We’re proud to celebrate Benjamin Anastas’ new memoir, “Too Good to Be True,” this Thursday night with Amazon Publishing, Brokelyn and Dan Kennedy of The Moth with our inaugural “Show & Tell (and Trade)” event. We were able to briefly catch up with Anastas and he did a bit of showing and telling in preparation.
Be sure to swing by Thursday night to our Brooklyn offices and swap a few stories of your own, drink a beer or two lovingly provided by Brooklyn Brewery and enjoy some tasty eats from the fine folks at The Fat Beagle. And while you’re at it, don’t forget pick up a copy of “Too Good to Be True” from our friends at Molasses Books who will be on hand to keep your thirst for good reads quenched! On top of all that, you could even win a new Kindle just for showing up! ‘Nough said. See you there then!
“Too Good to Be True” is your third book. Can you tell us a little about what prompted the writing of it?
It was desperation, really. Nothing in my life was working. I couldn’t write fiction anymore, no one in publishing was returning my emails, I was about to hit rock bottom financially and everywhere I looked was wreckage from my divorce. I started waking up while it was still dark out (4:30 or 5) and taking a notebook and a couple of pens into my four-year-old son’s room when he wasn’t there. I would sit on his bed and write until the sun came up; after a couple of months, it dawned on me that I might have a memoir on my hands.
Being a memoir, was it anymore difficult or easier to write than the other novels?
I wouldn’t say that it’s easier to write memoir than it is to write fiction, but this was a book that came together comparatively fast. I started in the fall of 2010 and worked on the first draft until the summer of 2011. So it was a little less than a year. It helped, I think, that I was writing the book in “real time”—that is, I wrote about looking for work while I was looking for work, I chronicled the trouble in my relationship around money when I was in the middle of it, I described trying to change my life while I was trying to change my life. There was an immediacy to the writing that was brand new to my work, and I liked the “reality experiment” side of it.
How is telling your own story different than telling the story of others (real or fictional)?
To be honest, writing memoir is more like writing a novel than I expected it to be. First, you have to be selective about what you tell; you can’t just open up the fire hose and let it all pour out. A memoir that simply recorded life would be mind-numbing. Second, you have to shape your scenes, create convincing characters, write convincing dialogue–all things that are crucial to writing fiction. Ultimately you’re bound to write about real people and things that actually happened, but for memoir to be at all persuasive you’re going to have to call on skills that originate in fiction writing.
The term “Brutally Honest” gets tossed around a lot but in the case of “Too Good to Be True” it’s apt. In fact, it is a story of learning to be brutally honest with yourself. How long had you thought about writing this before you were actually able to put pen to paper?
A couple of years before I started the memoir I wrote a short essay for Granta’s website about a nude portrait of my father that he’d kept in his house. Every time you went up or down the stairs to the second floor, you passed underneath his business. I’d already tried to expand that material into something longer about my family, but it wasn’t until I connected it to the mess that my life had become and trying to crawl my way out that everything just came alive. I didn’t use any of the earlier material in the manuscript that became “Too Good to Be True,” but it’s where the whole thing started.
On a more general note (and in relation to “Show & Tell (and Trade)”) can you give us your take on the state of storytelling in the “digital age”? In “Too Good to Be True” you make inferences to the negative impact of technology on your relationships. How would you say technology has changed the art of storytelling in the last ten years for better or for worse?
I’m not really qualified to opine on how digital and/or social media has changed the art of storytelling. Although it’s certainly changed the way we get our stories. I’ve read exactly one book on my iPhone (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night”) and a couple of others on a Kindle (“The Pregnant Widow” by Martin Amis was the first). The novels I tend to read are still written for paper and a binding, even if they’re also available in other formats. I’d wager a bet that Jennifer Egan’s recent Twitter story started its life on paper too! Storytelling has outlasted at least a few millennia of technological changes so I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg, or anyone else, can stop it.