Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Interview with Charles Strozier about Until the Fires Stopped Burning

Dear writers and readers,

I had the pleasure this past summer of taking Historical Narrative workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony at Provincetown, MA with Chuck Strozier.  His comments about his work-in-progress, based on psychological interviews of New Yorkers concerning their 9/11 experiences, really aroused my enthusiasm for this book.  So, here, for your enjoyment, is an interview with him about writing and about his new book!    Cheers,  Laura

How did you get interested in writing, Chuck?
Almost as soon as I could read I began to write. In fact, writing has always intrigued me more than reading.  In 4th grade I was absorbed with Jack London novels and fell in love with wolves, dogs, and all kinds of canines.  I wrote a 40 page story about “King, The Story of a Dog” that my father typed up for me as I dictated from my scribbled pages.  A novelist friend of my father (Billy Hagood) said when he read it that I would be a writer.  It was a kind of blessing.  More than once in school I had the curious experience of a teacher not liking an essay but giving me what the English call a left-handed compliment that it was well written.
What was your first success?
I think my story of “King.”  My first adult success in writing came with the reception to my first book, a psychoanalytic study of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln’s Quest for Union).  It was 1982 and I was 38.  The book was reviewed on the front page of the Times and called “surpassingly eloquent.”  It was startling for me, and it changed my life.
How hard was it to persist writing the biography of Kohut  in spite of family opposition?  Did you put it aside and then go back later, or keep working sub rosa?
That book took me 19 years to research and write (1982 to 2001), though, because of all the opposition I encountered from the family and many of his protective colleagues, I did do other projects along the way.  There was, for example, a delay in the early 1990s in my gaining access to some crucial archival material.  But there was nothing sub rosa about my work.  I just pushed on, kept interviewing, talking about my work, learning more and thinking more deeply about what I knew.  And, frankly, I found the gossip and mean-spiritedness steeled my resolve.  I am stubborn in that way.  It was a welcome vindication to have the book so well received.
  Do you enjoy writing or is it hard for you?  Describe what your writing process is like.

           I love writing.  I do it every day.  I warm up with emails and then get down to it.  My only     frustration is that I have to do all these others things—teach, run a research center, raise money, see patients, and generally earn a living—that crowd in on writing.  But the trick is not ever to let being busy prevent you from writing.
What kind of books do you most enjoy reading?
I read mostly nonfiction works of history but I also usually keep a novel going (my favorites are Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner and, among more recent writers, David Grossman, Don DeLillo, and of course Norman Mailer).  My hobby is photography, and I have a rather elaborate project right now to photograph in medium format, black and white negatives the bridges of New York that I then enlarge in high contrast.  I am about 2/3 of the way around Manhattan and hope in some future year to mount an exhibition.  My visual sense carries over to my writing.  I am less interested in the sentence than the paragraph.  I can see the paragraph when I enter into it with a lead sentence.  I imagine it before I write it.  I love the shape of a good paragraph and its transitions from what comes before and what follows.  A good transition thrills me.
 What kinds of things do you write?  Just books, or do you also write articles, stories, poems? 
I write mainly my nonfiction books but also lots of articles, which I actually don’t like very much and have cut back on in recent years.  I wrote two volumes of poems to the love of my life 30 years ago when I was courting her.  It was a good move, as we are still happily married.
 How did you get the idea for your current book on 9/11?
I was standing in Greenwich Village watching the disaster happen.  It was shocking but I also felt I had some understanding of what was behind it in light of my scholarly involvement in the 1990s with what I then called the “new terrorism.”  I felt a certain mission to study the disaster I watched unfold in front of my eyes and began my interviewing at the start of the second week.
 Will people turn to your book to get help with their remaining 9/11 fears and other reactions?  If they do, will it help your book or hurt it?
I suspect those with lingering fears of attacks or with residual traumatic reactions to 9/11 will have contradictory reactions to my book.  On the one hand, the details of the stories—and for better or worse I am a story teller—may evoke memories and feelings that can be disturbing.  On the other hand, my book provides context for such feelings and I hope puts the disaster into perspective and explains it in meaningful ways.  It is the only overall interpretation of 9/11, and I think we do better psychologically with things we understand than living with the dread.
Do you have an agent?  Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.
I have had two agents in my life.  I stumbled into publishing with my first book, which thankfully Basic Books was willing to take on cold.  The book then led to a top agent (Charlotte Sheedy) approaching me.  She helped me then secure a wonderful publisher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) for my Kohut book and various other projects.  We then didn’t see eye to eye about my 9/11 book and parted ways.  Some two years an agent, Richard Morris, from Yanklow and Nesbit Literary Agency, picked me up for the 9/11 book.  Both agents were crucial for me and helped me enormously.  It is awful in publishing these days.  Without an agent, trade presses won’t even answer your inquiries.  The good news is that university presses still can be approached without an agent.  There are also many other outlets for one’s writing, including blogs, a format I am coming to enjoy a great deal (note “911aftertenyears.com”).
  What are your thoughts about marketing?  Do you have any great tips on how to do it well?
I have a blog for my book (just mentioned) and a Facebook Author Page.  Each links to the other.  They have proven very useful for promotion.  Any number of journalists who have read my blog have been calling for interviews.

If you could achieve one marketing coup for your current book, what would you like it to be?  Interview with someone?  Special review location?
I would love a good Times review.  I may still have an NPR interview with Scott Simon and something is cooking with ABC.  We will see.  The trick, I think, in marketing is to throw a lot of balls in the air and see what comes down.
  If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.
Personally, I wish I had married my current wife at 22 and not gone through the agonies of my first marriage, the divorce, and the years of single parenting.  I lost time and suffered much heartache.  In terms of my writing, I have had lots of ideas about 9/11 in recent months that I wish I had put in the book.  Why couldn’t the tenth anniversary be in 2012?
  Any other thoughts to share?
Thank you for this opportunity to enter into your world in this way.  These were good questions.

Visit Chuck's blog about issues raised in his new book here: 911aftertenyears.com


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great idea for a book. And now that it's the tenth anniversary it's so timely too. Sounds like a really good read to me.
Sandy P

Anonymous said...

Did he interview people at random or how did he find the people to interview? Could be a mishmash or could be very cogent, depending on whom he has interviewed here. I'll have to go browse it to see what I think.
Dick Rokovsky

eleanor stoneham said...

Great interview, Laura. Charles came over and spoke to our Scientific and Medical Network conference on Patterns of Apocalyptic Thought in London last month. That led me to your blog! I wondered would you like to interview me about my various writing projects that threaten to take over my life!? More info at www.eleanorstoneham.com with links to blogs and contact details from there. Tried to contact you directly but your link apparently not working.
All best regards Eleanor