What's the best part of being an author?
The chance to create anything is an unmatched experience. I chose to create with words. Some folks choose to create with tile, or cheese. If you write for any other purpose but to create, including the bestseller list, windfall, or literary groupies, you've likely been misinformed.
What inspired you to write Cats in a Chowder?
You mean, aside from my own madness? The process of creating, of being a writer, and this quest to give life to a book, is how I have perceived myself since I was fifteen or so. (Before that I perceived myself to be Paul McCartney.) Now that it's done, I am reminded what Twain said through Huck Finn, "If I'd known how hard it was to write a book, I wouldn't have." Of course that intimates I could control it, which I can't.
What is the meaning of the title, Cats in a Chowder?
Cats in a Chowder is the over-arching metaphor of the novel, a metaphor for something (someone) simmering in its own deception. It is the image that kept emerging as I conceived each of these characters to be unwittingly consumed by their own secrets. I envisioned an unsuspecting cat climbing on the stove where the fish chowder has just begun cooking. The pot is cool at first, and the cat, full of larceny, climbs in to steal dinner. He stays and eats, acclimating to the slowly rising temperature. Little does he know that even as he's eating the fruit of his deception, he himself is being cooked.
How closely does the book mirror events and people in your own life?
Not very much. Certain characteristics of Harry and Agatha hit close to home, but not their stories. The book began with the premise, "what could have happened if my father made different decisions?"
As a character, though, Harry soon took on a life of his own. In fact, by the end of the book Harry is much more me than my father, which I found very interesting given the initial premise of the book. (A shrink would have a field day.) In fact, if you're paying attention, Book Two has a not-so-subtle shift in perspective. To understand why, let me offer a little backdrop.
I had taken a long sabbatical in 1999-2001 during which I accomplished two major things I planned to in my life: 1) Write my first novel 2) Build my own house with my own hands. To accomplish these two things I moved my family from suburban Orlando to the isolated Adirondacks (something Harry wanted to do, LI to Montana).
Building your own house (and I mean building it!) and writing a novel are two of the loneliest experiences imaginable. I found myself isolated by the place, by the tasks, by my personal drives. One might fairly say I was estranged from my wife and family as I pushed myself long days for two years to finish the first draft of the house and the first draft of the book, trying desperately to prove my decision to move the right one. By the time I reached Book Two (when the power of loneliness emerged as the principal theme) Harry was more me, than him.
The irony of it all is too much. My father found himself isolated by his sense of failure, shutting himself off from much of the world. I found myself isolated by my drive to accomplish, and by the accomplishments themselves. Ugh, maybe Cooney's father was right when he urged Cooney to join the Post Office, huh? Who needs this?
You talk a lot about being raised Catholic. What was that like for you?
Just like a fireman's carnival only with no rides, games or cotton candy. Conflicted is the best word, but I've come to understand that conflicted comes with the territory. I actually am a practicing Catholic, and my kids are too, though more by my choice than theirs. None of that is to say that I still don't scratch my head at some things, like the blessing of throats, and that kind of thing. When I was writing this book, I did some research and became aware of the Pope's acquiescence to the Nazi's in WWII. At the time, no one was talking about it at all and I found it startling… not exactly the kind of thing they teach you in Catechism, you know. But with age comes this strong ability to forgive, and in the end that is what the book is about.
In Cats in a Chowder, the father, Harry Sisler, sets several goals, including making his son into a center fielder better than, "the damn DiMaggio" – and dying by the age of 50. How often do our self-declared prophecies come true?
Well, I guess that depends on what they are. I mean if you prophesize that you will scratch your head then do it that's one thing, right? But in the case of Harry, he made two prophecies, that he would raise a professional centerfielder (hardly within is control), and that he would die promptly at the age of 50, (completely within his control, if he didn't die before then). Harry backed himself up, like any good prophet would.
The son, Robin Sisler, is initially torn by his dad wanting him to become a professional baseball player and his mom wanting him to become a priest? How does a child balance the demands of both parents?
That's easy, always listen to the dad. Honestly, if my wife heard me on the radio giving any kind of parental advice she'd light up the phone with all kinds of contrived stories about how I forgot to feed the kids for a couple of nights once, or how I picked up someone else's kid from kindergarten, and who wants to go there?
How often do we become what our parents want us to become?
Man, these are heavy questions. Too often, I suppose. My beautiful oldest daughter confessed to me the other day that she was turning in her long-term dream of being a marine biologist to become a writer. I choked on my tongue, of course, knowing this could only mean many more years of supporting her, but mostly I cringed because I feared she was somehow doing it out of a need to please me. As so often happens, though, my wife put the angst to rest, this time by handing me something my daughter had recently written. The girl can flat-out write. And my youngest too, who has won two contests already.
Robin has to search for who he is. You mention he "bumps along the heroless highways of 1970s America" in the process. Why do you feel that period of time offered few role models?
In the 70's, we pulled everything back, exposed everything, as if truth were beauty itself. No hero stands up to that. Clearly Nixon and the war killed a lot of things American - hell, they turned the country into a Scorsese film - but what they killed most was the ability to believe anything without proof. I use Harry's truth of DiMaggio during WWII to illustrate the death of American heroes, death by truth.
Are we each heroes in our own right?
Yes. I doubt there's one among us who hasn't pulled someone else's head out of the proverbial bilge somewhere along the way, or blessed someone's day by leaving the last napkin in the holder at McDonalds. As for me, whenever I am called upon to be a hero, to pull a baby out of a fire or stop a spaceship from falling on Chicago, I remember what my H.S. baseball coach said to me as I approached the plate with bases loaded. "Freddy," he said. "Now is no time to suck." So heroism comes with a lot of pressure, and I pass his advice on to the listeners.
One of your themes in the book is that loneliness is omnipotent. What do you mean by this?
I believe loneliness is the human propellant. It causes more of our actions than greed, or love because it is what we fear most, more than death itself. In fact, don't we generally rationalize death as bringing a biblical promise of a reuniting – an end to loneliness? God, I'm depressing myself.
A favorite phrase of yours is a quote from Churchill: "The truth deserves a bodyguard of lies." How so?
Churchill, of course, was talking about the WWII, and the need to classify information to protect the country. In his management of intercepted code from the Nazi's via Ultra he had to, on occasion, actually allow the sinking of a British ship in order to protect the bigger need, which was to keep secret that the Allies had broken the Nazi code, protecting the truth with lies.
In the book, I wrestle with, what is the real healing power of truth, anyway? Is truth for truth's sake of any import, if the result is worse than the lie? That is what Robin ponders in is drive through the Arctic wilderness. What he decides is that truth either serves a good or the lies are better. What he doesn't yet understand is the weight of lies. But Harry will teach him that.
Cats in a Chowder is also about how dreams die fast and hard. How do we reconcile with the fact we will never fulfill a dream that we set for ourselves?
Actually, I have been blessed in my life, able to see many dreams come true. But perhaps you're referencing the scene in the book where Cooney and Robin come to the realization at eighteen that they will never play baseball again. That scene made me cry when I wrote it because it was based on my own reconciliation, which didn't happen until spring training in 1995, I was 38. Broke my damn heart.
In the novel, Robin's brother is a draft dodger, avoiding Vietnam in the late 1960's and early 1970s. Not only did the war rip apart the nation, but it tore into families. How long did the healing process take?
Seems to me the healing is still occurring. I was in Washington recently and visited the Vietnam Memorial, and if there's any doubt about the healing continuing, you need only to see the weeping people and the gifts left behind at the wall. When I was there, someone left an old football – a signed-by-the-team game ball from the 60's – with a note saying he was making right a wrong of 40 years ago, that this game ball rightfully should have been awarded to the soldier as the star of the game. People need to exorcize stuff like that because the Vietnam War is our collective guilt, or, to put it in Catholic parlance, America's original sin, one we cannot expunge without an act of God. In the book, Sal, emerging from â€˜Nam an innocent savant, and fresh from a tour with the Yippees, is a healing catalyst … but it still took a little divine intervention to pave the way.
The protagonist takes a trip across the country that leads him to detour to Alaska. Why do we turn to the road to find ourselves, even it means "driving the endless roads that skirt the bruised soul of America"?
This is a great question, and I think the answer is, it's darn hard to find yourself while swimming.
Actually, the road trip is to Americans what the walkabout is to Aborigines, a great tradition, starting with Twain, when he sends Huck and Jim down the river. And then there's Kerouac. The fiftieth anniversary of On the Road is coming in 2007. But really, there is something about the walk-about, the journey to find oneself that is self-compelling. Homer talked about it, too.
It seems that many secrets were kept by various family members in your story. If we can't tell those that are closest to us the truth, who can we tell?
I use a discreet 800 number, and so far so good.
Let's face it, do you really know your father's full story, or your mother's? Do they really know each other's? My children don't know mine because I am trying to teach them better. My wife knows me, but what she knows of my past is only what I told her, which is all great stuff whether true or not. I remember the time I went into my father's closet for something and found a bowling bag, a bowling bag, and for the life of me I could not remember him ever bowling, nor could I ever picture him bowling. It was a small thing, but so incongruous that it gave me a lot to think about, like what else don't I know?
The father in the story loved the Dodgers when he lived in Brooklyn and was bummed when they moved to Los Angeles. Did that betrayal mirror the betrayal he felt about life in general?
I don't think Harry felt betrayed by life, just beaten by it. To him, the Dodgers leaving signified one more thing he couldn't control. So he did what most men do in that situation, put a stake (or two) in the ground to declare he would control something. There's no doubt, though, that the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn destroyed what innocence and cohesiveness Brooklyn contained. The great eastern migration to the suburbs began in 57 or 58, and it didn't stop for 40 years.
Robin's father Harry was a drunken Irish Catholic. Why have a character so stereotypical?
I never thought of Harry as stereotypical. Is he predictable? Yes, very, but that serves to make him alive in the book, the predictable man surrounded by an unpredictable world. He's alive because, among all the unique characters, he's not unique. He is not a compellation of joy, and a chowder of madness and regret, chained by all the decisions he made. I'd drink too if I was him. Hey, wait a minute…
Harry tries to escape his life and goes to work in Alaska, but believes Agatha will follow. Do we actually run in hopes of being found?
Yes. In fact, I ran away once, and like Harry no one came for me. I ended up sleeping in a phone booth at the 7-11 on a bed of Slurpee cups. Here's some advice for all you kids out there, before you run away count your brothers and sisters. If there are more than three, think twice before leaving, you run the real chance that your parents will not come to find you. Speaking of which, I need to go count mine before my wife gets home.