by Jerry Waxler
This is part 2 of my interview with Jon Reiner, author of the memoir “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat.” Click here for Part 1 of the interview. To read my essay about the things I learned from the book, click here.
Jerry Waxler: What can you share about your editing process? For example, some writers have specific rituals for rounds of editing, say devoting one round to improve sentence structure, another to develop characters, a third to clarify dialog, and so on. What rituals or methods do you use for editing?
Jon Reiner: I’m an inveterate, obsessive rewriter. Frankly, the fact may just be that I’m slow, but I labor over the language trying to write perfect sentences. I realize this makes me sound insufferable, but I haven’t been able to settle on another method. I don’t discriminate between exposition and dialogue; they both require repeat attention. I write “by ear,” so I often read the sentences aloud, or listen to them in my head, trying to find the right sounds, rhythms, cadences, combinations, and that process continues through the editing. Even now, I’ve been on a book tour reading passages of The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, and I can’t resist the impulse to improve a phrase, or add a beat, which I have done extemporaneously on occasion from the podium. Henry James was motivated to do the same thing, rewriting his published work before he died (and he was a million laughs). I don’t mean to put myself in James’s league, but I can understand why he felt inspired to continue reworking his prose.
Jerry Waxler: Memoir is supposed to be “a story” based on scenes. Your memoir is almost entirely scenes, and yet occasionally you lift out into micro-essays to support your points. For example you are talking about your cravings and you mention that Richard Burton, a “man urged by unrivaled cravings writes of the pleasure of American short-order cooking.” The notion of Richard Burton’s craving is not actually in the scene. It’s you the protagonist thinking about Richard Burton. That’s interesting. Can you explain the technique? Why is it okay to have a side note about Richard Burton’s cravings in a memoir about your own? This is just one example, I am fishing for an understanding of your attitude toward this stylistic device in general.
Jon Reiner: No story is fully realized without a reference to Richard Burton, the greatest rogue of them all. For a more complete explanation, please see my essay on the same for NPR. So, a side note about Burton is always warranted. With regard to my “technique,” you’re a canny guy, Waxler. Your combination of flattery, critical praise, and artistic interest almost had me. [Me laughing] But do you really think I’d reveal the magician’s secrets and kill the act so soon? Come on, man, I’ve only published one book; I’ve got a family to feed. So, let me say this: I’m opinionated, have been writing in a cave for decades, and the opportunity to share the brilliance of my many “side notes” (The Elimination of Public Drinking Fountains as Indictment of the Privatization of Government, anybody?) with a whole world of readers was catnip to my ego, but also potentially deadly to the story.
What did make sense was to selectively riff on topics that were fellow travelers to the food-essence of the narrative but were seemingly so far afield from rational, linear thought that they dramatized the protagonist’s (my) state of social and psychological dislocation. That dynamic tension between reality and escapism would both alert the reader to my emotional distance from the core of people at the center of the story and, if the written detours were entertaining, draw the reader into my experience and POV. Now that I’ve shared the inner workings of my signature technique with your readers, I can never use it again.
Jerry Waxler: Okay, I’m really digging for dirt here. Let me try another one of my heavily finessed questions. [laughing] Some memoirs end with scenes that put a nice final touch on events. For example, if someone is writing about Coming of Age, the memoir can end when the protagonist enters adulthood. However, there is another type of memoir ending that becomes especially important when the topics are more complex, and don’t lend themselves to clean finishing points. This is the “essay ending.” During the denouement some memoirs end with lessons learned. In my opinion you do it brilliantly, with your passionate wrapping up of the implications of your experience, for yourself, your relationship to the healing professions, and to the nature of love and family. You even suggest some personal and social calls to action. Nicely done! Could you tell me something (anything) about how you decided to end the book this way rather than a more scene-oriented ending?
Jon Reiner: When I understood what event would comprise the end of the story, I also acknowledged that the event marked the one-year anniversary from the inciting incident at the beginning of the story. The narrative would encompass the natural closure of a 12-month calendar, and I felt that it therefore demanded an appropriate measure of closure to the physical, emotional, psychological, personal and dietary issues that had characterized my experience and my relationships with the principals in the story. That choice was a bit of a leap for me. My tendency for endings is towards useful ambiguity, and I didn’t want to abandon that entirely – I do end the book with a final gesture that dramatizes the central conflict I will continue to wrestle with after the book is closed – and I patently rejected the idea of a formal summing up or lessons learned in an epilogue. As it so happened, the scene I chose to end the book organically allowed for the stating of my “closure” in dialogue, portraying final dinner toasts that happened in that country house. Here, I must, again, credit my editor, Trish. My first-draft ending reflected something closer to my interest in useful ambiguity, but Trish encouraged me to find the opportunity in the scene to be more direct and give the reader hooks on which to hang his final experience with me. Of course, she was right.
Jerry Waxler: What are you working on now?
Jon Reiner: I’ve written a number of essays which have been published this fall – on writing, on food, on sports, on real estate, on Occupy Wall Street. I’m working on two books – one fiction, one non-fiction, and they’ve both been in my head for years. The novel is called Uncle Moses in the Promise Land. It’s about refugees, immigration, identity, and the future of this country. The non-fiction is also a personal memoir called Chutes and Ladders. It’s about corporate layoffs, living with unemployment, refugees, identity, and the future of this county. Perhaps a smart publisher will sell them as a boxed set.
Click here for Jon Reiner’s Home Page
Click here for The Man Who Couldn’t Eat on Amazon
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.