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2007 National Book Award Fiction Finalist Interview With Mischa Berlinski
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Photo © Louis Monier
Mischa Berlinski
Fieldwork
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

BAJ: First and foremost, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! One of the staples of the finalist-interview genre seems to be the question of where you were when you found out. How did you find out about being a finalist? Has it sunk in yet?

MB: I live in Jeremie, a small town in southern Haiti, where my wife works with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission here. As it happens, Jeremie is very peaceful most of the time, bordering even on dull: we have a gingerbread house with a view on one side of a big green mango tree, and on the other side, of the Caribbean. Sometimes I go days without checking my email, or turning on my cell phone—and this is just what happened last Monday. It was raining all morning and I was looking at the water splash off the big green mango tree and reading Edwidge Danticat’s very sad memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, when my father finally reached me on the telephone. He and my agent—my father and I have the same agent, the wonderful Susan Ginsberg—had been trying to find me for days. (Perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration, but my father is like that.) They were both very excited. Good news, he said…

BAJ: Has the award business sunk in yet?

MB: No, not really: I’ve been trying to explain to everyone in Jeremie that this is a very big deal, but nobody but my wife really seems to understand here. I’ve been practicing my pleased but still modest demeanor so that nobody thinks I’m stuck-up or it’s all gone to my head, but to tell the truth, I don’t think anyone’s really noticed a difference. Most of the Haitians thought I was kind of strange before, and I think they still do.

BAJ: In a country such as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis, what is the role of the fiction writer? Does being a finalist for such a prestigious award affect how you view yourself in that role?

MB: I’m not really qualified to answer this question. I’ve been living abroad the better part of the last ten years, and I don’t know much about the reading habits of most Americans, or the role of the fiction writer in America. I do know that “state of crisis” has a very different meaning here in Haiti—and when it comes to reading, well, seventy percent of the population is illiterate.

I don’t know what the role of the fiction writer is in America, but I am sure of this: it’s a great time to be a reader of fiction (a reader of anything, really) in America. There isn’t another country in the world that produces the sheer volume and abundance of fiction as America—one only has to set foot in Barnes & Noble and look around the fiction section to realize what a staggering number of stories America produces. (This is an experience that has made many a novelist want to put their head in their hands and moan.) And good fiction, too: so many interesting, amusing, moving and beautiful novels, novellas, and short stories are being written by American writers that I couldn’t possibly hope to read more than a fraction of our national creative output. This is not to mention the other forms of fiction—the wonderful writing for television and the screen. There is nothing in the world like The Wire or The Sopranos. (The Wire, by my lights, is nothing less than a great novel.) There is so much great writing out there that even if you never wrote a word, American readers could gorge themselves on good writing all day every day for a lifetime.

So that’s certainly the greatest change between last Sunday, when I wasn’t nominated for anything, and Monday. Last Sunday, I felt a little like I had bad breath in a crowded bar filled with beautiful people; then the National Book Award people call, and it’s like this beautiful blonde turns around, flips her hair, and says, “Tell me all about yourself,” and wants my opinions on things like the role of the fiction writer in America.

BAJ: How long did you work on Fieldwork?

MB: I kept drafts of the novel on my computer. The earliest dates from April, 2003. The final galleys were in my editor’s hands July, 2006. But I did a lot of the research before I got started.

BAJ: What drew you to the story?

MB: I was living in northern Thailand under conditions very similar to the eponymous hero of the novel—schoolteacher girlfriend, broke, trying to make a living as a freelance journalist—when I was introduced to a number of American missionaries working with the Lisu, one of the northern Thai hill tribes. I was wonderfully fascinated by both the missionaries and the Lisu—I wanted to know why the missionaries were there, and why the Lisu were listening to them. That’s when I conceived the idea of writing the history of a conversion of tribal people to Christianity. I had stumbled across a story of, very literally, Biblical dimensions. It’s not so often you come across one of those.

BAJ: How does the book compare to other prose you’ve written?

MB: It’s longer and better.

BAJ: Were there moments in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t work? If so, how did you press on?

MB: I never thought the book wouldn’t work, because I had such a clear plot in mind. The road map was very clear. But there were times when I thought that I might not be able to write it, because I got hung up on a certain scene, and I didn’t know how to move forward. I always thought: if I just write this chapter, the rest of the book will fly. But I also thought: I’d rather die than finish this chapter. Some of these scenes, in the end, were not important (although it took me awhile to realize that sometimes) and I just left them out; but others were essential, like the ending, which I found exceedingly difficult to write.

More experienced writers may disagree, but I suspect that very difficult moments are often a sign of a lack of interest on a writer’s part, or simply not having enough to say. Almost always, the most successful strategy was to detour around the obstacle, rather than blast through it. It wasn’t necessary to write a long description of Thomas Walker’s time in a Chinese prison. The question asked myself was: If you don’t know how to write this, or if you don’t want to write this, why write it?

BAJ: If there is a common thread among this year’s fiction finalists, it might be that all of the books employ interesting narrative structures and scopes. In Fieldwork, you’ve used something akin to a pulp writer’s sense of plot—the book is, in the best possible ways, a hardboiled page turner—and you’ve also, in something of a postmodern twist, given the narrator your own name. Did you conceive of such narrative acrobatics before beginning to write the book, or did the symbiotic relationship between the subject and structure emerge more intuitively?

MB: As I mentioned above, before there was novel, there was a journalistic project—I had in mind a book about the conversion of the Lisu. I even wrote a proposal and a sample chapter which my agent sent out to a dozen or so publishers. None of them were interested. I noticed that my friends and family had this particular look in their eyes whenever I mentioned the Lisu, like I was discussing changes in the home amortization deduction of the tax code. I was convinced that the Lisu and their conversion were interesting, but everyone else thought they were so boring. I put the Lisu and the missionaries aside.

A few years later—I remember it very clearly—on a warm afternoon in Paris in springtime, I was reading the short stories of Somerset Maugham, which are so rich in plot and drama and sheer story, and I dozed off. When I woke up, I realized that’s what my Lisu story needed: a plot. And I had a great plot in mind.

Fieldwork thus began as a thought experiment: I tried to imagine what would have happened if, in that year I spent in northern Thailand, I had come across a great story—in the journalistic sense of the word ‘story’ as much as the literary. I wanted the reader to go the same places I went that year and meet many of the same people, but have the forward momentum that only murder can give a novel. I was determined to write a novel that compelled the reader to take an interest in the conversion of the northern Thai hill tribes and the lives of missionaries and the history of anthropology. I wanted to write a fictional work of literary non-fiction, as it were. In the end, the fiction overwhelmed the non-fiction, but that’s how things started.

If the decision to write a plotted novel was very intentional, the choice of the narrator’s name was rather haphazard. Given that I was creating a narrator so similar to myself, it was only natural to lend him my own name, just to get things started. This was not some very deep decision. It just kind-of happened. Over time, the narrator’s story diverged from my own quite significantly, just as the Dyalo became very different from the Lisu. Nevertheless, I kept the name, for a reason all novelists will understand: it was the character’s name, and to call him anything else would have felt strange.

BAJ: Finally, when you were writing Fieldwork, did you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If so, who?

MB: I always write with my family in mind, although if I think about them too much while I’m writing a get all self-conscious.

My first reader is my wife, to whom I read aloud: she is Italian, and if I succeed in maintaining her interest with what I write in English, I know that things are going the right direction. Reading to somebody who is not a native English speaker inevitably improves what I write. It puts greater emphasis on dialogue, and forces me to cut down on wordy or precious descriptions. When Cristina gets bored, she falls asleep, which to me is a very clear sign of something.

Then I send off what I have written to my sister, herself a wonderful novelist, and my father, who is the finest writer and most perceptive reader that I know.

Finally, there is my mother whose taste is unpredictable but who is terrifyingly honest in her opinions.


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5 Under 35” fiction honor from the National Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. For more information, please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.

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