I knew Andrew Lewis Conn back in the clawing days of college, in New York City. Although we went to different schools, we, like so many hundreds of ambitious artistic innocents, shared an immediate unspoken desire to be ranked as close to all the literary and cinematic "faces" that had dominated our imaginations and infiltrated our lives. The energy of our mutual ambition towards creating "great, lasting things" crammed every inch of my already tiny book squeezed-in dorm room at Juilliard, as he pitched me his idea for his student film he was filming that summer with a quiet but barely containable Tarantino-seeking creative frenzy. One of the coolest things to me, is, many years later, still seeing the same people you knew still facing their dreams full-on, making them happen-- not sitting on the edge of a bed talking about it-- and still putting their heart fully and entirely into their work to create that "great, lasting thing." Andrew Lewis Conn is the author of the recently published novel O, AFRICA! (Hogarth/Random House) and P (Soft Skull Press). Conn has written essays, short fiction, and reviews for The Believer, Film Comment, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and the Indiana Review, among others, and attended writers residencies at Yaddo and Ledig House in Hudson, NY. Conn’s debut novel, P, was chosen as a best book of the summer of 2003 by Salon, Time Out New York, The Oregonian, and Nerve; one of the best books of the year by the Village Voice and the Austin Chronicle; and long-listed as “one of the best books of the millennium (so far!)” by The Millions. O, AFRICA! has received some very generous pre-publication praise. It was heralded as "a masterpiece" and "a thing of wonder" by bestselling author Gary Shteyngart, earned a starred review in KIRKUS, and had the good fortune of appearing on best summer reads lists in the LOS ANGELES TIMES, NEW YORK FAMILY, DETROIT JEWISH NEWS, THE ORLANDO SENTINEL, THE SEATTLE-POST INTELLIGENCER, THE ST. LOUIS DISPATCH, and SAN DIEGO MAGAZINE, among others. In the pages of THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, critic Lloyd Sachs wrote of the novel: "Conn. . . takes his place here as one of contemporary fiction's great word-wranglers, a novelist whose love of language in all its rolling and tumbling excess captures the bounding excess of life itself." I sent Andrew a series of questions for "Perfect Mistakes" that I belief everyone can be empowered from if they take the time to ask themselves, and listen.
PERFECT MISTAKES: Why do you do what you do?
ANDREW LEWIS CONN: I have to agree with David Foster Wallace, who said during a Charlie Rose interview once something to the effect that a novel is still the best device that’s ever been invented to teach us what it means to be a human being. That’s it: when I’m gone and someone wants to know what this weird dude who lived in Brooklyn thought about things like time and God and technology and sex and movies and America and work and family, they’ll be able to read these books—hopefully, by then, more than two of them—and, if so inclined, have a pretty clear sense, if not in a necessarily immediately autobiographical sense. The other, more selfish answer has to do with freedom. The deeper I get into fiction writing, and the more I learn about what goes into it and the pleasure one hopes to derive from it, I’ve come to think of it as a sense of total personal freedom. Apart from the aesthetic bliss of stringing together words and sentences and paragraphs; apart from the joy that comes with building characters that achieve a kind of psychological volume and can come to seem very real on the page, the truth is that you do it—or, at least, I do it—for the sense of freedom it provides. In other words, when I’m writing, I can go anywhere and do anything. I am ungovernable. There’s great line in this Bob Dylan song “It’s alright mom (I’m only bleeding)” that goes “that it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.” And that’s sort of it. When I’m writing I am answerable to no one. I am no longer my mother’s son. I am no longer my wife’s husband or my daughter’s father. I am no longer a Senior Vice President at a global communications company. I am no longer a Nice Jewish Boy From Brooklyn. Now, I also delight in being all of those things. So the balance of honoring those things while rejecting those things in order to create the work—because any work of art worth its salt exists as a statement of rejection of all that’s come before; you will the thing into the world because you believe in its absence and need to exist—this is a tricky thing. The psychology of writers is not the least complex thing in the world. . .
PM: Where does your inspiration come from? What deeply inspires you?
ALC: Going back to the "why…" One of the simplest and most profound explanations of why we write that I ever heard came from Bruce Springsteen during a Charlie Rose interview. (And anyone who doubts that Springsteen is one of America’s supreme story writers, equipped with an actor’s ability to inhabit the skins of wildly different characters, has never listened to Nebraska.) Asked about his creative process, the Boss said something to the effect of: “You write about what you love and you write about things you’re trying to make sense of.” That holds true for me, certainly. I’m trying to figure things out about the world and myself through the filter of my characters. Similar to actors, I get to explore other lives, or investigate parts of myself I long to explore through the process of identification and amplification. But, yeah, anything can inspire you. I’ve always been especially wary of planned epiphanies, like, “I’m going to Burning Man and it’s going to totally blow my mind!” I think the world is a lot stranger and more unexpected and non-negotiable than that and that any insight and inspiration one is granted one usually catches on the fly. The trick, I think, especially as one gets a little bit older, is not to calcify, to hold onto a kind of youthful openness coupled with a well-quipped bullshit detector (to be applied with equal ruthlessness to oneself as to others).
PM: What's one of the greatest “perfect mistakes” you've ever made and are willing to share? The primary purpose of this blog is to see the value in the obstacle, to see that those things that "hold us back" are actually the things that have the potential to set us free. And to be able to have the courage to use it. That's why it's called “Perfect Mistakes.”
ALC: In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus famously says, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” But, um, we’re not geniuses (and neither is Stephen, at least not in the frame of the book, which is one of the reasons Ulysses is so great; it’s Bloomsday, not Stephen’s). I’ve failed at many things. I failed at making a movie when I was twenty (ed. note: it was said youthful failure that originally brought the interviewer and interviewee into each others orbits). My second novel remains unpublished, its characters left lonely and unknown and moldering in a desk drawer. I’ve failed at relationships. I’ve lost dear friends I thought I’d keep for a lifetime. O, Africa! went through four top to bottom rewrites over about three or four years----and shed 230 pages of manuscript weight---before my agent felt confident enough to send it out. Failure is a coin of the realm; you carry it in your pocket always. Who said the humanity racket was easy?
PM: Okay, we all love a good success story. What's one of your greatest dreams? How can your success relate to your followers and why would anyone (who doesn't know you) even bother to care? Can you connect that common thread and inspire success in them?
ALC: My dream is to be able to write fiction full time and spend more of the time I have in this life committed to the work, the real work, I’m confident I have in me. I’m not an especially money or power-driven person, and suspect I would bore easily strumming a ukulele on a beach. But I think I would enjoy having some cultural influence; having my work read and appreciated on a wide scale; being recognized for being publicly smart, that sort of thing. But the reality of it is that none of those things really come into play when you’re really cooking on a novel: because it’s all about the practical mechanics of getting a very specific set of characters into and out of a very specific number of rooms and situations in aesthetically pleasing and emotionally meaningful and psychologically believable ways.
PM: Lets talk about Legacy-- what is that you want to leave behind? Personal accomplishments are great when we are living to share them, but the true test is what we leave behind when we are out of here, I believe. Do you think your book can and will allow someone to "see" the world in a different way? Quote from “Tommy Boy:” "Did that leave a mark?" Sorry, “Tommy Boy” is the best I got.
ALC: I’m 40 years old. I’m not ready to start talking about a legacy or estate planning. What I can say is that I’ve written two books that I feel are pretty much free of compromise, and if you can do anything in this world that’s 90-95% without compromise, that’s pretty good. But legacy, no, I’m not ready for that kind of graveyard arithmetic just yet. To quote Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
PM: What's one of your favorite short stories of all time? Why?
ALC: “The Dead.” Joyce was just 25 when he wrote it and the last two or three pages are, to these eyes, the most perfect piece of prose ever written in English.
PM: What's one of your favorite novels of all time? Why?
ALC: Let’s take Ulysses out of contention because I’ve given already given St James his due in this interview. . . So, looking to some brawny American authors. . . I’m hard-pressed to name a book that tells us more about America than Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Reading the four volumes of John Updike’s Rabbit tetrology in quick succession one summer was another signal reading experience for me. Philip Roth is another enormous influence and Joe DiMaggio figure for me: the way his work is both manic and controlled, comic and high-minded, colloquial but literary. My two favorite Roth books are probably The Counterlife—which shows how to do postmodernism right, without bells and whistles, and is the book where Nathan Zuckerman undergoes that seismic shift from being a mouth to being an ear—and Sabbath’s Theater, which is just stunning. The juxtaposition in that book of real pornographic content (I mean, stuff that would make little Alex Portnoy blush!) and the most profound meditations on family, memory, mortality, it’s like watching a gymnast execute a quadruple flip and land in a perfect split. Just impossible combinations of moves there, and it remains, I think, Roth’s strangest and greatest achievement. (It’s no accident that book is the one he’s chosen to read from on his retirement tour.) What else? I probably learned more about what it means to have a writer’s “voice” from the great film critic Pauline Kael than any novelist, so I’d throw her collection For Keeps into the mix. Lolita remains a continual source of renewal and inspiration and ravishment. The opening section of Don DeLillo’s Underworld might be our most perfect fifty pages of the last quarter century. You know, the usual suspects. . .
PM: What's one of your favorite movies of all time? Why?
ALC: Depends on the day or year or mood or weather. . . I’ll rattle off a few that spring immediately to mind: On the Waterfront, Notorious, Vertigo, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Godfather I & II, Persona, Tree of Life, The Up series, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, 2001, Last Tango in Paris, Dead Ringers, Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood, Blue Velvet, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chinatown, Manhattan, Dog Day Afternoon, The Wizard of Oz, Lawrence of Arabia, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Topsy-Turvy, Miller’s Crossing, Rushmore, Waking Life, the list just goes on and on and on. . . But if I had to choose one, today, typing this interview late at night on a Monday, it’d have to be Fellini’s 8 ½, because I’ve seen no other movie that comes as close to mimicking in film a kind of literary stream of consciousness in the way it mixes past and present, dream and reality. And, in its story of an artist who doesn’t know what’s next and then realizes his material exists all around him, the picture is a reservoir of surprise and inspiration. And it’s hilarious. And Marcello Mastroianni is the coolest mother------ ever to wear a pair of sunglasses.
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