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Interview: January 25, 2008

January 25, 2008

In this interview with's Kate Ayers, Eli Gottlieb --- author of the critically acclaimed THE BOY WHO WENT AWAY --- describes how gaps in his own reading list prompted him to write his second novel, NOW YOU SEE HIM, and explains how his early work as a poet helped him to shape his characters. He also shares insight on his writing process, discusses its cathartic nature and names some of the writers who have inspired him over the years. NOW YOU SEE HIM is a brilliant, sad and funny book. What was the inspiration for it?

Eli Gottlieb: They say that writers write the kind of books they'd like to read. In part I suppose I simply wanted to fill a gap in my own reading list. As to the origins of the book, it began with an image of two writers meeting at one of those art colonies of which America is so full. These places, in addition to being great for getting work done, are also hotbeds of erotic intrigue, filled with gossip, bitchery and exploding marriages. I brought the soaring star male writer and the coolly ambitious but unknown female writer together in one of these colonies, and watched what happened. I had been living abroad in Italy for several years, and I think my perceptions were energized by the fact of returning home. Everything, to the returning exile, seems fresh and new, and I tried to wire some of that energy into the novel.

BRC: Your character descriptions are so uniquely realistic. Do you observe people with an extraordinarily keen eye, gleaning quirks and traits from a compendium of different encounters, or do you just have a knack for building characters from scratch?

EG: I guess having been a self-conscious kid has its uses! All of the classical writers I've loved were in one way or another masters of observation, and I've tried to live up to their example. As for the construction of character, I tend to use a seed of reality based on someone I know or have observed, and then layer the personage outwards from there. For me, the novel as a literary form is mainly about character.

BRC: Your characters are so richly human. They have quirks that are refreshingly uncontrived and faults that balance well with their talents. Is there something in your background, maybe your beginnings as a writer of poetry, that gives you this particular ability?

EG: Poetry trains one in the weighing and balancing of words, and maybe that training allowed me to isolate the telling details that resonate for readers. In a larger sense, however, it's a mystery as much to me as anyone else. 

BRC: I love this hilarious description: "…Belinda was built like a beautiful nose tackle, with all her physical features outsized, as if for the anatomically hard of hearing." Are you an entertainer at heart, a comedian, or do you just see humor in everyday life?

EG: I'm so glad you mentioned that. I consider myself as a writer both comical and serious by turns, and with a dark edge, all of which strikes me as the most reasonable response to the utter absurdity of life.

BRC: "Funny…the way how when you're a kid, childhood feels like prison, but when you're an adult it magically changes into the freest, purest span of time that you ever knew. What a swindle, eh?" Childhood is a long way back for me, but this passage still made me smile. You must have dug deep inside to write the emotions that vibrate from nearly every page. Does it take a lot of introspection, and is the result of that a somewhat cathartic relief?

EG: The answer to that question is yes on both counts. I dug as deep as I was able. And the book was definitely cathartic to write.

BRC: NOW YOU SEE HIM has flashbacks, reminiscences, background scenes and present-day material. It all comes together so seamlessly and the pacing is pitch perfect. How much was changed from your first draft?

EG: A ton. I'm a tireless reviser, constantly looping back and re-knitting; and part of the challenge, as I pieced my way forward, was to keep the smooth sense of accumulating momentum in a book that was as carefully constructed as a tapestry.

BRC: I read somewhere that you do not map out your stories. How much of NOW YOU SEE HIM did you know ahead of time? In other words, how bare were the bones?

EG: There were no bones. There were simply a bunch of forays in different directions that slowly, gradually, gathered speed and mass and one day, miraculously, were walking upright and asking for chapter headings.

BRC: When do you know that you have enough meat on the bones? I mean, the reminiscences of these characters, their regressions into the years they spent growing up --- were these scenes backstory that you brought to the forefront or just more flesh to the story?

EG: Again, I write in too jumbled and higgledy-piggledy a fashion to pronounce with any certainty on how it is I do anything. I think, after years at my craft, that I have a certain sense of when enough is enough. I was a habitual overwriter and overexplainer when I was young, and find that the years purified me of some of those excesses. I rarely overwrite anymore, and when I do, my editor corrects me.

BRC: I noted that your debut novel, THE BOY WHO WENT AWAY, was published in 1997. Why so long between novels?

EG: That would take a novel in and of itself to explain. But years abroad, my own innocence about publishing and a less than happy love story factor in. 

BRC: Where do you come up with your ideas for plot generally? Newspapers? Eavesdropping? Letters? Word of mouth? Walking on the street? All of the above?

EG: Plot happens through the act of composition. For me anyway, it's not extrinsic to composition but actually a constituent part of it. It's impossible for me to tweeze out "plot" as distinct from the rhythm of sentences and the weave of paragraphs. In truth, I secrete the plot, in the good old-fashioned bivalve way. 

BRC: I heard that you are a Graham Greene man. What other authors have influenced you? What do you read for pleasure?

EG: James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Max Frisch, Peter Handke, Samuel Beckett, Herman Melville, Cyril Connolly, Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Stone, a ton of poets, essayists and assorted other writers. I read omnivorously, though periods go by in which I read almost nothing at all. 

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it?

EG: I'm working on a new novel that brings together some of my favorite themes and about which I'm very excited. It seems to be moving forward swiftly. But I don't want to say anything more about it just now. Look for it in about two years time, if all goes well.