10 Questions With Michael Lowenthal
Michael Lowenthal’s fourth novel, The Paternity Test, has just been published by Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press. It's the story of two men trying to hold their fraying relationship together by moving to Cape Cod and having a baby with a surrogate mother, and their odd friendship with her, her husband, and the married couple's young daughter. It's powerful stuff, starting with an intelligent look at the trials of a longterm relationship and ending with a devastating final chapter that I, for one, didn't see coming at all.
Lowenthal's previous works include the marvelous Charity Girl (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Avoidance (Graywolf Press, 2002) The Same Embrace (Dutton, 1998) and short stories that have appeared in Tin House, the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, and Esquire.com and have been anthologized in such volumes as Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge, Bestial Noise: The Tin House Fiction Reader, and Best New American Voices 2005. He’s won fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Wesleyan writers' conferences, the MacDowell Colony, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, and the Instituto Sacatar; he’s also nabbed Lynchburg College's Thornton Residency and the James Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists' Prize and taught creative writing at Boston College and Hampshire College, and he’s a core faculty member in Lesley University’s MFA program.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
I’m afraid I don’t remember the first story I wrote, but I do remember my first idea for a book, on which I collaborated with my sister. She was probably about thirteen years old, and I was about ten, and we started to write and illustrate a book called “101 Erotic Uses for Bread Dough.” What happened to the book was (thank heavens) nothing at all!
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
“Sold” is a relative term. So is “celebrate.” For most of my early publications, I was compensated with a few free copies of whatever journal had accepted the work; I celebrated by gathering my hopes and submitting my next manuscript. When I finally did receive some small amount of cash for a piece of writing, I’m sure the money just went into my bank account, to pay for food or health insurance. Any writing-related success has always seemed so precarious that I don’t think I’ve ever quite allowed myself to celebrate — at least not in any outward way that might anger the gods.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
I write on whatever Apple computer I happen to own at the time. I bought a Macintosh 512K in 1986 and have used only Apple machines since then. Lately, it’s a MacBook, propped up on a lovely old dovetailed wooden accordion box (in which sits an accordion that I don’t know how to play), so that the screen is at the ergonomically correct eye-level. If I get really stuck, I go out for a walk, preferably along a body of water, with a folded-up piece of paper and pen in my pocket; as I huff along, if an idea comes to me, I stop to scribble it down.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Losing touch with what motivated me to write before I was “a writer.”
What's your perfect soundtrack for a session of writing, and why?
When I write, I stuff industrial-grade earplugs in my ears. I stock up on them whenever I get an MRI. And if they’re not doing the trick, I wear noise-cancelling headphones, too.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Maybe with Frank Wheeler, from Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road - although, with Frank, it wouldn’t be just one drink - because next to his, my life would seem so bright and full of promise.
Where do you buy your books?
At the amazing independent bookstores that the Boston area still, thank God, supports. Mostly at the Brookline Booksmith, which is the closest, but also Porter Square Books and Newtonville Books.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
Poorly. Which is why I don’t read any reviews of my work. I have friends and family who will alert me that a review has been published: if it’s a good review, they’ll show me a one- or two-sentence excerpt that I can use for promotion; if they don’t offer me one, it’s safe for me to assume there wasn’t anything positive in the review.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
That you should be willing (according to Faulkner’s quip) to sell your grandmother for a story. Maybe this will keep me from ever being one of the greats, but my family and friends are more important to me than anything having to do with writing.
My husband, a professor of public health, calls himself "a civilian" when he's with my writer pals. You've been together with Scott Heim, who has written and published three novels - including Mysterious Skin, which Gregg Araki adapted into a marvelous film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt - for 17 years now. How do two writers manage to live together without winding up as a screaming headline in Weekly World News: "HOMO WRITERS SHOT-STABBED-DROWNED IN BIZARRE MURDER-SUICIDE PACT"?
You’ve given me a great idea: maybe Scott and I should murder each other. Think of the publicity! Book sales galore! Until we decide to go that route, though, what I try to keep in mind is that writing is not a zero-sum game. His creativity does not detract from mine, or vice versa, and neither does his success. But the real secret is this: I go to bed and wake up four or five hours earlier than he does every day, so we each get a big chunk of time to ourselves while the other is asleep.
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