The Rumpus Interview with Michael Lowenthal
There’s something inherently debasing about having to plead with others to sanction your relationship. I’m wincing as voters in four more states are gearing up to approve or outlaw gay marriage this November. But Michael Lowenthal’s new novel, The Paternity Test, goes well beyond questioning whether two guys should be allowed to walk down the aisle together. It asks what they are willing to risk to stay married.
In The Paternity Test, which has been picked for the October 2012 IndieNext List, a gay couple enlists a Brazilian surrogate to carry their baby. As the protagonist’s marriage disintegrates, he finds himself torn between obligations—to his partner, to his surrogate, to his idea of family, and to his own desires. In this groundbreaking novel hailed by Jennifer Haigh as “a searingly honest portrait of love under fire,” Lowenthal deftly weaves some of today’s most politically-charged themes, like marriage and family, with deeply personal takes on betrayal and loyalty.
Lowenthal is a Boston-based author of four novels. A winner of the James Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize, he has received fellowships from Bread Loaf, the MacDowell Colony, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Instituto Sacatar Brazil Artist Residency, and numerous other organizations. He has contributed to Tin House, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Esquire, New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and other publications. His work also appears widely in anthologies like Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge, Bestial Noise: The Tin House Fiction Reader, and Best New American Voices 2005.
But it wasn’t the impressive accolades that drew me to Lowenthal’s work. I fortuitously picked up his novel Avoidance simply because I liked the title. Reading the book in one go, I was blown away by how his elegant and calm prose could ferociously wrestle with weighty subjects like pedophilia and guilt. The Same Embrace, his debut novel, is also an unflinching look at human relationships, following twin brothers—one, a gay Jewish man; and the other, an Orthodox believer. His last novel, Charity Girl, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a Washington Post Best Fiction of 2007, uncovers the little-known U.S. government internment program during WWI that incarcerated women accused of spreading venereal diseases.
Now, with The Paternity Test, Lowenthal shows the same courage he has demonstrated throughout his career by delving into how our private desires collide with our public allegiances. In our interview below, Lowenthal discusses his new book, American politics, gay parenting, and Jewish literature.
The Rumpus: How was your new novel conceived? Was it carefully planned, or was it a happy accident?
Michael Lowenthal: The novel was an accident. Happy or unhappy, I’ll let you be the judge. I started out thinking I would write a novella about a couple, one of whom dies in a fire while the other one is away from the house, having an affair. So the survivor’s survivor guilt is compounded by his sexual guilt. It might have made for a good soap opera, I guess. I honestly don’t remember how it morphed into a story about surrogacy, although it did so almost immediately, so that subject, with all its inherently dramatic tangles, must have been bubbling up in me.
Rumpus: But the guilt from the original idea must have carried over. There are different versions of guilt that run through the novel. Stu’s father, who escaped the Holocaust, suffers from survivor’s guilt; Pat (rightfully) feels guilty for his actions during the second half of the book.
Lowenthal: Well, guilt is one of the primary driving factors in all of my writing—as it is in my life—so it’s no surprise that it would run through this novel. But yes, I think there’s a strong overlap between my original conception and the novel I eventually wrote, because one of my main concerns in both was the question of whether sex can ever truly not have consequences. That’s been a central tenet of a certain faction of the gay liberation movement and—though some gay people now would like to gloss over this—of gay male culture in general. And I’m fascinated by the ways, small and large, in which sex does assert itself as a consequential force, especially now that gay culture is shifting so quickly toward so-called family values.
Rumpus: Did you ever worry that the book may be misogynist in the way some gay fiction can be? After all, the protagonists literally use Debora, the surrogate from Brazil.
Lowenthal: I know what you mean about the way some gay fiction can trivialize female characters, as if women are just some sort of fashionable accessory to the gay characters’ lives. But Debora is so central to the plot that I couldn’t imagine that being a problem here. To be honest, she was sometimes the character who felt most fully alive to me, maybe even more than the narrator.
The question of whether or not some surrogates get exploited is compelling. I have Pat and Stu address this a few times in the novel, and Stu’s family also expresses their view that surrogacy is inherently a kind of slavery. But I also wanted to dig into the opposite possibility: that the surrogate is, in her own way, using the men. That may sound suspect, given some of the obvious power imbalances, but Debora has her own motives for becoming a surro, some of them hidden and, I hope, surprising. I certainly intend her to come across as someone who has a lot of agency and a lot of gumption, which is part of why I tell the story of how she left her small village in Brazil and moved to America.
Rumpus: You play with notions of masculinity throughout the book. For instance, Danny, Debora’s husband, has to stand on the sideline as two gay dudes try to impregnate his wife.
Lowenthal: I find the surrogate’s husband’s role to be maybe the most fascinating, because he is, as you say, sidelined, and what does he really get out of the deal? He gets all of the weirdness and all of the potential threat to his status quo, without any real upside. I think if I were writing the novel over—or, well, a different take on it—I might try it from Danny’s point of view. He’s also useful for exploring not just the question of masculinity, as you suggest, but also the questions of what’s “natural” and who’s powerful. He tries to exert a kind of authority over the gay guys, by virtue of the fact that when he wants to procreate, all he has to do is have sex with his wife, whereas they have to depend on “outside help.” He would seem to be the powerful one. And yet we come to see that he’s also very much the odd man out in this arrangement; none of it depends on him, and he’s not even a party to the legal agreement that gets signed between his wife and the gay couple. At the end of the story, he’s maybe the one who loses the most.
Rumpus: You ask, “Could you decide to want kids? Whether to have them, that was a choice… But wanting them? Wasn’t that just an ore you have within?” Can you say the same about being a writer, that it’s an “ore”—or can one deliberately want to be a writer?
Lowenthal: I think it’s some of both. From a very early age I was interested in expressing myself with words. I think I’ve always had the sort of participant-observer, “in the world but not of it” personality that often makes for a writer. But I also think that from that same early age I was enamored of the mystique of “being a writer.” And when my early efforts started to get some praise, I gravitated toward the role. So it was maybe a bit of a chicken and egg situation: I had some small measure of innate tendency for writing, and that led to a response, and then I was driven to ratchet up my writing in the hope of ratcheting up the response.
Rumpus: Now that you’ve published four novels and edited numerous books, how much of the mystique has been dispelled?
Lowenthal: I would say close to 100% of the mystique I associated with “being” a writer has been dispelled. I mean, at least at my level of success, there’s nothing particularly glamorous about it. I’m not sitting in Parisian cafés trading witticisms with the greatest minds of my generation. But the mystique—or, really, the mystery—that is the process of writing still captivates (and baffles, and frustrates, and enrages) me. Part of me wants to say that I’ve been disabused of the notion that writing comes from inspiration or magic; you just have to sit your ass in the chair and work. But another part of me wants to say that I’ve actually discovered there is magic in writing—more than I ever imagined. Time and again I make a connection in my writing without having planned it or even quite realized it, and there’s no explanation other than…well, there’s no explanation. So I end up looking back at what I’ve written and honestly having no idea how I managed it. Which is sort of troubling when I sit down to write something new, because none of my previous experiences seem to have prepared me. I’m always back at square one.
Rumpus: Who are some of the writers that have guided your own writing?
Lowenthal: The writers who first got me seriously interested in books, when I was fifteen and sixteen, were Steinbeck, Orwell, and Edward Albee. For all I know, the imprinting I got from them at that early stage still influences how I think about storytelling. In college, I studied fiction with Ernest Hebert, whose novels I love, and I know that his ideas still guide me—especially in terms of how the rise and fall of emotions should be tracked within any given story or scene. But it was a professor of literature I had in college, Blanche Gelfant, who really taught me to read fiction with an extra level of depth and sensitivity, and I’ve always considered that education in reading to be my real education in writing.
I enjoy lots of writers’ work, obviously. But then there are the writers whose books you not only enjoy but also go back to and study to see how they pulled off their tricks. Some of those writers, for me, are William Maxwell, Alice Munro, Richard Yates, Grace Paley, David Long, Bernard Cooper, Tim O’Brien, Deborah Eisenberg…oh, I could go on.
Rumpus: You don’t have an MFA, yet you teach in Lesley University’s graduate program for creative writing. Do you believe that one can be taught to write in an academic setting?
Lowenthal: I guess it depends on what you mean by “writing.” Can you teach someone to be as stubborn as fuck, which is the main requirement for being a writer? Nah, they probably have that in them—in their “ore”—or they don’t. Can you teach somebody to have insight? Well, not exactly. But can you help to train someone’s powers of empathy and give them tips about how to imagine their way into other characters’ lives? Sure, in much the same way a Buddhist abbot can help young monks learn the practice of meditation. As a teacher, I try to focus on the practice more than on the product. Which is part of why I generally won’t talk to my students about agents, publishers, etc.
Rumpus: So what do you hope to excavate from your ore and bring out to the world through your books?
Lowenthal: I’m not sure if I have something I want to say that undergirds all of the separate and specific stories I’ve been interested in telling. I feel like I just get interested in a story and then want to follow all of its possibilities. But that could also be a lie. I mean, look at the Say Something Important writers I was initially drawn to: Steinbeck, Orwell. I do think that being a writer requires a high degree of egotism: I believe that my observations and insights about the world deserve to be heard, and I want to make people see things as I see them. But for better or worse, I shy away from making that kind of a statement overtly, because a) it’s always struck me as unseemly; and b) if I make big claims for my writing, then readers can say I failed to live up to them. It’s easier to hide behind the ruse of “I just tell my little stories and hope they’re interesting.”
Rumpus: One common thread that runs through your four novels—The Same Embrace, Avoidance, Charity Girl and The Paternity Test—is how people are torn between different obligations, with often devastating results.
Lowenthal: I’ve tried not to be too conscious of my own thematic patterns, but I have come to see that I often write about the conflict between self-fulfillment and the fulfillment of obligations to others. But it’s never that simple, of course. It’s not a question of: do I do what’s right for me, or do I do what’s right for my family/community/religion? What’s much more interesting, I think, is when there’s a double bind: what do I do when my own desires conflict with those of my community, but one of my biggest desires is in fact to please/obey/be loyal to that community? I’d say the question of conflicting self-interests is my repeating thematic compulsion as a writer.
Rumpus: How do conflicting commitments shape The Paternity Test in particular?
Lowenthal: I think what made this novel new for me was that the “community” to which the main character has conflicting loyalties is his own marriage. So instead of the protagonist testing his self-loyalty against his loyalty to, say, a summer camp or an Amish community, as was the case in Avoidance, or to a Jewish family or the United States government, as was the case in Charity Girl, in this novel the conflict is even more personal and intimate. The narrator, Pat, wants to fulfill himself in ways that may harm his marriage, even though his marriage is the main thing that fulfills him.
I was also thinking specifically about the double bind of Pat’s gay identity: being gay, and being part of a gay community, in some sense “made” Pat. It created him, it rescued him. It’s his life. But then he comes up against various ways in which being gay—at least in the way that he and Stu have come to define gayness, or come to define their kind of gay relationship—has thwarted his life, narrowed it. And I think there are a lot of gay folks in that situation.
Rumpus: There’s a pithy scene with Joseph, the self-declared “slut—not a home-wrecker,” who questions Pat’s motives behind wanting a kid. The chapter sums up the discussions around gay parenting that have been taking place outside and within the gay community.
Lowenthal: I’m open-jawed about what it seems to mean right now to be gay, and I have conflicting reactions to it. Of course I will fight for everyone’s right to live as they choose. So if gay people want to get married, I will support that. If they want to raise families, I will demand that our government treat those families equally. But I haven’t yet felt in my gut that these are my own priorities.
As someone who came of age when gayness was much more about unconventionality, proud marginalization, and new-rule-writing, I never imagined that the gay movement would so suddenly become centered on marriage, child-rearing, “family values.”
Rumpus: The Paternity Test contains a healthy dose of skepticism about those family values, doesn’t it?
Lowenthal: My doubt and hesitancy about the direction of gay culture was very much a part of my initial conception of The Paternity Test. And it was a doubt that leached all through the story and that, unfortunately, soured the story, weakened it, made it inauthentic. It was only when I pushed past my own knee-jerk bitterness that I think I found the story’s heart. I discovered a narrator who was not as skeptical as I am (or used to be). I found my way into the heart and mind of someone who truly, deeply wants to have a child, a family. Even stranger for me was the fact that as I wrote the novel—or, really, as I rewrote it, after a few years of inauthentic drafts—I started to discover those feelings in myself. I started to long for children, or at least to feel much more acutely the pain of knowing I probably won’t have any.
Rumpus: Why is it so important for Stu in The Paternity Test that the baby is biologically Jewish? Gay surrogacy isn’t all that kosher to begin with.
Lowenthal: You’re right, gay surrogacy is a little treyf. Which is probably part of why the Jewishness of the baby is important: it’s a kind of overcompensation, a way of proving to the family: “We’re gay and we’re making a baby in an unconventional way, but we really do care about family and tradition, see? See?” I think a certain type of gay person, precisely because he’s transgressed “normal” rules, is actually desperate for guidelines and structure. And so there are all these crazy categories and subcategories in gay culture, and rules about who’s supposed to do what with whom. There are bears and cubs and otters and twinks and chasers and tops and bottoms…and meat and milk and shellfish and Reform and Reconstructionist and Orthodox. The two most category-worshipping peoples in the world must be fags and Jews.
Rumpus: Save for Avoidance, Jewishness plays prominent roles in all your novels. Do you think there’s such a separate entity as Jewish literature like, say, Asian-American literature? If so, how do you see yourself fit in that great genealogy?
Lowenthal: There certainly is such a thing as Jewish-American literature, although at some points it’s seemed like Jewish-American literature was American literature (because, you know, we don’t run just the banks and the newspapers). I mean, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer—a lot of the biggies, right?
Rumpus: Malamud said all men were Jews, even when few know it.
Lowenthal: Well, there are those who say every man has some gay in him too. But back to the Jewish question…to be perfectly honest, although I’ve read many of the famous Jewish-American writers, I’m not sure I’ve really studied the literature as a literature. I’m not sure I know what its characteristics or parameters are supposed to be. I think that the mid-century literary establishment (both creative and critical) was so Jewish that by the time I came around, it seemed, well…established. So I just took it for granted. Gay literature, I suppose, seemed more of an evolving organism.
Rumpus: So do you see The Paternity Test pushing the parameters of gay lit?
Lowenthal: I don’t know. But there’s maybe a way in which the novel comes back around to questions that were raised in an earlier generation of gay literature, but from the other end of the spectrum, as it were. So, for example, my narrator wrestles with his sexual desires and urges, but not in the classic “closeted” way. He came out as gay years and years before the novel’s main action, so that’s not his problem. And, as I was saying before, my character is one who has been liberated by gay culture (as were a lot of the characters in gay literature from the ’70s and ’80s), but now he’s starting to see the cloud around the silver lining, if you know what I mean.
I did very much find myself wanting to write about questions that, from a gay rights, gay lit point of view are admittedly retrograde. Like, “Is it possible that heterosexual procreating really is more ‘natural’ than gay procreating?” (Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me!) I wanted someone who (like me) is 100% openly gay—and politically committed to gay equality—to be forced to ask himself these questions. I wanted to show his head spinning. I wanted him to wonder if he’s turning into some kind of retrogressive creature.
Rumpus: And you do show the spectrum of relationships. Did you feel pressured to show positive (cringe) gay role models?
Lowenthal: Oh god, no. Or not for any extrinsic purpose. I only wanted to use the Good Gays for the novel’s own internal purposes, so that they would put pressure on Pat and make him feel like he wasn’t measuring up. But who looks to novels for positive role models? Isn’t that why we have sitcoms?
Rumpus: Were you writing The Paternity Test with an audience in mind? Surely neither the Westboro Baptist Church nor the Human Rights Campaign Board of Directors is it.
Lowenthal: Of course I’d be happy if any of those folks read the novel. My boyfriend and I were grand marshals of the gay pride parade in Topeka one year, which is where the Westboro folks live, and we were hoping they’d protest us: great for publicity! But, sadly, they ignored us.
Anyway, no, I didn’t have a specific audience in mind. I imagine the questions I raise might have a different resonance for gay readers than for straight readers, as it might for readers who have kids versus those who don’t, but I try to write so that any reader can meet the story halfway, if you know what I mean.
Rumpus: Is The Paternity Test ultimately a political novel?
Lowenthal: I think any story about two gay men choosing to live together and have a family is still, in this era, inevitably political. But I’m not very interested in the question of, “Should gay people have the right to get married?” or, “Should gay people be able to have children?” To me, the answers are “duh” and “double duh.” I’m more interested in questions like: “Just because gay people can now have kids together, should they? Should all of them?” And: if someone has come of age in a gay culture that is about separating sex from emotional commitment, how does he make the transition to a kind of life that depends on restoring that link? Is it possible to have an open relationship and still be a “family man”? What does it mean to be a gay family man? So I guess I’m saying that my novel, if it’s political, is certainly not an argument in favor of gay rights or gay marriage or any of that. It takes those things as a given. And it might well be seen as damaging to those causes, because I don’t shy away from showing the problematic underbelly. If the Catholic League gets ahold of the novel, they might well use it to bolster their argument that gay men are inherently irresponsible and unfit parents.
Rumpus: What can we expect from you in the future?
Lowenthal: I’m not sure. I honestly feel a little wrung out right now, in terms of making up stories. I’ve been wanting to write more nonfiction—something reported, maybe, that takes me out into the world and gets me meeting people, as an antidote to so many years of sitting alone in a room, writing novels. Or maybe a biography of someone the world doesn’t know much about, because I love doing research. But I haven’t hit upon the perfect ideas yet. If anyone has some, please get in touch with me!