BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Ben Nadler is a masterful storyteller--he weaves words together in a way that makes me believe I am right there in the story, in real life. Nadler's latest book, The Sea Beach Line (Fig Tree Books, 2015) took me by surprise--I wasn't expecting to fall in love, but I did--I fell in love on the first page. I suppose we are never expecting to truly fall in love when we do, but once you do, you are forever changed. Sometimes, I believed I was the main character in the story, feeling all of the turmoil and emotions Izzy felt, as if Izzy was stealing my body for the time that I read the fiction novel.
I was lucky enough to interview Ben on his writing process, and why he chose to write a book so centered around Jewish faith and life:
JV: The story is so entrenched in family dynamics, history, and Jewish tradition—which I found enthralling and compelling, because I just wanted to know more and more. Was any of this inspired or based on your own life?
BN: Not the family stuff, no. The family in the book doesn’t resemble my own immediate family in any way. My mother is a Methodist from rural Illinois, and she is still married to my father. He is Jewish, but he’s a second-generation American, not an immigrant.
About ten years ago, he and I took a trip to Poland to see where his grandparents and their families had lived before the Holocaust. So that trip probably influenced my idea to make Alojzy, the father in the book, a post-‘67 refugee from Poland.
Alojzy’s appearance was initially inspired by a man who I saw once on the street, but never spoke to. I heard rumors about him. He’d stolen from a friend of mine. So there are some germs of inspiration from things I’ve observed in life.
Though I have to say, I didn’t realize it until after I’d written the book, but I think Alojzy is also in some distant ways inspired by stories I’ve been told about my great-grandfather on the Nadler side, who I’m named after. He came to New York from Romania, and apparently he had a lot of grand plans, but he never really got ahead. He’s buried in Queens, so there is a grave up there with my name on it. I often think of going and looking for it, but I haven’t yet.
There are definitely many elements in the fabric of my life that found their way into the book. I live with my girlfriend, who is from Russia. Living in a household where Russian is frequently spoken, but not really understanding much Russian, informed a lot of the way language functions in the novel. My grandmother’s first language is Yiddish, but I understand even less of that language.
How long did it take you to write this book? As a poet, I’m always a little mystified by how fiction writers complete such long texts, especially when it’s heavily based in research. What’s your writing process like?
From the first scene on paper to the final edits was almost five years, though there was about an eighteen month break in there when I was searching for a publisher. It’s so strange, to have lived with this thing for half a decade—the whole second half of my twenties. I’m suddenly in my thirties now, somehow.
The master’s thesis version of my novel was 65,000 words, but the published version is close to 110,000 words. It was this process of pulling at threads, pushing things further and further. Seeing how much they could bear.
The modularity of the novel helped me construct it. The whole novel is divided into three “books”, which are divided into pretty even chapters, which are in turn divided into very distinct sections, scenes, and tales. So I was able to work on different parts at different time without getting too overwhelmed by the whole project. During the editing process, some of those sections moved around.
Poets don’t get a pass, though; look what William Carlos Williams did with Patterson. And “Song of Myself” is what, fifty-two sections over thirty-five years? I’d love to write a book-length poem. Or a libretto.
You previously worked as a bookseller and received your MFA at City College. Do you feel both of these experiences actually helped your writing? There’s so much criticism regarding MFA’s—do you feel your experience was worth the time and money?
Being a bookseller—both on the street and in bookstores—helped me a lot, because it gave me the opportunity to read. I worked at a used bookstore in suburban East Bay California once that stayed open until 11 pm for some reason, I guess mainly so we could buy stolen DVDs from tweakers. Anyway, I would sit on the counter and read Brothers Karamazov every night, the Garnett translation.
When I was a street bookseller, I would sit on the curb and read for hours. We would get great old paperbacks from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. And a lot of the stuff I was reading took place right where I was in lower Manhattan. I’m on fourth street, reading about d.a. levy waiting for god on tenth street. I read all those great Grace Paley stories, which just captured spoken language so well. I basically learned how to revise fiction from the way she revises the story-within-a-story in “Conversation With My Father.” There’s just so much reading you need to do, and selling books is a good way to get some of it done.
Later, I did learn quite a lot at City College, though maybe not as much as from selling books. My graduate experience was more traditional than my undergraduate experience, so it was a chance for me to play catch up on some important things I’d missed, like Tennyson. But the tuition at City was affordable, as it’s public and I was paying the city-resident rate, and from the third semester on my teaching pay there covered my tuition. It’s important to have affordable public universities, for a lot more reasons than just MFAs.
When I was getting the degree, I also had a day job at a photography museum. I learned a lot there too; writers can learn a lot about description, imagery, framing, even narrative, from photographs.
Right now, I make most of my living teaching writing and literature courses. I’ve had so much fun this past week workshopping my students’ poems (also at City College). I wouldn’t be able to do this without the MFA, so in that sense it was worth of it, but more as a required teaching credential than anything else.
Much of the story is written through storytelling (i.e. Jewish and Hasidic stories), and dreams that Izzy is having. It’s an interesting way to tell a story—from a slightly distanced perspective. Why did you choose to do this?
I spent a lot of time hanging out on the street when I was younger. Because I was a street vendor, like I just talked about, but also because I would hitchhike around and meet people, and because I would just stand on street corners and live life in that manner. I loved listening to people tell stories, I loved how mythic everything sounded. Standing out on the street, I heard stories about Valerie Solanas, I heard stories about Jim Carroll, I heard stories about all these larger than life figures. I didn’t care if it was all bullshit, I loved it. I wanted to get some of that feeling into my novel about the street.
Then the other strand is, I’ve always loved the Jewish story-telling tradition, too. The Hasidic tales, which I encountered in college, but also the strange Midrashic stories about scriptural figures that appeared in these anthologies on my grandparents’ shelves when I was younger. The Jewish Caravan, Legends of the Jews, books like this.
One thing I love about Hasidic tales is that the tradition moves forward. There are Hasidic tales from the Holocaust, there are Hasidic tales about things about happened in Brooklyn in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
I really wanted to access that narrative tradition, and to weave it together with the street stuff. The narrative modes were probably more interesting to me than the narrative itself.
The father-son relationship is extremely complicated in this novel, as the book starts with Izzy’s father’s disappearance. And while Izzy has a caring stepfather, there is clearly distance between them. So much of this connection, and lack of it, connects to his Jewish identity as well. What do you think this parallel symbolizes about the nature of faith and family?
I think that this book is in some ways a meditation on masculinity, on how masculine knowledge is transmitted, or not transmitted, from fathers to sons. Ethnicity and culture are going to influence how masculinity is perceived and carried—that’s a major point of intersection—so Izzy is looking for models of Jewish masculinity. I’m not sure that this is so much about faith or Judaism though, as it is about Jewish cultural identity.
This is where a discussion of Zionism comes in. Nationalist ideologies are generally wrapped up with gender roles, and Zionism offered a new version of Jewish masculinity that was more muscle-bound, militaristic, and violent than the traditional, scholarly version of Jewish masculinity. The contrast in character between Izzy’s father and step-father speaks to this. But a masculinity based on violence and physical force is going to be harmful for men, and for the people around them.
The female characters in the book are having problems communicating—whether it’s expressing “too much” emotion, like his mother, or a lack of it, like his sister. And, of course, Rayna is a complete mystery until the end. Why did you choose to do this?
Part of the limitation of working with a first person narrator is that, if you stay true to their voice, the reader is getting things filtered through their biases and experiences. So Izzy perceives these women’s communication issues, but he’s in such denial about his own issues, and about some basic realities, so the things he’s hearing might not be what they are actually saying. His mother and sister are smart women, and his inability to listen to them is probably more the problem than their inability to communicate.
Rayna is my favorite character in the book, and the one I had the most difficulty writing, by far.
On some level, Rayna’s specific origins have to stay a mystery for most of the book because it’s a mystery novel, and I couldn’t give everything away up front (and don’t want to give away too much now either). But there also isn’t really that much mystery: Her trauma is right in front of Izzy from the day he meets her, and he makes a choice to ignore it and deny it. It’s easier—or more comfortable—for him to think of her as some magic, ethereal figure than as an abuse victim who needs help. Izzy is ignoring this young woman’s pain. He thinks he’s a good guy, he thinks he’s spiritual and above it all, but he’s doing a harmful, neglectful thing.
Hasidism is clearly a huge part of the story, largely because of its opaqueness and mysteriousness to outsiders (which includes Izzy). Was it daunting to write about the culture?
Hasidism came into the novel because I was interested in the Hasidic tale, as a literary tradition, more than because of any extant Hasidic communities. I don’t think I would have tried to write about a real dynasty (like Satmar, or Bobov, or Belz) in the same way I wrote about the Glupskers, because I don’t have that specific practical knowledge and experience. And I wouldn’t want to defame a community. It definitely would have been more daunting.
The name Glupsk was coined satirically by a Yiddish writer, S.J. Abramovich, who went by the pen name Mendele Mocher Seforim (Mendele the Book Peddler). I think his Glupsk was based on a parody of Berdychiv, to some degree, but I wrote my own history to the name, to fit in more with some of the themes and narrative traditions in the book. My feeling was that I was justified in writing this stuff, because I was working in the tradition of booksellers and writers, which is my culture. The character of Mendy is a nod to this.
But you know, I don’t think the Hasidic tradition, or flame, belongs solely to the entrenched, codified, Hasidic communities. The Besht, who started Hasidism, was this complete outsider, just an amazing nonconformist filled with light, who really shook institutional Judaism. But within a couple generations, the Hasidic rebbes had formed their own institutions, some of them pretty repressive.
I think it was Martin Buber who wrote something to the effect that, he felt the original light of Hasidism had been pretty much extinguished by the early twentieth century, but could still be found in the stories of Kafka. And this isn’t just drawing a parallel; this was an issue of actual lineage. Kafka’s tales didn’t come from nowhere; he was building forward from Breslov, from Belz, but adding his own spark, his own questions, or interrogations.
Outside of writing, what inspires you and helps you write and think? What are you obsessed with?
Over the past few years, opera has become more and more inspirational to me. Operas relate heavily to novels, in terms of scale, scope, and structure. The last one I really loved seeing was Tosca at the Met. “This is Tosca’s kiss!” When she jumped from the battlement, my heart stopped.
I listen to a lot of old country music too. I’ve obviously read a lot of religious books, but my experiential knowledge of religion has just as much to do with people like Roy Acuff and the Carter Family.
I am obsessed with coywolves, also known as eastern coyotes. The timber wolf is one of the greatest American animals, but it’s been driven to near extinction over the past couple centuries. Wolves and coyotes aren’t supposed to interbreed, but now suddenly they are. So there are packs of this amazing, brand new, wild, hybrid canine populating the East coast, moving from Canada on down. There are even some in New York City. They come down here on the train lines and the bridges. They sleep in the parks, and come out at night; they know how to stay hidden and survive. I respect them a lot.
What are you working on right now?
Just some stories, at the moment. An idea for a novel is brewing though. Something to do with coywolves, maybe.
Ben Nadler is the author of the novel Harvitz, As to War (Iron Diesel Press) and several chapbooks, including Punk in NYC’s Lower East Side, 1981-1991 (Microcosm Publishing) and The Men Who Work Under the Ground (Keep This Bag Away From Children Press). A poetry and comic collaboration chapbook is forthcoming with the visual artist Alyssa Berg. Nadler earned a BA from Eugene Lang College of the New School and an MFA from the City College of New York/CUNY. He has taught at City College, Eugene Lang College, and The College of New Rochelle-School of New Resources in the South Bronx. A former Manhattan street vendor, he has also worked in bookstores across New York, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He lives in Brooklyn.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications) & Xenos (forthcoming 2017, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She has lead workshops at Brooklyn Poets.