Read Part One here
When he was thirteen, Howard’s mother died and he moved with his father into a Manhattan hotel apartment where he lived until he was twenty-two. Then he moved to Paris, where he fell in love with the country, the food, the language, the culture … and the girl who was to become his wife and
He said: “It’s true that the hero of my novel Back There falls in love with a French family via a girl … but then the book’s not necessarily a hundred percent autobiographical.
“We live forty kilometers from Paris on part of what was once my wife’s family’s chicken farm before the war. It used to be intensely rural like a scene from my book – no running water until the 1960s. Backward paradise.
“Now there are houses everywhere. The rabbits disappeared, then the garter snakes, then even the grasshoppers, no more fish in the streams. Still, an acre of lawn and roses is better than the noise and pollution and traffic snarls of Paris. Back There tries to resurrect the way things were, one of the functions of literature in my opinion.”
Even though all four of Howard’s novels have found their publisher, he has had his share of rejection slips. And that’s what inspired his short story, The Slush Machine.
He explained: “The genesis of The Slush Machine was still another form rejection slip from a Conglomerated Big Timer. This one was printed on recycled paper. At first I was irritated. It was a commendably ecological gesture on their part – but couldn't the bastards soften the blow with decent bond?
“Then I had this vision of the Machine and the self-perpetuating cycle of white manuscripts converted into gray rejection slips. I don't mean to discourage fellow-writers by this exercise of poetic license. It’s quite possible that the submission editors of the Conglomerates do read the first paragraph of manuscripts (or at least the first sentence). So they should go on submitting.
“But I'm French-based and the postage necessary to the US and UK for news of rejection amounts to the price of a bottle of good Scotch, so I now make the exclusive and consoling liquid investment.
“Incidentally, that bit about the submission people reading no more than the first sentence isn't just a sour wisecrack. There's a publisher who requires a one-sentence résumé plus the opening sentence of the novel. ‘Hook us with that first sentence and we'll ask to see the whole manuscript!’ I really tried. The hook must have been blunt.”
Howard tells us a little about his books.
Back There: “A number of readers of the novel noted the resemblance between the name of the author, Howard Waldman, and the name of my anti-hero, Harry Grossman, the young American adrift in mid-century Paris. They fished for the possible autobiographical tie-in with the events and characters of the novel.
“They asked: ‘Did you have a ferociously possessive older sister like Ida, determined to make you conform? Or a culture-crazy ex football-playing brother-in-law like Jerry? That ex-Trotskyite nut, Roger; did he really pet a tiger in the Central Park zoo? Were you too, like Harry, clobbered in a demonstration and brought to a leftist’s apartment where he met his great love? Did Pascale's haughty model sister really exist and if so were her breasts all you say they were? Did their father really anoint his body with olive oil in hope of immortality? Were you, like your anti-hero, a middleman for an abortionist?’
“The indiscreet questions went on and on. I always assumed a befuddled expression and muttered: ‘All that was so long ago. Can’t remember.’
“It's a lie, of course. I remember it all, even the menus of the marvelous 90-cent Paris restaurant meals and the obscene graffiti inscriptions on the walls of that shabby, gray, beautiful mid-century city. But as for the book, what’s autobiographical and what’s invention is a secret between me and me … and, possibly, my wife.”
Time Travail: “Despite the title’s transparent allusion to time travel, I don’t consider Time Travail to be science fiction, at least not in the common understanding of the term.
“Most of the time travel novels I’ve read don’t convey a sense of the difficulty of breaching the temporal barrier. Just press a button and there you are, swapping chitchat and spaghetti with Julius Caesar, no more strenuous an undertaking than taking the subway from Manhattan to Queens, only the end-station’s more picturesque.
“Actually the operation is more like a minnow trying to breast a tsunami, a butterfly a cyclone. That’s what makes my character Harvey’s effort to recapture the past both pathetic and comic.
“Incidentally, maybe it might be wise to emphasise the humour in this novel … too much metaphysics might scare some of you away. The book’s about its characters wrestling with their own time – or lack of it – not an attempt to whisk the reader into the mighty future or quaint past.”
The Seventh Candidate: “The publisher’s blurb says: ‘In an age of plummeting morals and urban chaos verging on civil war, businessman Edmond Lorz makes a precarious living by removing obscene graffiti from underground railway advertising hoardings.
“‘It’s during a recruitment aptitude test for extra porn-purging staff that a terrorist bomb rips through Ideal Poster’s grubby headquarters, leaving Lorz and one candidate – the seventh – fighting for life in hospital.
“‘Lorz recovers completely, but the strikingly handsome young job-seeker wakens from his coma a blank-faced, unspeaking automaton with total amnesia and a blind obsession with his new employer’s clean-up campaign.
“‘Adopted by Lorz and his wildly unpredictable secretary, Dorothea – each driven by pity, love and stark fear – the mysterious Seventh Candidate wages a private and manic war on disorder in a subterranean maze of tunnels beneath a city gone mad.
“‘Howard Waldman’s latest novel, set against a backdrop of social disintegration that’s almost too close for comfort, swings from lunatic hilarity to heartrending tragedy … and often the reader may struggle to tell the difference in a story with more twists and turns than a subway map.’
“And I suppose that pretty well sums it up. All I can say is that it was the hardest of the novels to do, a source of no end of sweat and discouragement. I revamped it three times and the final version bears little resemblance to the initial one.
“I had to create an imaginary society on the brink of chaos, invent the techniques of grafitti removal, etc. The seventh candidate character was as delicate to handle as Frankenstein’s monster because, unconsciously, Lorz programs the boy for eradication of disorder, including eradication of the individuals who embody that disorder, and all this complexity had to be conveyed indirectly instead of baldly stated.”
Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die: This is my fourth, my latest … and my last novel.
“Heaven has been downsized to the city of Paris. And a tired old God has decided he can cope with only a fraction of the dead he used to process – so he picks Americans as his chosen people … and only good Americans get to go to Paris.
“To help in the selection process are bureaucrats … and you know what they say about French bureaucrats! Paris turns out to be no paradise for my five lead characters.
“The novel comes round full circle to my first, Back There, where the expatriate hero misses out on the great love of his life. In Good Americans, Seymour (as he’s named this time) has killed himself and awakened to a gigantic otherworld Préfecture de Paris.
“Along with four other posthumous Americans (the Americans must have spent time in Paris during their lives to qualify for this pint-sized heaven) he is placed in administrative suspension, awaiting judgment: return to void or return to the individual’s Paris of youth and the possibility of salvaging lost love. In the end, Seymour … But let me keep the cat in the bag.”
These four novels now form the “complete book-length works of Howard Waldman.”
He said: “After an exploration of the other world, how could I return to another 300-page exploration of this one?
“So I do short-shorts now. It’s a different kind of challenge, in a way more demanding than novels. In a novel you can roam and ramble away from the main road as you can’t with a short story. It’s an exercise in restraint, where each word counts; very close, sometimes, to poetry.
“I never forget what Faulkner said: ‘You can be more careless, you can put more trash in [a novel] and be excused for it. In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right. In the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t. I mean by that the good short stories like Chekhov wrote. That’s why I rate that second – it’s because it demands a nearer absolute exactitude. You have less room to be slovenly and careless. There’s less room in it for trash.’
“As with my novels, I’ll avoid any pre-conceived genre identification. And I won’t be ‘targeting’ markets. That can sound imbecilic or arrogant, I know. But if a few people like my short stuff I’m happy.
“It’s not exactly a new form of the art for me. I started with short stories. In my young days I wrote quite a number of them. When I reread the things recently I winced and sometimes cringed. At present I’m salvaging stuff from a 7,000-word piece that I think I can get into 2,000 words.
“Names of other short story writers and their titles come to mind and inspire me: Chekhov, Bernard Malamud (The Jew Bird), Herman Melville’s Bartleby and Benito Cereno, Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown, Sherwood Anderson (not just Winesberg, Ohio, but the marvellous Death in the Woods), J.L Borges (Labyrinths, in Penguin Modern Classics), certain things by Hemingway, like A Clean Well-Lighted Place, the frightening stories of Flannery O’Conner (A Good Man is Hard to Find), certain of Faulkner’s stories, like Barn Burning and Pantaloon in Black.”
Something Howard has no illusions about is the unbounded wealth short-story-writing will bring him. He’s not splashed out the deposit on a penthouse in Monte Carlo.
“It’s not about money. It never has been,” he said. “It’s about satisfaction – my own and the reader’s. Satisfaction and the quest for perfection.
“Although my work from now on will be short … I can promise that it won’t be written in a flash. I’ll be submitting to wherever I believe there’s an astute readership – like here.”
Interview by Alexander James
Interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue MagazineRead an excerpt from Back There, Time Travail, The 7th Candidate, Good Americans Go To Paris When They Die
Click here for Howard Waldman's biography