Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Interview: Arnon Grunberg waxes on languages' danger and the writing addiction

One of the greatest advantages of being able to work as a member of the press at events like World Voices is the opportunities to really gain valuable insight from the guests at such events. I was allowed to do just that speaking quickly then conducting an electronic interview with author, playwright, journalist, and Blogger Arnon Grunberg. Mr. Grunberg dropped out of school at age 17 in orders to start Kasimir publishing in his native Amsterdam. His first published work was his novel "Blue Mondays" at age 23. Since then he's gone on to write plays, novels, keeping a blog, weekly and monthly columns in the United Kingdom. His work has allowed him to visit such places as Afghanistan where he was imbedded in the Dutch army, and the highly secretive Gitmo in Cuba--the United States camp for suspected terrorists. Below you’ll find a short exchange with Mr. Grunberg.

Word Riot: You do a huge variety of work, where does the inspiration for it all come from?

Arnon Grunberg: Inspiration can come from any place, and it is not always dependent on outside sources -- often it is just a question of keeping our eyes and ears open.It is hard for me to imagine how inspiration would work without a genuine sense of curiosity.

WR: Do you use different literary outlets for different purposes, or do you feel you create a unity with your works?

AGB: I would not say that everything I write is equally important, but I do think that most things I write are connected and belong to my work, in other wordsTo all the things I have written. I do not believe that reports and articles on let's say my trip to Afghanistan last summer are not connected to my novels,Quite the opposite.

WR: Linguistically which of the languages you write in do you find it easiest to express in, both stylistically and technically? Which if any do you feel more at home in?

AGB: Most of my work is still written in Dutch. Dutch is my first language and I think will stay my first language for a while. I do write some things directlyIn English, and recently I started writing directly in German, but I don't see it coming that I'm going to write a novel directly in English. I have anExcellent translator, so there is not need for me to do it. I mean: it's not a main goal in my life to write directly in English.

WR: You seem to have a knack for putting yourself in danger? What are your personal reasons for this?

AGB: It depends on how you define danger. Being embedded with the Dutch army in Afghanistan is not completely without risks, but hey you are embedded. They don'tWant to send a journalist or an author home in a body bag. I don't think that I put myself in danger; I do believe that it is impossible to live withoutRisks and the concept of total safety are not only unrealistic but often dangerous as well. In general I'm a careful person, but I'm also aware that theBiggest danger is in your own house, so why not travel a little bit?

WR: What moment would you tag as when you knew writing was what you wanted to be doing?

AGB: As you might know first I wanted to be an actor, then I had a publishing house, then I started to write, I think when my Dutch publisher offered me a contractFor my first novel based on two or three stories that was fall 93 -- that was an important moment. When you start writing, when you start whatever itIs, you need somebody who believes in you. But I remember very well saying twelve years ago that I might write till my 35th birthday. Well I'm thirty-sixAnd I still write, it is addictive.

WR: If you could get to experience and write on any moment in history what would it be?

AGB: I would say that living hundred years ago might be fascinating, but then at the same time it is easy to idealize the past. So in general I'm quite happyWriting and living now, which does not imply that this is the best of all possible times to live in. But for a writer it is not that bad.

WR: Visiting Gitmo: how did that come about, have you felt any backlash from your reporting?

AGB: Last summer I started a news series of articles for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Grunberg among the people, which is basically something like let'sSay literary journalism. I was aware of the fact tat journalists could visit Gitmo and I thought this is a good project, especially after having been toAfghanistan. I never experienced any backlashes from my reporting about Gitmo. Which in my view was fair. Well my emigration lawyer told me recently thatThis is not to good time to apply for a green card, he advised me to renew my 0-1 visa. Had I been paranoid I might have thought that this is somehow connectedTo my reporting on among other things Gitmo, but I'm not paranoid. At least I think I'm not.

WR: Going off of the World Voices theme--where do you feel home is, how do you define home?

AGB: I moved to New York in 1995 and for that reason I would state that New York is home. But I would not declare that I'm a New Yorker, and recently while beingAsked to list my influences in terms of nations I forgot to include the US. My sense of home is fluid, which is not that strange given the history of myParents who were Jews from Germany, and who never felt home in the Netherlands, but I don't see my own ideas of home as something negative. The possibilityTo be at home at ore than one place, to feel at ease at many places is an advantage.

WR: Give us your reflections on the road ahead, what do you see developing from the state of things on the international scale?

AGB: I'm not an expert on international developments, but there seems to be the sense, at least in certain circles, that we are going to see a big explosionSoon. I don't believe that. We will continue in this fashion for quite a while. Things are very slowly getting worse.

WR: Going forward personally any major goals? Things you hope to do?

AGB: I'd like to finish my novel somewhere in January 2008. I plan to go back to Afghanistan -- later this summer I'm going to work a few weeks as a chamberMaid in a small hotel in Bavaria and I'm going to report on a daily basis for a Dutch newspaper about my experiences there. These are things I'm really lookingforward to. Of course I'd like to win the Nobel Prize one day but that's beyond my control. My work is to write and to a certain degree to live in a wayThat will benefit my writing.

WR: For those interested in novel writing or journalism any advice?

AGB: Don't measure success in sales figures. Stendhal sold during his life never more than 200 copies. An anecdote my German publisher loves to tell. Don't limit yourself when you don't see the merits of the limitations. Listen carefully and postpone your judgment. Premature judgment kills curiosity. Always questionYour own motives. Be aware of self-censorship.

WR: Any last words?

AGB: Yes of course but not at the moment. My thanks go out to Angela Hayes at Goldberg McDuffie and Mr. Grunberg’s personal assistant for making this happen.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Moth

I ran out of class as fast as I could, knowing full well I probably had work to be attending to. However I knew
that I had something exciting and unique awaiting me. After madly dashing to the cleaners, and then the train I was off to pick up my World Voice's festival press pass. I arrived at the oddly located 37 arts, a 4 story performance space, located about as far west as one can go in Midtown Manhattan, to realize I’d missed the first event I was meant to attend. So me, my Italian sub and lots of very professional type people milled about this lobby, completely void of seating for nearly an hour. Upon entering the theater, a rather small room, with 3 rows of ground level seating then a balcony. The first row was reserved for readers and guests so I grabbed the aisle seat in the second row, as they'd let me and other press members in early. The first thing I heard upon entering the hall was an alarmingly deep booming voice-- that of an author I'd later learn was Mr. Edgar Oliver as he sound checked, discussing the substance of his rather measly all be it unhealthy lunch, while making it sound like the most ominous thing known to man.
After that house music clicked on and the room began to fill. The format of the evening was different from readings which I’d attended in the past, the night began with a Mid-Eastern sounding sequence played by the resident Violinist, as the evenings mc Jonathan Ames introduced the concept of the Moth reading series, and the nights theme (home and away, the theme of this years festival), and its history started by a poet who moved to New York from the south, and was named for his memories of falling asleep as his family told stories on his porch--seeing moths fly around the light. (That does make me wonder about the quality of the told stories).
The first reader to speak was Pico Iyer, (couldn't find a good link for him). Who upon further research is a fascinating figure who I hope to land an interview with at some point for this space. He discussed a trip to Yemen, with vivid imagery, and delightful wit, managing rather impressively to bring in the 9/11 tie in with out killing the mood all together. After him Mr. Oliver took over the microphone and discussed his first trip back home, to Georgia, for the death of his mother. Neal Gaiman described it as a wonderful tail of southern gothic madness. and I couldn't dub it better myself. Mr. Aims told the tale of his learning of the birth of his child at age 23 then fast forwarding (yet managing to maintain coherency), to a Christmas eve spent doing coke with a black transsexual. Intermission saw a mass exodus to the lobby. I had the good fortune at this time of getting to speak briefly with a personal literary hero of mine-- Mr. Neil Gaiman, a wonderful author, and it turned out an even superior human being. While I gained a great respect for every author who I encountered that night. Many of them bore a certain air of superiority and/or smugness, Mr. Gaiman was true to form a class act and gentleman speaking warmly with fans during intermission, even a slightly crazed comic junky, then me a awkward bumbling college student. There went my professionalism for that moment but it was oh so worth it. The evening continued with a story by Laila Lalami
, a native of Morocco, who spoke of her childhood and then how she missed becoming a multimillionaire and was glad for it. The last reader of the night was the incomparable Neil Gaiman. Mr. Gaiman told a story about how his passport helped him survive a teenage antic involving lots of cigarettes, a trip to Germany and a girlfriend. The authors then set up shop on stage to sign however due to the impending nature of my train I had to run madly back to Penn Station, for which I ended up requiring a cab. Trips are never uneventfull, and this one doubley so. The crowd drawn by such events is a fascinating cross-section.
Not that its all that diverse—being 90 percent middle to upper class white folks, usually a bit older then myself though there were a fair deal of young professionals. The other Pen events tend to draw a more diverse (age wise) crowd, however I suspect in part due to the slightly steep price of attendance, the college aged segment of the audience had opted to shy away from the event. If nothing else I’d experienced something totally new, and beyond that, discovered some amazing authors. I had planned to attend two events today however due to flooding near my University I only managed to attend one, a mildly interesting discussion on the role of New York in literature, for which I missed20 minutes. Not that was entirely bad, it just didn’t really offer much insight that a resident who was involved in the arts wouldn’t think of.
More soon
ps: thanks to the commenters i've fixed my highly imbarrissing fopa--and thanks so much to Neil Gaiman (yes i got the name right now folks) for the link)

Friday, April 27, 2007


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