Question: You've truly written a love letter to Detroit. You mention in your Author's Note that you felt "a strong sense that [The Art Student's War] must serve as a tribute... to Detroit itself, my beleaguered and beloved hometown, in all its clanking, gorgeous heyday." Why did you write this book and how did it come about?
Brad Leithauser: When friends would ask about the book I was writing, I'd tell them that it was an attempt to convince myself that the world pre-existed me. This was my joking way of expressing a serious ambition: to write about a city that had, in many ways, vanished by the time I came along. I was born in Detroit in the fifties, and my book opens in Detroit in 1943. This is really my parents' world, which I knew chiefly through family lore, old photographs, and--as I became deeply enmeshed in my novel--a day-to-day reading of The Detroit News on microfilm for the years 1941-1943. I've lived for long stretches in a number of wonderful places--including Paris and Reykjavik and Kyoto--but Detroit is the city that has the most powerful hold on my imagination. As to how the book came about... My beloved mother-in-law drew soldiers' portraits during the Second World War. She was a teenage art student at the time, and these were often wounded soldiers. I never thought to ask her about this before she tragically died in 1983. But many years after she was gone, it occurred to me that here was a wonderful premise for a novel: an attractive and very young art student who draws wounded soldiers, and as she's trying to capture their injured spirits on paper, they are, naturally, falling head-over-heels for her.
Question: In October 2009, Time Magazine ran the cover story, "The Tragedy of Detroit: How a great city fell--and how it can rise again." Have you visited Detroit recently? Are you optimistic for the city’s future?
Brad Leithauser: I visit Detroit all the time. If the car companies all collapse, I plan to buy the last one off the assembly line. If bulldozers rubble the last office building, I'll be there with my notebook, taking notes and trying to make sense of it all. I'm a loyal son.
Question: At one point you say of your heroine Bea Paradiso, "She felt the War--it was the largest thing she'd ever felt. She felt it, that is, with a sweep and a complexity burgeoning steadily over time." How did people react differently to World War II versus the many wars we are currently involved in?
Brad Leithauser: Of course America is now in the middle of wars that have lasted much longer than the Second World War. And I'm struck by how peripheral they often seem. Afghanistan? Iraq? There are days when they hardly seem to make the newspaper, the evening TV news. I sought to capture something else entirely: a global conflict that infiltrated everything you did--what you wore and ate and watched and talked about.
Question: What sort of research went in to The Art Student's War?
Brad Leithauser: Most helpful of all for me were the newspapers. I spent day after bleary-eyed day reading microfilm at the Detroit Public Library. And there was something deeply heartening for me in stumbling out of the library to view the streets and buildings and parks I'd been reading about. I also spent a tiny fortune on 40s memorabilia. I was especially pleased when I came upon a very large "Official Map of Detroit's Transportation System" from the war years. I hung it on my office wall for years. In my mind, I was able to move from bus to streetcar and back again; I could freely navigate the city.
Question: Your previous novels have featured male protagonists. Did you have any difficulty creating your female main character, Bea Paradiso? What sort of differences did you find in your writing process?
Brad Leithauser: I'd like to think the book might plausibly be subtitled: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman. I saw this as a twofold challenge. First, I wanted to invent a female character believable enough that she could center a large novel. Then I wanted to give her a budding but authentic gift; I hoped readers would feel they were encountering someone of genuine talent, who happened to be born into a time and place not always hospitable to young women of talent. I suppose my mother-in-law (were she still alive), my mother, my wife, and my two daughters might each recognize some facet of themselves in my Bea Paradiso; I've borrowed freely from those I love. And perhaps that's why I suppose I feel fonder of Bea than of any other character I've created.
Question: You are a poet and a novelist. How do these two writing styles overlap and interact for you?
Brad Leithauser: By doing both, I feel I can manage--at least potentially--to lose less of life's "good stuff" than I would if I worked only in one medium. I'll come upon something that moves me very deeply, and I have two shots--poetry and prose--of getting it down in some satisfying way on paper.
Question: What are you working on now?
Brad Leithauser: Having spent so many years with my imagination fixed within a few square miles of Detroit in the forties, I'm now taking pleasure in much further forays. I've just begun working on a novel that--if all goes as planned--will open in Rome and end in Greenland.
(Photo © Erinn Hartman)
From Publishers Weekly
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