The Writer as Oppositionist
An interview with Bob Biderman
Q: You’ve spoken of the need for oppositionist literature. What exactly do you mean?
A: ‘Exactly’ is not a term I have any great fondness for. But generally I’d say that if literature has a master, it should be the writer rather than a corporate oligarch. The responsibility of the writer has always been to question both society and self. But in times of crisis the writer needs to go one step further and to actively oppose the status quo because it’s the status quo that got us into this mess.
Q: What about the writer’s need to entertain?
A: I would turn that around and say that the writer must not bore. I’m not sure what ‘entertainment’ implies. Bread and circuses?
Q: Isn’t that what Epic Theatre was all about - politics and entertainment?
A: Brecht was agitprop par excellence. He might have been entertaining but his purpose wasn’t entertainment. In the 1930s when he wrote, the world was falling apart. If you were living in Berlin back then you could either have written things to stop people from thinking or to make them think in ways that might empower them. One of those approaches led to personal reward, the other was dangerous.
Q: But we’re not living in the 1930s, are we?
A: We might be living through something worse.
Q: I won’t ask you to pursue that …
A: I’d be happy to.
Q: I’d rather ask you about your own writing. How much of it is autobiographical?
A: All writing is autobiographical unless it’s done by a machine. And even then…
Q: I guess it’s a matter of degree. Let me rephrase the question: Did your books mirror the details of your own life?
A: Yes and no. My life was often a starting point but I soon extrapolated into a different existence.
Q: You were born in the American Midwest?
A: Six months before Bob Dylan but not as far from the Atlantic. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s the fake Midwest because you can drive to New York in about 10 hours. He was born in Minnesota – that’s the real Midwest. There you’re snowed in half the year and you have to travel for days before you reach the ocean.
Q: You’ve written that your father was forced to go underground during the McCarthy decade because he had been named as a Communist. Red Dreams is about a boy whose father does the same.
A: My father did leave home for several years during the 50s in order to avoid the indignities of having to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and being forced to name names – which he wouldn’t have done – and then end up in jail. And my mother did move to Los Angeles during that time. And after the repeal of the Smith Act, my father did return and we did move to Texas where I eventually went to university for a while. But that’s just the skeletal structure. The meat is something different. And if you would ask whether I would classify Red Dreams as memoir or fiction, I would say it was fiction. But, then again, I don’t much like categorising books into genres. It’s like putting words in zoos.
Q: How about your first book, Letters to Nanette - is that also loosely based on your own experience?
A: I had been drafted into the Army about that time and did go through similar experiences as Alan Bronstein. But Bronstein was an obsessive letter writer. I hardly lifted my pen during that period.
Q: You said you were in Europe when you were called up by your draft board…
A: In 1962 I had left Berkeley in a state of post-adolescent angst and travelled to Paris with the idea that the magic of such a literary wonderland would somehow rub off. I ended up in a garret eating bread and cheese and drinking as much vin rouge as I could swallow. I can’t remember when I actually received that notice – which all young men expected to receive in those days. But back then to serve in the peacetime army was just part of growing up. Everyone knew there wouldn’t be another war because Russia had nukes and who else were we going to fight? No one ever heard of Vietnam back then. So when I received my draft notice, there was no thought of resisting. However, I remember the wording - it said that I should come back ‘by any means’ so I took the slowest route possible – in this case a rusty freighter sailing out of Glasgow bound for San Francisco via the Panama Canal.
Q: But then Vietnam became real, didn’t it?
A: Even before it became real, something else became realer. Kennedy was assassinated while I was still in basic training. Afterwards, we were confined to barracks, all leaves were cancelled with the idea that we’d be shipped off to Cuba within hours– which would have been terrible since Castro was one of my heroes.
Q: Do you consider Alan Bronstein a heroic character?
A: Not in the traditional sense of fearless and strong. But he stuck up for his principles and took an action that was rife with danger.
Q: Did you as well?
A: Yes – but not in the same way.
Q: What happened to you after your discharge?
A: I made a bee-line back to San Francisco. Worked at odd jobs. Hung out with the last of the Beats at the Café Trieste. Had a night job for a while at the Post Office getting stoned in the back of delivery vans. The entire episode is a bit of a blur but I do remember packing up the remnants of my meals and shipping them off, post paid, to General Westmorland.
Q: It must have been a great time to have been young and in San Francisco.
A: I couldn’t imagine a better place to be living in 1965. The city was still cheap and it was drawing in fascinating people from around the world attracted to that very special ambiance – a cross between Europe, the Far East and bohemian America. North Beach was still Italian in those days. You could spend the afternoon there and never hear a word of English. That’s where I first developed my love of cafes and coffee. Well, actually it was a few years before in Berkeley hanging out at the Med. I wrote about that period in Letters to Nanette and people who were there at the time still remember it with fondness (though a true Beat would never, ever use that word).
Q: What word?
A: Fondness. It smacks too much of sentimentality – something they would never want to be accused of.
Q: That was a few years before the Summer of Love, wasn’t it?
A: Yeah. The Beats had North Beach, the Hippies had the Haight. I preferred North Beach. But then it all exploded into one amazing, all consuming multicoloured haze of bright red, orange, florescent pink and very mellow yellow.
Q: And along came 68. Where were you then?
A: I had gone back to university – San Francisco State. I was a bit older and a bit more worldly than most of the undergrads. But it was an incredible time to have been there. Everything was stood on its head. The world was in flames and thousands of kids who a year before were on their way to becoming mindless bureaucrats were now running riot in the streets. They were suddenly willing to take risks, to do things with their lives that they never dreamed of before. I became politically active, joined SDS and started writing leaflets and giving speeches – having never given a speech on anything before. That moment in time changed everyone who was part of it. Even today when I meet someone who was swept up in that momentous year, I feel a sense of comradeship – whether they were in San Francisco, New York, Paris, London or Berlin. We were very serious but we were also having fun.
Q: I got the impression when I read your novel Koba that the fun stopped after a while.
A: Koba was meant as satire but it was also a labour of love. It was about that group of pseudo-revolutionaries who were still stuck in May 68 some fifteen years later. And what had replaced their rather naïve revolutionary fervour was, for the most part, paranoia. But they’ve all somehow maintained their ideals and their innocence. One might see that as sad, if one were cynical – but I see it as charming.
Q: You left San Francisco in 1970. How come?
A: I fell in love with a beautiful comrade with long black hair and luminescent eyes. But the revolution evaporated and in its place came fear and raw, brutal anger. We left the States just after the Kent State killings.
Q: And you went where?
A: We took Icelandic Air to Glasgow and then hitched a ride down to London. There we spent most of our savings on a 250cc BSA which we rode for three months throughout Europe: France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Holland – where Joy found out she was pregnant. We had planned to stay in Holland as I still hadn’t used up my college grant entitlement from the military and it was possible for me to have gone to medical school there – but we couldn’t find an adequate place to live. In those days housing in Amsterdam was impossible unless you were very wealthy or had been on a waiting list for twenty years. So we ended up going back to London – more by default than desire.
Q: London in the 1970s wasn’t a bad place to be.
A: It had a real buzz to it. I had lived there before in 1961 and the change was dramatic. The London fog was no longer a deadly plague. And the mix of peoples was the colours of a rainbow. It was also a time of social and political transition. It was like suddenly an old mildewed door had opened up letting in a refreshing blast of the new. It was a very exciting place to be and both Joy and I felt quite at home.
Q: What were you writing then?
A: I was fascinated by the solidarity I perceived in the trade union movement – naively as it turned out. Having come from the States where trade union militancy had been crushed during the anti-communist purges, I was excited by the mass actions that were organised in opposition to Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill. Everything seemed new, fresh and exciting. We were living in a horrible flat in Tufnell Park with cold damp running down the walls nourishing a green slime that fed armies of mice – but we were so busy and having such a great time that we hardly noticed - until, of course, the moment came for the baby to be born. Fortunately, we had some friends who were moving out of a wonderful flat in Rona Road, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill – two floors for seven pounds six shillings a week. I started hanging out at the chess café in South End Green which used to be the bookshop where Orwell worked. And I wrote about all the amazing things that were happening. The personal had become political and the political had become personal. It all came gushing out – rather clumsily - in a manuscript typed on a ancient Underwood. The Underwood is long gone. The manuscript rests uneasily somewhere in a box in my attic.
Q: How were you earning your living back then?
A: Well, that was a problem. I was sending articles back home, to magazines like the Nation and received in return nice letters of support and encouragement. As our savings were running out we were soon faced with some rather stark choices. I still half thought of pursuing a career in academia and as I had an unused grant we decided to go back to San Francisco.
Q: This was 1972?
A: Yes. I went back to San Francisco State University - the department of sociology. I found the course tedious and uninspiring but I was getting an income that allowed me to write for a while. One of my lecturers once accused me of writing journalism which I took as a complement but understood separated me from the academic world.
Q: How long did you stay?
A: Till my grant ran out. I figured I earned it from two wasted years in the military.
Q: Then what?
A: Puppetry. Joy had trained as a puppeteer when she was younger and I was intrigued with the possibility of doing something so Victorian which brought together many different skills and crafts. We did everything ourselves – made the puppets, sewed the costumes, built the stage, wrote the scripts, painted the backdrops and put on performances.
Q: Cool! Where did you perform?
A: First at local schools and recreation centres. Then, later, we began to tour. We got a van which I kitted out with a box on the roof for our equipment and inside I built a bed for Joy and myself and a room in the back for our daughter. Then, in 1976, we went on a nationwide tour for the American bicentennial.
Q: What kind of shows were you performing?
A: I had been very influenced by British Pythonesque humour – so the puppet shows were a bit surreal. But the kids loved them even though the teachers were left somewhat bemused. Afterwards we did workshops where we taught the kids to create puppet shows of their own. Often these were inner city schools which were simply warehouses for the underclasses. The teachers, committed as they were, sometimes had just given up after years of fruitless struggle. Then we came in with a burst of energy and had the kids writing action scripts for their plays. The teachers were amazed. But we would tell them that if we were there, day in and day out, we couldn’t possibly have accomplished any more than they had.
Q: You must have learned a lot, yourself.
A: You had to think on your feet. Kids are the toughest audience but they’re also the best. And every audience is different. So Joy and I had to adapt each show accordingly.
Q: What made you stop?
A: The birth of our second child. We needed to settle down and the puppet theatre required us to be on the road for a good part of the year. So we decided to build on our experience using puppetry as an educational tool in the classroom and set up a resource centre. We had access to an old storefront on the corner of 29th and Church and that became our headquarters for several years. We even fitted it out with a playpen for our baby. This was in the middle of a deep recession but there was some money floating around to put people back to work – unlike now. So we were able to hire a staff through a Federal works project.
Q: Were you able to continue with your writing?
A: As part of the project, we had set up a newsmagazine which I then wrote for and edited. It was called the Puppetry In Education News and it soon attained an international following which surprised us but, as it turned out, there were many people – teachers, librarians, therapists – who had been using puppetry in their work and were looking for a forum to discuss their various approaches and to share experiences. A friend of ours, another puppeteer named Bruce Chesse, had been working along the same lines and had started a press to publish puppet related materials. The magazine became his distributor and eventually we merged both operations into one.
Q: That was the beginnings of Early Stages Press?
A: Yes. Bruce soon tired of the business end so he left it pretty much to me. But by that time, my thoughts were elsewhere. There was a flowering of small publishers and independent bookshops as political and cultural shifts intensified so it was a very good period in which to publish, especially if you connected with the counter-culture and were just that much older and experienced. I was involved with a group of writers who were paving their own way through the cultural morass. In the end, Early Stages set up an adjunct called The Contemporary Literature Series which became the vehicle for our little cooperative. It was a good moment for oppositionist literature since the mainstream had become deaf to the concerns of the young – like now.
Q: Is that how Letters to Nanette came out?
A: Yes. And, curiously, it became my most successful book – even though I don’t think it was my best writing. But it was passionate and it hit a certain cord. It would be difficult to replicate a small press success like that now as the key was having a vital independent bookshop trade and libraries that still had funds to buy books and would buy books directly from a miniscule publisher.
Q: You wrote somewhere that the Contemporary Literature Project modelled itself on the British publishers – Writers and Readers.
A: What we liked about them was their philosophy of making literature accessible – having writers connect directly with their audience rather than remain aloof. In that regard we set up local readings and discussions. It wasn’t simply authors reading from their books – it was supposed to engage people, make them part of the creative process…
Q: I’m not sure what to make of that. Could you be more explicit?
A: The audience was meant to be more than bodies who came to listen and maybe ask a question or two and then go home. The author was seen as part of a community; the audience was seen as part of an ongoing process where the transmission of stories and ideas flowed back and forth. The reading was the starting point of an ongoing discussion. This was a very different model from the mainstream celebrity concept of what we saw as simply another form of commodity marketing.
Q: It sounds like that was something bigger than your small cooperative.
A. It was definitely a spin-off of the 60s and the feeling that all things were possible and that old institutions were moribund. I became active as an organiser for the new National Writers’ Union with the hopes that our influence could push the industry so there would be more diversity – both cultural and political. There was another strand, however, that wanted simply to push for better contracts between writer and publisher. The two strands were in conflict over the issue of ‘professionalism.’ It became a sub-theme in my first Radkin mystery, Strange Inheritance.
Q: San Francisco seems to have been quite an exciting place back then. What made you leave?
A: By the end of the 70s, I felt the winds were shifting the wrong way. San Francisco was becoming less exciting and more commercial. The city had changed and so had the culture. When I first came, it was a place you could still be poor and survive. By the time I left, living in San Francisco was a rich man’s game. I wrote an article about it for Visions of the City Magazine where I said that the defining moment for me was the struggle around the International Hotel (a hostel and community centre for the Filipino community that was threatened by the expansion of the San Francisco Financial District -Oz). When that was lost, it was all down hill – for me, anyway.
Q: So you moved back to England. When was that?
A: I think it was 1983 that we settled in Cambridge.
Q: Why Cambridge?
A: Because it was an easy commute into London and was – at that time – quite a bit cheaper. And because I had access to the University library for my research. I wanted to get back to my writing and I found the ambiance conducive – even if it was hard then to find a good cup of coffee. But back then the university library had a café that became a meeting place for independent researchers from all over the world. I made some lasting friendships there. Unfortunately they moved it to a shiny new rectangular room upstairs, totally obliterating the nooks and crannies providing the atmosphere that allowed for chance meetings. It was a prime example of how architectural decisions can either build communities or destroy them.
Q: What writing projects were you working on at the time?
A: Before leaving San Francisco I had been doing research on a story that had fascinated me about the first black man to captain a ship in the US merchant navy. His name was Mulzac and was actually from the Caribbean and trained at the maritime school at Swansea. What made this story interesting to me was that Mulzac was given his captaincy at the beginning of WWII at a time when the government was trying to push the black community into support of the war effort – which had been difficult since most American blacks still saw themselves as second-class citizens and the slogans around the ‘war for democracy’ didn’t mean much to them. The problem for the government was how to break the taboo of having a black in charge of white men. This they solved by convincing the National Maritime Union to allow only volunteers to sail on this particular ship. Of course the people who volunteered were those who were the main supporters of integrating the military – and they tended to be the communists who, at the time, were especially active in the NMU. So what happened was that you had this one ship in the American merchant fleet that was ostensibly flying the red flag and took seriously the rhetoric about the fight against fascism. It was a fascinating story, especially their engagement in North Africa where they found dark-skinned, anti-colonialist political detainees being overseen by white, blue-eyed German prisoners of war. But the real story happened when the war ended and people like Mulzac were purged from the union and thrown onto the bread line for having communist affiliations – even though he had been built up as a hero in the black community. I had tried doing the story as a straight novel, with little success. Then I was influenced by a friend and colleague, Gordon DeMarco (a comrade from 68 who also worked for us at the Puppet Centre), to try re-doing it as a political mystery. Gordon had written a brilliant political mystery – October Heat – and his work was then being picked up by Pluto Press for their New Crime series which was supposed to give political writing a popular format. Gordon introduced me to Pete Ayrton, the editor of the series, and he eventually took on the Mulzac book, originally titled Black Ship Liberty, now re-written as Strange Inheritance.
Q: That was the first of your Joseph Radkin Investigation series?
A: Yes. I had been intrigued by the possibilities of independent investigative journalism back in San Francisco during the 70s. There had been a number of new magazines and community newspapers that had sprung up and a whole slew of freelance journalists who wanted to write for them. There was hardly any money in it, but a lot of these young writers were keen not only to make a name for themselves but to dig a little deeper into issues and approach them from a different perspective than their mainstream colleagues. Of course, there was the central contradiction of how these people earned enough of an income when they eventually had a family to support. Often there would be a slow descent into compromising their values in order to get a better income. I wanted to create one of those journalists who refused to compromise but was still able to survive. This was tricky if I didn’t want him to be an impossible fantasy. So I gave him a wife who was cleverer than he at making a living but also supportive of his work. I also gave him a sense of humour, hutzpah and determination. Someone who maintained his ideals despite events which made him question them. I didn’t want him to be naïve, but, at the same time, I didn’t want him to be brutally cynical – more a Gramscian pessimism of intellect and optimism of will. And I wanted him to have a background that connected with the ‘other Americans’ denied the proverbial dream. So this first book established the Radkin character as the son of one of the seamen aboard Mulzac’s ship.
Q: I suppose that was the idea behind the Pluto series – using the crime genre as a popular device to explore hidden histories. Do you think it worked?
A: I don’t know. There’s a problem when you are trying to force something into a genre. The idea of exploring hidden histories through a popular form isn’t exactly new. How about Zola? There was always a strong oppositional basis to fiction in France, Spain, Italy and Russia. Henrich Mann, who wrote left-wing political novels was far more popular in Germany where there was a long history of such work than his brother, Thomas, who was much preferred in England and America. I find it fascinating that Hugo’s Les Misérables wasn’t translated in its entirety until a few years ago because it was felt that the political discussions which take up almost a third of the original book were superfluous. To me, the best political writers in the English language were black – writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin who combined passion, poetry and political analysis. Then there were the muckrakers - Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser. I found them problematic – not for what they wrote about but the way they wrote it. John Steinbeck was able to incorporate good storytelling and fascinating characters together with a strong socio-political critique that was up-front and unapologetic – as did Dos Pasos at his best. Political – oppositionist – writing comes to the fore during times of crisis. During periods of social quiescence it tends to recede and is taken over by more escapist stuff. But, in the end, each book has to be judged on its own. And the judgment, of course, will depend on who is judging it. The whole ‘literary’ game is so enmeshed in questions of class and hierarchical validation. As a society, we tend to be defined by our cultural artifacts so counter-cultural opposition will always be threatening on a number of levels. The first line of defense by the powers-that-be and those who see themselves as the protectors of the realm is to dismiss something as not conforming to some vague set of ‘standards’.
Q: But there needs to be some critical apparatus, doesn’t there?
A: I would argue that there are many critiques and their value depends on who is doing the critiquing and what they’re critiquing it for. The best of these are the ones that have enough respect for the work to be actually critiquing what is written and not acting like the guard at the gate of the various literary establishments. That’s what I found difficult about the critique of the Pluto series. There were those who tried to define the genre and then show how the books didn’t fit in. But there were also those who wrote for the series as sort of a game. My own feeling is that literature can take many forms but at the heart there must be an attempt at honest portrayal of both story and character. All the rest is personal preference. We can’t lay down general laws for what’s good and what’s bad. We can say what we like and why we like it or why we don’t – as long as we make it clear where we’re coming from.
Q: Your Radkin series was then taken up by Gollancz. What happened to Pluto?
A: They were victims of what was happening to independent publishing back then. The economic forces were against them. But I also sensed there was some internal conflicts that didn’t allow for the smoothest of sailings. Gollancz, at the time, was looking to revitalise their yellow jacket series that had been quite successful in the past but was becoming dated. They picked up my next Radkin mystery – Genesis Files - for their relaunch and did Koba – which had been shortlisted for the Pluto prize but never published - as well.
Q: I suppose that was also your launch as a mystery writer,.
A: In a way, I guess it was. But I was a very reluctant ‘mystery writer’. I remember going to one of the Golden Dagger award dinners with my editor and Livia Gollancz and wondering what the hell I was doing there with all the puffed-up people trying to look like proper ladies and gentlemen drinking brandy in a room that was lined with paintings of men on horseback glaring down at me. It happened on the same day that James Baldwin had died and I thought to myself that here I was with all these self-congratulatory writers who wanted nothing more than an eventual knighthood for their efforts and most of them didn’t know Baldwin’s name and those that did probably hadn’t read a word he had written. To me it exemplified the difference between writing as passion and writing as a business. I was caught in the quandary so many writers find themselves in where the business of writing becomes their major influence. Certainly the decision to write mysteries came from what I saw as an opening to getting my work published and distributed. But, as I said, I was only willing to go so far. And I remember my editor that night chastising me for having a ‘bad attitude’. Interestingly, the mystery genre was expanding very quickly. The audience had grown exponentially and there were a number of writers – primarily women like Sara Paretsky – who managed to blend social and political themes into a mystery format and to become enormously successful. They had found a formula that worked and they exploited it. I have no problem with that. It just wasn’t me. And it wasn’t my concept of literature – at least the kind of literature that I wanted to write.
Q: But mystery novels can be good works of literature, can’t they?
A: At their best. However, that’s the problem of genre writing. Sometimes the fence becomes too constricting and that creative edge allowing writing to become literature is missing. For me the best literary mystery was Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. It was the novel where he let himself be the writer he had always wanted to be. He took stylistic risks and liberties and confused a good part of his audience by doing so.
Q: I was going to ask you whether you related more to Chandler or to Hammett
A: I related more to Hammett as a person but more to Chandler as a writer. Chandler had a poet’s sensibility for language and an amazing ear for the vernacular. I was fascinated that it took a public school Brit to write what I considered to be the Great American Mystery Novel.
Q: You left Britain in 1988. Why was that?
A: We needed to go back to the States as sort of a last chance saloon – an attempt to reconnect with our American roots before finally succumbing to the realisation that we were, for better or worse, expatriates. However, prior to that we spent some time in Toulouse, France, where I finished writing the third Radkin mystery, Judgement of Death.
Q: Why Toulouse?
A: I wanted to spend some time in France and a friend, David Kelley – who later became a co-founder of Black Apollo Press – introduced me to Jean Khalfa who at the time was the French Cultural Attaché in Cambridge. Jean suggested that with two children and little resources to speak of Toulouse would be a good place to go. He wasn’t very explicit but he turned out to be right. We found cheap digs and our kids were slotted into appropriate schools. And, curiously, just by chance I was put back in touch with an old friend from soixante-huit who I had lost touch with.
Q: How long did you stay?
A: About six months.
Q: Then you went back to the States? How did you end up in Portland, Oregon of all places?
A: DeMarco had convinced us that the place to be on the West Coast was Portland, as housing was still cheap unlike San Francisco and Seattle and there was a lively community of writers and artists. What he didn’t say was that there was also a thriving community of fundamentalist rednecks. We stayed for about a year and a half before it became clear that if we were, so to speak, at home with strangers and strangers at home, we’d rather be living where things like abortion rights and capital punishment were no longer issues. European social democracy started looking pretty good. But even though I found Oregon a bit provincial, the landscape was remarkable. And I discovered a rich environment for writing the final two books of the Radkin series: Paper Cuts, about the clear-cutting of the great redwood forests and Mayan Strawberries, about the Mixtec Indians who travelled north from Guatemala to work the Oregon agricultural harvest.
Q: So in 1990 you moved back to England again?
A: We moved to London and then back to Cambridge. I had been doing research on the social history of coffee and cafes and started Café Magazine – which a few years later became one of the first e-zines on the web. I also reconnected with an old friend from my former life in Cambridge, a rather unconventional Trinity don, and together we started Black Apollo Press as a way of connecting to the bohemian subculture – hoping to create a Rive Gauche on the River Cam.
Q: Did you succeed?
A: Not with the Rive Gauche bit. David passed away much too early and the press went in a different direction which is still evolving even now.
Q: So much of your writing relates back to your American experiences. How did your decision to become British affect your work?
A: I come from a long line of migrants so I don’t really see my identity as bound up with the nation state. That said, it’s true that my American experience affects my work even when it’s not about America – just as Chandler’s English experience influenced his vision of Los Angeles. When you leave your native land, you still see things from the perspective of your youth. And that only gets stronger as you get older. Distance is relative and memory is timeless. But many writers found that the expatriate experience allowed them to free themselves to write about things that were impossible to articulate while they were still living in their homeland. Henry James is a good example. For myself, I think leaving America allowed me to get outside myself and write about other things.
Q: You’ve written under several names – R. J. Raskin, Sacha Dumont and, the one I like best, Mortimer Tune. I’ve noticed that your books that are set outside the United States are all written by these writers – with the exception of Judgement of Death and your most recent book, Eight Weeks in the Summer of Victoria’s Jubilee Did you feel you needed to change your name to allow yourself to break away from your earlier stuff?
A: Maybe. I think there was a sense that changing my writing name did allow me to shift both my perspective and my style. The first book I wrote as R.J. Raskin – A Knight at Sea, my novel about Chandler’s return to England as an elderly man – was so stylistically different than anything I had written before that disconnecting from my previous persona, including a name change, was psychologically helpful. Interestingly, one of the themes of A Knight at Sea involves changing one’s name and the multiplicity of meaning that comes with that. Sacha Dumont, however, is something else. He became his own character and I sort of co-authored Amsterdam with him, being very careful not to step on his foot.
Q: And Mortimer Tune?
A: Mr Tune is my most enjoyable alter-ego. He reminds me of my puppetry days.
Q: I’d like to get back to our original question – that of oppositionist writing. How do you see your later work fitting into this notion?
A: By the stories I’ve chosen to write about more than the way they’re written. The concept of hidden histories is still what inspires me. And by that I don’t mean salacious stuff – more small stories that shine a light on larger issues which somehow encompass the great debate of where we’re going as a society and how we got there. It’s a discussion art is obligated to participate in.