Apr/May 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Warren Adler

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Warren Adler is a unique and prolific writer. He is a world-renowned novelist, short story writer, and playwright. He has written 24 novels and four short story collections. His novels have been translated into more than two dozen languages. Two of his stories were made into movies: The War of the Roses starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner and Random Hearts staring Harrison Ford. In 1974 after the publication of his first novel Banquet Before Dawn by G.P. Putnam's Sons, Adler became a fulltime writer, leaving behind a successful career in business.

New York Echoes (Stonehouse Press, 2008) is his most recent short story collection, and Funny Boys (Overlook Press, 2008) is his new novel that reviewer Stefan Kanfer describes as "powerful, poignant, sexy and, as the title suggests, hilarious."


EG     New York Echoes is your latest short story collection. You've written four others. In this collection the setting is New York City where you grew up. What part of New York did you live in as a child? What were your early years like? What did your parents do for work? What do you like about living in New York City?

WA     I grew up in Crown Heights and Brownsville, Brooklyn. My father, a bookkeeper, was frequently unemployed during the depression and we were often dispossessed and had to move to my grandparents' small house in Brownsville, which was a refuge for our extended family in those days. Eleven people lived in that house with one bathroom. Nevertheless, the house was filled with joy, humor and, above all, love.

What I loved about New York City and still do is the ease of movement from one neighborhood to another and observing the endless color, diversity and energy the city has to offer. The sights, smells and ambience is a cornucopia for a writer. I have been away from full time living in the city for 40 years and just recently returned. It has struck me that no matter how far I have traveled the city is permanently imprinted in my mind and heart.

EG     What were you like as a young man? Were you like any of the characters in New York Echoes stories? Like the young man in "Subway Love Affair," who followed his girlfriend like a private investigator and questioned his cheating girlfriend like a defense attorney, or like the weirded-out college student in "The Birthday Celebration," who had lunch with a lonely old man?

WA     All my stories are reflections of my life experience, my fantasies, longings and observations. While they are not autobiographical realities, they embody many of my encounters with people. Sometimes I am not conscious of my observations, but somehow they filter into my subconscious and I am often astonished in the way they surface in my work. I have learned to be very respectful of my subconscious and truly understand that it is in this mysterious part of the mind that my stories percolate. They are the real storehouse of the raw material of my writing. Once a writer understands that this is the place where the stories originate he is off and running and able to create characters that follow their own destiny in a way that is not contrived or unnaturally manipulated. In every story I am certain there are bits and pieces of myself.

EG     For me, many of the stories in New York Echoes were reminiscent of Anton Chekov's short stories ( yours were updated, cell phones etc). I didn't understand why until I looked at the editor's introduction in The Portable Chekov, Viking Press, 1947. When speaking of Chekov's work, Avrahm Yarmolinsky, the editor of the collection said, "He had an intimate understanding of the complexities, the non-sequiturs of the mind and particularly of the heart. His was an observant eye for telling detail of appearance or behaviour for whatever it would contribute to placing his characters within the proper physical or social setting. His stories have an atmosphere as distinct as odor."

This could describe numerous authors' works so I read on. I still was not sure why Chekov came to mind when I read these short stories.

"Chekov's preoccupation is with existences that are commonplace, drab, narrow. The life he pictures is one in which there is cruelty, want, boredom, misunderstanding, with only an occasional interval of happiness or serenity, a rare intimation that justice and goodness may ultimately prevail—in sum, an unintelligible and largely painful business."

Although many of your characters have successful professional lives, their inner lives and relationships are full of misunderstandings, loneliness, moments of indifference bordering on emotional cruelty. There are few happy endings. Like in Chekov, difficult and moving human relationships with all their emotional nuances are the constant theme.

So now that I've compared your work in New York Echoes to be somewhat similar to that in Chekov's short stories, do you think I am seeing pink elephants? Who are your favorite contemporary writers and writers from the past?

WA     Of course, I am flattered to be compared to Chekov. I have often felt that I have been influenced by the great Russian writers, but dared not make such a self-serving comparison. My antecedents are Eastern European Jews and my early days were deeply influenced by their customs, habits, rituals and thought processes. My college course in the European novel was a profound revelation and greatly influenced my desire to be a writer. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turganev, Gogol, Chekov, Dickens, Balzac, de Maupassant, Flaubert and others became my literary gods. Georges Simenon taught me the meaning of compression and brevity in his wonderful novels. As for American influence, the short stories of Hemingway still resonate and I am a great fan of Fitzgerald and John O'Hara, who, sadly, has faded into obscurity.

EG     Here is my brief overview of the themes of the stories. Endings seem to dominate the stories. Hopes of reconciliation and then failed dreams, loneliness as one ages and becomes a widow or widower. The need for routine (many of your elderly single characters have daily routine like sitting on a park bench at Central Park reading newspapers or books.) For example.

"Mrs. Dickstein, age seventy-five, sat on her favorite bench in Central Park overlooking the lake on a lavishly sunny May day reading Stendhal's The Red and the Black, which she had read three times over the course of her life. A widow, she loved this exercise in delicious tranquility, and in the spring when the weather was perfect, she would revel in this particular spot with the special view of the lake and the trees in bloom around her." "The Mean Mrs. Dickstein."

Other reccurring human experiences fill the stories, betrayal and anger between husbands and wives. An example is "The Epiphany," where a wife in the course of a divorce shows her real feelings about her husband's ethnicity. Charlie wanted a re-appraisal of the price of their apartment before he gave the apartment to her in the divorce settlement. His wife, who was born an Episcopalian, said as they sat in the lawyer's office,

"You people are impossible," Carol blurted.

"We people?"

"You know what I mean."

He could see the beginning of an accelerated anger.

"No, I don't," he said deliberately fueling the exchange.

"Jesus, must I say it, Charlie?"

"Yes, you must."

She drew in her breath and shook her head.

"Jews, Charlie, Jews. All you can think about. Money. Money. Money." He felt his insides curdle. "I mean face it, Charlie. There has to be a reason why Jews are persecuted and reviled for thousands of years. It took me a long time to see it."

Another theme is the lack of communication between parents and children and children and grandparents. In stories like "The Cherry Tree" and "Oral History," grandchildren and grandparents begin to understand each other. I found these two stories had the most hopeful endings.

Obsession runs rampant in stories like "The Dog" and "Love Story." A man returns to New York, where he was born, after his wife of 50 years dies. He thinks he sees his old girlfriend Vera, who he loved dearly from his youth on the New York streets. He follows this woman for days trying to see if she is really Vera and ends up being charged with stalking. He finds out that Vera hates him. His perception of the past was wrong. In "Better than Donna Reed" and "Gone," children do not grow up to be who their parents wanted them to be. The generational divide seems great. There is a smorgasbord of emotions and people in these stories dealing with all the expectations and disappointments of life.

Oh, and then there are the 9/11 stories, "That Horrid Thing" and "It Still Smells." They are exceptional post traumatic stress stories showing the impact 9/11 had and has on people. Those two stories have also stayed in my thoughts since I read the collection. I want to read them with my hands over my face as they felt like horror stories.

"Gone" and "Love Story" stood out the most for me. After reading each, I realized the power of many of our fantasies and yearning to recreate the past, to fill a void in our lives, and the great sorrow a parent feels when his daughter has cut off all ties to the family and perhaps is a prostitute or on drugs. Throughout his lunch with his daughter she never removed her sunglasses so he could see who she had become.

Do the seeds of your short stories come from observations of people, reflection on events, memory or where? Is your personal experience of human beings reflected in your stories?

WA     They come from everything you refer to. Writing stories, I believe, is more like jazz than the formality and discipline of a symphony. An idea pops into one's mind, it percolates, characters emerge, take on a life of their own, they interact, action ensues. One never knows, as in life, how things will turn out. If I knew, I doubt if I would write the story.

EG     Do you spend much time rewriting?

WA     I try to write every day. In fact, I can't wait to get to my computer. I never go to sleep before thinking about what I will be writing when I arise, knowing that the subconscious will be working things out while I am allegedly asleep.

EG     Is there one element in a short story that is indispensable in conveying a character's feelings to a reader?

WA     As for the one indispensable element, I don't think I can answer it since I don't think I can isolate a good answer.

EG     From "The Seed That Grew":

A real writer goes on the attack never retreats, wages wars to be heard, to be read, to be discovered. His voice must be heard. There is no other choice for a real writer. Why didn't this stupid son of a bitch know that? Was he so inundated with praise and the surety of success that he could not arm himself against the motley crowd of pigmies who would bar his way? Damned, fucking cowardly fool.

This was your life, you stupid schmuck. Nothing had to stand in your way, certainly not the stupid bleats of the untalented, the unannointed, the pretenders, the fools that barred the door. If you can't find one door open, find another, then another, then kicking down the next fucking door you come to, you goddamned idiot. Life is war. Your talent is your armor.

The quote is Harvey Waldman talking about his friend who has died, whom he had not seen in forty years, whose aspiration as a writer failed, and who has instead become a woman's lingerie salesman. Is Harvey echoing your own thoughts about what being a writer means? The answer to this question may be of interest to readers who are "struggling" with their own novels, short stories, or screenplays.

WA     I believe that, absolutely. Writing is a calling. Nothing can stop it. A novelist friend once told me: "My problem is that I cannot stop myself from writing." I agree. It transcends everything. Writing is hardwired into a writer's DNA. It is like the color of eyes or a fingerprint.

EG     You have been a writer for five decades. Things have changed in that time. Being a professional writer in today's electronic world poses challenges. In what way can writers benefit from the Internet, e-books, podcasts etc?

WA     Years ago I recognized that the electronic media will one day be the media of choice for all readers of literary content. I started converting my backlist to digital eight years ago, and my entire backlist in English has been digitalized and in every imaginable electronic format. It has been costly, but I do not want my life's work to molder on a shelf and be discarded in the years to come. My writing is my legacy. I am gambling that it is worth preserving, and I hope my children will pick up the baton and keep my authorial name alive through the generations. Through my website set up more than eight years ago, I continue to keep readers abreast of my work. I can't say that my work will last, but by then, if, as they say, you're not out in the rain, you're not going to get wet.

EG     In New York Echoes there is the first chapter of your latest novel Funny Boys that is set in the Catskills resort in the 1930s . It is about a young comic who falls in love with the girlfriend of a notorious hit man. "Grim. Sexy, violent authentic, and hilarious, this story of love and danger stirs tears of nostalgia for a lost era."

What a great first chapter. It felt like I was reading The Godfather, watching The Sopranos, and eating a corn beef on rye at a Jewish delicatessen all at once, and then drinking Maalox.

WA     That's exactly the way you're supposed to feel. I grew up in that world and know in my gut that I got it right.

EG     Thank you for the interview. I want to mention that "Good Neighbors," another favorite story of mine, from New York Echoes has been optioned for a movie and that Cynthia Nixon is recording an audio version of New York Echoes. Is the audio version out yet?

WA     It will be out shortly and available everywhere. Cynthia Nixon was magnificent. She caught the rhythm exactly. I loved her rendition and hope others will feel the same way.


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