Catch Josh at Book Soup this Thursday, 3/26/2009 at 7:00 pm!
Hitman Pietro Brwna enters the Witness Protection Program and becomes Peter Brown, an emergency room doctor. A Mafia associate from his past ends up in the hospital on his shift and turns his entire protected life upside down. Packed with medical information and footnotes, the story of Peter’s past and the story of his present intersect beautifully during his last 8 hours at the hospital. Beat the Reaper is Josh Bazell’s first novel.
First, I should tell you that I was completely surprised at how much I liked Beat the Reaper. I’m not much for thriller/action-type novels, but, seriously, from about page two I was completely hooked. And although the ending was one of the most disgusting and painful endings I’ve ever read, I enjoyed it and I will never forget it. That’s what you’re looking for in a good book, eh?
Josh Bazell has a unique writing voice that reminds you of an old, gritty 40s detective movie. Some scenes get to the point so quick with limited dialog that you are taken off guard (and maybe disappointed they didn’t linger longer…) and some have a twist and you can’t believe you just read what you read. But, in all cases, Josh made the right decision on how he worked the story and I’m eagerly looking forward to the second installment of Pietro Brwna’s story.
Josh Bazell came to San Francisco for the hospitals about three years ago. (Did I forget to mention he’s also a doctor?) He’s single (ahem) except for his Boston terrier, Lottie. On the average day you’ll find him sitting around in a Tshirt and doing all the usual human stuff like drink beer, speed race and herb window box gardening (I may have made those last two up) and listening to “America,” by Spinal Tap; a demo version of “Birthday,” by the Sugarcubes; “Wrecking Ball” by Emmylou Harris; and “Gypsy Eyes,” by Hendrix.
How much of you is in Pietro? What’s your favorite characteristic of his?
What I like most about Pietro is that he’s always looking for ways to be moral that don’t require innocence. I’d like to think I do that too, but I definitely don’t put as much energy into it as he does.
Sex can be a difficult thing for people to write well and not indulge into porno-land. Was it hard for you to write the sex scenes?
I didn’t really think about it. I grew up on books like Jaws, that had tons of sex in them. So to me it would feel unnatural to write an entire novel in which the characters don’t think about or have sex, or they do but I can’t be bothered to mention it. Granted, asexuality (or rather the confinement of sex in fiction to pornography) is the trend. Remember when young adult fiction meant Judy Blume and Lois Duncan, and was read by kids? Someone should write a young adult novel called I Am Disappointed In and Afraid Of Sex, so that adults who read young adult fiction in public won’t have to worry about people not getting the message.
Part of the book is set in Russia. Have you been to Russia? Is it in your family roots?
Some of my ancestors were from there. I’ve never been. Russian history reminds me of the alleged Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I’m hoping to get a chance to visit when Beat the Reaper comes out there.
Who is your target audience with Beat the Reaper? What kind of response have you received?
I try to spend as little time as possible thinking along these lines, but I tend to feel that people’s responses to books are so personal and idiosyncratic that pretty much anyone who reads Beat the Reaper deserves my appreciation. If they’re entertained by it and/or can relate to it, obviously that’s a good thing, but if they loathe it that’s strangely entertaining as well. I don’t know why. It’s infantile.
How did you do research for the Hitman part of the story?
I read every memoir I could find by people who have been through the Federal Witness Relocation Program. There are a lot of them, and they’re difficult to read because they’re poorly written and often morally repellent. But if you’re looking for sordid, they’ll give you sordid.
Did you learn anything at Brown that has become invaluable in your writing?
My attitude toward my writing education at Brown varies. I read a lot of books there and got time to write, and I met people who took literature seriously. On the other hand, the writing workshops I took there never discussed structure, or any other concern beyond the “quality of prose” on the page. And there were no classes at all on long-form writing, which is what I’ve always been interested in. Since structural rules are easier to learn than style, and since the idea of structure has been so tarnished by bad screenwriting instruction, I understand not spending a lot of class time on it. But some would have been nice.
The business side of health care you describe is almost too hard to read and sickening. How much of that is the truth from your experience and how much has been fictionalized? If you were God, (I’m not saying you aren’t) what would you do to change things?
Clearly the U.S. healthcare system is in trouble, since it’s crazily expensive and primarily serves the interests of the insurance, pharmaceutical, and (to a smaller but real degree) personal industry industries.
Just as clearly, to fix it (and a lot of other things) we probably need for legislators to not take money from the industries they’re supposed to regulate. Tom Daschle was taking more money from for-profit “health care” corporations than he would have made working 60 hours a week as a general practitioner. And if he hadn’t cheated on his taxes he would now be Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Is the part in the book about the Auschwitz connection to Aventis, Agfa, BASF, and Bayer actually true? If it is true, I feel so dirty.
It is true: check it out here.
What impresses me about these companies is their foresight in predicting how quickly world anti-Semitism would rebound after WWII, and how easily they could therefore sell an image of the Holocaust as exaggerated and excessively talked about. Worldwide, this is now the popular consensus, though it’s losing ground to feelings (and statements) that the Holocaust never happened at all, or else did but was justified.
I loved and hated the character Skinflint about equally. You’ve written him in a way that defies someone to not feel compassion for him. How do you feel about him?
It’s pretty much a hate the sin and love the sinner situation. How can you hate someone too weak to fight his instincts?
The theme of the book is about a person being able to change and getting redemption. Have you experienced that in your own life?
Most people I know spend a lot of time either wanting or trying to change themselves. So yeah — I think most of us like the idea of redemption, and don’t seem to mind the judgment it passes on the lives we’re living now. It’s the tension between satisfaction and ambition.
I was annoyed that the footnotes were there and then I was annoyed that I kept wanting to read what they were and I enjoyed every annoying minute of it. As a writer myself, it seemed like a tricky thing to get right, a kind of hook that you gambled on that paid back in a big way. Were you worried about using them?
Yeah, the footnotes. The idea for them came from formatting the novel almost as an “as told to” memoir. And they turned out to be surprisingly useful, since they represent a subtly different voice (and timeframe) from the central narrator. But they were never necessary. It would have been easy to put the information in them, such as it is, in the text, and I was prepared to do that if either my agent or my editor felt strongly that I should. But they both liked the footnotes, and now I’m stuck using them in my next book because so many people have complained about them. By the way, one of them is intentionally irritating so that you’ll remember the information in it later, and all of them are skippable. (Ed. Note: But, you won’t want to.)
Whose writing style to you love to read?
James Ellroy, Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson, Thom Jones. Anybody whose work is really alive.
Any book(s) to recommend?
I almost never do that, because, like I say, books seem so personal. It’s like universally recommending a particular girlfriend or something. I did just read Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich, which is about how woodland animals survive winter, and I really liked it. It’s observational biology in the style of Konrad Lorenz. It’s beautiful, and it makes you feel like you just spent a weekend in the country.
If you are 80 and living your dream life, what is it?
I really need to nail that down. It’s probably really helpful.
What interview question(s) are you so tired of answering and how many did I ask you?
The really bad ones only come from people who haven’t read the book. They’re all variations on “I haven’t read the book I’m interviewing you about. Please relieve my anxiety and embarrassment about that, and also entertain me.”