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Interview of Jay Gershwin

Jay Gershwin is the author of Poor Man’s Autumn, currently available for free on Amazon here.

N.B.: How did you come up with the idea of combining the highbrow themes of art and poetry with elements of an action-packed thriller?

J.G.: I blame Harper. I originally wanted to write a simple love story. But Harper (the book’s anti-heroine) grabbed the pen out of my hands and took the story in a new direction. I mean this literally. I write with pen on paper, and at the end of each day’s writing my hand ached from my attempts to keep up with Harper's maniac theories of art. She became a fascinating source of evil. The story collapsed under her narrative weight into an action-thriller narrative. She dragged the poets along with her.

Kline’s cut off ear holds fascinating power over everyone, and yet the novel never tells us exactly what this power is, it just shows us its effects. Did you intentionally leave unresolved the aspect of the ear that gives it so much power?

Yes. My favorite quote is, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." (Einstein.) This is a pretty good slogan for how I live and write. I keep the mystery a secret because I want you, the reader, to imagine it. But the clues are all there, if you look for them. For example, Kline admits that his greatest gift is his ability to “hear silence.” This ability reshapes his reality in profound and startling ways.

Similarly, did you intentionally avoid including any of the poetry from Kline’s book, Poor Man’s Autumn, to allow the reader to imagine what the great poetry must have sounded like?

Yes. Kline is based on J.D. Salinger, another master of silence. Like Kline, Salinger became a mythic figure by creating an invisible body of work. We know Salinger is a great author from his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. But in 1965 Salinger quit publishing, and continued to write "only for himself" for the next forty-five years. The public never saw the work, so we imagined an entire desk full of Catcher in the Ryes. As a result, the reality of Salinger's later work (if we ever see it) will never match the mythic dimension we’ve imagined for it. For this reason, I chose to keep the text of Kline’s poem in narrative Tupperware that never gets opened in Poor Man’s Autumn.

Silence is a key theme throughout the book, with Kline contending that his ear allows him to hear silence, “Moments that never quite take place,” and that this is “where the poetry is.” What does he mean by silence, and why does silence have so much power over the characters, from the artists in the community to Kline to Harper herself?

There are in-between moments in life when events almost, but do not, occur. For example, a great love affair can begin with a glance across a crowded room.

But what if the glance misses by a millisecond? These pockets of almostness or almost-was contain enormous vacuums of silence. For instance, all the conversations that might have taken place in that love affair: gone, as well as the children of that affair and the empires those children might have built. This is the "silence" Kline pursues in his poetry. And it’s the existential paralysis wreaked by that silence which accounts for Kline’s poetic effect. His readers become literally hypnotized by the sound, or music, of what might have been.

Kline has a huge following for his poetry, so much that fans break into his house and send sacks of letters to try and make contact with him. How did Kline build such a strong following and find so many readers? Was it because of his ear?

I’ll toss the papaya to J.D. Salinger to answer this question.

How did Salinger attract so many pilgrims to his isolated house in the woods on the basis of just four books? I think it was the power of Salinger's silence. That word again. Silence fuels mystery, which fuels the imagination. Kline becomes a mysterious icon because his first-and-only book was a hit, followed by decades of silence. The public knows Kline is still writing. But his refusal to share the book makes it legendary. Kline becomes an unlikely celebrity stalked by thousands desperate to solve the mystery.

Kline says “You don’t write because you want to write. You write because someone, or something, left you no other choice.” Is Kline’s life a lesson that “Life has a way of ruining things,” leading him to poetry since everything else failed, or is he ultimately redeemed by the great poetry he has produced?

I sometimes tell people that becoming a writer is the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.

It destroyed my social life, for one thing. It has ruined jobs, relationships, and entire cities for me. It turned me (at one point) into a social dropout living on a California mountain with only a squirrel for company. But those moments of transcendence that come during writing make all the pain and failure worth it. Kline, poor bastard, feels the same way.

Could Harper’s claim be true that she was born in 2219 and went back in time, becoming a young woman in the process?

It's possible, I suppose. Harper is larger than reality. She’s that rare person who would rather change the world than accommodate it. I'll let you imagine for yourself just how far this goes.

Is Harper’s rampant sexuality and self-aggrandizement ultimately just a reflection of her appreciating being young again?

Like most of the worst people in human history, Harper wants to totally control and consume reality. She's a power-hungry narcissist. I think her rampant sexuality is one of the ways she's developed to control the people around her.

Her body is a kind of funhouse mirror that distorts people’s perceptions of themselves. It paralyzes her lover Jake. Just as Kline's poetry can hypnotize people, so too can Harper's good looks. In that sense, funny enough, Harper's Playboy body is her only poem.

But doesn’t Harper’s hyper-sexuality arise because she is so grateful to have her youth restored? Surely, for an old woman like she really is, to become young and sensual again would lead to fully delving into one’s sexuality. Or could this be an example of silence, where Harper’s character suggests to me, the reader, that she wants to be sensual because of her age, but really this is only suggested, not stated outright, and open to other mysterious interpretations?

I think Harper’s character can be interpreted in a variety of different (and mysterious) ways.

You interpret Harper as an old woman, whose youth is temporarily restored.

This is a fascinating interpretation, one I hadn’t considered. In the anything-goes world of magical realism, your view is as valid as mine.

To my mind, Harper [SPOILER ALERT] does not truly become an old woman until the end of the book. She is a young woman until Kline reveals the end of his poem and, with it, destroys her body and reduces her to silence.

Her body, finally, is her only real form of art.

The narrator says: "She became, before our eyes, the old lady trapped inside of her." Whom or what exactly this "old lady" is can be open to wildly different interpretations.

Having said that, I don’t think my opinion is necessarily the correct opinion.

Is it possible that Harper is an old woman, restored to youth, and that Kline’s poem does not “destroy” her body, but simply sends her back to old-womanhood? Maybe so. There are hints throughout the book that suggest this.

And if so, your view that she becomes rampantly sexual to enjoy her new body is a perfectly valid (and imaginative) one.

This is a great example of how sometimes an author has no clue about what his characters mean, until a reader (like you) comes along and offers a fantastic theory. You’ve certainly expanded my perception of Harper’s old-ladyness.

Does Kline’s power over Harper come because she has so much desire to aggrandize herself, unlike a real poet, who Kline says desires nothing and “creates his own reality”? Is an overarching theme of the novel that ego destroys both oneself and others, in contrast to self-effacing silence that leads to real power?

I love the intelligence and perception of this question.

Yes, Harper tries to create her own reality, but she does it in all the wrong ways. Real poetry can't be fully controlled, and neither can reality. Kline’s grasp of this secret in both life and poetry has devastating effects on someone like Harper, who cares more for power than for truth.

For that reason, Kline’s silence acquires zen-like magnitude and power over Harper. Her pathetic and crass attempts to steal reality for her own gain are no match for a man who desires truth.

Another theme is that while people die, art survives. Is Harper trying to create something with the hypnotized artists’ art that will transcend her death and live on in tribute to her forever? Or is the only real way to live on “through [one’s] absence”?

On page four, Harper compares herself to a painting in the Louvre.

She believes that she herself is a work of art. She (like her followers) is hypnotized by her own beauty. In life or death, she wants to be remembered and revered.

So she forces her own image onto thousands of innocent artists.

But what she doesn’t understand is that real art can’t be controlled. She doesn’t understand that absence (and silence) can amount to something more durable and more memorable than any poem or painting.

As for me – I’ll take real, earned silence over the Louvre any day.

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