Bookmarks

Bookmarks

by Andrea McGuigan
 
New York writer Ross Klavan may be best known as the screenwriter of the 2000 film Tigerland, starring a young Irish upstart named Colin Farell. The work garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and Klavan has been working hard (before and since) in film, television, radio, print and performance. His latest novel, Schmuck, from Greenpoint Press, takes the reader to 1960s New York City, where radio personalities John Elkin and Ted Fox are Kings of the Airwaves. Enter the girl, Sari Rosenbloom, who turns the world upside-down with her mysterious beauty. Everyone falls for her — Elkin and his son Jake, Fox, and every other man in the boroughs who plays host to a pulse and a working set of eyeballs. Too bad for the boys, Sari’s father is one Max Rosenbloom, a gangster specializing in “salvage” who can make more than textile factories disappear overnight. Set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam era in New York, the book captures the longings of both Elkin, a frustrated radio host who longs to be more than just funny voices, and his son, Jake, an angry young beatnik making his way through one of our nation’s most confusing, violent eras. Told with ribald, laugh-out-loud, seriously dark humor and well-crafted grace, Schmuck touches readers with dashes of J.D. Salinger, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
 
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First, discuss the title choice and meaning of the word “schmuck.” I always knew it to mean a sort of an unintentional idiot, but there are further connotations. You use the word throughout the book as almost poetic device, it’s repeated so often.
There literally are further connotations, yes. And you can be an intentional idiot, too (laughs). But the word is a derivative of the German which means “jewel,” and I think it refers to the same word we would use when we use the term “family jewels,” as in calling someone a prick. In Yiddish it takes on all sort of permeations and has a resonance to it. The utilization of Yiddish and Yiddish phrases by the generations who were born in America and (are) largely unreligious, is fascinating because it’s like they’re pieces of shrapnel from the language grenade that went off and became imbedded in the patois.
 
Why did you decide to write this as a novel rather than a screenplay? How do the two writing processes differ?
Many screenplays come to me first as a novel. Tigerland was written in its first draft as a novel, and then I wrote the screenplay after that. I love the screenplay form. I very consciously attempted to use screenplay structure in this novel so that it moves fast and funny without long periods of side story. It doesn’t go off the beaten track, and film is like that, tight.
 
How long did the project take to complete? Has this been a project that has lived inside of you for a while until it found its voice, or an “AHA” moment in which you just knew what you were going to do?
The actual writing took two years and I had been fooling around with the story for a while and didn’t even know. I don’t know how it happened but I woke up one morning, rushed in and grabbed a pencil and pad, and as I wrote, I went into my computer and found I had this completely escaped vision. I found notes and false starts going back ten years. I didn’t remember taking half of them.
 
There are certainly some autobiographical elements to the novel. The father in radio and show business, which is true to your life, the New York backdrop, the military background. I’m not going to ask, “Is it about you?” because every author has their philosophy on autobiography. What I’ll ask instead is, “What is your answer for when people ask ‘is this about you?’”
It’s almost impossible to answer. I utilize some of my experience in a fictional manner. I utilize some of my father’s experience, as he was a radio comedian, part of a team throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. I think you only have yourself to write from and it depends on how you’re using that. It also brings up the question of which selves you’re involving in this because the self who writes versus the one who sits down to dinner or hails a cab, say, are different selves, right?
 
Growing up in New York in the ‘60s, a truly interesting time in the city’s history, can you compare and contrast the New York City of that time with the present day?
It’s almost a completely different city. Here and there a memory of that time pops through, but the city was much looser and wilder in those days, as perhaps as the rest of the country was. It was definitely more violent, and heated up by the Viet Nam war and by various movements for racial and sexual equality. It was an incredibly vibrant city. I think a lot of that has calmed down, for better and worse, certainly.
 
Let’s get hypothetical. I’m an avid reader who’d walked into the bookstore and I ask the bookseller for a recommendation on a new novel. She wants to sell me your book. What does she say to me?
She would have to say to this avid reader that this is a throwback to a kind of novel that is at the same time hilarious and deeply meaningful, simultaneously. It talks about the world which existed that Manson came out of, a wilder America, from the days of the three martini lunches, people chasing each other around radio studios, all of it done with not only the comedy but also under the haunting umbrella of World War II, which all of these men carried with them. But I also want this to function as the type of novel that has the feel as if you were in a halfway decent bar in New York and someone told you a great story with that sort of absurdist tragedy to it.
 

Bookmarks appears bi-monthly in ec and dc.
 
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amcguigan@timesshamrock.com