Q and A with Scott Nadelson, BETWEEN YOU AND ME
Tell us a little about your new novel.
I think of Between You and Me as the chronicle of a nebbish, a nobody; it’s a combination of episodic comedy—a Quixote of the New Jersey suburbs—and existential exploration of a very ordinary life. The novel tells the story of Paul Haberman, lifelong city-dweller and bachelor, who, at forty, finds himself thrust suddenly into family life, marrying a divorced mother of two young children and moving to the suburbs. There, he confronts enraged teenagers and shady mechanics, sadistic comedians and obese rabbis, discovering in each of these encounters unacknowledged fears, conflicted desires, and the mysteries that come with living among the human race. The book follows Paul over twenty years, through a series of misadventures and ethical quandaries, from the uneasy onset of middle age to the first hint of approaching autumn.
I love the way you've structured Between You and Me, with each chapter set in a different year. Did you know you would employ this structure before you started writing this book?
This structure evolved over a long period of time. When I started writing, I had no idea what shape it would take, or even that it would be a book. I wrote an initial draft of what would become the first chapter about six years ago, as a stand-alone story, and though when I finished it I knew I wanted to write more about Paul, I was in the middle of another project and set it aside for a while. When I came back to it, I wrote another episode about Paul and his family that took place two years later. It was as if I needed to catch up with these old friends and see how they were making out. The next piece I wrote took place when Paul’s stepkids were off at college, and only then did I realize I was writing a chronicle, examining the lives of these characters over a long period of time rather than in a concentrated dramatic arc. After I had about eight or nine episodes, I started looking for gaps, stretches of time that needed filling in.
The structure that eventually developed arose partly from the desire to explore Paul’s life from different angles and partly from obsessively re-reading some of my favorite chronicle novels and linked story collections—Leonard Michaels’s Nachman Stories; Wright Morris’s The Works of Love; Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid; Laurie Colwin’s Another Marvelous Thing; Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade; Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge; V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas.
Who (or what) was the inspiration for your main character Paul Haberman? (I couldn't help wondering if he's based on someone close to you.)
Paul certainly shares a lot of biographical detail with my father, and the first chapter began with me remembering an episode from my childhood, in which my father was menaced by a hulking teenager in the parking lot of a New Jersey mall—it was the first time I realized my parents couldn’t protect me from everything, and it made a big impact. I tried to write about it from a kid’s perspective first, but eventually the comic possibilities of writing from the adult view won out.
But—as much as I might not like to admit it—there’s as much of me in Paul as anyone else. Unlike my father, who had his children young, I came to parenting in my late thirties, and it was while my wife was pregnant with our daughter that I first started writing about Paul. Now I can see that I was playing out some of my anxieties about parenthood by writing about a stepfather, projecting forward as well as looking back at my father’s generation.
I first read a chapter of Between You and Me when you submitted it as a short story to Fifth Wednesday Journal. This made me curious - did you write the chapters in chronological order? Or were you moving back and forth in time?
I moved around in time quite a bit. The first two chapters came in order, but after that I was all over the place, writing about Paul at fifty-two, then forty-four, then sixty. This process suited my temperament, which leans toward shorter narrative arcs, but it also turned out to be very useful for the book as a whole: I’d write something about Paul’s retirement, and what I learned there would influence an earlier chapter about his working life or his marriage. Moving back and forth in time probably wasn’t the most efficient way to write, but it gave me a fuller sense of the character than I probably would have had writing chronologically.
At the end of the first chapter, Paul has a sense that his time is short, that he’s already wasted too much of it, and this taught me early on in the process that the book’s real subject is time’s passage—the way it seems to slow in certain moments and blur in others—and I think knowing that influenced what part of Paul’s life I decided to explore on any given day.
A number of short sections/chapters, all titled "Nocturne for the left hand," are interspersed throughout your novel. Could you talk about their inclusion and how they complement the other chapters?
These “Nocturnes” were the last things I wrote, and though they are some of my favorite pieces in the book, I can’t say for sure what function they serve, only that they felt essential for me to include. I’d finished what I thought was a final draft and then lived with it for a while before deciding I needed something else to make it complete. I can see now that they serve as quiet interludes between more dramatic moments and so may provide a necessary shift in mood; unlike the other chapters, they’re in present-tense and very internal. They also focus on Paul’s relationship with his stepkids in a way that some later chapters don’t, so keep those central bonds in view as the kids become less present in his daily life.
But more than anything I think it was some instinct toward symmetry that made me write them—together, they’re a sort of compressed version of the book as a whole. Or maybe I just wasn’t yet ready to let these characters go and had to spend a little more time with them before saying goodbye.
What are you working on now?
For the past few years I’ve been working on a new story collection, and it’s now evolved to the point that I can probably talk about it as a whole. It’s an odd assortment, with more range in subject matter and style than usual for me. There are three deeply autobiographical stories—essentially personal essays with a few inventions—that serve as a frame. And of course there are some stories of New Jersey suburban woe. But there are also several ventures into historical fiction, and even a slightly fabulist piece.
What holds them together for me—on some days, at least; others I simply scratch my head—is that they’re all about some form of exile, usually self-imposed. The working title of the collection is The Fourth Corner of the World. I’ve been living in Oregon for nearly twenty years now, which is longer than I lived in my home state, and though I love it here, I still feel like an interloper. The conflict between a desire for escape and a longing for what’s been left behind is one that feels bottomless to me, and I keep finding myself returning to that well.