Monday, September 30, 2013

Dara Horn stops by

by Joan
Dara Horn, photo by Michael B. Priest

A few years ago I reviewed Dara Horn’s gripping Civil War drama All Other Nights. I had loved her previous novels In the Image and The World to Come and wasn’t the least surprised to love All Other Nights as well. 

So when I learned about her newest novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, I eagerly awaited its release. It only took one paragraph to know I’d love this one, too.

What happens to days that disappear? The light fades, the gates begin to close, and all that a day once held—a glance, a fight, a taste of bread, a handful of braided hair, thousands of worries and triumphs and regrets—all of it slips between those closing gates, vanishing into a dark and silent room.”

I am so pleased that today Dara Horn will join us here for a Q&A.

Dara received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University,  studying Hebrew and Yiddish. She published her first novel at age 25 (collective sigh!) and in 2007 was chosen by Granta as one of America’s “Best Young American Novelists.” Her books have earned many awards and accolades, including the National Jewish Book Award and Editors’ Choice in The New York Times Book Review. All Other Nights, was one of Booklist’s 25 Best Books of the Decade. 

JM: First, congratulations on your novel’s rave reviews. How did you feel when you first read Geraldine Brooks’ gorgeous blurb? “Intricate and suspenseful, A Guide for the Perplexed is both learned and heartfelt, an exploration of human memory, its uses and misuses, that spans centuries in a twisty braid full of jaw dropping revelations and breathtaking reversals. An elegant and brainy page-turner from a master story-teller.”

DH: I was really thrilled. One of publishing’s sordid facts is that book-jacket blurbs are almost always from acquaintances of the writer, or at least from writers who use the same publisher. But I’ve never met Geraldine Brooks or been in touch with her, and we don’t have the same publisher either. So while what she said about my book was very beautiful and apt, there was something even more beautiful about her generosity in saying it at all. I was very moved.

JM: How wonderful! More praise in the Boston Globe, Saul Austerlitz called A Guide for the Perplexed your best, which is a tall feat compared to your other novels, especially the brilliant All Other Nights. Can you share with our readers who might not know the background, what inspired you to write this story?

DH: A Guide for the Perplexed is about a software developer who invents an app that records absolutely everything its users do. Since I was a child I’ve had a fantasy of turning life into an archive, of writing down and recording everything as a way of stopping time. Now, of course, social media has made my dream come true, and turned it into a nightmare.  I was very intrigued by how the technologies of just the past few years have changed the way people experience time—by how all that matters is what’s happening right this second, but of course everything that’s recorded right this second is also archived forever. (Thank you, Google, Facebook, and our friends at the NSA!) I wanted to explore the difference between history and memory, between turning our pasts into collections of evidence and turning our pasts into meaningful stories.

The contemporary plot in the book involves a software developer being kidnapped in post-revolutionary Egypt. That makes it sound like a thriller, which it is, but the story is inspired by the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. (The software developer has a sister who envies her tremendously, and it is this jealous sister who persuades her to go to Egypt in the first place.) I think stories about sibling rivalry are so fundamental to the question of how the past lives within the present, because siblings are usually people who share a past but not necessarily a future. It’s a capsule way of investigating those questions of differing interpretations of the past, and of exploring how much of our lives is up to us and how much is controlled by circumstances we can’t control.

JM: Now Josie creates the computer program, Genizah, so users can record every moment. The past is no longer lost forever. Upon learning this program wasn’t available when her mother grew up, Josie’s six-year-old daughter Tali wisely says, “You get to remember everything the way you want, instead of how it really happened.” I love the idea of a memory palace, a place we can visit to remember not only what actually happened, but what we would like to have happened. Can you share your thoughts on memory and forgiveness, major themes in the book.

DH: One problem with turning memory into history—with recording everything so that nothing can ever be lost—is that it can make forgiveness impossible. In the biblical story of Joseph, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, but he rises above his circumstances and ends up managing Egypt’s food rationing during a famine. When his brothers come to Egypt to buy food and then meet him again, he tells them, “Don’t be angry at yourselves that you sold me to this place, because it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”

That’s a mind-blowing revision of the past. How can you claim that a heinous crime was actually a benevolent act of God? I think it reveals the selective memory that’s absolutely necessary to make forgiveness possible. If he doesn’t put aside certain memories, or radically reinterpret their meaning, this family can’t have a future. While our own lives are hopefully not that dramatic, we’ve probably all been in situations where the only way forward was by deliberately forgetting (or at least trying to forget) painful aspects of the past.

With Tali, the software developer’s daughter, I wanted to create a character who was born into this digital all-remembering world, someone who never had a chance to live in any other way—which is true for most young people now.  I’m 36, and I already feel sorry for people younger than me, because they will never have a chance to meet a stranger. Every time they have a date or a job interview or meet a new roommate or potential friend or lover, they will always know a tremendous amount about that person almost immediately, and that person will know a tremendous amount about them. They will never have a chance to create their own first impression, to write their own story about themselves. In A Guide for the Perplexed, I wanted to explore the vast implications of what it means to try to write your own story when the technology (that your parents, or at least your parents’ generation, created!) has already written it for you.

JM: That is a disheartening thought. In an interview you wrote: “We’re convinced that we know the real facts and that the people who lived before us were superstitious idiots. The fact that we will someday be our own grandchildren’s superstitious idiots is very humbling to me.” I, too, am fascinated by memories and ancestors who are lost forever. Because of our computerized world –the Internet is forever—do you think our lives will be less mysterious to our descendants?

DH: You don’t really think that the Internet is forever, do you? I think it’s very unclear how digital data will be stored on a historic time scale, or how easily that data will be retrieved. My wedding was recorded on videocassettes. I’ve only been married for 13 years and I already can’t watch it anymore without professional help!

The past is only as mysterious as we want it to be. People who choose not to learn much about the past end up being nostalgic. But the truth is that “too much information” is an ancient fear. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that now that writing has been invented, people’s memories will be destroyed because no one will bother to remember anything anymore. It’s easy to forget that everyone thinks they are living on the cutting edge of civilization, no matter how long ago they lived.

JM: Excellent point, Dara. I love stories with multiple timelines, especially when they’re weaved together flawlessly, as you have done. What are your thoughts on writing with this structure, which you also used for In the Image and The World to Come?

DH: You’re right that I used this structure in my first and second novels. When I got to my third novel, I began to see it as a kind of crutch. With my first two books I felt very nervous about plotting—I never wrote short stories, so my first novel was also my first attempt at fiction, at creating a plot—so whenever a storyline began to stall, I would just jump to another time period and start something new, hoping that at some point later I could tie everything together.  With my third novel, I decided to eliminate this weakness once and for all, and I wrote that book with a single character’s storyline all the way through, with one plot driving the whole thing. Plot is extremely importantly to me, because I see plot as a moral enterprise—not because there is a “moral of the story,” but because there is a moral in the story: the causes and motivations that we attribute to events are where the beliefs and assumptions embedded in a story are revealed.

With A Guide for the Perplexed, I intended to write an entirely contemporary story. But once I understood that I was writing about the possibilities and limitations of remembering the past, it felt dishonest not to bring the past into the book. I needed something more consequential than one person’s childhood against which to test these theories of memory.

I used to feel the need to forcibly tie these storylines together—by having the characters be related, for instance, or by having some physical object or image reappear, or something equally improbable. But this time I felt confident enough in creating a real plot that I could let the historical stories run parallel to the contemporary one without creating a contrived connection between them.

JM: What a fascinating observation - one that hit home for me. Now for the business side of writing. We all struggle with time constraints, but you must be a master of time management. You are the mother of four young children, you lecture and write award winning novels and non-fiction. You wrote: “After my fourth child was born last year, I created an app that actually dilates time. If you buy my book, I’ll give you one.” Well I did, so please send it over! Really, not to sound cliché, but what advice can you give other writers who struggle to prioritize their writing?

DH: I’m one of four children myself, and I watched my mother struggle with this problem while I was a child. She aspired to an academic career and earned a doctorate. But the four of us were born while she was completing it, and as a result she found it too difficult to take on everything else required to continue on that path—college-level teaching, academic publications, attending conferences, all that. She went on to a tremendously successful career in public school teaching—she won awards as the best teacher in the state, and was honored by Scholastic because her students won that prestigious national writing contest for nineteen years in a row (no other teachers had ever had their students win even twice, let alone for nineteen years!)—but it wasn’t what she set out to do.

I was very terrified of being derailed professionally by children. Like my mother, I got married very young—I was engaged on my 22nd birthday and got married at 23—but I told my husband that I wouldn’t have children until I published my first book. Then I was very lucky and sold my first book at age 24, and even luckier to be able to have children when I wanted them. So I ended up with these children at a time when writing (and scholarship; I also often teach and lecture, and I publish academically as well) had already become my regular job. My children are all in public school or daycare, and I write while they are out of the house, which works out to something like 9:30am to 2:30pm. (On days when no one is sick and no school is closed, of course—a surprisingly rare confluence of events!) Since my time is so limited, I really do spend every minute of that time working. And since I have this luxury of having writing be my job, I don’t have the luxury of having writer’s block.

My advice for writers who haven’t (yet!) been so lucky is to act as though you have been, because what you lack is not really the time, but the will. People make time to go to the gym; they make time to watch their favorite TV shows or to use Facebook or Twitter. The time most people spend online alone is more than enough to write a novel—or a nonfiction piece for a website or magazine, which is how unpublished writers really ought to begin. Give yourself twenty minutes a day. You’d be surprised what you can accomplish in twenty minutes. Write one paragraph every day, even a bad paragraph. Don’t wait until you have time. The time will always be now.

JM: Fantastic advice, Dara. How wonderful you had such an inspiring role model. I loved reading in an interview that your mother used to put a timer on the table and give you and your three chatty siblings five minutes each to speak, which turned into five-minute comedies, tragedies and operas. You and your siblings found a way to turn memories into stories. Do you do the same with your children?

DH: My parents did this when we were older than my children are now, and my children aren’t yet articulate enough to pull it off. (My youngest is 16 months old, and mostly says “Uh-oh!”) But what I do with them now is what my parents did with me and my siblings when we were younger: instead of attempting and failing to have mealtime conversations, I read out loud to them at every meal. (My husband and I still have our adult dinner after they go to bed.) We usually go through about four or five picture books at every meal this way, with the children choosing the books, and with a fair amount of “discussion” of each book (like “What do you think will happen next?”). I consider this preparation for when they are old enough to tell their own stories.

Beautiful! Dara, thank you so much for joining us! Readers, if you’re in the Dallas Area, Dara Horn will be at the JCC on November 5th to launch Community Read. Elizabeth and I will be there!


  1. The story of Joseph has always intrigued me--that he could rise above having been sold into slavery by his brothers. They even faked his death and ruined his beautiful coat! And yet he becomes a leader of Egypt. I love that you've taken this story and put a modern-day spin on it.

    The idea of memories is also fascinating. I think about Marilu Henner (who has hyperthymesia) and I think, Would I really want to remember every day of my life? I think I really would not. I had never thought about technology allowing us to record every aspect of our lives. Very interesting concept!

    And, as someone who struggles with time management, your advice certainly hit home. Thanks, Dara and Joan, for this. I'm eager to read A Guide for the Perplexed.

  2. Wow - I did not know that about Marilu Henner. That is a scary thought. No, some parts of the past are better left repressed!

    I think you will enjoy this one, Pamela!


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