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‘I have no interest in heroes and villains’

Q&A | 4 minute read
Unbound author Glenn Skwerer on what he reads, how he writes and his novel on Hitler's childhood friendship, The Tristan Chord

Where do you write?

Usually at the library. If I need other books and papers within reach while writing and the library carrel won’t do, I write propped up in bed surrounded by the research material. In this case, the dogs are banned from the room.

What’s the last really good book you read? And the best film or theatre production?

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. There are many passages in which James summarises action and explores the shifting attitudes and mental states of his characters, often in long, convoluted sentences with rather eccentric phrasing (I wonder whether he was a lawyer in another life);  these alternate with scenes that consist almost entirely of dialogue. The characterisation is brilliant, the dialogue simply terrific. If you really want to get to know a character read a nineteenth-century novel.

Best film I’ve seen recently was Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961).  Saw it in college, not again until now. Beautifully observed, great non-professional cast, a detailed, involving story. In black and white too.

What book marked you as a child or teenager?

As a teenager I was nuts about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which was enormously popular at the time. I liked the wonderfully absurd humour, the subversive nature of the story, and the book’s elliptical structure.

I made a deal with my tenth-grade English teacher: if I persuaded Heller to grant an interview and wrote a paper about the book using his answers, she’d excuse me from coming to class for a entire quarter. I did manage to reach Heller, who was generous with his time; he told me he no longer had any use for realistic fiction and was steeped in Beckett’s novels. He talked a lot about this. Before he died I read a piece in which he mentioned that he’d just spent a summer reading nothing but Dickens – all of Dickens. So tastes do change.

What book inspired you to become a writer?

This is an odd question for me, because I’m not a writer, I’m a physician. That identity is branded into your hide after nearly ten years of training. Also, I find it terribly inhibiting to think of myself as ‘a writer’ while writing.

The better question is why I chose to write the book I did. In short, I read August Kubizek’s 1953 memoir, The Young Hitler I Knew: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Childhood Friend, about his four-year friendship with the adolescent Adolf Hitler, which culminated in the two of them sharing a tiny room in Vienna for six months. I decided I’d invent a new narrator, more self-aware than Kubizek, and re-write the book as fiction. Fiction was the better way to explore the mental attitudes of the characters and the underlying conflicts in that friendship, among other things.

If I had to choose two books that in recent years impressed on me how powerful storytelling can be, they would be Continental Drift and Affliction, both by Russell Banks.

Pen and paper or laptop?

Pencil and paper, in a tiny, indecipherable hand – indecipherable to me, often.

Do you re-read books or is life too short?

I re-read parts of books, and re-listen to some books.  The visual and tactile world of a book really comes alive with a good professional reader, often an actor. Life’s still too short.

Who is the best fictional hero and villain?

I have no interest in heroes and villains. The most interesting characters – and everyone I’ve met in my life – are a mix of good and bad traits. And this is lucky for fiction, because fiction thrives on conflict, including (or especially) internal conflict. If I had to choose a convincing ‘villain’, it would be Iago. A convincing hero or heroine? Dorothea Brooke. I’m not the first to say that.

When did you last visit your local library?

This morning. I take a lot of books out of the library, either for research (relating to fiction) or just for reading. With fiction, I have an informal forty-page limit:  if I’m not engaged after forty pages, that’s it for me. I return a lot of books.

What classic have you lied about reading?

I don’t lie about reading books, or having read them. I don’t care what people think. Since I’m a doctor people assume I just don’t have the time. They’re wrong.

Finally, what’s the elevator pitch for the book you’re working on/you’re publishing?

Elevator pitches are for movies, not books.

Glenn Skwerer’s book, The Tristan Chord, is published by Unbound. Order here