Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Novelist Perry Glasser: Sending Archie Andrews to a Brothel

Perry Glasser has lived in Haverhill, Mass for the past 30 years, but he still has the brash, streetwise  persona, of a What Makes Sammy Run--like  Brooklyn Jewish kid that he once was. Glasser who has taught writing at Salem State University for many years, is an accomplished man with five books to his credit, the most recent:  Riverton Noir, which won the Gival Press Novel Award  for 2011. The novel deals with a bunch of teenage characters in a fictional Riverton, Mass. and it hysterically sends up the relatively pristine 1950s notion of the teenager exemplified by Archie Comics.  I had the good fortune to interview Glasser on my Somerville Community Access TV show  Poet to Poet :Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: You have lived in Haverhill, Mass. the home of the late Andre Dubus. Many writers that I interviewed on this show have been in his workshop he used to hold out there. What is your association with him?
Perry Glasser: I met Andre at a writers conference years ago where he was running a workshop. I guess there were about 15 people in the class...we became good friends. I assisted him. I read a lot the manuscripts so he didn't have to. (Laugh) He had just got married to his wife Peggy. I remember his daughter Candice as an infant. A couple of years later I got a call from Bradford College where Dubus taught. He said he was moving on from his position there, and wanted to know if I wanted to take a shot at it. So I took the job. I applied for it and I was accepted.
DH: They made a film based on Dubus' fiction, didn't they?
PG: Yeah. We Don't Live Here Anymore. The film wasn't too good. His son's novel The House of Sand and Fog was made into a film and it was much better. When Andre lll learned that his novel was to be was one day after his father died. So he never knew that his son was going to be a big deal. Then Oprah picked the book up. I always say if you have a choice between the Pulitzer and Oprah, pick Oprah--you sell more books. (Laugh).
DH: In your novel  Riverton Noir you have a sort of jaded, hip, sexually-advanced group of teenagers, involved in drugs, murder and mayhem. Are you throwing pie in the face of the 1950s version of the typical teenager?
PG: The answer is yes. Haverhill, Mass. is the birthplace of Archie Comics. When I first moved there over 30 years ago there were people who claimed they knew the characters, which was of course impossible. The comic was designed by a World War ll vet. The Archie Comics annoyed me, perhaps because I taught school in New York City  for 10 years.  My sense of who were typical were not the kids in the Archie Comics. I mean the female characters were divided into three categories: blonde, redhead and brunette. Hair color was how they were classified. I created a dark plot. I wanted dark lives for my high school kids. I fell in love with the protagonist--Madge. She's puzzled by the fact that everyone who lives in Rivereton, appears not to grow old. She begins to think she is in a fictional plot. And then there is the pressure of the real world to contend with...drugs enter into Riverton.
DH: You seem to have a great knowledge of drug use or should I say abuse.
PG: I asked a student of mine about drug use--who had a boyfriend who knew much too much about it. I found out about different doses of drugs, what colors are the pills  etc... I found out if you are abusing painkillers--you want to chew the pills rather than have them go down slowly--this way you can get an immediate hit. I did research. I didn't come from a druggie past.
DH: I remember reading an essay of yours about these brilliant, eccentric but troubled youth you have taught over the years. They later wound up killing themselves. Are any of these characters based on this?
PG: That's very astute. The two formative experiences in my life--are the fact that I was a single parent, and an English teacher at a all girl's school in NYC. This was in 1969. I was a 60s boy and this was the inner city. I thought I was going to bring the revolution to people who needed it. But I of course was the guy who became educated. The kids did not want to change the system--they wanted to get into it. Much of my fiction expressed this, especially through my female characters. These characters are the archetypical young women I met while teaching. My characters experience some of the same things my students did. And to some extent my own daughter--although she was not a character in the novel. The characters are mash ups of several other people. Madge would be the most like me. She is not happy to accept things the way they are. And she uses the strategies young women need to in order to succeed, especially in the crime-ridden milieu of the novel.
DH:  There is a lot of graphic violence and sex. Have you got any flack?
PG: I wish I did--then there would be more people reading it. I haven't gotten any flack. But it is difficult to find pages that I can use at a public reading.
DH: You teach Creative Writing at Salem State University--how do you go about engaging the students?
PG: You give of yourself. You are honest. A student will eventually ask you in class: "What do you think?" You are obliged to tell them rather than evade them. I also think all good teachers are good actors. You also have to provide structure--so the student has the comfort of knowing what comes next and how each step is related to the other.
DH: One of your characters is a sort of Ma Barker-like Jewish aunt. She could cook Matzo Ball Soup, and at the same time be a den mother for a bunch of nefarious criminal types. She was also very literate.
PG: She is based on my first mother-in-law. She was a Holocaust survivor--she smoked cigarettes --and was very well read. She grew up in Vienna--she knew Freud. She was not a drug dealer like the fictional character Sasha. I am grateful to her because she brought  me above my provincial upbringing in Brooklyn.
DH: You have a great talent for dialogue. Your remind of the Boston area crime writer George Higgins of The Friends of Eddie Coyle  fame. I loved his line: "Life is tough and it's tougher if you are stupid."
PG: This is great. I adore Higgins. I don't make up dialogue. I record what my characters are saying. What they are saying in my head. I transcribe what I hear in my mind. It gets sharper when I revise it. It is easy to hear Sasha's voice because she was based on my mother-in-law. So I am either psychotic because I hear voices or else my characters just play out in my mind.
DH: You are a great admirer of Raymond Chandler too?
PG: Chandler is one of the strongest writers ever. I don't think he was a great mystery writer--he was a great writer--period. He gets the feel of the West Coast down cold. William Faulkner did at least two screen treatments of Chandler novels.
DH: Do movies influence your work?
PG:  The movie  Pulp Fiction certainly did. The dialogue is priceless.

1 comment:

  1. Ronnie Nathan12:27 AM

    If you liked Riverton Noir, you'll love Metamemoirs.