The L’s Eric Bruenner recently sat down for a chat with author (and L Mag Fiction Issue contributor) Darin Strauss, the author of Chang and Eng, The Real McCoy and, most recently, More Than It Hurts You, a book about Munchausen syndrome by proxy, race and culture in America, family, and all that. This is that chat.
The L: You teach creative writing at NYU. Would you say that since you’ve become a teacher it’s changed your writing, or that there’s some kind of relationship between your teaching and your writing?
Darin Strauss: I don’t know if teaching has changed my writing. I think it’s good to remind yourself of the basics — when you’re teaching writing, you always think about what’s best to make a story.
L: The press plays a big role in all of your books. What is interesting about it to you, why do you think it keeps coming up in your books?
DS: It’s funny that you mention that, I hadn’t really put much thought into it. Now that you mention it, celebrity culture does kind of come up in all the books, I guess plays a big role in our society. So if you’re writing a book about America, it’s hard to avoid talking about the press. We’re such a celebrity-driven, attention-grabbing culture. And that’s what the book is in large part about, how people are just doing this to get attention.
L: Is there something uniquely American about the celebrity culture?
DS: I only write about America because I’m from America so I don’t know about the rest of the first world. But it seems to be pretty American. It seems like American entertainment kind of dominates the world.
L: You’re more of a celebrity than you were, we’ll say, before this recent book came out. Is it weird to be subject to more public exposure, when that’s what you write about?
DS: It’s always tough to put yourself out there. That’s the thing that’s odd about writing a book: it takes so long so you write for the first couple of years in complete seclusion, trying to forget that anyone’s every going to read it. Then you publish it and you’re putting yourself and the book out there for criticism and ridicule and bad reviews and criticisms and misquoting and stuff like that. But I don’t think you can think about that when you’re writing a book. You’ve got to pretend you’re just doing it for yourself. You’ve got to forget about the other people reading it, because you won’t think about the right things when you’re doing the work — you really just want to think about writing the best story you can.
L: What do you think about the culture of criticism, the state of literary criticism in our country? Do you have any critics whose work you respect and like or do you pay attention to it?
DS: I think that James Wood in the New Yorker is good. I think there used to be a culture of criticism in this country that doesn’t exist anymore. I think it’s often that so many book reviews have writers reviewing each other. It would be better if there was a class of reviewers whose whole job was to review and not write books. My friend Liz Gilbert, she wrote that book Eat, Pray, Love, but I remember her first novel was about a lobster town, and they gave another young woman writing a book about lobsters her book to review, and obviously she’s going to give her a bad review. It wasn’t in her interest for Liz’s book to do well, they’re competitors. It seems like an odd system. It would be like if in a corporation your getting a promotion or a raise was decided by people who had your job. There’s always going to be a conflict of interest, so it seems kind of corrupt. On the other hand I review books sometimes I haven’t done that much, I’ve done three books for the Times — I do it when I’m asked. It’s always good to get in the Times. But I’m not sure the ideal system.
L: Would you say that your writing has changed over the course of your work?
DS: I think I’ve gotten better. I think that this is probably my best book. You do a couple and you learn how to do it a little bit more. I think this last one was probably harder because I was used to writing historical fiction, so I had to teach myself how to have a more modern-sounding voice and do a contemporary novel. Historical fiction is easier in a way because you don’t have to worry so much about what to leave out. You’re writing about a world that is pretty foreign to people. When you’re writing about something more common, like suburbia, you don’t want to sound like other books about suburbia.
L: Is there a stylistic shift between historical to contemporary fiction?
DS: Yeah, I think there was. The first pages of this book didn’t read like a modern person telling a story — I think it read like someone from the 18th century. I realized I had my old moves from historical fiction down, but I needed new moves. I had to teach myself how to do it.
L: You’ve said a lot that one of the keys to being a good writer is reading a lot. Were there any writers in particular that helped your through your most recent book?
DS: I read Updike’s Rabbit books particularly closely. A lot of it is about the moon landing, which is sort of the news hook that he uses to examine the culture. They’re set every ten years from the 50s through the 90s. It’s a really great way to read about American history because you get a really good sense of each time period, but through really great storytelling. Those were the books that I was looking for.
L: Do you still cure writers block with reading?
DS: That’s exactly what I do when I have writers block. I stop and I read something, to get the juices flowing or something. My wife is amazed that I alphabetized our bookshelves, because I’m not that organized a person. I did that because when you have writers block, you want to read something — I did it so that I could find Updike books, or whatever books I was looking for.
L: You mentioned that one of the benefits to writing historical fiction is that you can comment on the present indirectly. Did you find it difficult to comment on our time directly?
DS: The risk is that you can beat people over the head with themes if you do it in contemporary fiction because you’re not doing it obliquely. I wanted to have more about how I thought Bush was doing Munchausen by proxy to the country, but everyone time I said it my wife would roll her eyes and say it’s going to be really preachy. So I kept it out, and hoped it would be somehow implicit in there.
L: In another interview you quote Norman Mailer as saying, "writing has its own occult force." You mention that these novels have gotten you to wonder whether "anything is truly random happenstance" and that this book has plugged you into something extraordinary. Could you speak to that a little?
DS: You shouldn’t read my other interviews because I’m just bullshitting for most of them. But I was referring to the coincidences of my having written about twins, and then having had twins, and then the fact that my twins were eight months old the week the book came out and the child in the book is eight months old, and how I was reading the first chapter of my book which is set in a baby ICU, while I was sitting in a baby ICU where my own babies were. So the coincidence is strange.
L: There is sort of a bizarre amount of crosscurrent between the book and your own personal life. Was it difficult at all to write about things that are so close to your life?
DS: It was tough, because it’s easy just to be able to imagine things. Writing about 1811 Siam was much easier than writing about contemporary Long Island because I know it [Long Island] so well. I think when you know something well it’s more difficult, you’re more wary of getting something wrong. You can sometimes forget that the reader doesn’t necessarily know it.
Then again, I don’t think you want to enter into a book with too clear an idea of what you want to say about something, because then it might be sort of preachy. I just wanted to express my feelings about the place without stating one or another principal idea about Long Island.
L: One of the interesting things to me about Munchausen by proxy — sacrificing your own child—is that it’s such a mythological act.
DS: Yeah, I was going to name the kid Isaac, after the story of Abraham and Isaac. That’s why I ended up naming him Zack. I wanted to make it a visceral experience, having to sacrifice your own child, tapping into all that tribal emotion and stuff.
L: Was there anything particular that prompted you to make the switch to contemporary fiction, or was that just where the next good story happened to be?
DS: It’s really that more than anything. I was really just looking for a good story, and the first two happened to be historical. I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself with historical fiction. I always just try to find an interesting thing to talk about. It’s got to be something that will interest you for a couple of years, so you’ve got to be excited about the idea.
L: Are you thinking about future projects right now?
DS: I’ve got a few ideas I’m kicking around. I’m going to try to come up with another book idea soon so I can get to work again.