A Rakish Interview with Darin Strauss — Part II

Part II (To see the first part of this interview, click here)

"If you don’t belong to a book club," Ron Charles wrote in The Washington Post last week, "Darin Strauss’s bitter and brilliant new novel is reason enough to start one." The novel – Strauss’s third – marks a departure from the author’s previous books, both of which were (somewhat incidentally) historical fiction. More Than It Hurts You sets us in über-modern Long Island, a place where George Clooney, Austin Powers, and "Everybody Loves Raymond" all figure into the collective consciousness (while Fitzgerald and Tolstoy hide in the shadows).

 

The book finds its thematic center in a rare disease called Munchausen by proxy, in which a mother will harm her child to get attention forherself. Playing out the drama are three principal characters: Dori Goldin, the young mother accused of Munchausen; her unknowing husband Josh; and Dr. Darlene Stokes, an African American physician who suspects foul play when Dori brings her infant into the ER.

 

As their lives tangle in the courtroom and in the press, morals are trumped by flashy headlines, and relationships become so clouded that Josh doesn’t know whether to trust the doctor or his wife. Before long, More Than It Hurts You transcends its storyline, as the syndrome becomes symptomatic of something larger – America’s masochistic obsession with attention in general, and the ramifications thereof.

The Rake

With all its references to pop culture, it’s clear you were aiming for a contemporary feel in this novel. Another aspect that makes it feel so contemporary is its use of dialect. Was this something you knew was vital to making the book current?

Strauss

I was really conscious with the Intelligent Muhammed stuff [Darlene Stokes’s father – a newly released ex-convict]. I wanted it to be authentic, but it’s always risky being a white guy writing a black guy’s voice. You don’t want to sound like a caricature. Actually I listened to a lot of hip-hop, and I went down to where the ex-cons are dropped off. It’s actually a place, where if you don’t have anyone to pick you up from jail, that’s where you go.

The Rake

Did your students unwittingly help out with some of the dialogue?

 

Strauss

Teaching definitely helps with keeping your ear fresh. There’s one point in the hospital, in the first chapter, where Josh comes across an email, and that comes I think from emails I get from my students.

 

[The email goes like this: "what up kid im so sorry im not around for you but U will beat it lookemia is "BULLSHIT" I am here with Marisa who thinks I am SO into nice walks on the beach under the sunset lol"]

 

But a lot of the speech came from a friend of mine who’sactually in ad sales, and had the job that Josh had. I was able to watch him interact, and see how that happened. Also I read a lot of Don Delillo – I think he has modern-speak down.

 

The Rake

Is listening to your characters talk a way for you to understand them?

 

Strauss

Yeah, going back, with Chang and Eng I was thinking, ‘How am I going to make characters from men that are so different from me?’ I thought their speech might be a decent way to do it. Then I found out neither spoke English, though, so that wasn’t going to help me. I had the thought that I should make one speak better than the other. Because if one speaks better, that can mean something: He’s more studious; he’s more serious. And so on. Pretty soon character begins to emerge.

 

The Rake

A book I hope you’ll riff on is Anna Karenina. You use the word ‘Happiness’ in the first sentence of the More Than It Hurts You, and happiness/unhappiness is a theme that recurs throughout the novel, which seems to be a sort of tip-of-the-cap to Tolstoy.

 

Strauss

Definitely I had that book in mind. I wanted Josh to be a bit like Stepan Oblonsky – just a very likeable guy, despite his infidelities.

 

James Woods argues that Tolstoy’s characters are all symbolic of one thing, all have one primary element to their natures, but then they’ll often surprise themselves by going against that. I wanted to create Darlene in the same way. The way she walks gives her a false impression of weight. I tried to make her multi-dimensional by having her surprise us, like when she’s trying to figure out how to tell Leo she loves him, which is not very natural for her. Heaviness is her norm, but she tries to break through it. But then she always falls back into herself. Actually I was thinking of a bunchof Tolstoy books. The flashback of Darlene’s life is based on something from The Death of Ivan Ilyanich.

The Rake

You’ve said your method for dealing with historical fiction is to do as much writing with as little research as possible, and then when you’re done to go back and make sure the facts match. Were you able to use the same tactic here, with all the hospital content?

 

Strauss

I blew it in this. With Chang and Eng, I wasn’t sure if the manuscript would get published. So I think I was a little more relaxed with it- I wasn’t afraid of people going over it with a fine-toothed comb, because I wasn’t sure if anyone was actually going to read it or not.

 

This one I knew would get published. Doctors would read it, and I didn’t want them to say, ‘No no no – this isn’t how it is.’ The first chapter, which is set in a hospital, took me a year to write, but then it was way too researched and jargon-heavy. It seemed like a bad episode of "ER." I ended up taking a lot out, and realized that so long as I knew what I was writing about, and had a sort of command over the material, I didn’t necessarily have to add every little thing in.

 

The Rake

You are not one half of a conjoined twin, nor are you a turn-of-the-century flim-flam artist/boxer. You are, however, an assimilated Jew who grew up in Long Island, and has spent time both at Tufts and NYU, much like the characters of this book. Was this a conscious decision to align your biography with theirs?

 

Strauss

I was thinking, as long as it’s set in contemporary America, I might as well set it in some place that I know. Actually it was partially so I wouldn’t have to do so much research, I could save myself some time.

 

But even though I knew the setting, in a lot of ways this book was harder than Chang and Eng for me. People said it must be hard to write that one, from the perspective of a conjoined twin, but it was kind of easy. All I did was think about how I would act if I were attached to someone.

 

But it was much harder to make Dori relatable andsympathetic. In my first draft I thought I was being subtle, but then I showed it to friends, and they all said, "Oh, so she’s crazy." I had to tone it down abit.

 

I wanted to examine parenthood from different angles, and Dori’s was a difficult angle. How could I make her poison her kid and still be likable? It was tough to get inside her head. In any relationship there are alot
of ambiguities, and that’s another thing I really wanted to examine, especially through Dori and her marriage to Josh. This book is very much about how you can never know someone fully, no matter how close you think you are to them.

 

Part II (To see the first part of this interview, click here)

Darin Strauss is the author of the international bestseller Chang and Eng and the New York Times Notable Book The Real McCoy. His work has been translated into fourteen languages. The recipient of a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction writing, he lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at New York University.