An Interview with Stuart Nadler

Stuart Nadler’s writing touches on the core American themes: vast geography, wealth, racism, individual rights, and baseball. He is the author of Wise Men, a sweeping tale of a family’s rise to fortune and the complications it creates, and the story collection The Book of Life. Nadler has been honored with the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an all-around nice guy.

Nadler’s first novel, Wise Men, was published in February to great acclaim. The Boston Globe found it “genuinely moving,” while People Magazine called it “A historical novel with the gusto of Gatsby.” To read his story, “Airplanes,” check out the Fall 2012 issue of CQ. The Carolina Quarterly recently talked with Nadler about looking at pictures of old Cadillacs, Cape Cod National Seashore, and what it’s like to create a town.

Nate Young, Fiction Staff

Carolina Quarterly (CQ): You were recently selected for “5 under 35” by the National Book Foundation for The Book of Life. What does that honor mean for you?

Stuart Nadler (SN): It was a great honor and utterly humbling, especially having been picked by Edith Pearlman, a writer whose work I love and admire—and a Bostonian! And I was especially glad to be part of such a terrific group of writers.

CQ: Your new novel, Wise Men, seems to be very concerned with geography: Cape Cod; New Haven, Connecticut; suburban New York; and rural Iowa, among other places. Do you have any connection to these locations yourself?

SN: I don’t have any particular connection to New Haven, apart from having driven through it for years when going back and forth between Boston and New York. I have, though, lived in Iowa, which is where I went to graduate school, and for the past few years I’ve been spending time in the summers out on the far arm of Cape Cod. It’s an area of the country I love, and one that everyone, at some point, needs to see. President Kennedy made this far edge of the Cape into a National Park (The National Seashore) and so it’s been left alone, and because of that it’s completely empty of all the kinds of beachy bric-a-brac and resort hotels and boardwalk amusements that you find up and down the east coast. Instead you have the trees and the spot ponds and the whole coast, unadorned and beautiful.

CQ: On that note, however, there is no Bluepoint, Massachusetts, Wren’s Bridge, New York or Ebbington, Iowa on any map, but you manage to make these towns feel three dimensional. Are they amalgams of real places, and what does creating a town allow you to do in your novel?

SN: I like to do this, if for no other reason than it frees me up from the adhering too closely to the real place. I lived in New York City for ten years, and because of that when I picture New York, or write about it, I’m bringing to bear my experience of the place, my knowledge of what restaurants sit on what blocks. There’s a responsibility to the truth when you write a real place. But to create a place like Bluepoint, which, in my head, exists between Wellfleet and Truro, or like Ebbington, which I picture being somewhat close to the Mississippi, is to allow myself to do anything—to put a house wherever I want, or a diner, or a ball field, and not worry about the fidelity of the image.

CQ: Similarly to the geography, cars feature prominently in the novel, from the pivotal Packard to Savannah’s Land Rover and to the Jeep Patriot with the American flags at the end. How did you select these cars and what do they bring to the story?

SN: I’m glad you saw this! I love cars but know absolutely nothing about how they work. One of the things I loved most about researching the world in which the Wise family would have lived was poring over pictures of old Cadillacs and Packards. I’m not sure if these particular cars add anything to the novel that any other well-placed detail wouldn’t have, but they were certainly fun to come up with.

CQ: Wise Men is written from the perspective of Hilly Wise looking back on his life. As a young author, how does it feel to write from the perspective of someone so much older than yourself?

SN: The great part about Hilly is that he’s such an open narrator—perfectly willing to admit his prejudices and shame and regrets and embarrassments—and I had a great time writing in his voice. The issue of how old he is, and how I am, was never something I worried about. Writing is always a process of imagination and of assuming another person’s consciousness. It’s the same process I imagine an actor takes when they’re preparing a role.

CQ: Through Hilly’s recollections, the narrative of the story spans almost 60 years. What attracted you to writing such a sweeping story?

SN: I’ve always loved novels that span time, and I always knew that if I had the opportunity that I would try to do this. There’s something wonderful about having access to a character’s life, and to see, in the end, where their story goes. In general, I’ve always loved the passage of time in stories, even on a small scale, from morning to night, or from week to week. It’s something that’s a thrill to encounter when you read, and something I’ve tried to put into my work—in both books.

CQ: Referring to time, the novel is neatly divided into three books, the first two of which cover the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the early 1970s, respectively. What is the draw for period pieces and what does that past setting allow you to do?

SN: The issue of the time periods was borne out of necessity rather than out some initial blueprint for the novel. The very first scene I wrote for Wise Men was a scene in which Hilly encounters his father by chance on a street in Washington, D.C., and ends up following him into a bar. His father, at a certain point, dictates a note to the bartender to tell Hilly that if he ever sees him like this again, not to follow him. For months this was the first chapter of the book, and from that small germ, and from answering a lot of the initial questions that scene brought up, I was able to find the rest of the story. A novel is, in a lot of ways, a series of these kinds of questions, and this small scene, which is now in the third part of the book, and which now is about Hilly and Savannah, gave me the impulse to wonder how this family got its money, and why, after all this time, there was still trouble between Hilly and his father. This is how I got to the beginning of the book—to the late ’40s and early ’50s, and by starting there, and ending somewhere close to the present day, I knew I’d get the scope I was looking for. In that, however, was the most difficult challenge for this book, which was how to go from section to section in a way that felt organic. That particular issue was probably the aspect of craft I worried and thought and fussed with most.

CQ: This first part of the novel is a miniature rags to riches narrative about the Wise family. Why is it important to show readers this rise?

SN: The crash at the beginning of the book, and the subsequent windfall of money that the family experiences—these are the central incidents of Hilly’s life. But since they happen when he’s at such an impressionable age, at that point in his development where his personality and his confidence and his view of the world is beginning to emerge, it was important to me to be able to show where Hilly had come from—and how he had truly, always enjoyed living where he’d lived, and being the boy he’d been, which is to say a boy without very much except for his family and his friends.

CQ: Many of Hilly’s relationships with his family and friends appear to be quite fraught. Is there any hope for the characters to resolve their problems?

SN: I’m not sure I can answer that question. I will say that I hold out hope for them. For all of them.