Conversations with Writers Braver Than Me: Shalom Auslander

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Auslander: Well, look, you know, this is not a good situation for anybody. I would not wish this on anyone. Of course, as a human being, I have compassion. But there is also a question of survival and that question gets more and more depressing when you’ve got first a wife and then two kids, and you start to go, “Um, well, but fuck them.” Because there is something more important, and I know what I am like around them and I know what it was like to have a failed marriage around me, and I am just not going to do it. And so, writing for me is very much – it is critical.  It is even for your own therapy. It allows me to be the person I want to be. There are days where things just are not going well, but if I have like an hour left to the day and I have not written anything, the thing that will get me to write just one funny thing – one scene that makes me laugh or happy – is the thought of, well it is three o’clock now, you are going to be home at 4:30, and you are going to be a fucking asshole, so just write something.  This is not about publishing or career or selling, it is about you want to go home and play with the kids and not be a fucking asshole so just write something.  So I do, and I feel better. Everything gets filtered through that. This is necessary. This is no choice.

Rumpus: See, now, I do not have kids, so I do not get to say that. Actually, I feel like I partly do not have kids because I do not really want to have my parents so close to me.

Auslander: Right, but think about that. You are actively making a decision on their behalf. You are doing something out of somewhat pathological concern for these people. Look at the price of that.

Rumpus: I have to admit, though, I am kind of loving my childless life. But I’ll be pissed at myself if I wind up with a writing-less life. That’s why I’m having these conversations – to try and push past my fears and start writing again.

Auslander: It is very difficult to get up to the point where writing comes easily. I have to get good and angry.  I do not mean the writing needs to be angry.  I need to get sort of like, as if someone were trying to keep water and air from me.  I am just like, get your fucking hands off of me, you know.  There are these things with like Kafka and Beckett and when people first read them, they were always amazed that someone gave them permission to do that. Who told them they could write like that?  Where did that bravery come from? And I am convinced it does not come from bravery, it comes from desperation and necessity.

Rumpus: I often feel as if keeping in what I have to say is killing me. Ironically, I feel sort of pregnant with it, and as if nothing else can come through me until I get it out. Every now and then, I’ll start to write it, and I’ll start to feel okay, and the writing will get funny, and I’ll have a good time with it. Then there is a part of me that starts to hope I can write all these things, and my parents can read them, and even if they don’t like them, they can somehow accept me. And maybe afterward, they will become less of a pain in the ass than they were about all this.

Auslander: It is not going to happen. I am sure that in the history of mankind it has happened once or twice, but, yeah, no.

Rumpus: It is funny, a couple of years ago, before I went and published a few pieces where my father appears, I told him I was blocked, and he said, “Why don’t you write something about your crazy old man?” And I took that as license.

Auslander: Your first book will be called “My Crazy Old Man.”

Rumpus: I am going to have to let go of hoping that my parents will ever be okay with anything I write. And also the notion that what I write will destroy them.

Auslander: It is a constant fight.  I mean, there is never a part where you just have courage and now it is all easy. Because it is all difficult. Each time I have to remind myself that the fear is coming from a certain guilt, and that I am imaging their reaction to be far worse than whatever it could be. In a certain way I’m punishing myself with my own, what I think is my own sin. I’m imagining them covered in shrouds for the rest of their lives, or just opening the book and just bursting into flames.  But it’s never really as bad as we imagine. The horrifying affect your words are going to have on people is never really as bad as you think it is and they will find some other way to get hurt, anyway. Trust me.

Rumpus: For now, like even with this interview, I just take comfort in my parents’ general lack of Internet savvy. They barely know how to google something, so I’m kind of safe.

Auslander: Oh, no. That’s lame. It reminds me of when I was getting ready to tell my mother I needed six months of not being in touch. I called her up and said, “I have something to tell you,” and she said, “I have something to tell you, too, and I go first: I have breast cancer.” I went to my therapist and was so conflicted, and he said, “No, you have to do this anyway. If she dies without you having taken this step, it will be bad for you.” So, I changed it to three months and stuck to it. And then it became six months. And now it’s been six or seven years.

Rumpus: What about other people you write about, like your wife. Does she mind you writing about her?

Auslander: Well, she comes off pretty well in the book, and she’s pretty fucking nuts, so I cannot imagine she would have a problem with it. Relative to me, she is the sane one, although she would say vice versa, too. Oddly, I am the sane one for her. But, anyway, she does not come off that bad.

Rumpus: Wow. What about, you know, g-dash-d. In the book you write about fears of repercussions for making him come off like an asshole. Any complaints from him?

Auslander: Well, my second kid was colicky. I always thought that was payback. But otherwise, no.  Then again, god plays the long game. He likes to play chess five moves ahead. Things have been going well, but it just feels like I am Humpty Dumpty and he is putting the wall higher and higher, and when I’m feeling confident and I least expect it, the shove is going to come. As you can see, I am much better with failure and sadness than with success or happiness.

Rumpus: Well, this was really helpful for me. Thanks for talking with me.

Auslander: Sure. Let me know when it’s up on the site. Oh, and give me your father’s email address. I’m going to send it to him.

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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 →