Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Author Interview: Jon Reiner (The Man Who Couldn't Eat)

Today I welcome Jon Reiner, author of The Man Who Couldn't Eat which I reviewed last week.  As I deal with a chronic illness as well I wanted the chance to read Jon's memoir, we don't have the same illness nor is mine to the extreme of Jon's but just the same we suffer on a day-to-day basis and I found his memoir fascinating and uplifting.  Enjoy his interview and be sure and check out his book whether you suffer from a chronic illness or not, because chances are, you know someone who does.

Describe the area you write in.

It’s about 30 square feet and soft. At one end is a vertical slab of wood cushioned by
pillows. It’s called a bed. Many writers work standing up (Churchill, Nabokov, Philip
Roth) but I recline (as did Truman Capote) – it’s perpetual Passover. If I’m working long
stretches, I need to keep my legs elevated, and the bed or our living room couch are the
only places to do that in our apartment. We don’t have a study or spare room. The bed is
also a great workspace for spreading out notes and books. My wife, Susan, has tried to
convince me that working in bed isn’t great psychologically – that the encroachment of
work into our place of rest contributes to my occasional insomnia – but there’s a healthy
precedent. Look how productive Brian Wilson was in bed. O.K., maybe that’s not the
best example. My other favorite place to write is the reading room of a library. I love
libraries, and if I’m traveling, I’ll find the local library and be quite at home, as I just
did in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles during my book tour. Much of
The Man Who Couldn’t Eat was written in the reading room of the 42nd Street Library in
Manhattan. Big room, big ideas, big words.

What's your favorite season?

Summer, with a caveat. I like to be warm and in the water, so I live for summer. I love
living in New York City from September until June, but in the summer I do everything
I can to leave. The city feels like what I imagine the weather in Manila to be, and I wilt.
I grew up as the child of academics and believed it was the natural right of all peopIe to
have the summer off, so much so, that when I began working jobs which required me
to be in an office in July and August I was filled with resentment, anger, and confusion.
Staying put in the summer has never become normal for me, so we escape to Maine,
where my family has a home, or other places on the water where we’ve ingratiated
ourselves as professional freeloaders. We’ve really gotten incredibly resourceful at it. I’m
thinking of writing a vacation guide for freeloaders.

If you watch TV, what is your favorite TV show and why?

We have only one TV and one remote, which are mostly in the hands of my wife and
two sons, so I can’t claim any regular series watching of my own. When Curb Your
Enthusiasm is in season, we subscribe to HBO, then cancel it the minute the series ends.
Larry David is the most honest comic on television. He gets laughs from things a lot of
people are afraid to touch. If I’m up late and want a diversion, I watch Craig Ferguson.
Only a stiff wouldn’t laugh at an antic Scot.

If you could have any car what would it be and what color would it be?

You’re not from here, are you? As a Manhattanite, I rely on my feet and public
transportation most of the time, so I don’t really live with the standard car envy or
fantasies that most drivers do. A seat on the subway is heaven to me. Perhaps I’m taking
your question too literally. If I had one car to choose, it would be a Jaguar XKE Series 1
roadster, butter yellow. It’s the most beautiful car ever built. If you don’t believe me ask
Enzo Ferrari, ask Jay Leno. In all the talk about Steve Jobs’ design influences, the XKE
was never mentioned, and I think it didn’t occur to Walter Isaacson to ask the question.
I’m sure there’s a connection there. If cars as stylish as the XKE were still made today,
I’d give up the subway.

Crystal here:  Sorry - I'm in the rural south in an area with no public transportation. So we all have cars and therefore car envy.  I looked up the Jaguar XKE series and you are right it is a thing of beauty.

What is a typical day like in your life?

Chaotic and regimented. I'm a stay-at-home dad, so my schedule is dictated by the needs
of a 12-year-old boy, an 8-year-old boy, and an ageless wife. I wake up at 6:00 a.m.,
shower, dress, eat breakfast, make the boys’ breakfast, wake them up at 7:15, serve them
breakfast, get us dressed and out the door to school at 8:15. I write from 9:00 – 2:00.
Pick-up the kids from school, chaperone them on afterschool activities, get them home,
help to start homework and make dinner, make school lunches for the next day, eat
dinner, get the boys to bed, talk to my wife, catch-up on email, read, sleep. Astonishingly,
it's even more glamorous than it sounds.

If you could travel anywhere you wanted, where would you go?

Oh, no, another one of those “pick one” questions. Didn’t you read my tortured answer
about the car? I suffer from indecisiveness, and I get hung-up on “tell me your favorite
this or that,” as if someone is actually going to hold me to it. “Wait a second, you said
you liked French Vanilla ice cream once in an interview. I can’t serve you this strawberry
sundae.” Really, do I have to pick one place to travel in the whole wide world? I
wouldn’t want to leave anyplace out. How about Schenectady? They could use the plug,
and I bet I could get a decent hotel room for under $100.

Tell us a little bit about The Man Who Couldn’t Eat.

It’s brilliant. Just look at the cover; can’t you tell? The Man Who Couldn’t Eat is a first-person memoir about a year in my life and the lives of my family members (February 2009 – February 2010) beginning with a medical emergency that nearly killed me in an instant, and the existential crisis that followed, triggered by the months in which I was sentenced to “Nothing By Mouth” – no food, no drink – and concluding with a complicated return to eating. Is life worth living if something as essential and pleasurable as eating is taken away? Food lent itself literally and metaphorically as the creative
structure on which to hang the story, and it was an exceptionally rich vein to mine. The story started as a feature piece I wrote for Esquire that – in the ultimate irony – won the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award. I’m the anti-food food writer. It’s a niche, and I’m the only member. We always have a quorum.

What made you decide to write this memoir?

I asked for paper and pen two days after the emergency surgery and wrote a few pages of
notes, recording what I’d lived through. Then, I stopped. The news was so dismal that I
had no interest in spending more time with my misery. I sunk into a bleak physical and
mental condition for months when Mark Warren of Esquire asked me to write about the
experience of not being able to eat or drink. I was skeptical when he brought it up – why
would anyone want to read about this awful situation? Mark’s a brilliant editor, and he
helped me recognize the potency and appeal of the story I’d been handed. John Berryman
said it best: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal
which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” After the Esquire story
was published, Mark said, “This is great, but your really should think of this as a book.
About an hour later, my agent, Mitchell Waters, said the same thing. I didn’t need any
further convincing.

What is one message you want people to take away from your book, The Man Who
Couldn’t Eat

This is even worse than the car and the travel questions – I just can’t do it. Why does
everything have to be reduced to “one?” “Greatest human being every – go!” Isn’t there
room for a crowd? The story is complex. Haven’t I already told you that the book is
brilliant? I think that would be a wonderful takeaway. “All readers say ‘The Man Who
Couldn’t Eat is Brilliant.’” I could live with that.

What are you working on now?

I've been writing a next book titled Chutes and Ladders. It's about my experience
of corporate layoffs and longterm unemployment and how that personal history is
representative of the employment crisis in this country and the impact on tens of millions
of people. I started writing it years before Occupy Wall Street materialized, but I'm happy
to see the issue finally receive attention. I’ve spent time at Occupy Wall Street and the
Occupy sites in all the cities I’ve visited this fall and have incorporated my experience in
the movement into the story.

Do you have any upcoming tours, blog tours or events you would like people to know

Actually, I’ve just finished a fall book tour of author’s events in 11 cities. It was
wonderful. I love the public part of the experience – the reading, the questions, the
conversation. There’s nothing like the energy of engaging with a live audience, and it’s
also a chance to see old friends. Each stop is a reunion, and that becomes as exciting
and important, on a personal level, as the event itself. It has been a rewarding and
illuminating time. Publishers tend to be less enthusiastic about book readings than they
were a generation ago, and I understand the business concerns, but I find these events to
be irreplaceable for cultivating relationships between writers, readers, and booksellers. I
will have more events scheduled for the winter.

Anything else you would like to share?

The experience of writing The Man Who Couldn’t Eat did confirm something that I
do think is worth sharing with people, no matter if they’re writers or not: “Don’t give
up,” trite as that may sound. Look at me; it took me 25 years to get published, or as
my Esquire editor Mark Warren put it, “You almost had to die to get published.” We
all suffer for our art, but did mine have to be so literal? All that time I had written –
fiction, drama, screenplays, essays – and gotten close, receiving some exceptionally –
but also frustratingly – encouraging rejections. One comment on my previous manuscript
was, “This is a powerhouse of a novel, which is all the more reason that I’m sorry we are
declining to publish your book.” Eventually, when I was presented with a life-changing
opportunity to write my story, I was prepared and excited to say yes and believe in my
ability to produce a quality manuscript. Even though I had failed for years to break
through, and was often discouraged about my situation, psychologically I never quit on
myself. I never stopped believing that I would become a published author, or that I had
the talent to do so. The lesson of my experience can be applied to anyone’s personal,
professional, emotional, or spiritual dreams and desires. If you believe doing something
is essential to your happiness, don’t give up.

Wow - now that's a way to end an interview.  Thanks Jon - sorry about the pick one questions, but thank you for being a good sport.


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