Monday, December 24, 2007

Beginner's Greek

Beginner's Greek by James Collins, Little Brown, January 2007


LC:You worked in finance and as a journalist. Now you're a novelist. How did this book come about?
JC:Going by my natural abilities and inclinations, I have always been better suited to writing fiction than to working in journalism much less in finance, so I feel as if I have sort of been moving backwards to the thing I should have been doing in the first place. But I never would have had the confidence after college just to say, “I’m going to be a novelist.”

When I was first trying to figure out what to do I thought that getting some financial experience would make practical sense and would be useful no matter what. That has proved to be true, and it was interesting, but, as anyone who knew me could see immediately, I was not cut out for a career on Wall Street. I was really lucky to have some friends who helped me make a transition to journalism, which I like a lot, even though I am most comfortable sitting by myself making stuff up.

This particular book came about after I had moved to rural Virginia and had switched from having full-time jobs in New York to just writing on my own. I had a couple of germs for a novel in my mind and I started it thinking I would write it on the side quite quickly, but I enjoyed writing it so much that it got longer and longer and more and more complicated. I’d say that the finished book is probably only sixty per cent of the original manuscript.

LC:What's your writing process?
JC; I wrote the first hundred pages or so in longhand and then switched back and forth from longhand to writing on the computer. I can’t explain why I wrote some sections one way and others in the other way. I do really like the tactile experience of using a soft pencil (no. 1, to be specific) on paper. I feel a little silly saying all this but I know that when I read interviews with writers I am always fascinated by these details—what size nib of a fountain pen they use.
I tried very hard to have a regular schedule. That’s what real novelists do, right? They work religiously every day between certain hours. But the fact was that with two small children and lots of other things of life to interfere I never could establish a set time that I could devote exclusively to writing, so I would work as long as I could whenever I had chance at all times of day and night. It was my own fault because I just never could insist that I not be disturbed. And, funnily enough, since I had worked at magazines where the phone is constantly ringing and people are constantly coming to see you while you are trying to write or edit, I think having a certain amount of activity around me was familiar and even stimulating. Also, I tried to avoid becoming dependent upon there being certain set conditions in order to write. One of the nice things about writing fiction I found was that all you need is a pencil and paper and you can work anywhere and any time, and that’s what I did.

LC: Authors you would like to meet?
JC: This could be a very, very long list, especially if I included writers of non-fiction and authors who are dead. But let’s see, here are a few living writers of fiction off the top of my head: John Updike, Philip Roth, David Lodge, Tom Wolfe, Michael Chabon, Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, William Vollman, David Foster Wallace, Jane Smiley, Allegra Goodman, Peter Carey ….

LC: Your book is a wonderful exploration of a young man's unrequited love. Would you consider the book a member of the new genre, male lit?
JC: It’s funny, a couple of people have mentioned that they were struck by the fact that protagonist of a book like this was a man. It never occurred to me to think of that as being unusual, since it seemed to me that male heroes of love stories have always been very common. “Boy meets girl…boy loses girl…boy gets girl back” is the classic formula. So, no, I don't think of it as being part of a new genre, and, while I really like Nick Hornby, whose success started the "lad lit" trend, I actually hope my book has a bit more "lit" and a lot less "lad" than the typical one in that category.

LC: Have you ever met someone remarkable on a plane?
JC: Something like the incident in the book actually happened to me, but I knew the other person slightly and there were no romantic consequences, so it wasn't really the same. Otherwise, I find as I get older I am less shy about talking to strangers, and while I haven’t met anyone truly remarkable, I have had some enjoyable conversations. I know much more about shark-fishing and theatrical lighting and how a Dollar Store makes money than I did before, and I have gotten a look into other people’s lives, which is endlessly fascinating, no matter who they are.

LC: Future plans?
JC: I have started a new novel and have an idea for another one, so I hope to write those, while also doing some journalism, too.

REVIEW:Have any of you ever found yourself seated next to a stranger on a long airplane ride with whom you begin a conversation? Last time I flew across the country I sat next to a very pleasant college student and we had an interesting conversation about fraternities and liberal arts studies. By the time we both picked up our luggage from the baggage carousel, I knew more about this young man's back story than I could ever imagine. Author James Collins uses this type of experience as the first plot point in his forth coming book, Beginner's Greek. Peter Russell finds himself seated next to Holly, a beautiful young woman, on a cross country flight to Los Angeles. The chemistry is immediate and as they disembark, Holly hands Peter her phone number (on a page ripped from her Thomas Mann novel). In the first of many mishaps, Peter loses the number and never calls Holly as promised.

Fast forward to a couple of years later. Peter is about to marry Charlotte, a woman he is fond of but not necessarily in love with. No...the love in his heart remains with Holly. Holly who is now married to Peter's best friend, the serial cheater Jonathan. I don't want to give away the important plot points of the book but suffice it to say that life keeps the two lovers apart whereas fate ultimately brings them together. A kind of Greek comedy with a bit of tragedy thrown in, this book showcases the talent of a honest, sardonic writer who delivers a truly rewarding, entertaining read.

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