Westfield to Appear Nov. 17 as part of CSM's Connections Literary Series
LA PLATA, Md. - Bryans Road native and author/playwright Robert Westfield is returning to Maryland and the College of Southern Maryland as part of a national book tour for his first novel "Suspension." Westfield's novel has been described by author Michael Cunningham as "a beauty of a book that delves with almost frightening acuity into culture, sexual identity and violence on both personal and global levels, among other vitally important matters. The fact that (Westfield) is able to do so while creating fully human, comic and tragic characters, and to move them through a compelling story, is little short of a miracle."
Westfield will read excerpts from "Suspension" and participate in a question and answer session as part of CSM's Connections Literary Series on Nov. 17, at 7:30 at CSM's La Plata Campus, Center for Business and Industry, Room BI-113.
Westfield is an alumnus of Columbia University where he won two college playwriting prizes, as well as a fiction award and the Henry Evans Traveling Fellowship which funded a writing/research trip to Greece and Italy. Following graduation he juggled catering, working as a temp and leading tours of New York while writing for the theater. His plays include "A Wedding Album," "The Pennington Plot," "A Tulip Economy" and "A Home Without." He was the writer-in-residence for The Working Group and a dramaturge on Marc Wolf's award-winning solo play, "Another American: Asking and Telling." Westfield currently lives in upper Manhattan where he is at work on his latest novel and a new play. "Suspension" is his first novel.
In preparation for CSM's Connections program, Westfield discussed his novel, post 9-11 New York and memories of growing up in Southern Maryland.
CSM: In "Suspension," your character Andy Green isolates himself from the rest of the world. Do you think Americans in general are becoming more isolationist? And if so, what political, social and environmental influences are causing it?
Westfield: In my novel, Andy withdraws from the world before 9/11, thinking it will be safer to interact less with the outside world, but since his life is tightly intertwined with those beyond his door, he is eventually forced back into the action. This was more a reflection of the country in 2001. If you can remember the campaign promises of 2000 and the first nine months of the Bush presidency, there was a real movement towards isolationism, marked by a reluctance to sign international treaties or enter into coalitions. That was all radically altered by the events of September 11th. The foreign policy of September 10th was completely revised by the 12th.
When writing the book, though, the concept of isolation grew into an exploration of self-absorption. I'm thinking of Americans who had never heard of the Taliban before September 11th. I'm thinking of the shocking statistics about how few Americans have passports or have ever traveled out of the country, or how few can locate Iraq on a map or name five foreign heads of state. I'm thinking of the barrage of news updates we're still enduring about Paris Hilton compared to the occasional reference to the atrocities in Darfur. There's a dearth of international news at a time when so many important things are happening.
There's a strain of self-absorption that runs through Andy, though not entirely without reason-he was violently attacked on the street outside of his apartment and is subsequently living in a state of fear. He, and others, would justify his retreat by calling it self-preservation, but closing yourself off from the events outside leads to a limited worldview. The journey of the book is Andy's journey toward empathy and the effort to see through the eyes of others. I think and hope this is the human journey as well.
CSM: Recently Slate magazine had novelists Walter Kirn and Gary Shteyngart discuss the role of fiction in the internet age (http://www.slate.com/id/2151004/entry/2151016/), during their first exchange Mr. Shteyngart wrote,
"The questions may well be: Who has the patience and inclination to read these (often lengthy) works, when so many Americans are already involved in their own electronic, Wikipedian journeys? And in a society driven by selfishness and the need to stand out on the false bright stage of reality television or on the pulsating Nintendo or MySpace screen, who has the empathy to travel into another person's mind?"
As someone who is just entering the novel fray, what do you think of Mr. Shteyngart's statement, what do you think the place of the novel is in society, and do you see it changing in the future?
Westfield: I read that interview. One of my favorite parts was when Kirn chronicled all of his morning Internet activity and then said, "
when I go back over the morning's dramas, I realize that most of them occurred offstage, which leads me to question whether I, or anyone, is the protagonist of his own story." That could be jacket copy for "Suspension" since what I call "diminishing protagonism"-the shrinking role you play in your own life-is a prominent part of the story and how it is told.
But to answer the question, as someone entering the fray, I try to cast everything in a more positive light. Yes, there is an enormous amount of time consumed by our new technology. I'm amazed by how much of my week I spend maintaining my electronic equipment-hotsynching, downloading, uploading, saving, backing up and charging-and how much time I spend answering emails and posting comments and keeping up with certain news and blogs, but then again there have always been distractions-television, chemotherapy, hungry children, raids by the Cossacks-that have gotten in the way of sitting down with a good book.
I think I'm also a little more optimistic, because I've been writing for theater for so long and find publishing much healthier. It's far more likely that someone will turn the computer off and read a few chapters of a book than leave their home and attend a play. Or if they do go to the theater, it's a special occasion, which involves a limo ride, a new outfit, a lengthy dinner and post-show drinks before returning home and turning on the computer until their next birthday.
When I get overwhelmed by the shrinking readership in our country, or become overly concerned with sales, I try to remind myself that books are written for individuals. When I read a novel, I'm entering the world of the author; it's a one-on-one relationship. I don't judge the book on how it affects others, I judge the book on how it moves or changes me. I'm indebted to all the writers who have changed my individual, solitary life by showing me the minds and hearts of others and by helping me find my place in the world. When I write fiction, I imagine one person, that ideal reader, sitting down with my book and entering that world and being moved or changed by my words.
That said-I can't lie-I wish more people made it a point to carve some time out of their week to read fiction, because I don't know of any other art form that better exercises that muscle of empathy, which seems to be pretty underdeveloped these days.
CSM: Your novel deals with the emotional aftermath of 9/11 and the book you are currently writing is based on tourism in the area. What changes have you seen in post 9/11 tourism?
Westfield: The number of visitors is supposedly back to that of 2000, which was 40 million, second only to Orlando, though I don't know if it feels that way. There are many international visitors because the exchange rate is so phenomenal for them, and there are also younger kids on the school trips because the city has become so safe in terms of crime. Changes since 9/11? Obviously, Ground Zero is a mandatory stop in a way that the World Trade Center never was. And it has been fascinating to notice how people in the country respond so differently to 9/11. There also appears to be a different time table for emotional healing depending on where people are from, which makes sense. People who live in New York, and I imagine the DC area, had to process it faster in order to find stability again and continue living in regions that have multiple targets and will always be under threat.
CSM: As someone who has written both plays and a novel what is the best way, you find, to write dialog?
Westfield: Quickly. For me, there needs to be a rhythm to the conversation, and the characters have to speak for themselves. Sometimes, I go for long walks and talk out loud, playing all the parts, which is easier in New York. I remember being stared at in the Safeway parking lot in Bryans Road one summer while I was back from college (although these days anyone can hang a wire or Bluetooth from their ear and pretend to be talking on the phone). Other times, I sit at the computer and just let myself go, knowing what I need the scene to accomplish and hoping the characters agree with me but remaining open to the fact that what they think is more important. I know I'm onto something when I feel as though I'm just typing-laughing out loud at something a character says or being surprised when a character comes up with a word I didn't even think was in my vocabulary. I check the dictionary and, sure enough, the character was right. Those are spooky moments, but help to validate my own personal method of drafting-if I've done enough preparation, I can plunge into the story and get out of the characters' way.
CSM: Who is your favorite living author at the moment and why?
Westfield: The hardest question in every interview and you're only allowing ONE writer. I can't do it. I CAN'T DO IT! There are too many. I can't even make a list of ten without feeling as if I'm making a painful, glaring omission.
CSM: You are known for giving tours of New York, what is your favorite piece of New York trivia?
Westfield: I'll give you five since I didn't answer the last question.
If New York City were a state, it would be the 12fth most populous in the country, but because the residents live in apartment buildings and take public transportation, for per-capita energy use, the city/state would rank 51st.
The amount of concrete used to build the Hoover Dam is put into the city every 18 months.
Staten Island is home to the largest manmade structure in the world with more cubic feet than the Great Wall of China. The Fresh Kills landfill-where New York sent its garbage for 50 years-is 3,000 acres stacked 12 stories high. Part of the reason it closed was because it was obstructing the view of pilots going in and out of Newark airport. The garbage is now sent to other states and it costs the city over $800,000 a day to get rid of its trash.
The New York Stock Exchange dedicates an enormous amount of electricity to its computer system. The only company in the world that utilizes more electricity is NASA.
A recent bit that I love has to do with cats who leap from high-rise apartment buildings in futile attempts to catch a bird. Because they relax in free fall, they can survive terrifying plunges after jumping through a window. The world record-breaking cat who jumped and lived to meow about it fell from the 46th floor of a high-rise on 42nd and 9th. He landed on the mezzanine level, so technically he only fell 45 floors, but I think it's still impressive.
CSM: What are your current obsessions as a writer?
Westfield: I discovered many of my current obsessions while writing "Suspension." One is the human tendency to believe in, commit to and act on information that isn't at all, in any way, true. I'm also obsessed with interconnectedness, intolerance and empathy, learning and teaching, loss of control and the accompanying fear
I'll stop myself. I have lots of obsessions.
CSM: You grew up in Maryland, what do you remember most about the region and do you still have family and friends living here?
Westfield: I lived in Bryans Road from the time I was nine until I was 18, formative years and a fertile period for any writer. Many of the memories I have in my storehouse-the images I pull up whenever I need to imagine a place or character in a book, or song, or poem-come from Charles County. If there is a scene set in an indoor swimming pool, it is almost always the pool at the Charles County Community College (now CSM). If there's a reference to an elementary school, I see the hallways of J.C. Parks. A reference to archery? It's the yard next to Matthew Henson Junior High. Soccer? The field in Pomonkey on a cold fall day. It goes on and on. Whether I'm reading a book by a British novelist about an academic community in Massachusetts or a wintertime story set in the countryside of France, Southern Maryland often permeates the experience.
Family and friends? My parents, who lived here for over 20 years, recently retired and now live on a golf course in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina but they visit Maryland frequently. My brother is in L.A. I still have many friends of the family, former church members and classmates and teachers as well. It's not a fluke that I dedicated "Suspension" to Pete Troiano, who was my Latin and English teacher at Lackey High School. He was instrumental in setting me on the path to New York and writing. I'm looking forward to my trip to Maryland in November and see it as a real homecoming. I remember setting out to be "a writer in the Big City" and to return as a published novelist is validation for that 18-year-old with a dream.
Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $2, general admission. Tickets are available the night of each reading. For information call, 301-934-7864 or 301-870-3008, Ext. 7864 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7864 for St. Mary's County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 for Calvert County or visit http://www.csmd.edu/Connections/ .