‘A terrifically difficult book to do’
So Eli Gottlieb, after removing commas and subordinate clauses, lit some incense and prayed that less might in fact be more
Eli Gottlieb’s Best Boy was one of the most affecting novels I read this year, appearing on several notable books of 2015 lists, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The novel’s narrator, Todd Aaron, is an autistic man in his 50s who has been living at the Payton Living Center most of his life — obsessed with Barry Manilow and the Encyclopedia Britannica, terrified of pets and typewriters. He is a model resident but a series of changes make him increasingly unhappy and he sets off on a dangerous journey in the hope of going home forever. Gottlieb’s Todd Aaron is a “best boy” who will frustrate and charm you. He might even break your heart.
Talk a bit about how and when you began writing?
I was always writing. My mother took me to poetry classes when I was nine. But I liked stories too. I understood intuitively as a child that there was something very strange about the family I was growing up in, which deserved to be written about. As an adult, having written a book about the family from the point of view of myself as a child, I eventually thought the time was right to turn the tables, and tackle it from the point of view of my brother.
You wrote two books between your first novel,The Boy Who Went Away, and your fourth,Best Boy. Did you feel like you hadn’t quite said everything you had to say about brotherhood and autism?
My first novel, like so many first efforts, was chiefly autobiographical. After that, I decided to write a couple of books that studied the craft of narrative as best I was able. I’ve always been fascinated with how narrative works, and how this machine of words can send readers hurtling in a trance through space and time. I spent two books working out ways of doing that, partly by bringing changes on accepted genre conventions like noir and mystery.
Then, towards the end of my third novel I began suffering the kind of subtractions that accrue to all of us if we live long enough — the death of both parents and, as an added bonus, the failure of my marriage. It sent me, I suppose, into a kind of memorial mood, in which I began thinking about the now vanished people I’d grown up with. I wanted to write about that again. And while doing so, I wanted to pose myself the formal challenge of writing in a voice that was shorn of all literary artifice. I like challenges.
And Best Boy was a deep technical challenge. How do you let go of the conventional resources of style, of metaphor and complex sentence structure in the pursuit of an authentic autistic “voice” while still moving the reader? From a stylistic point of view, you first remove most of the commas and subordinate clauses. Then you restrict the vocabulary. Then you light some incense and pray that less may in fact be more. It was a terrifically difficult book to do.
You wrote a piece in NYT about being guardian to your autistic brother and about the difficulties of adult autism. Could you talk about the challenges you faced while choosing to write in the voice of an older autistic man?
One of the most significant challenges was how to write a novel, that artistic form which is par excellence about relationships, with a narrator who is pathologically self-enclosed. How, I mean, do you make other people vivid enough to somebody who doesn’t really notice other people by the very nature of his disease? So that was really something I struggled with. Originally I wrote the book in the second person or “you” form because its strangeness felt congruent with the narrator’s outlook. But the second person form, with a few exceptions like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, is often an exhausting form for the reader — it’s too frontal and percussive. So I transferred it to the first person and the book took wing.
The brothers (the non-autistic ones) in both books are harsh portraits. I was wondering, was that a sort of judgment on yourself, or a recalibrating of memory?
One of the things I thought was important was to represent the true, conflicted feelings of the sibling of a person with autism. Against the typically saccharine portrayals that obtain in most cases, I wanted to propose something more real and documentary — a portrait of the actual impact of the ailment, warts and all. The other is that I find simply kind people boring, don’t you?
What about New York? Has it played an important role for you as a writer?
I was born in Manhattan, but when I was a kid my parents moved to Jersey where I grew up. Then I returned to New York after college. But I have a very ambivalent relationship with the city. I think it’s fundamentally inhumane as a place to live long-term and I’ve never — with the exception of Best Boy, which was written in a submarine of an apartment in Brooklyn — been able to write long-form fiction in New York because of the tearing velocity and distractions of the place. I remember when I moved to a quiet Italian town in the 1980s, coming out of a job and life in New York, that it took me about six months to realise that my nervous system was simply roaring and I should find a way to relax. There’s a kind of oceanic calm necessary to write novels. In a pinch, depression works. But I’d rather not use it if I didn’t have to.
Why did you go to Italy, and at what stage in your writer’s life were you when you went there?
I met this Italian woman on a bus heading out of New York and we struck up a conversation full of blazing coincidences. I was 26 and writing highly charged, poetical short stories at the time. Anyway, both the girl and I realised something special was going on between us and we exchanged addresses and began an old-fashioned epistolary romance. A trail of them led straight to her apartment in Milan, not far from where Mussolini was hanged. Like any relationship based almost entirely on letters, it quickly crashed and burned. But being a kindly sort, she then found me a place to live in the lovely city of Padova, near Venice. I lived there three years, not speaking English for months at a time. Italian is a very useful and even healthy language for Americans to learn. It contains within it the comfortable operations of Italian life and the beautiful, formal relationships Italians have with their surroundings. After I returned to NYC, my friends told me the shape of my head had changed.