Posts Tagged Darin Strauss
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman [Spiegel & Grau]
–at turns daunting, authentic, provocative and spellbinding. The best part is that it’s about women from all different backgrounds bonding to endure a miserable situation.
WAR by Sebastian Junger [Twelve]
–Junger brings much needed attention to this ongoing war on terrorism. So little is written about Afghanistan in the press yet it’s a fierce, exhaustive war. Junger also includes and honest assessment about the war in Afghanistan and the attitudes of the troops.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot [Crown]
It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me by Ariel Leve [Harper Perennial]
–Leve is a major pessimist, sets low standards to avoid disappointment, would rather stay in bed than get dressed and made up to go to a party that *might* not be worth her time. She expresses in print what most of us think. She’s observant, sharply critical and savvy. Leve’s irreverent voice and bittersweet outlook mingle in an erudite, esoteric manner.
Half A Life by Darin Strauss [McSweeney’s]
–At 18, Strauss hit a girl while driving and she died. He examines his feelings related to the girl who died as well as the accident and its aftermath. Strauss writes honestly, exquisitely and provides a thorough examination of this profoundly personal experience. Half A Life is a provocative, intense read.
Bitch is the New Black by Helena Andrews [Harper]
–another stand-out memoir by a strong, opinionated, independent woman who has achieved monumental professional success but by society’s standards hasn’t yet hit her stride on the personal front.
FURY by Karen Zailckas [Viking Adult]
–After spending many years binge drinking and writing about it in the best-seller Smashed, Zailckas wanted to examine women’s relationship to anger. In doing so, she realized she had a lot of her own.
A Ticket to the Circusby Norris Church Mailer [Random House]
The Match by Susan Whitman Helfgot [Simon & Schuster]
–Reinforcing the importance of organ donation through the story of two men who never meet but whose lives intersect in a remarkable manner, The Match is a vastly informative and engulfing read.
CLEOPATRA by Stacy Schiff [Little, Brown]
Darin Strauss [Chang and Eng, More Than It Hurts You] wrote Half A Life about a tragic car accident that occurred when he was 18 years old. A sophomore swerved out in front of his car on her bike. She died. it was not Strauss’s fault. For many years Strauss repressed it and avoided any thoughts or conversations about it. In Half A Life, Strauss examines his feelings related to the girl who died as well as the accident and its aftermath. Strauss writes honestly, exquisitely and provides a thorough examination of this profoundly personal experience. Half A Life is a provocative, intense read.
I interviewed Darin for More Than It Hurts You and I contacted him when I heard he had this memoir out. He’s a talented, erudite writer and a genuinely kind guy. I’ll interview him anytime.
Darin: You said you were writing a memoir?
Amy: I Have ideas but I’m afraid to actually start anything.
Darin: Well, the first draft was pretty bad. The hardest part is getting it on the page. There were a lot of things that were terrible that I cut out.
Amy: After writing several novels, what were the challenges in writing a memoir?
Darin: Every bit of training I’d had was how to make stories more interesting so I kept reminding myself, ‘you have to stay true to the facts and you have to let the story play out the way it played out in real life.’ If this had been a novel, the trial would have been more dramatic. I’m not really a journalist so I was just trying to remember what had happened and be respectful of what happened and not stray from the facts at all.
Amy: Did you go back to do any research for it?
Darin: Yeah. I looked and found that article that was written about me to get the exact quote where the police officer said I wasn’t to blame. that was actually a nice surprise because I didn’t remember him saying it in such a clear cut way that I was not at fault. It was like he was sending a message to my future self. And I went back with my family to see what the street looked like. I talked to my friends to see what they would remember but it was sort of what I remembered and how it affected me.
Amy: Why did you feel the need to finally write about the accident you had at 18?
Darin: I thought it was going to be a secret. I thought I’d never tell anybody and most of my friends do now need to know about it. I think it was the fact that my kids were born and I started to think of how hard it would be to have lost a child. I had a new understanding. My wife got pregnant and I was 36 and the accident happened 18 years before.
Amy: The perfect title. Half A Life.
Darin: Thanks. It happened naturally. I thought, ‘I’m never going to write about it’ and turned 36 and found myself doing it.
Amy: How did you think that writing would affect your thoughts about that day and its aftermath?
Darin: I think I just wanted to see how I thought about it because I had put it out of my mind and I had forgotten a lot of it. I think the fact that I had the thought that she wasn’t committing suicide at all was an idea I had when I started writing it. I had pretty much convinced myself that she was definitely committing suicide. And then that a girl would write in her journal at 16, “Today I’m going to die,” doesn’t necessarily mean she had planned to commit suicide. Although I did just hear this week from a friend of hers, who I had never known but had read the book, and she told me that the girl on the bike had started talking about death a lot. The realization was whether she did or didn’t did not affect my story. She did what she did and I did what I did to avoid her and that’s really I could control.
Amy: You said if you had never had this accident that killed Celine, you would have never have become a writer. Why?
Darin: That’s probably true. I thought I’d go to law school but after the accident I became more introspective and the lawyer thing stopped because their lawyer in the lawsuit was such a scumbag.
Amy: How scary is that? You’re going off to college up to Tufts and you get this summons?
Darin: The last I heard when I went to school was that her parents would always support me. It was a terrible shock. It was scary emotionally. It was a total drag. I thought these people were supporting me and then found out they were suing me for millions of dollars. That’s pretty scary.
Amy: During the funeral, you made a point of writing that when people remember lives or want to remember lives, they want the person to be extraordinary even if that person wasn’t so.
Darin: The local newspaper seemed to think it would only be a worthwhile story if the person who died was somehow the most popular person in school or the prettiest girl in the class which was really weird. It seemed like they had to make it sadder for the general reader.
I just wanted to be honest about everything. The book had to be more nuanced than that article I wanted to preserve her memory from that stupid notion that you had to be Prom Queen for it to be said. I wanted to be honest about the way that she was. Misrepresenting her was not the way I wanted to write the book.
Amy: In writing this memoir, what have you learned about yourself and your relationship to Celine and the accident?
Darin: It’s difficult to deny that things don’t change you and it’s very unhealthy not to realize that you’ve changed. Acknowledging that this had happened to me was important but I wouldn’t let it dictate the rest of my life.
Amy: Although you moved past high school and your hometown, you say that Celine was always with you. Her mother even told you that you know had to live for two people.
Darin: I have twins now. My first novel Chang and Eng was about conjoined twins. So it was really embedded in my brain.
Amy: It’s always been with you so how did you cope with it?
Darin: I don’t like the word closure. It’s silly. You never close the book on anything or every fully get over it. You have to learn to live with it. You realize that these things can happen to you and not let it ruin you. It hurts. Most people who’ve email me have been glad to read this because I don’t think there’s that much out there in terms of books about someone facing something. I don’t think we ever get closure so it’s more realistic to see what you did in the certain moment that it was the best you could do, and try to live with it.
Amy: Isn’t the power of the mind over the body amazing when you repress things and don’t realize the extent to which you are until your body just revolts?
Darin: At 28 I had stomach surgery and started to get gray hair and all these things that don’t usually happen to 27-year-olds so I think it was my body telling my mind ‘you can’t pretend this isn’t happening and avoid any consequence.’ I didn’t put it together with the accident until later. Medication and surgery and I didn’t think of the psychological aspect of it.
Amy: You said: “My accident was the deepest part of my life, and the second-deepest was hiding it.”
Darin: I just didn’t tell people. I have a lot of friends who just found out about it with the book or with the excerpt of the book that aired on NPR on “This American Life.” So it was strange for my close friends. I just really wasn’t ready to talk about it to people. I did keep my friends separate (new friends from his Long Island friends).
Amy: Now that Half A Life is out there, how do you feel?
Darin: I feel that I’m in a much better place than ever about it now that I’ve written the book. It never goes away. It’s been 20 years now and I thought as I wrote the book I was pretty healthy about all this stuff. But when the book was about to come out I thought I should write the parents a letter to let them know. I wanted to warn them that it was coming out. Just the act of googling them and writing the letter was harder than writing the book.
Darin Strauss reads from Half A Life at Brookline Booksmith Monday, October 18 at 7pm
buy at Amazon: Half a Life
More Than It Hurts You is an intriguing novel that delves into the nation’s faulty healthcare and legal systems, the 24/7 media and our obsession with fame, notoriety and attention. Author Darin Strauss focuses on the rarely discussed condition Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy in his third novel. To illustrate the story Strauss digs beyond racial divides and into the psyches of parents and role-models, healers and helpers. The story of a child being hurt by his own mother is told mostly through the voices of the white Jewish mother and father and the female African-American pediatrician who first suspects the Munchausen by Proxy case. More Than It Hurts You is riveting, effective, and provides as many questions as answers.
Darin Strauss, a writing instructor at NYU, recently answered some of my questions via email. Strauss also wrote Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy.
Amy Steele [AS]: Why did you become a writer?
Darin Strauss [DS]: Not sure why. I never thought about being a writer for real until I went to college. But as early as 6th/7th grade, I’d been writing novels, or at least the beginnings to novels (an updating of Frankenstein where an army of monsters takes on the US military; the story of a super sleuth, etc.).
AS: How does teaching writing influence your own writing?
DS: I try not to let it. Reading amateur work can be destabilizing in all kinds of ways. If it’s great, you can question your own abilities (“Hey, I’m spending my life working at this — how come some kid is so good her first time out?”). If it’s bad, you feel very enervated by it.
Still, it forces you always to think back on first principals, and to figure out exactly what it is you think makes a story go. That’s good to chew on.
AS: How do you get interested in writing a story about Munchausen by Proxy?
DS: I wanted to write a book that brings together a lot of the threads and fears of contemporary life — corporate greed, the modern mania for attention, loss of privacy, the maddening even-handedness of media coverage, a family’s threats from within and without. And, of course, race, gender, and health care. Just look at the current political landscape to see how important those last subjects are.
At the same time, I wanted the book to address the sort of personal themes that good literature looks into: such as, How much blindness does a happy life require? How well do you know anyone—even those closest to you?
And, of course, I wanted to tell a page-turning story. So, when I came across the most bewildering family mystery of our time—Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy—I thought I could get at those big issues, and still write a gripping book. MSBP is a disorder in which parents secretly injure their own children, just to get attention. (From the media, from their spouses, from the children themselves, whoever.) Often the children die. What earthly motive could explain harming one’s own baby? How would the community react? How would a hospital handle that?
The crazy thing is that Munchausen’s is much more common in the US than most people know. But it only happens in rich countries, such as ours or the UK. Places, coincidentally or not, where reality TV shows have become the rage—shows where people will do anything to get attention. MSBP is a disease of luxury, of idle minds.
AS: What kind of research did you have to do for More Than It Hurts You?
DS: I talked to a number of Munchausen experts, including the two most-quoted MSBP specialists, one on the East coast and one on the West. I also spent some time in the Montifore hospital’s family care wing.
AS: How did you write from such different voices? Male/female/different races
DS: Part of the fun of novel-writing – if such a dead lift can be called fun – is stepping into other minds. An African-American woman’s brain was, for a Long Island Jew like me, hard, exhilarating territory.
But you have to do that kind of imaginative leap when doing fiction. A good novel shows the world as world not as you see it, but as others do — and it helps us to understand that nothing is as simple as right v. wrong.
I often try to push that challenge. My first book, Chang & Eng, had a first-person narrator who was an Asian conjoined twin from the 1800s; none of those terms applies to me.
AS: What is your favorite aspect of this story?
DS: Hard to say; I don’t think of my books that way, breaking them up into parts I like or don’t like. I guess the most fun part was coming up with the story of my African-American protagonist, Darlene Stokes. I needed to restrain my P.C. reflexes. Darlene is a Black pediatrician who works to pry a baby from his white family. The challenge was to make this woman like me in temperament, without being me in blackface. Taking on that challenge reminded me of what fiction — and maybe only fiction — can do.
AS: Why do you like to write?
DS: Who says I like it? It’s hard work, and sometimes lonely work, and it’s scary work — you spend years working on something, and then send it out into the world to be judged. But it’s often rewarding, and it’s the only thing I’m good at. So, here I am.
AS: How do you keep your writing fresh? What motivates you?
DS: I try to read a lot. Zadie Smith says a writer should approach a library in the spirit of a buffet: take from the books you like whatever you can and move onto the next. That’s how you develop your own style: by smushing together a smorgasbord of influences. What motivates me is having a family to feed.
AS: What is the greatest challenge about being a novelist?
DS: I can’t narrow it down. Frequent rejection. Public judgment. Solitude. The whims of the marketplace. No health insurance. Etc. But the rewards are great, too. No boss. No set hours. Doing what you want.