Interview with Eric Kraft

Eric Kraft talks about his grand creation, Peter Leroy, literary success, his day job, his alter egos, his web site, on working in hypertext, on the negative impact of standardised testing (don’t get him started), the myriad of other books he is working on, and lots more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball: Tell me about the birth of Peter Leroy.

Eric Kraft: I usually tell the story this way:

On a clear, cold February afternoon in my freshman year at Harvard, I was studying a German lesson in Lamont library, at a large table where every chair was taken, and in the overheated atmosphere of the library I dozed over the open book, with my chair tilted back on its back legs, my feet crossed and my heels resting on the edge of the table. When I woke, I was lying on the floor, with my books and papers scattered around me, and people were laughing. I gathered my things and rushed out of the library, embarrassed. In the cold air, a memory of a dream returned to me, just a snapshot from the dream, a picture of a little boy sitting on a dilapidated dock in the warmth of a sunny summer day . . .

You will find versions of that story here and there throughout the Personal History and here and there on my website. If you come to a reading, you may hear me tell a version of it in the question-and-answer period. You will also hear me admit that it is only partly true. I did fall asleep in the library and end up on the floor, for example, but it was upstairs, at a study carrel, and I doubt that anyone noticed. There was no flash of inspiration in the cold air.

Peter Leroy emerged much more slowly than the snapshot of a dream in the story, though there was always a dreamlike quality to his appearance. Finding him was more like recovering a dream that one has forgotten: you know how difficult and frustrating the effort can be. I had been trying to write about myself for a long time, about my little adventures in growing up, and I found the effort trying and unrewarding. As a memoirist, I was dishonest and self-aggrandizing. Peter began to appear around the edges of what I was trying to do, nameless at first, as if he were an acquaintance I hadn’t paid enough attention to. Very slowly I began to see that he was an alternative to me, someone who could have a life similar to mine, but someone I could allow to be less than perfect, even foolish, someone I could allow to be more like me than the person who was using my name in the memoirs I was trying to write. Over time, his past (or at least his account of it) has become less and less like mine, and he and I have become less and less alike, in the all the details, but his life and mine and he and I as a character and a person have become more and more alike in all the essentials.

MB: You’ve bemoaned the fact that despite your literary success (consistently good reviews by big publications, winning the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, etc), you aren’t a household name. You say you have no idea why this is, but do you have any thoughts about it? After all, the Booker, a purely literary prize, can turn an author into a permanent bestseller. Is it an American problem? The obsession with “bestselling” or “names” over quality?

EK: Actually, outside of my own household (where I AM a household name) I don’t bemoan my not being a household name. A Newsday writer put that moan in my mouth. However, now that you ask, I’ve decided that much of the problem arises from the work itself. I noticed that Bob Williams referred to the individual books as minor works, and I suppose that they are. What I am trying to make is one large work of fiction composed of many small parts. The parts are minor, but I am trying to glue them into a construction of some size and weight. Most readers, bookstore browsers, reviewers, and prizes focus on single books. The Dos Passos prize is an exception, and the readers who have read the entire Personal History (so far) are delightful exceptions. Add the problem of tone: the books have a surface of humor, and prize committees generally seem to think that a serious thought must wear a straight face. I think I will stop at that. I have other thoughts, but I am getting very close to complaining, and that’s just not worth the effort.

MB: Or do you think it may be a product of your books’ difficult to categorise genre?

EK: That is probably part of the problem, too. My work has become more and more difficult to categorize as it has grown. What is the genre? Shall we call it “false memoir”? Who is the author? Is this a serious work of literature? What is the tone? Is it nostalgic, comic, satirical, whimsical? People can’t quite decide. When Res Rec was published in Spain, the first of the volumes published there, reviewers saw me as chronicling the decline of American civilization, and they went right on seeing all the rest of the books as part of the chronicle. (You know what I think: I think it’s a lot like clam chowder, with tomatoes and potatoes as well as clams, a good splash of hot sauce, and some dark, gritty bits from the bellies of the clams down in the bottom of the bowl. I don’t think that’s a genre that gets taught at universities, though.)

MB: All of your books feature the hero Peter Leroy and are set in “Babbington.” What is it about Peter and Babbington that keep you returning to them?

EK: Many years ago, I might have said that it gave me an excuse to return to the scene of my own childhood, to recall my own younger self. However, as I’ve continued to write about Babbington and as Peter, the place has grown so much different from the Babylon of my childhood and the character has grown so much different from the person I was or am, that the visits now are more like the visits one makes to a familiar place that is not one’s home, another place in one’s life, visited under conditions different from those that drive us through everyday life. Visiting Babbington, and Peter, and all the people of his past is a bit like having to go to a place on business but knowing that old friends live there who will be eager to see you. There will be work to do, but there will be drinks and a good dinner and good conversation, too. You will be glad you went; you will be reluctant to leave; you’ll be happy to return.

MB: Tell me about your relationship with Peter. You’ve called him the left side of your brain. Does he have a kind of life of his own?

EK: I think he puts it best in the preface to Leaving Small’s Hotel:

It is a curious kind of partnership, Kraft & Leroy. The usual descriptions – author and character, ventriloquist and dummy, left brain and right brain – are inaccurate and inadequate. When we were just beginning to work together, Kraft may have thought that in me he had merely found a way to write about himself, and I may have thought that I had found a ventriloquist who was willing to play the straight man while I got the laughs, but as time has passed, each of us has found himself liberated by the other, and each of us has found that to a certain degree he has become what he is through the agency of the other. We are not the same person, though we share a mind. . . . He has come to think of “Peter Leroy” as the name he gives to his imagination, and of “Small’s Island” as the place within his mind where his imagination resides, and every morning, when he takes his place at his computer, he goes there, comes here. Sometimes the trip is easy, and sometimes it takes him a while, and sometimes worrying over the household budget or some other crap keeps him within himself for a long time, but he always manages to break free eventually, [to make] the inward leap, [to exchange] the painful world of time and place for the world of immortal hilarity, [to escape] to Small’s Island.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

MB:Tell me about the day job. It is a kind of antidote to the loopy “circle around reality” world of Peter Leroy?

EK: My wife, Madeline, and I run an editorial service, primarily for educational publishers. Together, we’re Kraft & Kraft. When we started the business, we developed textbook programs in reading and language arts. In recent years, we’ve expanded our services to include website content production and even video production, and we’ve taken on some corporate clients in addition to the educational publishers. However, education remains our primary focus, and our preferred projects are in literacy, for children and adults. I handle the editorial work, and Mad handles the business side of the operation.

My typical weekday begins at 5:30. I get out of bed, make some coffee, and work on the Personal History until 7:00. After going to the gym, showering, and so on, I become day-job-guy from 9 to 5. At 5, well, this passage from Bernard DeVoto’s The Hour describes what happens at five:

“When evening quickens in the street, comes a pause in the day’s occupation that is known as the cocktail hour. It marks the lifeward turn. The heart wakens from coma and its dyspnea ends. Its strengthening pulse is to cross over into campground, to believe that the world has not been altogether lost or, if lost, then not altogether in vain.”

MB: You might not want to answer this, but are Mark Dorset, Candi Lee Manning and Ariane Lodkochnikov additional characters, alter egos or real people? Is there a clear difference? Might we see some of these “people” starring in their own novel one day?

EK: Once upon a time, Madeline and I, in an attempt to determine how quickly we could dispose of our life’s savings, published a dining magazine. We researsed and wrote weekend getaway features for the magazine, using the pseudonyms Candi Lee Manning (an anagram of Madeline Canning, Mad’s maiden name) and Alec “Nick” Rafter (an anagram of Eric Lance Kraft). Candi Lee and Nick later established Manning & Rafter (advertising, promotion, public relations, used cars). It’s uncanny how much they resemble Mad and me (though I find them a bit more–how shall I put this–pushy).

Mark Dorset is yet another alter ego, the would-be scholar in me. We might see him in a book. He has been avoiding writing his topical autobiography, a life story in encyclopedic form, for years. Maybe he’ll get around to it.

Ariane is an additional character, and I definitely expect her to have her own book. I’ve been chipping away at it for some time. It’s called Making My Self . . . and Dinner.

There is a clear difference between the characters and the alter egos for me, but of course all the characters are me, more or less.

Real people have had their influences on the characters (my grandparents on Peter’s, for example), and the characters have had their influence on real people.

Several years ago, a friend from high school was visiting Maddy and me in East Hampton. After dinner, after drinks, in front of the fire, we were reminiscing, telling old stories, and he said, wistfully, “Remember when we took that trip up the river?” and went on to tell me most of the story in “Life on the Bolotomy.”

When he was done, I said, “But we never took that trip. I made it up.” “I know,” he said, “but it’s a good story.”

MB: Talk to me a bit about hypertext novels in general. Why is the medium a compelling one for you?

EK:In my case, I have a very specific reason for wanting to use it: I want
to make Mark Dorset’s annotations to the Personal History an integral part of the work itself. Hyperlinking seems to me the best way to do that. First, it is partly a question of presentation. I’d like Mark’s annotations to be very thorough (ridiculously so, in fact), and I cannot imagine a reader, this one included, being willing to flip pages very frequently to read endnotes or suffer an edition in which the notes
occupied more space on the page than the primary text. Having the notes appear in a separate area of the screen that remains visible all the time and doesn’t obscure or diminish the text seems to me the most elegant way to present them. Second, and more importantly, it is a way of threading another voice (Mark’s) throughout the work without altering or obscuring the original voice (Peter’s). Mark is very important to Peter’s tale, at least in Mark’s own mind, and has something to say about even the smallest things. When he finally bursts onto the web with his commentary, he’s
going to be popping up here, there, and everywhere in Peter’s text, but I’ve found a way to offer the online reader the choice of a clean version or one with Mark’s annotations.

MB And yet the Voyager CD version of The Complete Peter Leroy has gone out of print. Are there commercial problems with working in hypertext?

EK: Definitely. People frequently tell me that they don’t want to read a book on a computer screen. Many of those who say that are really vehement about it. Some like books as objects, like the feel of a book in their hands, and so on, and others like the no-batteries-required, read-it-anywhere aspect of a book. Those people are not going to feel compelled to read a hypertext work or a hypertext enhancement of a book, at least not now.

MB: Where do you see its future?

EK: When PDAs or small tablet PCs feel more like books, feel booklike in the hand, and have the screen resolution of a printed page, then I think most readers will read electronic texts. When that happens, more and more of those readers will be intrigued by hypertext enhancements to books, probably the simplest types of enhancement to start with, glossary links and the like, but that will lead to more creative hypertext for a wider market. Until then, I think it’s likely to remain something for the enthusiast. Nevertheless, I’ll be pushing on with it.

MB: Your website, www.erickraft.com/peterleroy, is very funny (I especially like the unclassifieds). Did you do it all yourself?

EK: Thank you. Yes, I do it all myself. I put in about three hours every Saturday morning and sometimes add another couple of hours on Sunday. Let’s see . . . I began it on March 27, 1996. That’s 349 weeks ago. Let’s call it an average of four hours a week. Yikes! I’ve put in nearly 35 40-hour weeks on it. I must be eligible for a vacation soon.

MB: You’ve produced a large number of textbooks and also have worked as a High School teacher. Do you think that the trend for more and more standardised testing (the SAT-9, TAAS, etc) is having or will have a negative effect on student’s love of learning and in particular, reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading small passages and pulling out key words to pass an exam)?

EK: Oh, yes, I do. This is one of those don’t-get-me-started questions. I’d have to give a very long answer to this to do it justice, but overall I’ve watched education as an enterprise squeeze the juice and joy out of learning and, increasingly, remove the substance as well. If it weren’t for Harry Potter, I think we would have lost an entire generation of young people who regard reading as a pleasurable activity. Then there is the trend toward abandoning the idea that government ought to assume the responsibility of educating young people across the socioeconomic spectrum to become an informed and discerning electorate. Don’t get me started.

MB: What can your fans look forward to next from you? Is there another Peter Leroy book in the works?

EK: There are several.

I just signed with St. Martin’s Press for the next two books. The first of those is Passionate Spectator, which brings Matthew Barber and B. W. Beath back from Reservations Recommended, with Peter playing a big part too, living in New York now, trying to make a living from Memoirs While You Wait. He’s just been called for jury duty. Meanwhile, Albertine has found work playing piano at a dark bar called Madeleine’s, on Friday Singles Nights at the Institute for ‘pataphysics, and on an as-needed basis with the Balcony Quintet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The book after that (tentatively titled Flying or Lying or On the Wing) will be the next of Peter’s personal reminiscences.

After that, I’d like to do Ariane Lodkochnikov’s book, Making Myself . . . and Dinner. Then one of Peter’s Larry Peters books, The Phantom Island. And, of course, more of Peter’s reminiscences. He’s very close to telling the story of meeting Albertine.

The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy is my life’s work. I will continue to enlarge it as long as I can. The work and I will end together.

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