Upon publication of his first novel, Balls, author Julian Tepper received pointed advice from one Philip Roth: quit. What the elder statesman, on the verge of his own retirement, was trying to say is that the writing life is “just torture,” and he should spare himself the suffering. But instead of heeding that advice, Tepper has written a new novel that revels in suffering, especially in pursuit of some elusive artistic dream. Ark, his sophomore novel, fairly revels in it, across three generations of one New York family whose dysfunctionality is borderline transcendental and might bear more than a passing resemblance to Tepper’s own background.
The Rumpus: So, are all members of your family still talking to you after the release of this novel?
Julian Tepper: Unfortunately, so few members of my family still talk to each other—and that’s been true for a long time. The novel hasn’t done anything to affect the number. I did convince my mother not to read it for at least five years. We’ll see if she can resist.
Rumpus: Of the three generations of the Arkin family featured in the novel, Rebecca is the only prominent character under the age of sixty (although the emotional age of some of the older characters could be debated). Being young and spry yourself, is there a reason you were inspired to populate the cast with so many sexagenarians to octogenarians?
Tepper: The simple answer is that the characters populating the novel are based on real life individuals who just so happen to fall between the age-range of those upper years. But I have a good time writing about those who are either preparing for death, or preparing for the death of their own parents—and typically these are people who’ve climbed over the age of fifty-nine. And when I say ‘a good time writing,’ what I mean is that the subject is just so rich. As far as the writing, and the finding out that comes with writing, I became fascinated—obsessed, really—with who we become as we get up into those years and have to take on these issues.
Rumpus: Like the Arkins, your family has extensive experience in the music industry, and you yourself spent years playing bass for the band The Natural History. How would you say your experiences as a musician informed your approach to the craft and lifestyle of a novelist?
Tepper: Oh, it’s informed it all. How do you make art? How do you begin a work? How do you decide on an end-point? And then of course, self-discipline. These were all things I learned in music. And then as far as language, its rhythms—there are no quotation marks in my first novel, Balls, for instance, because their presence on the page, as far my ears heard it, was killing the rhythm of the words. The day I removed every quotation mark from the working-draft was a great one. Suddenly, I felt free. If not for my relationship, my past, in music, and its affect on my ear, I don’t see myself coming to that realization.
The lifestyle of the musician is another story—and it’s one I talk about at length in my next book, which I’m calling Between the Records (this is an autobiographical novel about my father’s career in music, my brother’s and my own, of which I’m nearing completion). The fact is—and this does open up a big door for me, so I’m going to say this in as few words as possible—not many people are made for a life in music. Generally speaking, unless you’re the Beatles and you’re just so popular you can decide you’ll never tour again, you have to make your money on the road. And as romantic as it might sound to some, in all likelihood a life on the road will lead you to either a mental institution, a drug rehab facility or, worst of all, a protracted stay in your parents’ house. Look, I’m not twenty-two anymore, either. I’m thirty-seven, and it’s no great surprise that I prefer to wake up in my home each day, and not on a stranger’s floor.
Rumpus: Ben Arkin has an obsession with his own health that manifests most vividly with the pleasure he takes in poring over the obituaries of his contemporaries. Nearly every other character fixates in some way over their health and vitality, and your first novel features a young man afflicted with testicular cancer. What draws you to return to this theme: the body and its potential failings?
Tepper: I’m not your worst-case hypochondriac, but I certainly make the team. And then, a lot of the time, I use writing as a way of playing out my worst fears, fears of failure, of abandonment, of a mental breakdown, and yes, a physical one, too. There’s something therapeutic there for me in the writing.
Rumpus: In many ways this is a quintessential New York novel, but there is a strong bi-coastal streak. Oliver in particular seems to have found a refuge in Los Angeles (albeit temporarily), and it is where Rebecca is drawn at a pivotal moment. What would you say the west coast represents to this family, and to yourself as a life-long New Yorker?
Tepper: My father has lived in Los Angeles since the mid-90s. I have four brothers in Los Angeles, many good friends. Tally up the days, and I’m sure I’ve spent well over a year of my life there. My relationship to the city is long and complex albeit generally good. But I’m always blown away when Los Angeles does that trick of turning the New York depressive into a mentally thriving, dare I say happy, Los Angeleno. It’s an amazing thing to witness. You kind of can’t believe it’s true—but it is! Of equal interest to me is when this fails to happen, though, and the misery sticks. I’ve seen so many examples of both. And so yes, in Ark, Los Angeles is meant to be seen as a refuge, both symbolically and literally. The question becomes, though: do you even want to be saved?
Rumpus: The title of the book, as well as the diminutive by which the family patriarch is called, is an expressly biblical allusion applied to a studiously irreligious family—a fistfight breaks out at one point in front of a rabbi reading the Kaddish. Why this specific reference?
Tepper: Why did God flood the lands? He’d made a rotten batch of people, and it was time to start over. The Arkins are the kind of people who would get God thinking, “You know, maybe it’s time those waters rise again.”
Rumpus: No one in this book is very happy. Are you happy?
Tepper: If happiness is a talent, I’m not great at it, and I don’t come from people who were. But I do surround myself with those who know how to enjoy life, and that seems to work out fairly well.
Rumpus: Any parting advice for Philip Roth?
Tepper: Apologize to Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden already for that pass you made on Queen Silvia all those years ago.