Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Author Robert Siegel and All Will Be Revealed

from Bootleg Magazine Nov 2007

Author Robert Siegel paints a touching image involving a father taking his kindergarten age son to school. Its concerns his first child, Jonah and the situation is similar to what many new fathers have probably felt - letting go. He continues, describing walking over to a large window at the elementary school and peering in, watching his son enter another world alone. The two are separate but the father, for whatever reasons, is connected to someone he has only begun to know.
This understanding, this way of seeing things, is perhaps universal among new parents but it’s also something that writers do. Describing things in terms of images as a way to convey emotion and feeling - illustrating lives beyond our own is a facet of the craft. Siegel explains his newest novel, All Will Be Revealed, in similar terms.
“I just had some vivid images,” says the author and University of North Carolina at Wilmington professor while sitting in his campus office. Siegel explains while pouring small cups of coffee from a shiny silver thermos. He’s wearing an old orange Polo shirt and shorts because, even though its fall, the climate is still very warm. Describing the period and research for his second novel, All Will Be Revealed, Siegel speaks in a slow manner, drawing out his words, sounding like actor Matthew Broderick’s younger brother. He sits away from his computer, leans back in the chair as if peaking around the desk when he talks, like a grown up kid.
“I saw a man photographing a naked couple and I saw another man walking through the snow. I saw a woman writing in a blank notebook in a sort of, compelled, way.” From these images he needed to make sense of the powerful images. The story, and the book’s plot, emerged from them.

The recently released novel takes place during the nineteenth century in which am eccentric photographer confined to a wheelchair leads a lucrative business selling nude photographs via catalog taken in various situations. His lead model, Jane Larue, talks him into visiting a séance in which he meets medium Verena Swann and helps him visit his long dead mother. Verena’s powers begin to falter and is forced to fake them. Larue becomes pregnant and Auerbach’s fragile world begins to grow increasingly so.
Auerbach wants to be remembered for something, he works really hard to be remembered, to be first with ideas, even as some are stolen from him. His desire to be remembered is crucial, that urge for connection, to be seen by others. He’s not sure of his own reality since he’s been isolated from other people.
In some way, most of the characters in the novel are manipulators, using others ofr something. Auerbach photographs and sells pictures of women. Larue uses her body for income. Verena, along with her brother, uses people’s grief for money. They use each other consciously and unconsciously to meet various needs which they don’t know how to meet in other ways.
“I think it’s a very common human experience and we often deny this fact or hide this fact,” he says. “I think it’s something we need to both become aware of in ourselves and fight in ourselves. It’s an area of human behavior that definitely interests me.
Siegel paints the characters with the simplest of lines, illustrating them almost thoroughly this way. Larue sees the photographs of herself, yet she knows she will never be the woman contained on the printed paper (“the sense of loss was immediate”). Auerbach only feels alive when he’s photographing other people, owns objects like statues (“to remind himself of his position”) Larue only feels alive when she’s being photographed. They go together; neither can be whole without the other. When she gets pregnant, the baby is introduced and it blows apart.

Several events would coincide while writing All Will Be Revealed, both personal and world events. More specifically, however, the birth of a son. After publishing a first novel in 1997, All the Money in the World, Siegel felt the urgency to write again. It was 1999.
“After awhile I woke up in a panic, like one of those dreams where you’ve gone to school and you’re not wearing your pants,” he says. “I realized I’m not writing a book so I started a new book.”
That second attempt would eventually be discarded for what became All Will Be Revealed.
“I looked at the book I was writing and I realized it was not terrible; but it was essentially the first book. I was rewriting it,” he says. “The setting was different but the themes, the emotions, the life problems were all very much the same. I was still reliving that first book trying to get it right. I knew that wouldn’t fly. That’s not how a writer grows. So I threw that all away.”
At the same time his wife, writer Karen Bender, was pregnant and Siegel knew that their life would change radically. Of all the couple’s friends they were the first to have children and in the midst of life and crafting a new novel the baby was due - very soon.
The birth of their first child, Jonah, was only a part of a hectic life. The very nature of their day to day life fueled the writing and the story itself. The story, in part, became about surviving that.
“Camus has this great line, whatever keeps you from your work becomes your work.” Siegel says. “Since writing is really an attempt at self understanding and we player a larger role in shaping our lives than we are willing to admit, writing is often about the barriers that we throw in our way, the inhibitions that keep us on one path as opposed to another. In a sense the book is about those things.”
In the novel’s text lie passages that could only have been written by a new father. Siegel captures the newness of it succinctly. He sought to capture the weirdness of it in the book. However, the introduction of a new child was a intoxicating but daunting experience nonetheless.
“It was weird beyond belief. Really, he’s yours but you don’t know him and that connection is both instantaneous and primal and overwhelming but also it takes time to reach the brain. You feel it in your gut but you don’t understand it in your mind.”
Siegel pauses and smiles, considering the weirdness perhaps, and jokes, “He feels rented for a while,” his voice rising. “Monday, let’s return him, I’ve had enough. But there’s nowhere to return him to because he’s yours. He’ll always be and you’ll never be the same because you are not at the center of your own life. The center of your life is now about caring for someone else, which is an astounding transformation and not always a very pleasant one.”
At the time Siegel was a teaching adjunct at NYU and was able lose himself in the library to write and do research, something the novel would require. The library was a wealthy source of material at his disposal. Writing there was necessary given there was a small baby at the apartment. he would teach class and then spend a few hours in the library.
“Having all those books around was very distracting because I could get lost in the stacks which slowed the writing down,” he recalls. “Some of the books were period and some was secondary – historical research. Very often you want to start with secondary resources. You read that and get a sense of the landscape in which to find specifics which allow you to dig deeper into primary resources.”
Writing All Will Be Revealed lasted between 1999 until 2006. In that time Siegel and his wife would move to Wilmington, North Carolina where Bender was a visiting writer and eventually a professor. Siegel himself became a professor in 2002. In that time there were periods between writing and at times was difficult returning to the book’s characters.
“Each time I would go back, it was confusing,” he says. “Returning to the book was a disjointed experience while working on it.”
But living with the book’s characters can be a difficult thing to do. It’s a constant a constant challenge for a writer, to find a safe place to work or to immerse in a work for a period of time and then come out to live a social or family life.
“It’s a very, very difficult thing to do. A lot of people don’t find the balance.”
It was an especially chaotic time – living in a small apartment, they hadn’t figured out the money issues so Siegel did all sorts of freelance work.
“It’s very difficult to survive as a writer in America today.” Siegel would write the book in spare moments, “a half hour here, a half hour there.” It was difficult since a new baby can be up every couple of hours to feed.
“It’s a nightmare I would not want to repeat again,” he says and then laughs, catching himself. “I have two (children) so I have repeated it. We were in better shape. We were both teaching by then, life is much simpler here. We have a house, not a small apartment. We had been through it once so we knew how it goes.”
Eventually there was finally a point where the author was so deep in the story he became in tune with the characters.

Siegel didn’t attend college, Harvard, specifically to be a writer and his first novel grew from experiences working summers with his father who was a criminal attorney in New York City. In some respects it’s the old adage - write what you know, but not necessarily. Inevitably authors write from their own well of experience, but often its not self conscious identification, but perhaps aspects of people that have mattered to them and aspects of the author.
“Writing about what you know, it’s true, but only half of the equation. Writing is about what you know and what you want to know.”
All the Money in the World concerns a criminal defense attorney, Lou Glasser. It was a world Siegel knew intimately. The criminal courts were next to Chinatown in lower Manhattan. The area was somewhat seedy, very dirty but unbelievably rich and interesting. That particular world was changing rapidly, the type of practitioner his father was and Siegel wanted to capture it before it was lost.
At Harvard Siegel studied Japanese literature, history and the language. Spending his junior year in Japan and after graduating he received a scholarship to attend graduate school for two years at Tokyo University. Around this time he began experimenting with fiction. He wanted to learn how to write fiction but primarily wasn’t an English major.
“I never studied English literature in that very organized way you would in an English department.”
Perhaps it was a distraction from the surroundings where, at that time twenty years ago, very little English could be found – spoken or printed. For the experience Siegel was emotionally and psychologically unprepared.
“You have no idea what an essential part of your visual experience the Roman alphabet is. To go somewhere and just see characters, I walked off that plane and I’m walking through the airport and there’s not an English sign around, not even the bathroom. I knew I had gotten myself into something deep and scary.”
But he loved it. Whether he intends to write about the experience is tentative, his answer is that he’s only beginning to think of writing about those years. An explanation came in terms of the craft and the body, that its human nature, that writing is not simply the mind. It’s the deepest sort of emotional and sensory links that are being formed.
“When you write a piece of fiction it’s not just an idea, it’s a whole slate of sensory impressions and feelings. It’s really an amalgam of thought, feeling and sensation. It takes a long time for those synapses to connect the right way.”
All the Money in the World was more about capturing the world of Siegel’s childhood, an essential difference between the two novels. If the first was an attempt to capture the world of his youth, the second book was to create a world entirely imagined.
“That wasn’t handed to me.” he says, “One that I had to make my own.”
All the locales in All Will Be Revealed were suggested by pictures he’d seen or places he had been. Influences ranged from numerous gorgeous nineteenth century mansions that still exist up and down Fifth Avenue in New York, the Fricke museum or the Isabella Gardner museum in Boston. In the end, the past served as influence to the fictional past he would create.
But there was deep research to be done, much of which serving to heighten the story and shape its final form. Siegel spent enormous amounts of time doing research on photography, spiritualism and the nineteenth century. With spiritualism he didn’t know where to stop.
He became interested in arcades and museums of the period which share a connection to the so-called cabinets of wonder of the eighteenth century where anyone could come into contact with collections of oddities and curiosities - weird, inexplicable things.
“You’d find a dinosaur bone or a shrunken head then maybe a fragment of ancient Greek marble,” he says. “A precursor to something like the circus sideshow and another branch into high culture - the museum of natural history.”
Research is now a permanent part of his method. Things change radically when a writer begins to write and do research. With All Will Be Revealed Siegel would have an idea and start to write then reach a point where he needed more research. After reading and discovering something, the new information changed the idea.
“It was a very productive back and forth. You start with an idea but your imagination takes it in some other direction. Writers need to be open to the possibility of being surprised.”
As he begins to think about a new book set in the present, around places he knows and things that he’s done, he plans to do a great deal of research.
“This new book is going to involve, tangentially, 9/11,” he says. “We lived near the Trade Center at the time and our neighbor went out and filmed it, the whole thing.” He never wanted to watch the neighbor’s footage before but may now and plans on talking to other people in the building where he and his wife once lived. On that September day they were in Wilmington while Karen was a visiting writer.
“We were on the beach on 9/11 and had to drive back and stayed at our apartment which had been unaffected. But the air was so bad we moved uptown with our parents for a time.”

All Will Be Revealed was published last spring. Siegel compares publishing a novel as “distracting” or akin to letting his child go to school. He explains it as “emotionally very complex.” A writer has created this thing in private, almost in secret, and now it’s out in the world often getting battered around, being misunderstood or ignored.
“It’s like sending your child off to preschool or kindergarten,” he says and then asks aloud, “What’s happening to him all day? You just want to stand there at the window and watch, secretly, and I’ve done that. There was a big window at his elementary school and after dropping him off I’d amble over and sort of watch him a little bit. You’re deeply connected and yet you’re separate.”
Writing a book is an experience, tremendous thought and work, sheer diligence. Raising a child is the same, even harder and with greater dividends. It’s on the job training.
“And no one tells you how to do it. We took him out of the hospital. I couldn’t believe they were letting us go. It was the scariest moment of my life. All they require is that you have a car seat. You don’t have to be sane, you don’t have to be intelligent, you don’t have to be capable. All you need is a car seat,” Siegel remembers. “Put him in the car seat, drove home and you just look at him. What’s next? What do we do?”

No comments: