Conversations with Writers Braver Than Me: Shalom Auslander

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Auslander: Like six or seven years now.

Rumpus: So after your first child was born, and your parents came to see him that one time you write about in Foreskin’s Lament, that was it?

Auslander: That was it, and I had not really spoken to them for a year or so before that.  I just thought, maybe I should present my son, and maybe I should invite them over, and it was a ridiculously bad idea. Part of it is that when you leave that particular club, you are all the way out. More than the family, it’s the community. You’re all the way in, or all the way out.

Rumpus: So you are completely out? Is there anyone you talk to?

Auslander: No. I do not speak to my siblings or anybody.  And that is the price I paid for writing about that life. But frankly there is no price. I am happier than I would have been if I had stayed.

Rumpus: Were you already out when you wrote Beware of God?

Auslander: Well, I was half in and half out.  I took way too long. They were like the fingernail I just did not want to finally pull off, thinking I was helping the fingernail by keeping it on. During one of the last few phone calls I had with my mother, she let me know she was unhappy about what I had written in Beware of God, and she asked, “What are you doing next?” In her tone you could hear, “Now that you have destroyed me, what are you going to do to me next?” I said, “I am just writing pieces about my time in the Yeshiva in Spring Valley,” and she kind of laughed and said, “Why would anyone care about that?” And I said, “I do not know. I just know I do.”

Rumpus: Good answer!

Auslander: I have realized that for me it is like, you know that game, Operation?  The whole ideas is that you are supposed to not hit the sides and make the alarm go off. For me, though, the only stuff that is interesting is the stuff that hits the sides and makes the alarm go off. When I’m writing stuff that doesn’t, I am just depressed and bored and I do not want to write anything.

Rumpus: I’m still way too afraid to let any alarms go off, although I eventually have to. I have to accept that some of what I write will be hard for me to write, and maybe painful for other people to read.

Auslander: I remember one day emailing the publisher of Foreskin’s Lament, as if he were asking for something else. I was like, “I’m telling you right now, there is no fucking happy ending here. We are not all getting back together. There is no kosher barbecue at the end, no fucking alcoholic who gets off the bottle. This ends as badly as it starts.” He basically said, “Yeah I know, we have already talked about this.” But I needed to sort of say that.

Rumpus: You were worried no one was going to like it.

Auslander: But I can’t worry about that. For me the writing is best when I have an attitude of fuck everyone. It’s very odd – I’ll go on a reading tour and I will stand in front of a room full of people who I am very glad are there, but I know that my whole job in my head, in order to write, is to say, “Fuck all of you. I do not care what you think.” And yet half the job is going around and talking to people and asking them what they thought of your book.

Rumpus: After having gotten through Beware of God and your “break-up” with your parents, were you still anxious about their reactions to Foreskin’s Lament?

Auslander: With everything I write I still go through anxiety and guilt. There is this five-year-old inside me that is still afraid to write some things because, in my mind, this will be the final straw.  This will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  This camel’s back is broken in so many places, it is never going to walk again, but every time, I still think, Do not write that because mommy will never talk to you again. And mommy will never talk to me again. I’m not talking to mommy. And yet there is a part of me that doesn’t want to close the door completely.

Rumpus: I’d say that door seems locked shut.

Auslander: It is bricked over.  Unless you pull the plaster off the wall, you would never even know there was ever a door there.

Rumpus: But you see, to me, your book did have kind of a happy ending. You triumphed. You put an end to something that was hurting you. I was inspired by it. Of course, I still don’t think I’d have the guts to cut my father out of my life, and I do not necessarily think I want to. I do worry that my writing is going to invite disowning, though, which – would that be me doing the disowning, provoking it by way of writing?

Auslander: Yeah, I have been told by people who know me that I write in order to affect that change. To cause some of the things that I am afraid to do myself. And there is no point where you just go, “Well, it is Monday. I should probably cut them out of my life today.” You know, there is like no decision to it. It was the most agonizingly slow period of about fifteen years, from when I met my wife. Every time I was around them, or she was around her parents, we fought for two weeks before, and talked about divorce for two weeks after, because we just became assholes. Finally, we realized it was them or us.

Rumpus: I am still at this place where I am trying to come out as a writer. I feel closeted. They call and are like, “What are you writing? What are you working on?” And I say, “Oh…nothing.”

Auslander: Oh, a children’s book.

Rumpus: My father doesn’t believe me when I say that. He usually responds, “I hope you are writing something of your own, something good,” and the subtext is, “but I hope it’s not about me.”

Auslander: I remember my sister tried to get me to stop “my stupidity” by writing a letter to me and explaining that what I had written was so hurtful to my mother. She wrote something ­– I can’t remember the exact wording, which was so great, but the effect was, “I was with her all day Sunday walking through the shoe department at Nordstrom’s and she could not stop crying.” I imagined the scene: “Do you have the Anne Klein in a shorter heel…boo hoo hoo…”

Rumpus: When you say that you are worried about breaking the camel’s back, are you worried about how they are going to feel, or just that they are going to further reject you? I mean, you show compassion for them in Foreskin’s Lament, especially for your father when you say in several places that you feel sorry for him. So, I am wondering, do you still have compassion for them, even though there is such animosity and they are gone from your life?


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →