An Interview with Eli Gottlieb

Brian Kiteley

Brian Kiteley:  In the spring of 1999, I asked my undergraduate fiction workshop to read Eli Gottlieb’s book The Boy Who Went Away and then email questions to him about their reading (he lived in Rome at the time).  Eli is an old friend, so he kindly agreed to this experiment, in which he was the literary guinea pig.  Even if you not have read this novel (but I recommend you do), Eli’s wonderful answers stand by themselves, and one can gain great insight into the process of writing fiction.  Briefly, though, The Boy Who Went Away is about a summer in the late 1960s when the narrator Denny’s parents decide to send his autistic older brother away to an institution, because he has become too big and violent to handle.  Denny is 13 and his brother Fad is 15.

In January 2008, Eli Gottlieb published his second novel, Now You See Him.  It's a great, dark, dense novel.

Hope Hopkins:  Did this novel evolve out of your characters or out of a series of events in your head?

Eli Gottlieb:  Every writer is different, but in my case, I had the characters and a few major scenes in my head, and I wrote them out, fairly quickly.  These “master scenes” were distributed along a rough time-arc in my head, and the challenge was, first, to get them onto the paper, and then to carefully knit them together with interstitial material.  As I did so, continuing to work for several years, the characters gradually came into the sharper focus, and I became more and more concerned with keeping the plot moving and the narrative momentum growing.  I’m afraid I became a bit obsessed about those “details” you were so kind to mention.  I was still writing and correcting as the book was going to press, and the manuscript had almost to be pried out of my hands by the publisher.

Hope Hopkins:  What sort of challenges did you encounter in writing a novel with so much autobiographical content?

Eli Gottlieb:  That helps in some ways, and hinders in others.  One of the problems with writing stuff that is so explicitly autobiographical is that you’re always holding the characters up in your head to judge their fidelity to the living persons who inspired them.  If you’ve ever written a story modeled on someone and then given that person the story, you’ll most likely be disappointed by their response: they will judge your story not on aesthetic grounds but on the accuracy of their portrait.  Something like that, as I say, is operative in autobiographical material.  On the one hand, it’s the way to reach the most passionate, most powerful artistic subject matter you have within you (often, but not always).  On the other, there’s the pesky verisimilitude question, and the writer who continues to take his own pulse about the real-life accuracy of his depictions is a writer in trouble.   In recent times there’s been a boom in confession, memoir, public blood-letting, and I was encouraged, at a certain difficult phase of the sale of this book, to turn it into a memoir.  But I stuck to my guns, relishing the freedom that fiction gives.  My ambitions were literary, rather than theatrical—I was interested in questions of style, form, dialogue, pacing, and all the rest of the technique of narrative, more than I was in simply letting my hair down in public and inviting everyone to admire my suffering as a child.  Much of the book was made up, and yet the emotional matrix of the book—the invading, self-sacrificing mother, the two brothers, the remote father, the evil-genius friend—were true to what I remembered.

Hope Hopkins:  In what ways did the novel change as you wrote it?  Did you find some characters developing in unexpected ways?

Eli Gottlieb:  The novel mutated constantly as I wrote it, fissioning outwards in every direction.  It was very difficult, and frustrating too, because it took me the longest time for it to find its final form.   There are writers who write from point a to point b to point z, and simply pay it out like twine from a spool.  But that's not my way, for better or worse.  I refer you to my answer to your first question, and “master scenes,” etc., for a rough description of my compositional habits.

Hope Hopkins:  Is The Boy Who Went Away the novel you set out to write?
Eli Gottlieb:  No, it’s not the novel I set out to write.  But that’s only because, I wasn’t certain where I was going with the book in any great detail.  I had only some scenes, some remembered snatches of conversation, a vague pressure in my head that I wanted somehow to transmute into sentences, chapters—a book.

Scott Bloemendaal:  Do you have a writing schedule? For instance, do you steadily write for an hour every day?

Eli Gottlieb:  For many years, writing was the thing I did first in the morning.  So, usually around eight or nine I’d be at the desk for a couple of hours.  I find it important to establish a rhythm for writing, equivalent to going to an office.  A good example of this was John Cheever, who when he lived with his wife and family in New York, would dress every morning in a suit and tie, kiss his wife goodbye, take the elevator to the basement of the building, undress, hang his clothes on a piece of line, and type in his underwear for the entire morning.  I don’t do anything quite as drastic as that, but I do find it important to establish a rhythm, as I say.  So, work in the mornings for a couple of hours, and then if I have enough energy, another pass over the work in the afternoon for an hour or two.  But when you get towards the end of a novel, it begins to pull you forward like a locomotive, and you can work for hours and hours at a stretch.
Jon Kraus:  This book is obviously very personal, probably moreso than I would ever feel comfortable writing in my fiction.  Were there certain things that you hoped to accomplish by writing about your family?

Eli Gottlieb:  The truth is, I didn’t so much pick this theme as get picked by it.  And I think this same dynamic is more or less operative in most good fiction.  By this I mean that a novel is so long and laborious a task, if it’s any good, that it requires a truly obsessive relationship to the process of composition and to the material itself.   In this particular case, I had begun by writing another book entirely, a book that was less obviously drawn from personal experience, a book dealing with my time in Italy in the late 80’s.  This book, which was much more formally ambitious than The Boy Who Went Away and was inspired by the books of Milan Kundera, was stolen out of my car—the only manuscript of it.  And in reaction to that, I decided to try and write another book, a book whose characters and situations had been obsessing me for a long time.  Perhaps by way of expiation for the sin of letting my manuscript get stolen, I wrote a book that was lower-tech, that allowed the reader faster, more unmediated access to me as author. In olden times, I might have rent my shirt or torn my hair.  In this case I just wrote a book with shorter sentences, exposing me to the world, warts and all.

Jon Kraus:  At the end of the novel, despite the traumatic events that have transpired, Denny goes back to his normal routine, recruiting Derwent to help spy on his father.  Was this meant to show Denny's lack of maturity throughout the novel, that his emotions have matured but not his actions, or that he is denying the significance of what has occurred in his life?

Eli Gottlieb:  I would say, again, that I wasn’t trying to “show” anything necessarily by the way the novel ended.  What happens is, you begin to enter deeply into the characters heads, their voices, their potential thought patterns, and you try to write an ending that is commensurate with their reality for you.  By this I mean that the more real the characters are in the author’s head, the less likely he or she is to tidy everything up with a neat deus ex machina-style ending, in which all loose plot strings are perfectly resolved, and the book slicks back its hair and takes a bow.  It seemed to me, in other words, that going back to his life was the realest thing that might have happened to Denny under the circumstances.  At 13 or 14 (the range of his age) one is not usually that deeply introspective, and the way one deals with things is to basically submerge them whenever possible in the sump of the unconscious.  I tried intentionally to leave the book open ended, to resist easy closure.  Some people criticized me for that, wanting a big booming organ chord to end the book.  But I like my relatively modest ending—an apparently casualness of tone that was sweated over, you can believe that.

Oz Spies:  Did you do extensive research on autism?  Certain passages seem to reflect that you did.  If so, how did you research influence your work?  Did you have any difficulties fitting it naturally into the story?

Eli Gottlieb:  Did I do much research?  No, not especially.  I looked through a few books, and consulted some old family papers of my parents, mainly to find diagnostic terms specific to the 1960’s, but for the most I relied on my own memories.  Such material as I did find I made a point of placing in strategic places in the narrative.  This was partly to help establish a certain credibility, and because I was glad to have something other than my own sentences to cover the pages with!

Oz Spies:  Denny has a very distinct and interesting voice.  How did you make his voice, as a child, sound realistic?

Eli Gottlieb:  The origins of Denny’s voice are finally a mystery to me.   My attempt in creating it was to provide a voice that had the perceptual openness and freshness of a child with some of the framing and penetrating power of an adult.  I worked particularly hard on keeping a certain ambiguity there as to both his own individual age, and the exact location in which the narrative was taking place.  My thought in doing this was that the reader would be well served by being forced to make some connections on his or her own, rather than being always led by the author.

As to the distinctive voice you ask about—it has something to do with irony, firstly, and compression, also.  By compression I refer to the relatively uncomplicated syntax of the sentences and the limited vocabulary used.  I purposely closed down the prose register of the book, forcing myself to work with fewer means as a way of getting inside a child’s head.   This had the perhaps unintended result of forcing me stylistically and tonally into some new places.  The irony arose because I was treating something known to me intimately, and to save myself from falling into bathos, had necessarily to toughen myself with an acutely angled stance.   Irony is often a side effect of looking at the things you know best.

Oz Spies:  Your dialogue seemed to be very natural.  How did you construct this type of dialogue? Do you have any tips on making dialogue flow?

Eli Gottlieb:  The dialogue you asked about was simply recalled as clearly as I could from childhood first, and then adjusted for dramatic flow and pacing.  I had to “listen” as hard as I could to the very faint voices of my childhood, and then, as I say, heighten, cut and alter.  In the same way that stage actors require make-up to be seen from the audience, so the raw data of the voices had to be elevated and made to fit within the story-line.  There are no real tips I have, I’m afraid.  Dialogue is an intuitive thing.  Study the dialogue of Robert Stone in Dog Soldiers if you want to see a real dialogue master at work.

Oz Spies:  I enjoyed your descriptions because they were elegant in an odd, original way.  Do you write poetry?  If so, did it have any influence on your fiction?  How did you apply your skills as a poet (if you do, in fact, write poetry) to your fiction?

Eli Gottlieb:  Thanks for the question about poetry.  Yes, I did study poetry intensely as a child and college student, and yes it was crucial in the writing of this book.  The danger of approaching novel writing as a poet is that poets tend to be overly concerned with the local intensity of the phrasing and to lose sight of the long-haul structure of the narrative.  This was true in my case and definitely complicated the process.  But a lapidary approach to sentences also allowed me some of the descriptive imagery which you, and certain reviewers, commented on.

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