I was fortunate to meet not only the author, Eli Gottlieb, but also his UK editor Pete Ayrton, Rebecca Grey, his publicist at Serpent's Tail, and Suzi Feay (pictured), who is the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday. The food was good, and so was the conversation - I had a great time and enjoyed myself enormously.
I was especially pleased to meet Suzi because when my last novel came out the Independent on Sunday published an extract in their magazine, and even commissioned an artist to draw a picture to accompany it. This was a huge surprise (my friend, the writer Sarah Salway, spotted it) and it thrilled my parents (and me) - apparently they just sat in the car and looked at it for ages.
Eli is a very interesting and pleasant man - quietly-spoken and modest. Through Rebecca I found out that he has recently been asked to write the screenplay of NOW YOU SEE HIM, and since he is clearly a dab hand at dialogue I am sure it will make an excellent film. I can't wait to see it.
Eli also kindly gave me this excellent interview, and I am grateful for his entertaining and thoughtful answers.
Eli Gottlieb's first novel, THE BOY WHO WENT AWAY,won the prestigious Rome Prize and the 1998 McKitterickPrize from the Society of Authors. It was also a New York Times notable book. NOW YOU SEE HIM is his second novel. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
EG: Once I went to the Musee de l' Escargot, outside Paris. An amiable middle-aged woman spent just a little bit too much time talking about the sex lives of snails while they crawled around her face.
CD: What is your proudest moment?
EG: Meeting my parents at the train station in Milan, speaking fluent Italian and wearing a natty new suit.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
EG: Being born was pretty high up there. After that, I'd say it was first clapping eyes on Judy, my wife.
CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?
EG: To quote Meyer Schapiro, the art historian, "the failure of socialism"
CD: If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?
EG: My metaphysical gluttony. Always, in the realm of ideation, I want more.
CD: What is happiness?
EG: Harmony, proportion, and the absence of pain.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
EG: Pet the dog.
Questions About NOW YOU SEE HIM
CD: Jonathan Coe says that your book is 'most of all about marriage' but for me it was mostly about loss: loss of a friend but also a loss of self. There are passages in the book on this theme which are immediately recognisable by anyone who has lost a sibling or friend and are very moving. Is this based on loss in your own life?
EG: Not literally, no. I think I have a somewhat melancholic temperament by nature, and such temperaments are predisposed to see the present always through the lens of the past. As to siblings, my only one is autistic--the subject of my first novel--so in a way, I suppose I did "lose" him, though he's still quite vividly alive.
CD: How did this book originate?
EG: I had the image of a cooly ambitious female writer and a past-his
prime male writer meeting at one of those art colonies of which
America is filled to bursting. After getting that seed image down on
paper, everything else somewhat unrolled from there.
CD: On the face of things Nick, the narrator, is morally corrupt and yet, throughout the book I found myself sympathising with him, maybe because it is written in first person. Was this a conscious choice - that the book should be in first person?
EG: I've always thought of the first person voice as the literary equivalent of crack--highly addictive and capable of producing extraordinary heat and light. But also very dangerous, when not used correctly. That said, it wasn't a conscious decision, no. The first person was the thing nearest to hand, and I felt, after starting out that way, that it was right for this book. Nick is what they call in writing classes "an unreliable narrator", which was another fun thing to do. The motto? Never trust anybody.
CD: One of my favourite characters was Belinda. How did she come about?
EG: My own opinion is that the origin of character is a mystery. Belinda is one of my favorite characters too, but I can't tell you where she came from really, save to say that she's an amalgam of tough, bossy rock and roll chicks I've known. I used to play drums in a band and knew a few of them in my time.
CD: There are some excellent twists towards the end which are unexpected and yet thoroughly convincing. I was just wondering about how you write: do you have the twists in mind before you start to write, say in the initial planning stage, or do they come later?
EG: No, I don't. Some writers write from a very tightly organized blueprint. I never have. I know how to write towards a certain clarity but I never have the clarity in my head when starting out.
CD: There is little about your life in the biography at the front of the book. Are there any aspects of your life - work, relationships or other experiences which you feel were particularly valuable to you in becoming a writer?
EG: I think the previously mentioned autistic sibling drove me deeper into my head than might have been the case otherwise, and lead to a certain kind of cud-chewing cerebration which is probably useful in a writer. I was fortunate to have parents who loved literature and books--my father was a rare book collector; my mother a piano teacher--and encouraged me from the start. Plus, I was never much good at anything else
CD: Finally, I found that some of your dialogues were of the 'laugh-out loud' sort and an excellent counterbalance to some of the more moving passages on grief. I was wondering how you manage to acquire an ear for this - and whether you have any tips you can pass on to aspiring writers.
EG: I've always thought that dialogue used a different part of the brain than narrative prose. As to your observation that the dialogue offsets the more grief-centered passages, the truth is that both my novels, I think, show a tendency to leaven their gloom with that particular kind of humor which swoops in at the moment of maximum pain and sorrow and undermines the reader's trained sympathetic response. This is both in the great Jewish tradition and part of my personal habit of taking the piss out of own self-seriousness. I don't think there are any particular tips I can give a reader on this. You're either born with an ear for dialogue or not. Your efforts can probably be improved both by sounding the words out loud--the spoken voice is a nearly infallible detector of fraudulent language--and of studying some of the dialogue masters at work: in America, Robert Stone, or try William Gaddis in Carpenter's Gothic. In England, there's always Henry Green.