Monday, April 30, 2018

Q&A with Paul Goldberg

Paul Goldberg is the author of the new novel The Chateau. His other books include the novel The Yid. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: In his review in Tablet, Alexander Aciman writes, “The sign of a great literary noir is one that cannot decide whether it is about crime or about an existential crisis. This is the story of Paul Goldberg’s novel The Chateau…” What do you think of that description?

A: It was so on target. That’s exactly where I was going with this. My character is going through an existential crisis, and also the country is going through a political crisis. Every crisis you can imagine is taking place outside in the streets, and this character is trying to deal with this. [It takes place] during the week prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump, and everything is going to be a crisis.

[The main character, Bill,] lost his job. That’s my fear—how can I be [in that situation]? Some people find a next act, but it’s an existential crisis to do that. It’s not a job, it’s a “you.” Here’s a guy who loses his identity. I love my job. I decided to make the character something I’m not, if I were trying to deal with the [work] bureaucracy…

Q: So how did you come up with the idea for your character Bill?

A: Bill comes out of two fears I have. I deal with the fears and see how I go from there. I’m trying to imagine a reporter stuck doing something he hates—give me a story I hate, and I’ll cry. There’s a fear of being superfluous.

One reviewer called him nihilistic. That’s like calling [Israeli leader David] Ben Gurion a Zionist. Yes, he’s a nihilist. But he also came out of a novel by Turgenev, Fathers and Sons. It came out of fear: I spend my life chasing bad guys and bringing them to justice, and what if my parent is a bad guy?

I decided to do that in Florida. It’s a hilarious place to do that. In Turgenev’s novel, the father is closer to Bill’s age. I delayed it by a generation and moved it to Florida. It came out of my own fears entirely, what a noir could come out of…I wasn’t going for noir, but it ended up noir. I was going toward Turgenev.

I had some turns; the story is going to take some turns. There’s only so much you can do to structure the narrative.

Q: What about the timing of the novel?

A: I started it in 2016. Fathers and Sons in Florida—that was there from the outset. When the [2016 presidential] election kept going, I was in Florida collecting information. There was a battle going on in my father’s condo association. He ran for a seat on the condo board.

[The novel] is not even loosely based on that. My father, thank god, is not [the father in the book]. None of the events occurred, except the national election. I thought it was ambitious enough to go toward redoing a classic novel.

The other thing that makes this a classic Russian novel is it’s an immigrant story. Then Trump shows up, from an improbable candidate to a candidate everybody feared, to a candidate who’s winning—and Russians becoming important in this.

What I’m ending up with is a microcosm for a national macrocosm. I went back and changed it [given the election], but almost everything was in there. I just decided to move it up a year. As I was doing that, there was the shooting at the airport in Fort Lauderdale [and I decided to begin on that day].

I like my stories to play out rapidly, over six or seven days. Seven is the outer limit for me. The very compressed story and the setting—those things are realism. The rest is total fiction.

Q: How have readers reacted to the book?

A: It’s interesting. I looked at the Amazon ratings, and it’s right smack in the middle. Trump supporters give it a one. Non-Trump supporters give it a five.

There’s more of a current political battle playing out around this book than with my previous book. It tells you that what I ended up doing shows that dialogue is impossible in this country right now.

People say we need dialogue, but something needs to change. Maybe books like this will do it, who knows. I’m just describing the bewilderment I felt seeing these people come to power.

The book is set among former Soviet Jews who love Trump, and it’s not stated that they love Putin but they do. It’s this license to let out the inner bigot. There are people who hate the book, which is fine—they are not invited to my house.

It is journalism in that sense. It’s a 50-50 book. With my previous book everybody was very happy with it because we were killing Stalin. In this one, it’s more like our tyrants are very much in power. That’s what writers should do—stand up and be counted.

To me, with the 2016 election, I saw it from the beginning as a time for artists to be able to make a statement. They may be taking away our democracy, but they’re giving us material, and the truth always wins.

I want to see more artists and writers become politically relevant. I took a chance but this was the book I needed to write at this time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The book is called The Dissident. It’s set in Moscow in 1976. It’s a noir comedy Cold War thriller. I like taking a genre people think they understand and putting them on their ear. I happen to know a lot about this subject—I wrote two nonfiction books about it. One was an oral history of the Soviet dissident movement.

My character is Jewish. I can’t really write about anything that’s not, because I know the characters better. I was not in Moscow in ’76, I was graduating from high school here in America, but I was there four years earlier. I was born there.

I happen to have 100 hours of audiotapes of conversations with people from that era. I conducted them around 1987-88. They’re interviews that I conducted to put together anecdotes and give the history more of the feel of a novel…

I thought The Chateau could become a trilogy, but then I abandoned Florida. But Russia can never be done with, and the question of Jewish identify can never be done with. This [new book] might be several books…

It’s a very interesting time and place. You’re dealing with a country that’s totalitarian but falling apart. Pressures are rising, internally and externally…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The most important thing for me in the book is that the presidential election of 2016 is an opportunity for artists to create art, respond, be politically relevant. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and the worse it gets, the more relevant [this art] will become. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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