Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Question and Answer Session on Nathanael West with Joe Woodward author of Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of Nathanael West.

Today I am very happy to present a Q and A Session with Joe Woodward, author of a wonderful new biography of Nathanael West, Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of Nathanael West.  

Official Bio of Joe Woodward from his webpage

Joe Woodward is a native of California and currently lives in Claremont, California.  He is a four-time finalist and two-time winner of a Los Angeles Press Club Award.  His non-fiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Poets & Writers Magazine and regularly in The Huffington Post.  His fiction has appeared in Passages North, Notre Dame Review, Zone 3 and elsewhere.
Joe received his BA in English at the University of Redlands and an MFA in English from Brooklyn College.  He is grateful to his teachers including Allen Ginsberg, L.S. Asekoff, Joan Larkin, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Ralph Angel, Bruce McAllister, and the many others. 
He is represented by Elizabeth Evans at the Jean V. Nagger Literary Agency in New York.  
Select Publications: 
Alive Inside the Wreck A Biography of Nathanael West -- O/R, 2011
Short Fiction
"At the Airport" -- Peregrine, 2012
"The Season of Her Imagination" -- Passages North, 2012
"Salad Days" -- Notre Dame Review, 2012
"Crossings" -- Connecticut Review, 2011
"Viola" -- Lake Effects, 2011
"The Decemberists" -- Zone 3, 2010
"The Autopsy" -- Southern Indiana Review, 2010
"The Gun on the Table: Tobias Wolff -- Poets & Writers, 2008
"A Novelist's Inner Poet: Carol Muske Dukes -- Poets & Writers, 2007
"In Search of David Foster Wallace" -- Poets & Writers,
"Welcome to Ellis Island: Bret Easton Ellis" -- Poets & Writers, 2005

You can read his work on these links

Profile of David Foster Wallace -- Poets & Writers

There are also links to two of his short stories on his webpage.

Nathanael West (1903 to 1940) was a sublime chronicler of the dark side of the American Dream.  Joe Woodward in his brilliant, very well written and documented biography of West, Alive Inside the Wreck -  A Biography of Nathanael West, helps us understand how he came to write his novels, why he kept writing when his work found only the smallest of audiences. The general literary consensus on West is that Miss Lonelyhearts is for sure a master work and probably The Day of the Locust is also.  Little interest is shown in his two shorter,  very strange novels, The Dream Life of Balso Snell and A Cool Million.  Woodward book takes us deeply into the life of West, his very successful work as a screen writer in Hollywood, his Jewish roots, his friendships with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and other well know writers and his tragic death in a car wreck.  In a fascinating segment he details the reading habits and loves of West. I hope to reread them of West's novels in 2015 and I think after reading Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of West I will be able to see a bit deeper into West's oeuvre and enjoy it more.  West's work is dark, randomly violent and focuses on the Preterite of America but it is also very funny at times and a delight to read.  

How did you first get interested  in Nathanael West?  When did you decide to write a biography on him?

I first read West in college (The Day of the Locust), in the same course that I also first read Flannery O’Connor. It was a strange and heady time for sure. I was mesmerized by both of them. Of course, I learned later that O’Connor was indeed greatly influenced by West—her characters struggle with the grotesque in and around the religious experience. They both are so very brutal in their characterizations of us all. Brutal but tender, empathetic.  

I am a great reader of literary biography. I’ve been interested since I can remember in the writer, the artist, the maker. How and why do they struggle on in the face of such terrible disappointment. Why!! So, when I read the great West biography by Jay Martin, I wondered if there might be more to say about how West wrote, what compelled him to continue in the face of such public apathy. Also, nothing new had been written about in about 40 years when I started. Finally, I did some research and found that a great archive rested just 20 miles from my home.

In what order should a reader new to West read his four novels?

I believe his great masterpiece is Miss Lonelyhearts. It is the most completely original, brutal and tender of his novels. I would read The Day of the Locust next. Again, a fantastic and perhaps easier novel. A Cool Million is a wonderfully entertaining literary experiment, but somewhat flawed. The Dream Life of Balso Snell is a freshman effort, and so perhaps most useful to the budding writer and less so for the general reader.

Do you have a favorite West novel?  

Miss Lonelyhearts always seems so starkly original, so deeply awful and troubling to read. I love that while you completely understand nothing like this novel half-world exists, it is in fact our world in a mirror—punishing us sentence after sentence with true unfairness.

                                 Ellen McKenny West 1940 

Is Harold Bloom right in saying that Miss Lonelyheart is really about being Jewish in America?  Is that the deepest meaning of West?

I don’t believe Bloom is right here. Certainly, West was concerned with understanding what it meant to be Jewish in America…what it mean for himself as opposed to his father and uncle, his grandparents etc. His position, in my mind, on this subject was conditional, shifting. It was not the great concern of his life or his work however…nearly every close confidant has said so.

For me, what West does better than anyone is defend those who can’t defend themselves, draw our attention to them. He has a great passion for revealing the hateful, perhaps even the evil that walks the earth. He blames of for either participating in it, or standing by and doing nothing about it.  

How American do you have to be to really get into West?  

Well, in fact, you do not need to be American at all. In fact, the French took to him first and with such passion. Europeans have loved him for so long. He is perhaps too dark in a way for most of America. I believe his discussion of the individual in society speaks to every political system on the planet. Certainly, his take on “all that glitters is not gold” is buried in Chinese and Japanese literature…and beyond.

I saw Candide in Cool Million and did not see the characters as underdeveloped cartoon figures but as representatives of a type or theme as a character in a No play.  Is this way off?

I think this is right. Nothing is underdeveloped in West. He is an artist that draws what he sees as critical, but nothing more. He does not embellish. He does not believe in it as a literary tool or otherwise.  

              West at Fourteen

As West wrote about the novel, it is about “The breakdown of the American dream.” It is a sample of our “success literature” told in reverse. At every turn, the story grows darker and darker. In fact, the character is literally pulled limb from limb. And it’s a comedy. So, there you have it.

I am very grateful to Joe Woodward for his very insightful  responses.  I hope he will make another appearance on my blog one day and I look forward to reading his next book.

7.  What are some of the best movies on which West was a script writer ?

The best movie made from a West script I think is "Stranger on the Third Floor." West "polished" this script, but his language is all over it. It is one of the first (or the first) real noir film. I do believe that he would've got quite good at script writing would he have kept at it. He did not believe it was "art," which made be why I think he would've conquered it. Instead, what we are largely left with is impossible plotting and thin characters, etc. In fact, though Fitzgerald did believe film writing an art, West did not.

8.  What are some of your favorite literary biographies!
My favorite literary biographies include.... Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey, Flannery: A Life by Brad Gooch, and anything written by Claire Tomalin--Hardy, Dickens, Pepys...all classics.

9.  What is the best film made of a West novel?

Finally, the only truly watchable film of a West novel is John Schlesinger's "The Day of the Locust." This was done in 1975 and stars Donald Sutherland, Karen Black and others. Still, it is a very strange film to watch...though, indeed, not as terrifying as the novel itself. 


am very grateful to Joe Woodward for his very insightful  responses.  I hope he will make another appearance on my blog one day and I look forward to reading his next book.

No comments: