Q: You’ve written novels, short stories, and a memoir. Do you prefer one form more then the others?
A: I prefer the longer forms, especially the novel. I like the idea of entering a narrative and exiting it years later, a profoundly changed being.
Q: What sparked the story of Alex, Ruth, and Dorothy the dachshund?
A: Lost dog and cat flyers invariably catch my attention, and I make a special effort to look out for those missing pets. I remember one such flyer–a lost gray cat–adhered to a lamppost in my old neighborhood, the East Village. The next day was 9/11 and in the aftermath, flyers for missing persons–photographs, which tower, what floor–began to share the lamppost. At first, nobody covered the lost cat poster, but eventually it was plastered over: the human tragedy consumed the animal’s plight. If a novel can be reduced to a single image of conception, then the lost cat poster is responsible for Heroic Measures.
Q: Heroic Measures alternates between the points of view of Alex, Ruth, and Dorothy. How did you get into the mindset of a little dog?
A: What I found interesting about writing from a dog’s point of view was that until I invented a specific dog, a hypochondriac, gourmand, twelve-year-old dachshund named Dorothy, a soul as complex and emotional as any of my human characters, her sections read flat. In other words, I had to allow myself to be as surprised by her individual quirks as by any other fictional character. Anyone who lives with a dog, as I do, comes to understand the uniqueness of their dog’s spirit and nature.
Q: Twenty-four hour news coverage has become a daily part of our lives. Through your novel, are you offering up your own commentary on the new media landscape and the issues it has created?
A: Terrifying and mystifying as our time is, it’s anything but boring. The news media seems to be our twenty-first century version of the nineteenth-century village gossip. Rumor and speculation have always been the secret pleasure of the novel. I placed TVs throughout the narrative, like water holes, so that my characters could gather around them for the very latest. What makes the TV pundits more destructive than the loquacious, nosy neighbor is that we believe them.
Q: New York has been a place that has captured the imagination of some of our greatest writers. While the events in Heroic Measures are definitely rooted in the culture and lifestyle of New York City, would you agree the book’s themes seem to really expand beyond the border of Manhattan?
A: I wanted to write about a longtime happy marriage, a rarity in literature. I rather doubt that happy marriages are exclusive to New York City. Alex and Ruth, now in their late seventies, must face the inevitable: they’re too old to continue living in their home of forty-five years. Though they reside in a five-flight East Village walk-up, the novel’s setting could just as well be an isolated farm in Kansas, or a hilltop suburban house after the old occupant’s driver’s license has been taken away. All over Manhattan, as well as Kansas and Encino, the elderly are as marooned in their homes as shipwrecked sailors on desert islands.
Q: How does your work as an English professor affect your own writing?
A: To be frank, I find the question a little frightening. I teach creative writing. I read volumes of awful fledgling prose, with an occasional jewel. Like most writers I know who teach, I hope against hope it doesn’t affect my writing. However, I think my writing deeply affects my teaching. I doubt that writing can be taught, but the few tricks I know, I try to pass on.
Q: Are you working on—or thinking about—your next book?
A: A new novel, tentatively called Ask Aunt Agony.