Open Book/Open Mind: Parenting as a writing prompt
Open Book/Open Mind
Garth Hallberg and Estep NagySunday, Jan. 28, 4 p.m.
Montclair Public Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave.
Free, but registration strongly advised
973-744-0500 ext. 2275
By GWEN OREL
One year ago, they were both on the playground, with their kids.
A reporter from the New York Times asked them if they were dads left behind while their wives were on the women’s march.
The strangeness of the presumption surprised them both.
From then on, Estep Nagy (pronounced Ee-step Nay-ghi) and Garth Hallberg, both writers, became friends.
The idea that had the women not been spirited away “they would have been doing this drudgery, and we would have been doing whatever it was, that was funny,” Hallberg said. Both authors sat in Nagy’s kitchen last week, in the afternoon before Hallberg had to pick up his kids.
They will appear in the next Open Book/Open Mind, interviewing one another about their recent books, focusing on the idea of family.
Nagy’s first novel, “We Shall Not All Sleep,” portrays two WASP families on a Maine island, set against the cold war, during the summer of 1964. Nagy is also a playwright and screenwriter. His 1998 film “The Broken Giant” stars John Glover, Brooke Smith and Will Arnett.
Hallberg, author of the best-seller “City on Fire,” has just re-released his first book, a novella-cum-art book titled “A Field Guide to the North American Family,” with each two-page spread an entry on a topic such as “Innocence” or "Meaning, Search for,” including cross-references and illustrations.
Both men work from home, and taking their children to the playground was not unusual. When they met, they realized that both of their wives were soon to have another baby.
“I remember driving through the snow to bringing you guys a pie from the pie store,” Hallberg said with a laugh. Before he moved here, he had visited college friends in Montclair and experienced a First Night. He was struck by the townsy wholesomeness of the town. “This is what I mean about a perfect model of a functioning literary utopia. It’s like, ‘Oh Caroline just had a baby. I should bring the pie.’ And it was like, I’ve only been living in the suburbs for seven weeks. What is happening?”
ON WRITING, ON FAMILY
The subject of family, Nagy said, is broad enough to address his book in particular and literature in general: “The post-war time within literature has a lot to do with families, and a lot to do with very intense relationships, so it’s a good lens to think about where fiction might be going.” For Hallberg, family intersects with dysfunctionality. And there’s also a kind of yearning and nostalgia, to evoke a vanished mid-century time, that runs through his book.
Nagy said that in both “City of Fire” and “North American Field Guide” there’s a sense of people creating provisional families, and finding a home. There’s a huge scale, but it always comes back to the idea of the next family: “I feel very simpatico with that.”
Having children and creating their own families affected their writing lives.
“I was terrified,” Nagy said. “I sort of live in a state of terror.” But while he worried that working as a communications consultant or starting a family would kill his writing, in each case, it strengthened it.
In fact, when he got back to work, he felt he was writing better. He now has three children.
“I’m interested in this idea that having your first child made you a better writer and you decided to double down,” Hallberg said. “I’m curious whether there’s a law of diminishing stuff in the book... ‘Let’s have a fourth.’”
Having children helped him feel connected, Nagy said. Family is a subject of Nagy’s book, but it’s also about “The KGB and the military industrial complex.” The big scope and the intimate view are important to him.
Hallberg said that he was finishing “City on Fire” just before his first baby was born and
decided to wait to write the finale, thinking that the experience would enrich him and deepen him.
“Instead, I was tireder and dumber and slower. And it turned out to be kind of useful because that’s where the reader is at the end of a novel.
So I had sort of the inverse experience. But I find the relationship between family life and writing life to be very unstable and a continued source of fear.”
And that fear, that sense of risk, is what he needs to feel competent as a writer.
One of the things Hallberg has struggled with is bringing the “real stuff of family life” to his work, something he admired in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “Visions for His Daughter,” which he reviewed for the New York Times Book Review.
“He manages to get on the page meal times, and bath times and all the things which when I sit, and I’m like, ‘What is the conflict here?’ What is the conflict is I’ve got to get the shampoo out of your hair.”