Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Q&A with Darin Strauss, Author of Half a Life

Darin Strauss (GSAS '97) is an NYU professor and the author of Half a Life (his most recent book--a memoir about a tragedy he faced in high school) along with the novels More than it Hurts You, Chang and Eng, and The Real McCoy.

Half a Life depicts an accident that Darin Strauss never thought he would talk about. He was driving with friends to the movies when a bicyclist (who turned out to be one of his high school classmates) swerved into his car. Read below for our Q&A, but first watch this short video presentation where Darin talks in more detail about his memoir.


Does teaching at NYU affect your writing—either by way of style or content?

Teaching, in general, informs writing. (I think.) Needing to talk about your aesthetic makes you define your aesthetic; that (understanding what you're about) has to be a good thing, right? Well, probably.

Saul Bellow wrote something to the effect of: "A writer is better served by half-an-idea than by a whole idea." Maybe that's right. Ever teach a kid to throw a football? The next time you throw one yourself, you're self-conscious about it. So, it's a balance. You want to remain loose, and natural, but also to be conscious about the technique of it.

As for NYU, in particular, it's the best place I've ever taught. NYU attracts creative kids. And the graduate students are top-notch. The 3-weeks I spent at NYU Abu Dhabi was eye-opening; I had something like 15 students from 12 countries. The diversity of New York City, come to fruition in the Arabian desert; that was pretty cool..


Do you ever get writers block?

I can't really afford to (but I do). I have to push through it. Mailer said: "The difference between an amateur writer and a professional is: the amateur can afford to wait for inspiration." There's a lot to that.


We noticed you’re pretty active on Twitter. How do you use social media? Is it a good way for you to connect with your fans?

I don't know if it's a good thing. I was talking about this with Colson Whitehead, who has 145k followers. How many of them buy his books? Do they all even know he's a novelist? I think it's a fun thing, and a kind of addiction, even; but I don't know if it's worthwhile, professionally. If you look at the ratio of books-sold to time-spent? Not sure it's a good deal.


Half a Life was a memoir you wrote as a way to overcome the depression you felt about the accident you experienced as a teenager. When in the process of writing or publishing did you start to feel better?

Nobody's asked that before. I think the most therapeutic part of it -- the most surprisingly therapeutic part -- was going out and doing talks and readings. I'd thought that'd be the hardest thing. But I now understand the wisdom in the conceptual underpinning of Alcoholics Anonymous. Get up before strangers, talk about something personally difficult, feel less burdened. It's tough to do, but afterward you feel lighter.


You’ve also admitted that you never expected Half a Life to take off as wildly as it did. You expected it to reach a smaller, niche market of readers who might be dealing with a tragedy in a similar way. But now that your personal story, which you kept hidden for so long, has reached such a huge audience, do you ever grow tired of talking about it? (If so, we’re sorry to bring it up again…)

Thanks for the kind words. I think -- if anything is wearying, or worrying -- it's the fear that it'll become rote for me. That the event will become subservient to the performance of the act. I work to make sure that never happens.


What’s next? Do you have any new books coming out or projects you’re currently working on?

I'm working on a series of YA adventure books with my friend David Lipsky, who also teaches at NYU. I'm also hammering out a book that's a mix of novel and family memoir; it's about (among other things) my grandfather, Lucille Ball, and the fictional love affair they consummated only in my head. Also, I always have some script thing going on that'll break my heart.


What’s the best thing about being a novelist?

Today was a tough day at the desk; feels jinx-y to discuss a "best thing." All the cliche stuff, though: doing what one loves (or likes); being one's own boss; having one's fortunes tied to a dying art form.


What’s the craziest (or simply most memorable) thing a fan has ever said to you?

"I'ma big fan, and would like to meet you" -- Madonna.
(She then offered to give me tickets for her concert: for $400 a seat. And no backstage passes. And all communication had to go through her stylist.)

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