Thursday, April 7, 2011

When Tito Loved Clara...and more from Jon Michaud

So you may or may not remember that I just started Grad school to get my M.L.S. degree and become Super Librarian Extraordinaire. Well, one other member of the awesome M.L.S. club is Jon Michaud, author of the new release When Tito Loved Clara. Jon is Head of Library at The New Yorker by day, debut novelist by night.

This is a surprisingly complex story. It focuses on Tito and Clara, two Dominican Inwood residents who had a relationship in high school but have now gone completely separate ways in life. Clara lives in New Jersey with the husband she met in library school and their son; Tito still lives in Inwood with his parents at the same moving company he worked at in high school. When they are suddenly reacquainted, they're each faced with questions of their pasts and presents, sparking the sudden "unraveling of both of their lives."

Michaud deals with tons of ideas and themes for both of the main characters: first love, family relationships, fertility struggles, self-identity and history. The story hops back and forth between Tito and Clara, and the timeline has that nice flow where it occasionally back tracks from one character section to the next as a way of developing the story. It flows beautifully. I don't know much about the immigrant experience, but I thought Michaud crafted very detailed, complex characters, each in some way in conflict with their identity. Clara worked her whole life to escape her Dominican identity, while Tito always seemed stuck with his life in Inwood. Their lives had such drama, but realistic drama, that I was drawn into their lifestyles and interested in how each character would deal with the situations they faced—they certainly were dramatic!


I was happy to discover that Jon Michaud was appearing at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint at a book event/fundraiser, so I had the opportunity to hear him talk about his life, his job, and his novel, and he was nice enough to later answer a few questions I had over email. It's a GREAT interview. Thanks, Jon!

How long did it take you to write When Tito Loved Clara?

Seven years—five to write it, a year find a publisher (with rewrites during the submission process), and a year of revisions under the guidance of my editor, Jane Rosenman. I write slowly. I have a full-time job and two young children and I am thrilled if I can get more than an hour a day at the computer. While working on the latter parts of Tito, not long after the birth of my second son, I bought a laptop and wrote during my commute—half an hour each way between suburban New Jersey and Penn Station. It was the only “free” time in my day. It's not the ideal way to write a book, but I am here to tell you that it can be done.

Maybe more importantly, how long had you been PLOTTING to write When Tito Loved Clara?

I began writing about the milieu in which Tito takes place in the late nineteen-nineties, when I met my wife Zoraida, who is Dominican, and who lived in Inwood, the northernmost part of Manhattan. I was fascinated by the neighborhood, and by the stories my wife and her family told me and I conceived a story collection modeled on James Joyce's Dubliners and Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City—a sequence of connected stories that would evoke Inwood. That story collection drew the interest of an agent, but he was unable to find me a publisher. Many of the rejection letters boiled down to the same verdict: “The writing is lovely, and the characters are interesting, but we want a novel.”

With that in mind, I took passages from the story collection and developed them into the early stages of the novel. Among the aborted stories I had leftover from the collection was one that began with a Dominican man named Tito sitting in a car outside a woman's house in the suburbs. I hadn't been able to figure out why he was there, but once I started on the novel, I understood that he needed a larger vessel than the short story to carry his narrative. He became the engine for the novel and once I had him, I didn't look back.

When Tito Loved Clara has so many little pieces to it that could each be a novel in their own right—Clara’s childhood and adolescence, Tito and Clara’s high school relationship, Clara’s relationship with her sister and mother, Clara and Thomas' fertility struggles, Tito's struggle to grow up and come into his own. What led you to address so many issues and themes in one novel?

Lorrie Moore talks about how, early on in the composition of a novel, there is a period where all kinds of things from the writer's life can enter the book. Tito is a prime example of this. When I started writing the book, my wife and I had just come out of a difficult year—we'd lost a baby at 22 weeks, my mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and another member of my family had recently died. All of these things got sucked into the book and writing it became my way of dealing with those difficult things. Although I am an admirer of slim, perfectly executed novels, such as The Great Gatsby or The Remains of the Day, I felt, at that time, that the loose-baggy-monster model of the form was more suitable to my needs. Great Expectations, The Age of Innocence, and Richard Ford's Bascombe Trilogy were stronger models for what I was trying to do. Life felt messy and complicated to me and that manifested itself in the book.

Did you ever feel like the breadth of the novel was snowballing out of control?

The final draft of the book—before submission and before editing—was almost a hundred pages longer than the published version of the book. While I never felt that the material was snowballing on me, I did have a nagging sense as I wrote the book that some of it was extraneous. My agent and my editor both helped me see what needed trimming and which remaining parts needed enhancing.

Setting and history play an integral role in the characters and their decisions/actions. What was the decision to write about Inwood and Dominican immigrants? Were you trying to tell a story through them or were you trying to tell THEIR story?

What fascinated me about Inwood was its ethnic mix, combined with its geography and history. It was New York in microcosm (many city neighborhoods are), but it also had the advantage of being relatively undiscovered. Nobody, to my knowledge, had set a whole novel there, which I found incredible.

Some examples of what drew my curiosity: That slender bit of land, bounded on three sides by water is home to a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Cloisters), one of the oldest houses in New York (the Dyckman House), a hospital, and Columbia University's playing fields. Along Broadway, you can still see the stone gateway that once led to the Seaman estate. Inwood Hill Park, which has the city's only remaining old-growth forest, is reputedly where Peter Minuit made his deal for Manhattan island. You've got Irish bars, synagogues, and many, many Domincan-owned businesses, plus a long-established and growing enclave of middle-class professionals drawn by (relatively) cheap rents and easy access to Midtown and the theatre district.

But, because I was writing a novel, the characters and the story took over and part of the book wound up set in New Jersey. Still, the heart of novel, as the cover shows, takes place in Inwood.

Your life seems surrounded by the literary. What's been the evolution or timeline of jobs that have led to where you are today?

It wasn't always so. My first job, during high school, was as a bicycle courier in Washington, D.C. Later, I spent years working as a clerk in bookstores. For a time, I made sandwiches at a bagel place in Ithaca, New York. My aim was always to defer a career in expectation of becoming a published writer. Eventually, a friend gave me a lead on an entry-level job in the Research Center at Time Inc. After a while, the director of the Center offered to pay for me to go to library school. It's a measure of how dumb I was that I did not, at first, leap at the offer. But eventually, with the help of my wife and other friends, I came to my senses. At that time, I'd published only a handful of stories and essays in small literary magazines and it was clear that my writing wasn't going to be providing me with an income any time soon.

In retrospect, going to library school is one of the best decisions I ever made. Not long after I received my M.L.S., the Time Inc. Research Center was eliminated as part of the merger between AOL and Time Warner. But because I had the degree, I quickly found another job at the EPA library in Washington, D.C. Two years later, while scanning job listings for my wife (who is also a librarian), I came across the posting for the job at The New Yorker and thought, Hey, I've got most of the qualifications they're looking for...

“Head Librarian” for The New Yorker is such an ambiguous job title! What kinds of tasks does it involve and what's the most interesting or exciting aspect of it for you?

My official title is “Head of Library,” which is not really any more illuminating. There are, in fact, three libraries at the magazine: a reference library used and maintained by the fact-checking department; the photo library, which serves our photo editors and researchers; and the capital “L” Library, where my colleague Erin Overbey and I work, but which is, in fact, an archive, or what used to be known in the newspaper world as “the morgue.” We are the repository and index for the magazine's editorial history—every issue back to 1925 in print and digital form, cross-referenced in card catalogs, scrapbooks, and myriad databases.

Erin and I index and abstract the articles in the magazine each week as they are prepared for publication. We work closely with the production and web departments. The keywords and abstracts we create become part of the metadata for the web site and are also used in the iPad and other editions of The New Yorker. We also serve as curators for the archive. We write a blog linking current events to articles from the recent and not-so-recent past. Additionally, we answer queries from writers and editors, and also help with special projects, such as gathering stories the anthologies the magazine publishes. It is all rewarding and interesting but perhaps the most exciting part of the job is discovering something wonderful in the archive, which is full of wonderful and sometimes forgotten treasures.


Jenny said...

I was soooo excited about this book coming out but then I wasn't completely enamored with the excerpt I read so I never did read it. I may have to rethink that!

Kari said...

That's funny that you say that because I was about to just post the publisher's excerpt because I was unsure as to how to summarize it quickly...but now I'm glad I didn't!

You should read it. It's not a long read so you won't be mad at me for a huge time commitment if you don't end up liking it, but has a good character-driven plot that keeps you interested.

Aarti said...

You asked really good questions in the interview, Kari! I feel like I know the author now :-)

Ajlounyinjurylaw said...

I'm going to check this book out, sounds like something I would enjoy.

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