TW Author Interview by Fran Cronin
An Acclaimed Novelist Admits That Motivation Is Tough
He sits by himself in the corner of a wood-paneled coffee shop, the kind of place that’s hellbent on selling ice cream at the wrong time of year. He’s so still and contained, wearing a khaki-green collarless shirt and jeans.
The only surprise? His glasses. When I googled “Michael Lowenthal” before our meeting, they didn’t appear in any of the head shots that popped up. Not quite vogue, their plastic form is a wink at hipsterdom.
During our hour-plus conversation last December, he takes them off. Unframed, his eyes dominate; they are direct and earnest.
Lowenthal, 43, is the author of four novels, including The Same Embrace (Dutton, 1998), Avoidance (Graywolf Press, 2002), and Charity Girl (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). He’s contributed short stories to national anthologies and has received numerous fellowships and awards. In 1994, while an editor for University Press of New England, he founded the Hardscrabble Books imprint. It no longer exists, he laments in an email, “though I hope it may be revived at some point.”
He’s also a faculty member in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He teaches across the river from his home in Roslindale, a suburban enclave of Boston.
His latest novel—The Paternity Test (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press, 2012)—is about a gay couple living in a Cape Cod town who decide to have a child with a surrogate birth mother.
Lowenthal says he doesn’t write for fame. As a gay, childless son in a Jewish family line with no heirs, he’s drawn to rendering characters who ask a question he personally ponders: Is our identity inherited or something we create?
While sipping tepid coffee, Lowenthal and I teased apart how he thinks about himself as a writer and teacher, especially as an unplugged personality with no cell phone.
This TW interview has been condensed and edited.
TW: You’ve published four books, with a pretty good track record, so people know who you are. Do you find Roslindale to be a good retreat?
ML: From the paparazzi?
TW: Exactly. [laughter]
ML: Because if I walked down Newbury Street, I’d be hounded by people.
TW: Unbelievable what could go on there. You’d have to be in disguise.
ML: [laughter] I wish I had that problem. But I will say—not related to that but more to my personality type—it’s nice to be in a very quiet part of town where there’s not a lot of hoopla about anything.
TW: I’m curious about how you do or don’t experience literary success. What has the online action done in terms of your audience?
ML: At least for me, the experience of publishing a book often seemed like tossing a stone down a bottomless well. I guess at some level, I had faith that a few scattered people here and there must be reading my stuff. Even if you only sell a thousand copies, that’s actually a thousand people out there. I might only hear from one or two, but there are 998 other people I don’t know about.
Now, some soccer mom in Topeka might blog about books she likes and say she likes mine. I’ll wonder, how did my book find its way to her? I like that aspect of it.
But mostly, the whole online world drives me nuts. I hate the pressure of feeling like I need to go on Facebook and perform and be witty or to make it seem like I’m having fabulous encounters. Status update: “Tom Cruise and I were just having margaritas.”
Not sure this is what you’re asking, but I’ve never looked at my Amazon page for my book.
TW: It’s all good. Just want you to know.
ML: I can’t look at any of that stuff.
TW: I did read somewhere that you actually like teaching more than you do writing, which seems to dovetail with retreating from a more glamorous or online persona. What is it about teaching?
ML: The part of teaching I like is interacting with people and seeing the effect of the work we’re doing together. Somebody comes to me with a question, I do my best to offer them advice on it, and he or she often goes away saying, “Thanks a lot. You really helped me see this in a new way.”
I guess I come back to the stone being dropped down the bottomless well.
TW: Must be a lot of stones down there. [laughter]
ML: Maybe it’s different for other writers, but for me, the rewards just aren’t great for writing. The occasional person will say, “Oh, I really liked your book.” But that’s so much harder for me to believe than when someone says, “I loved that class. Or thanks so much for your comments on my manuscript. It helped me find a new ending.” That’s so real. You can hold on to that. It’s direct.
With writing, do you celebrate when you finish a draft or when you finish the next draft? Do you celebrate when you finish the twelfth draft or do you celebrate when you get a contract.? There are all these times when you could almost be happy—but they’re mixed in with all these other disappointments.
I’ve played softball since I was eleven. Sadly, I retired this year because of my old, aching body. I played left field, and I loved it, because someone hits the ball, it’s coming to you—and you catch it, or you don’t. If you catch it, people applaud, the inning’s over, done. If you miss it, ah, what a goof, and you move on.
There’s none of that clarity in writing and publishing.
TW: So, how do you keep yourself motivated? It takes a lot of energy to do a book: twelve drafts, that’s not like writing a memo. And then an editor might ask, “What are you saying here? I’m not sure this really works.”
ML: To go back to the online stuff, I could write a Facebook post that takes me twenty seconds. Twenty-four hours later, twenty people have given it a thumbs up, liked it, and no one has said, “I’m not sure the ending really works.”
Alternatively, I can take five years to write a novel through countless agonizing drafts, disappointments, criticisms, and suggestions. Months could go by before I have a hundred direct indications of “I like this.” I mean that literally. I don’t think a hundred people have told me they like The Paternity Test. But I posted it to Facebook the other day, and within 24 hours, a hundred people had read it and clicked “like.”
So, the online stuff messes with motivation, at least for me. Of course, I’m not really equating those two things. Yet, there’s something about the ease of getting praise and feedback and getting it publicly that is related to having a voice. You put out a thought, an observation, a comment, and people respond. There’s a way in which Facebook has started to fill the role that I used to look for in writing. Fifteen years ago, how else would you get a voice? You’d sit down and write a book.
I certainly never set out looking for fame or to be famous. But now I have enough experience to know it’s doubtful I’ll achieve anything remotely like that. The inner motivation, that drive to say something, I know some people feel it all the time. But for me, I felt that much more strongly when I was just starting out.
TW: Is this a typical kind of malaise to go through after you finish a book? It’s out there and then, all of a sudden, you’re empty. We can’t all be a Trollope.
ML: Absolutely. I’ve been through it before. There is the weird phenomenon of feeling like I put absolutely everything I ever observed or thought or felt into a book, so I’m sort of empty and need to fill that back up.
But there is also something in the air that is maybe new and more long-term. I’ve been talking to a number of writer friends who privately admit that they’re not writing as much as they used to or not writing at all.
On the other hand, there’s an explosion in MFA programs. Everybody and her sister is writing a blog and coming up with all sorts of other things.
TW: I’ve read that Charity Girl, your novel about a young Jewish American woman during World War I, was a monumental research effort. With The Paternity Test, you’ve said that it was a relief to get back on familiar ground. How do you approach a novel like that with enough distance?
ML: As a reaction to Charity Girl, I wanted to let myself off the hook and do something that I thought would be simpler. That’s a large reason why I set The Paternity Test in a house that is an 86-percent overlap with my father’s house, in an area that I know quite well. All the scenes are set on the beach at Sandy Neck on Cape Cod. My writing, plotting, and meditation time are often spent walking on that beach.
But maybe I had a false sense of security. Because the material—both in terms of the setting and the world of gay men—is so familiar that I made certain assumptions without doing the work to earn the material. The first few iterations of The Paternity Test were thinner than I wanted them to be.
I consciously tried to create some distance by writing from the point of view of a non-Jewish character looking at a Jewish family. I’m Jewish and my partner isn’t, so that was a little jujitsu reversal that helped me to imagine what these dynamics would look like from the outside.
The plot is all invented, especially at the beginning, the particular life of fast-lane New York gay guys. But I know the skepticism, especially among an older generation of gay men, about babies popping up everywhere now. How did gay culture suddenly become about strollers and onesies?
I think the early drafts of The Paternity Test were hampered by my inability to imagine and empathize with the experience of someone who really wants to be in the family-making business. It took me awhile to get rid of the snarkiness, especially in the Pat character, and just to let his desire for family be felt in earnest.
TW: Early in the novel, you set up a great intrinsic truth and tension through your characters. Pat, the narrator, puts it this way:
Here, then, was our difference: keeping his family going was the gist, for Stu, of fatherhood; for me it meant inventing a family separate from my old one, showing myself (and everyone else) that I could be a parent…. Stu wanted to father a child and I wanted to raise one.”
This is pretty loaded. You yourself are an unmarried Jewish man with no children. Did you need to write this character to explore your own feelings?
ML: I don’t know if I needed to or not, but when I first started writing it, I didn’t think it had much to do with me. By the end, I was exploring feelings that were closer to me and more personal. I wanted to pinch babies’ cheeks. I’d get all melty and teary-eyed whenever I saw a cute kid. That snuck up on me. I’m 90 percent sure I’m not going to have kids. I’m definitely sadder about that than I thought I would have been before I wrote the book.
I’m much more interested in raising a kid than fathering one. I don’t really connect with people’s genetic drive. The whole idea with surrogates is that it is actually your sperm. But as with teaching, I’m interested in directing my energies toward somebody else and helping him or her to grow up. That’s what I’m sad I’m going to miss out on—not that my DNA won’t be continued on Earth.
TW: [spoiler alert] Let’s talk about the ending. Despite all that goes on, Stu and Pat make the decision to stay together. But you have to wonder, at what cost? Did you punish them?
ML: I intended it as an achy ending. Do you think it would have been more or less achy if they had split up at the end?
TW: I think I would have accepted it if they’d split up.
ML: I wanted an ending that would raise as many questions as it answered. I was interested in the idea that they’re the couple that survives. Richard, the brother-in-law, is so hung up on his fantasy of Jewish family he wrecks the one he actually has. The novel was about having children, but I also wanted to look at what people would sacrifice in order to have a family. Maybe for these two guys, having a family ends up being the two of them.
TW: Is writing about gay identity important to you? In The Same Embrace, you wrote about Jewish male twins—one’s gay and the other goes to Israel.
ML: The material in The Paternity Test could have lent itself to stories from a different perspective. The more distance I get from it, I think the most interesting perspective is that of Danny, Debora’s husband. What does the surrogate’s husband get out of it? What a strange position to be in. Think of how it tests a family and a marriage when you talk to your spouse about starting to do this completely intimate thing with other people.
The gay perspective I chose has a lot to do with the fact that I was writing not just a specific story. I wanted to write about the change in gay culture. It’s gone from a culture that was largely about outsider identity and sexual freedom to one about marriage, children, and families. This shift has been so fast and it fascinates me so much that I wanted to find a character who grapples with the before and after.
TW: You play with a lot of themes in The Paternity Test, turning them on their heads. In particular, you play with the nature of sexuality and gender orientation. Pat reveals:
I was always attracted to girls. Certain girls, sometimes: this girl over here, that one over there. But boys I was drawn to categorically, essentially. Offer up a boy—almost any boy at all—and I could find something in him tempting.”
This is a beautiful and revelatory. You twist up your plot, but what drove you to make your choices for Debora?
ML: There’s a whole level in which that is unanswerable for me. That was the story. That’s how the story came to me. I knew that before I knew anything else.
But if I try to make sense of it, I’m interested in the ways people create boundaries for their identities or create rules that can or can’t be broken. There’s a line in the book that essentially states, “You had to be on one side of the line or the other, but you had to pick.” So once Pat comes out as gay, all of a sudden there’s this whole checklist of things he has to be or do.
More generally, I’m interested in sexual fluidity. Not as many people are writing about that as I’d expect, given what I believe to be universal fluidity.
TW: That line about choosing a side is so closely rendered. Is it true?
M; My mother said—and she knows my life well enough to know the book is not autobiographical—that’s the most autobiographical line in the book. I love my mother for a reason, I guess. [laughter]
TW: What was the hardest part of the book for you to write?
ML: We talked about the ending. But once I chose what happened, it wasn’t that difficult to write. The part that was really hard was the opening. Many other drafts started differently. All the smart people who gave me advice advised me to start later in the story. I start with the day they’re going to meet Debora for the first time. But then I don’t get back to that meeting until thirty, forty, fifty pages later.
I wanted all that context about gay culture in there first. The story isn’t just about people wanting a baby or a surrogate. So, wrestling with how to hold the reader’s attention while I then backtracked—that just tied me in knots.
TW: You’ve now written four critically acclaimed novels, although you keep downplaying that. You’ve written a book almost every three years. Are you ready for another big project? Do your students ask what you’re writing?
ML: I used to be a little more coy. But now I think it’s one of my responsibilities as a teacher to be honest about my experience as a writer. When students ask me, I just say, “You know, even though I’m demanding that you send me a new short story every four weeks, I actually haven’t written in a few months.”
I’m struggling with finding an idea that lights a spark in me. It’s tough to find the motivation. And I think it would be a violation of their trust if I weren’t honest about that.
Could you decide to want kids?
Whether to have them: that was a choice. And when, and with whom. But wanting them? Wasn’t that just an ore you had within? At least that’s how it was for me: not chosen but discovered, uncovered. At first I saw just glimmers, gold flecks in the dross. Then, with every passing year, more glow, longer veins. The mother lode was everywhere inside me.”
— from The Paternity Test by Michael Lowenthal
For more information about his work, see Michael Lowenthal’s website.