October 12, 2012

An interview with Kevin Haworth

Kevin Haworth

Usually when CCLaP releases a new book, one of the things I do is sit down and talk in depth with that author for our podcast; but since our newest author, Kevin Haworth, is the first non-Chicagoan we've published in our history, we unfortunately haven't had a chance yet to meet up and do so concerning his book of essays about 21st-century Jewishness, Famous Drownings in Literary History. That'll finally be happening later this winter; but in the meanwhile, I got a chance to do a shorter talk with him earlier this week via Facebook Chat, the transcript of which can be found below (or after the jump if you're reading this on the front page of the website or via RSS). My many thanks to Kevin for finding the time to do this, and I hope this helps sheds a little light on the new book and what went into writing it.

Jason Pettus: Hi, everyone. I'm here with Kevin Haworth via text chat. Thanks for joining us, Kevin. I always find this a bit of a strange way to do an interview, but of course we can't do the usual podcast since you live in Athens, Ohio. You're a professor there, right? What's the school again?

Kevin Haworth: I teach at Ohio University, a public university of about 20,000 students located in Athens in the southeast corner of the state, near the Kentucky and West Virginia borders. It's a delightful college town surrounded by Appalachia.

JP: This is going to be an interesting talk for me too, because we've never really gotten a chance before to discuss the things that are in your book. So let's start with this, since this is one of the most fascinating yet unexplained things in the manuscript -- how often exactly do you visit Israel, when did you start going, and why do you do it over and over like you do?

KH: I've visited Israel six times now, for a variety of stays and reasons. The shortest time was for three weeks, the longest for eleven months. I've never gone as just a tourist--I've always had a live/work purpose. My first visit was at the age of 21--I did a year of national service there, my own study abroad program, so to speak. I spent six months living on kibbutz, learning Hebrew and working, and five months volunteering in a community center in the Negev desert. Several of the pieces in the book stem from that time, including 'Moti the Garbageman', my ode to my kibbutz supervisor, and that's also when I heard the story depicted in 'The Evacuation of Yamit.' Since then, I went to back to work on Kibbutz Malkiya, near the Lebanon border, then (a few years later) spent six months in Jerusalem finishing my first novel while my wife studied there as part of her rabbinical school training. Now we (my wife and our two children) have spent 3 of the past 4 summers living in the same Tel Aviv neighborhood, leading a study abroad program based at Tel Aviv University. Needless to say, I know the country pretty well by now.

JP: You'll have to forgive me, because I know very little about Judaism, but I believe a lot of American Jews find this to be a really important part of their faith, right, to spend regular time in Israel? What do trips like these mean to you as far as religion and culture, and how much of it is about professional opportunities and spending time with your family in a secular sense?

KH: American Jews have very diverse relationships to Israel, which is part of what makes it interesting. Of course there are complex political issues at stake which I don't shy away from. But for us, there's a lot there that taps into all levels of Jewishness, from language to culture to religion to Jewish-based arts to simply being surrounded by many, many other Jews, which is something you don't get in southeast Ohio.

JP: In fact, this gets into a larger issue, which of course is one of the main themes of your book, that you take your faith very seriously yet have one foot firmly in the world of the liberal, mostly agnostic arts. For example, you just mentioned that you're actually married to a rabbi, and I have to say that I was highly tickled in your manuscript at the idea that your wife is a sort of bizarre rock star in the small Appalachian town where you live.

KH: She totally is. There's going to be a feature all about her in the campus newspaper this week. She's an interesting figure--totally committed to Jewish life, a highly educated rabbi, but she's a woman! she's pretty! she wears hip clothing! It trips people out.

JP: So how do you juggle this balance yourself? Are these essays we see in the book your attempt to make sense out of all this? And what do you think the ratio is between the writing you do on Jewish topics versus secular ones?

KH: That's an interesting question, but in some ways it's what we (in the academic business) call a false binary. I'm Jewish at every moment. I keep kosher, so I constantly have to examine menus to make sure I know what ingredients are coming at me. Not everything I write is explicitly Jewish, but the common Jewish themes--belonging, exile, multiples spaces of identity--they are always there.

JP: And you actually have a pretty interesting background when it comes to all this too. I'll just mess it up if I try to recap it, so why don't you tell us a little?

KH: Well, as you might piece together from the book, I was born in Brooklyn into a Jewish family that was making the second great Jewish migration--out of NYC. (From Russia to NYC to America, you might say) When I was seven my mother remarried and we moved to the Catskills as part of the 1970s back to the land movement that many people were into then. We had goats. We had chickens. We built a giant barn on the property. We were in the Jewish Catskills but not of it, in a way. Eventually I went to college (Vassar) and met amazing professors, some of whom encouraged me to spend some time living in Israel. After I did that, I came back to America to do my MFA at Arizona State with amazing teachers like Ron Carlson. I met my future wife, and we moved together to Philadelphia for five years, where she became a rabbi and I played a lot of pickup basketball. Then we moved to Ohio for our first serious professional jobs.

JP: Whew! And in fact that's one of my favorite essays in the book, is your reminisces of growing up in the Catskills back then, and the way the area has profoundly changed from the Mid-Century Modernist "Borscht Belt" times that so first defined it.

KH: Yeah, and that's an interesting essay for the writers out there b/c it was written totally in response to the first issue of the online journal Defunct, created by Robin Hemley. The journal really defined a kind of essay--one that looks back and something that is perhaps gone--and it made me want to write about the Catskills. So I did, and Defunct published it, which was great. But it's not a type of essay, the particular sensibility of it, that I would have considered if not for Defunct.

JP: And how do you decide the tones and themes of your pieces? Certainly there's a lot of running ideas from one to the next, but they can also get quite different in style and voice.

KH: Well, it's interesting to think back to the point at which I switched from 'I'm writing essays' to 'I'm writing a book'. At first I was exploring slightly different approaches (though always within a certain range) but starting the summer I spent at Headlands Center for the Arts I really started imagining what I had as a book and looking to fill in some of the places, and I think at that point the whole thing got tighter, stylistically.

JP: And speaking of which, I have to confess that I was really delighted to receive a manuscript like this, when usually it would be sent off to a much more traditional academic press. Did you ever feel any pressure from your peers or employers to go a more traditional route? How does that work in the academic world, anyway?

KH: Well, that's a complicated subject, and yes, there is pressure to find the most 'high-status' publisher you can, which no one really knows how to define (only when to suggest that your publisher isn't quite good enough). But I always felt that this was going to be a book that had to fit a publisher just right, partially because of length--I didn't want to have to expand the essays beyond their natural shape, which meant that the book was always going to be on the small side in terms of word length, and that's just hard for any traditional publisher to deal with, plus the very specific subject matter--I just resolved to look for a publisher with a sensibility that I felt like I could jive with. So that's what led me to CCLaP.

JP: And in a perfect world where you could make any choice you want, since you've lived in such a variety of different environments, from big cities to rural areas and from mountains to desert, where do you think you'd be most happy?

KH: I'm happy now, because we live in two places at once--Athens during the school year, and elsewhere in the summer. Three out of the last four summers that's been in Tel Aviv, which is a great antithesis to Athens. The other summer was in San Francisco, which provided a great counterpoint as well. So for the moment, we get the best of (at least) two worlds.

JP: And just to make it clear, you write fiction as well; in fact, you've been the winner in the past of the Samuel Goldberg Award for Jewish fiction. Do you prefer one type of writing over the other, and do you think you'll be returning soon to the world of three-act narratives?

KH: I love writing fiction, and I consider my short story "The Scribe", which was published in the Michigan Quarterly Review a couple of years ago, and which won their Lawrence Foundation Prize, some of the best work I've ever done. But as the dedication to the book suggests, the birth of my children really prompted me to want to write about their lives, and by extension, my own, in a more direct way. My wife and I feel like we're really grappling with something important--how do you raise culturally aware, strong, individuals? How do all the things we bring to the table--Jewishness, feminism, art--factor in. How do we let them become aware of the sadnesses of the world without becoming crushed by them?

JP: Well, Kevin, hopefully soon we'll be sitting down and talking a lot more for the podcast, but for now I appreciate you chatting with us a little via text. When are you going to come visit all of us in Chicago?

KH: I'm working on it! My younger sister is going to have her first baby sometime in the next few weeks (hooray!!!) so it's hard to plan too far out. But I'll be there. Developing a relationship with Chicago is one of the best things that's happened to me since I moved to the Midwest.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:06 AM, October 12, 2012. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Profiles |