Your story in this week’s issue, “Love Letter,” as the title suggests, takes the form of a letter, which is written by a grandfather to his grandson. What made you choose the epistolary form for this one?
I’d been e-mailing with my dad about the state of the world and having a really good time with that. Then some young friends of our daughter’s came to our house (back in those treasured, long-ago days of yore when people still “came to your house”) and we did a conversational version of the same thing. And it struck me that all that cross-generational fretting and debating was a form of love, for one another and for the country. Some of the tone of those talks got into the story—the frankness, the fondness, the urgency. A bit of my e-mail typing style also carried over—a sort of brisk, opinionated, affectionate shorthand.
The story is set a couple of Presidencies into the future, after (presumably) Donald Trump has been reëlected and then his son has won a “sham election.” Civil rights have been undermined and the country has become corrupt and autocratic, and the grandfather no longer recognizes it as his homeland. Do you think of the story as a fantasy dystopian narrative or an all-too-plausible cautionary tale?
Right, that’s the question.
I mean, before the failed impeachment and the rash of firings, I think I would have felt this scenario to be a little hysterical or alarmist. And probably it is—it’s more of a thought experiment, I guess. But seeing all that go down, and the strange, alt-universe position of so many Senate Republicans—their total commitment to Trump, no matter what—it really struck me anew that our governance is just a system of tacit agreements. And, if you wanted to design someone to take that system apart from the inside, Trump would be your guy. Not that he’d intend to, necessarily, but he can’t seem to help it. It seems dispositional with him. He’s been wealthy and famous his whole life, he’s relentlessly attention-seeking, he doesn’t seem to accept criticism, and he seems, let’s say, not entirely aware of the norms that have kept this fragile thing in place for so long.
So: a kind of perfect storm, when you factor in the partisan divide and the force multiplier that is social media and whatever it is that McConnell and Jordan and Hannity and Limbaugh, et al., are seeking so ardently.
Also alarming to me is this new suite of “patriotic” associations (Trump, religion, knee-jerk defense of him misunderstood as “respect for authority,” dissent misinterpreted as disloyalty, flags and eagles and angels, etc., etc.), which might allow a feeling of love for one’s country to be co-opted and channelled in an authoritarian direction. I’m reminded of what Deborah Eisenberg said, when writing about Gregor von Rezzori’s classic “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite,” regarding the great harm that can be done by just a handful of powerful people, as long as they have the “passive assistance of many, many other people who glance out of the windows of their secure homes and see a cloudless sky.” She goes on to list the sins of such passive people: “carelessness, poor logic . . . inattentiveness.”
The grandfather feels some regret that, at the critical time—i.e., now—he didn’t do anything to prevent this all from happening. Do you anticipate sharing his regret?
Yes. But, also like him, I’m not entirely sure what I might have done differently (i.e., should be doing differently). I literally had that thought the other day: There should be a march. How is that . . . done? (This was before the notion of “a march” had been outdated by the virus.) And that’s why I wrote the story, to be honest. I felt as though I ought to be doing more than just kvetching at the TV. And the only thing I’ve ever done that had a whiff of power about it has been writing.
Should we read the story as a call to arms, so to speak?
Well, to alertness, yes. What it did to me, as I wrote it, was make me feel fond of the way of life we’ve enjoyed all these years. It made me realize, I guess, that I really do believe in American democracy, with all its flaws, and would like to do my part to protect it during my time here. Made me see myself (see all of us) as part of a lineage of people who’ve protected it in the past.
It also made me think about my daughters and my own mortality, something along the lines of, Well, you’re going to leave them some kind of world, and it will either be one where civility and truth are honored or one where they’re not. I think we’re moving toward the latter. Which would be, you know, worse. Worse for them and their kids to live in. And it could get to the place where people have literally forgotten it was ever any other way.
And that was my thinking even before the coronavirus outbreak, which, I think, has demonstrated how dangerous an anti-truth posture can be (it responds slowly to a crisis) and that civility is not some sort of fancy topping on a culture but its essence.
The grandfather has some optimism about the ability of his grandson and his generation to salvage democracy. Do you think the faith is well placed?
I think he admires his grandson’s passion and is unsure whether he should be encouraging that passion or trying to squelch it. That’s easy to answer abstractly, but if it was your grandson or granddaughter, in an actual moment of fear, I bet it would be incredibly difficult. I know that, at times of even mild crisis in my life, I’ve gone suddenly indecisive and might, in a situation like this one, tend to err on the side of inactivity—which is, of course, action of a sort.
The story is obviously a political one. What are your general feelings about politically driven fiction?
Well, I’m against it but sometimes can’t help it. (I succumbed, for example, with a story called “Adams,” back during the Iraq War.)
Fiction generally doesn’t do well with polemic. If you start out to write a story “against” something, you’d better hope it ends up doing more than just that, or else it’s a screed.
Here, I felt like the “more” had to do with the conundrum mentioned above: whether to encourage those you love to engage in a passionate action that might be dangerous or whether to discourage them. At what point does this relationship go south, if the grandfather just keeps saying, “I love you, so do nothing,” or, “In order that you not endanger yourself, I request that you stay neutral, i.e., please cease believing in anything and have no views of your own.” Or, more specifically, “Abandon this girl whom you love.”
Also: I’d been trying, out of a general sense of frustration, to write some nonfiction pieces that were more overtly political, but they weren’t working. They were too sure of themselves and over the top and wouldn’t have persuaded anyone or even inclined anyone, left or right, to think anew. For example, I had one in which the narrator, a Trump supporter and Stephen Miller acolyte, outraged that there are still dead “illegals” buried here, starts a movement to “Make American Graves American Graves Again.” At rallies, everyone’s chanting “Dig them up!” and so on. And, in the end, the narrator pledges to dig up his immigrant grandfather and ship the corpse back to Italy. It was funny enough but it didn’t do that “shaking up the snow globe” thing that writing can do. It felt like a form of sneering, or preaching to the choir, or sneering to the choir. Any Trump supporter would have been able to say, “That takes it too far. I don’t believe in that. That has nothing to do with what I actually believe.”