Monday, April 27, 2009

Columbia Spectator Interviews Bruce Jay Friedman

“When you pit two oppositional characters together, crazy things are going to happen,” Bruce Jay Friedman explains—and, oh yes, his latest compilation of short stories is chalk-full of the aforementioned dichotomy. Take “The Convert,” which pits a Catholic-turned-Jew against a Jew married to a Catholic, or “Neck and Neck,” which follows two men competing for literary fame over the span of several decades. Friedman’s book, Three Balconies (Stories and a Novella) is a terrifically fun read, and affects the same sort of wry, twisted humor found in the screenplay of Splash, Friedman’s Oscar-nominated work. The stories in question were written over the span of several years, and, for the most part, deal with the plight of professional underdogs, i.e., struggling writers, reporters and actors, and Friedman admits that this is, to some extent, an autobiographical inclination on his part: “Many of the stories are an extrapolation of an incident that I had in my life, which, if…expanded… make[s] a story,” Friedman tells me, “there were a lot of forces at work [when I was young] so that I could almost describe myself as sort of an underdog, with sympathy for the underdog; or it may be some sort of automatic connection with people who are struggling.”

When asked about his influences, Friedman replies without hesitation; his reply, however, is roundabout and I am puzzled until I realize that Friedman’s interpretation of the question diverges completely from my conception of it—as I come to realize during the interview, Friedman attaches specific episodic memories to the most basic ideas, turning every answer into something of a short story in itself. In this instance, although he eventually limits his literary influences to Thomas Wolfe, James Jones (From Here to Eternity), J.D. Salinger, and the author of the Big Blue Book of Fairytales, I am treated to a few anecdotes in the process of his explanation. Friedman first outlines his childhood experiences in the Bronx in the forties: “We weren’t a bookish family [but] I discovered the library, and I was always running back and forth…from the street to the bookish life.” Friedman describes himself as essentially “self-taught,” with the radio and people that he heard (in his family, in the street) playing a heavy hand in the development of his understanding of the way humans communicate and build relationships. Finally, Friedman touches on his stint in the Air Force in the fifties, and, surprisingly, this is still incredibly relevant to my initial question—“I had one strong influence in the Air Force,” Friedman details, “My commanding officer was a literary guy, and had me read three books in one weekend…at age 21, I decided it would be nice to be a writer.”

Friedman continues on in this autobiographical vein, telling me about the generation of one of the more popular stories in Three Balconies, “The Investigative Journalist,” which approaches the subject of incarceration with a surprisingly envious attitude: “It stemmed from [my experience working] on the movie Stir Crazy—as part of the research, I visited a prison in Huntsville, Texas, and noticed it was very clean and peaceful. At the time, I was living alone, in the middle of a divorce, so I felt a sort of camaraderie in the prison; [I thought,] What if a fellow like me fell in love with a prison and arranged to get arrested?”

I decide to end by asking Friedman pointedly about the way the inner flap of his latest book describes it as a set of “moral fables”—surely, I think, Friedman will self-effacingly scoff at this grandiose and seemingly irrelevant terminology. But, instead, Friedman replies mysteriously, “Fables? Yeah, the word comes up.” And the truth is, his short stories do have a “tilted” moral quality to them, albeit one that concerns itself less with small Aesop-inspired animals than with contemporary human issues like sex, friendship, and modern religion.

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