When a book cover foretells that the story inside will be the bravest I’ve ever read, the contrarian in me takes umbrage. But by the end of Half a Life’s first sentence author Darin Strauss has laid his story’s bones bare: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” What follows is a painstaking study of an excavated grief, one that is by turns stark, plaintive, and, yes, very brave.
I spoke to Darin last week, and right away I expressed my surprise at his swerve into memoir. Given his celebrated novels — Chang and Eng, The Real McCoy, and More Than It Hurts You— I thought he was in the habit of writing fiction. He thought so, too.
Emily Testa You’ve said that every book you wrote before this was in its own way about the personal tragedy at the center of Half A Life. Does this realization change how you think about your career?
Darin Strauss There’s a quote I like from Saul Bellow, where he said he didn’t want to go to therapy because he didn’t want to know why he was writing what he was writing. I knew the accident was an important thing in my life, but I thought I had successfully put it in its box. Looking back, it seems obvious. But I guess I was keeping it from myself in order to continue to write. I haven’t started a new book yet. I’m hoping I’m OK with writing real fiction.
ET In the book, you say you wouldn’t have been a writer if the accident hadn’t happened. Is it that the accident pushed you to think and feel deeply? Or is it that it changed how you understood the world?
DS I think it’s probably both, because I think they’re kind of bound up together. I wasn’t so introspective before because I didn’t really have much to think about. I was pretty happy—just a regular suburban kid. And then when you become more introspective you start to see the world differently. I don’t know who I would have been if the accident hadn’t happened. It might be too easy for me to say that I definitely wouldn’t have been a writer, because I was always into books. But I know it made me more thoughtful.
ET A word I keep hearing over and over again about this book is “brave.” But if I only got one word to describe it, I’d say it’s more patient than brave. You work through this extremely dramatic and tragic chain of events—probably, I imagine, the most dramatic, the most tragic in your life to date—and you do it so patiently, waiting until each point is made, each corner of grief and guilt, each vacillating moment, before moving on to the next.
DS Thanks for saying that. I’m uncomfortable with the word “brave,” and I was a little bummed out when they put it on the cover. It’s very nice that people said that, but bravery to me is a fireman, a policeman, a soldier. I do think I’m lucky that I chose to write about it as my fourth book instead of my first. When I decided I was going to be a writer, I told myself I wasn’t going to touch this subject because it’s very personal, and I thought I’d just invent stories instead. And then I did decide to do it, for all kinds of reasons, but since it was my fourth book I knew how to tell it in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if I had started it at thirty or twenty-five or whenever I started writing my first book. So I was able to do a better job, not only because I knew how to write books but also because it happened twenty years ago, so I had this patience you mentioned enforced upon me by the calendar.
ET I imagine there are a few detractors out there who might deem a book about a fatal accident, written by the driver who survived, a bit opportunistic. But for me there was absolutely no question of that. The story is so fully considered. It’s so careful.
DS The last thing I wanted was to be opportunistic, and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to write this book earlier. But by the time I started it I had built up a career, so it wasn’t like I was doing it to get attention. My regular publisher is Penguin, and they wanted to do the book but they said it had to be a certain length. I had already decided to write only about the accident, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be thirty pages or two hundred pages. I just didn’t want it to feel puffed up or cheated. I wanted to respect the subject, and if I had a page requirement I thought my responsibility to the story might be trumped by my responsibility to the publisher. So when my publisher said, “We’ll do it, but it has to be 200 pages,” I said, “I’m not going to do it, then.” And then I heard from McSweeney’s and they said, “We’ll do whatever length you want,” and that was a great relief because I knew I could tell the story without any commercial responsibilities.
ET And what felt right about the essayistic treatment you give it? For me, the most natural answer is scope—with a page requirement, I end up tacking bloated significance, or the wrong significances, on to events that I might have preferred to discuss in isolation.
DS Exactly. I was really wary of the kind of books you read where you know they were based on a magazine article or something, and it just feels like a good story that’s been puffed up into an unnatural size. I really didn’t want to do that. And I didn’t want to write a regular memoir, where it goes into what my life was like before the accident, and then what I’m like now. That would have made it a much worse book, and it didn’t seem like it would be respectful to the event. I thought if I could just focus on this one thing, and try to think it through really well, then maybe it could be helpful.
ET When I read books like yours, books that strike the right balance of telling me a story and making that story tell me something about my world, I feel the full weight of this tectonic shift that has happened in writing. By that I mean that most writers, and especially young ones, misunderstand the point of a novel, and that as a result, most novels aren’t as good as they could be. And I know Half A Life is technically a memoir, but I don’t think memoirs are exempt from those terms. And, besides, most memoirs are terrible.
DS I don’t really like most contemporary memoirs, either, so I was really wary of writing one. So many memoirs fall into a kind of solipsistic writing, and I didn’t want any part in that.
ET Speaking of solipsism, let’s talk graduate school. Like just about everybody these days, I went to an MFA program, and a pretty good one, too. But to drink the Kool-Aid there was to become spellbound by too many of the wrong details about writing—you know, book proposals, advances, anecdotal stories of the old guard. None of us thought enough about good, careful, really hard work.
DS Where did you go to school?
ET The University of Pittsburgh. And I worked with people I respected, and they wrote books I liked, but there was something that had happened in between the generation of people who were teaching and the people who were in school, and I don’t think any of us thought about it in the right way. Is that your sense? I’m sure my own views have completely contaminated this question.
DS Actually, I think I had the same sense, and that was why I ended up writing Chang and Eng. I teach at NYU now, but when I was a student there, I didn’t really like it. Everyone was writing autobiographical, boring stories. It’s funny that I’ve written a memoir, because back then I really rebelled against that. I thought, my life is not that interesting, and I don’t want to draw from that narrow well. Instead, I wanted to find the best story possible, especially for my first book. And when I stumbled across the story of Chang and Eng, it was exactly what I was looking for. I mean, twins who were born attached in Old Siam, and the king wanted them dead, and they escaped to America and got caught up in the Civil War and had slaves and got married to sisters and had 21 kids? That beats anything I read in grad school. So I thought, why is no one telling good stories? It was a rebellion against exactly what you’re talking about, people doing small stories in small ways. Telling a good story isn’t exactly un-literary, it’s just that big stories aren’t often told well. If you approach a really accessible story in a smart way, that book will hopefully be the best of both worlds—it will attract readers and it will be fun to read, but it will also be considered and literary. And I couldn’t understand why people weren’t doing more of that.
ET Do you find yourself discouraging your students from writing what I’ve come to call “the workshop story”—where, you know, a guy named Sam who’s just broken up with his girlfriend is writing about a guy named Sam who’s just broken up with his girlfriend?
DS No, because I think that can be great. I think I was probably too dogmatic at that stage because some of the writers in my class just weren’t good. And anyway, there are so many good novels that aren’t built around stories, like what Martin Amis calls the “talent novel” that just gets by on the writer’s skill. Like Ulysses—there’s no story there. It’s just an exercise in skill. So I try not to tell people what to do, because the best thing a teacher can do is help a writer accomplish what they’re trying do. That sounds hokey, but the worst workshops I ever took were the ones where the teacher said, “This is how I write, and you have to conform to that.”
ET Same here. I taught for a while, too, and I think that every rule about what not to do can be confounded by a someone who just squeaks through and does it in an interesting way, or in a smart way, or in a good way. And it’s hard enough to write a good book, so probably the less rules the better.
DS I agree, but I also think principles of writing can really be taught—how to get a story going, for instance. The important thing is to teach those things and then to say, “All of these rules are meant to be broken,” and show examples of where and how they’re broken. I tell my students it’s fine if they break the rules, but that they should be convinced they’re doing it for the right reasons. If it serves the story and you can come up with a good strategic reason why it’s better than what we’ve seen in the past, then go for it.
ET You said you don’t have your next writing project waiting in the wings. I’m just wondering if your method for finding one has changed since you’ve grown into the writer you wanted to be.
DS Well, I’m always on the lookout for a good story. Like you said, it’s very hard to write a good book, and you have to find a story that’s going to interest you for 300 pages and maybe three years of your life. I’m desperate to find stories, and whatever sparks my interest, I’ll follow it. That certainly hasn’t changed. To me, the best advice you can give a writer is something I heard Norman Mailer say once—the difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer is that an amateur can afford to wait until inspiration strikes.
ET That’s a great quote.
DS Well, if you wait for the days when you really feel like doing it, you’ll never get it done. You have to grind it out and say, I don’t feel like writing this morning but I’ll have an extra cup of coffee and hopefully something will come. You might throw everything away the next day because it was no good, but you’ve got to at least get in there and roll up your sleeves and start hacking away.
Darin Strauss’ Half a Life is available now from McSweeney’s.