

“I’ve been listening to you mouth off all night,” Fran said, “louder and louder with each beer you put away. And here’s what I have to say to you: quit your whining. How many people even have the chance to go to college?”

I turned on the lights and the bulbs clicked to life, trying their best to shine through layers of sticky dust. I ran up and down the rows of the university library’s basement, looking for the chrome bulk that would betray the coin-op typewriter’s hiding place. They upped the cost from a dime to a quarter from Ray’s time to mine. I could almost smell the charred ash when I recalled reading the book for the first time. It had cost him $9.80 to write his masterpiece on saving the power of words from the firemen, one dime and half hour increment at a time.

As with many writers, you majored in English literature in college. But unlike most, you did not go on for an MFA. Instead, you went to law school and have been practicing full-time for the last three decades. Why did you take that path? Does that say something about your opinion of MFA programs?

It’s true I came to my writing life, in some sense, rather late. Other than my creative output in school publications, I published my first fiction—as an adult—at the age of 39. I am now 58 with 10 published books to my name, two of those as editor. And my first poetry collection will come out this November. All the while I have been practicing law, the last 27 years with the California Department of Justice. I’m currently a supervising attorney in the Consumer Law Section.

From “The Three Mornings of José Antonio Rincón”

It is true that if pressed, José Antonio Rincón would have denied enjoying the experience because, regardless of the changes he endured during those three days last April, his basic nature remained the same. That is to say, José Antonio was, is, and will always be a contrarian. During his almost six decades of life on this earth his contrarian nature only grew stronger each year, with roots as reliable and resilient as those of a northern red oak. So if you asked him, did you like it, José Antonio? Was it pleasant? He no doubt would frown, purse his lips, and shout, “No, it was hellish!” However, if you said: Oh, what horrors! How did you survive it all? He very likely would smile and say it was all quite delightful, and he would sincerely express his hope that it should happen again and again and again.

Can you talk about the genesis of Here in Berlin?

The idea began as an inquiry into the human fallout from Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc. I wanted to find the interesting stories from this globalism—the relationships and children, complications and dislocations—that always accompany political upheaval.

 

Was Berlin your only, or primary, destination?

Originally, I thought of doing a book in three or four parts with stories set in Berlin, in Chile, in Vietnam, and Angola—all places where Cubans have studied, were politically involved, or fought wars. Berlin was my second stop, after Chile, and I couldn’t get enough of the city. I knew pretty quickly that it was where the whole novel would be set.

PROLOGUE

Lilacs were blooming in Cracauerplatz. The Visitor felt disoriented and alone, an outsider, lost without a map. Her atrophied German stuck in her throat. Thirty-one years had elapsed between her last stay in Germany (for an ill-fated job in Frankfurt) and her return to Berlin in late middle age. The city struck her as post-apocalyptic—flat and featureless except for its rivers, its lakes, its legions of bicyclists. She found herself nameless: nameless in crowds, nameless alone. Another disappearance in a city with a long history of disappearance acts.

This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. My guest today is the acclaimed author, writing teacher and online entrepreneur whose debut novel, This Is How It Begins, is the best novel I’ve ever read in my entire life—

Stop it! That’s private.

 

… Joan Dempsey, welcome to Fresh Air.

[Groan.] Now I’ll never meet her.

 

Oh, come on. Terry Gross isn’t reading your TNB Self-Interview.

Unless she’s actually considering an interview with me.

“I’m wracking brain, Izaac. Who is Stanley Brozek? This name is ringing a bell, but I cannot place it.”

Izaac tapped the paper lightly against his thigh. “I don’t know. Come.”

He tossed the newspaper on top of her galoshes to offer Ludka his arthritic hands, which were still good enough for leverage.

“Take a breath, kochanie, and come with me into the kitchen. I’m going to have a little drink and I suggest you do, too. One drink won’t shatter our wits. Come now.”

So, are you sitting comfortably?

Yes, thank you.

 

Then I’ll begin. Your novel, When It’s Over, is set in World War II. Does the world really need another WWII/Holocaust novel?

Certainly, a lot of fiction is set in that time; it’s such a rich, complex period, and I think it continues to fascinate us. There are so many stories to tell. I am always most drawn to those that show how the lives of ordinary people were impacted by momentous historical events. But I think When It’s Over offers some unique perspectives. First, it highlights the lives of refugees who fled the Nazis and managed to reach England during the war, and the prejudice and xenophobia they encountered. While the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII has become well-known over the past few decades, not many people are aware that the British interned Germans as “enemy aliens;” many were Jews and Communists who had narrowly escaped being interned by the Nazis. Another aspect is the Progressive political movement that swept Britain during the war and which led ultimately to the stunning landslide defeat of Churchill’s party in the 1945 election, right after VE day. As someone in my writing group said: how was it possible that Churchill, the great war leader, lost? That aspect of the war has been largely ignored.

Paris, January 1940

By the time Lena reached the British embassy, her feet ached, the sky was dark and overcast, and a cold wind whipped her face. She climbed the familiar stone steps and pushed through the heavy door. At least she would find a few hours of shelter inside.

What’s one memory that came into your mind recently that you haven’t thought about for ages?

Weird memories come to me all the time – it helps to have siblings who like to remind you of the various horrors of your life – but the one that came to me today was from when I worked at an infomercial company in the 1990s. I think about that time fairly frequently, actually, because every time I see someone who looks like Ed McMahon – which, living in Palm Springs, is pretty frequently; he has a lot of doppelgängers among the retired golfing set – I remember how I worked on his ill-fated Miracle Fryer (the miracle of which was that there was no frying involved – it was a pan that you baked chicken on). But I suddenly remembered the day I realized that the company I was working for might be involved in something nefarious – there was a cult involved, and a defective exercise device, which I recognize doesn’t sound like two things that go together, and it turns out, well, they don’t – and so I emailed the one person I’m still in contact with from that job to confirm that a strange meeting happened where it was announced we would no longer be getting free bagels and snacks…which everyone then intuited was some very bad, bad news for our jobs. (Well, that and because there was talk the government was coming to seize our computers and that we should all delete our Napster accounts.) (It was the 90s.)

PROLOGUE

NOVEMBER 2000

Peaches Pocotillo never got to kill anyone anymore. All those years he’d spent perfecting his craft had led to bigger and better things, which in this case meant a mid-level leadership position in the Native Mob, overseeing tribal gang consolidation and farming operations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, even into Nebraska. He had Native Gangster Disciples reporting to him, Native Vice Lords, Native Crips, Native Bloods, Peaches the one guy everyone listened to, the one guy who could get everyone to the table, the one guy who you didn’t want to cross, because, man, he used to kill people for nothing, son.

So The Disintegrations is a book about a man obsessed with death, who knows nothing about it and is trying to understand it. You call it a novel, yet most of the names that appear in the novel are those of actual people, including the protagonist, who bears your name. Similarly, the book is an investigation into Culver City’s Holy Cross Cemetery. Why shouldn’t the reader just think of this as memoir or creative nonfiction?

Well, this book, as with all my writing, springs from non-fiction, that’s always the departure point. But as a writer I can’t stay within those parameters; as soon as I start writing, it shifts into fiction. To call it CNF or memoir would be an act of bad faith.

Robert

In some cultures, alluding to the dead is considered taboo. Even remembering them is forbidden. Above all, one must never utter the deceased individual’s name.

 Now that I think of it, I have known a couple more people who’ve died. First there was Robert. It’s not like I knew him well or anything, but I did know him.

How did your early years in New Orleans influence your writing of A KIND OF FREEDOM?

I lived in New Orleans until I was 12. Then my mom and I moved to Connecticut, but because my dad and most of my family were still in New Orleans, we went back all the time, and it’s truly the only place I think of as home. So the rhythm of the city always lived in me. I lost my accent, but the voices of my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, are the earliest ones I remember. I learned to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen in New Orleans East. She taught me what to put in the beans, and that you make them on Monday. At elementary school, we wore K-Swiss tennis shoes with our uniform skirts, ribbed each other at recess, and danced to Jubilee All at assembly. The praline man waited for the end-of-day bell to ring so we kids could charge across the street and buy candy, pickles and potato chips from him. I say all this to say that New Orleans is such a special place, and my memories of it are so vivid. The language, food, music, and demeanor of the city are so rich I felt it would have disadvantaged me to write about anywhere else. More than that, no other place moved me to write about it as solidly as if it were a character itself.