Monday, February 9, 2015

Interview with Jerome Charyn, author of I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Jerome Charyn to Flashlight Commentary to discuss I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Jerome. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about I Am Abraham. 
It was an impossible task, and I needed to attempt the impossible.  I needed to be on a tightrope ready to fall.   When I wrote The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson* it was much easier to find the music of Emily Dickinson’s voice, not only because we have her poems, but because we have those extraordinary letters where she assumes so many masks.  She can be Scarlett O’Hara, or Cleopatra, or a total witch in the same sentence.  I didn’t have the same luxury with Lincoln.  I had to invent the voice, from his speeches, from letters we have, and from the tall tales that he told.  But somehow from the start, I always had Huck Finn in mind, and I thought, what would Huck Finn sound like when he grew up? And that’s how I dreamt my way into Lincoln’s voice.

As an author, what drew you to Lincoln?  
Lincoln had two serious bouts of depression during his life – at least two that we can confirm.  The first followed the death of Anne Rutledge and the second came after he “jilted” Mary Todd, and this was a way for me to enter the novel and also a key to unlock his voice.   But, as novelist Jay Neugeboren said to me during a debate at a Manhattan bookshop, I wasn’t really writing about Lincoln, I was writing about myself; and in a way I put on Lincoln’s beard and stovepipe hat and wandered into his White House, and I’ve never been able to wander out.

One of the most amazing things about I Am Abraham is that you wrote the novel in his voice. How did you go about doing this? 
Well, it wasn’t easy.  But remember, he had such a poor education, I felt that our backgrounds weren’t that different.  And therefore I could enter into his psyche in a way and also his great sadness.  And also I suffer from depression, so I felt an immediate intimacy with that.  And once I could enter into that world, the music began to flow.  Only a crazy man would write a novel in Lincoln’s voice.

Did you find it difficult to separate the man from his legacy? 
Lincoln was unschooled.  His mother, father and stepmother were illiterate—his father refused to allow him to read and even threw his books into the fire.  And yet he understood from a very early age the power of words, and his need to define himself through language.  Where did the power of his great speeches come from?  No other president ever wrote with the same music and eloquence and sadness.  He was literally a man who redefined himself with every speech, with every letter, with every gesture.  This is one reason why he fell in love with Shakespeare.  He could impose himself on Shakespeare’s great heroes and villains: Falstaff, Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth.  Because he himself was Shakespearean, as Edmund Wilson suggests in Patriotic Gore, he imposed himself upon the nation as a poet.

I like that you didn’t shy away from illustrating Lincoln’s intimate relationship with Mary, but I wonder, why did you feel Lincoln’s sexuality so important? 
Very few historians have been willing to see them as sexual creatures, and that's one of the things that was important to me, to really try to explore what was the attraction between this very tall man and this very short woman. Well, you know, she was a kind of a foxy lady. She was quite attractive, and she fell in love with him, and he jilted her, and she waited, and she waited, and she waited, and he came back. That's a great love story.

Unlike many authors, you portrayed Mrs. Lincoln as strong and intelligent woman. What led to this interpretation of her character?
There have been so many depictions of Mary that it is hard to tell the difference between the woman and the myth. Like Emily Dickinson, Mary was much too intelligent and forceful for her own time. She suffered as most women suffered in the nineteenth century. She had been Lincoln's first general – he wouldn't have become president without her – and yet once they arrived in the White House, she was divorced from politics and thrown out of Lincoln's inner circle. She was cast off to redecorate the White House. She overspent, became a kind of hoarder, and almost committed treason – all in a search for her own political equilibrium. 

Robert also enjoyed your attention. Why place such emphasis on the eldest of the Lincoln children? 
Robert was Mary's favorite – the child she consumed with love. She pampered him, educated him, made sure he went off to Harvard. What might Lincoln have felt about the kingly station of Harvard? Didn't it make him feel uncomfortable? And yet he fought in every way so his son could get in. Robert was moody, very ambivalent about his father's fame and presidency. Mary also wanted to make sure that Robert would never have to go off to war. And yet how could Lincoln protect his own child when he was sending off so many men and boys to their deaths? He had to plead with Grant as a father, and not as President of the United States, to accept Robert into his own military family. It pained Lincoln to make this plea, but he did it for Mary. And somehow by protecting Robert, he impaired himself. He wished he was the one who could have gone off to war.  

Elizabeth Keckley makes an appearance in I Am Abraham. What inspired you to include her?
I was both troubled and perplexed by the mystery and strength of Elizabeth Keckly, who served as Mary's dressmaker and confidante. A former slave, Keckly bought her own freedom and established her own dressmaker shop in Washington, DC. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were among her most important clients prior to the Civil War, yet her relationship with Mary Lincoln, so tightfisted, moody, and belligerent, is almost Shakespearean. Keckly practically lived in the White House; in my novel, she actually has her quarters in the attic. She is the only one who could soothe Mary's blinding headaches and fits of depression. Lincoln learned to respect her but could never feel the same intimacy. Keckly herself was a kind of war widow; her only son died fighting for the Union, and yet she wouldn't mourn her son's death in any conventional way. She was also the one who introduced Mary Lincoln to spiritualism and accompanied Mary to many of the séances in Georgetown, both of them believing that somehow they could commune with their dead children.  

Mrs. Small is one of the few fictional characters in your story. Did you enjoy the freedom of playing with a character that had no direct historic counterpart? 
I wanted to play with the notion of a female Secret Service agent and this was historically correct.  The fictional Mrs. Small was one of the first female Pinkertons. What was important about her is that she was from Lincoln’s own social class, therefor there was an immediate bond between them and a sense of play that would not have been there if both of their backgrounds hadn’t been modest.  He could afford to let down his guard with Mrs. Small and she could afford to protect him in a way that she would not have done with any other man, president.

What is your favorite scene in the novel? 
I thought that Lincoln’s arrival in Richmond was the most important day of his life.  The Rebels had just scattered, Jeff Davis had run off with all his papers and secretaries.  There were still sharpshooters lying around when Lincoln decided to go to Richmond with his son Tad on his twelfth birthday.  He didn’t want to arrive as a conqueror, but as someone who could unite the country.  There were no welcoming parties.  Southerners hid in their houses and heaped scorn on him.  The slaves of Richmond came out to greet him and he arrived at the Rebel White House with these new strange bodyguards.  It was the most heroic act of his life.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you?
Well, the history's a kind of frame and a straightjacket at the same time. You know, you have to deal with the Civil War, you have to deal with... the love for Mary, and the Emancipation Proclamation, which for me was the most important American document ever written. So you have to stretch that straightjacket and push the fiction inside it. Then you have a kind of explosion, and that's what I wanted to do.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
Yes, I wish I could have spent more time on Lincoln’s father; actually, I did write a scene where Lincoln does visit his father after he himself had become a famous lawyer, but it didn’t really fit into the book and I had to take it out.  Perhaps it will find its way into the theatrical adaptation I am doing of I Am Abraham.

If you could ask Lincoln one question, what would it be? 
I would ask him, how did you keep your humanness during such a bloody time?

What do you hope readers take from reading I Am Abraham? 
Lincoln is the only president, other than George Washington, who grows more and more modern. We tend to see Washington's limits as a man and as a general and yet fail to understand that he shaped our country in a way that no other president ever could.

Lincoln also redefined the presidency.  He was our president-poet-soldier, who had no vanity, nor any desire to embellish himself.  He never understood the psyche of African-Americans, and yet he finally understood that we could have no country without them.  No other president could have imagined and conceived the Emancipation Proclamation.

What's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
I am working on another book about Emily Dickinson, trying to unravel all of her wonders.  I’ve done a collection of stories, called Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories and will be released on June 15th by Liveright/W.W. Norton. 

These stories are about the destruction of the Bronx because of the mad vision of Robert Moses who built a highway right down the middle of the borough and killed the southern half.  

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“Thoughtful, observant and droll.” — Richard Brookhiser, New York Times Book Review

“Not only the best novel about President Lincoln since Gore Vidal’s Lincoln in 1984, but it is also twice as good to read.” — Gabor Boritt, author of The Lincoln Enigma and recipient of the National Humanities Medal

“Jerome Charyn [is] a fearless writer… Brave and brazen… The book is daringly imagined, written with exuberance, and with a remarkable command of historical detail. It gives us a human Lincoln besieged by vividly drawn enemies and allies… Placing Lincoln within the web ordinary and sometimes petty human relations is no small achievement.” — Andrew Delbanco, New York Review of Books

“Audacious as ever, Jerome Charyn now casts his novelist’s gimlet eye on sad-souled Abraham Lincoln, a man of many parts, who controls events and people—wife, sons, a splintering nation—even though they often are, as they must be, beyond his compassion or power. Brooding, dreamlike, resonant, and studded with strutting characters, I Am Abraham is as wide and deep and morally sure as its wonderful subjects.” — Brenda Wineapple, author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compassion: 1848-1877

“If all historians—or any historian—could write with the magnetic charm and authoritative verve of Jerome Charyn, American readers would be fighting over the privilege of learning about their past. They can learn much from this book—an audacious, first-person novel that makes Lincoln the most irresistible figure of a compelling story singed with equal doses of comedy, tragedy, and moral grandeur. Here is something beyond history and approaching art.” — Harold Holzer, chairman, Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

“Jerome Charyn is one of the most important writers in American literature.” — Michael Chabon

“Jerome Charyn is merely one of our finest writers with a polymorphous imagination and crack comic timing. Whatever milieu he chooses to inhabit, his characters sizzle with life, and his sentences are pure vernacular music, his voice unmistakable.” — Jonathan Lethem

“Charyn, like Nabokov, is that most fiendish sort of writer—so seductive as to beg imitation, so singular as to make imitation impossible.” — Tom Bissell

“One of our most intriguing fiction writers takes on the story of Honest Abe, narrating the tale in Lincoln’s voice and offering a revealing portrait of a man as flawed as he was great.” — Abbe Wright, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Jerome Charyn, like Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s superb 2012 movie, manages a feat of ventriloquism to be admired… Most of all, Lincoln comes across as human and not some remote giant… With that, Jerome Charyn has given Lincoln a most appropriate present for what would have been his 205th birthday this month: rebirth not as a marble memorial but as a three-dimensional human who overcame much to save his nation.” — Erik Spanberg, Christian Science Monitor

“Daring… Memorable… Charyn’s richly textured portrait captures the pragmatism, cunning, despair, and moral strength of a man who could have empathy for his bitterest foes, and who ‘had never outgrown the forest and a dirt floor.’” — The New Yorker

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Jerome Charyn is an award-winning American author. With nearly 50 published works, Charyn has earned a long-standing reputation as an inventive and prolific chronicler of real and imagined American life. Michael Chabon calls him “one of the most important writers in American literature.” New York Newsday hailed Charyn as “a contemporary American Balzac,”and the Los Angeles Times described him as “absolutely unique among American writers.” Since the 1964 release of Charyn’s first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, he has published 30 novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year. Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris until he left teaching in 2009. In addition to his writing and teaching, Charyn is a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players in France. Noted novelist Don DeLillo called Charyn’s book on table tennis, Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins, “The Sun Also Rises of ping-pong.” Charyn lives in Paris and New York City.

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Format: Print & eBook
PB Publication Date: February 9, 2015
Released by: Liveright Publishing Corporation
ISBN-13: 978-1631490026
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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Check Out All the Stops on Jerome Charyn's I Am Abraham Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, February 9
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, February 10
Review & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, February 11
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Thursday, February 12
Friday, February 13
Monday, February 16
Tuesday, February 17
Interview & Giveaway at A Virtual Hobby Store and Coffee Haus
Spotlight at CelticLady’s Reviews
Wednesday, February 18
Thursday, February 19
Spotlight at A Literary Vacation
Friday, February 20
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Saturday, February 21
Monday, February 23
Interview & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews
Tuesday, February 24
Audio Book Review & Interview at Just One More Chapter
Wednesday, February 25
Review at Bookish
Thursday, February 26
Monday, March 2
Review at Forever Ashley
Tuesday, March 3
Interview at Books and Benches
Wednesday, March 4
Spotlight at Caroline Wilson Writes
Thursday, March 5
Review & Reader’s Guide at She is Too Fond of Books
Friday, March 6
Review at Impressions in Ink

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