Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Just as I exprienced blog fatigue, Christine Sheehan, our summer intern, aided by Cathy Suter, our managing editor (replacing Rania Haditirto, who is on maternity leave), decided to interview some of our current novelists. And so I offer you their interview with David Schmahmann, author of The Double Life of Alfred Buber, which I found fascinating. Small Press Reviews said that this novel “Reads like a lost Nabokov novel; the prose meticulously wrought, the plot deeply complex and psychologically layered, exploring the inner life of a man distanced from himself and reality by his own lies and a soul full of secret shameful desires.” My own assessment of Schmahmann's novel is that it is so rich and original that it deserves to contend for a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize.

I would add that on our Newsletter, we'll be posting another interview they did with Leonard Rosen, whose All Cry Chaos will be published in September.

Do let me know what you think of this particular feature and if you'd like to see more of them as blog postings.


Now on to the interview:

Throughout the book, you use vivid imagery in the description of Thailand. Have you been to these places that you describe or did you do research that enabled you to create such lifelike descriptions for the reader?

I was a lawyer in Rangoon, Burma for a number of years and during the years that I worked in Burma I spent time in Bangkok so I know the place well and I know the places that I write about.

What did you want the reader to feel about the unique relationship between Buber and Nok?

I wanted the reader to understand in the end what it was that Buber was experiencing in his life that drove him to seek the kind of companionship that he almost found with Nok. In the end I wanted the readers to not necessarily pass judgment on his moral choices but to emphasize with him as a man that was deeply lonely and motivated and doing the best he could to find fulfillment in the circumstances that he found alienating and distressing. In respect to Nok, I wanted to be sure that I created a person that wasn’t seen as morally depraved or a victim but as someone that was doing anything she could do to make the best of her life. I wanted to see if it was possible that they have a relationship of substance. Of course, it’s mostly in Buber’s mind and exists in his imagination.

Why did you decide to include Buber’s self-reflections in italics throughout the novel? Was there any underlying purpose for this other than exposing the internal dialogue of the character?

Buber, as you know, is not entirely truthful in how he tells the story and there are several layers to the narrative some of which are happening and some of which aren’t. The italics are really when Buber steps the furthest from the action in the novel and gets about as self critically elusive as he can. There are several sections where he tries to come to terms with his actions. For instance, when he is lying on a bed with Nok, he is craving something that he can’t achieve. They are interludes in which Buber tries to deal with the most troublesome parts of his thoughts.

Why did you choose to have the character of Nigel act as the conscience of Buber?

Because Nigel is sort of the linear authority in Buber’s life. When Buber first comes to America, it’s Nigel that sets him on the straight path to some sort of recognizable future and he’s a reference point for Buber. He’s an authority figure who might say and comment on what Buber is doing and thinking. In the end, it’s when Nigel dies that Buber’s life goes completely off the rail.

What is the writing process like for you ?

I write novels primarily because I have to process what I see and think. In the case of this novel, for instance, it’s a confluence of things in my life, such as the notion of being an outsider, being a liberal outsider and a white Jew in South Africa. The experience of standing somewhat outside and looking in is how I’ve felt most of my life. I looked in awe in Southeast Asia where you find men plucking around streets in Bangkok with young girls, most of whom have limited choices and find themselves in the city, and yet it’s not as simple as that. If you watch the girls, you’ll see that they are cheerful and upbeat and almost courteous about it and the men are something other than plain johns out for sex. They appear to me as men living out a fantasy of an actual girlfriend. They are living out eternal dialogues all of their own. When I see something like that I process it by retelling it. The world in my novel is seen the way I see it, sort of from afar and a series of events that I witnessed close up. A number of times I’d think, who is this, what are these people? I come home, sit quietly in my study and put myself in the shoes of the people whose stories I want to tell. This novel just sort of flew off the typewriter and wrote itself. The fact of the matter is I put myself in the shoes of Alfred Buber and it was easy to see the world as him.

Did you use your memories of Durban, South Africa in describing Buber’s town of Rhodesia?

Yes. Buber comes from one of the two major towns in South Africa, both of which I’ve been to. There was something more about Rhodesia that was quite unique in my experience of aesthetics. Where I grew up, the world is quite small and provincial and the expectations are strained and one’s role and how one is supposed to see the world is decided. I wanted Buber to have a proper British upbringing. This forms how he sees the world. He also has a colonial upbringing. This establishes him as an outsider and certainly changes how he sees the world, such as when he returns to Bangkok, a third world country; it affects his relationship with an unequal [Nok]. That was something that was formed by my youth in South Africa.

Do you think that Buber’s more lifelike than we’d like to think?

Firstly, I have gotten a number of emails from people who’ve read it and who see either themselves or others in Buber. I have a sense that what I write about is far from unique. I’m not writing about someone who goes off on a sex tour. What I’ve attempted to do is to recapture and tell a story that’s been told many times before and best told in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: ‘In the room women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.’ My book is the way it is for a reason. Buber is beyond anything else we’ve talked about. He’s a man who has a deep and quiet longing for women, yet the understanding, friendship, romance and sex of women is totally unavailable to him. The Buber we see at the end is not the short fat man we see in the beginning of the novel. He sees himself as invisible to women and that creates a longing inside of him that he chooses to try and fill by going off on a sexual expedition. It’s about a man’s attempt to communicate in some meaningful way with women, and in Buber’s case it occurs in misplaced romances with a coworker and a housemate. He also is misplaced when he idly worships a man who works with him who proves to be unworthy. Poor Buber does not see the world in a truthful manner. The central solution for him is to find a woman who he is in love with, and Bangkok is a metaphor for that.

Do you think this book increases sympathy for both the bar girls in Thailand and the lonely businessman?

I’m not writing about a lonely businessman. I’m writing about something in men that, to me, is something that exists. I don’t want people to pass judgment. I have no time for and am not interested in being politically correct; he’s just a man struggling with something and I’ve tried as best as I can to portray him. He is a misguided person trying to find his way. It’s simply an attempt to describe a life and a need to describe him in an artistic way. Anyone who passes judgment on him is misguided. If you read those books, life for these impoverished girls is quite dreadful. They’re pushed around, and these young girls have very difficult lives.

Do you have plans for another book ?

Of course! Writing novels is what gives my life depth. I have outlines for another novel that I’m very involved in but I’m very busy at the moment so it’s slowing me down. I’m working very hard on outlines for a novel that I’m going to call The Color Of Skin. It’s based on something that that I saw in southern Africa, where I come from. There’re many descendants of a northern English explorer named John Dunn. He lives a colorful life, had about 50 Zulu wives and his descendants are all shades of color. For the most part they are like fish out of water. They try to make the best of it and continue to live their lives the best they can. I wondered what it would be like to be one of these people, and to try to understand the way life is for them. It is a narrative told by the descendants of John Dunn for whom skin color is a mark of civilization, and they try to understand their place in America by the color of their own skin.

How long does it take you to write a novel?

It depends on if I’m involved in lawsuits. Usually, it takes about six to eight months. I’m very direct and focused. I close the door and immerse myself in the character. I have the arc of the story and storyline clearly set; it’s just a matter of the moment in time and having to juggle all the things going on. In three months time I should have a readable, full copy of my next novel.

What advice would you give to budding writers?

Don’t do it—go to law school, medical school, learn a profession and earn a living in a normal, critical way—whatever you do don’t become a writer except if in your heart you have absolutely have no alternative. You become a novelist because you absolutely have no other choice. In the waning days of the American civilization it’s not a way to make a living or a way toward career fulfillment.