Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mischa Berlinski

Bret Anthony Johnston interviewed 2007 National Book Award Fiction finalist Mischa Berlinski, author of Fieldwork.

One exchange from the interview:

BAJ: If there is a common thread among this year’s fiction finalists, it might be that all of the books employ interesting narrative structures and scopes. In Fieldwork, you’ve used something akin to a pulp writer’s sense of plot — the book is, in the best possible ways, a hardboiled page turner — and you’ve also, in something of a postmodern twist, given the narrator your own name. Did you conceive of such narrative acrobatics before beginning to write the book, or did the symbiotic relationship between the subject and structure emerge more intuitively?

MB: As I mentioned above, before there was novel, there was a journalistic project — I had in mind a book about the conversion of the Lisu. I even wrote a proposal and a sample chapter which my agent sent out to a dozen or so publishers. None of them were interested. I noticed that my friends and family had this particular look in their eyes whenever I mentioned the Lisu, like I was discussing changes in the home amortization deduction of the tax code. I was convinced that the Lisu and their conversion were interesting, but everyone else thought they were so boring. I put the Lisu and the missionaries aside.

A few years later — I remember it very clearly — on a warm afternoon in Paris in springtime, I was reading the short stories of Somerset Maugham, which are so rich in plot and drama and sheer story, and I dozed off. When I woke up, I realized that’s what my Lisu story needed: a plot. And I had a great plot in mind.

thus began as a thought experiment: I tried to imagine what would have happened if, in that year I spent in northern Thailand, I had come across a great story — in the journalistic sense of the word ‘story’ as much as the literary. I wanted the reader to go the same places I went that year and meet many of the same people, but have the forward momentum that only murder can give a novel. I was determined to write a novel that compelled the reader to take an interest in the conversion of the northern Thai hill tribes and the lives of missionaries and the history of anthropology. I wanted to write a fictional work of literary non-fiction, as it were. In the end, the fiction overwhelmed the non-fiction, but that’s how things started.

If the decision to write a plotted novel was very intentional, the choice of the narrator’s name was rather haphazard. Given that I was creating a narrator so similar to myself, it was only natural to lend him my own name, just to get things started. This was not some very deep decision. It just kind-of happened. Over time, the narrator’s story diverged from my own quite significantly, just as the Dyalo became very different from the Lisu. Nevertheless, I kept the name, for a reason all novelists will understand: it was the character’s name, and to call him anything else would have felt strange.

Read the full interview.

--Marshal Zeringue