The Common, a literary magazine based in Amherst, Mass., is about to release its fourth issue, including one of my stories, "Doleo Ergo Sum." This is one story in a cycle of sixteen I have written extending The Brothers Karamazov from 19th century Russia to 20th century America. (Six of these stories have been published by now, including a novella.) The Common's editors asked to interview me about my writing and life, and I thought the text, directly below, would be interesting to Red Room readers.
Q: You've written two novels and a novella. Which was the hardest book for you to write?
A: The Man Clothed in Linen was the hardest book to write by far. I became engrossed in the intersecting histories of Herod the Great and his family, Augustus Caesar, Cleopatra, Antony, Tiberius Caesar and my project of relating Jesus to these times as a man--a genius like Gautama Buddha, but a man. I spent years interpreting the phenomenon of Jesus and creating a narrative that led from his birth to his death along New Testament lines without attributing divinity to him. One of the trickiest challenges was mastering the differences and commonalities of the four Gospels. One of the greatest pleasures was falling in love with some of my characters: John the Baptist; Joanna, wife of Herod Antipas’s steward; and Nicolas of Damascus, whose perspective controls much of the novel.
Q: Your short story "Doleo Ergo Sum", which appears in Issue 4 of The Common, explores the relationship of a young narrator and several characters from The Brothers Karamazov. Would you consider your story historical fiction or an homage to Dostoevsky? Or perhaps literary fan-fiction?
A: I think of everything I write as literary fiction, whether it has roots in historical events or literary phenomena. I use history extensively but don’t feel excessively tied down to it. For me, literature possesses its own reality, and that’s what literary-minded writers seek to explore. We don’t write “about” things; we use words and stories to create unique experiences for readers of our work. That’s what Dickens and Styron and Faulkner and countless others have done for me. In the case of “Doleo Ergo Sum” and its sister tales (there are sixteen altogether), I definitely have enjoyed taking some of Dostoevsky’s characters beyond The Brothers Karamazov. That’s what he wanted to do. Unfortunately, he died before he could put his ideas on paper.
Q: When did you first read Dostoevsky?
A: I first read Dostoevsky when I was seventeen. Crime and Punishment was on my high school’s summer reading list. I’ve been reading him ever since. He was an extraordinarily complex literary genius, a man of great flaws, great faith, and great energy. When you go into his world, you’re there from the first page to the last.
Q: You mentioned you've spent the last 25 years living overseas. Would you mind telling us a little about your work?
A: For most of the time, I was a Foreign Service officer directing information and cultural programs, including Fulbright commissions, youth exchanges, libraries, speaker series, and media relations. My agency was the U.S. Information Agency, and I was posted in Bolivia, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico and Germany. Now the U.S. Information Agency is a part of the State Department, which I think is a mistake. There needs to be some room for cultural and intellectual activities to flourish independent of foreign policy constraints. My colleagues and I maintained contacts throughout society; we had our own budget authority, our own facilities, and the ability to keep up relations with people traditional diplomats tended not to cultivate. Two examples from Mexico: Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. We didn’t deviate from foreign policy positions, but we definitely enriched them.
Q: Where was your most dangerous assignment?
A: In 2004 I had retired from the Foreign Service but was asked to come back to assist in returning sovereignty to Iraq at the end of our occupation. I wrote Nights in the Pink Motel about my experiences. The insurgency was spiking and we weren’t even certain about whom we were fighting...or why. I functioned as a strategist, helping coordinate the political, military and economic dimensions of our efforts. The danger level was breathtaking. There was plenty of rough stuff earlier in my career, but in Iraq the Foreign Service entered an entirely new level of engagement. Previously, we would have been pulled out of a country that turbulent, not sent to serve there. Mortar fire, bullets, car bombs and rockets were a feature of daily life and so were improvised explosive devices (IEDs). I was trained to use automatic weapons, shotguns, and handguns for self-protection and issued substantial body armor as well. At one point I was evacuated from Baghdad on a litter with a life threatening medical condition and then was foolhardy or stubborn enough to go back because the ambassador and commanding general wanted me on board. This sort of thing has continued to happen in Afghanistan, and of course, it is what cost the lives of the ambassador and his colleagues in Benghazi, Libya.
Q: How have your travels impacted your writing?
A: I have learned to be at home anywhere in the world, and I see the world as one world, just as I see literature as the world’s literature with multiple influences effortlessly crossing borders that do nothing to impede the imagination. If I want to write about a place or time I have not experienced, it isn’t hard for me to put myself there. I’ve mastered a number of languages, largely gotten over the typical American’s ethnocentricity, and feel free to travel mentally even when I’m here in Virginia physically.
Q: Many government personnel write non-fiction, but fewer seem drawn to fiction writing. Have you observed any relationship between political ambition and creative ambition?
A: Political ambition extinguishes creative ambition with very few exceptions. Why? Because politics is about setting limits to things, negotiating agreements, making compromises and nudging “reality” forward, if possible, in tiny little increments. Creative ambition won’t put up with that; if you’re creative, you’re a risk taker who wants more, much more. You write because that’s what you were born to do and you won’t compromise, give up or give in. Politics, in a sense, is a socially “agreed” activity. Art isn’t. A true politician has a very tough time dealing with the daily free-fall of the imagination. A true artist has a very tough time simply developing an audience and making a living.
Q: In the way that Dostoevsky’s art has lasted more than a 130 years, what American writers do you hope people will be reading in 2042?
A: My list goes this way: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, some of John Updike, some of Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Walker Percy, William Gass, William Styron, and Wallace Stegner. If we add Canadians to the mix, I’d include Alice Munro and some of Margaret Atwood.
Q: You live in Arlington, Virginia. Why isn't there a so-called "Great D.C. Novel" or is there and we're just not talking about it?
A: There is no “Great D.C. Novel.” Lately I’ve been working on a series of D.C. stories that partially explain why: D.C. is a truly bizarre place--vanilla on the outside, tarantulas, snakes, and howler monkeys on the inside. I’ve lived in and around D.C. for thirty years or so because it’s been my home base between foreign assignments. The arrogance, naiveté, pretension, and sheer mass of the federal government (all three branches plus the Beltway Bandits and lobbyists and NGOs, etc.) is wild. I’ve met more certifiable nuts here than anywhere else, many in high office. I sometimes tell myself that I should write the “Great D.C. Novel” and maybe I’ll give it a try. For now, I’m just writing these biting stories, nipping at D.C.’s heels, I guess.
Q: How has “place” impacted your work?
A: As I mentioned before, I feel at home anywhere, but my spirit is most free in New Mexico, where I set a large portion of my first novel, The Way Home. I’ve spent a lot of time in that multi-cultural, beautiful state, and I love just about everything to be found there. I’d say I really know Spain well but have not written about it and am not sure why. There are a lot of different places I’ve built into my post-Karamazov stories: London (love it), San Francisco (love it), New York City (fascinated by it but don’t love it), Berlin (intrigued by it but don’t love it), and Dostoevsky’s imaginary Skotoprigonyevsk (a very difficult place.) Place does get under my skin. One thing I rue is that I write inside; I’m much more “me” outside hiking in the woods, or kayaking on a river, or riding my bike just about anywhere.
Q: Your novella “Thank You, No. We’re Well,” following in a series of post-Karamazov stories, was recently released by The Piker Press. How did this project get started? How did you decide to take it beyond its first story?
A: The whole post-Karamazov cycle got its start when I wrote a story called “The Ashtray” (published in Green Hills Literary Lantern) about Chekhov, one of my favorite writers. In “The Ashtray” I discovered that I could “throw my voice,” as it were, meaning that I have read so much Russian fiction I can imitate its rhythms and locutions and really enjoy doing it. From there I went to the first post-Karamazov story, “Chekhov’s Confession” (published in The Puritan). Again Chekhov played a leading role, but so did Alexei and Dmitri Karamazov. After that, I wrote “Doleo Ergo Sum,” bringing Ivan Karamazov into the picture. Soon I was developing the next generation and the generation after that and the generation after that. The texturing and ironies of multi-generational fiction fascinate me. I wouldn’t say all these stories and novellas “wrote themselves,” but once I was off, I was off. Every time I finished one story, the next one came calling on me at about four in the morning, when I usually wake up and start experiencing that imaginative free-fall I alluded to earlier.
Q: What are you working on today?
A: Today I happened to be polishing a post-Karamazov novella called “The Mountain,” which focuses on Alexei Karamazov’s son, Aaron, and his daughter, Deborah. Now I’ve got to go in search of a publisher who’ll take it on. Suggestions are welcome. And thanks very much for your good questions.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund