Interview: Griffin Hansbury

newcover2Griffin Hansbury’s novel, The Nostalgist, runs the gamut. It is by turns a bildungsroman, a ghost story, a social satire, and a personal psychodrama. It is, however, most saliently a post-9/11 story. More than just a quest for post-traumatic catharsis, The Nostalgist is propelled not by shock or horror but by a mood truer to the period: anxiety.

The book’s protagonist, Jonah Soloway, is a dumpy, socially isolated thirty-something, who spends his days working a dead-end editorial job at an all-but-unread trade magazine. At night, he collects kitsch—in particular, radios—from bygone eras and works on a graphic novel. Jonah is haunted by the memory of a beautiful neighbor named Rose who died in the Twin Towers. The story is set in motion by a fateful lie: Jonah calls the phone number on a missing poster and tells Rose’s mother that he knew her. In fact, they had only one terse encounter over a dropped glove so brief and ambiguous that it’s unclear they spoke to one another.

Last spring, I was commissioned to design the cover for the  novel. Shortly after the publication, Griffin asked if he could post a Q-and-A about the design on his blog. In exchange, it seemed only fair that I ask him some questions, for FA, about his novel.

Q. The Nostalgist is set in the Spring of 2002, a time when I remember feeling that the country was coming unraveled but before I had ever been to, much less lived in New York. You, on the other hand, lived through that time in the city, as does Jonah in the novel. What was the city like during that period?

The novel is set during that time and it was also written during that time—it took a decade to get it published—so the details in the book are very true to those months. I was rather obsessive about getting the details perfect, true to life, right down to what the weather was like on a particular day, if it was raining or sweltering. I like to think of the novel as an artifact of that moment. In general, there was a feeling in the city of having come through, of making it out of winter and into spring, which is often thought of as the season of renewal after death. I remember thinking, when I saw the first flowers come up that year: We made it. And yet we still lived in fear and paranoia. The corner bodegas advertised sales of radiation pills and duct tape—for sealing off your apartment windows in the event of a dirty bomb attack. The news kept reporting that the Army/Navy stores had run out of gas masks. Soldiers with M16 rifles still guarded the subways, Port Authority, Grand Central. The war in Iraq and its attendant protest had yet to begin, so Manhattanites still displayed U.S. flags everywhere—in store windows and hanging off fire escapes. There was also a bizarre heightening of conspicuous consumption—we were essentially told by the mayor and the president to fight terrorism by buying stuff. A ridiculous notion. So I filled the book with real-life examples of that weirdness, like the family living in the SUV window display and all the 9/11 tourist souvenirs. It was like a mandate had come down from on high: Stop grieving and start shopping! Which made for a kind of collective insanity.

552348Q. The novel definitely captures a kind of everyday-ness that’s animated by anxiety and fear of attack. Was that something you wanted to document, the outward normalcy and inward disorder of the time?

I’m not sure I was trying to do that, but I like that idea—the outward normalcy and inward disorder. It’s difficult to be in touch with my own intentions, looking back a decade, but I definitely wanted to document the abnormalcy in the supposed normalcy. Or better words might be: the grotesque in what was being sold as “normal.” For example, the whole Ground Zero souvenir market, with tourists grabbing at photos of the dead, dying, and terrified. I don’t want to call that behavior abnormal, because it’s expectable for human beings to clamor for souvenirs of death, especially photographs (Susan Sontag wrote about this at length), but it is grotesque. It certainly felt that way when I stood watching it happen. Those scenes are true to life, with little embellishment. People really did manufacture, sell, and buy snow globes of the towers on fire with little emergency vehicles parked at their feet. They disappeared from the marketplace, but somewhere, in living rooms across the country, or packed away, or dumped into landfills, there are all these 9/11 terror snow globes. Something that’s supposed to be playful, a souvenir of fun times, turned into a macabre memento mori.

So the outward was still disordered, but we were being sent the message: “This is normal.” To me it felt like a deeper craziness was setting in. That’s the piece that Jonah observes, but maybe also embodies, because he goes crazy, too. He dabbles in the grotesque in that he departs from typical human behavior.

Q. It seems that there are two ways of understanding Rose in the novel, either as an actual ghost or as a manifestation of Jonah’s unconscious. Does it matter whether she’s real?

A: Rose as a ghost/fantasy didn’t exist until the final draft of the novel. Going back to it years later, I found that there was just too much of Jonah’s internal life, of him walking the city streets and thinking to himself, and those scenes were kind of dead on the page. He needed a companion to interact with, so I brought Rose into it, and I thought it would be interesting if she existed as his fantasy, but with a life of her own at the same time. Does it matter if she’s real? I think she’s both real and not real, in the way that fantasies are both, and in the way that our fantasies don’t always behave the way we want them to. They’re not under the control of our conscious mind and they end up having a reality of their own.

Q. Would you say that also applies to writing fiction? How much control did you have over Jonah in the end?

I am definitely of the school that believes that characters have a will of their own and that the author, at some point, just has to get our of their way and let them do their thing. It’s not so mystical, of course. If the writing is going well, it’s coming from the author’s unconscious, bubbling up from primary process thinking, which is the kind of thinking we do when we’re dreaming. We author our own dreams, but we don’t control the script.

With Jonah, I didn’t like what he was doing. He kept lying. I’ve never been much of a liar and was afraid to lie as a kid. I grew up Catholic and lying was a sin punishable by Hell. But here was my character, doing things that I would judge as wrong, and I had to let him do it. If I tried to muscle him around, he’d resist me. There were times when I really didn’t like Jonah, and I worried that readers wouldn’t like him, either. Then, with distance, I found myself caring more about him and working that feeling into the book. I’ve been pleasantly surprised when readers tell me they empathize with him, and even like him, because to me he’s not very appealing. But that’s probably how I feel about my own inner “sinner.” Over time, he’s grown on me.

Q. In your day job, you work as a therapist, and that background is apparently in some of the motifs—and in particular in the character of Jane—but do feel it informed the way you approached and thought of these characters?

A decade ago, when I first wrote the novel, I was very early in my career as a therapist and just beginning my psychoanalytic training, so I was in Jane’s position, excited about the newness of the work and the ideas. She has that young analyst giddiness, applying analytic concepts to everyone and everything, which can be very annoying—and invasive–for people who get caught in the crosshairs.

But I do like to think of The Nostalgist as a psychoanalytic novel. Freud said that “hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences,” which is the case for neurotics, in general. The main characters in the novel all suffer from reminiscences, from the haunting of memory, melancholy, their unwillingness—or unreadiness—to mourn. Of course, Jonah is a bundle of neuroses with his OCD, his fantasy life, his lies and disavowals, and his unresolved Oedipal relationship to his mother, which gets reenacted in his relationship to Vivian. I loved having Jane around to put all of that into words, in her funny, intrusive, sometimes obnoxious way.

Q. That frenetic way of speaking was part of what I liked so much about Jane, but in my experience that energy, as attractive as it is, can sometime be a warning sign. Is there any truth to the proverb about therapists?

You mean about therapists being crazy? I don’t think we’re any crazier than any other group and, especially with a good analysis, we’re a lot less crazy than most. But when someone is in a deep analysis, of multiple times per week, there are psychic changes that can look a little crazy for a period of time. Defenses crumble, boundaries shift, filters drop. There can be a dramatic increase in a kind of narcissistic self-obsession. But, ideally, it doesn’t last.

So maybe Jane’s in that space. She has very little filter on what she says, and she thinks that everything that comes into her mind is worth saying. I’m hopeful that she’ll even out as she matures and become a better person for it.

Q. Jonah’s struggle to be a good guy really resonated with me. He wants people to take him on his own terms, and he’s hyper-aware of the pitfall of being a certain kind of guy who’s outwardly nonthreatening to women but can ultimately be predatory.  He wants to be seen, and at the same time, he’s openly resistant to jockeying for attention or alpha politics. How conscious were you of the politics of masculinity when you were writing?

I’m glad to hear you think of him as someone who’s trying to be a good guy. As I said earlier, I originally found him to be kind of unappealing, even creepy. But maybe he’s creepy in the way we’re all creepy when we’re alone. And he’s alone most of the time.

I don’t think I was conscious of the politics of masculinity, as you put it, during the writing. Maybe what you’re picking up from Jonah—wanting to be seen and yet shrinking from attention—is part of his schizoid personality. He’s internal, introverted, passive, avoidant, autoerotically organized. So what might look like a retraction of masculinity is actually a retraction of self, in general, of the parts of him that are active and aggressive. So his aggression comes out in a kind of faux passivity. He lets things happen to him. (This was a recurring complaint from the many editors who rejected the book.) But, of course, he’s the one who sets the story in motion, and keeps it going, with his lies. He also imagines that he has great destructive powers—the guilt he feels for blotting out the towers with his thumb just before they fell. He’s filled with aggression and afraid of it at the same time. Basically, he’s neurotic and his brand of neurosis is not one that lends itself well to expressions of alpha masculinity.

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