Friday, March 10, 2017

Q&A with Boris Fishman

 Boris Fishman, photo by Stephanie Kaltsas
Boris Fishman is the author most recently of the novel Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo, which is available in paperback next week. He also has written the novel A Replacement Life and edited the anthology Wild East. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Born in Minsk, Belarus, he lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo?

A: The most literal narrowly defined inspiration—there’s the literal spark and the emotional spark—the literal spark was that a friend was telling me about a coworker who had adopted, and was having a difficult time. The kid was from a different part of the country, or maybe a different country…

The broader [idea] was that I wanted to write from a different consciousness, and get away from the young, male, Jewish gaze. I had grown up with strong women, but with a prescribed cultural path. I wanted to explore a woman who was reared that way but got her groove back…

In some ways it’s also a self-exploration. I’m not adopted, but I’m so different from my parents. With immigration, you become a foreigner to your parents. Through Max, I’m trying to work through that.

Q: Yes, you said in our previous interview that you challenged yourself to write from the perspective of a woman in her early 40s. How difficult was that for you?

A: For whatever reason, it was hard to get women right in the first novel. In this book, Maya came to life very smoothly. I had a harder time figuring out who Alex is.

My mother and my maternal grandmother, and my paternal grandmother in a different way, [represent] very strong individual women, strong, resilient women in the classic Soviet mold. They did a lot of the bringing up. I learned about life at their knee.

In an Eastern European Jewish family, there’s love for the child, but [the adult’s needs] can’t be expressed directly. Officially, parents don’t need anything, but they [actually] need plenty. All this stuff, you have to read between the lines. I spent my youth deciphering messages…

Q: The novel deals with questions of identity, including immigration and adoption. What do you think the various members of the Rubin family struggle with, and do their struggles overlap?

A: Just like in A Replacement Life, this novel defines the same issue in several different ways. The first is about replacement; [this is] about belonging and foreignness.

Maya is a foreigner with Alex. Alex is a foreigner with his parents. The parents are foreigners with both of them. They don’t even like each other all the time, but the family gospel is that everyone must agree.

I don’t see their concerns as being very overlapping. Their solutions are very different. Raisa is a bustling, well-meaning, airheaded person. Eugene is looking to be pissed at someone for something—our grandson has a malady, let me tell you about the day I had!

Alex is the sort of person who wishes the thing would go away. Maya is more plugged into Max than anyone else. Maya is the only one who’s paying attention to their child/grandchild. But even she uses his experience to enlighten herself.

This brings up something else. I have to admire the courage Maya finds to explore the changes in her life at a time in life when it’s difficult. But she’s not a saint. There’s no way to explore in this way without being self-absorbed.

Alex is a schlub, but I felt empathy for him. He has to keep the trains moving. I mean it as a complex portrait. There are no saints or sinners.

Q: The novel is divided in two parts, East and West, set in New Jersey and Montana, two very different states. How important is the setting?

A: …East and West is New Jersey and Montana, but also Russia and America.

I grew up in a suburb in New Jersey, and as I get older, its charms are more understandable than when I was a teenager. New York seemed vibrant and exciting 15 years ago, and now it seems overwhelming. The suburbs seemed dead 15 years ago, and now they seem serene. Unless you make an effort, you can fall into a rut in the New Jersey suburbs.

As for Montana, I’ve been fascinated with Montana for 20 years. It started with Legends of the Fall, which I saw by accident when I was 15 years old and a newcomer to America. I felt so ill at ease in my skin. I had gone from being a very sheltered child to being [my family’s] ambassador to the new world.

I saw this movie with the beautiful Brad Pitt against a backdrop of gorgeous landscape, and it was so much more beautiful than New Jersey. [I thought,] Do people actually live in places like that? Do they seem as confident in their own skin? It was based on a novel by Jim Harrison…

It was as far from [what an] Eastern European Jewish immigrant kid could do with their life in 1994. The fantasy has taken a long time—over 20 years I’ve been inching closer to a culmination.

I got into the University of Montana MFA program, but didn’t go. I tracked down Jim Harrison, and we became friends. I’ve been going back there every summer. This summer I’m going back…little by little.

Everybody knows it’s so beautiful, but they don’t know how interesting it is. The people are less predictable than in New York. It may be diverse racially [in New York,] but not intellectually…

Finally, the landscape has the same effect on me as on Maya. Maya is forced to a reckoning by the landscape--when faced with the elemental, steadfast beauty, it’s impossible to lie to herself.

To an extent that I’ve ever felt spiritual, it was there. The [landscape] summons you to be a better version of yourself…

Q: Would you ever move to Montana permanently?

A: I’m actually making moves to leave New York for some part of the West. My one prima donna quality is that having spent time in Russia and the Northeast, I can’t do winter ever again! But for six months, I could be a very happy resident of Montana.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the book’s title—how did you come up with it?

A: I’m drawing a blank. I can’t remember how it came to me [but when it did] I knew it was a great one. You want the title to pop. I find whenever I’m trying to come up with a title or brainstorming about anything, I find I dwell on it, and 50 options come to mind. You acknowledge they’re not right. Then, boom! A light bulb! That wouldn’t have happened without the 50 options.

Q: How have readers responded to the book?

A: It's been all over the map, much more so than with the first novel, and I kind of like that. Some people love Maya, some people hate Maya. (Interestingly, it's always women who do. The latter, I mean.)

One of the most gratifying reactions I've received was from my girlfriend. It's more meaningful than it sounds. We had just started dating, and so we didn't know each other all that well, but it was enough to know that we came from very different backgrounds and were interested in very different things.

Certainly, she had read nothing of the sort before. And when she turned the last page, she just burst into tears.

From another part of the spectrum is this sort-of-compliment I received from another reader: "I was very affected by your book, but I couldn't do anything else while I was reading it." Meaning, this reader had to concentrate.

I understand not everyone wants a challenge when they read -- I myself put down more books than I finish -- but the people who "got" the book are mystified by those who think it wasn't straightforward.

I've had a related question asked of me by another venue, and I wrote: "I want to write the smartest possible book for the broadest possible audience. What this means is that in my books there are no sinners or saints; no easy feelings; no straightforward answers. Because those things exist in real life very rarely. But that ambiguity, ambivalence, and complexity can never be an excuse for vagueness, diaristic philosophizing, or gratuitous difficulty in the writing. I am fanatical about giving my reader as many tools as I can to help him or her make sense of the human mess I’m describing. So to the extent I imagine an audience, I imagine smart people reading carefully, and I thank them by making it as easy on them as I can. But I’m incapable of doing that by simplifying the story, by making the ideas simpler, the language homelier." 

Q: Given that you've lived in the former Soviet Union and the United States and that your work often includes characters who are immigrants, what do you think of the current controversies over immigration and U.S.-Russia relations?

A: What can I think? It's all out there, from people much smarter and more informed than I am. The travel ban bars people from countries that didn't produce a single act of terrorism on American soil.

The countries that did -- not that even they should have their citizens barred en masse -- remain welcome because barring them would impair our president's business interests. The refugee vetting already in place is incredibly stringent. None of this is the issue.

It's the worst, most manipulative, hypocritical pandering to the basest impulses in people who either aren't intelligent enough or don't want to think hard enough to understand that they're being sold a false bill of goods. The demonization, the warmongering -- it's what third-rate despots like Mugabe do to distract their people from their own sins.

The people mollified by these moves are people who have been deeply wounded by being cast out of the workforce, by the obsolescence of their skills.

And that's an American tragedy that needs to be resolved from above (a restructuring of the fundamentals of our economy to help the middle class as much as the wealthy) as much as below (said workers need to lose their sense of entitlement -- the great irony here is they're clamoring for the illegals to be kicked out; I'm dying to see them go pick fruit in the Central Valley for minimum wage).

I have an essay coming about this in a forthcoming anthology. Nobody wants to think. People only want to feel. Believe me, I know the dark pleasure of feeling wronged -- but it never gets you what you want. And, certainly, the damn immigrants have nothing to do with it.

I'm in favor of the law. We immigrated legally, and would not have immigrated illegally. But their being illegals has got nothing to do it. It's a fig leaf used to justify a whole lot of bs -- Trump wanting to look tough, unemployed people wanting blood.

But it's the wrong blood. It's the blood of the weakest -- the blood with the lowest political cost -- as usual. It makes me so upset. It kills your soul to watch this falsehood peddled as the truth. It's what the Soviet Union did, it's what Orwell described. There's no honor and principle, only profit and power.

The American Dream is badly, badly wounded, and not because of Somalis and Mexicans. They're the ones working 18-hour shifts to send their kids to American college -- they're the ones keeping it alive.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A cookbook. It’s coming together in a beautiful, strange, original way. I’ve visited the cookbook sections in New York, and haven’t seen anything like that. It looks like a cookbook, but it reads like a memoir. It’s a real hybrid.

It’s the story of my grandfather and his home aide. He’s Jewish, she’s not. He’s 89, she’s 55. She came into his life after the passing of his wife, and has kept him alive over 10 years.

They’ve become incredible friends—the platonic soulmates. There are so many funny stories—lending money at interest, being surrogate parents to a kid in the building, acting as matchmakers. This woman has become a member of our family, and we are members of hers.

This woman is leaving us…she’s going back to Ukraine. I don’t know how much more this man is going to survive. He’s closer to her than anyone else. [The book] is funny, but also mournful.

I’m also working on a television pilot. It hasn’t really come together, but it’s another perspective on the same world. It’s gotten really good signals from the necessary people, but nothing’s formally come together.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only maybe one thing. Part of the reason I wanted to explore [this material] is that I was engaged by exploring the world through a consciousness unlike my own. Male authors have not done a good job portraying female characters…Philip Roth--I don’t know why there’s a debate about [his being] misogynistic.

Malamud’s The Assistant has a beautiful portrait of a female character. Fast forward some years, to Dubin’s Lives—I read it twice, and it’s shameful [how he treats the female character]. I wanted to portray women in three dimensions.

We’re living in an age now where all have protected identities. I’m a black, queer, Caribbean this; you’re a white, Jewish, male that. We respect, but we’re not allowed to speak on others’ behalf.

It’s tricky to wade into the debate as a privileged white male, but I’m also Jewish and also an immigrant. I want to propose that it’s possible to look from the outside in, and present life in all its complexity.

Maya is not a saint, but it’s a portrait [written] with goodwill. I urge people to write about people not like them, if it’s done honestly.

[Also] I wanted to wave the flag high for sex scenes. It’s rare to find sex scenes in male [novels] these days. I tried to write sex scenes that are dirty and tender, because that’s what it’s like in real life, and…do it in an unchauvinistic way. A generation ago, they were chauvinistic, [but] it’s problematic to hide sex altogether. Sex has to come back in the literary novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

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