Thursday, April 2, 2009

Author Interview: Daniel Klein

Small, almost imperceptible changes are rippling through the New England village of Grandville, altering it in ways its inhabitants cannot yet imagine. Laced through a narrative of one recent year in Grandville's history are stories that reach back to a 17th-century family in Rotterdam, an 18th-century migration by a farmer's lonely son in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a 19th-century underground railway journey by a gifted runaway slave. Each episode comes to bear on Grandville now.

Readers, please help me welcome Daniel Klein, the author of "The History of Now." I really enjoyed this book and I'm looking forward to learning more about this writer.

Daniel, please tell us about yourself.

I’m an old guy – turning 70 in a couple of weeks. I’m married to wonderful woman, Freke Vuijst, from Holland, who works as American correspondent for the Dutch weekly magazine “Vrij Nederland.” Our daughter Samara works in publishing, currently at The New Press in New York. Freke and I live in a small mountain town in western Massachusetts, Great Barrington.

I’ve been writing for a living most of my adult life … first for television and then, starting in my early 40s, books, both fiction and non-fiction.
The fiction was genre fiction, medical thrillers and detectives. Of the former, the best read was a thriller titled “Embryo;” of the latter, the most popular was the first in my series featuring Elvis Presley as an amateur sleuth titled “Kill Me Tender.” Non-fiction titles include “The Half-Jewish Book,” about people with one Jewish parent, plus a bunch of humor and novelty books. It was a gratifying way to make a living, even if my string of mid-list books often made for a rather meager living.

Just a few years ago, I got very lucky. Together with my best friend and old Harvard classmate Tom Cathcart, I wrote a book about how jokes can explain philosophy (our major in college). We called it, “Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar.” After 40 publishers rejected it – they thought it was clever, but no readers would buy it – the 41st accepted it. Two weeks after publication, it was tied for No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for quite a while. It was translated into 20 other languages and became a bestseller in several other countries, including France, Israel and Spain.

My life – and not just my financial life – changed.

What made you decide to write a book?

From the start, I have wanted to write a ‘literary’ novel, but I didn’t for a couple of reasons. First, I needed to make a living and most literary novels are hard to sell to publishers. But more importantly, I didn’t feel ready as a writer to compose a novel that dug deeper into ideas and the human condition than I had done in my light fiction. I felt I didn’t have the maturity, yet. Not the fluency, either. I may be a slow learner that way.

A couple of events finally made me feel ready. I now had the time to think it through slowly without financial pressures weighing me down. But also, getting reacquainted with philosophy through preparing the “Plato” book helped me see how philosophy could help me construct the novel I had in mind. That novel, “The History of Now,” is about a small town that, in its own way, is part of the currents of world history. Philosophy has a lot to say about historical cause and effect.

Do you use an outline or just jump in with both feet?

I had made notes for this book for better than 10 years, but very few of those amounted to plot ideas. They were mostly character ideas. Also ideas for the voice I wanted for the story and the feelings I hoped to evoke. Then, as you say, I jumped in with both feet!

What other authors have had an influence on your writing?

Certainly Richard Russo, our current master of the small town novel. He’s a great storyteller and he has a very humane attitude toward his characters. Another contemporary novelist I admire is Russell Banks – although his attitude is more cynical than either Russo’s or mine.

In general, the writers I admire the most and who therefore have influenced me are good storytellers – Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, to name a couple.

Describe some of the research you did to write your book.

While most of “The History of Now” takes place in the very recent past, there are several parts that dip way back in history – to 17th century Holland, to colonial America, to the Underground Railroad. So, I went to the library and read about these. I’m a student at heart.

One part of the contemporary story involves a young Latin American who comes – illegally – to the U.S. For this, a young Latin American in town generously supplied me with fascinating details of his own journey.

Which of your characters is most like one of the people from the past you researched?

First, I should say this is not a roman a clef. I need to say that because I don’t want friends in my small town to think that I have tried to get their personalities on paper. I didn’t. In fact, the closest to a real person in the book is a nerdy philosophy teacher at a local community college – he bears somewhat of a resemblance to a younger version of me.

Like most writers, I undoubtedly note – consciously or unconsciously – traits, behavior, expressions, etc., in the people I encounter and file these perceptions away somewhere … and then they turn up in the characters I am creating. But I don’t think it is a conscious maneuver.

Where on the Web can readers find out more about you and your book?

The book’s website:

Also, Google “The History of Now” and a number of reviews and comments come up.

Daniel, thank you for being here today. I'm sure my readers enjoyed this interview. I know I did!

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