May 7 2013

    Bookforum talks with James Lasdun

    Simon Taylor


    James Lasdun was born in London in 1958, the son of the prominent British architect Denys Lasdun. He made his literary debut in 1985 with the short story collection The Silver Age, and in the years since he has published three additional short-story collections, four volumes of poetry, and two novels—2002's The Horned Man and 2005's Seven Lies, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Lasdun moved to the United States in 1986 and has taught creative writing at Princeton, NYU, and Columbia University, among other institutions. His latest release, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), chronicles the ordeal he suffered at the hands of an obsessive former student dubbed "Nasreen." More than a just an account of the terrors of cyber-stalking, Give Me Everything You Have is an extended meditation on personal responsibility and identity in the twenty-first century.

    Bookforum: Give Me Everything You Have must have been a very challenging book to write. Could you talk about the composition process?

    James Lasdun: It had its genesis when I tried to write a simple document to post online that would lay out this complicated situation in such a way that the next time Nasreen emailed one of my employers or potential employers—who would, of course, wonder what the hell was going on—I could point to this article. So it began as an act of self-protection, but it didn’t work, because I kept sounding like a crazy person. And that was always the problem: How do you write a story that is so bizarre and in which you are a major participant without sounding crazy? Every time I tried to initiate contact with, for example, the FBI, I could tell that they thought I was a nut. In the process of writing that document I realized that I couldn’t tell the story that way, but other associations and resonances started going off in my mind—I could feel it spreading into things I’ve been interested in for a long time. And it struck me that I could write about these things all using this as a unifying spine. Once I got going, I wrote a draft—I wouldn’t say easily, but it came quite quickly. In little over a year, I wrote a very long version of the book, which was much more comprehensive in its detail than the current version. I showed it to someone who said that it was simply too forensic and read too much like a legal document, because I had used almost every single email and tried to contextualize all of them, which didn’t need to be done. It was useful as a first draft because everything was there. After that, it was a matter of cutting it, and I must have cut it by almost half. But what is in the final book was more or less all there in that original draft; it was just a question of excising certain parts.

    Bookforum: Throughout the book you adopt the tone of something like a kind of psychological detective, investigating not just Nasreen, but also yourself. When the ordeal was at its worst, did you consciously think to yourself, “this is an opportunity for me to explore myself”?

    James Lasdun: No, no, during the events themselves I was absolutely overwhelmed by what was going on. It was very hard to think beyond the immediate experience of the ordeal. It was still going on while I was working on the book, but as soon as I began writing, I started to gain a little distance and feel that I was taking some kind of... not control, but some kind of action. I was able to get some purchase on the situation not just as a tormented person, but as a writer. At that point I started thinking about Freud’s case histories as a model—not those of his own patients, but of historical figures like Leonardo. Those are texts that I admire enormously and I think I did have in mind Freud’s technique of looking very closely at small things and teasing out whatever you can find in them.

    Bookforum: It seems that one result of the whole saga was to install Nasreen as a kind of nightmarish super-ego in your psyche, a figure that questioned and judged your motivations for anything you did. Is that how you experienced her?

    James Lasdun: Well, I felt absolutely occupied, possessed, taken over by her, yes. It was beyond even a super-ego: it was absolutely an inescapable presence inside my head. I could not not think about her at certain points and not wonder what she was going to do next, not wonder why she was doing this. People use the expression “somebody gets under your skin,” but this was beyond metaphor; that’s why I found myself reaching for the literature of phantasmagorical possession, which is not something that had particularly interested me before. It was a very extreme experience.

    Bookforum: There’s a very interesting section near the end of the book in which you’re debating with yourself about whether you want to think about her as crazy or not.

    James Lasdun: I think you can be simultaneously irrational and sane in the sense that you can decide to act a certain way simply because you give yourself permission to do so. During ordeals like this there’s a tendency to look for an explanation and that takes you outward, to the person doing these things, but it also takes you inward. At some point you have to look at yourself and say, "Well, I think I’m this way, but maybe I’m not—maybe there’s something about myself that I don’t know or control that makes itself manifest on a subliminal level that some people pick up on." I believe that that happens, and I don’t think a person is ever simply this or simply that: You can say you’re one thing, but there are probably other voices inside you that other people might be able to hear.

    Bookforum: I wanted to ask you about the discussion of anti-Semitism in the book. There's something almost dialectical about your treatment of the subject: you are initially very reluctant to believe that Nasreen is anti-Semitic; she’s saying anti-Semitic things, but at first you just chalk it up as another manifestation of her generalized hatred. As the book goes on, though, you take up the question of anti- Semitism, eventually concluding that not only does anti-Semitism really exist, but there is something uniquely pervasive about it that has allowed it to persist across time and space. Do you have any sense as to why anti-Semitism has endured in that way?

    James Lasdun: I wish I had an answer to that. I think that even to get the question out in a dynamic way—in other words, with an actual situation underlying it—was worth doing, even if I couldn’t answer it. But there does seem to be something unique about it: among different forms of hatred and racism it does have a unique capacity for survival, an adaptiveness across cultures—it occurs in cultures that don’t appear to have any political or religious reasons, one would think, to hate Jews.

    Bookforum: Mid-twentieth-century Japan being a really good case.

    James Lasdun: Yes, Japan, China. Anti-Semitism poses these mysteries that are quite interesting to me as a Jew. And it seems to be part of the DNA of being Jewish: Judaism has always defined itself as a special case instance of unlikeness to other ethnicities and religions. I say all of this very provisionally and hesitantly, though, because there are two sides to it: What is Judaism and what is a Jew, and then what is anti-Semitism and what is an anti-Semite? I was exploring the idea of anti-Semitism as a preferred way in which the mind expresses a certain kind of common disorder or propensity that comes out under conditions of extreme disinhibition, like drunkenness or madness. In people who are either psychologically lost or who have abdicated a certain kind of control over their behavior and speech, you get these spasm-like outbursts that take the form of anti-Semitism, and which suggest that it’s almost biological—almost zoological—in origin. But this is just an intuition of mine and I can’t really go beyond it. But the next step is to say, well, if this does exist as some kind of innate mental structure, then we all must have it, and so I began looking for it in myself as a way to feel myself into the subject. All of which felt very weird and uncomfortable, if necessary, to do, but I can’t say I got anywhere far with it. But I found Freud an interesting collaborator in the enterprise because in his Moses and Monotheism there’s a point in which you can feel him uncomfortably taking on the mental apparatus of an anti-Semite and then writing the sentence that I quote twice in my book: “I am uneasy when confronted with my own work.” But there is still something to be said for moving closer to the thing you’re trying to understand.

    Bookforum: Has the experience with Nasreen altered your relationship to Judaism? I had the impression as the book progressed that you couldn’t encounter anything to do with Judaism without first filtering it through Nasreen’s hatred—it seemed to be a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance to try and live under, especially if you already had a somewhat complex relationship with Judaism anyway.

    James Lasdun: No kidding. For one thing, I’m completely atheist and irreligious. If I’d been brought up in some conventional pattern of being a Jew, there would have been a more solidly constructed identity of being Jewish, but my sense of being a Jew has always been a bit mysterious and more at the mercy of how other people define what it is to be Jewish, so I think I’m quite prone to internalizing anti-Semitic categories. But that’s a very common thing in Jews: I’ve just been reading Bernard Wasserstein’s new book about Jews in Europe on the eve of World War II, and the degree to which Jews had already begun the flight from their own Judaism by the time the war began was very advanced, much more so than I would have guessed. Particularly in Germany, being Jewish was part of the identity of most German Jews, but it was by no means the dominant part until the Nazis came to power. And at that point, everyone discovered that it didn’t matter how un-Jewish one felt: You are a Jew.

    Bookforum: So is there a sense in which Nasreen made you into a Jew?

    James Lasdun: Well, she consolidated a process. I’ve always thought of myself as Jewish, my parents identified as Jewish but they also converted to Christianity. There was a brief Church-going phase, which my father stopped quite quickly. And so we were brought up Jewish, but we never had Seders or went to synagogue or anything like that. And I never experienced anti-Semitism being a Jew in England, but still, it was never a very positive thing. When I came to live in New York, it was a very different context and it had an effect on me: I felt a kind of animal comfort in some way among New York Jewish intellectuals, teachers, and academics. It was as if I’d found the right kind of context to be in, a situation in which I wasn’t always just a little bit uncomfortable. Which is how you experience it in England. I use the words “biological” or “zoological” and I don’t know if I’m using them literally or metaphorically, but there is a creaturelyness that determines your comfort and your discomfort in given situations and I think that hasn’t been properly looked at in the material I’ve read about anti-Semitism. The very basic human feelings you have when you walk in a room isn’t something that lends itself to objective analysis, but it’s something that a fiction writer could be interested in.

    Bookforum: To what extent has the experience with Nasreen come to color your everyday interactions with people? How do you not, for example, walk away from our conversation and wonder if I’m going to become your stalker?

    James Lasdun: Well, I don’t think that usually, but the experience has made me very prone to doing post-mortems on encounters that I’ve had and. I often ask myself, “Is that what it seemed, did I say something I shouldn’t have, did that person mean something that I didn’t understand?” This was already a tendency of mine, and I have become more vigilant and guarded and self-conscious. But I don’t go around thinking, “is this person going to become a stalker?” What has become apparent to me in writing the book and talking to people about it, however, is how common stalking has become. I haven’t met anyone who experienced it on anything like the scale I did, but a surprising number of people have had a stalking experience of one kind or another. So I suppose I should be thinking, “is this person going to become a stalker?” but something in me refuses to take that on and I still regard my situation as a big anomaly.

    Bookforum: You still teach writing in colleges. Has this experience altered your approach to teaching in any way? Do you have any advice for other teachers on how to avoid these kinds of situations?

    James Lasdun: I don’t know. I’ve been asked that before and I say that it’s made me a bit more guarded, but I never got that involved with students anyway. There are some teachers who really bring their students into their lives, and that’s wonderful, but I was never that kind of teacher. And I didn’t see any kind of warning or indication – that’s the tricky thing about this. Obviously, if you see any warning signs you run away, but what I saw was somebody I thought was a really interesting, nice person; a talented writer who contacted me a couple of years after she left and who I was happy to be in touch with. I worked with her on her book and felt she was talented enough to recommend to my agent. I enjoyed being in correspondence with her, but she wasn’t my student at that point—she was only ever my student for one semester, and two years later I just thought of her as a fellow writer who was simply closer to the starting point than I was. I don’t know what you learn from that. I wonder if I was really blind and just missed things that were obvious, but I don’t know.

    Bookforum: One thing that comes across clearly in the book is how utterly inadequate our laws are in dealing with stalking.

    James Lasdun: Yes, certainly that’s been my experience. The police have been helpful since the book came out and my case has been taken on by somebody at the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit, but it’s basically the same situation as it was before and there’s not very much I can do. But the laws are not... I can’t help feeling that if a celebrity were getting this kind of treatment, the outcome might be different. I’m not sure.

    Bookforum: At one point in the book you say you almost had to relearn the fact that sometimes encounters are really significant, but sometimes they’re just two people passing with no lasting meaning.

    James Lasdun: As I said, when the ordeal was at its peak, I was really unable to think about anything except her and the situation. Being forced to constantly address things I didn’t want to think about was the most painful aspect of all. On the rare occasions in which an hour went by without my thinking of it, after the fact, I had to remind myself to enjoy those moment. And during times in which she eased off and I had clear spaces, I became very appreciative of not being oppressed. I made myself appreciate encounters that were normal, unburdened by these kinds of horrible things. I was really in a state of mind in which everything – everything – seemed somehow infiltrated.

    Bookforum: It seems like a truly unimaginable strain to be placed under.

    James Lasdun: I’ve not experienced anything like it. I was very close to the edge, as they say. It was almost more than I could stand.

    Bookforum: And has writing the book helped?

    James Lasdun: Yes, well, at least now I have a book. Certainly all that I have to say about the situation is in the book: I put it all there and I tried to be absolutely honest. So that’s it.

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