On European Audiences, Workshopping, and His Novel, The Altruists: An Interview with Andrew Ridker

By Sabrina Völz

I met author Andrew Rid­ker at the Heine-Haus in Lüneb­urg on Octo­ber 21, 2019. After the inspir­ing evening, he kind­ly agreed to an email inter­view with the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Blog. His nov­el, The Altru­ists, describes a dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly bur­dened by their respec­tive pasts and their attempts to repair shat­tered rela­tion­ships. Ulti­mate­ly, as the title sug­gests, it is also about being good.

SV: Your debut nov­el, The Altru­ists, is reap­ing the high­est praise from crit­ics in the U.S. and beyond. How are you cop­ing with all of the attention?

AR: I’m extreme­ly grate­ful for the kind reviews, which have exceed­ed my expec­ta­tions, but in my expe­ri­ence those highs have an expi­ra­tion date of rough­ly twen­ty-four hours. After that, it’s back to work.

SV: In Octo­ber, you went on a book tour in Ger­many (Berlin, Göt­tin­gen, and Lüneb­urg), Aus­tria (Salzburg), and Switzer­land (Zürich). Was it your first vis­it to these Ger­man-speak­ing coun­tries? Did any­thing sur­prise you?

AR: I spent a week in Berlin in the win­ter of 2012, while study­ing abroad in the U.K. Oth­er than that, I hadn’t been to any of those cities before. I was instant­ly enam­ored of the medieval archi­tec­ture in towns like Göt­tin­gen and Lüneb­urg. On the lit­er­ary side, I was struck by how long Ger­man book events tend to be – about nine­ty min­utes – when, in the States, you can feel the audi­ence begin to grow dis­tract­ed after half an hour. I’ve also noticed, in gen­er­al, that Euro­pean audi­ences ask more abstract ques­tions about theme and autho­r­i­al intent, where­as Amer­i­can audi­ences are more inter­est­ed in con­crete ques­tions of labor: How was this com­posed? How long did it take? What does your writ­ing prac­tice look like? In Europe, read­ers seem to view nov­els as irre­ducible works of art, where­as in the States, read­ers see fic­tion writ­ing as a craft. Both, I think, are true.

SV: And since we are on the top­ic of places: I’m from Iowa and can’t resist ask­ing you about the Iowa Writer’s Work­shop. Iowa is some­what off the beat­en path for most peo­ple, but for many writ­ers, it’s often regard­ed as one of the best places to study cre­ative writ­ing. What has it meant for your devel­op­ment as a writer? Is the Work­shop as elit­ist and com­pet­i­tive as some have accused it to be?

AR: Iowa today is a much more nur­tur­ing place than it was in the bad old days, as I under­stand them, all thanks to the cur­rent direc­tor, Lan Saman­tha Chang. Sam has made Iowa a kinder place and a much more diverse one in terms of the stu­dent body and in terms of lit­er­ary style. Nonethe­less, when you drop 100 aspir­ing writ­ers into a small Mid­west­ern col­lege town, ten­sions are going to rise from time to time. That ten­sion is a byprod­uct of ener­gy and ambi­tion, which are not bad in and of them­selves. I fin­ished writ­ing The Altru­ists before going to Iowa, and while I’m cer­tain the pro­gram has had an impact on my writ­ing, I can only guess at this point – six months after grad­u­at­ing – what that entails: more flu­en­cy with scene-set­ting and dia­logue, prob­a­bly. Hope­ful­ly. Most impor­tant­ly, I had the time and space to write unen­cum­bered for two years, and I made some close friends whose nov­els, sto­ries, and poems will no doubt cause a stir when they hit book­stores: San­je­na Sathi­an, Lee Cole, Ariel Katz, Janelle Effi­watt, Sarah Math­ews, and oth­ers. Remem­ber those names!

SV: Speak­ing of work­shop­ping, at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg, my col­leagues and I teach cre­ative writ­ing and/or cre­ative non-fic­tion. Work­shop­ping is an impor­tant part of our pro­gram. Do you have any advice for us about how to help our stu­dents get the most out of these ses­sions? And do you have any advice for stu­dents who some­times are hes­i­tant to give or receive feedback?

AR: The work­shop mod­el, pio­neered at Iowa, is imper­fect, but it’s still the best I’ve seen so far. I’m in favor of the author speak­ing up peri­od­i­cal­ly, or at the end of a work­shop ses­sion, to ask ques­tions about areas of their man­u­script that might not have been addressed. The writer Tony Tulathimutte, who runs a writ­ing work­shop in Brook­lyn called CRIT, recent­ly tweeted—and I’m paraphrasing—that a work­shop ses­sion isn’t quite about deter­min­ing what is and isn’t work­ing in a draft, but rather 1) artic­u­lat­ing what the draft’s inten­tions are, 2) artic­u­lat­ing what the draft is actu­al­ly doing, and 3) sug­gest­ing how the draft might bet­ter achieve its aims, or in some cas­es propos­ing more inter­est­ing aims. That’s a good artic­u­la­tion of the ques­tion at hand. In my view, work­shop sub­mis­sions should not be com­pared against some pla­ton­ic ide­al of what a short sto­ry is, but rather the best pos­si­ble ver­sion of itself. For stu­dents hes­i­tant to par­tic­i­pate, I’d say that noth­ing is more gen­er­ous than a reader’s close atten­tion, no mat­ter how crit­i­cal the com­ments are.

SV: Bernard Mala­mud cre­at­ed char­ac­ters whose fail­ures are of their own mak­ing, char­ac­ters who are par­a­lyzed by self-imposed suf­fer­ing as well as char­ac­ters who elic­it both humor and pity. And Mala­mud, at least until the tur­bu­lence of the 1960s, pre­ferred his char­ac­ters’ suc­cess – how­ev­er small that might be – to their fail­ure. These char­ac­ter­is­tics seem to apply to The Altru­ists. Would it be fair to say that Mala­mud has influ­enced your writing?

AR: I read The Assis­tant at some for­ma­tive age, maybe fif­teen or six­teen, while on a fam­i­ly vaca­tion to Italy – it’s all I remem­ber from the trip. Take that, Berni­ni! I always loved the moral dimen­sion to his work; his char­ac­ters are fre­quent­ly con­front­ed with eth­i­cal dilem­mas that test their best inten­tions. I start­ed writ­ing The Altru­ists from a more cyn­i­cal place than when I fin­ished, so in many ways I had to learn the plea­sure of let­ting my char­ac­ters suc­ceed, how­ev­er occa­sion­al­ly, rather than rev­el­ing too much in their fail­ure. After all, there is much more com­e­dy in fail­ure than in suc­cess, but a nov­el in which char­ac­ters do noth­ing but fail has failed itself to rep­re­sent the vagaries of life.

SV: What about oth­er influ­ences on your writ­ing? I read that you wrote your bach­e­lor the­sis on Philip Roth.

AR: Roth was big for me, as were Jonathan Franzen, Lor­rie Moore, Edith Whar­ton, Zadie Smith, Fran Ross, Flan­nery O’Connor, J.M. Coet­zee, Muriel Spark, I.B. Singer, Thomas Mann, Flaubert, Fitzger­ald, Salinger… I seem to grav­i­tate toward writ­ers who cut their sor­row with irony and humor. In more recent years, I’ve been delight­ed to dis­cov­er Karan Maha­jan, Nell Zink, Kei­th Gessen, Ottes­sa Mosh­fegh, Jen­ny Offill, Rebec­ca Schiff, Paul Beat­ty, Edward St. Aubyn, and Ben Lern­er as well as some old­er writ­ers I had some­how over­looked, like John Cheev­er, Leonard Michaels, Richard Yates, Nathanael West, and José Saramago.

SV: The Altru­ists might be described as an exper­i­ment in char­ac­ter study. Would you agree? Which char­ac­ter or part of The Altru­ists did you enjoy writ­ing most?

AR: It’s a char­ac­ter-dri­ven nov­el to be sure. I had to write the fam­i­ly mem­bers’ back­sto­ries before I could push the nar­ra­tive for­ward, which is anoth­er way of say­ing I had to know who I was deal­ing with before I tack­led plot. I can’t speak to the reader’s expe­ri­ence, but it was cer­tain­ly an exper­i­ment for me, walk­ing that tightrope of irony and sin­cer­i­ty, empa­thy and dis­dain. I have to admit that I had the most fun writ­ing Arthur, who is the novel’s id, so to speak. He thinks the unthink­able and says the unsayable. Francine, by con­trast, gave me the hard­est time. Her kind­ness, in com­bi­na­tion with the fact of her absence through­out the book, was a chal­lenge: how to write a com­plex, human char­ac­ter who is decent with­out being dull.

SV: Although all the main char­ac­ters have their quirks and have made rather seri­ous mis­takes in their lives, Mag­gie is an espe­cial­ly strik­ing char­ac­ter. She is a veg­e­tar­i­an, a zeal­ous activist, and some­what of a well-mean­ing, cal­lous hyp­ocrite who would rather starve her­self to death and steal objects from the fam­i­ly home than use her inher­i­tance to enjoy any of life’s com­forts or face her demons. While she can’t real­ly change the world, she does even­tu­al­ly become a dri­ving force behind unit­ing her fam­i­ly. Where does she get the courage to do that? Is the world beyond saving?

AR: I relate a lot to Mag­gie. She wants to change the world but the world keeps get­ting in her way. And of course, she keeps get­ting in her own way. I think, at the novel’s end, she comes to some kind of real­iza­tion that life is impos­si­ble with­out com­pro­mise, and that she needs to help her­self and those around her before try­ing some­thing more ambi­tious. She can’t save the plan­et, not on her own, at least, but she can, pos­si­bly, save her fam­i­ly. Whether that’s a hap­py end­ing or a sad one, depends on one’s worldview.

SV: What can you tell us about your new book project?

AR: In its present iter­a­tion, the new nov­el deals with the inter­sect­ing fates of three fam­i­lies over rough­ly fif­teen years. Most of the char­ac­ters hail from my home­town of Brook­line, Mass­a­chu­setts, a bas­tion of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and priv­i­lege, but the sto­ry will take them to Eng­land, Israel, and Germany.

SV: And final­ly, can you see your­self go into teach­ing some day?

AR: I’ve taught under­grads at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa, and I cur­rent­ly teach class­es in-per­son and online for Cat­a­pult here in New York. I love work­ing with stu­dents. My goal is to teach in an aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting some­day; as much as I bash on the acad­e­my in The Altru­ists, cam­pus­es are still remark­able, almost holy, places to me.

SV: Thank you very much for your time and your insight­ful answers.

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