IHLR: First, thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your new novel, The Duration, which was recently reviewed at Publisher's Weekly, and writing in general. How are you and what are you up to these days since finishing this book?
DF: I’m good, Mark! Thanks for asking, and for doing this! I don’t know if you want to disclose to your readership that we are cousins (I wouldn’t if I were you, especially after reading this), and that the last time we last saw each other was last summer, in the thick heat of southwestern Missouri, at your wonderful wedding. What a good time that was!
What I’ve been up to since finishing the book–it’s a harder question to answer than it should be. Mostly unproductive stuff, working on some new projects, benevolently neglecting my kids. I wrote a YA-ish novel for my daughter about a girl who discovers her grandfather was a pirate. I’ve also started going to CrossFit, which is such a desperate middle-aged thing to do, but as you know our uncle Dan has been going for a few years and I want to be able to beat him up if I need to. The downside is that everything hurts all the time.
IHLR: Thanks! And it was great to see family and friends again in Joplin, MO, of all places! For the record, I'm also fine to disclose our familial relationship. I mean, I fully intend to ride your proverbial literary coattails, beginning with this book, which, to me, has such an interesting title: The Duration. Can you elaborate some on how you came to this?
DF: In some ways the title came before the content. My wife and I moved back to the Northeast (where I’m from) from California in 2008 and the re-immersion process brought up lots of feelings about old friendships, the sorts of bedrock relationships that really transcend notions of friendship and become something deeper–almost kinship, some sort of near-familial connection that develops (especially) between people who grow up together and go through the formative stuff together–and how those relationships age and mutate, if they do. So the title came about as an answer to the question of how long a certain sort of friend would hang with another friend going through a struggle. That friend would stay for as long as there was something to be endured, i.e. for the duration, of a trauma, or a sickness, or life itself. And in a weird but maybe obvious way, the friendship itself becomes one of the things to be endured.
Also, I should preface this whole interview by saying that if at any time I sound like I know what I’m talking about, it’s luck.
IHLR: We could always put that Socratic like note as a foot or endnote. But that makes a lot of sense given the book's many compelling threads. Speaking of which, in the opening author’s note, you write that the book’s central secret is based on an old Berkshire County mystery. You also write, "It’s a mystery, and you shouldn’t believe anybody who claims to know the truth." I love how this immediately sets up a kind of mythology for your book and the Berkshires, which is located in Western Massachusetts. I was wondering if you might elaborate on that some as it pertains to your book and, perhaps, also, your ideas about storytelling.
DF: Yeah, I’m a fan of author’s notes or quotes or other stuff that throws off the reader’s equilibrium a little. It’s probably a sign of my immaturity as a writer but so be it. With my author’s note, I wanted to create the immediate sense that the story had already begun, that the reader was already reading the story they’d thought they were just considering reading. Does that make any sense? I also wanted Berkshire County, my home, to be as big a character as any of the individuals in the book.
IHLR: I like that idea of already being in the middle of things even before we've begun. I might have to steal that for a future project. But, yes, it does make sense. And I think you're successful in making Berkshire County be a presence in the book. This book also begins in a compelling way with the narrator and narrator’s girlfriend, Kelly, at a relationship stalemate of sorts. I thought this was an interesting move because of what Kelly seems to represent: marriage, confirmation of adulthood, family, moving, etc. And yet, the chapter ends on this phone call with the past. I think the beginning chapters if not chapter is so critical in pulling the reader in. I’m wondering how many times you might have begun this first chapter. (Or is this the original first chapter?)
DF: You know, it wasn’t the original first chapter. The book originally began with the second chapter, which starts "I came into the county from the East," and riffs on the drive into the Berkshires–the cuts in the ridges, the hill-towns, the huge ice plumes that flank the road in winter–for about three pages. During edits, it started to feel like a lot to ask of the reader–to throw in with this guy they don’t know yet, without context, as he waxes nostalgic about his childhood environment. So I worked on a new first chapter that established some of the context–Pete, the protagonist, and his struggle to leave his youth behind.
IHLR: Again, I think it's successful, because by the end of that first chapter, I felt I already had Pete pegged. But then I thought, no, that can't be right. In the novel, the protagonist (and sometimes antagonist) Pete Johansson sacrifices a lot for his friend Chickie, despite at various times thinking about just walking away from him and quite possibly his "storied" past. Why do you think he doesn’t? I’m curious as to Pete’s motivation throughout the book and if you’re also simultaneously reaching a particular audience. While not necessarily a bildungsroman, I feel like your book is the next step to that kind of novel where the youth have not only grown up into adulthood but must now possibly confront taking adulthood to the next level and deciding to have children or not.
DF: I just looked up bildungsroman to make sure I knew what it was.
Um, well, there are a lot of parts to Pete’s motivation–maybe too many–but for me it boiled down to a sense of responsibility towards this person who he loves in a complicated way. Part of that responsibility stems from a particular incident in childhood, but mostly it’s just the product of childhood itself, of coming up through all that stuff together–girls, fights, sports, school. When Pete talks about walking away it’s sort of bluster, since really he can’t walk away from something that’s so integral to his own sense of identity. And Chick isn’t doing anything malevolent, really–it’s not like he’s a bad guy–so his asks of Pete are harder to refuse. I’m not sure if I was writing to/for a certain audience–maybe a male audience?–or if that’s just the direction the themes took. So far, the feedback’s been mixed–some people are furious at Pete for not seizing his chances to "grow up" and others love him for refusing to leave his pal behind. Me, I think he’s just doing his best.
IHLR: This book also seems to be commenting on how the Berkshires is changing physically. Much of the second half of the novel takes place in a resort called Head-Connect, which, at times, seems such a “magical” place. How did this idea and/or thread come to be? Were you inspired by another writer or story?
DF: The Berkshires are weird. They’re always changing, and the change is so constant that it doesn’t even feel like change. It feels like there are multiple iterations, or adornments, on top of something deep and timeless. The health spa Head-Connect, which is built on the ruins of the Gilded Age mansion Fleur-de-Lys, is modeled pretty closely on the health spa Canyon Ranch, which is built on the ruins of the Gilded Age mansion Bellefontaine, which itself is built on a patch of rolling woodland behind my parents’ house. Growing up, my friends and I used to sneak over to Bellefontaine and explore the ruins, or to any of the dozens of other Gilded Age ruins in town, and that interaction between the past and the future was a real hallmark of childhood in the Berkshires. I was trying to capture that interaction a little in the book.
The Berkshires also, of course, has a pretty storied literary history, as home to Melville and Hawthorne and Wharton, among others.The Duration drew more on the historical presence of those writers, or of the forces that drew them to and nourished them in the Berkshires–"all the great beasts that swam beneath her swells and under the feet of her citizens"–than on particular works.
IHLR: While substance abuse is a large issue in the book, I love how the idea of "addiction" comes up, challenging us to consider addiction in so many ways: our relationships with friends, family, local folklore, habits, etc. Is this also connected in ways to the title of the novel?
DF: Definitely. On a real, present level, we have an opioid crisis in the Northeast, which manifests particularly in the rural towns and formerly industrial cities that have lost jobs and tax bases, where the reminders of the past make it hard to imagine a future. On the level of metaphor, I was trying to get at the hold certain dynamics can take on a person, especially when those dynamics are deeply rooted in childhood relationships, the idea that childhood friends are, in effect, consigned to each other for the duration.
IHLR: Beyond the main characters and the wonderful dialogue and interactions, I really liked people such as Nurse Lemon and Grevantz as well as most of the residents at Head-Connect. Do you have a favorite character in the novel, or one you feel an affinity for? Or maybe one you really enjoyed writing and/or struggled to write?
DF: I love them all. That sounds fake, but I really do. The one I struggled with the most was Chickie, because I thought initially he was the center of the novel but he’s not, he’s the void at the center. It’s Pete’s novel. That’s probably obvious to the reader but it took me a little bit to get there. I still have a hard time sometimes “seeing” Chickie, whereas I can see the others clearly. Tim-Rick Golack was a struggle too, maybe for similar reasons. I did love writing the sort of “device” characters, like Florence Banish and Elvis LaBeau and even Vishy Shetty, who has like two lines and should probably not even be in there.
IHLR: I’m always curious about other writers’ writing spaces. What is your workspace like?
DF: My workspace is a disaster. I wrote The Duration sitting on a couch in my entryway, or sitting in a chair in the living room, while the kids were at school. I like to think that if I had a dedicated writing space I’d be knocking out book after book, but I’d probably just be playing Spider Solitaire.
There’s probably a serious point in there, like I hesitate to think of myself as "a writer," still, even though this is (cough) my second book. Part of it is probably because I couldn’t live on my income as a writer if I had to so identifying as one feels … weird? Presumptuous? I don’t know. It’s not like income is a prerequisite. Jeez, that’d be terrible. Part of it is that I know so many writers working so hard at their craft and I feel lazy and not up to snuff by comparison? And part of it is probably the idea that a dedicated workspace would signal a commitment that feels intimidating? Like, if I just continue to treat this writing stuff as a hobby, then I will be immune to criticism or the demands of reality? Which is (a) not true, (b) cowardly and (c) self-limiting, a sure way to fail?
So, anyway, thanks. I have to go build a dedicated workspace now. I’m going to dedicate it to you.
IHLR: I appreciate that this interview has made you double check bildungsroman and fomented this workspace, which I hope you'll name something like Keatsia or even Head-Connect. By the way, who are you currently reading? Who do you think we should be reading?
DF: Still working through the Knausgaard saga, which is remarkable and addictive and also endless and infuriating. Just picked up Rebecca Schiff’s collection The Bed Moved: Stories, which I bought for my wife but am reading myself. I think folks should be reading anyone who speaks to them and/or any voice they find compelling. A fairly recent voice I found compelling was Jim Ruland’s in his novel Forest of Fortune (also from Tyrus Books).
IHLR: Any advice for young novelists out there?
DF: Super reluctant to give advice for the reasons set forth above, i.e. feeling fraudulent, feeling unqualified, etc. However, since you asked, I guess here’s what I’d say: every success, whatever size, I’ve had as a writer has been the result of a community of writers, at various stages of professional success, working on things together, encouraging each other, supporting each other. The Duration’s publication is a direct result of a writing friend’s recommendation to his publisher. Reading other writers’ works, especially during the editing process, has made my own work better. Also, the two books I’ve published were rejected a collective 72 times before they found homes, and the homes they eventually found were good homes. So, don’t quit, don’t give up, be open to the process, believe in your work and, while nobody likes a martyr, be as decent a human being as you can. Seek out and nourish fulfilling relationships. Don’t sit inside by yourself all day. Almost nobody knows what they’re doing.
IHLR: That's great advice and we certainly appreciate it. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. And get to work on that dedicated workspace. Send us a picture too when it's done!
DF: You’re welcome. What do I win?
IHLR: Something horse related for sure. Check your mailbox soon.
Dave Fromm is an attorney and the author of the novel The Duration (Tyrus Books 2016) and the sports memoir Expatriate Games (Skyhorse Publishing 2008). He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and kids.