A Q&A with Ben Anastas
Susan Choi is the author of three acclaimed novels, The Foreign Student (winner of an Asian American Literary Award), American Woman (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) and A Person of Interest (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award). She recently won a 2012 James Beard Foundation Award for her food writing.
Susan Choi: What made you want to write this book?
Ben Anastas: I’m not sure that I ever really wanted to write Too Good to Be True. The motivation behind the book ran much deeper than that. The word “want” implies a choice, and when I started writing the book’s first pages, having the freedom to choose what to do with my life—even calling myself a writer—felt like a privilege I had lost.
I was 41 and my literary career was flat lining. I hadn’t published a book in the U.S. in almost ten years, and the magazines I’d been writing for had either disappeared or stopped answering my emails I’d lost my marriage in a mind-bending divorce drama. I was scrambling to keep it all together and telling myself that rescue was just around the corner and everything would be fine—but when the book starts, in the fall of 2010, my financial life was about to hit rock bottom.
Nothing I tried was working. So I started over again, from the beginning. I took an empty notebook and a couple of pens and I started going into my son’s room when he wasn’t there and writing about what was happening, what getting lost in too much life really felt like.
SC: This book is so startling, and funny, and disturbing, and gut-wrenchingly honest. Were there people in your life you particularly hoped would or wouldn’t read it?
BA: If you’re startled as a reader or moved to laughter and/or tears, then I must have done my job, right?
You never know what episodes from your private life will end up making it into a novel. I knew my parents would have to read Too Good to Be True eventually, but I did put it off until I felt confident about what I was doing. The title comes from some very bad therapy that my brother, my sister and me all had during the summer of 1972—a lifetime ago—while our mother was being treated for depression. Their marriage was ending, it was a low-point in their lives, and we were bystanders in a drama that we didn’t understand. I feel very protective of my parents so I was worried from the start about how they would react to those sections of the book. I just had to gulp and hand the manuscript over.
SC: How did fatherhood affect the writing of this book, if at all? How has it affected your writing in general?
BA: My son, who’s five now and too young to read the book—another sigh of relief—is the driving force behind Too Good to Be True, even when he’s not present, and the final chapter is a kind of letter to him explaining what I’ve been up to. So, in a very real sense, the book wouldn’t exist without him. You really do need a reason to go on when you find yourself broke at forty-one and hiding collection notices in your underwear drawer, and he was a very big reason why I managed to go on.
When a child’s room is empty, you really know it. There’s no clamor inside, no calls for “Daddy,” no astonishing new mess to clean up. As a part-time father, it’s a quiet that I’ve had to learn to get used to. There was something very satisfying about the ritual of going into his room and trying to find my way on paper. His bed was made and empty, his stuffed animals were heaped at my side, his clothes were stacked on the dresser and there I was with my notebook, trying to untangle the mystery of my origins so he wouldn’t have to.
SC: What comes next?
BA: There’s a novel brewing. Definitely fiction. I’ve had my fill of reality experiments!
"The failure is real, the voice is raw, the story is haunting." —Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom
"It’s all very funny and a joy to read, but what lifts this memoir from good to outstanding is that the humor and the darkness are merely a patina. Under the irony there is no irony. Under the panic lies a remorseful heart, a steady determination to figure this to and become a better person." —New York Times Book Review
"One of the most acclaimed memoirs of 2012." —The Week
"Too Good to Be True is smart and honest and searching…so plaintive and raw that most writers (and many readers) will finish it with heart palpitations."—Dwight Garner, New York Times
"A miasma of misfortune… the author’s many battles have wrung from him both catharsis and poignancy… [a] raw yet eloquent presentation of a life in crisis mode."—Kirkus
"Scenes of a ’70s childhood, complete with pot-smoking parents and 'a lot of adult nudity' yield unexpected sweetness and humor in a book that’s often searingly painful." —The Boston Globe
"Too Good to Be True has a messy urgency and a distinctive voice all its own." —Washington Post Book World
“This memoir is undeniably impossible to put down." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"A gifted writer" —New Yorker
"Self-pity has never been so bracing—or hilarious." –Town & Country
"Anastas has written one of the most memorable memoirs we've read all year." —Sarah Weinman, Publishers Lunch
"A spectacular account of mind-blowing failure. It is short and it is beautiful and you must buy it." —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
"'Enjoyed' is the wrong word for this book. You don't enjoy eating a bag of glass shards mixed in with bloody pulpy bits of a human heart. Enjoyment, in this case, is irrelevant —I devoured this book not in spite of the pain, but because of it. This is a messy, vital, non-story of a story. I finished it and felt covered in the debris of a life."—Charles Yu, author of How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
"I love this book so much. Which is weird, considering that it consists of watching Anastas take blow after blow, before being battered and receiving more blows. But you won’t pity the author, who leans into even the most difficult situations with wonder and boundless empathy; instead you'll just wish he could narrate your own disasters to you, so you could see the art in the salvage." —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
"A lot of books get called things like ‘brutally honest,’ but few books are really as brutal as Too Good to Be True. Benjamin Anastas has taken disheartening failure and turned it into searing, soaring success." —Daniel Handler, author of Why We Broke Up