Kurt Andersen’s new novel, True Believers, is set across the past and present, but “it’s all about the 60s,” he said yesterday at a reading at BookCourt. Set in 2014, it’s written as though a 63-year-old woman’s memoirs, as she looks back on (and tries to piece together) her youthful anti-war activism and a mysterious incident at its center. He described her as “like Hillary Clinton, if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton.” But why is a guy named Kurt writing a book from the point-of-view of a person named Karen? Well, he thought a female character would be more interesting. “Women’s lives have changed more dramatically in the last 45 years than men’s have,” he said. Also, she couldn’t be drafted, which gave her a unique motivation to do whatever it is she does, and he thought it’d be more interesting to hear about the book’s love triangle from her perspective. Also, he just likes writing female characters.
Andersen lives in Brooklyn, in Carroll Gardens, and was happy to be reading here—it was the first stop on his book tour to which he could walk instead of fly, and a place where he could feel comfortable reading aloud all the “fuck”s. (Some places, he doesn’t.) As a small moth flitted above the audience’s heads, Andersen brought his radio experience to bear (he’s the host of Studio 360), lending drama and texture to his wry, witty prose and to his different characters. Fiction, he said, frees you to inhabit different sets of people, even to give voice to wacky fictional ideas you couldn’t—or wouldn’t even want to—discuss on radio or in non-fiction. In the book, there’s a foul-mouthed, sexually open and aggressive intelligence official named Stewart.
“Are you Stewart?” someone asked.
“No,” Andersen said.
“I wish!” his wife shouted from the audience.
Andersen didn’t interview any of the old activists from the 60s (except maybe his older sister, a little), but he did read all of their memoirs. (And he once stalked Bernardine Dohrn, the former Weather Underground leader who’s married to Bill Ayers, for four days around a convention.) He said the memoir by Carl Oglesby, the SDS leader, is the most compelling “because he didn’t have to justify planting bombs.” Kathy Boudin, he said, was the most appalling, because she had a one-year-old. Plus, it was 1981! “You don’t have the, ‘wow, it’s 1968!’ excuse.” As for writing about the 60s, he admires Joan Didion’s most of all, calling her the great levelheaded chronicler of the time, writing with “astonishing precision and clarity.” About the 1960s! During the 1960s!
Of course, because he was talking about political activism in the 1960s, Andersen was asked to compare it to today. He said he had reported on the Arab Spring movements (and European Summer), and that while writing this book he had the young people he’d met from Egypt and Tunisia in his mind. The difference, he said, is that the Arab Spring had no famous leaders—no international superstar figureheads—similar to the leaderless Occupy Wall Street. The difference with OWS is that, like in the US in the 60s, the Arabs had specific demands. Andersen knew a bit about OWS personally: his nephew was involved as an organizer, and stayed with them in Brooklyn—before they kicked him out. “Go occupy Wall Street,” Andersen told his nephew, “and not our house on 2nd Place.”
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