Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
For more than 35 years, Eric Kraft has been writing a large work of fiction—The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy—composed of several related books. These are the memoirs and collected works of Peter Leroy, who tells alternative versions of his life story, explores the effect of imagination on perception, memory, hope and fear, and holds up a funhouse mirror to scenes of American life in this century.
Kraft’s most recent book in the Personal History is Leaving Small’s Hotel, in which Peter turns 50 and marks the occasion by reading the latest installment of his memoirs, Dead Air, in 50 consecutive episodes, one episode a night for 50 nights, culminating on the night of his birthday. These are readings given in an atmosphere of dark hope, while Peter and his wife Albertine are trying to squeeze a living from the old hotel they own and are struggling to keep the hotel from crumbling slowly around them.
Kraft’s tones are elegiac and nostalgic, tones suitable for an America vanishing in innocence, and his characters seem cut from the same whimsy of It’s a Wonderful Life or Our Town, decent and of the fiber and poetry of everyday life. Kraft is a rare and beautiful writer.
Frederic Tuten The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of Peter Leroy … how large is the work now?
Eric Kraft Leaving Small’s Hotel is the seventh book. In total, the work runs to a little less than 700,000 words … so far.
FT Who is Peter Leroy?
EK He is a fictional character, an unreliable memoirist. He writes an alternative version of his own life and also accounts of the lives of people who have been particularly important to him. He’s present in every volume, whether the story he’s telling is his own or someone else’s, and he is quite open about his tendency to alter the facts. He always announces in a preface that the story he is about to tell is not entirely factual, but he does this in a twisted way, so that the reader is never quite sure how honest he’s being even when he’s saying, “I’m leveling with you now.”
FT So there’s a sense of a narrator.
EK Exactly. If I succeed, I will have made a person, Peter Leroy. The reader will be able to decide what Peter Leroy is really like by reading between the lines of his books.
FT What was the genesis of these books?
EK For a long time, I thought that I knew exactly when it began. It was on a winter’s afternoon when I was a sophomore in college, at Harvard. I was in Lamont Library, daydreaming, dozing over a German lesson. I was sitting at a long table with my feet propped up and my chair tilted back on two legs. The room was warm, I was tired. I fell asleep. When I woke up I was on the floor, my books were scattered around me, and people were laughing at me. I gathered my things up and rushed out of the building, embarrassed. And in the cold air, the memory of a dream returned to me, something I’d dreamt in that brief moment of sleep. It was nothing more than a picture of a small boy sitting on a dock in the warmth of a summer’s day dabbling his feet in the water, trying to bring the soles of his feet as close to the surface as he could without touching it. From that little boy, I built all of this work. He became Peter Leroy, of course. In the ten years or so that followed that afternoon in the library, I sketched a background for him—an island in a bay where he was sitting on the dilapidated dock, and behind him, emerging slowly, as if from a fog, an old hotel, an abandoned hotel, which eventually became Small’s Hotel, and then, an entire town around him, a hometown for him, Babbington, on the south shore of Long Island. At least, that’s what I used to think. But you know, recently I’ve begun to think that the whole process started much earlier than that. Perhaps it started when my father was killed in the Second World War. I was just an infant, and he was just a young man of 19. We never saw each other. I’ve begun to think that feeling the lack of him made me a child much inclined to imagine what might have been had he lived. I think that’s when I developed the predilection to look back at the past in the way that Peter does and look for the things that might have happened rather than the ones that did.
FT In Small’s Hotel, Peter’s father is not quite the father one would like to have. He’s an awful father. He’s a father who belittles his son, who is always ready to find fault. And Peter is always at odds with his father’s wishes. It’s not that he’s a monstrous father, he’s an ungiving and an ungenerous one. So why would you imagine Peter having that father?
EK Well, I had a stepfather. Need I say more? (laughter)
FT How old were you when you began to think about writing?
EK Late in elementary school, certainly … I was addicted to a series of books for boys called The Rick Brant Electronic Adventure Series. Each of the books included a lot of science along with the plot, and I devoured those books. I was around ten or 12 at the height of my enthusiasm. Those books made me want to write a book of my own … and I tried. I tried to write additional adventures for those characters. It was a very useful experience because the books were built on a rather predictable pattern, the characters were as well established as characters in a sitcom, so it was a comfortable framework for a little tyro to work in.
FT What other books informed your adolescence?
EK On the Road. The sense of a rush forward, but not necessarily toward a destination, was electrifying—especially for an adolescent who had no sense of a destination for himself. And to a young would-be fictionist the book said, in effect, that it was all right not to have a destination, that the seething directionless energy that I felt might become something, might be the basis for the making of a work of art. That was very important.
FT On the Road was published in 1957, wasn’t it? So how old were you then?
EK I read it in a paperback, so it was probably 1958. I would have been 14. The next book that made me want to write a book of my own was Lolita, which I first read as a senior in high school. Here was something entirely different, a book so carefully constructed that every part was exactly where it ought to be and nothing could be altered. I admired that, and of course there was all the parody and the astonishing word play and so on. I also got from Lolita some fuzzy understanding of the pleasures for a writer of writing through another character. Here you have a tale told by someone Nabokov clearly considers despicable.
FT Humbert Humbert.
EK Yes. And yet, Nabokov manages the astonishing trick of making us feel quite charmed by Humbert Humbert for very long passages of the book. That notion of working within the character who is the narrator was something that appealed to me very much.
FT Another book that was an early influence?
EK Remembrance of Things Past, which I began freshman year in college and failed to finish … began again when I started working as an editor for an educational publishing house in Boston and failed to finish … but finally read all the way with a group of people in Newburyport, Massachusetts, who got together every Sunday and read aloud. We called ourselves the North American Proust Society. The acronym is NAPS.
FT So each of you read a part every Sunday? How long did it take you?
EK Three years. It was a great thing to do.
FT Would you say that Proust made you want to write a book with many volumes composing one volume?
EK Reading Proust set enormous goals for me. I said to myself that I wanted to make something as big and as great as that. And Proust showed me that the minutia of everyday life, when they accumulate sufficiently, amount to a monumental work. Every thing I was drawn to in the lives of my characters were the tiny dramas of the ordinary that never seem like the stuff of high drama, but within the lives that most of us lead, these events are momentous.
FT The other thing is the Proustian notion of recapturing—even erotic memories. Albertine is Proust’s character, right?
EK Proust’s Albertine is Albertine Simonet. Mine is Albertine Gaudet. They may be relatives. Proust’s Albertine is difficult and willful, but clever and attractive … so is mine, come to think of it, though more clever and attractive than difficult and willful.
FT I didn’t know about you and your father. I should have guessed it. For the lonely child, the imagination is pre-eminent and more important than daily life. So, Eric, you learned to retreat into the world of imagination.
EK I suppose you’re right. If you’re battered by life, you can retreat into a place of your own creation where you find dignity and you make your own happiness.
FT Are you speaking of the world of writing?
EK The world of imagination in general.
FT Except that some people convert the imagination into text and some people just daydream. How does this conversion of daydreams into writing work itself out in the structure of Small’s Hotel?
EK In Leaving Small’s Hotel, the adult Peter is recalling his childhood, so we see him as a man of 49 and as a boy of 12, about to be 13. He reads the latest installment of his ongoing memoirs in 50 episodes, in the lounge at Small’s Hotel, to whatever guests are willing to listen, on 50 consecutive nights, finishing on his fiftieth birthday.
FT You have so many different constructs telling the same story.
EK Yes, different versions for different purposes. One of the central issues is the whole question of recalling one’s life, altering the facts as one goes along or having memory, forgetfulness, and wishful thinking alter them automatically, without any deliberate intention. Another, certainly, is the struggle that Peter and his wife Albertine have keeping this poor hotel going: It’s falling apart, guests have stopped coming … There’s also the struggle Peter’s going through over the time he devotes to his writing. He certainly sees his personal history, his memoirs, as a life’s work in the way that I do, but when he gives himself to it, he has to take that time from running the hotel, and it tends to get him and Albertine into financial trouble. So he’s torn between his responsibilities to Albertine, to the hotel, and to his work.
FT In Leaving Small’s Hotel there’s also a spoof about memoir writing. At a certain moment in his desperation to find a way to make a living, to survive, to keep them afloat, Peter thinks he’s going to teach how to write memoirs.
EK Yes. He’s going to start a business, “Memoirs While You Wait.”
FT “Memoirs While You Wait.” And he has a client who is sort of … what would you call him, moronic?
EK He is someone who arrives at the hotel and registers under the false name of Manuel Pedrera. Albertine decides that he has come to Small’s Hotel to get out of his dreary little life and live for a while as someone else, as Manuel Pedrera. He becomes Peter’s first client. Peter feeds him a potential story line, suggesting that perhaps he might be a contract killer, and perhaps he might want to write his memoirs along those lines. After a while Peter becomes disgusted with himself for this.
FT A contract killer that Peter’s already imagined he’s going to write about. What Peter does is give away one of his characters. It’s very interesting, issues of value come up. Albertine believes that he would disgrace himself in writing this horrible, ugly, sordid material, which he’s never done before. It’s anathema to her, she says, “You must give him up.” And what Peter does is give this character up to Manuel Pedrera. He franchises the character as a way of getting rid of him, a way of getting rid of a repulsive part of himself. Tell us more about this. I think there is something about memoir writing in that which is not just about today’s memoir writing, but …
EK It is about the utility of writing in understanding oneself … and about the civilized suppression of hideous urges, true obscenities. Manuel brings in something that he’s written and of course there’s nothing in it about a hit man or contract killings. But as Peter types it into the computer, he embellishes it so that when he reads it back to Manuel, the story of a hit man going to a dry cleaner with bloodstained clothes emerges. Manuel begins to accept the whole premise and produces a second draft in which he shoots the dry cleaner. Eventually, Peter has an enormous change of heart about this, brought about by Albertine and by a radio program that he listens to at night called Baldy’s Nightcap. It’s a radio program hosted by a dummy—Baldy the dummy—who closes his show with a reading from what he calls Baldy’s Catalogue of Human Misery. He reads the most heart-wrenching stories from the news. Among these is the story of a little girl who shoots herself over a lost love at the age of 11. Listening to that, Albertine says that a world in which little girls shoot themselves has no need for the memoirs of a hit man. So Peter sends Manuel off suggesting that instead he write about himself.
FT The inner self. Peter keeps saying to Manuel, “Who are you really? Who is the person inside of you?”
EK Right. Peter has said regarding his own memoirs that they are strictly honest and true because they are strictly about things that have actually happened in his head, in his heart, or in the world at large. Manuel looks inside himself, finds his hideous urges, and leaves the island to write about them. A few days later a fax from him arrives at the hotel: “Just sold the screen rights to my hideous urges. Thanks for everything.” And it’s signed with the name of Peter’s original fictitious hit man, Rockwell Kingman.
FT So in Leaving Small’s Hotel, you have the artist—Peter—who tries some serious, honorable writing, and it doesn’t succeed. And his own memoirs are in some way nurturing him, but not exactly bringing in the butter. So what does it say about the notion of memoir writing today?
EK It used to be the case—but clearly is no longer the case—that you would read the memoirs of someone who had something to teach you. You would be reading about a life from which you hoped to gain something of value in living your own life. Instead, the main purpose in reading memoirs now is to find out who screwed whom, or what dirt there is. And that to me seems a pointless waste of time, a waste of one’s energies.
FT One of the passages in the book is from Albertine’s diary. She says several things about contemporary culture and how sad she is that Peter’s life has reached the point it has. “I wish I could help him but I can’t see past my own troubles for a solution to his … It’s the death of literate culture,” she says, “and Peter is dying with it.” So what’s that say to you about the plight of the serious writer in America today?
EK That sad plight is throughout the book. Early in the novel Peter learns that the series he’s been writing for kids has been canceled for want of gore. Probably also because he hasn’t dumbed it down for a mass market.
FT Leaving Small’s Hotel—and your work in general—is really about a literature that evokes the better in a culture. It’s a literature that elevates, even though it’s sad, even though it’s filled with problems. The whole denaturing and destruction of something that was once beautiful and fine seems to be a theme for you.
EK I hope it doesn’t seem to be a kind of nostalgic reaction of a 50-year-old man to something that seems like the lost paradise of the world he knew as a boy. The memoirs that Peter reads show that he recognizes how flawed the world that he lived in as a boy was. Yet all of his work asserts that there is an ennobling power of thought and imagination that, when applied to the things that happen to us, shows our mastery of them. I originally was going to call this book Immortal Hilarity, from a passage in Emerson’s essay on love that I used as one of the epigraphs: “In the actual world, the painful kingdom of time and place, dwell care and canker and fear. With thought, with the ideal, is immortal hilarity.” That could be Peter Leroy’s motto. He has undertaken a thorough re-examination of his life to find the joy there, in whatever chinks and niches it’s hiding, to find a way to rise above the disappointments and difficulties of everyday life.
FT You talk about Peter as if he were a person, not a character. What’s the difference between a first-person narrator who is a thin guise for the author and an imaginary narrator who imagines other characters?
EK Well, when I consider the relationship between Peter and me I come to the conclusion that I have been working with Peter Leroy for all these years, because that’s really what our relationship has become, a collaboration. There is a kind of partnership between Kraft and Leroy. I don’t mean to sound mad about this, but …
FT It’s a competitiveness.
EK Right. There is a creative tension. He’s the writer and I’m the editor, or perhaps “Peter Leroy” is just the name that I give to the writer in me and “Eric Kraft” is the name that I give to the editor who stands there waiting to see what comes out of Peter’s mind. But in that sense, then, there is quite a difference, because Peter has over these years developed a personality and an attitude toward the work that is different from mine. He is generally not nearly so serious about the writing as I am. He is able to achieve a kind of detachment from it that I cannot, which seems completely paradoxical to me because I am the one who is outside the work, who should be able to step aside from it. Yet I feel more contained by it than he does. He seems better able to achieve a certain ironic distance from it than I am. I can only talk about it now in serious terms. I used to joke about it all the time.
FT In referring to what, the narration?
EK To the whole work. He now jokes about it and I no longer do.
FT You head your chapters with quotations, an unusual practice today.
EK Yes. It’s a way of saying, or showing, that I think of the book as my piece of the grand conversation, the exchange of stories and ideas through books, across time and place. By quoting from books that have said something to me, I’m announcing my intention to reply, not just to sit mute and listen, but to add something …
FT To the grand conversation.
Frederic Tuten is the author of four novels: The Adventures of Mao on the Long March (newly reissued in 1997 by Marion Boyars, 26 years after its original publication); Tallien: A Brief Romance (Marion Boyars, 1995); Tintin in the New World (Riverhead Books, 1996); and, most recently, Van Gogh’s Bad Café (Morrow, 1997; issued in paperback June, 1998 by Quill Books).
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.