Well, I've just arrived on the english-language (?) blogosphere, but I've had a french book blog for a year and a half now, and I always wanted to create a new rubric, where I would ask some questions to authors willing to answer. Indeed, when I really like a book, I'd like to be able to discuss it with its author, to know if I understood him, or just made my own interpretation of the book. Well in fact I think we all made our own interpretation of books, but also music and arts in general. Everything depends on our lives, our moods, etc...
But the problem is that I didn't dare writing to them to ask. But not so long ago, I read a great book, One for Sorrow, Christopher Barzak's first novel. And i went visiting his blog and found his e-mail address and I took my courage in both hands and wrote to him. Well I thought I wouldn't have an answer and was not waiting for one, but... surprise he answered me. And I dared asked him if he would agree to answer some questions for me...
He was really nice and here are the result :
The Literary Detective : Can you introduce yourself?
Christopher Barzak : My name is Christopher Michael Barzak. I grew up in a big family on my grandfather’s farm in Kinsman, Ohio, a very small, rural town where Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who argued for the teaching of evolution in schools, was born and raised. I went to college in Youngstown, Ohio, an old steel town about an hour south of Kinsman, then spent my time living in southern California beach towns and the capitol of Michigan for a few years after graduation before returning to YSU for a Master’s degree in English and creative writing. After that, I moved to Japan, where I taught English to junior high and elementary school children in the suburbs and rural towns outside of Tokyo. I’m thirty-two years old, and now live in Youngstown, Ohio again.
T.L.D. : One For Sorrow is your first novel, how would you talk about it? What would you say for people to read it?
C.B. : One for Sorrow is a coming of age novel and a ghost story, told by a fifteen year old boy who’s haunted by the ghost of classmate with whom he was just becoming friends. There is a mystery at the heart of their story, but it has nothing to do with finding the killer or bringing justice to anyone. It’s entirely about the uncertainty of living and how we must go on living in the face of that uncertainty.
T.L.D. : How would you describe the process of writing it?
C.B. : It was an intense period in my life when I wrote the book. I sat up with the book like an old friend, night after night, listening to my narrator, Adam, tell his story. By the time the book came to an end, I didn’t want to say goodbye to him, the same way he didn’t want to say goodbye to his friend’s ghost. But in the end we all have to say goodbye, don’t we?
T.L.D : Do you have writing habits? In a café, a square, at home...
C.B. : I write at home usually, in a little room full of books and pictures and paintings. I have a large writing desk in there, and I write on a laptop computer. I used to write by hand, but over the years I made a transition to writing on the computer because I can type faster than I can write by hand, and this allows me to capture my thoughts more easily as I think them. My desk faces the leaded glass window that looks out on my home’s front yard and the neighbourhood in which I live in Youngstown. My house is in the historic district of town, so I have a nice view of some very nice, very old homes. I’ve tried to write in cafes, but I tend to get distracted by the noise of the coffee makers, other people’s conversations, and begin to want to people-watch, so I stay at home more often, where I can have quiet and solitude, which is how I write best, I think.
T.L.D. : How did you feel when you saw your book in a bookshop for the first time?
C.B. : I felt my face flush with heat, and imagine it turned red. I was really happy, but it was also really difficult for me to believe that here was this book that I’d spent so much time writing, and other people could now read it. I’m only beginning to realize it’s real.
T.L.D. : Adam, the main character, is a lot like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. Why is it so? Where you influenced by Salinger’s work?
C.B. : I think people find Holden and Adam similar because they are both rough around the edges. They’re both kids who are upset with the inauthentic aspects of the social world we all find ourselves living in, and are angry about the unfairness of that world. They both swear, do crazy things, act out against that world. But they’re also both very sweet and polite on a certain level too. I was influenced by Salinger’s work, yes, particularly Catcher in the Rye, but perhaps not in the way one is usually influenced by another author’s work. When I first read Catcher in the Rye, I was sixteen, and I liked Holden Caulfield an awful lot—he seemed to have kept an honest vision of the world, rather than adopting the socialized vision of the world that we’re indoctrinated into as young adults—but his world felt very distant to mine. He was from a very well-off sector of society, where money was not a problem, and he already seemed to have an awful lot of adult freedoms that I, as a working class kid in rural Ohio, really desired. So while I liked him, he also seemed to not recognize his privileged, moneyed, cosmopolitan position in the world, and that was a disappointment to me. So when I wrote One for Sorrow, I wanted to write a character who was struggling with the unfairness and hypocrisy that runs rampant through the social structures of our living arrangements, but I wanted to also write a character who kids who grew up like I did could identify and understand more easily.
T.L.D. : In your first mail, you talked about Adam as if he was a real person, as if he had a choice of his own. Is it really so? Do all your characters have their own way when you write your stories? Is it necessary for you to let them live their own lives?
C.B. : Yes, I really do allow my characters as much freedom as possible. I feel that I write from their voices, and so I rely on them to tell me what their choices are, and what the consequences of those choices are. If I imposed my own ideas on my characters, they wouldn’t be honest characters. I don’t like reading books where characters are merely puppets for an author. So it’s essential that I let them live their own lives. It’s an act of erasing my ego as much as possible, letting another person fill me. It’s an imaginative leap, but I think that’s what makes good fiction so beautiful and necessary—it helps us get out of our own limited perspectives.
T.L.D. : When you started writing One for Sorrow, did you already know how it would end?
C.B. : I had an idea of the end, but only the image of Adam returning home. I knew he’d go home. I just didn’t know how he would come to return.
T.L.D. : Why did you choose a boy, and not a girl for a change? Is it because you think girls don’t have the same problems as boys, or is it just because you relate to Adam in some way?
C.B. : Well I think that Gracie Highsmith is as important to the narrative of One for Sorrow as Adam is, even though I didn’t write the book from her perspective. I feel I didn’t really choose the narrator based on gender in this particular way. Adam chose me. I write by voice. I listen for it. Adam’s is the voice that came to me for this book. In my next book, there are several chapters narrated by female characters, but they came to me on their own, just as Adam did.
T.L.D. : Adam is a boy who’s looking for his place in the world, and he’s ready to die for that. Are you trying to send a message to teenagers who are one of the first victims of suicide?
C.B. : I don’t set out to write books with messages, but I think stories tend to want to communicate something no matter what. I think if a teenage reader, or even an adult reader, were to read One for Sorrow and think about it in the context of suicide, they would see that Adam’s choice to live rather than die is clearly the better option. Life can get better, it has that potential. But when you are dead, as Jamie says, everything is equal. Nothing can get better when you’re dead. It’s better to live.
T.L.D. : In the end, Jamie’s murder is not resolved, why not? Did you think it was of no importance?
C.B. : I wish Jamie’s murder could be resolved, of course, as I wish anyone whose life is violated by murder or rape or abduction can find some resolution. But are these crimes always resolved in real life? No, they aren’t. But in books it seems we insist they be resolved. I think that is a comfortable fantasy to readers, but I didn’t want to write a book that lied. Sometimes murders go unsolved. Sometimes people disappear and we never discover why. But we have to keep on living anyway. I wanted to write a book about that, how we have to keep on living without knowing or having any certainty about the world.
T.L.D. : Do you know if the rights for translation have been sold to France yet?
C.B. : The rights for translation have been sold to Italy, but as of right now I don’t believe they have been sold to France yet. I hope they do. I can read French and would love to be able to see how my words are translated in that language.
T.L.D. : You’re working on another book at the moment, could you tell us a bit about it, please...
C.B. : It’s called The Love We Share Without Knowing. It’s set in Japan, where I lived for two years. It’s set after September 11th, and after the war in Iraq began. It’s told from multiple points of view, and each chapter is told in a different style or genre of storytelling. The characters each have their own stories, but they are all part of a bigger story in the book without realizing it.
T.L.D. : Where could I find your short stories printed?
C.B. : Hopefully in a collection one day. Right now they are available in a variety of anthologies and magazines. If you look at my bibliography on my website, you’ll find a list of where they’ve individually appeared or where they’ve been reprinted. I do hope that one day I can collect some of them into a book.
T.L.D. : I heard you lived in Japan for some time, how was it? Did this different culture influence your writing in some way?
C.B. : I loved living in Japan. I found a second home there, and a second family, and many many friends. And learned how to slip out of my own culture’s beliefs and value system and see the world from a different perspective. It was the third most formative experience for me in life so far. The first was growing up on a farm in Ohio. And the second was attending university in a dead steel town. Living in Japan influenced my writing in technical ways too. I grew to appreciate the “less is more” aesthetic there, and in a way it is reflected in my writing. I think my prose is more spare and imagistic now than it was before.
T.L.D. : What are your influences? Your top 10 all-time books?
C.B. : It would be so hard to pick ten specific books, but I will list ten authors whose work as a whole has influenced me. Jonathan Lethem, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, Haruki Murakami, Marguerite Duras, A.S. Byatt, Shirley Jackson, Kelly Link, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Franz Kafka.
T.L.D. : I saw on your MySpace that you’d like to meet Buddha, Jesus, Salinger or Marguerite Duras. What would you say to them if they were sitting in front of you right now?
C.B. : If it were the Buddha, I think I’d just smile. If it were Jesus, I’d say, “How upsetting has it been to see some of the horrors people do in your name?” If it were Marguerite Duras, I think I would be dumbfounded. She is an absolute genius. I would be afraid to speak. I’d probably sound very stupid to her. But if I did say anything, it would be, “Thank you for showing me a different way to understand the world and how to be aware of all that surrounds me.” Really, I think that might be what I’d say to all three, now that I think about it.
T.L.D. : What would you say to yourself if One for Sorrow became The Catcher in the Rye of the new generation? Do you think you’ll hide yourself in the woods where no one could find you?
C.B. : If One for Sorrow became The Catcher in the Rye of the new generation, I would probably feel both elated and a bit afraid of what that could bring with it. I wouldn’t hide myself in the woods where no one could find me, though. Though I understand everyone has the freedom to make their own choices, I wish Salinger would speak to the people whose lives his book affected. I wouldn’t hide. At least not forever and always.
T.L.D. : A last word?
C.B. : Thank you, Virginie, for taking the time to contact me and ask me these questions. It’s been a real pleasure being able to speak with you, and connect with people who have read what I’ve written. That is the best part of making a book. I think books bring people together.
Thanks a lot to you, Christopher, for answering all my questions, it was really nice of you, and I hope that many many people will read One for Sorrow. And I'm waiting impatiently for The Love We Share Without Knowing