A Reclusive Novelist Reckons With His Legacy '& Sons'
David Gilbert tells the story of a famous, aging writer whose children do not feel as warmly toward him as his readers do. Originally broadcast July 23, 2013.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. A famous and famously reclusive writer -sort of like J.D. Salinger in that respect - is the central character in the novel "And Sons" by our guest David Gilbert. It's about a writer who is also a father with sons who don't feel nearly as warmly towards him as his readers do. When "And Sons" begins, the writer, Andrew Newbold Dyer - or A.N. Dyer, as he's known to his readers - is nearing 80. He's still most famous for his first novel, "Ampersand," published when he was 27, which was set in a prep school. An L.A. Times review described Gilbert as having a wonderful eye for the madness of families and the madness of writers. The novel "And Sons" has just come out in paperback. David Gilbert is the author of an earlier novel called "The Normals" and has had several stories published in the New Yorker. He grew up in Manhattan's Upper East Side, where much of his new novel is set. Terry Gross spoke with David Gilbert last year when "And Sons" was first published.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
David Gilbert, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I want you to start with the very opening of your new novel, and what it actually starts with is a quote from the novel within the novel. So if you would read that quote for us.
DAVID GILBERT: Yeah, this is from "The Spared Man," one of A.N. Dyer's probably last books. (Reading) Sometimes Louis saw in his sons a mirror that reflected the best of who he was, and he was in awe. Other times, he hoped to see nothing of himself, and would insist on molding the opposite, by force, if necessary. Fatherhood is the bending of that alpha and that omega with the wobbly heat of our own fathers mixed in. We love and hate our boys for what they might see.
GROSS: That's kind of a theme through the book.
DAVID GILBERT: Yes, for sure.
GROSS: Fathers and sons and sons and fathers and what they see in each other. So why was this the subject you wanted to build many subplots around?
GILBERT: You know, I have three kids, and my son is 11. He's the oldest. And then my father is almost 80. So - and I'm 46. So I'm kind of in that position of seeing my son starting to enter into his teen years, so kind of seeing that awkwardness start to develop. And then I'm seeing my father, you know, getting older and a little bit more vulnerable and frailer.
So that kind of viewpoint, being in that middle, was really interesting to me, and I wanted to explore that, you know, the sense of being a father and a son in all of its myriad kind of details and ways and emotions.
GROSS: Do you find yourself changing your - thinking about your father as you spend more time as a father yourself?
GILBERT: Oh, totally. I mean, that's the great thing about fatherhood is that not only can you replay your childhood, but you can start to understand your parents so much better. And my father was certainly - grew up in that generation in which kind of mom did all the work, and dad would really only participate once you could do the things that he wanted to do.
GILBERT: So - and I think our generation of fathers have probably gone off in the other direction, where we are just there to satisfy every single need of our child, whether it's driving them for five hours to play soccer, or whatever it is. So definitely, my view of not only my parents, but of myself, has changed from, you know, having this son and my two daughters, too.
GROSS: This reminds me of something that your narrator says about his father. He says that his father, historically speaking, probably missed being sensitive by eight to 10 years, depending on where you date the new man era.
GILBERT: For sure, yeah.
GROSS: How many years did your father miss the new man era by?
GILBERT: Oh, I think he missed it by more than eight to 10.
GILBERT: I mean, he - he, let's see, he graduated from college in '56. So he was, you know, pretty much in that Eisenhower generation and beforehand. I mean, you know, he kind of was in his 30s during the '60s, but he missed the '60s entirely, same with my mother. They kind of were in that kind of Nixon silent majority.
GROSS: So the character at the center of the book, the character that everybody is speculating about, is the writer, A.N. Dyer, who is a reclusive writer who hasn't really written anything new in many years. His novel "Ampersand" is not only a very famous novel, it's a novel that was central to many young people when they were growing up, you know, when they were coming of age. What made the novel within the novel, the "Ampersand" novel, so famous? What did it mean in the lives of its readers?
GILBERT: That's a really good question. I'm so curious. In some ways, I kind of want to try to write "Ampersand" next to figure that out. It was - I always saw it as kind of the opposite to "Catcher in the Rye." Whereas "Catcher in the Rye" was very much about, you know, Holden Caulfield's struggles, "Ampersand" is kind of about - it's more of a Dostoevsky version of childhood, of adolescence, where it's a lot tougher, and it's more Machiavellian, and more rough and nasty things happen.
And I think it was more of a look at the dark side of adolescence, whereas Holden Caulfield was kind of a look at the awkward searching side of adolescence. And I think that darkness, like Dostoevsky's books, where you're trying to kind of grapple with the moral center of a character, you know, can definitely grab a hold of a readership.
GROSS: So people have this idea in their mind of him still as a kind of young writer, because that's how they remember him, but in reality, he's, like, he's old. He has gout. His big toe is killing him. He can't really write anymore.
GILBERT: Big toe, yeah.
GROSS: I guess, you know, he has reasons to be reclusive. But what gets him out in public is a funeral, the funeral of somebody who had been a close friend in childhood, and he's asked to give a eulogy. And even though he's a writer, he finds the idea of a eulogy terrifying. Why does he find it so terrifying?
GILBERT: Well, it's that - you know, it's like also a toast or a graduation speech, any of those things where you're trying to really speak from the heart and do it in a way that's not sentimental, but still sincere. I think those are kind of terrifying moments. So a eulogy is - and also, this is from someone who's really not been in public for a long time.
GROSS: He actually finds a eulogy website. The person who wrote the website...
GILBERT: Yeah, and I found one, too. They're out there.
GROSS: I was wondering? Really? So this is...
GILBERT: They're absolutely out there, and I paid $19.99 to get, like, the full eulogy package. You can do it. If you are in a bind, and you have a eulogy, you can find self, you know, presented eulogies that you can just fill in the blanks. It's pretty amazing.
GROSS: Is it - is that the eulogy you write in the book, the one from the website?
GILBERT: I kind of took the flavor of that eulogy, and then did it a little bit more on my own.
GROSS: You've got to read some of it. So this is, like, a generic eulogy.
GROSS: So just do a few, like a few of your favorite lines.
GILBERT: OK. This is from Eulogies on Demand. I can't remember what I called the website. Anyway, here it is. (Reading) They say that the end of our time on this Earth, if you can count a few good friends, you are a fortunate person. I know that I am fortunate, because I could always count on blank to be the truest friend I ever did know, and today, I am sick with despair, doubly sick because blank is not here to repair me with his/her kind words and loving heart.
GROSS: Oh, that moves me to tears.
GILBERT: Oh, exactly, yeah.
GROSS: And I think we've all been at funerals where, you know, the rabbi or priest probably, you know, gave a eulogy that sounded like the rabbi or priest version of that generic eulogy...
GILBERT: Yeah, totally.
GROSS: ...while also being at ones that were so moving that you really are moved to tears. But it's just amazing that there are so many websites now to help you be sincere and speak individually from your heart.
GILBERT: Yeah, and this was early on in the book. So I mean, I found this website probably seven years ago. So I mean it was even back then - you know, seven years ago doesn't sound like such a long time ago, but in Internet years it's, you know, it's like dog years. It feels like a long time ago.
And it was there. You know, probably from the beginning of the Internet, they had a eulogy website.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Gilbert. His new novel is called "And Sons." You know, I've asked you a little bit about your character's writing. I want to say a couple things about your own writing, which I really like a lot. And I thought I would just give a couple of very brief examples of sentences that I especially liked.
So in writing about the writer and the writer's deceased former best friend, who weren't very verbal in their friendship, you describe them as these heavily redacted men. And I thought that's just great, to describe people who are always kind of censoring their own emotions.
GROSS: How did that come to you? Do you know?
GILBERT: Well, it's just that experience with men of that generation, I think, that they keep so much inside. And they let the - their wives do so much of the emotional heavy lifting, which allows them, for good and mostly bad, just to kind of stay within themselves even more. So they do feel like they want - and I also wanted a character who wanted, especially like Charlie Topping, who is the best friend of A.N. Dyer.
I wanted that sense that he wants to say things, but he just doesn't have even the ability to do it. It's just not within his, you know, DNA to be able to express himself that way. Yet there's this yearning to, you know, really connect with someone. But they're all kind of - they're redacted. They keep so much to themselves.
GROSS: I can't say I've ever heard redacted used in that context before. So bravo for that.
GILBERT: Oh, thank you. Yes, well, I thank, you know, the NSA, and that's in the news so much, you know.
GILBERT: It's like I don't think I knew what redacted meant 10 years ago.
GROSS: Another sentence on the lighter side here: His sleep was sponsored by Vicodin with a two-finger assist from Dewar's. I like the idea of his sleeping sponsored.
GROSS: Again, can you talk at all about how that image came to you?
GILBERT: You know, it took me about six years to write this book. So and all that stuff comes - you know, it's those brief moments of inspiration that kind of - little shiny bits that stay with all sorts of other bits that kind of fall away. So that's just one of those shiny bits that happened to stay. I don't even remember how I came up with it except that, you know, I was thinking of these two products, Vicodin and Dewar's. And I was like, oh, well, yeah, sleep could be sponsored by those two things and often are. Not in my case, but...
GROSS: Of course not.
GILBERT: In case my mother's listening.
BIANCULLI: David Gilbert speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “KIDS”)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to Terry’s 2013 interview with author David Gilbert. His latest novel, called “And Sons,” is now out in paperback.
GROSS: The writer's sons in your novel respond in different ways to being the son of this famous, you know, but reclusive writer, and they respond differently to this sense of privilege that they grew up with. So one of the sons becomes a videographer, and he travels around the world documenting all sorts of human extremes, mostly how people suffer and die - the many different ways - the many horrible ways that people suffer and die.
I want you to do a reading about that son's work. And this is the narrator describing that son's work. And the narrator doesn't like that work. He doesn't get it. He thinks it's kind of pointless. There's no story. There's no explanation. It's just documenting horrible things. And the narrator thinks that this art is just kind of playing into our voyeuristic inhumanity.
I'm going to ask you to read more about his response.
GILBERT: Sure. Despite the college-worn earnestness, I understood the motivation, the almost incandescent urge for the dreadful thing. When you are a decent person, and you have grown up safe and comfortable with parents who themselves have grown up safe and comfortable, in New York no less, the Upper East Side of New York no less, you often find yourself admiring the poor and desperate around you, as if they are somehow more honest, more legitimate than your tribe, Buddhist to your capitalist.
And you want to prove yourself conscious with a capital C by dipping into that hardship, lower, that degradation, lower, that self-abasement. There is liberal guilt, and there is liberal sin, where you go slumming, the most cheerful of vagrants. I know I was guilty of this. The stories I wrote in my creative writing classes always gravitated toward seedy locales, dive bars and trailer parks, with low-down folk in the dirtiest of circumstances.
Ugliness seemed to signify emotional authenticity. Half of my characters had problems with heroin, and I'd never seen heroin before, let alone had a problem with it. But please, give me a hit of tragedy so I might swim in more human waters. This desire thankfully passed after graduation, when genuineness was no longer an issue for debate. The concrete had hardened.
But Jamie, he became worse, turning into a tourist with forensic intent. He started to travel to ridiculously rough places and to videotape whatever he came across the siege of Sarajevo; the red-light district of Mumbai; the silver wars in Algeria and Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone; the everything in Palestine; the whatever you've got of human misery.
Why'd he do this? Maybe he was rebelling against his father. This right here, this is the real world, Dad. This is true tragedy.
GROSS: So did you ever go through a period like that in your own art, of thinking that the world you lived in was inauthentic, and you had to, like, immerse yourself into tragedy and ugliness?
GILBERT: Yeah, for sure. I mean the short stories I wrote in college and the early ones in my MFA program were all about, you know, people who were more on the fringe and kind of living desperate lives. And that seemed, you know, I was also a big Raymond Carver fan, and Denis Johnson was a huge influence on all of us in MFA programs everywhere in the early '90s.
So we were all trying to kind of ape that world. And that seemed so much more legitimate than my upbringing. It took me a while to see that there are stories everywhere, no matter, you know, where you were raised.
GROSS: So your novel is set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which is where you grew up.
GILBERT: The mean streets. Yes.
GROSS: So tell us a little bit about that world - what that world was like - when you were growing up. And tell us also a little bit about your father and his work and that world.
GILBERT: Well, I grew up pretty much in the '70s and early '80s, in there, and then I went to boarding school in probably '83. It was a very different place because New York was - first of all, it was very feudal. So if you're on the Upper East Side you kind of stayed on the Upper East Side. And if you're on the Upper West Side, you stayed on the Upper West Side. And no one ventured below 57th Street - that just seemed like a different kind of Manhattan. And so I pretty much lived a very insular life on the Upper East Side. And things were kind of dangerous. The city was a rougher place. Yet, I also had a tremendous amount of freedom. I mean at, you know, nine years old I was walking to school by myself. At 12, I could roam and go anywhere I want within pretty much a 20 block, you know, radius. But it was still a lot of freedom, considering what the city was like back then. Whereas, today, it's so much safer yet, you know, kids are being walked to school up until, you know, sixth and seventh grade, and it's - parenting is much more on top of the kids as opposed to back then were we were really allowed to roam the streets.
GROSS: And tell us about your father and his work.
GILBERT: My father was an investment banker and he worked at Morgan Stanley for his whole career. And he became chairman of Morgan Stanley and he was, you know, he's this really impressive, wonderful guy, who is very shy and very quiet. And one of the reasons why I wrote the book is he was always, you know, this guy who was intimidating to all my friends. And I was at this - I was at this luncheon and he stood up and said a few words. And I was sitting next to an old friend of his who grew up with him. And she turned to me and said, you know, it always amazes me to see your dad, you know, stand up and speak so clearly and eloquently. And he's funny because growing up he was a very shy guy and he could barely look you in the eye and he had a bit of a stammer. And that was just not the father that I knew, that was a different person. And I think in the book I liken it to putting pastel on a police sketch. I mean, you kind of have this idea of your father and then he suddenly makes this 180-degree turn. And that's what I wanted to do with the book, really, was to kind of explore that sense of what if you can meet your father when he was a young guy - at 17 - at his most awkward - how would your impressions of this kind of unknowable man change if you could see him at his most knowable?
GROSS: So I bet some of our listeners were thinking, wow, chairman of Morgan Stanley. Woo.
GROSS: That's quite a position. And now, you know, thinking about all that's happened with investment banks...
GILBERT: It was also a very different era when he was doing it.
GILBERT: They weren't so much - they weren't these figures in the news. It was a very small kind of business.
GILBERT: I think he retired in '91 or something like that. So it was never anything that - my friends didn't really know much about it until, you know. Maybe the late '80s it started to get a little bit more in the news because of, you know, the kind of go-go '80s or late '80s. But pretty much growing up being an investment banker was like being a doctor or a lawyer, you know, in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was kind of like what the general career was, or working on Wall Street in some way or form.
GROSS: What was your attitude about the kind of privilege that you were growing up in? Did you try to hide it and make it seem like, oh, we're just from an average family? Were you like, oh, we're from - no, I'm from a very, you know, well, like wealthy, privileged family and that's fine? That's the way it is?
GILBERT: No. I was always trying to hide it.
GILBERT: You know, and it was kind of, back then it was privilege with a much smaller P.
GILBERT: It wasn't what it is today. And there certainly was - there was no status involved with it or people weren't kind of status hunting. It was more like the everyday kind of job. But I always was a little bit - were very insecure about it. I remember, you know, saying, you know, I grew up - I live in the Upper East Side. And someone would say where do you live? I'd be like, 75th Street. Well, where on - OK, 75th and Park. It would - you'd have to kind of drag it out of me 'cause I felt like Park Avenue, ugh. I don't want to be that guy. So I always had a pretty difficult relationship with it. Yeah, also, you know, it was incredibly fortunate as well.
BIANCULLI: David Gilbert, author of “And Sons,” speaking to Terry Gross last year. We’ll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I’m David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry’s 2013 conversation with author David Gilbert. His latest book “And Sons” is about a famous novelist and his relationship with his sons. It’s just come out in paperback.
Earlier in their conversation, they were talking about Gilbert’s relationship with his father, a former chairman of Morgan Stanley.
GROSS: You know, in talking about your father and your father getting older...
GROSS: ...and how you're able to communicate more emotionally than you used to be able to. You said in a recent interview that there was a time when you used to like imagine eulogies you'd say at your father's funeral in which you could really express your feelings about him - the things that you wish you could say if you were braver. Did you stop doing that?
GILBERT: No. I still do that.
GROSS: You still do that?
GILBERT: I still - it still kind of just happens in my head. And maybe because, and it's kind of leaked into this book, that obsession with death and trying to sum up someone's life who has meant so much to you in a way that - and to express it. And it's safer to express it when that person's not in the same room with you. So, you know, eulogies are way - I think everyone in some way wishes that, you know, when they're giving a eulogy to someone that that person was there so they could hear it. So that they could, you know, actually hear how much that person has meant to you. You're just filled with regret.
GROSS: You could write it down and give it to him if you really wanted to.
GILBERT: You could.
GILBERT: I know. But then that's so maudlin. Who wants, I mean, if some friend gave me my eulogy, my future eulogy that he was going to give for me...
GROSS: Well, you wouldn't call it a eulogy.
GILBERT: I guess. Yeah, I guess it would just be maybe an old fashion letter.
GILBERT: You know, people don't really write anymore.
GILBERT: But, yeah. It still sometimes leaks into my head, those moments of, you know, trying to sum up my feelings for my father or for my mom.
GROSS: You know, part of your book - there's a passage which we talked about, about how difficult it is to write a eulogy, even for a great writer like A.N. Dyer.
GROSS: Have you ever given one?
GILBERT: Never. Never have.
GROSS: Well, you know the website to go to if you need one.
GILBERT: I do. Absolutely. I have a, you know, actually, I think I have an account there too, so even better. I don't have to worry. It's all set up for me.
GROSS: Since the novel is so much about, you know, fathers and sons and sons and fathers, in an interview you said, raising children is an act of love as well as an act of fiction, in which the characters slowly free themselves from a supposed author. Do you see an analogy there between, you know, a father and son and an author and his characters?
GILBERT: Yeah. I mean, I think the author’s always been pretty, you know - some writers say that, you know, their characters will just do something that will surprise them or they'll lose control of their characters. I’m never - I always felt pretty in control of my characters. I've never had that experience where it's just like, oh, my god, my character is now, you know, kite boarding. I didn't expect that.
But with children you're kind of like I'm going to raise, you know, I'm going to have a kid who loves to go to museums and is going to be a great reader and is going to do this and that. And then suddenly you're presented with this, you know, boy or girl who have a different agenda and are totally - they're not the fiction that you thought you were making. They're actually their own little person and you have to give up on these ideas of them representing a piece of you. They are themselves and that's always the tricky part and a kind of, you know, that's where it happens in when they're eight, nine, 10 years old and you're like, OK, this is their own person here and I just need to - I'm along for the ride.
GROSS: I want to get back to A.N. Dyer...
GROSS: …The novelist at the center of your novel. And he says to his sons: The irony I would like to communicate to you boys is the fact that I never enjoyed writing very much. Oh, maybe I enjoyed the moments before writing, the thinking about writing when the story starts to form around its caged heart, a word, an image - like with bodysurfing. So here he is confessing that he never really enjoyed writing. And you said something I think that's hysterical about writing - this was in an interview. You said that you thought maybe I should've gotten into advertising...
GROSS: ...because I could've been really good at it. Selling my -
GILBERT: I could've been really good advertising.
GROSS: And you say selling my soul instead of crushing it on a daily basis.
GROSS: So is writing soul-crushing?
GILBERT: On those bad days, for sure. On the bad days where instead of writing, you're deleting what you've written for the past two weeks. And then you have those great days where even if it's just one good turn of phrase, it, you know, will get you back at your desk the next morning. I mean, for me the irony of it, I always thought of writing as, oh, I can write anywhere, you know. That's the great - it's such a portable job. I could go to the beach or I could go to Maine or I could travel through Europe and just write in cafes. But for me, it's like I can only really write in my small little office, you know, at my desk on a computer in a certain kind of setting. So there's no, like, there's no freedom to it. It's basically just being chained to a desk, you know, 9 to 5. It's not as nearly as romantic as I thought going into it when I was, you know, in my teens and first thought about becoming a writer.
GROSS: So what makes you think you would have been so good at advertising?
GILBERT: Oh, man. I would've killed advertising. I don't know, I think I'm good at that - I would be a good copywriter. I'm good at the turn of the phrase, I think. I think I could've sold Coke and McDonalds. But then it would've - I think at some point I would've started to feel like that was soul-crushing, as well, probably a lot faster than I imagine.
GROSS: Might've been more lucrative.
GILBERT: Might've been more luc - yeah, I think so. But, who knows, maybe I also would've just been a complete failure at it.
GROSS: But speaking of lucrative, did growing up in a family that has money make it easier for you to make the choice to be a writer?
GILBERT: Oh, for sure. Yeah. Because I did, you know, it was very lucky that I could spend as much time writing as I can and do. So for sure.
GROSS: So you spent seven years writing a novel that's a little over 440 pages in an era when people are spending so much time reading tweets and really short - like things are getting shorter and shorter, although people are binge watching for hours and hours. So I guess we're heading in two directions at the same time. But do you feel like a novelist like you is becoming almost out of sync with the world, spending seven years on one book that's, you know, relatively long that would take, you know, would have to be read over a period of days? And so many people don't have that kind of space in their life - feel like they can't create that kind of space in their life.
GILBERT: Yeah. I mean it is...
GROSS: That's a real downer. So I'm sorry. Forgive me....
GILBERT: No, no. No, please.
GILBERT: Who's going to read this book? No. What happened - what helped with screenwriting is you try to make it as entertaining and as - and make it so that once you start you want to keep on reading. And I hope it's a very funny book as well. And so -
GROSS: I'm going to say yes to both of those.
GILBERT: OK, good. So it's like one of those things where if it works, it can't be too long. And so - and it was a subject matter that I really wanted to kind of go deep into and really explore it in all its facets. So it felt like it had to be a 400 page book. And also, it's about 12 books for the price of one.
GILBERT: Because you kind of get the whole A.N. Dyer career. So it's really a bargain. You get a whole literary life in one book. So it's probably about 3,000 pages of, you know, actual book, if you were to go into that fictional literary universe - the A.N. Dyer universe.
GROSS: Right. All the novels within the novel that you -
GILBERT: Yeah, exactly.
GILBERT: So you've read all of A.N. Dyer's books as well. So at the end of the game you've gotten a bargain.
GROSS: You would have been good at advertising.
GILBERT: Yeah, you see? Yeah.
GILBERT: I'm selling. I'm selling.
GROSS: Well, David Gilbert, I wish you much success with the novel. Thank you...
GILBERT: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: ...so much for talking with us.
GILBERT: Thank you for having me.
BIANCULLI: Author David Gilbert speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. His latest novel “And Sons” is now out in paperback. Coming up jazz critic Kevin Whitehead salutes jazz composer and performer Horace Silver, who died Wednesday at age 85. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.