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Robert Anthony Siegel's Literary Novel - All the Money in the World

Robert Anthony Siegel's website.

I sat down one Friday night and zipped through this novel in three hours. It's linear, realistic and fun -- a welcome change from the many writing-exercises-packaged-as-novels I've endured the past three months.

What's wrong with writing scenes that lead into the next scene and propelling the reader along?

I also enjoyed Like Normal People, the novel by Robert's wife's Karen Bender, but its nonlinear structure made me work harder than I wanted. I almost gave up on the book after 40 pages.

I wonder if reading a book should be like watching cricket or baseball -- you can fall asleep for an hour and not miss anything?

Time frame shifts don't allow your mind to wander for a page and then know where you are when you return your attention.

When I read a book, a dull book anyway, I like to skip every other page (or every other 50 pages). That way I can read twice as many books and sound twice as smart as the next blogger.

I've been rereading Tom Wolfe over the past few months (some pleasure amidst the work I'm doing for my project on American Jewish Lit) and Robert's book melded with Wolfe as pure pleasure with its scene-by-scene construction, close attention to status details and its unashamed fascination with the way life is lived in our fascinating country.

I call Robert (the eldest child of four kids) Wednesday, August 16, 2006.

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Robert: "I was grandiose. I wanted to be important. It had something to do with writing. I was a heavy reader."

Luke: "There are fewer better platforms for a grandiose life than writing."

Robert: "You're wrapped up in what you think about things. Part of the experience of writing a novel is putting yourself at the center of the world. When you come in contact with the real world that grandiosity is a problem. You have to let go of it.

"In many ways, being a writer is humbling. There's almost no readership left for literary fiction. There's little chance to be noticed and to gratify those urges. My first book disappeared almost immediately. It had that classic 90-day shelf cycle. It had a silver lining. It kept me focused on my own writing. There wasn't a lot happening in the outside world. I had to focus in on my inner experience as a writer."

Luke: "Your dust jacket photo and the photo on your professor's page are very different."

Robert: "Two children in between those."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Robert: "I went to a small private school in Manhattan. Everybody inevitably circulated together. I didn't have many close friends. I was shy. I lived downtown. I was a commuter in a neighborhood school.

"Like many shy people, I've learned to compensate. I teach, which is a branch of performance."

At Harvard, Siegel got a BA in East Asian Studies (Japanese).

Luke: "What makes All the Money in the World literary as opposed to a John Grisham-style law-drama genre?"

Robert: "It was a difficult first publishing experience. It didn't get any support from the publisher, which is part of the reason it disappeared so quickly. In so far as they tried to tried to do anything, they tried to represent it as something it wasn't -- as a crime novel. It was the heyday (1997) of the legal thriller.

"People who bought it by mistake were unhappy. When the book got reviewed, it often went to a crime reviewer who was also unhappy because the expectations were so different.

"The book's plot was straightforward. It wasn't a point of interest for me. The focus was on character and the language that carries that experience. That makes it literary."

Luke: "Who's the protagonist of the book?"

Robert: "It's hard to say. The point of view switches between the attorney, Louis Glasser, and his son Jason. Louis is a more interesting character. He's the one who undergoes the drastic life change. It's his book. But Jason stands at the periphery and gives it meaning as an observer.

"That question is unresolved. It might've been a stronger book if it had been resolved."

Luke: "Isn't there a rule against that? It seemed like the protagonist changed 75% of the way through the book."

Robert: "I'm very aware of it as a first book. I'm struggling with so many personal issues and craft issues and my relationship to the material. I was learning as I went."

Luke: "How does Louis change? I know he loses weight and regains the will to live."

Robert: "Losing weight for him is a tremendous thing. If character is destiny, the fault in his character is appetite.

"And yet [the book] doesn't end with a grand pronouncement. That's another thing that marks the book as literary. I was trying to hold within the bounds of normal human experience rather than trying to create a neat dramatic arc. It's true to life. People go through terrible things and sometimes the one reward is having survived.

"Plot was such a struggle for me. It was the last thing I thought about. I was working hard making a plot that runs like a train, from station to station, going somewhere."

Luke: "Have you read John Grisham?"

Robert: "I haven't. I don't want to. For me to read something, there has to be something interesting going on. I don't play videogames either.

"It was pure coincidence that the world of my novel happened to invade their terrain.

"My father was a criminal defense lawyer. I knew that world intimately from childhood on, of small single practitioners with an office near the court buildings in downtown New York. They made good livings but everything was fragile. They worked out of phone booths in the court building and it wasn't clear if they had an office. Some of them worked out of their cars.

"It was my vision of adulthood.

"After college, I worked for my father as a paralegal for a year and a half. That was frustrating. Never work for your father."

Luke: "Did your father bring these crooks home, like Louis Glasser?"

Robert: "In that way, he was like Glasser. He didn't have clear boundaries between work and home, in part because the hours are so strange. When someone gets arrested, you have to go bail them out. It drove my mother wild. I could often hang out at his office. It was a relaxed place. There would be some toys for me. I'd sit there and watch the show (from age six on).

"My dad's clients were always friendly but they were also scary. Kids are learning the difference between what's allowed and what isn't allowed and there's something fascinating and scary about adults who don't follow those rules."

Luke: "How did your father like your book?"

Robert: "He liked it. When he went into criminal defense, that was the least prestigious rung on the legal ladder. He had done extremely well in law school but I think he went in this direction because there was a personal affinity and he lacked a certain comfort with a tonier environment. Like Louis Glasser, he'd grown up poor on the Lower Eastside. He felt he fit in better."

Luke: "How did the publication of your book affect you?"

Robert: "Because nothing happened, it affected me powerfully. These fantasies of literary self-transformation are common among writers. I expected to be changed, whether rich or famous. I thought I'd feel different, that I'd be more confident, that I'd writer better and faster. I would stop having bad days and anxieties. None of that happened. It was a difficult lesson to absorb, but a valuable one."

Luke: "If you would've turned your first novel in to a genre legal-thriller, the primary emphasis would've had to have been on the plot?"

Robert: "Yes. Character must serve plot instead of exploring the ambiguities of what Glasser's guilt is and what it means to him and his family. As one reader put it, Glasser is innocent enough not to deserve his fate but not innocent enough to avoid it. One way to have made it a genre novel would've been to stack the deck, to make him innocent but appear guilty. Then most of the novel would've been about his fight to prove his innocence."

Luke: "Do they give teaching positions to people who write genre novels?"

Robert: "It's a good question. There are literary writers who take a vacation and do genre stuff. Most MFA programs tend to be dominated by literary writers. Literature needs help. Genre work can support itself in the marketplace.

"When I was trying to figure out what plot is, I read some genre books. I really like Elmore Leonard. The plots are fun but mechanical. I picked up on old Elmore Leonard book for a buck on the street. I read it and then realized I had already read it. They tend to be formulaic. There are a bunch of people who transcend genre such as Raymond Chandler."

Luke: "What's your relationship to Judaism?"

Robert: "It's complicated. My father grew up Orthodox but was disillusioned. He said he went to Hebrew school and all the rabbi did was hit all the kids. We had no religious education in the house. I was not bar mitzvahed. But the cultural milieu was Jewish. My grandmother on my father's side was still kosher and yiddish speaking."

Luke: "Do you teach class on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?"

Robert: "Don't. Those are not holidays here. I have to take off specially. My undergrads are fascinated. For some of them, I'm the first Jew they've ever met. I take that as a pleasure and responsibility. I tell them what it is like to be a Jew."

Luke: "Was there a time in your life when you realized you were going to be a writer?"

Robert: "It's a continuing anxiety. That first book was so hard to write... I wanted to solve the question of whether I was a writer. The reaction was so thunderously silent that there was no strong affirmation. It's not a question you can look to the outside world to solve. If it hadn't gotten published at all, would that have made it less of a book?

"The book sold so poorly that when I finished the second (two years ago, it is tentatively titled All Will Be Revealed, due out in March 2007), I couldn't sell it. I recently sold it to MacAdam/Cage. It was an enormous relief because it coincided with the tenure process. I had to publish a second book to qualify for tenure."

Luke: "Tell me about your second book."

Robert: "It's set in 19th Century New York."

Luke: "Are there a lot of Jews in it?"

Robert: "None, but in a way, the whole western world is Jewish after Freud.

"It's about a crippled pornographer who makes erotic stereographs (which give a three-D immediacy) and spiritualism.

"I give the pornographer in this book the same last name as the pornographer in my first book - Auerbach."

12/26/06

All Will Be Revealed by Robert A. Siegel

According to the publisher:

A [porn] photographer [Augustus Auerbach] is drawn to a beautiful psychic in a turn-of-the-century novel about love, possession, adventure, and greed. At the close of the nineteenth century, wheelchair-bound Augustus Auerbach's only interest is his extraordinarily lucrative business: the manufacture and marketing of "exotic" photographs. His outlook is forever altered, however, when one of his models pressures him to attend a seance.

From page 10: "In the rush to shape the landscape, the interior life of ht enation had been forgotten -- had been, in effect, left with Auerbach. Fortunately, he had accepted the task with a sense of high purpose. Whatever bridges were needed to reach our secret desires, whatever canals were necessary for the shipment of our darkest wishes, whatever railroads were required to transport our most powerful cravings -- he would build them. He would build the tunnels and corridors, the dungeons and pleasure domes of our yearnings."

All Will Be Revealed was the opposite reading experience for me compared to Siegel's first book, All the Money in the World. I loved Money from the start but was disappointed by the ending. Revealed bored me for the first half of the book and then thrilled me towards the end.

Money started with one main character and proceeded in a linear manner. It sucked me in right away. Then, in the second half, the protagonist changed and I was disappointed by the lack of a thrilling denoument.

Revealed begins with five separate stories and jumps around in time. I wouldn't have put up with that except I liked the author and was going to give him every chance in the world for all to be revealed.

I just watched The Rock for the second time. That's how you tell a story -- with lots of cool explosions.