Contemporary Nomad


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As I’m nearing the end of the first full draft of my next book, I’ve been thinking a lot about work habits. Veteran novelists sometimes obsess over this as much as newbies, and while I’m not so interested in whether or not other novelists write longhand or with computer, I am curious about how other novelists find the time to write.

Now, time is always a challenge. Before I earned my living from this job, I learned how to focus and block out the world, so that you could find me writing (longhand) in restaurants (when I was a customer), in the smoking area beside the dumpsters (when I was an employee), and at my desk at 6 am when I worked in a skyscraper in Manhattan, writing The Bridge of Sighs.

I got an overwhelming thrill when I was awarded the Fulbright to do research for a year in Romania. More than the travel and the research, I was stunned by the prospect of an entire year devoted solely to writing. Then, later, when I quit my day job I realized that, for the rest of my life, I could spend as much time as I wanted just writing. I could sink into my natural impulse and not make excuses to anybody for it.

But it’s never that simple. Up through The Tourist I largely had control of my time, but with Margo’s birth I decided on a 3-month break. That would allow me to focus on those first crucial months of my daughter’s life, and Slavica and I could establish a schedule around which I could return to writing three or more hours a day. Little did I realize that with a baby–and without a nanny, or grandparents living in town–this prediction was entirely unrealistic.

Still, I tried. I caught an hour here and there, and now, a year later, I’m nearly done with the book. But it’s felt like a yearlong struggle with the outside world to get this thing written. And–more worrying–I fear that my fragmented work schedule might have adverse effects on the book. With long works of fiction, you need extended periods just to dwell on the text, so that the final story flows as a cohesive whole.

But these are things I’ll have to deal with in a few weeks, after I’ve let the book sit. But even then, I’m going to need 5-to-8-hour days to really make it work. The question is whether or not Margo will let me have those.

So I put it to the writers out there, particularly those with children or other live-in distractions: How do you find the end-on-end hours to write a book, when the rest of your life is crying for attention?

10 February 2009Life, Writing


More History Next to You

 Image from B92

Having recently returned from Novi Sad to Budapest, and then being fascinated by this story about Aribert Heim, it was strange to run across this recent appeal from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. I’ve often heard my Serbian in-laws discuss the massacres committed by Croatian and Hungarian fascists against them during World War Two, and though the stories are terrible and heartbreaking, I’m always tempted to say, “Okay, but that was sixty years ago…you weren’t even born yet. Time to move on!” Then I come across the Wiesenthal appeal, and I start to wonder. When I’m out wandering the streets, with whom am I brushing shoulders?


The Simon Wiesenthal Center today called upon the Hungarian authorities to prosecute Dr. Sandor Kepiro, one of the Hungarian officers who organized the mass murder of hundreds of Jews, Serbs, and Gypsies in the Serbian city of Novi Sad (then under Hungarian occupation) on January 23, 1942. Kepiro, who escaped after World War II to Argentina, was discovered living in Budapest by the Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi-hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff in the summer of 2006.

In an impassioned speech at the annual memorial for the victims, Zuroff called upon the Hungarians to bring Kepiro to justice while it is still possible.

In his words: 

“If there is anything that we must remember and internalize, it is that the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators were carried out by human beings, who must bear full responsibility for their crimes… This is a sad truth that many governments would prefer to forget or ignore, because the practical implication of this basic fact is that a serious effort be made to bring the killers to justice. How else is it possible that Dr. Sandor Kepiro, one of the Hungarian officers who organized the Razzia, who was responsible for the roundups in the area of the streets Cara Dušana, Nikola Tesla, Futoška, and Jevrejski streets is still living in Budapest unprosecuted and unpunished… So let the demand for justice be issued from this place, not only in the name of the victims but by, and on behalf of, the living, and for future generations.


For more information call 00-972-50-7214156

(The title of this post references an earlier story.)

Post a Comment 8 February 2009History, Life


The writers who influenced me

Lee Goldberg had an interesting post on his blog in which he listed the 25 writers who’d most influenced him. I have to admit, most of them were unfamiliar to me and when I started thinking about a similar list, I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, I struggled to name 25 writers who’d influenced me positively (I can easily name 25 who influenced me by providing examples of how I didn’t want to write). Secondly, I realized my list was quite parochial and I’m not sure why that is - I’ve read plenty of literature in translation and plenty of American literature, but most of my influences have an English slant.

But here we are - there are ten writers listed below, each with an explanation as to why I name them. Remember, this is about influence, not picking favourites, though all of these would figure in such a list, too.

1. CS Lewis - I’d loved books before discovering CS Lewis, and although I loved the Narnia Chronicles as a child, that’s not why I include him here. I was reading The Silver Chair at around the age of seven or eight and was completely transported during the description of a snowstorm - but I was old enough to appreciate that someone had created this with words, the first time I really understood that there was a writer behind every book and the power those writers could wield over their readers’ imaginations. It surely laid the foundation for me wanting to become a writer myself.

2. Saki - Skip forward three or four years and I was introduced to Saki by my English teacher, the formidable Miss Wright. Saki’s stories are known for their twists, but The Lumber Room introduced an idea that was later confirmed in The Dead by James Joyce, the idea that a story can suddenly and unexpectedly take flight and leave the reader somewhere you never expected to be when you started reading.

3. Shakespeare - I’d known about Shakespeare from a much younger age but it was around this time that I started to become familiar with his work. If influence is hearing or reading something that you tuck away for future use, I’ve been influenced by Shakespeare more than I can say, in terms of language, plot, emotion, character. Perhaps it’s unfashionable to say it, but I suspect the same is true for most writers, whether directly or indirectly.

4. & 5. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh - For my money, the two greats of twentieth century English literature. I suspect one of the reasons I liked them is that they touched on themes which already interested me, but in showing me how to tackle those themes in a compelling way they undoubtedly had an influence on the way my writing developed. As an impressionable teenager, I also thought Greene something of a hero.

6. Lord Byron - Speaking of heroes. I liked Byron a great deal, and for a short while I had a knack for meeting girls who also liked Byron. I liked the poetry, of course, or at least the shorter poems, but I think the idea of Byron captured my imagination the way the idea of Hemingway might have done for Olen or other young would-be American authors. On the negative side, Byron and Jim Morrison have to take some of the blame for the awful and morose poetry I wrote around that time.

7. Kate Chopin - It’s all about The Awakening. It’s a great book, but there are a couple of sections in particular, rendered so beautifully that I always have them in the back of my mind, a reminder of what it is I’m trying to achieve.

8. Stephen Crane - And on that note, step up Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage is a wonderful novel, but I try to read his short story, The Open Boat, every year or so. Trying to achieve that level of simple perfection is a constant, perhaps unattainable, goal.

9. Jane Austen - I’m a fan of Jane Austen and she influenced me directly in that I borrowed from Persuasion for the plot of For the Dogs (together with The Nibelungenlied, which I haven’t included here because the author is unknown). But I think Austen is also a great exponent of the light touch. There’s deft social comedy in her books, but she deals with darker themes, too, with regret and loss and exclusion and does it all with such subtlety that I think all modern writers could learn from her.

10. F Scott Fitzgerald - Just to show that influence doesn’t stop once you’re an adult or once you have your first book published. I first read The Great Gatsby a couple of years back and enjoyed it very much. As so often in my books, the relationship with the past features heavily in my new novel, and as I was trying to convey that in one particular section, I thought back to Fitzgerald’s book and “stole” from him. I won’t say which section of Gatsby I paid homage to - maybe when the book comes out, I’ll offer a prize to the first person who writes to me with the answer.

As ever, feel free to comment on the above, on absences that you might not have expected (I realize there are no crime or thriller authors, for example). And do tell, which writers have influenced you?

2 February 2009Life, Literature, Writing


How Not To Write

“Unpublished novelists understand that there is more to a character than the interesting stuff.”

- from How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

28 January 2009Writing


RIP Updike

I just came across the news that John Updike has passed away. Though I have to admit that my real exposure to him comes from his short stories–I never did sit down to the Rabbit sequence–they made a serious impression on me. I was also taken by him as a person in various interviews, particularly on Charlie Rose, where he came across as a level-headed and astute observer of the human condition. And once I even saw him in the flesh–when I was working at the Harvard Bookstore in some previous life.

Kudos to him on an enviable and rich career and life. We should all be so lucky.

See: Salon’s rundown of his life and work.

28 January 2009Literature


Kirkus & IndieNext & Birthdays

As I mentioned before, those trade reviews are coming in, and the last one finally came my way, from Kirkus. It’s not a “starred” review, but as my editor keeps reminding me, three out of four really isn’t bad. Still, the reviewer clearly enjoyed the book and gave us the oh so quotable final line: “Only le Carré can make a spy as interesting.” (review below)

Also, the book has been chosen as a March 2009 “IndieNext” pick–what used to be called the BookSense pick list. As many of you know, this is a wonderful thing as it gets the independent bookstores’ marketing behind the book, gaining it extra display space and notice in the many wonderful independent bookstores throughout the States. So thank you, American Booksellers Association, for your support!

Of course, the real news around here is Margo’s first birthday, which we’re going to celebrate here in Novi Sad with her cousin, Lana, one year her senior. Margo’s on the cusp of a lot of things–almost walking unaided, almost speaking so that we can understand, almost able to feed herself without forcing us to bring in professional cleaners afterwards. In her first year, she’s survived multiple international trips, a fall on the head, and the irritation of living with a novelist, but not once has she complained about her difficult life…okay, maybe a few times, but not as often as she could have. Which makes her far more amenable to life’s troubles than her parents.

[review below]

23 January 2009Life, Ourselves, Publishing Business


Inauguration from a Distance

Yesterday, I caught Barack Obama’s inauguration speech here in Serbia, and this morning saw his face across the front page of the local paper with fragments of the speech reprinted. We get visitors of all political stripes here at the Nomad, but I don’t think I’ve ever made a secret of my liberal leanings. Obama was my candidate, and it was wonderful to see him taking on the mantle of president.

I actually began, a year ago, rooting for Hillary Clinton, largely because of her vigorous but failed push for universal health during her husband’s first term. But as the nomination process continued I was gradually swayed to Obama’s camp.

I found a lot of that initial race distasteful–in my eyes there was a lot of obvious sexism going on. Not from Obama’s people, but from the media in general, which focused too much attention on whether or not Hillary choking up during a press conference was “crying.” It seemed to me that Hillary had to work twice as hard to be viewed in the same light as her male counterparts. So I was sympathetic to her, yet as time passed it became clear that she was losing ground because she couldn’t quite pull off the thoughtful, wise stance that Obama had perfected from the beginning. As her campaign deteriorated, she lost patience in public more often, which is something Obama could never be accused of. So my initial shift was based almost entirely on image, because only image wins elections.

Beyond image, I grew into a Obama supporter simply because started listening more to the debates and realized I agreed with most everything he said, and when he won the election I was pleased. Very pleased. Yet as I watched shots of people weeping in the streets of America, and yesterday the joyous multitudes in Washington weeping their pleasure at his nomination, I realized that, as someone living “over here,” I’m really very disconnected from the historical magnitude of the moment.

This disconnect has been part of my life for the last seven years, beginning with 9/11, which occurred a month after my arrival in Europe. The facts were plain: Something unprecedented and terrible had occurred. But emotionally, it felt as far away as the tragedies that scar many parts of the world, just bigger and set in a place that had never known such terror before. Part of my reaction was shock–I couldn’t quite get my head around it–but a lot of it had to do with the geographic distance. Little did I realize then what an effect that event would have on the world that followed.

Now, with Obama’s inauguration, I feel a double distance. There’s the geographic one, but there’s also a generational distance. For my parents’ generation, yesterday was the realization of the events that shaped their childhoods. It sheds a new light their own past, and on the towering social figures of that time, many of whom met violent ends.

Yet I know. It was a major moment in American history that I’ll be able to talk about with my daughter, something that I’m very happy to have lived through.

Whether or not his policies can live up to his rhetoric, America has already done something most of the world thought it wouldn’t pull off for generations to come. And, for today at least, we’ve probably impressed more people than we’ve pissed off. Yes, I’m pleased. I think it’s starting to sink in.

21 January 2009History, Life