Our Story: An Interview with Novelist, Adam Braver
By Miguel Jimenez
Adam will read on Thursday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 in the Alice Peters Auditorium (in the University Business Center/Peters Building) to celebrate the launch of The Normal School.
ADAM BRAVER is the author of Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, Divine Sarah, and Crows Over the Wheatfield. His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Border’s Original Voices series, and twice for the Book Sense list. His work has appeared in journals such as Daedalus, Ontario Review, Cimarron Review, Water-Stone Review, Harvard Review, Tin House, West Branch, and Post Road. He teaches at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI, and at the NY State Summer Writers Institute.
MJ: It's a great coincidence that we have this opportunity to discuss your work at a time when the word “historic” is being used quite often when discussing the current United States' presidential administration and the one to come in 2009. I say this because you have taken on historic figures in your novels. I'm particularly thinking of “Mr. Lincoln's Wars” and your most recent novel, “Nov. 22, 1963”—both are fictional accounts on the lives of U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. What drew you to these important figures of American history?
AB: Somebody said to me not that long ago something about writing about those two presidents, and I have to say that I didn't think about it in those terms for some reason. But you know, in “Nov. 22, 1963”, it was more about letting people know what went on in the head, to know the traumatic moments. Most of what it is I did, is that I tried to wonder what went on inside Kennedy as a human being not just as a politician. And it was also much more thematic, based on this idea, question, of what is our mythology? Of myth making and the making of our stories...about the facts and memories of people that all come together to create this history, this story. And there are a lot of books that are coming out where people are really trying to figure out history through literary means as opposed to just biographical means.
MJ: You also wrote two other novels—“Divine Sarah” based on the classic French actress, Sandra Bernhardt, and another on a Van Gogh scholar in “Crows over the Wheatfield”. How do you go about writing novels on such popular figures?
AB: I guess partly naively. Certainly, the Kennedy Assassination was the biggest, the one I knew the most about going into it. But I'm always interested in the off-camera moments because those are just like great photographs that often tell more about a situation with those kind of broad stroke moments. As a reader, I'm always attracted to those kind of books.
MJ: What are the challenges? And do you worry how well you've fictionalized the lives of those popular figures?
AB: On a narrative level, just assuming the small aspects of a life in a day, I have the risk of 'is this going to be interesting enough?' It's a really tricky ethical question about the fictionalizing parts of peoples' lives. For the most part, I try to do it in a respectful and believable way. I try to create people in some sort of honest way where there's a truth. I would not try to make people what they weren't. I would never make somebody cruel in a way that may never have been cruel.
All of these figures, and so many other figures, are a part of who we are. Yet, we really don't know anything about them as human beings. They become just sort of mythic figures. I'm interested in people as humans. It makes me appreciate them more when I see them as being humans.
MJ: Let's talk about your most recent book, Nov. 22, 1963. It is described as a fictionalization of the day of JFK's assassination—is that a good description? I mean, how much of Nov. 22, 1963 is written with fact and how much is written with fiction? How would you describe it?
AB: Oh, it's definitely a hybrid. A hybrid of fiction and creative non-fiction and some straight up journalism. For the most part in the book we're in someone's head, somebody like Jackie Kennedy—that's when the real fiction takes over. So there are narratives that are dramatized and fictionalized, and the book also introduces people who are not real. But for the most part, the people who appear in the book are based on real people. I spoke to a couple of people who are in the book, and some others are based on, for example, old transcripts. This is all from the idea that I mentioned earlier—a story based from other peoples' stories and other peoples' memories. I'm really intrigued by that. It's typically more of a memoirists' intrigue than a fiction writer's intrigue, in terms of the idea of memory and how we remember things and how they really happened.
MJ: What were some of the challenges writing these novels?
AB: They have their own sets of challenges. But one of the advantages, if you will, with something like the Kennedy assassination is that we have an inherent understanding of what happened. Everyone coming into that book has a sense of the story, a mental image of what it's all about. They're already working with peoples' preconceived notions.
When writing fictionalized characters you have to really develop them in a different way, develop the situation, and familiarize, as opposed to borrowing. So they're different approaches. With somebody who is real, like Jackie Kennedy, there is a sense of 'how do you enter into this person?' or 'How do you enter somebody who just had her husband killed next to her?' It entails stripping away all the celebrity and the politics and everything else. It's just trying to get into the basic and emotional state. That was really the entry point. This takes us back to what I was talking about earlier on trying to find the human side of people who don't seem human to us.
MJ: You've said that you hope some truth comes out of your books—a truth larger than the figures themselves.
AB: I mean truth in terms of literary truth. This idea that this story, the assassination, in “Nov. 22, 1963,” it's so many people's story—the people who will tell you they were sitting in a classroom when it happened or such as some of the people in the book, like the motorcycle policeman getting blood on his face. It has become so many peoples' stories. Then all those stories come together to become our story. It is our story.