The Beatrice Interview: John Wray (2001)

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The Right Hand of Sleep is the story of Oskar Voxlauer, a veteran of the First World War who has returned to his hometown in Austria after spending two decades in the Soviet Union. He has arrived just in time for the rise of the Nazis in Austria, and though he tries to avoid the coming conflict by taking a job as a gameskeeper in the woods outside the town, he cannot put off the inevitable, which arrives in the form of Kurt Bauer, an ambitious SS officer and the cousin of Else, Voxlauer’s lover.

Why, I wondered as John Wray and I sat in a Brooklyn coffee shop, did a 30-year-old novelist choose to write about Austria in the 1930s instead of a more autobiographical situation, as many young authors would have done? He told me that he had tried that route: “I got about sixty pages into a coming of age novel based on my own coming of age, and it just didn’t seem very interesting to me. It felt really banal. My own life just wasn’t that exciting, and what I had written was just terrible. A few years passed before I tried to write again, and my main concern was that this time I’d actually finish it, so I resolved to write something as far removed from my first attempt as possible.” He’s succeeded, with a gripping, well-written story told in a sparse prose reminiscent of Hemingway.

You started out by trying to write a nonfiction book about your family’s experiences during the Second World War. How did that lead to this novel?

It’s really very simple. I had my maternal grandfather’s memoirs, and a vague idea of what had happened, but I’d never really read them from start to finish. They had some great passages, but when I got deeply into them and started to study my family’s history, nothing really happened. They were wonderfully evocative of the time and place, but there weren’t any particularly dramatic events. I realized that it didn’t have the makings of an interesting read, and I thought about writing a biography of somebody else from that period, someone who had led a more interesting life, but over time I realized that what I most wanted to do was write a novel anyway, and that the nonfiction was hedging my bets. So I ended up using the memoirs and various other family documents as I would for any other source material in writing the novel.

So you got period details about life in Austria in the ’30s…

Not even that so much, actually, because not a lot has changed. A lot has changed, of course, but in the hill country, for example, people—even though they have Mercedes and satellite dishes, are still eating the same foods, talking in the same way. They still look at the world practically the same way. What I got was more of an idea of the way certain middle and upper class people thought of the political changes. But I actually moved very far away from my grandfather’s memoirs and other family documents. I ended up drawing much more on the history books that I bought at Barnes and Noble, frankly, by the end.

People often ask if I based these characters on members of my family from back then, but I drew far more on contemporary people I’ve known. Some of the events come from history or family lore, or were invented simply for novelistic reasons, but the actual substance, the details and the emotions that are filled in, are definitely from my life, based on people that I knew in Buffalo, or in college, or here in New York. I’m sure that the characters would have had a much greater cardboard feeling to it if I hadn’t drawn on people I’d actually known.

In that false start of a novel I was talking about before, a large part of it was based on my first relationship, which was a very dramatic relationship in many ways, certainly one of the few non-banal things that happened to me in my hometown. Even though this novel is so completely different in its tone, its concerns, or its point of departure, I still wanted to salvage what I could from that first attempt, and it proved to be very good material for the new context in which I placed it.

Whatever the real conditions were in Buffalo in the 1970s and 1980s, I felt myself to be the outsider in a more or less hostile environment; that was a great aid to imagining how Voxlauer would have felt, even though he was twice the age I was then and had far greater worries than I ever had.

How much of his gamekeeping experiences are based on firsthand knowledge?

It’s mostly from my own experience. As I said before, it strikes me that very little has changed about the ways people live in the mountains over the decades, and the ways in which people hunt is one thing that I think has stayed largely the same. I’ve done some hunting, and a lot of fishing, so those sections were easy for me to write. The house that my family has in Austria is set up against the woods, and I would spend summers there, so part of the fun in writing the novel was writing about my experiences in the woods from childhood—going fishing, or on long hikes—but placed in a very different context. And I did that very consciously because I wanted to keep the book fun for me to write.

You wrote this book under fairly grim living conditions, right?

Yeah, but I was actually quite happy writing in that little basement, mainly because I didn’t have to work a day job. It was the storage space for a band, and I was the caretaker for all their musical equipment, so the rent was about minus $200 a month because I was getting money to do that.

I was just so grateful that I didn’t have to work some stupid job, even if all I had was a basement room, fifteen by twenty feet, no windows, no telephone, no shower, no private bathroom… There wasn’t even any heat; the room was always about fifty degrees throughout the winter. I slept on a futon inside a tent because the place had so many rats coming in and out. But it was a good place to get work done. There were no distractions, no telephone. Every afternoon or evening, the band would come in, so I’d go out and see a movie or go to a restaurant, and when I came back they’d be done. The rest of the time there was absolute silence.

So how long did it take you to write the novel?

It took about a year to write the first draft, but that was far from the finished product. It took me about two years to really get it into shape. I found out that for my writing process, the crucial stage isn’t the first draft, but the revisions. There probably isn’t a single passage in the book that wasn’t revised eight or ten times.

The focus is so heavily on Oskar in the first two-thirds of the novel that when Kurt’s first person narration appears, it’s initially very jarring. But it’s also crucial to understanding his motivation and the ways he contrasts with Oskar.

Oskar is clearly the center of the book. It’s his consciousness that inhabits the narration of the book, even though it’s mostly written in the third person. But I wanted to show how Oskar and Kurt were similar, despite their very different decisions towards the rise of the Nazis. I was interested in what motivated certain Austrians, and other Europeans, to play along or even embrace the changes that were taking place, while others resisted, didn’t go with the flow. I had originally thought of telling half the book from Voxlauer’s perspective and half from Kurt’s perspective, and in the long run I abandoned that approach as too jarring. If you’d gone through half the book with Voxlauer and formed very strong attachments to him, it seemed a shame to abandon that… although it could have been an interesting effect.

Kurt’s embracing of the Nazi’s anti-Semitic agenda isn’t even particularly rooted in the hatred of Jews as a class. It’s an opportunity for him to get back at one Jew he thinks ruined his family’s life.

I did want to emphasize that most of the virulent anti-Semitic agitation was rooted in personal interests. That’s why the competing innkeeper in town, for example, is such a big supporter. But Kurt’s a slightly different case; there’s a sense that he’s rationalizing his rapid ascent up the Nazi hierarchy as a way to avenge the way his family was, as he sees it, screwed over by a tyrannical overseer. But if anti-Semitism had not been prevalent in his culture, he would, out of self-interest, bury that resentment deeply. He would say or do anything to succeed.

So you’re living in Park Slope now. I imagine you probably have windows in your new apartment.

Oh, it’s so great. Living for those two years in that shithole… not only did it enable me to write this book, it guaranteed that I’ll never again take for granted where I live. My new apartment is beautiful. I can look out the window and see the treetops in the park, it’s sunny and it’s clean… it’s great. It’s a little harder to work because I can look out the window now, but it’s fantastic.

Your next novel looks at American history, right?

Yes, but it’s very different. I’m not even thinking about it as a historical novel, because I don’t think it’ll be in a realist mode all the way through. It’s more of a cross between a Southern Gothic ghost story and a whodunit, with every chapter told in the first person from a different character’s perspective… I often conceive of my books as being more experimental than they end up being. I’ve learned that I have a strong sympathy for things like narrative continuity that I never had before writing this book.

(photo: Cheryl Lynn Huber)

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