An Interview with Julian Berengaut

by | Nov 11, 2014 | Features

TIEFM 3DThe second novel from Julian Berengaut, smartly titled This Isn’t Easy for Me, is about the lives of two women, Renata and Sabine. In a review that was published yesterday, B. Morrison says “the novel is without doubt a tour de force.” The story is framed entirely in a single conversation that the characters have in a hotel lobby in Cambridge, but when it begins, they are strangers to each other. Sabine, a physicist from Berlin, met Renata’s husband at a conference related to her work, and she unwittingly fell in love with him. That’s why she’s asked for this meeting with Renata, who herself is a highly accomplished financier and philanthropist with some untraditional ideas.

Their conversation is awkward at first, because of course Sabine is nervous about coming clean with Renata. Accordingly, they allow their conversation to meander, which Morrison mentions in her review:

The conversation between the two women strays naturally from one topic to another, Renata’s strange diet, Jewish jokes, quantum physics, dancing, the BRCA mutation that causes breast cancer, Pushkin and Dumas. They circle back to Sabine’s reason for asking to meet Renata, but then another fascinating topic leads them off again. Not unexpectedly, this conversation between a German and a Jew must eventually lead to talking of the Holocaust and their respective parents’ experiences, but they approach this subject with care and mutual respect.

The last portion of the book, about how their families got through World War Two is ingenious, intriguing, and as Morrison says, respectful.

While the purpose of their meeting is ostensibly to discuss Renata’s husband, they find much more to discuss about themselves, all of it fascinating because of the anecdotes Berengaut packs into the pages. His literary references alone could be a primer on world literature—at one point Sabine and Renata quote Pushkin back and forth in different languages—but it’s not only highbrow. Even The Three Stooges make an appearance. If you like this sort of book, you’ll have a hard time putting this one down and will think about it long after finishing it.

Jen Michalski noted “Berengaut has writted Sabine and Renata with as much tenderness, respect, and understanding as any woman writer.” And the book arrives at a surprise ending with a powerful emotional punch, justifying the review at Kirkus which said, “These mature, thoughtful women are unlike almost any others in popular contemporary literature, and their conversation—long, gorgeous, encompassing—is one of the most memorable in literature of the last 10 years.”

I sent a few questions to Julian by email, and his responses are as erudite as his novel.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of This Isn’t Easy for Me?

I don’t ski but my son loves it and my wife enjoys it too. Last winter they went skiing and I was left alone in the apartment, and it was very empty and very very quiet. And in that silence, as if to fill it in, I started to write down the voices of Renata and Sabine. I had the first draft in six weeks but than it took me five times as long to make it presentable.

So as you were sitting in that quietness, what caused the spark of the idea to write this book?

I had imagined the characters and heard their voices before, but I felt intimidated by the thought that I would have to fill in the blanks for the readers about the characters—what they looked like and what they felt, and so on—and that seemed like a tall order. Then I remember some advice that Isaac Bashevis Singer received from his older brother who was an accomplished writer, which was: “you don’t have to spell everything for the reader; they are quite capable and might even do it better than you.” Remembering it was liberating.

In the movie As Good as it Gets, someone asks Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson), a very successful writer, “How do you write women so well.” He says, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” Given the intellect and perspectives of Sabine and Renata, I imagine that is not an opinion you support. So I’ll put the question to you: how do you write women so well?

When I was working on TIEFM, and people would ask about it, I would respond that it was about two women talking about and dealing with challenges that life throws at them. I got quite a few raised eyebrows or rolled eyes–less about having a book in a dialog form but more about the fact that I was writing in the voices of two women. My response was to say: wait till it’s finished, read it, and you will see.

I come from a time and place (mid 20th century Central Europe) which in comparison to the United States was still quite traditional. I was, for instance, taught as a child that, upon being introduced to a woman, I was supposed to kiss her hand. Yet, in the same traditional culture, the position of women was quite different than was the case in this country. It is quite a paradox.

What do you mean?

Let me give you a “literary” example. When I came to the US for college, I tried to catch up in my readings in American classics. I remember reading Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street about life in a small American town. There was a scene there that got me so angry, I had difficulties finishing it. It is about a young, newly married couple where she is a housewife who grew up in a big city and her husband is a doctor and a small town boy in many ways. He would give her money on a weekly basis to run the house. She runs short one day—for some good reason—and has to look for him to ask him for more; he is playing cards with his friends. She has to come up to him and in front of everyone ask for money. He mocks and humiliates her, and even when in the end he gives her the money, he winks to his buddies and says to his wife: “don’t let it happen again.”

Well, I simply could not imagine something like that happening in the culture I came from, despite the presence of many traditional gender roles. There, it was understood that it was the husband who, upon being paid his salary, would bring it to his wife who would be in charge of spending it. It is even reflected in the language—there is a slang term, “under the skin,” that refers to small bills and change that the husband manages to hide from his wife so he can get a drink with his buddies.

When I was growing up, people from our apartment building would sometimes come to our apartment to ask advice, and of course they would go to my mother. My father had a much higher position than my mother, earned more money, we had our apartment because of him and not her, and yet, nobody, least of all me, was ever surprised that when it came to advice, people would go to her and not to him.

We see this in the way Renata talks about her mother. She had a particular and meaningful power and influence.

Yes. That was the culture that both Sabine and Renata and their mothers came from—yes, traditional in many ways but not at all in denying an important role to women, especially when it came to matters of significance. There was even deferring to them when it came to dealing with the most difficult problems like life and death. They asked a guy who was very successful in conspiring against the Nazis, and then against the communists, how it was that he was never caught and his response was: “I only used women as couriers.” As an old proverb says: the devil might fall short of resourcefulness but not a woman. So that was the vantage point from which Renata and Sabine deal with their challenges. Once I had that, it wasn’t that difficult to let their voices speak and write them down.

Without revealing the ending, let me just ask—when you started writing, did you know what Renata was going to reveal, or is that something you arrived at later?

Yes, I did, but I had no idea how they were going to get there. Originally, Sabine wasn’t German at all; then it sort of happened, and a lot of other things followed from that. Or, Renata’s involvement with Haiti and the adoption—it came from thinking about a friend of mine who adopted a little girl, not because she couldn’t have a child of her own but because, with her husband, they felt for children who needed to be adopted.

How much research did you do? Are all the anecdotes and quotes that Sabine and Renata share things you’ve been carrying around, or did you do research?

I did some research (e.g., about the HASAG—readers will know what that was), but most of what is in the book are stories or anecdotes that I have accumulated, some from various people, some from books.

Julian Berengaut

You have a background in economics. What drew you to writing?

For my job I traveled to many exotic places where I had to write about the most boring subjects like the fiscal deficit, the money supply, or the external debt burden, and all that time I had a feeling—I am tempted to say a Conradian feeling—that there were all these stories floating around me that were worth writing. But not by me, I knew, because I felt that I lacked a mode expression that could work for me and do justice to the stories. And then I had my García Márquez moment. When he was young, he was lying on a couch reading Kafka’s short stories and he came to “The Metamorphosis” and fell off the couch and said: “I had no idea one was allowed to write like that.” I know I am not him, but one day I was reading the great Polish poet Nobelist Milosz’s essays and found there poems by the Polish poet Anna Swir about the Warsaw Uprising (a great national tragedy that is alluded to in TIEFM) and I was stunned. Then I knew I could do it, though it took me years and years.

What’s one of your favorite things about writing?

You can be a conjurer or have visions and not worry about being burnt at the stake or being placed on Haldol.

What’s one of the hardest things about writing?

Being reminded, over and over again, that when one wants to come face-to-face with one’s own limitations, trying to write beats everything else.

Are you a big reader?

Definitely. I am a 19th century kind of a guy: the Brits (Austen to Conrad), the Russians (Gogol to Chekhov), the Polish Romantics (Mickiewicz), Whitman, who was a revelation, and Dickinson who could wring poetry out of a dust mote. But I also love historical fiction with plenty of details of everyday life: Dorothy Dunnett, say, or Hilary Mantel, or Elizabeth Marshall Thomas who wrote about Paleolithic Siberia. And science fiction, of course, from hard SF to fantasy to cyberpunk. And Murakami.

What are some of the books that have influenced you most?

When I think about the form of TIEFM, especially its digressions, it was Conrad, of course (who is mentioned in the novel) and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (which is mentioned a lot). I would also note my great fondness for Beniowski, another digressive novel in verse by the Polish Romantic poet Słowacki. And then, leaving that century, there is a series of short jazzy poems by Langston Hughes about a woman named Alberta K. Johnson who struggles through the Depression in New York City and who, although it might be hard to imagine, would be a kindred spirit to Renata or Sabine.

Have you ever heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month? It’s happening now, and every November, where people across the country (or world?) try to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in one month. What do you think?

I happen to know about NaNoWritMo because last year, when my son was in 7th grade, he took part in it, ending up writing over 30,000 words in one months . A little short of the target, but still more than 1,000 words per day. For everyone who participates, it is a great forcing mechanism to free one’s writing abilities (an oxymoron, I know).

Any advice for these NaNoWriMo writers?

If you are pressed looking for what to write about, how about some harmless revenge. For example, my wife is very affectionate towards our son, way more than he considers proper, so he had great fun writing about a mother who abandons her child; and he had even more fun telling me: “So you want to know about the Dad in my story? Well, he is a crook; and not just a crook, but a small-time crook; and not just a small-time crook but a failed, small-time crook. Ha, ha, ha.” So if you had a toxic asshole boyfriend, now is your chance to pay him back and make him die a painful death. And if you have to work with a pompous fool, make up a story about someone like him who is discovered to have faked his academic credentials. And that teacher who was mean to you, you could become the school’s principal and write her job performance reports. Childish? No. It is a magical world, Hobbes.

Order This Isn’t Easy for Me from Amazon. You’ll be glad you did.