An Interview with Adam Berlin

AdamBerlinI became acquainted with Adam Berlin through his work (as co-editor with Jeffrey Heiman) of J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE, a publication on whose editorial advisory board I now serve. Both Adam and Jeffrey are superb (and superbly generous) editors, and I’m pleased and honored to have the opportunity to shift some of the spotlight back to their writing in this interview with Adam about his newest novel, THE NUMBER OF MISSING, a book set in the months following the 9/11 attacks. THE NUMBER OF MISSING is slated for November 2013 publication by Spuyten Duyvil.

Adam Berlin is also the author of the novels BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), BELMONDO STYLE (St. Martin’s Press) and HEADLOCK (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York in Manhattan, where he co-founded J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE.

Please welcome Adam Berlin.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): As much as I admire THE NUMBER OF MISSING, I can’t say that it was a pleasure to read. The experiences depicted within it are raw, and they’re painful, and I’m wondering if the experience of writing it was similarly difficult, emotionally. Or let’s put it this way: How did the experience of writing THE NUMBER OF MISSING differ from the experience of writing your other novels?

ADAM BERLIN (AB): I spent more time writing and revising this novel—12 years from start to finish. The first draft I completed literally one year after 9/11. New York City was still raw and that rawness was reflected in my writing and really in my first-person narrator’s voice. But it was less about the raw emotions of grief and loss and more about the raw emotion of anger, of wanting to lash out at something, even if that something was nebulous. With each draft, I tried to shift the rawness away from anger. The anger is still there in the novel, percolating throughout, and I think it’s honest anger; after all, the narrator loses his best friend in a violent, seemingly senseless way. But in the novel’s final version, much of anger, the rushes of anger that drove the early drafts, have calmed into moments of stillness and sadness that are more damaging. My characters are moving in circles—drinking, remembering, not really able to move forward. It’s this static quality, this sense of winding down to a still place, that increasingly took over the book’s texture with each draft. Most books are about moving forward. This book is about winding down, about entropy, about that place where everything seems to settle into nothing.

Emotionally, I felt more invested in this book than my past novels. My first novel, HEADLOCK, was autobiographical in many ways, but it’s an on-the-road story and the narrator is joined by a compelling companion. The highs in that novel are reckless highs, and there’s some joy in that recklessness. In THE NUMBER OF MISSING, my first-person narrator is very close to me, but in this novel the companion, the best friend, is dead. The memories of when the friend was alive may be vibrant, and many of these memories are joyful and reckless, but the narrator, David, is alone during much of this novel. And while David wants to fall, to give in to his grief completely, the only thing that saves him from falling is that he’s waiting for his dead friend’s wife to fall first. He wants to fall but he’s made a silent promise to his dead friend to catch her. It’s not a good place to be.

ED: At one point in the novel, another character tells David: “It’s your first. There have been many 9/11s. Yours is not so special.” Where did those lines come from?

AB: When I was writing the early drafts of the book I was living downtown on the corner of Bedford and Barrow Streets in a rooming-house room above a famous bar called Chumley’s. I also worked at Chumley’s and this guy named Mike, a neighborhood guy, a WW2 vet, used to come into the bar while I set up for my shift. When 9/11 happened, when the towers went down, he seemed almost unaffected. He said anyone who’d been to war, who had seen buildings bombed and buildings ablaze and buildings fall, wouldn’t be shocked or horrified. He said what had happened downtown was no different from what he’d seen as a soldier. At first, it seemed a crass, cold thing to say. But for him it made sense and I don’t think he was trying to be a tough guy about it.Unknown

And what happened that day was a war of sorts, a violent declaration against us. In the book I use a lot of war parallels, but for the narrator, and he’s aware of this, the parallels are too-easy. Whatever David knows about war comes from Hollywood, not from experience. And while he sees himself in the trenches, another image of being stuck, of not being able to move, he recognizes that his visions come from war scenes, movie-war scenes, not war. This old guy Mike who hung around Chumley’s, he’d witnessed real war—with real fire and real damage and real death and without any glamor, without a rousing musical score behind the violence. When the towers went down, it was new for most of us. It was shocking because our eyes had never seen anything like it. But for those who have lived war, and the character who says the line you refer to is a woman who grew up in war-torn Georgia, the Eastern European Georgia, 9/11 is not so shocking. And in the long view of history, there have been many 9/11s.

In my novel, the narrator has a hard time conceding this point—the loss he feels is still fresh and so unique to him. But as the novel progresses, and the anger subsides, and the emptiness takes over, he starts to recognize that his loss is not the only loss and that this tragedy is one in a never-ending list of men destroying men.

ED: What was your biggest hope for this novel as you were writing it? Your biggest anxiety?

AB: My hope for this novel was to do something different from other 9/11 novels I’d read. Instead of using the day as a symbol or as a catalyst for plot, I wanted to write about a very focused time during the months of the aftermath where two characters go on living but not really. It’s the “not really “I tried to get right. For anyone who lived in New York City at that time, at least anyone who lived below 14th Street, the city seemed dead. Or at least stopped. For months after, you’d come up out of the subway and expect to see the twin towers that had been part of our downtown horizon still standing tall. But what you’d see was an empty gap. It was that gap, the literal emptiness and the emotional emptiness, that I wanted in the novel at all times. I was thinking of post-war novels when I wrote THE NUMBER OF MISSING, and most specifically of Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, not the style, but the mood, where a character goes through the motions trying to live life but never forgets, not for a second, what has come before.

ED: And your biggest anxiety?

AB: My biggest anxiety was not about the novel. I worked hard to write the book I wanted to read. My biggest anxiety was placing a novel that is, as you said in your opening comments, not a pleasure to read. Each anniversary of 9/11 is difficult, but I felt there had to come a time when there would be enough distance to this devastatingly momentous event when writers and readers could face this specific tragedy head-on, which is what I tried to do in my novel—to face the results of that day head-on.

THE SUN ALSO RISES was published in 1926, eight years after the end of WW1. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD was published three quick years after the end of WW2. Perhaps each tragedy has its own time frame— it took 15 years [after the Holocaust] for Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT to come out in the United States. The question I kept asking myself, and it was an anxious question because my manuscript wasn’t moving, was about how much time needed to elapse before people would read a novel that is completely focused on 9/11’s aftermath. There were other 9/11 novels, many of them, but the ones I’d read didn’t stay in that empty, static place. And what was different about 9/11—why was the American public willing to read direct depictions about WW1 and WW2 relatively quickly? Is it because these wars were more decisive and ended in victory? Is it because these wars happened over there? Is it because our image of the falling towers, of people falling, is so nightmarish and so close no one wanted to revisit it? I didn’t know the answers. What I did know was that my book was getting rejected. Many of the rejection notes were very complimentary, but the uniform response was that the book was too bleak.

Perhaps with 12 years of distance between then and now, the time is right for this novel. My agent, the late Robert Lescher, was very high on the novel when he first saw it. He even hired an editor at a big house to read my early drafts and give me notes, which were very useful. But Bob knew this would be a tough sell. And it was. But in some ways it was fortuitous. As long as the book didn’t sell, I could keep going back to it, refining it, and so perhaps those 12 years of work were a blessing. I feel this version, the published version, is stripped down to where it needs to be and, as I said, with each revision it became less angry, more sad, and so more human. Perhaps I too needed distance from those dead months even as I tried to write about the immediacy of those dead months.

I warn my students at John Jay about happy endings in their stories where conflicts are resolved too neatly. But this writing story has a happy ending because the well-regarded Spuyten Duyvil, an independent press that’s held strong for 30 years, published the book. Now my biggest anxiety is whether or not the novel will have readers and get the play I hope it gets, which is probably every published writer’s anxiety.

ED: Although you didn’t tell me so, Adam, I’ve discovered that you actually have *two* new books being published this month: THE NUMBER OF MISSING and BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB, which won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize and is being published by Texas Review Press. What is it like to have two books–both works of fiction–being released within the same month?

AB: My first two books, HEADLOCK AND BELMONDO STYLE, were published by big houses—Algonquin Books and St. Martin’s. And BELMONDO STYLE won a pretty big award—The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley award, which is the same award Michael Cunningham won for THE HOURS and Josh Berendt won for MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. So I thought I was a made man. But I wasn’t. It’s been about eight years since I’ve had a novel published and the waiting was rough. After eight years of nothing—writing hundreds of pages over thousands of hours without a book sale—I no longer felt like a writer. It’s easy to watch movie writers write—those pages fly off the typewriter or out of the printer in super-fast motion that has nothing to do with a real writer’s struggle. On screen, writer’s block takes about three seconds, a writer’s overnight success a minute or two. But in real time, writing and revising and revising and revising, chunks of life are checked off. I’d checked off a lot of time and I hadn’t signed a single new contract and when I looked at myself in the mirror, my eyes bloodshot from looking too long at sentences, I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t sell a book. My agent got sick and let go many of his clients, including me, and he died shortly after. So I started from scratch.

I sent out THE NUMBER OF MISSING on my own while looking for an agent. And I started entering some writing competitions. I’d written a short boxing novel, which felt like the right form for a book about boxing, which is all about stripping down. The big houses rarely publish novellas so I sent my manuscript to a few university press competitions. It was great to get the call from Texas Review Press. After eight years of famine, it felt good to feast. I did a lot of self-marketing over the summer, first on THE NUMBER OF MISSING, then on BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB, which was easier because I write for a boxing website called and have some boxing connections thanks to my brother, who’s an attorney for many boxers and people in the boxing business. Anyway, it feels great to have two books coming out, it makes me feel like a real writer again, and it’s given me the adrenaline to keep putting in the hours.

ED: And you’re still co-editing J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE, the literary magazine that you founded with your colleague at John Jay College, Jeffrey Heiman. Anything special on the horizon for J JOURNAL that you want to share with THE PRACTICING WRITER’s readers?

AB: Jeff and I came up with the idea for a literary journal with a justice theme about six years ago, which was a natural outgrowth of John Jay College’s mission—we’re a criminal justice college but we’re also a liberal arts college. With each issue of J JOURNAL, I think we realize more and more that the journal’s best work is the most tangentially connected to justice. The stories and poems and creative non-fiction pieces we publish could be found in any good lit mag, but when the work is placed under the large banner of justice, the pieces seem to resonate, together and separately, in a distinct way. We’re still a fledgling journal, but we’ve been getting strong reviews and this has been reflected in many more quality submissions. Jeff’s a great friend and colleague and there’s a real joy to the work we do together on the journal. We work hard to provide detailed editorial feedback to our writers and hope they appreciate our hands-on approach. It’s been fascinating to see how many different ways our writers have approached justice. And it’s been rewarding to cultivate some new writers. A number of our contributors have recently sold their first novels or books of poetry and Jeff and I feel proud of them, and, in some small way, part of their success.

ED: Anything else you want to share with us, Adam?

AB: I dedicated THE NUMBER OF MISSING to John William Perry. John went to law school with my brother and while I didn’t know him well, I made a vow that if my novel were ever published I would dedicate it to him. John was also a police officer and was turning in his badge on the morning of 9/11 when the planes hit. He died helping people in the North Tower. And as I wrote in my acknowledgement page, the number of missing at John Jay College was sixty-eight.

To learn more about Adam Berlin, please visit his website.