David Evanier’s lifetime in print
By Jerry Weinstein
As a writer, David Evanier has enjoyed brief interludes in the limelight co-writing Joey “Pants” Pantoliano’s memoir, seeing his Bobby Darin biography “Roman Candle” adapted for film by Kevin Spacey. And while this former Villager and Paris Review editor is regarded within the literary community as a master of stripped-down technique, for the most part, he’s been a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of writer, putting in the long hours and working across a range of genres including non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. “The Great Kisser,” Evanier’s latest work in his nearly fifty-year career, is not merely a collection of short stories, it’s eight interlocking tales about New York writer Michael Goldberg, a doppelganger for Evanier. We spoke recently about his “novel in stories.”
You’ve written a tragicomic novel on Ethel & Julius Rosenberg, and bios of singers Jimmy Roselli and Bobby Darin. Can there possibly be a thread throughout such an eclectic body of work?
It’s been a lifetime in print the tracing of an emotional life, intersecting with historical events, because I was involved with so many of them. Trying to make sense of my personal history and the historical. There are two sides to me, even three. I do political journalism, showbiz bios, and what’s most important to me I do fiction.
“The Great Kisser” is indeed packaged as a work of fiction, yet parts of your own life do seep in.
Fiction can be a thin line between memoir and creative invention. I really don’t give a fuck about those definitions because long ago I realized that all that counts is that the words spring up from the page powerfully.
In “The Tapes,” which opens “Kisser,” Solomon, your aptly-named psychiatrist, bequeaths your central character thirty years’ worth of recorded sessions, giving him the rare opportunity to literally retrace his memories. How is your own writing process a catalyst for personal reflection?
Each book is an epiphany. Overall, as I wrote in “Kisser,” I can reflect: “Why have I been so lucky in this life, this Jew who came after the Holocaust?” Each book is also a catharsis. I wanted to be a singer, which explains the Bobby Darin and Jimmy Roselli.
In “The Great Kisser,” then, it seems that you very much wanted to be a son.
Although I’m writing about it in fiction fiction being a higher form of truth this did happen to me. The tapes bring back memories that were suppressed, leading to a much deeper understanding of one’s entire life that I would have forgotten or buried. These have bubbled to the surface. I feel very lucky; this happens to almost nobody.
To what extent, then, did these tapes revise your impression of your parents?
After listening to the tapes, I understand that my parents both loved and hated me. But my father saved my life; my mother would have let me go under. The problem was he wanted to save me to keep me for himself. As he said, “I gave up women for you.” I’ve come to understand also that my experience was not all that uncommon, that others went through worse and many do not survive either literally or psychically. I survived. What the tapes also gave me was a deep sense of gratitude for all of my mentors, shrinks, friends, teachers, who went so far out of their way to make sure I would not fail.
In “The Great Kisser” you go into some detail about how you would talk on the phone your parents had a party line every day to absolute strangers.
I would phone blacklisted actors and express my solidarity. At the age of eight! After seeing Belle Baker perform, for whom Irvin Berlin wrote “Blue Skies,” I phoned her. Her first words to me were: “Are you an orphan, child?”
And I understand that George Plimpton discovered you as a fiction writer?
He called me from a plane after reading one of my stories. He first published “Cancer of the Testicles,” which won the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and later asked me to be the fiction editor of the Paris Review.
Finally, when you speak of a blurring in your writing between fiction and memoir, what do you make of the public’s current appetite to devour the backstory of the artist?
The work has to stand on its own merit. I detest the impulse people have to find out whether it’s a true story it’s irrelevant. Bukowski lived a wild life, but the writing is terrific, it’s the real thing. Mailer, as talented as he is, we’re gonna remember the life.
David Evanier (davidevanier.com) will read from “The Great Kisser” on Dec. 19 at the Cornelia Street Café, 212-989-9319.