Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Q&A with Jay Neugeboren


Photo by Michael B. Friedman


Jay Neugeboren is the author of the new novel After Camus. His many other books include Max Baer and the Star of David. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic Monthly.


Q: The writer Madison Smartt Bell said of your new book, “You need real courage to write Albert Camus as a fictional character. Jay Neugeboren...has what it takes and more.” What do you think of that assessment, and why did you choose to include Camus as a character in your novel?


A: I’m flattered by Madison Bell’s remark, but “courage” to create Camus as a fictional character? Hardly.


I’ve been reading Camus since I was 17 and first read The Stranger, and I’ve come to think of him as a friend, and (as in the novel), I have, through the years, frequently found myself in conversation with him.


Reading his journals has been especially revealing. He was a gifted writer and a brave man (risked his life as a member of The Resistance during World War Two), but he was also a wonderfully real, approachable human being with whom I’ve always felt great affinities, especially when it comes to the value he puts on friendship.


Consider this passage, from his World War II journal: “What lights up the world and makes it bearable is the feeling which we usually have of our links with it—and more particularly of what joins us to other people. Human relations always help us to carry on because they always presuppose further developments, a future—and also because we live as if our only task was precisely to have relationships with other people . . . when we thus imagine how contingent and accidental everything in what we call a love or a friendship is, then the world goes back to darkness and we to that great cold from which human tenderness had for a moment rescued us.”


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read two biographies of Camus (Herbert Lottman’s and Olivier Todd’s) and reread his books.


For much of the medical material, especially about HIV/AIDS, I had the benefit of conversations with my friend Dr. Jerry Friedland, one of the world’s pre-eminent infectious disease and AIDS doctors.


For Tolle’s life as a dancer, I relied on Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels, and Allegra Kent’s autobiography, Once A Dancer.


One of the many things that surprised me was to discover just how deep and wide—and dangerous—the LePen Movement is, and how, sadly, it seems part of a global movement towards a politics of xenophobia, fascism, and sheer meanness.


Q: How did you create your characters Saul and Tolle, and how would you describe the dynamic between them?

A: Not sure that I “created” them—rather, they came to me in my musings, ruminations, and wanderings as people I somehow knew dimly, but wanted to know well.


To do that I had to write about them, which often meant setting down in words the scenes I saw them play out in the theater of my mind.


They came to me, initially, as attractive young individuals, each passionate about their vocations—dance and medicine—who, though coming from different backgrounds (because they come from different backgrounds?) are drawn to each other and fall in love.


What came to interest me was how much of who they each were changed in the course of a long marriage . . . and how much did not change.


Their dynamic seems to me to derive from distinct, strong passions that co-exist, over time, with their needs for independence and autonomy, and with their desire for a conventional familial context into which they might live out their lives.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I had no idea how the novel would end when I began, and though Camus is a character in the first chapter, I had no idea that he would figure (as a ghostly presence) in the rest of the book.


I worked on the novel over a period of at least a dozen years; it actually derived from an earlier unpublished novel, Natural Causes, that was mainly about an AIDS doctor (not Saul), a novel in which neither Tolle nor Camus exist, and which my agent and I decided should remain on the shelf.


I wrote several novels after Natural Causes, and then one day I found myself writing a short story about a young dancer going to Paris in 1959 in order to meet Albert Camus, and . . .


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m finishing a new novel that begins with a love story set in Brooklyn in 1943 during a World War II air raid drill and segues to a love story set in Manhattan in 2020 during the Covid pandemic.


I’m also putting together a collection of recently published essays, the working title—Dickens in Brooklyn: Personal Essays on Family, Writing, and Madness.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In addition to the new novel and collection of essays, I have several other projects in various stages of completion, including a movie script based on my early story, “The Year Between,” a play for stage based on my novel The Stolen Jew, a new collection of short stories, several new essays, and, as ever, glimmerings of new novels.


The years since I passed the proverbial three score and ten have, happily, turned out to be the most productive years of my writing life. Who knew?


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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