Ben Dolnick burst onto the literary scene in 2007 with Zoology, a heartfelt semi-autobiographical novel about a burnout who finds redemption working in the Central Park Children’s Zoo. He mined similar themes in his follow-up, 2011’s family saga You Know Who You Are, but shows more ambition with At the Bottom of Everything, an eloquent and moving account of Adam and Thomas, two friends forever bound by a tragic childhood mistake who demonstrate the different ways remorse can take its toll on a life.
Which neighborhood do you live in?
Fort Greene. I moved here right out of college in 2004, though not the same apartment. It’s strange how moving just two blocks can change your experience of a place completely.
Any favorite businesses?
Bittersweet has, in my opinion, sandwiches that are amazingly well-suited for car trips. Greenlight is of course a great bookstore; my wife and I probably wander in there two or three nights a week. I’m late to discovering how good Roman’s is; if it were in another neighborhood, I would have been raving about it for years.
Any other Brooklyn writers you especially admire?
Lots! I still get excited when I see Jhumpa Lahiri at the grocery store; same with Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead [Ed: Whitehead since moved to Manhattan]. I’m excited to have Martin Amis in the borough; his review-collections are some of the books I reopen most.
Your metaphors always make me think, “I know exactly what he means,” but they’re not cliché.
There are plenty of parts of writing I find excruciatingly hard, but describing things in terms of metaphor feels very natural—perhaps too natural—in both my writing and my actual life. Every now and then I’ll hear about some truly complicated thing like the Higgs boson, which just can’t be broken down into a metaphor, and it really makes my machinery sputter.
The book deals with the different way people react to guilt; Adam’s able to move on, but Thomas devotes his life to remorse. Throughout the book you seem to have a certain opinion of Adam that felt contradicted by the final page. Do you feel
one approach toward grief is more valid?
Interesting! I didn’t mean to contradict the impression I’d made, although I think I see what you mean. I don’t fault Adam for trying to get past what happened; I think being able to get past horrors is a very human, very necessary ability. But I also don’t blame Thomas for refusing to find his way back toward a more ordinary life. In a weird way, I admire Thomas’s purity and intensity. I’m not sure he’s wrong that what Adam’s making of his life is a little bit half-hearted and untrue to what they experienced together. But I also think that in many cases a life that’s only slightly untrue is a remarkable accomplishment!
When you write, do you start with a theme you want to explore?
I just sort of hack away at things, writing what scenes or passages come to me, often very much out of order. And in the meantime I keep a giant file of notes to myself. Some of these are about structure, some are about scenes I’d like to include, and some are just me thinking on the page about how to solve some problem or other. I’m not at all a strict outliner. Years ago I bought some too-expensive outlining program, but ended up just making a mess of things.
Your chapters alternate between the present and context for that action, either from the past or tangential characters. Why was it important to provide voices beyond Adam’s?
One of the ways I classify first-person narrators in my head is by how close to you they seem to be standing. Alexander Portnoy seems to be spitting in your face while Proust is lying in bed across the room. I had the sense that Adam was standing fairly close, so I thought the reader might want some occasional relief from that to keep from being overwhelmed. And once I’d begun structuring the book that way, I found it very useful, architecturally. It let me give backstory and context, as you say, and it allowed me to expand the book’s timeline beyond what would have been doable with straight narrative.