Monday, June 10, 2019

TBR: Nirvana Is Here: A Novel by Aaron Hamburger

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

When his ex-husband is accused of sexual harassment in the #metoo era, history professor Ari Silverman is forced to confront long-buried trauma from his childhood, where he and his high school crush bonded over the raw emotion of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics in the segregated suburbs of 1990s Detroit. Nirvana Is Here explores issues of identity, race, sex, and family with both poignancy and unexpected humor. Imagine Call Me By Your Name with a grunge-era soundtrack.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

I loved all these characters. I think you have to be a little in love with your characters when you write, even the ones who behave badly, in order to see them as they see themselves, and write about them with what the writer Breena Clarke calls “radical empathy.” There is one supporting character in the book, an English teacher named Mr. Wentworth, with whom I initially had the most trouble, but then in the end I particularly enjoyed developing. At first I saw Mr. Wentworth as a bit of a villain. The main character of Ari, who’s in high school during the 1990s, resents Mr. W. for being a rather pedantic and not very competent teacher. In my early drafts, Wentworth was just as Ari saw him: a bit of a caricature. But then as I revised his character and looked for ways to open him up, I remembered teachers from high school who were in the closet for fear of losing their jobs. I began to think, what if Mr. Wentworth were a closeted gay man who wants to reach out to Ari, to help him, and yet feels constrained by his own life decisions. He wants to be Ari’s friend and feels hurt by Ari’s rejection, yet at the same time because of his position of authority, he has to discipline Ari as well. In the final version of the book, Mr. Wentworth engendered so much sympathy in me because of his vulnerability. Working on him reinforced such a great lesson about how to make characters memorable, how to round them out by trying to see the world as they see it.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

After I published my first two books of fiction, I worked on another novel that no one wanted to read or publish. It was really hard to accept that after all the work I’d done,  the research trips, the countless revisions, the time and effort, that this book wasn’t going to make it.

A non-writer friend of mine suggested that I turn next to short stories for a while. That way, he said, if they don’t work out, you’ve only written a failed story rather than a failed novel.

At the same time, a criticism I had heard about my writing was that it wasn’t emotionally engaging enough. It didn’t feel personal enough. So I thought I might work on a few stories inspired by things I’d seen, heard about, or experienced, and by doing so I might learn to capture some of that emotional quality that had been lacking.

After a while, I accumulated several stories that seemed related, so I toyed with the idea of a linked story collection, which then became a novel-in-stories, until finally my wise friend and colleague, the writer Cait Johnson, said, “Oh, just call it a novel. It’s a novel!”

Finally it came time to seek publication. Working with “big” publishers and “big” agents in the past has been immensely helpful in a lot of ways. And yet I also found that in terms of marketing and getting my work out there in the world, I’d done a lot of the work on my own. I also noticed that the big publishers can have difficulty seeing your book in a variety of ways. For example, I wrote a novel called Faith for Beginners with two main characters: a straight woman with a gay son, both of whom were Jewish. I imagined the book might appeal to both Jewish and gay audiences, and I was surprised that my publisher thought it couldn’t be marketed both ways, that it had to be only one thing, which meant in this case that it had to be mainly a gay book.

As I started speaking to agents about this book, I heard two things over and over: A) It’s a wonderful book and B) I don’t know how to sell it. (To which, I kept thinking, uh, isn’t that your job?) Their main issue seemed to be that much of the book describes the main character while he’s in his teens, and yet it isn’t a young adult novel, so they couldn’t figure out how to pigeonhole it for marketing purposes.

Finally, I decided, you know what, let me find a great indie press that gets this book, loves it as much as I do, and let’s work on it together, and that’s exactly what happened. A friend recommended Three Rooms Press to me, and they responded immediately to my query, and more importantly, they understood immediately what I was trying to do artistically, that this was a book for anyone of any age who’s revisiting his or her past to try to understand the present.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Do I have to pick just one? Here are a few of my top pieces of advice, all from other writers:

There are two of you -- one who wants to write and one who doesn't. The one who wants to write better keep tricking the one who doesn't."
- Maria Irene Fornes

The most important skill for a writer is how to notice the right things.
--paraphrased from Tina Brown

Write from what you know into what you don't know.
Grace Paley

I’d also say—and this is more publishing than writing advice—is that as a writer, my job is to get 100 rejections a year. Why? Because when I get rejected 100 times, I publish 10 times. But when I don’t get rejected at all because I’m afraid of sending my work out and getting a negative response, I don’t get published at all. Another possibility: if I’m not getting rejected and I’m still publishing, that means I’m aiming too low.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Great question. I was surprised that a story with so much potential for pain or anger could also have so much love in it. Familial love, romantic love, the love of art, history, and culture, and the love of friends for each other. I feel like the topic of friendship, particularly male friendship, is so under-explored in literature. I’m glad I had the chance to take it on here.

Another surprise, on a more mundane level. For a very minor character in the book, I had to research bathroom attendants, the people who stand in the bathroom of fancy restaurants and give you a hand towel. I learned a couple of things. First, those attendants have to pay for their own candy that people take on their way out. Second, one attendant said in an interview that he can understand if people don’t tip if they come into pee, but that if they poop, he expects at least a couple of bucks.

These are the kinds of things you find out that you never expect to when you’re writing a novel.

What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?

Something I want readers to know is that this book has a lot of humor in it. We as humans find humor in the most unexpected of places, and that it’s one of the things that reminds us we’re alive and surviving, often in the darkest of times. I love using humor in my writing, particularly in dramatic moments. It’s important to keep in mind here, there’s such a great variety of shadings with humor, ranging from the slapstick ha-ha funny of the Marx Brothers to the bitter, biting dark humor of something like Tadeusz Borowski’s collection of stories about the Holocaust titled This Way to the Gas Chambers, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Yes, as a young man, the main character of Ari becomes obsessed with food and one of his great moments of awakening occurs while dining at a gourmet establishment based on a real restaurant, The Golden Mushroom, which was a well-known, top-rated restaurant in the Detroit area when I was young.

I’m also a foodie, an avid baker of desserts, and have done some food writing in the past. Actually, a memoir essay I wrote about a piece of candy called Smarties for a special candy-themed issue of Tin House was very helpful to me in the writing of this book:

And here’s an original recipe of mine for a seven-layer cake, a traditional dessert served at functions in the Jewish community of Detroit, where part of the book is set:





DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.