The Beatrice Interview

Allen Kurzweil

"It's probably dangerous to offer criticism of your own work, because people will be very happy to do it for you, but..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Allen Kurzweil's second novel, The Grand Complication, possesses a tremendous amount of inventiveness, and when I went to meet with the author in a family apartment in New York, I soon discovered that quality wasn't limited to the printed page. As we were discussing one of the contraptions that appears in the book, a wooden box with a timepiece in its lid that opens to reveal a mechanical roll player on which an entire book might scroll, he pointed out this very same device on the coffee table between us, explaining that he spent six to eight months building it. Then he walked over to a shelf and pulled down a library conservator's phase box containing an unbound galley of the novel, which he used to demonstrate to the design department of his publisher how he wanted the book to look.

His first novel, the critically acclaimed A Case of Curiosities, had a plot that was constructed around the nine objects found in the eponymous case-- but the case had ten compartments. So, Kurzweil says, when journalists would ask him the inevitable question of what he was planning to do next, "I flippantly replied that I'd probably spend a few years figuring out what that empty compartment contained. That throwaway line kept nagging at me, and I started thinking about what the tenth compartment could contain. I had indentified its emptiness at the end of the first book as being because the life of the main character hadn't finished." He settled on the Grand Complication, a timepiece which Marie Antoinette had commissioned from legendary 18th- century watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, but wasn't completed until after her death, and then was stolen from a Jerusalem museum nearly two centuries later; it remains lost to this day. (These, and many other details of the watch's history, are just one facet of the mystery that unfolds in the novel's plot.)

RH: What attracted you to the watch in particular?

AK: I was interviewing a watch dealer in Zurich when the phone rang, and as he took the call, this very stiff man, who had the rigidity of a fondue fork, slumped in his chair, totally devastated. I thought he'd just heard about a death in the family, when in fact he'd just been told about the theft of the watch, and then he told me about its history and its signficance and about Breguet. When I left his shop, I was struck at how somebody could be so devastated at the loss of an inanimate object that wasn't even his. That stayed with me, and I decided to investigate further. I learned more about the watch's incredible history, and thought I could spend a few years telling the story of the watch and maybe linking it to the case.

RH: There's a brief reference to the watch at the end of A Case of Curiosities where, after a casual reference to Breguet earlier, you mention that the protagonist had come into possession of the Grand Complication. But you didn't explicitly put it in the case then.

AK: That's right. I was depositing that fact at the end of the book because I knew I was attracted to the object, but even I hadn't yet realized that I would put it in the case. In a sense it was unconsciously mapped out for me, I just didn't recognize it.

RH: In constructing The Grand Complication, you return to some of the structural elements of the first book--which once again contains sixty chapters in 360 pages.

AK: I had played with any number of structural devices, and there's no question that I'll write other books that won't have these rigid structural conceits. The first book was given that coherence because it was set in a period that was fascinated by such structural shenanigans, and it seemed to make sense that in a book that was so intimately connected to the first I would continue that structural gamesmanship. But then again, as becomes clear towards the end of the story, that was as much a choice of the narrator as it was a choice of the writer.

And I would have jettisoned any structural games in an instant if the story wasn't working. As a reader, I want to read as great a story as possible, and I don't care if the chapter lengths are this or that figure, or there's a certain number of chapters. Those kind of details are gravy on the meat and potatoes of a writer's job, which is telling a story.

RH: It's been nearly a decade since your first book. You've already discussed how long it took you just to decide that the watch was the object in the compartment. Clearly you spent a lot of time after that figuring out the story behind the people who are so fascinated by it.

AK: There's no question that I'm not a terribly efficient writer. On the John Updike-Ralph Ellison productivity index, I'm much closer to Ellison... and a lot of that was just the indecision over the possibilities that the narrative had. Also, this was my first venture into writing about the contemporary world, and that required a new quiver of skills for me. Contemporary dialogue, for example, was a completely new challenge for me. And then there's also the fact that I love spending time investigating the curiosities of my characters, so I spent four months, for example, taking a seminar on pop-up book design. All of that took time, and I was happy to do it. The pleasure of writing a book for me isn't just in writing. It's making and interviewing and learning as well.

RH: Have you always been interested in the technical side of things?

AK: My father was a mechanical engineer, and he died when I was five, but not before he had instilled in me an appreciation for machines. I remember him building this incredible Rube Goldberg machines. His machine tool photographs and drawings were around the house when I was growing up. I was very conscious of mechanical things, but of the most basic kind. I'm not terribly sophisticated about the high tech end of things.

RH: How did you make the transition from building contraptions to writing fiction?

AK: The transition was actually more from writing nonfiction to writing fiction. I actually never gave free range to the creation of mechanical things until recently. I'd have my characters build all sorts of fantastic contraptions and then deny myself the pleasure of actually making them.

I was a journalist for many years, and that satisfied my impulse to ask questions and learn how things work, but it didn't satisfy my impulse to learn stories about them as fully as I wanted. I was not terribly competent as a journalist writing a 700- or 1000-word story. I'd do way too much research and then anguish over not being able to put most of it into the finished article. So over time, with the help and support of my wife, I took the plunge into fiction writing, and that's what I've been for the better part of fifteen years, with no great loss to the world of journalism.

RH: In the mid-1990s Granta put you on a list of forty top American writers under forty, when you'd only published one novel at that point.

AK: I have no idea how they make those lists up. Apparently there's a great deal of regional committe work and national committee work involved before you end up on the list. It's very flattering, and if those lists sell books, that's fantastic. But you don't have to look very long to see that there's a lot of great writers who aren't on that list. So it's a feather in my cap, but I think writers learn very early on that the literary community is a profoundly unfair one. Major talent often goes woefully unrecognized, while major non- talent often gets grossly promoted. You have to find your pleasures as a reader whereever they might be. That might be off the remainder pile, or in the out- of-print section of a used bookstore, and it may even be on the bestseller lists. One of my favorite writers only recently came back into print thanks to a small press.

RH: Who are some of your favorite writers in the genre of structural games that you've done?

AK: If you read Borges, every possible variant of the metafictional or structurally innovative novel has been spelled out in one short story or another. And if you add Calvino to the list, you have a pretty solid command of the structural possibilities of fiction. I don't read them with as much awe or passion as I used to as a twenty-three year-old, but I still think they're amazingly important.

Then there are some great storytellers who have nothing to do with that sort of gamesmanship. We all have our unformed shorthand, and for some of us it's probably formalized and categorized--my characters would certainly do that-- a shorthand of favorite writers for different reasons. I could name twenty books right now that I find kick-ass, all for very different reasons.

RH: One of the hardest challenges of The Grand Complication, you said, was in writing about contemporary characters...

AK: It's probably dangerous to offer criticism of your own work, because people will be very happy to do it for you, but I think it's possible that there's a residual antiquarianism that's a holdover from the first book, a taint- -not a taint, let's find a more upbeat word--an aroma of the 18th-century sensibility.

RH: Well, yeah. The characters are definitely obsessed with the antiquarian.

AK: But you know, I decided after the first book that I wasn't going to write another historical novel. I don't mean not ever, but I wasn't going to go back and spend all this time anguishing over the past, in another century other than my own. And I didn't want a third person narrative again. I just wanted to do very different things.

RH: As part of the research, how much time did you spend in the library?

AK: I had a year's fellowship in the New York Public Library, and that was hugely significant. I had almost finished the book when I got this fellowship from the Center for Scholars and Writers. It was like a Wordsworth scholar being given the keys to Dove Cottage or, and I like this better, writing about Elvis and being told you could stay at the guest stuite in Graceland. I've applied for and occasionally gotten some fellowships before, but this is the first one for which I was completely qualified. They ask you to explain why you need to use the resources of the New York Public Library, and all I had to do was say that I've spent nearly six years writing a novel set in a place based on the library. Every catalog drawer, every table, every pneumatic zip tube transmitting call slips from the third floor down to the stacks is part and parcel of The Grand Complication.

RH: So is this what daily life is like at the New York Public Library?

AK: Yes and no. There's some huge differences. The conservation department of the library is very cutting edge: electron microscopes, hydrometers, hygrometers, and so on. My conservator, is very old-fashioned, and uses very suspect procedures they would never use. On the other hand, the zip tubes are very real, as are the questions that get asked at the reference carrel, like "Which weighs more, the tongue of a blue whale or an elephant?" I got those questions from talking to people who've worked the telephone reference desk.

But I'm not an ethnographer of the NYPL. I cannibalized whatever I could on behalf of my characters and parted company from reality where I thought it made for a better book.

RH: So, inevitably, I ask you, what's next?

AK: I don't want to be too specific because I don't know what direction it's going to take, but I've been studying a very exemplary life. A very simple life that is neither grand nor complicated, the story of a very simple peasant. It fascinates me because it's so antithetical to the embellishments of the book I've just finished. I'm hoping that my research will lead to my next book, but right now I don't even know if that book would be fiction or nonfiction.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
John Banville | Complete Interview Index | Sarah Waters

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan