author of Broken Sleep
Other Press: Your first novel, And the World Was, was published in 2006, and soon after you began working on Broken Sleep. Many writers take years to finish their second novel, like Akhil Sharma with Family Life. What was it like to write a book over so long a period of time? How did your writing process change throughout the years you were writing Broken Sleep?
Bruce Bauman: Both of my books took years and years to write. Both were “started” over twenty years ago. I understood early on that I was not a book-every-two-or-three-years kind of writer. I understood and accepted my limitations. I knew that if I wanted to write the books I envisioned, I had to get smarter and become a better writer. I’ve told my shrinks for years—two or maybe three novels I’m proud of and I’m declaring victory.
Both were rewritten many times in various forms. Once I got the basics down, Word took about six years and Broken Sleep around nine. Once it got going, BS was so much fun to write. Hard and frustrating some of the time, sure—but fun is the prevailing emotion. Even when it’s depressing.
I didn’t feel pressure to finish until the last year or so because my mom was dying and I had so wanted her to SEE its publication. I couldn’t do it and I will always regret that. But a book takes as long as it takes and I had to respect the book.
My work habits only changed once really—and that was when I actually became a writer and got serious instead of just calling myself a writer. I learned a lot about discipline and dedication from my wife, Suzan Woodruff, who has been an exhibiting artist since she was in her mid-twenties and is a brilliant painter. She has her own unique vision and follows it without giving a damn about what is trendy or hot in the art world. Once that change happened in me, I became very focused and disciplined.
OP: In Broken Sleep one of the characters, Moses, navigates what it means to be Jewish, to have that as a central part of his identity. Your first novel was also concerned with faith and the role it plays in our lives. What is it about that theme that drew you back to it?
BB: Faith, belief in God or lack of belief, and my own struggles have made that question central, and I assume it will always be central thematically, sometimes right up front as in Word, sometimes as part of many themes, as in BS. I have twenty-five diaries or notebooks, and the predominant themes are my dreams and interpreting them, my complaining about pretty much everything and trying to figure out how to give meaning to a life when you no longer have faith in God. What replaces it? Art? Sex? Politics? Fame? I don’t know the answer.
Identity is tricky and extremely complex but so often we as societies and individuals try to simplify and reduce personal identities to types, including national or religious identities. We—all of us—have individual and group identities. We often see ourselves in a way no one else does.
I’m going to stop here. The question of identity and what it represents in all meanings of that word is always central to my work, and my books speak for me on this subject.
OP: Early on in your novel a character states, “Irony without empathy is empty and juvenile.” Is this something you believe? Are there any works of art that in your opinion use irony with a true sense of empathy?
BB: There’s a song in the book “Papa’s Gun,” well yes, it’s about Hemingway’s suicide. But the lyric “irony and pity / oh so witty” is kind of a rip from The Sun Also Rises where the Bill character sings “Irony and Pity…” to Jake. That is one translation of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. All great tragedies, from the original Oedipus the King to Hamlet to The Great Gatsby have both. The last lines of The Sun Also Rises are a perfect example; a modern take on irony and pity. It’s essential to know that Lady Brett and Jake Barnes believe they are in love with each other, but because of his accident/impotence, they cannot really be together.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
OP: There are a multitude of voices in Broken Sleep, with several characters narrating their own chapters. How were you able to carve such distinct and brilliant voices for so many characters? Did the voices of the characters come before you found the form your novel would take, or after?
BB: The short answer is I have no fucking clue. Hell, a few years after Word was published, I tried to write a short piece using the voice of Levi Furstenblum. Couldn’t do it. He’s in BS briefly, but not his narrative speaking voice. Levi has, so to speak, left the building and he ain’t coming back.
Mindswallow’s voice I had very early on. Steve Erickson advised me to experiment with first and third person for Moses, which I did. And Moses said loud and clear “Third is me—I am an Old Testament voice.” Salome was the longest in coming—she always had to be in first person, and when she finally came to me she didn’t shut up.
Patience is the key. And getting good advice. After I’d written a few versions, first Allen Peacock, then Terrie Akers with an assist from Anjali Singh, really helped me get the order of the chapters right, and in so doing they let me know when a voice went off, and when I, Bruce, was intruding.
OP: In Broken Sleep the world is transfixed and transformed by Alchemy and his Insatiables. Salome’s work is equally captivating. Are there any musicians or artists who have brought that kind of significance in your own life?
BB: The Beatles and to a lesser degree Bob Dylan. It’s kind of cliché, but aside from their talent, which was enormous, they changed the cultural landscape of the world. In 1969, you could take any eighteen-year-old from the US, Brazil, East Germany, South Africa and put on Sgt. Pepper’s and suddenly they had something in common. It wasn’t just the music—that was the catalyst—it was an idea, a common language. I think that was really new. Maybe Chaplin and Garbo had that kind of recognition back in the 20s, but they belonged to everyone—grandkids, Mom and Pop and Grandpa and Grandma. Elvis had the youth thing, but he was empty inside. At that perfect moment in time The Beatles, who were a group—Dylan was always an oddball loner with friends—belonged to a generation. The youthful left-wing uprisings in France, the US, Mexico, China, Prague of ’68 dwarfed the European uprisings of 1848. I could make a case that without the new methods of communication open to almost everyone, and the Beatles were the lead messengers who instinctually grasped this new world, that the 60s as we know it could not have happened without them.
The net is an enormous technological leap, but you gotta remember this: in 1967 The Beatles played “All You Need Is Love” on the first live satellite link to 400 million people. There were others on the broadcast, but the Beatles were the stars. The Beatles had 400 million linked friends about twenty years before Mark Zuckerberg was born. That is transformative power.