Mathias Freese, author of Down to a Sunless Sea and The i Tetralogy, was kind enough to answer a few questions for us. This interview took place over the course of several emails.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book? If so, could you tell us a little bit about that?
Mathias Freese: No, I’ve never stolen a book.
B: Have you ever borrowed a book without returning it–purposefully or not?
MF: The amount of guilt for both of these questions, as a young boy, would be too much to bear; and then obsessing about it enters the picture and I’d end up in central casting auditioning for a role in The Possessed.
B: What are you currently reading?
MF: Dan Wakefield’s, New York in the Fifties. Living in Arizona, a geriatric Disneyland, I remember well Brooklyn – Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Coney Island. I grew up in the Fifties and Wakefield evokes the literary times very well – Ginsburg, Kerouac, Mailer – as well as the cultural sensibilities of the time. I was too young for all this but reading about it evokes Greenwich Village, egg creams, and a great bialy.
B: What are you writing right now?
MF: I am editing a novel, my first, written more than two decades ago. Sojourner is a philosophical tale dealing with the emigration of a young Chinese farmer to the Mountain of Gold (California) as it was called.
B: Sojourner sounds interesting. Is it research-based historical fiction? (Perhaps you hate to classify what you write into a specific genre, of course). Tell us more.
MF: Sojourner began as a 30 page short story in the years 1969 to 1972; I was working on a federal project dealing with racial-ethnic relations in the town of Freeport, on Long Island, NY. I had met a Chinese-American librarian who had written on the emigration to Gum Shan, Mountain of Gold. I researched only details that would be useful for verisimilitude, such as Gum Shan, and began a short story about the subject. The book ultimately reflects my own philosophical needs and emotional cravings for meaning. When submitted to publishers as a novel for young adults almost all of them wrote that I had made an error, and that this fiction was serious and for adults. Who knew? I do believe that the writer is the last to truly appreciate his work. The i Tetralogy which began in 1996, is a more thoroughly researched book , and it is a historical fiction on the Holocaust based on my experiences as an American Jew. I had read a significant amount of the literature on the Holocaust with no intent of being a writer. If you read my “On the Holocaust” in the Pages section of my website, you will get a rather complete statement of my point of view.
B: The Marxist critic Theodor Adorno famously declared: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” How do you interpret this remark?
MF: Adorno’s comment was of its time. I feel what he means, how can we allow beauty in the presence of such unspeakable evil! However, it does not make sense. When you write you metabolize feelings – all kinds – thoughts, experiences and all the rest. When the ancients passed down Homer’s Odysseus orally, the words saturated the listener with meaning and continuity. We must write about the Holocaust until the end of time, although we face psychological resistance every step of the way. I have faced this with The i Tetralogy. One of the most significant gifts of Judaism to civilization is memory. We do not forget – and most assuredly, we do not “put it behind us,” one of the more inane “truisms” in this culture – re: Mel Gibson and Jesse Jackson. Adorno is dead wrong.
B: The back of your book, Down to a Sunless Sea, mentions that you worked for over twenty-five years as a social worker and psychotherapist. Several of the stories in the book seem to explore explicitly psychoanalytical themes, yet these themes are never overstated. Is this purposeful?
MF: I have been accused of being too clinical; I think that is unfair. I use my therapeutic insights when I can while integrating them with my psychological and emotional wisdoms (if that) and try to make a story. I recall covering for a teacher in an eleventh grade class. He was teaching Oedipus Rex. I asked him if I could treat it the way I wanted to. He agreed. In class, in a small review, the students told me that they were up to where Oedipus scratches out his eyeballs, consequently the interpretation was stressed that he chose not to see – and how very symbolic that was. I asked them if they were opened to another way of looking at it. I shared that to me it was a case of displacement. Duh! In effect, he was castrating himself. Titters and titters. I went on to say that they touch their eyes now and make an observation. Finally, one student said that they felt like balls. And away we go! The next day the teacher was bent out of shape because he had heard that I said that Oedipus ripped out his eyes, in effect, his balls. I am sure some students came away believing that balls evolve from eye sockets. Why should I give up insight (no pun intended) no matter where it comes from?
B: I teach eleventh-graders, actually. You never know what weird mutation of what you discussed that they will commit to memory forever. Do you enjoy being in a classroom? Have you ever taught fiction writing? What do you think of MFA programs?
MF: I was terribly misplaced in that career. The consensus was that I was a terrific teacher but I detested the rules, the administration and the deadness. You read “Nicholas.” He has it right. So I studied to become a therapist and it worked very well for me, my craft and my self. I have taught seminars on fiction writing and if you go to the site you will see a course description and in the Pages section there are short essays all dealing with writing. Go nosh. As to MFA programs I have a simple premise: if it is organized, go elsewhere. Same feelings I have about religion, et al. I cannot think of any world class writer who has a MFA. What about good old suffering and pain as a motivator?
B: Many of the stories in Down to a Sunless Sea utilize a very tight, condensed prose style. How much do you edit out of your work?
MF: I like this question in that it touches upon something I truly believe in. Some writers secrete out paragraphs per day. I can’t handle that anality. I write, let us say, 10 pages knowing full well I cut back to maybe 4. The art of writing is revise, revise and revise. I like pruning the story tree so that new growth is inaugurated. Like poetry, which I find, of course, the most condensed of writing, I believe stories should be very tight – let the reader infer rather than I tell. Indeed, one reviewer complained she couldn’t understand the stories, at least in her first reading. Good. Get back to it and reread it. I am not fooling around here and I deserve a better reading if you feel there is more to my stories than Oprahesque fluff.
B: When you re-read “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Father Was a Nazi” now, do you consider it prescient? How do you think Arnie turned out?
MF: I had a sense about Arnie, of that tom tom in his character, that immigrant feeling that America can be tamed and domesticated to one’s own ends. I associate to Daniel Day-Lewis [in] There Will Be Blood, that tornadic energy to succeed, ambition on speed. In many ways Arnie is an athletic Algeresque character. I was not conscious of making any predictions, but it did feel to me, on a gut level, that he had other measures and goals to achieve and one of them is to marry into a famous family and all the rest. He is a delightful social climber who has denied, at least in the media, his background. I can write about Arnie because I don’t know him and that is the freedom of the writer. Give a writer one telling detail and the rest is extrapolation; think Kafka.
B: You maintain a website, www.mathiasbfreese.com. Do you write certain pieces specifically for the site? Corollary–How does your writing change when you write specifically for hypertext publishing?
MF: Blogging is new to me and I find it frustrating that so few people respond, given that I have had over 8400 hits; something is awry. Nevertheless, I enjoy writing every few days to keep my skills sharp. I am presently sharing a memoir about a fire on Mt. Lemmon in Tucson; it is filled with reflections, moods, sadnesses, and philosophy. Who cares if the reader is bored? I like it. I think the blog is excellent for short pieces, mini essays, faction. The reader gets bored with long pieces, but who knows in this new century of the Borg.