BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with Robert Siegel, November 27, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Title:
Interview with Robert Siegel, November 27, 2007
Date:
November 27, 2007
Description:
Robert A. Siegel, author of the novels "All the Money in the World" and "All Will Be Revealed," shares experiences from his time in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and discusses significant events in his personal life and literary career.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Siegel, Robert Anthony Interviewer: Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview: 11/27/2007 Series: SENC Writers Length 60 minutes

Diesenhaus: Before I start, when I read the introduction, would you like me to call you Robert Siegel or Robert Anthony Siegel?

Robert Siegel: Oh, I always get that Anthony in because there are so many Robert Siegels out there, not least the NPR guy. Drives me wild. It may be a pretension, you know, and I'm always worried that people consider it a pretension, but it has its function, as well. I'd be sunk without it.

Diesenhaus: Okay. I'm Doug Diesenhaus, and today is November 27th, 2007. I'll be interviewing Robert Anthony Siegel for the Randall Library Oral History Project on Creative Writers. And usually the best place to start is if you could tell me how you began writing, how you've come to this life.

Robert Siegel: And of course that is a very simple and incredibly difficult question, lost in the mists of time. And I'm frankly not sure how to answer it. I know that I became interested in writing in college. Something about-I went to Harvard, so I left home for the first time. I was the kind of kid who hadn't even been away to summer camp, so in a funny way, it's not very far, but it was a very wrenching experience. I wrote letters home. I started keeping a journal. That kind of self-awareness that is a part of writing and the connection to words, I think I first experienced it there. The sense of being out of place and then wondering what my place was, where I came from, who I was, and thinking of language as a tool with which to pursue that examination. Then, in my junior year, I went to Japan. I spent a year at a university there, studying Japanese language. I was an East-Asian Studies major in college. And that intensified those feelings. Now I was so far away and of course, you go to a foreign country, what does an American do? An American thinks about America and what it is to be American and where he came from and what that means and, again, I wrote a lot of letters and I kept diaries. And I think I started writing stories then. And, of course, they were incredibly bad, Hemingway-esque stories. But it was a start. I had the feeling I wanted to think things through with language.

Diesenhaus: And were there teachers who were supportive or classes you were taking that kind of nurtured it along?

Robert Siegel: I did take- my freshman year, I took- well, it was essential. They offered an Expository Writing class with a Creative Writing option, which meant that we read literature, wrote critical papers, but wrote a story or two. And that was enormously influential, and there was a lovely- teacher was a lovely man who was smart and interesting and inspiring, and I see his novels around. He's still working, but he's not there any longer. And then, I think, my sophomore year, I took a poetry workshop- again, an exciting experience. And a little bit intimidating, because there were students in there who were pretty good at this thing, and were relatively advanced. I don't know how they'd look to me now, but they clearly knew much more than I did, and I felt a little inadequate. I started to understand that this was a big undertaking and difficult, and that I had a lot to learn.

Diesenhaus: You talked about how that experience, or that time in your life, was when it started to become important to you, but had reading always been important, or was there certain points in your life where reading was a major part of your life? Or what kind of books were you reading or interested in?

Robert Siegel: Yeah, I was a huge reader, and I think this is fairly common to writers. I always tell my students that writing is really just reading in reverse. It's like a circuit. You've just sent the energy in the other direction. I just, I was just an obsessional, hungry reader. Probably before leaving for college, in my last couple of years of high school, I got into the 19th Century Russian writers, in translation, of course: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Lermontov, all these guys, and I read them in some very sort of basic, atavistic, naïve way. To me, War and Peace was an adventure story, pure and simple. I loved their ability to sort of encompass the world in their- these characters that seemed so alive and lived these huge, complicated lives. I felt that way about Dostoevsky, too. You know, The Brothers Karamazov, oh, it was so real, these experiences, these reading experiences, were just so gripping and real to me.

Diesenhaus: And then as you got out of school, was there a time when you studied abroad, between, after Harvard, or was it the only time-

Robert Siegel: Actually, after Harvard, I graduated and I went back to Japan. I had won a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education to study for two years in a graduate program at the University of Tokyo. So I was in the Graduate Department of Comparative Studies there. And I studied alongside with other Japanese grad students. I was in way over my head in terms of language ability, my understanding of Japanese literature. It was a sink-or-swim type experience. Mostly, I sank and bubbled. You know, I did a lot of bubbling, but people were very kind and very helpful and, it was such a deep, wonderful time. You know, I can't say enough about it. It was just so good. And what I did, weirdly, is that I started reading a lot of American fiction, because I was- it was my second time back in Japan. I was experiencing the same thing all over again. It brought up questions of who I was and where I belonged and what my future would be and who my people were, and all that stuff. So I read a lot of Jewish writers, Jewish-American writers, Roth, Malamud, Saul Bellow. I think I read everything Roth had written up to that point, and this was 1985, so of course he's had about fifty books since then, but you know, he had about fifty at that point!

Diesenhaus: And was this the kind of further finding your identity while you're in a foreign country? Was that also having an effect on the types of writing you were doing? Were you still doing writing at that point or were you starting to develop a different form?

Robert Siegel: I was writing primarily poetry, which probably is actually fairly common. I think people who start to write are often drawn to poetry, perhaps for the wrong reasons. Some of the right reasons, some of the wrong reasons- the wrong reason, of course, is that it's short. And I don't think it- I'm not sure it pulled, it drew on my best talents. I think I was a pretty bad poet. But it made me think about language. And it made me observe myself and the world more closely. I wasn't really writing fiction with any sort of seriousness. In my case, that would take an awful long time. (laughs) I really struggled to find some meaningful relationship to fiction and writing.

Diesenhaus: And did the subject come about when you when you went to the Iowa Writing Workshop?

Robert Siegel: It did, but only very slowly, and it took me a long time to get there. I had, after coming back from Japan, I had a hiatus of about five years in which I sort of- I think it would be unfair to say that I was directionless or floundering, but I think I was uncertain about which way to go or how to go about it. I was writing fiction, but I wasn't finishing things. And the things I was writing were very imitative. What I was doing is I was reading a lot, which I think was healthy. I was reading at that point broken English in Japanese because my Japanese had come out- that was strong. So all the Japanese reading I should have been doing in Japan, I was now doing in New York- seems to be a pattern for me. And I worked at a number of odd jobs, which is sort of the classic writer thing to say- oh, he worked at a number of odd jobs. Now, that is less fun than it sounds. Some of them were, in retrospect, looking back, they're sort of, they sound far more interesting. They were usually not as good as they sounded. I worked as a Japanese-speaking tour guide, running Japanese tours in New York for a Japanese travel agency, and I then worked as a translator, an interpreter, which was a little more linguistically demanding. I worked as a paralegal for about a year and a half, for my father, who was a criminal defense attorney in New York. And that became- that helped me with my first novel. In a sense, it became research, so I didn't quite think of it that way at the time. What else did I do? Oh, I worked at a furniture company, which was just horrible. God, did I do any- I worked- no, no, now I'm confusing things- the odd jobs continued for a bit after graduate school, so- but then it's easy to mix them up.

Diesenhaus: Then, so maybe looking just to the Iowa Workshop, can you talk a bit about what that experience was like-

Robert Siegel: Sure.

Diesenhaus: It has such a huge reputation- I was curious to know.

Robert Siegel: And it was an incredibly- in my case, it was an incredibly liberating experience, because here I was, essentially circling the idea of writing fiction, having trouble getting anywhere, even just finishing work, or speaking honestly in my own voice, as opposed to highly imitative work. I imitated whoever I was reading at that time. Sometimes, you know, it was a Bernard Malamud imitation, it was a Saul Bellow imitation, Philip Roth imitation, and then I went to Iowa, and here I was among people who were doing the same thing, and teachers, writers, real writers- writers who actually published books and who were older and wiser than I was, and they confirmed the notion that this mattered. And that's really what I needed to hear- that it mattered, it was a worthy goal. And if you put one foot in front of the other, you would progress. In a sense, I borrowed their faith because I didn't have any myself. And that's become sort of a tenet- a key tenet of my own teaching, that I offer that faith to my students 'til they can nurture it in themselves. You need somebody to fill that gap for you. And I don't think that was faith in me, particularly. The professors there were- I didn't have strong personal relationships. They were pretty aloof as a group. It was faith in the importance of writing, and its dignity and nobility, and in the value of this kind of introspection and- that it was okay to love stories and write stories and tell stories and worry about stories and that it wasn't effete or pointless or self-referential. Many of those ideas were circulating at the time and in the culture- it was considered okay to say, oh, you know, hey, greed is good- if you're not, if you're not, you know, creating a new software company, then you're somehow, you know, effete. The Zeitgeist has passed you by. And here was a small group- you know, involuted obviously, who said, oh, no, that's not the case- you can sit here and write a story. And I won't think less of you.

Diesenhaus: And were you working on short stories or were you working on longer works?

Robert Siegel: Well, here's the thing. Before I had actually applied to the Workshop, I had started on a novel, and I would work on- I applied with a couple of chapters from the novel, and as soon as I started on that novel, I knew it had been the thing that I had always wanted to write, secretly, and the thing that had been getting in the way. And you know, it continued to get in the way for years after because it demanded more of me, I think, as a person and as a writer than I was able to give at that point in my life. So it had a sort of stymieing effect. I wasn't ready to write the novel and 'til I wrote the novel, I wasn't free to write anything else, either. It would have been good if I had been free. I could have picked up some chops, you know, to learn some skills, but I had this one story I wanted to tell- needed to tell. And I worked on it throughout the workshop. I didn't use any of that material, even though it became my graduation thesis. And it took me another four, five years to finish it. And that became my first novel.

Diesenhaus: That actual material?

Robert Siegel: Yeah.

Diesenhaus: What became the novel?

Robert Siegel: Right, though it had been through so many iterations at that point, and so much had been thrown out.

Diesenhaus: Is that just from sort of your recollection? Is that what other people were doing or did they create stuff that they later put away and said, I'm never turning back to that again, and then moved on to something else? Or did many of the theses become potentially publishable works?

Robert Siegel: Well, you know, every MFA Program is different. I find that here at UNCW, we put a lot of emphasis on the graduation thesis. That wasn't my experience as a student at Iowa. It was considered a formality, required by the university for, you know, almost as if it were paperwork. There was some sense that you would then go on and after graduation, work for a long time before you had something that was complete and ready. Which approach is better? I'm not sure. I know that I wasn't ready. I wouldn't have had anything. If I was a student here, I would have handed in some junk, and tried to move on. There wasn't a lot of interest in the thesis in general. Again, our professors there were pretty aloof, so, you know, they sort of signed off on the thesis- it wasn't clear how closely they had read it, or if they had read it at all. We didn't have a meeting or a conference about it. Here we have an elaborate defense. You have three Readers. It's gone over- often, they seem to get more attention than they really deserve. Most students at the Workshop back then were writing short fiction. The Workshop method was geared towards talking about short fiction. In that way, it didn't really serve me all that well because I was writing chapters, and it wasn't so much that my Readers treated them as short stories, which would have been a mistake, but they were, they couldn't help me with sort of big architectural issues, you know, the questions that a novelist faces about structure and the relationship of chapters- 'cause they were only seeing a little bit at a time. In that way, I think, the Workshop- as it existed back then- I don't know how they teach it now- wasn't helpful to a budding young novelist, or wasn't completely helpful. Where it did help is that it taught a kind of- it gave other things- a rigor in language, a habit of close reading, a certain kind of imaginative honesty. People tended to have really great bullshit detectors, and those things were healthy.

Diesenhaus: The way you're describing it, it sounds fairly idiosyncratic, but I wonder since that point, do you think the MFA has changed or is there kind of an evolution of the MFA degree going on that you may just be aware of, even if that's of your experiences.

Robert Siegel: Yeah, well, it's a good question, and I know there's a lot of thinking about that now. But it's difficult for me to answer because, really, my experience is so limited. I have those two years at Iowa. I got an MFA. And then my own teaching experience is really entirely here. I taught for a while as an adjunct at NYU, but not among the MFA students. So, I don't know what their program is like. The general sense I get is that programs vary a bit, but not all that much, and that they're still centered on the Workshop experience, and the Workshop is close to what it was when I was a student. People bring in short work and then go around a table and discuss it analytically. I know that UNCW is doing a lot to move outside of those parameters, and I think that's great, actually. Workshops now, here, do a lot more than simply go around the table. There are a lot of different approaches. We read published fiction, we read text from other sources- I like doing that, bringing in sort of non-literary texts. A number of writers here teach long-form Workshops over two semesters, not something that was done at Iowa, though I know it's done elsewhere now. Clyde Edgerton has his students write scenes and then partners with the Theater Department- gets Theater students to act out the scenes- apparently very helpful. This is good stuff- in other words, it's really become a lot more creative about pulling the resources of the university to help students who learn in all sorts of different ways.

Diesenhaus: Also, I believe that's where you met your wife?

Robert Siegel: Mm-hmm.

Diesenhaus: Who is also a writer?

Robert Siegel: Yes.

Diesenhaus: Being married to a writer, I wonder what's that experience like- do you show each other your work? Things like that- affects the work?

Robert Siegel: Yeah. Karen and I met at Iowa. She was the year before me, and we lived, we started to date, I think, in my last year. We continued to date for a number of years afterwards. Eventually, we moved in together. We lived together in New York for a while, and married in- oh, it's ten years now. Yeah, 1997- and it's been an extremely close writing relationship on top of everything else. And we read for each other, we've collaborated- we've started to collaborate a bit.

Diesenhaus: You have- there's an essay that's coming out-

Robert Siegel: Right. We wrote an essay together for an anthology on Hanukkah, of all things- but it's very funny and people really like it, and it was fun to write. And we're trying to do more of that. And collaboration is fun because one of the things about writing is that it's so lonely, you know, to sit at a desk. And I think having a wife who is also a writer has been extremely helpful for me. I think I've needed a lot of support and a lot of direction, and she's been able to give it to me.

Diesenhaus: The collaborating on that essay- I wonder, is it the first time? And then, were there any kind of certain rules, or did you really, you know, kind of work together to write, or did you kind of hand materials back and forth?

Robert Siegel: It came out very naturally. As best as I remember, one of us would sit down at the keyboard and start to type, and the other would sort of stand- I would stand over her shoulder or she would stand over mine, and you know, sort of add in lines or say, no, not that, this- and yeah, I think we passed drafts back and forth, depending on who had time at the moment. You know, we had a deadline, so if I had an hour or she had an hour, she or I would open up the file and do a little work on it, and then of course show the other person what we had done. It was very loose. It felt improvisational. There were no bad feelings- no hard feelings, in part because- I don't know. You know? When you have two small children and you're doing a lot of parenting, you sort of get a joint take on these things, you know? The essay's about our children, so we had been sharing quips back and forth for a long time, and it was just fun to do. We're gonna try and do that again.

Diesenhaus: Yeah, that makes me think, you know- I know sometimes writers- in their experience, something will happen and they'll kind of focus on it and that'll become the seed for something they work on. If that happens for you guys, do you ever sort of encounter the same idea and do you kind of negotiate over who-

Robert Siegel: Who gets the idea?

Diesenhaus: Who gets to work with it, or-

Robert Siegel: We've never fought over an idea. There have been a number of times when I've-when we've- but we do talk about ideas all the time. So, there have been a number of times when Karen wasn't hot on an idea and I sort of pushed her to do it, and it's turned out very well for her. So, I think I had a good sense of what would be good material for her. We've never had to fight, though.

Diesenhaus: I wouldn't even want to get into it if you guys- but, just maybe moving on from that a bit, wondering about if there was a big break in your career, and if that was the publication of your first book, or if you felt like there was another moment that kind of, you know, where professionalization sort of was in your grasp- could you talk about that a bit?

Robert Siegel: I'm still waiting for my big break. I'm waiting for my close-up. Break is one of those words that can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Diesenhaus: Yep.

Robert Siegel: In a certain sense, obviously, the first novel would be a kind of break. It allowed me to publish the book I'd been working on for so long, but it didn't really lead anywhere. In fact, it was very, very difficult to publish my second novel, after the first. And that is now a common trap for- I don't know what you'd call it- early-career novelists. That gap between the first and the second book has become really tricky, and a lot of people don't make the jump to the second one. Weirdly, the mouth of the publishing funnel is relatively wide, but narrows quickly. First novels tend to sell very poorly. The truth is that all novels tend to sell very poorly. The literary marketplace is contracting in real numbers. And then- though you get a free ride with your first novel, your second one, you actually have sales figures, and now because of things like Bookscan, those numbers are available to everyone in the industry. It makes no sense at all. You would think that they'd want to invest in long-term, and try to build a career- not the case. So it's difficult.

Diesenhaus: And so with your second book, I know that you- it's MacAdam/Cage, which is an independent-

Robert Siegel: Yes.

Diesenhaus: I wondered, were there benefits to that- publishing with an indie was a somehow different experience than with- was it Random House the first?

Robert Siegel: Yeah. There were both benefits and losses. But actually, I didn't experience- you know, everything is relative, right? The truth is, though, I published with a big publisher, I had a classic, I was a classic fall-in-the-cracks case that you often hear about. It's like a shorthand in the writing world- you know, how did your book do? Oh, it fell between the cracks. Well, I experienced that to the hilt. So, I didn't really get any of the benefits of coming out with a large publisher, in which case, I didn't miss anything when I moved to a small publisher. And what I got felt like gravy. The people I dealt with were far more literate, they were far more interested in literary fiction, they were much more enthusiastic- they were a pleasure to work with! It's much more- they, you know, a labor of love. So I, and I think that the small presses represent the future of literary publishing. At the same time, there's a downside. They don't really have the access to the review machine. Publicity is always difficult, but publicity is difficult everywhere now.

Diesenhaus: Yeah. That's it- at I read you have a two-book deal with them guaranteed?

Robert Siegel: That's right. So I'm working on a novel now. And they're committed. They're probably hoping that I forgot, but I haven't forgotten. I'm gonna do it.

Diesenhaus: If- after that, when you're working on your future books, given what you talked about, you think you want to stay with an independent publisher, or is it still, you know, aimed for the publicity machine kind of thing- the big-

Robert Siegel: I'm totally open. If there's one thing that life teaches you as you get older, it's that you just have to remain open and not decide things before it's necessary to decide. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. And I feel that. Who knows? They may not want me! You never know. You think like, oh, will I deign to give them a tumble? And they're like, sorry, bud, I'm not interested anymore. So you never know how it's gonna go.

Diesenhaus: I wanna talk a bit about your second book. It involves substantial research on photography and spiritualism, and polar exploration. And I just wanna ask about that process and, you know, if it ever got in the way of the writing process, or how you move from the research to writing- kind of bring it all together.

Robert Siegel: Right. Research was a significant aspect of that experience. And it had both- it had plusses and minuses. The plusses was incredibly exciting and it informed the writing. I would learn things about the world I was trying to describe, and that would give me new ideas, then I would realize that I had to take things in a different direction or, you know, up to a different level, or- ideas about character and plot and just interesting details about the world that totally changed my view of things. But it was extremely time-consuming and obsessional in its own right. It drew the energy away and there's always the danger that the research will drive the story, when of course the story has to determine the relevance of the research. And so, at its best, I think it's a back-and-forth process. You write a bit and you realize you need to research something. You do the research and you come back informed with a new view of things that changes the writing.

Diesenhaus: Do you feel like you had a sense- you knew when you had to stop?

Robert Siegel: Oh, I couldn't stop. It was so obsessional.

Diesenhaus: That back-and-forth was really the way-

Robert Siegel: And there was an element of avoidance, too, honestly. Because it's so much easier to just get a stack of books out of the library, or, you know, oh, I can't write another word 'til I go down to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, you know. And I can't get there 'til December, so- very easy to kid yourself.

Diesenhaus: Yeah.

Robert Siegel: But it was also a joy because writing should be a way of learning about the world, and in this case, it drove me to the library and that was the way I learned about a significant moment in our past.

Diesenhaus: I think, related to that, the book explored kind of a technological advancement- changed photography and pornography. What do you see as the importance of technological change in the culture and how humans relate, how they might kind of shift as technology moves?

Robert Siegel: Well, it's a vast subject. You know, we are toolmakers, so technology has been a part of our reality for God knows how long. You know, we know that the apes used tools. Even birds seem to use tools- you know, they can grab a stick and- I was particularly interested in photography just because it seemed to be a way of- writing about photography seemed to be a way of addressing my own sense of growing on reality. The world seems less and less real to me sometimes, and I think that's a feeling that I fight against. And I know others fight against it, too. And, in part, it's because we live in this image culture, and the images seem so real, but they're not real. You know, this is a- this is my wife, but it's not my wife- it's a picture of my wife. It's a very different thing. And that people say, this is my wife! And how does she relate to the photograph? You know, my father died in 2002, and I have photographs of him, and when I look at that photograph, he seems to be absolutely present. You know, as if he were down the street- I could just go and walk over, and of course, he's not. And it's that strange power of the photograph to affect time that interested me.

Diesenhaus: In another interview, you talked about essentially what you're talking about now- the culture's obsession with simulated experience and dependence on fabricated emotion. I guess I'd just maybe just ask a bit more about how the photograph or the images played in that particular work- in particular, I guess I'm thinking- I haven't read it fully, but the pornographic element or the experience- sensual or emotional experience and then you mentioned the stereoscope- how they're brought more to life rather than maybe the one-dimensional- could you talk a bit more about that?

Robert Siegel: Sure. Well, you know, we talk about the value of research, and this is a good example. I started to read a little bit about photographic pornography in the 19th Century. Now, I can't remember where- I kept a meticulous log of all my sources, a bibliography, on a laptop that I dropped and it died. But I read somewhere that photographic pornography- that stereoscopy took over photographic pornography, and it made total sense to me, right? Of course, the stereoscope is an optical device that creates an illusion of three dimensions. You use a stereograph, which is two photographic images that- side by side- that merge when you look through a stereoscope, and it creates this sense of depth which, to us now, is jarring. It feels very unnatural. But at the time, people accepted that as total simulacrum of real 3-D vision. Well, it's a natural for pornography, but I never, I never knew about the connection, then it just- I started to think about pornography itself, and I did a lot of reading on the theory and practice. And it seems to me that, you know- it struck me as a great way to talk about the power of the image. A use of the image that is so powerful, it's disreputable- you know, it happens on the margins because it has a potential ability to upturn or dislocate the balance of things. And it just seemed sometimes like, you know, you go to the zoo and you feel that monkeys are sort of almost- they just missed out on being human, in some way? I feel that way with pornography- just misses out on being something else, on being art sometimes. It creates a feeling, but it doesn't know- it's not able to move from that feeling. And so it just seemed a great way to talk about a character who was stunted and wasn't able to reach out to other human beings. He's stuck in a pornographic world as opposed to a real, physical world.

Diesenhaus: I think related to that, I have a very long question, so bear with me.

Robert Siegel: Sure.

Diesenhaus: You also said in an interview that good fiction is always driven by emotion. So, as a writing teacher, my primary goal is to help students clarify and strengthen the emotional forces in their work. I wonder, (A), how do you do that? And, (B), if the culture's obsessed with simulation, how can writers address that kind of emotional tension between getting towards emotion, but then simil-dissociation from it?

Robert Siegel: Mm-hmm. Well, these are great questions. And I can see the connection. Maybe it's best to start with the second one first. I am well aware of the irony of criticizing our taste for simulated experience when, really, that's all that fiction is. And I think that adds a certain flavor to the criticism because it's what I do! And that's why I feel a strong kinship, both with my pornographer and my spiritualist- my spirit medium. And for that matter, with my polar explorer, as well, because he's as interested in how his explorations appear to others as in the explorations themselves. So, let me grab my train of thought. (pause) So, fiction is essentially a form of simulated experience, and yet, what it does is it reaches for a kind of complexity that throws us back into ourselves, into the world. And we ask it to have real, honest emotion. In practice, how do we sort of refine the emotional content of a piece of fiction? It's complicated, because it's really about getting into the language and it's going through a story, moment by moment, and living it, together in the room, as a workshop. So, mostly, what I do is I just, I bring a really close reading to the text, and I ask a lot of questions. Why does he say this? You know, is he angry here? Why is he angry? Wouldn't he rather feel this, and does this have anything to do with what happened three pages ago, when he said, you know, X, Y and Z? Or when she said X, Y and Z? Is he still angry about that? And the student will say, you know, I didn't realize there was a connection, but now that you say it, I see that there might be a connection. So now, he or she can go back to the desk, to the writing desk, and start to work on that. So, really, what it's about is becoming more self-conscious about the emotional forces that are at work in the piece, so that they can be developed in some self-conscious way. And I think writing is always a movement between writing from the unconscious, freely, and then re-writing from the conscious, analytic part of the mind that now has to refine what's on the page.

Diesenhaus: In relation to what you're saying about close reading, it made me just want to go back to your time spent abroad and also your interest in translation, and I suppose my question is, if you could just talk a bit more about how- your Bachelors in East Asian Studies and some of your work on translation and the Korean Studies Publication Project at SUNY- how you see those things relating to that kind of close reading, or the interchange- the cultural interchange.

Robert Siegel: Hmmm. Well, that's a good question. I think the experience of learning a foreign language, especially one like Japanese, which is so different from English, made me very conscious of how language shapes feeling. Because you can- there are thoughts and feelings you can have in Japanese that you can't have in English, and vice-versa. And as an English speaker speaking Japanese, I would often try to force one set of feelings into the language. It wasn't- what happened was a strange sort of amalgam. It doesn't quite work. So some things need to be said in English- they're English feelings. Some things need to be said in Japanese- they're Japanese feelings. And so I think that sensitivity to language as a vessel of feeling that I try to bring to my fiction- that may be rooted in my experience of learning Japanese. Japanese in general- it's a- you know, these generalizations are always problematic about a culture, but it's very much sort of a language of feeling. If you had to- like, to say, "I understand" in English often means- I would have fights with people about this- to say, "I understand" in English means "I understand your point" but it doesn't carry- and disagree with me if- it doesn't carry any implication of agreement. But to say, "I understand" in Japanese, has sort of an emotional subtext.

Diesenhaus: Sympathy?

Robert Siegel: Sympathy and some sort of acceptance. So, it carried an implication for the relationship, like, "Oh, you understand, therefore, you accept what I'm about to do." Whereas in English, not necessarily. You might say, "I understand" but I'm not gonna let do X- right? That doesn't happen in Japanese. In Japanese, you have to say, "I don't understand." And- so it's very much- Japanese forces you into thinking in very direct, but also subtle ways about relationship, in a way that English doesn't require. I don't know if I've gone off subject here.

Diesenhaus: I don't think so, and maybe just to follow that, I wonder how can translation- does translation sort of have a fallacy to it- or does it work its way around those gaps where you can think or feel in a language one way, but you can't necessarily- so in the translation, does it kind of fill in the gaps to flesh it out?

Robert Siegel: Tough question. You know, translation is- and I'm certainly no expert- but translation is one of those imperfect things that are, nevertheless, absolutely essential to human civilization. We have- it is bad, but we don't have any choice, because we need to learn from each other, across languages. And we need to grow together and the world is only getting smaller, as we all know- smaller and hotter, so we'd better get along.

Diesenhaus: I wanna just go back- also, to where you talked about when you were in Japan, you were reading works more about America, pursuing your identity, and then in America, you were reading about Japanese. You were raised in New York, and you lived there for a while, and you come South. I wonder, how has that move been and have you had that sort of inverse- has any kind of that inverse happened, as part of that move, as well? Have you- what you read or what you write about been affected by the move, or where you live?

Robert Siegel: Strangely, I think it really hasn't. I think that has more to do with the circumstances of our move and my time of life. We got here- my son was three. I started work immediately, and my wife, Karen, was pregnant with our daughter who is now going to be five. So we've had an incredibly demanding family life- two small children, full-time work and I wrote a book. And Karen also- she's just edited an anthology of essays, she's been publishing stories steadily, and she's about to finish a second novel. So she has been having a full career as a writer, as well. I think we've been living in a little bit of a bubble. I would- hopefully, things will get easier, you know. We've always read and admired Southern writers, but how much would I pretend to know about the South? You know, I wouldn't wanna embarrass myself by pretending.

Diesenhaus: Given what you've just described, I wonder the balance- for instance, do you write at a certain time of day? And she writes at a different time of day? How do you sort of- especially with all that's going on in your life- how do you guys stay productive and find time for your creative work?

Robert Siegel: Yeah, it's just very difficult, as any working parent knows. In a way, the challenges aren't different. It's learning how to juggle, which is difficult when, you know, you can't spend a lot of- as a parent who is also a writer, you can't spend a lot of time staring out the window or biting your nails. You have an hour, so you need to start typing fast. And sometimes that works, and sometimes it's actually liberating, right?- 'cause you don't have to go through all the agony. But sometimes it doesn't work and you find that you've spent an hour typing gibberish. That happens a lot. I've learned how to work at odd moments throughout the day, often at night, when the children are asleep. Sometimes very early in the morning when I can't sleep- you know, time is so precious- oh, I can't stare at the ceiling, even though it is four in the morning. So I get up and do a couple hours of work- sometimes I'll work here, with the door shut, students banging. "I know you're in there!" Yeah, it's just grabbing opportunities while you can.

Diesenhaus: So it sounds like you don't necessarily have like a quota, or a page goal- it's more you fill in the time as you have it?

Robert Siegel: Yeah. That's been my approach. I know that other people make quotas work for them. I guess I'm a little scared of not meeting my quota. I think that would be depressing. One day, I would like to try that. I think what you really need is some sense that you're moving forward, some sense of momentum- things coming together. But you can define that a number of ways.

Diesenhaus: Given that and given what you said about the gibberish, I wonder- is it your tendency that the writing comes easy? Or is it more of a difficulty, or- not necessarily block, but running into a wall kind of?

Robert Siegel: Well, I think that it's important- and I tell students this- I think it's important to acknowledge, first off, that writing is very hard. It is hard to do. It is very hard work. All too often, even very sophisticated writers somehow channel those absurd stereotypes about inspired, crazy scribbling. I've never really known it to happen that way. Sure, you hit a roll and things seem to come easy for a while, and then suddenly you lose the wave and you've gotta paddle. And it's hard and your arms hurt. Then you catch a wave again. But you're only gonna catch the wave if you're in position. Right? So, it's a lot of work to get into position so that you can capitalize on some good luck.

Diesenhaus: I think I have three more questions for you-

Robert Siegel: Sure.

Diesenhaus: I have a question I keep intending to ask each person and I seem to not be able to, but I'm noticing also in a windowless office here- I've heard it said that writers either face a window looking out or face against the window, with their back to the window, and I wonder if you have a window in your office and which side you would fall on if you do?

Robert Siegel: That's interesting. Well, as you can see, I haven't had a window here, though I'm about to move. Going to- the new office will have a window, so I'll be able to tell you then! You know, I tend to think that there are window days and non-window days. There are times when you need to look inward and times when you need to look outward, and I think at its best, writing is an inward-looking process that, ultimately, forces you as a person back out into the world, in some changed state. I don't think we want to look at writing as somehow a kind of self-sufficiency, or a kind of enclosure, or a kind of retreat. I think, ultimately, it changes you and propels you outward, back into the world. That's what I want for myself.

Diesenhaus: That said, when- if you're meeting people or in a social event, if they ask you what you do, do you say that you're a writer? Do you say that you're a teacher? And if you say that you're a writer, what's the response? What's the perception that you feel back?

Robert Siegel: It's an interesting question. I would like to say that I just say writer. I think that would be, perhaps, the braver answer. I tend to say something like, around here, I tend to say Professor, in part because that locates me socially, in the world of Wilmington. It also allows me to avoid all that kind of semi-uncomfortable stuff about, oh, do I know any of your titles? I like this guy- he's named Stephen King- you ever read any of that? You know the kind of idiocy that you get, which is a reminder in a way that we've all been left behind, that ultimately, the culture, if it ever was literary, is no longer literary- that kind of central, that central place that the novel- is gone. I don't know if there's anything at the center taking its place- maybe warfare. I'm not sure. I think our culture now is all periphery, right? So that, as a novelist, you will have a small nucleus of like-minded people that you can talk to about the experience of reading and writing, and as an electronic game player, you know, a video game player, you will have a somewhat larger nucleus of people you can talk to about the joys of, you know, Death Star Ten. But we're all on the periphery now.

Diesenhaus: Giving that uplifting sentiment, my last question is if you have any advice for writers- younger writers, people in the MFA or people, you know, curious about pursuing an MFA, against the world of being on the periphery, you know, just about the process and going forward?

Robert Siegel: Well, see, the uplifting part was that we're all on the periphery. And there's a kind of freedom that comes with that. Given that we're all inhabiting the margins, who do you wanna hang out with? These are the people I like to talk to, these are the kind of obsessions that I have. I like reading stuff and I like writing stuff, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. In my view, both reading and writing are deeply moral acts that force us to better understand our position in the cosmos. It's a good thing and that's why I always encourage people to read and to write, and to take both activities seriously. You want to major in writing in college? More power to you. You want to go and get an MFA? I think that's great. It won't necessarily- it's not a career in the sense of becoming an engineer or a lawyer, or a doctor- I'm not sure that it ever was, really. And I'm- I don't see that it should be. I don't think that's a- I don't find it sad that it isn't a career in those senses. It's something you do for love. But the nice thing about living in a society of surplus is that you're free to pursue your obsession, and there's always a way to make ends meet.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Robert Siegel: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you for the wonderful questions.

Repository:
UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign