The Listener by Rachel Basch


February 2015  – An Exclusive Authorlink Interview

By Columnist Doreen Akiyo Yomoah

The Listener
by Rachel Basch

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AUTHORLINK: How did you get your start in writing?

BASCH: I think most people who come to writing loved to be read to when they were kids. I was really slow to learn to read. Because I struggled a great deal, there was something magical about stories. I got read to longer than most kids. I wrote poetry in grade school and high school. In college, I was lucky enough to go to a school that allowed me to do a creative senior thesis. [Basch went to Wesleyan University.] I wrote a small collection of short stories. It was a huge amount of freedom to be allowed to write a creative thesis at a time when mostly, a senior thesis on undergraduate level had to be a research paper.

“I knocked about a bit, worked in restaurants, and had all kinds of day jobs, and tried to write on the side. “

After college, I knocked about a bit, worked in restaurants, and had all kinds of day jobs, and tried to write on the side. I found it hard to do that in isolation. I was about 26 or 27 when I decided to get an MFA because it would force me to write and I’d be in the company of other writers. That was when I addressed myself more seriously. I went to NYU, it was pretty early days of that program. The classes were at night and I worked during the day, so it was ideal.

AUTHORLINK: When you were able to start reading on your own, is that when you started writing?

BASCH: I always loved stories and making up stories. All kids daydream a lot, and as we get older it just gets beaten out of us. My daydreaming was a problem in school, I was often coming to when the teacher was calling my name having no idea what was being said or what was happening, and that was sort of the precursor. I’m a slower reader than most people who read and write for a living. Richard Ford talked about this -I believe he was dyslexic- when you struggle I think you tend to read in a more appreciative way.

AUTHORLINK: How did you come up with the idea for The Listener?

BASCH: As with all my novels, it was a conflagration of a bunch of things. I was finishing up my last book, The Passion of Reverend Nash, which is about a Congregational minister. I went to a congregational church every Sunday for a number of years to research the novel. [Basch is Jewish.] One of the last times I went, there was a young person in front of me in one of the pews. He was tall, and I’m short so I really noticed him. He was dressed in what we’d consider more “female” clothing, in a kind of flamboyant way, and he had blue nail polish. You don’t get a much more staid group of people than you do inside a Congregational New England church. He was by himself, and he was young, maybe 16 or 17. I wondered what was bringing him there. And what guts to stand out like that, not trying to hide how he feels on the inside.

My mind kind of just reeled. Part of it is that I monitored my own initial response to him and I didn’t like it. Initially I pulled back and was like “this is something different, this is going to scare me”. I immediately stopped and said “wow what’s that? Where is that coming from?” I’m not going to enter into any long-term writing project unless it’s going to expand me.

“I’m not sure gender is a theme as much as it is a forum to discuss identity. “

AUTHORLINK: Would you say the central themes of the book are gender identity and grief? Why was it important to you to explore these themes?

BASCH: I’m not sure gender is a theme as much as it is a forum to discuss identity. And truth. The truth about oneself. One of the themes of the book, in a way, is lying. It’s about things being covered over and concealed and held back. As far as grief, I’m one of those people who believes you can reduce all themes down to loss.

It’s also about the power of love and the power of connection; the ways in which we are responsible for healing one another and expanding one another to heal the world. And that happens in small ways. I think we are right now it seems to me inundated with information about enormous amounts of violence. The truth is that violence is happening every day in our lives on a very cellular level. When we harden our hearts to friends, children, spouses, even momentarily, it’s violence. I’s not extreme, it’s not beheading by ISIS, but it’s violence and eventually one hopes the global will be affected by the cellular.

“That’s what writers do, they take something particular and use it to explore something universal. “

The LGBT issue [the two main characters are Malcolm, a therapist, and Noah, a patient who shows up after several months as Leah] is just a forum to talk about this very universal stuff. That’s one of the things I find troubling about identity politics. We need to talk about it on that level, but everyone is included. Through this issue, very universal things can be refracted. That’s what writers do, they take something particular and use it to explore something universal.

AUTHORLINK: What do you love about teaching writing versus writing?

BASCH: I love teaching. I’m really grateful. It never occurred to me that I would teach. It’s not something I thought I wanted to do. Like all young people who write, I thought “I’ll just write! That’ll work out great!” and it didn’t work out so great in terms of paying the bills. I got a teaching fellowship at NYU and I was able to parlay that into other teaching jobs. Teaching is hard work, it’s draining. If you’re lucky when you’re teaching creative writing — both fiction and nonfiction writing, your students have skin in the game and you’re interacting with them on a complex and intimate basis. At any time, I could have 25-30 different stories in my head, and these stories are very important to the people who are writing them. I get an enormous amount back from talking to students about their process, being reminded about the joy that’s intrinsic to the process. Being left to my own devices, I could forget about that.

“It’s a solitary endeavor. If I didn’t teach I could go a long time without interacting with other people, not a great thing for a writer, really.”

Writing is also lonely. It’s a solitary endeavor. If I didn’t teach I could go a long time without interacting with other people, not a great thing for a writer, really.

AUTHORLINK: Do you write non-fiction, short stories, plays or other types of literature?

BASCH: Recently I’ve been writing essays, creative non-fiction. A little bit of short fiction. I find that incredibly challenging. I’m just venturing right now into writing plays. I love the theater. I think it’s the most thrilling art form. I have a son who’s an actor, so hearing him talk about the process made me envious of a more collaborative artistic experience.

AUTHORLINK: What’s coming up for you next?

BASCH: Right now, I’m working on a play, I’m working on a bunch of personal essays that I hope will be a collection. This novel took a very long time. My other books, I wrote them, sold them, they came out. I wrote this, no one wanted it. I rewrote it and rewrote and rewrote. I kept getting different feedback. It took almost ten years. It was kind of traumatic. Now I’m a little wary about entering into some enormous project to which I make a years-long commitment. In a way that’s been good. I have written a bunch of essays, sort of a different voice came to me. I’m sure I’ll go back to novels, I just need to catch my breath from what felt like a long ordeal. I’ve been teaching a lot more, and frankly have had less time to write in the last couple of years.

About the Author:

Rachel Basch is the author of two previous novels: The Passion of Reverend Nash (named one of the five best novels of 2003 by The Christian Science Monitor) and Degrees of Love. Basch has reviewed books for The Washington Post Book World, and her nonfiction has appeared in n+1, Parenting, and The Huffington Post. Basch was a 2011 MacDowell Colony Fellow. She received the William Van Wert Memorial Fiction Award for an excerpt from The Listener. She currently teaches in Fairfield University’s MFA Program and in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan University. She lives in Connecticut.

About Doreen Akiyo Yomoah:

Doreen Akiyo Yomoah is a nomadic freelance writer, currently living in Dakar, Senegal.