A Geography of Secrets Author Explores His Secrets during Radio Interview
Kicking off the College of Southern Marylands spring Connections literary events March 4 will be author Frederick Reuss, who has written novels including Mohr, Horace Afoot and Henry of Atlantic City. Author of five books, Reuss will read from his latest, A Geography of Secrets, beginning at 7:30 p.m., March 4, at CSMs Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium, as a part of First Friday in Leonardtown.
In it, Reuss tells the story of two men, connected only by different secrets. His character Noel Leonard works for the Defense Intelligence Agency, analyzing satellite images to map targets in the Global War on Terror. When Leonard learns that his error has caused a school in Afghanistan to be atomized, he realizes how heavily secrets weigh on his and his familys lives. A parallel plot concerns another man, unnamed, who is a mapmaker and comes to suspect that his late fathers foreign-service career also harbors secrets, and he travels to Europe to uncover them.
In preparation for the Connections reading, Reuss was interviewed by CSM President Dr. Brad Gottfried as part of the weekly radio program, Southern Maryland Perspectives.
Question: If you could start off a little bit about yourself, where youre born and raised, education, things of that nature?
Reuss: Im a Foreign Service brat. My father was in the U.S. Foreign Service. And so I was born in Ethiopia and lived in a lot of places growing up including India and Germany and Nigeria and Washington. So much of my formative years were spent overseas. And it was in the 1960s, which was an interesting time to be an American overseas. As a kid, of course, I wasnt tuned in to world events. But in retrospect seeing what my father had been up to and wondering after he passed away in 2007 what that might have included, set me on the path to writing this last book.
Question: When you think back on those days growing up outside of the United States, are there any memories that really stick out in your mind?
Reuss: The most significant and I think long-lasting and formative was the sense of never really being able to answer the question, Where do you come from? with any kind of ease. It was obvious that I am an American and I identify myself as an American. I think like an American and dress like an American. But being overseas and having spent as much time as I had as a child, it got a little fuzzy, lets say. And I suppose that a large part of my reason for being drawn to writing and writing fiction especially was an unconscious effort to begin working some of those things out.
Question: When you look back on your childhood, did you think it was a positive feature of your life or do you think it destabilized you?
Reuss: Oh, well, thats a difficult question to answer because I dont necessarily agree that being destabilized is a negative always. It gives a different perspective is all I can say. And the chance to be able to take a look at things from just slightly askance or a different view, which helps as a writer, of course. Thats an important thing to be able to do. As far as happiness goes, well Ill punt that because I dont really know at this point in mid-life passage what that word really means.
Question: Let me a read a couple quotes about your most recent book, A Geography of Secrets. The Washington Post called it, A thoughtful beautifully written novel, and also, It has the texture and snap of a modern-day Graham Greene novel, painting a world in which even the smallest choices have devastating consequences. How does it feel when youve poured yourself into a book, into a novel, and you pick up the reviews?
Reuss: Its either an act of great vindication or a chance to get really, really upset. Ive been lucky in most of my books have been received fairly well. Ive also had some critical and negative reviews. And I guess I responded as anybody would when they have to take a step back from what theyve done and let other people have their say, and then be willing to live with that.
Question: Lets say someone reviews a book–and Im not just saying your book, Mr. Reuss, but really any book, any authors book–and they feel that it really is not a fair review. Is there any recourse?
Reuss: I think you have to take it on the chin and move on . I decided a long time ago that I was not going to write reviews. And I dont write book reviews. And I take a lot of flak from friends who are writers who do write reviews and some of whom are actually quite well-known as reviewers as well as being writers. But Ive just taken a position that its a kind of a lose-lose thing for me. If Im critical of somebody elses work, then how can I be upset when somebody is critical of mine? Or conversely, if somebody receives from me high praise and accolades that then go on, I cant then expect the pat on the back thing. There was a period, I think, in the early 80s when there was a lot being written about the sort of insider review culture, people reviewing friends books and so on and so forth. And thats long past now, and I dont think people really talk about that anymore. And I think most reviewers recuse themselves.
But its an interesting point because reviewing itself is undergoing a big change as print media is struggling to redefine itself vis-à-vis letters and publishing. Now the bigger venues for getting reviewed are online and blogs and so on. And thats such very much in the early stages now. And the big organs of critical reception–the New York Times being the last major one standing I think, the Washington Post and others, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle–many of them have cut back dramatically the amount of column inches that they devote to book reviewing. So even getting a review nowadays is a minor miracle.
Question: How do you come up with ideas? This one was obvious because you mentioned about your father being in the Secret Service and so much of your background is related to this book. But how about your other books?
Reuss: One of the things Im proud of is that I think my books are each very different. The inspiration is something thats a mystery to me. I read a lot, and I find that probably reading is how I get most of my ideas. And I dont just mean reading other books or other novels, just being engaged with reading as a way of being engaged with the world and the world of ideas. So some of the earlier books were a little bit more academically constructed and take on that issue itself, the reader-writer relationship.
And in fact, my first novel, Horace Afoot, was about a guy who moves to a small town in the Midwest and tries to become the Roman poet Horace by memorizing his works. And its meant satirically, but its also meant as a way of examining the question of how books determine and define us, both our inner life as well as our persona, who we think we are.
Question: In terms of the characters in your books: Are these people that you know maybe not in that particular role but do you model them on people, either friends or associates?
Reuss: I think in the recent book, its something that people are very curious about. And there is, lets say, an odd mixture in the new book of people who are based onthey know who they are. But in my earlier books, not at all. In fact, as I said earlier that cliché about characters coming to life and taking on a life of their own has really been true in my experience because most of the works that Ive started have begun with a kind of abstract idea. They dont really take on concrete form until well into the writing, and then really the characters do take over, and do develop characters or lets say personalities of their own. So its a mysterious process. I cant really say anything more than that. I really dont know how it happens, but it does happen.
Question: Are you actually hearing the dialogue of the characters or are you just saying, OK, this is what this character would say, if you know what I mean?
Reuss: Well both, I guess. I mean once a characters begun to get fleshed out, writing dialogue: you can tell whether the words ring true, whether such person as has now been described would say such a thing in a certain way and so on. But it comes much more spontaneously than that. Its not a very elaborately constructed process. It just happens on the page. And, of course, thats what part of being in the real world is really important. Ive really profited from the diverse experience of people in the world that Ive had. And so then you can become kind of a ventriloquist in a way. And you can imagine other lives.
To hear the complete interview with Reuss or read the transcript visit www.csmd.edu/Connections .
Since CSMs Connections began in 1990, the program has featured US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, National Book Award winners Tim O'Brien and Robert Stone, Pulitzer Prize winning poets Yusef Komunyakaa and Henry Taylor, and Maryland Poet Laureates Lucille Clifton and Michael Glaser.
Tickets are $3 in advance and for CSM students with IDs, and $5 at the door for the general public. For information on Connections, study guides and author links visit www.csmd.edu/connections. Books featured are available at any CSM College Store or online at www.csmd.edu/CollegeStore.
Southern Maryland Perspectives, is a half-hour talk show that features local issues and guests. The same show airs Sundays at 7 a.m. on WKIK 102.9 FM, 7:30 a.m. on WYRX 97.7 FM and 8 a.m. on WSMD 98.3 FM.
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