American writer Jake Lamar visited Bill & Rosa’s Book Room on March 12 to discuss his latest novel, Viper’s Dream. He is an American author who has lived in Paris for almost 30 years, he teaches creative writing at Sciences Po and is the author of a memoir, seven novels, numerous essays, reviews and short stories and a play. He is also the recipient of several prestigious prizes, among which the Lyndhurst Prize and France’s Grand Prize for best foreign thriller. This is the first part of our interview with him:
Q: You started out as a journalist for Time Magazine, so my question is, have you always wanted to be a writer and have you always known you wanted to write ficiton?
A: I’ve known since the age of 12 that I wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to write fiction. The job at Time Magazine was just a way to make a living as a writer. I went to Harvard and majored in American History and Literature, I wrote for the Harvard Crimson and took creative writing classes four out of my eight semesters and finally, it was thanks to a professor of mine, Robert Coles, I dedicated The Last Integrationist to him, he knew a writer at Time Magazine, named Roger Rosenblatt and he introduced me to him. They gave me a chance, I started out on a 6 month trial as a writer. Time had a weird system back then, where they had writers in New York and reporters all over the world. My job for most of the six years meant getting reportages from the Middle east, Washington D.C. and I would put it all together and write it up in the famous Time style. It was a writing job and I was thrilled to be making a living as a writer. I always knew I wanted to go on to write books. As soon as I got the contract for my first book, I quit the job at Time Magazine.
Q: You’ve mentioned Chester Himes as one of your main influences, what other influences do you have?
A: Himes is a rather late influence, I only read a book by him when I was 40, which is incredible because I feel a resonance with his work, but I discovered him quite late. When I was very young, I loved Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. The first short story I ever wrote, which I wrote when I was 12, was a murder mystery set in a mansion on the English moors. Around 12 or 13, I read four works which really changed the course of my life: Black Boy, by Richard Wright, which is his memoir of growing up in Mississippi at the beginning of the 20th century, The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, her first novel, A Raisin in the Sun, which is a play by a writer named Lorraine Hansberry and Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel. What blew me away about these works was that this was the first time that I was seeing people like myself, like my family or friends, just ordinary African Americans in literature. I’d been reading Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes and all of a sudden there were people like us in books. That’s when I really got the urge to write and understood that you didn’t have to write murder mysteries, you could write about your own world, your own life. That’s when I really realised I wanted to be a writer. There were many other influences, I could talk about it all day. Another one that comes to mind is Ralph Ellison, with Invisible Man. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller had a huge influence on me, because that was really the first time I understood satire, that you could write about World War II in a darkly humorous way. That had a tremendous impact on me, I see how it’s influenced my own writing and my view of the absurdity of life. I think it comes from that book.
Q: You mentioned earlier Go Tell It on the Mountain, if I’m not mistaken, this is the book that made you want to come to Paris?
A: Yes, I read that book, it’s a very autobiographical novel, it’s about Baldwin who grew up in a difficult family in Harlem, I was growing up in a difficult family in the Bronx, I loved this book and I asked my teacher who James Baldwin was. The first thing he said was “He lives in Paris”. It seemed like such an exotic idea to me, that someone with that background could live in Paris. A few weeks later, I read Black Boy, by Richard Wright and I found out that he lived in Paris too. Later, I discovered Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller and I wondered what was the appeal of this place for American writers. I came out of curiosity. Bourgeois Blues, my first book won a prize in 1992, it was a three-year grant, enough to live on, so I thought this is my chance to live in Paris. I got here in 1993 and thought I would stay for a year. I loved it right away and met a poet, Ted Joans and I met many interesting people through him, an international group of artists and writers. I stayed a second year and then a third year and at the end of the third year I met la femme de ma vie and decided to stay. One of the things that I find interesting here is the tremendous respect for the arts in general and for writers in particular. When I started getting published in France, in 2003, it opened up a whole new world to me. There’s a book festival going on somewhere in France every weekend. Since I go back and forth from general literature to crime fiction, I get invited to all kinds of festivals, for romans noirs, general literature, or international festivals so I meet writers from all over the world. American writers are always amazed at how passionate the French are about reading and writing. One story I’ve told before that shows the difference between the American and French attitudes toward writers is when I meet a French person for the first time and I tell them I’m a writer, their first question is “What do you write?”. If I meet an American person for the first time and I tell them I’m a writer, their first question is “Would I have heard of you?” That’s very revealing, because the French are interested in writing, Americans want to know if you’re famous, rich, successful, did Oprah pick your book… Writing has no intrinsic value to Americans. It’s part of why I’ve been so happy to make a life here. I feel that my métier is really respected here.
Q: Viper’s Dream was a play before it was a novel, so I was wondering whether it was your first radio play and how was it different from writing a novel?
A: My first piece for the radio was an adaptation, Brothers in Exile, a play about Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes. It was written for the stage and I was having trouble getting it staged and a friend of mine suggested the radio and introduced me to a producer at France Culture, so I had to make several revisions on the stage version to make it work for the radio, knowing that with radio you can’t see, you can’t have too much physical action, or the listeners will be lost. My first experience writing for the radio was adapting Brothers in Exile and I really enjoyed the form, I thought it was terrific hearing it and how that worked on the imagination of the listener. Viper’s Dream went back and forth, I had a detailed outline for the novel, then the possibility of writing it for the radio came along so I did a separate outline. There are several differences between writing for the radio and writing a full-blown novel, first of all, everything has to be conveyed through dialogue, it’s really hard to write long descriptive passages for the radio and there is also the time limit. Each episode had to be 25 minutes long so you’re writing in a box and have to make sure that you get all the information across, that there is sufficient action, a cliffhanger at the end of each episode for the listener to want to tune in the next day. The most difficult thing I’d say was the time limit. The novel is much more expansive, there is so much more about the history of Harlem in the novel and long scenes where you get to know the characters well.
Stay tuned for the second part of this interview on 2 June!