Ursula Maria Mandel discussing The Good American
What inspired you to write The Good American?
An argument with my mother some years ago. Considering that my mother had been dead nearly thirty years at the moment of this epiphany made this argument--and all the previous ones--very one-sided affairs. But the epiphany--the image of her on a train with a child--struck at a very angry moment, and it changed everything: me, my relationship to my mother, my writing, the confidence in my writing, because I remembered a story I had long forgotten: that she had traveled to the Russian sector in 1948 to get her sister's child out--a dangerous, fool-hearty, immensely brave act. The memory made me see her as I should have seen her all these years: as a human being in her own right, with all her dreams and disappointments, with her tremendous courage, hardships, failures, and, ultimately, laughter.
Since you give your novel the subtitle: A Novel Based on True Events is it safe to say that it is autobiographical?
Yes--as all fiction is autobiographical in terms of experience, emotions, and convictions, and no--because, although I am in the story, it's not my story.
What, in the story, is fact?
Probably seventy percent of it.
Why did you then not write it as a Memoir?
Because it would have been too limiting for the scope of my themes, and because I saw my mother only in relation to myself--of course, since she was my mother--and that sense of her as mother was too limiting. She was, after all, a woman--a tall, beautiful, headstrong, determined, living, breathing human being. When she was out for a walk, heads would turn, and men would fall all over themselves to ask her for a date. She was young, and beautiful, and full of life. And then the war came--and it changed everything.
Which authors have most influenced you?
If you mean in terms of writing The Good American--none. I have always abhorred imitation, and while I write, I don't read because I am petrified of another author's voice but my own writing the novel. But if you were to ask me to finish the sentence: I would most love to write like . I would instantly say Beryl Markham in West with the Night and Andrei Bely in Petersburg. I wish I could write like that.
Who are your most favorite writers?
The Satirists, especially Gogol, Swift, Beerbohm. The Russians--Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, Andrei Bely, Mikhail Bulgakov, Yuri Olesha. Then Gide, Calvino, Kafka (a genius without comparison), Camus, Sartre, Aristophanes. Thomas Mann. Tillie Olsen. Kate Braverman. I'm sure there are more, but I can't think of them all.
Do you have any special ritual for writing?
No ritual, except the writing. I write for a minimum of four hours a day. It doesn't matter whether that is morning, or afternoon, or evening, or night. I used to make it a point of writing in the morning, but too many things were intruding, and I realized that I was too hard on myself by trying to stick to a schedule that was unrealistic. And so I changed. So long as I do write for four hours a day, whenever, I'm happy. That's what's important.
What was it like to write The Good American?
Every time I sat down at my desk and turned on the computer, I felt as if I had entered a beautiful room and shut the door behind me. I loved, and still love, these characters so much that I hated, absolutely hated, having to turn off the computer to leave them where they were. Each day, I couldn't wait to get back to them.
Which stories are you most drawn to?
The stories that don't get told. When I read Dorothea's words at the end of Middlemarch, I knew that this is what I wanted to write about--the unsung heroes and heroines who live, or lived, their lives so courageously, day after day, no matter what fate handed out to them. I don't think we have enough gratitude for that kind of courage and what it teaches us and how it uplifts us. When your life is in pieces, for one reason or another, and you pick up the pieces and find a way to go on--that amazes me. It's something I see around me day in, day out--in real life. It's truly the triumph of our most amazing characteristic--the human spirit. I will never cease to marvel at it.
A number of people I have talked to have commented on the vivid imagery in your novel. Could you comment on that?
I began writing the story as a short story. But it was not enough. Something was missing. Right about that time, I learned of the Nicholl Fellowship and expanded the story to a screenplay. Writing the script was an agonizing task. I knew nothing about screenplay writing and so had to learn everything from scratch. Even so, nothing seemed to work right. Sometimes, I searched for days just to find the right word, or to describe a scene. But when it was done, I sent it out to various places. Something was still missing though it seemed complete as a script. It was rejected five times and, literally, trashed twice. Once, when a friend in the media business sent it to a producer he knew in California. I waited for months and heard nothing. My friend finally inquired and found that the production company had disbanded--is this what one says? Disbanded? --and all material had gone to the dump or was split up. Shortly thereafter, a producer called me from New York and asked me to send him the script. I jumped at the chance, sending it FedEx, no less. I heard nothing for months. Finally, I wrote to him. He wrote back that he had moved his office and that all he had had in his old office had gone--you guessed it--to the dump.
That's when my mother's spirit took over, I think, because I became very determined. I knew that this was a great story, and I decided that I would not be denied. I decided the story would be a novel. (I can be very stubborn, sometimes.) The odd thing was that, the moment I began writing it as a novel, everything fell into place. Incidents I had forgotten came flying in, scenes I had such difficulty with before, suddenly nearly wrote themselves, searching for words to describe an incident, they flew in from nowhere and sounded just right. I don't know what happened. Of course, it was just the same amount of work--lining up word after word like an endless train, but somehow, it seemed inspired and right. I don't know where it all came from. But I have not answered the question about the imagery--I'm sure it came from having written the script first. It forces one to be economical and requires scenes to be written with the least amount of words and the greatest amount of visual and emotional impact.
I can't help but ask you this, because I am curious, is the attic room and the life of the two sister's fact?
Is the lollipop scene fact?
Is the good American a real person?
Yes. That is, I had to fictionalize him a little because I was too small to remember every little detail about him.
Is the incident with the bananas fact?
Is Martha a real person?
(She laughs) I refuse to answer the question for fear it may incriminate me .
In your novel, fiction and fact blend--superbly, I would say, but would you say something about that?
In the novel, any novel in general, fiction informs fact, in my opinion. Fiction investigates fact so deeply, looks so much closer and at so many levels, at so many facets of fact that, essentially, it doesn't matter whether an incident, a gesture, a word happened at this place, at that time, or was said by that person in "reality"--the significance is that fiction elucidates fact--elucidates an incident, gesture, word, scene as no other medium can. So, essentially, it doesn't matter just what, exactly, happened "in real life" or whether or not a character in the novel is an actual person, because that is not the significance of the novel. The significance is that we, the reader, get an insight into an incident, a character, a gesture, an image such as we had not dreamed of when confronted purely with fact.
Since you have struggled with your writing for many years, still calling yourself an apprentice of the craft, what advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?
I don't want to misquote Twain, but I think he said something like: "If you want to be a writer, you have to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair," and you can't argue with that, because that is precisely what it takes. That's one thing. The other is this: when I was a child, I was constantly interrupted by the adults in my family who wanted me to do something else and seemingly more important than that in which I was presently engaged. My unconscious learned quickly that what I loved to do was insignificant in the eyes of others. If I were to do it anyway, I'd have to do it secretly and tell no one. As I got older, this sense of what I loved to do being insignificant became even worse until I gave up writing altogether. I did not write for twenty years because every time I sat down, I felt very uneasy and rushed, as if I had to hurry to get his paragraph done, or that scene. I had the distinct sense that I was doing something forbidden and should be doing something else. Sometimes, I'd get up from my desk with a relieved sigh, because it was pure torture, sitting there all rushed and stressed out and feeling guilty--because something within me demanded that I stop what I was doing because so much else needed doing. And this other seemed always more important. A chapter in Barbara Sher's book I Could Do Anything if I only Knew What It Was--which I had opened randomly in a bookstore--opened my eyes to what had happened in my childhood. It had become a feeling memory more demanding than a slave driver. (And yes, I bought the book. Of course.) But having become aware of what ailed me, I was able to follow that feeling memory all the way back to my childhood, and, ultimately, to solve it. The result was The Good American. Too many people have told me that they would love to write, but they always manage a good excuse for why they don't. Maybe a look at childhood and what happened there might give them a cue, and set them out on the path to doing, finally, what they love to do.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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