Read on below for a Q&A with Noam Shpancer, author of The Good Psychologist (available 20th January from Abacus).
Q&A with Noam Shpancer
(1) Where are you from?
I was born and raised on an Israeli kibbutz (Nachshon, near Jerusalem).
(2) Who are your favourite writers?
I can’t quite do the ‘favourite’ thing. That seems to be an American preoccupation I neither understand nor share, like baseball and hamburgers. And I don’t read much fiction. I prefer to read magazines, newspapers and online commentary (The New Yorker; NYT; Slate), psychological books and articles (Freud, Vygotsky, and current research) and some poetry (Mark Strand, Milosz). I read in Hebrew a lot and like many Israeli writers: David Fogel, who wrote some of the most beautiful lines ever written in the Hebrew language; the enigmatic Yoel Hoffman, and the canonical poet Yehudah Amichai, who had an unparalleled gift for metaphor. Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev was immensely enjoyable for me. Amos Oz’s The Same Sea I thought was strange and touching. The book, Moskva-Petushky (in English: ‘Moscow Circles’) by Venedict Erofeev has had a most powerful, if not entirely explainable, hold on me. I love it. In English, I like the writing of my good friend Robert Cohen (The Varieties of Romantic Experience). J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace left a huge impression, and it contains the best opening line I’ve ever seen. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen Union was a playful beach read. Recently I read, Exit Ghost by Phillip Roth, and thought it potent. The book Is This Man? by Primo Levi has been influential. I don’t think anybody writes, or can write—or should hope to write—like Primo Levi.
(3) Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
My writing is not influenced that much by books. It’s more influenced by music (Dylan, Miles Davis), movies (Amarcord; In the Mood for Love; Lilya 4-ever; old Spaghetti Westerns), art (Hopper, Rothko, Henry Moore) and the sights and sounds of daily life around me. When I write I hear the words as music—voice, rhythm, flow, and tone.
(4) What are your hobbies and outside interests?
Listening to and playing music; watching and playing sports; appreciating art, particularly painting, sculpture and photography; reading about culture, politics and science; solitude, silence, and contemplation; and travel (preferably with my girlfriend; preferably in Italy).
(5) What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
I don’t think advice shapes lives. I think experience does. Generally, what the people in your life do is more important than what they say. So I don’t remember any really influential piece of advice. Years ago when I was installing solar panels on rich people’s homes in San Francisco, one homeowner struck up a conversation with me. He was a well-dressed middle-aged black man. I was a young, foreign, unskilled laborer with a strange accent and very dirty overalls, who had just emerged from the crawl space under the house. I must have looked grim. He asked me about my future plans. I told him I was going to get a Ph.D. and become a clinical psychologist. He said he was a psychologist, and then he advised me to, “Take it a day at a time.” That whole scene stuck with me. He would have been plenty justified to dismiss me and my nattering. But he didn’t. I thought that was graceful.
(6) What is your favourite quote?
I have many; and many are added and forgotten all the time. It all depends on the context and the mood. I like some of the quotes I put in the book. “If you dream of a muffin, you have a dream, not a muffin.” That’s from the great Israeli writer SY Agnon, I believe. Wittgenstein’s “everything that can be said can be said clearly” is also in the book; I think it’s factually wrong, but aspirationally right. Nietzsche once said something to the effect that, “when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” That’s vivid. The Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis-Singer was once asked, “What would you do if all the world leaders came to your door and asked for your advice?” He said something like: “let them come and ask; then we’ll see.” That’s old Jewish wisdom, distilled. My eccentric graduate school advisor, Ted Wachs, trying his best to be encouraging after a therapy session early in my clinical training, once told me: “I don’t think you have permanently harmed the client.” Now that’s praise you can believe in. My father is fond of saying: “it’s better to be healthy and rich than sick and poor.” That’s not easily contradicted.
(7) What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
So far my readers don't ask many questions. Mostly they say, "Thank you for the enjoyable experience," and I say, "Likewise."
Have you written other things? Where can I find them?
(8) What inspired you to write?
I don’t know if I would call it inspiration. My first book, the one I wrote before The Good Psychologist, was published in Israel in 2005. It was based on my experiences as a young man in the kibbutz in the 80s. Those were turbulent, chaotic times, and the urge to write often emerges from the desire to make sense out of chaos. (That desire is of course futile, as are all others). I don’t look at writing, however, as mainly therapeutic. For me, the pull of writing emanates from two sources. First is the ‘something-from-nothing’ experience that constitutes the creative moment. This to me is the prime joy and wonder of writing; a secular miracle. There is nothing like it and there is no substitute for it. Second is the notion of having a voice. I think this is a uniquely human need—to have a voice, to at once enshrine and transcend the living moment, to etch a bison on the cave’s walls. I don’t write for writing’s sake. I write to be read. If I realized I had no readers I would stop writing. I also have a deep ambivalence about writing and art in general. I’m a son of Holocaust refugees. My mother was an orphan. I grew up on a kibbutz—a farming society dedicated to working the land and a revolutionary movement that set out to change the destiny of humanity. My early environment did not hold the artistic gesture in high regard. Survival, growing food, building houses, fighting injustice—now, that’s worthy work. One’s life can be honorably dedicated to that. But art, self reflection, and subjective expression were considered secondary; luxury; fluff. On the other hand, over time I discovered deep fulfillment and a feeling of aliveness in the presence of great art and in the creative process. So there’s an internal conversation that’s still going on about how seriously I should take my creative efforts. I don’t think it’s a hindrance, however. I think it’s healthy to live mostly in ambivalence, doubt and skepticism and have rare moments of pure conviction and joy rather than attempting the opposite. I don’t think life can be a continuous climax. I think you have moments of climax and the rest is mostly commuting and doing dishes and changing diapers and small talk. People who are such true believers in literature so as to care more about fictional characters than about real living humans scare me almost as much as people who want to burn books.
(9) Where do you write?
I start by jotting down ideas by hand on pieces of paper anywhere ideas appear: at home, in the car, in restaurants, at my bedside. I scribble scenes and dialogues and descriptions in no particular order. I do this ‘digging in the dirt’ until I find the rich vein of the story—the right voice and tone and energy, which may take months or years. After that I write in my little office at home, on my PC, in Hebrew. I write late at night or early in the morning, when everything is quiet. There’s a blank white canvass hanging on the wall just behind my computer, for inspiration. I don’t think of the white paper, or blank screen, as ‘tyrannical’ but rather as ‘seductive.’ Once I start writing, I write every day until the story is complete. I have a great trust in the role of the unconscious in the writing process. I go to the place of the book and then I write what comes up, even if a given scene’s logic or connection to the overall narrative is unclear at the time of the writing. If you’re at the book's place, then the book will show up.
(10) We are interested in the story behind your book – How did the idea for your book originate? Where was the book written? Did the book involve special research or travel? How long have you been at work on this book?
Writers are often advised to write what they know. The Good Psychologist, though not autobiographical, is constructed largely out of the materials of my life. This book has been ‘cooking’— in my head and on scraps of paper around my house—for some time before it took its eventual form.
Many years ago a client showed up in my office claiming to be a stripper with stage fright. We had one session and she never came back, but the intriguing episode remained lodged in the back of my memory.
A few years later I found myself sitting in my office at the clinic one afternoon suddenly wishing that my next client wouldn’t show up. Later that evening, in the car on the way home, I suddenly intuited that this scene—a psychologist sitting in his office wishing his next client won’t show up—held inside it the energy of a novel.
I started thinking: the character of the psychologist I could easily build using my own experiences. I thought he was going to be a contemporary cognitive-behavioral psychologist, not a traditional psychoanalyst as so many literary and movie psychologists tend to be. It was also clear to me early on that he would be a basically decent man and a competent professional. I feel psychologists are all too often depicted in books and movies as reckless, disturbed, corrupt or incompetent, and it seemed uninteresting to go down that beaten path. I thought he should be teaching on the side. His interaction with his students would create possibilities for dramatic development and his lectures, while commenting on the whole enterprise of psychotherapy, could also illuminate aspects of the psychologist’s personality as well as the specific goings-on at his clinic. And when I thought about his clients, that memory of the stripper came up.
I then thought that the psychologist should have some personal drama–having to do with longing and loss, what else—that will correspond in multiple ways with his client’s issues. I thought that the story should be sparsely populated and told in a minor key. The scenes should be vivid and cinematic, but described with restraint, letting much of the action and emotion happen off the page and in the readers’ heads. The story should be about a psychologist, but it should not be a psychological story. The psychologist should remain largely unknown to the reader, as he is to his clients (and, perhaps, to himself). I wanted the characters and their decisions to be both predictable and unpredictable; and I wanted the story to engage on a subterranean level the very fundamental question, addressed in many therapy sessions, of how to move correctly in the world; how to be.
Once I had the right tone and voice in mind and the three main story strands in place—the therapy, the lectures, and the psychologist’s relationship with his lover Nina—all that remained was to write the scenes and see where the characters go and which conflicts and connections emerge in the telling.
I wrote the book originally in Hebrew, in part because I love the language and—having lived in the US now for over 20 years—I needed the writing to get my Hebrew “fix.”
As a writer, I am more of an observer than an ‘imaginer,’ and at several points during the writing of this book, where freer and more daring departures from my own experience were clearly needed to move the plot forward, I found myself stuck. I was lucky to have the support of my girlfriend, Mia Lewis. Mia is a splendid writer and reader and has a vivid and free imagination, but she cannot read Hebrew at all, and we live in different states. Thus, I would tell her over the phone what the characters were doing at that time and she would respond with a flurry of potential plot twists and various moves the characters could make. We would go back and forth and when we’d hit on one that resonated for me, I would rush to my computer to write down the essence of the scene.
Once I started writing this book, I worked every day for roughly five months until I felt the story arch was complete. Then I spent several more months pruning and shaping the material. Once Rana Werbin, my Israeli editor, came on board, we spent roughly seven more months on editing and revisions before the book was finally published in Israel. Later, Rana put me in contact with Jennifer Joel, an American literary agent, and I translated the book into English on Jenn's request.
The Good Psychologist is published by Abacus on 20 January 2011.
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