A Conversation with Nathaniel Popkin
author of EVERYTHING IS BORROWED
published by New Doors Books
Interview by Grant Clauser
Nathaniel Popkin, Cleaver Magazine’s fiction reviews editor, published a new novel this year, Everything Is Borrowed (New Door Books). It draws deeply from his love of Philadelphia history and his passion for research, but is also a compelling story about one person’s obsessions and regrets. In addition to the new novel, he’s the editor of a new anthology, Who Will Speak for America, author of the novel Lion and Leopard, and three books of non-fiction, Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, Song of the City, and The Possible City. We recently asked Popkin to talk to us about Everything is Borrowed.—Grant Clauser
Grant Clauser: In your new book, Everything is Borrowed, the city of Philadelphia is as much a character in the book as the people. How is infusing a city with personality different from developing a human character?
Nathaniel Popkin: Novelists struggle to compose characters who are complex but also readable. That is, a character should not be so contradictory that she doesn’t make sense. A city, on the other hand, is intrinsically contradictory and almost impossible to figure. Its personality is some kind of amalgamation of built form, size, scale, and of course the people who animate and imprint themselves on it. The imprinting to me is the way to figure the city as a character. To what extent can a character imprint herself on the city, and how so? What form does it take? Or is it impossible? How does a city reveal these (even minute) imprints, how does it store and reveal memories? Or maybe it doesn’t at all. In my first (non-fiction) book, Song of the City, I worked up an urban concept, that a city, or its parts, exists on a scale between the infinite and the parochial (the infinite city is cold and unimpressionable but also wide open, the parochial city smothering and malleable but also nurturing). I invented the concept after reading the novel The War of the Saints by Jorge Amado, in which Salvador de Bahía through its intensely parochial Carnival grants the main character infinite freedom to be and to express. So one way to figure the city’s personality is using the scale between infinite and parochial.
The city in Everything is Borrowed is figured in the accumulation of layers—in physical form and in mind and memory (the layers forming in the tension between the infinite and the parochial). This accumulation is its most tangible characteristic and it mirrors the mind of the main character.
GC: There are several different storylines running throughout the book, some even on different timelines, yet you weave them in and out through each other. Did they evolve at the same time as you were crafting the story, and how did you decide on their intersection points?
NP: This is the formal experiment of the novel—to present the historical past, the recent past, and the present all in the present tense. This written form is the analog to the city’s mounting layers, which collect and store all of it. The intersections came quite naturally as I wrote the book in one gesture. For this reason, I’ve found it hard to choose passages to read at book events—the main character Nicholas Moscowitz passes through fields of time sometimes all in one paragraph or page. I’ve always worried this would be confusing for a reader confronted with only a small section of text. Yet because the time fields shift naturally (at least I hope) they come to form a dreamscape to mirror the cityscape and Nicholas’s inner life.
GC: Again, thinking about timelines–it seems to me that the mind naturally exists outside of linear time. Our thoughts constantly wonder from the past to present to future. What are the challenges of working that kind of flux in a novel?
NP: The most obvious challenge is that it could be frustrating for the reader: hard to follow, annoying, distracting. Sometimes a writer wants to announce a form—the form becomes the subject of the book; it’s meant to be visible (and sometimes those novels break ground and sometimes they’re insufferable). In some sense this is what’s happening in Everything is Borrowed for all of the reasons described above. But Nicholas is an architect, the kind who believes that the best design is invisible. In a meta sense and as the architect of the novel, I agree. The natural movement among these mental time fields should feel intrinsic to the character’s experience.
There’s danger in a novelist trying to replicate human life too carefully—the result is flat, airless. The best dialog, for example, doesn’t reveal how people really speak. The same for the wandering thoughts.
Another thing: there’s danger in a novelist trying to replicate human life too carefully—the result is flat, airless. The best dialog, for example, doesn’t reveal how people really speak. The same for the wandering thoughts. To replicate that manifestation of a person’s inner life would destroy the text’s capacity to move the reader.
GC: As the novel progresses, Nicholas gets drawn increasingly deeper into the rabbit hole of history, as well as the rabbit hole of his own life. Did you feel their same draw as you were researching for the tale? Is there any danger for a novel (or novelist) that draws so strongly on history that one might get lost in it?
NP: I did much of the research that Nicholas does, but I did so with a different and more distant sense of curiosity. I did it as a novelist searching for serendipitous moments, for ways to move the plot, for ways to deliver the atmosphere the novel needed. I did it to build Nicholas’s world.
On the other hand, a critique I often hear is that the novel goes too deep into history—and maybe that’s because I was blinded by discovery. So in this way, yes, there’s danger—you might lose the storyline. On the other hand, a novel emerges out of some kind of strange obsession.
GC: As Nicholas learns more about the history of that part of Philadelphia, and more about the history of the people, he seems to learn more about himself. The external and internal discoveries parallel each other. Do you think that’s one way the mind works—that focusing on a goal outside ourselves can bring about different ends? Sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting?
NP: Maybe it’s a novelistic trope to have a character learning about himself by seeking something else. But Nicholas is seeking himself, even if he doesn’t know it. He’s pawing at an itch, pawing and pawing. But to answer your question directly, I think the mind is constantly imbibing the world, digesting and adjusting to it—and you never know how something drunk one day will seep in another. It must be a dynamic process.
GC: On one level this is a story about avoiding truths as much as digging them up (or realizing them). Why does avoiding something in front of your face seem to also trigger another discovery? Is it nature that eventually brings a person around full circle?
NP: Oh yes, repression never really works does it? You can’t really erase or avoid or ignore. Whatever’s lurking there will find a way to make itself known—because you need it to. Nicholas needs to deal with his own personal memory, his own sense of shame. But I don’t believe in the full circle. Who knows where it will take him? Maybe not full circle. The novel ends before the end; Eva is returning, that’s all we know. And Nadia? Nicholas comes full circle in terms of some plot developments but emotionally we aren’t sure where all this will lead. I’m not sure there are ever clean resolutions.
GC: Anarchy plays a significant role in this book. How did you come upon the story of the anarchist Moskowitz (I’m assuming he’s real) and why did you choose to build a story around him and that movement?
NP: I came upon the story of the anarchist Moskowitz in the same place Nicholas does—the history book by Harry Boonin. I read the story of Moskowitz carrying out his Yom Kippur protest in a physical place quite well known to me and his subsequent transformation to be president of the Holy Burial Society and I was fascinated (reading the passage was one of the seeds of this book). I put it away until I had the right character, whose own issues found resonance with the anarchist Moskowitz’s.
Moskowitz was an immigrant anarchist at the end of the 19th century and so I had to do quite a lot of research into that time—and the world and ideas of anarchists. This led to a significant thematic exploration of the book, between anarchists who in popular imagination tear down and architects who in popular imagination build up. In the world of this book if not in real life, though, anarchists espouse a philosophy of building organic community without state interference—almost in exact opposition to conventional wisdom—and architects, who all too often are the ones, out of ego or desires of the marketplace, to tear down.
GC: What are the greatest pleasures you get out of writing a novel?
NP: The chance to compose music, to rupture language toward the ineffable, to pose questions.
[Philadelphia] is a remarkable city for an artist because the eyes remained fixed on the ground, with the people, and not in the stars (only Calvino could make real art out of the stars). It is a remarkable city for the triumphs and scars that it bears, for its humanity and humility. And, of course, it’s cheap, relatively speaking, always good for an artist.
GC: What do you like best about Philadelphia? Is it a good city for an artist?
NP: It is a remarkable city for an artist because the eyes remained fixed on the ground, with the people, and not in the stars (only Calvino could make real art out of the stars). It is a remarkable city for the triumphs and scars that it bears, for its humanity and humility. And, of course, it’s cheap, relatively speaking, always good for an artist.
Another thing: it is a dynamic place, more dynamic than I think I would have said previously, and that creates the currents for art and literature.
GC: One of your many roles is as an editor of the website Hidden City Philadelphia. How does that work overlap or influence your literary work?
NP: My experience of the city feeds everything, even in my work for Cleaver as a book review editor. The city is a text to read, and actually to be read in various languages. As a writer, I enjoy playing with subjects and themes. So one subject I wrote about as a journalist and then incorporated into the essay-photo book Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City also appears in a fictional form in Everything is Borrowed. Maybe better to say, for me, everything is related.
GC: In addition to your new novel, You’ve also recently co-edited an anthology called Who Will Speak for America? Can you tell us a little about that?
NP: The multi-genre anthology Who Will Speak for America? confronts the rising nativism and corruption of the Trump era with voices of reason, despair, and hope. With co-editor Stephanie Feldman, we sought to gather a wide range of contemporary America literary voices to answer a question originally posed by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in her 1976 address to the Democratic National Convention. In the speech, she stated, in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam:
Many may fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices ar never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private work—wants; to satisfy their private interests. But this is the great danger America faces—that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual; each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?
The Congresswoman used the question to inspire people to stand up for America’s cherished ideals of liberty and justice for all. A few of our contributors took the question this same way, while others addressed the corruption of those ideals. But to most, Jordan’s question was a call to be heard, as Trump and his allies seek to limit who can call themselves American–targeting refugees, asylees, immigrants, and even naturalized citizens. For many, claiming American identity is an act of bravery. This, after all, is the tradition of American writing: to widen the meaning of “American” by writing our freedoms, challenging their limitations, and defining for ourselves the future.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.
Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of four poetry books, Necessary Myths (Broadkill River Press 2013) and The Trouble with Rivers (Foothills Publishing 2012), The Magician’s Handbook (PS Books, 2018) and Reckless Constellations (Cider Press Review Books, 2018). In 2010 he was named the Montgomery County Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. In 2014 he was a guest poet at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He also writes about electronics, teaches poetry at random places and chases trout with a stick. His blog is www.uniambic.com. Email craft essay queries to [email protected].