Sunday, September 12, 2010
Coming Of Age With Josh Alan Friedman
Josh Alan Friedman’s Black Cracker, an “autobiographical novel,” is a very funny and closely observed book about growing up as an outsider — in Friedman’s case as the only white kid in an all-black school in Glen Cove, New York in the mid-1960s. Against the background of civil rights and the shifting mores of the decade Friedman dramatizes with cinematic relish not only his unique childhood but a cast of local characters (in all senses of the word) that has lived inside of him for decades. I first came across Friedman years ago via Tales Of Times Square, a fantastic collection of articles about long-gone, seedy Times Square that he wrote while on the smut-mag beat in Manhattan in the mid-1980s. He’s also the author of Tell The Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean In The Dirty World Of Blues And Rock 'n' Roll, among other books, and he’s released CDs of his music as well. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
I'm interested in your term "autobiographical novel." It's of course oxymoronic, and begs the question of where in Black Cracker you shaded toward fiction, and where you shaded toward pure autobiography. Could you talk a bit about how you conceive of that term, and why you decided to write in that hybrid-genre?
I know "autobiographical novel" is a ludicrous phrase. But when my agent began shopping this book, he was adamant about calling it a "memoir." As was the whole book industry, since novels have gotten short-changed ever since All the President's Men. Non-fiction rules. But our memories get recycled through dreams and take on a mythological life of their own. We can't recite dialog from 45 years ago, we have to recreate the gist of it. Even Frank McCourt finally admitted that Angela's Ashes was more novel than memoir. And then you have the "scandals" on Oprah, at least two memoirs exposed as false, with books being recalled.
So what is a memoir? In my case, I'd say 90% of Black Cracker is true-to-life. I took some liberties and didn't feel comfortable calling it a memoir. My agent said he couldn't sell it as a novel, but there would be great interest in it as a memoir. In any case, I partnered up with Wyatt Doyle as publisher on this one. Calling it an "autobiographical novel" is an attempt, probably futile, at some kind of compromise.
Part of writing a memoir is shaping the events into a narrative. Did the story arc of Black Cracker come easily to you? Was it something you had in your head for a while? What decisions did you find yourself having to make when it came to shaping the narrative?
Nothing comes easy. It took 35 years to write this book. It began in 12th grade as a short story, which eventually appeared in Penthouse in Sept. 1978. Over the years, I spent thousands of hours staring at the typewriter, only able to remember bits and pieces. Until I revisited Glen Cove around 10 years ago. I already wrote everything I remembered from the kid world, but suddenly discovered what was going on in the adult world. I went through the microfilm of the Glen Cove Record from late '50s through mid-'60s, and was astounded. The NAACP was trying all along to close the school, led by the Mr. Anthony character (who I also learned was a great connoisseur of cognac, and later gave pompous interviews in liquor publications). The Glen Cove Police Dept. let me go through their dusty attic, dredging up the nightly front-desk blotters from that era. This filled out my memories. And then my daughter Chloe (now ten), triggered memories of childhood. And viola, miraculously I was able to finish.
Would you care to elaborate on the 10% that’s not “true-to-life”? And why you felt the need to fictionalize? Was it strictly to fill in the gaps or was their a different strategy at work?
Can't say why, other than there might be something called the myth of your childhood. Setting things straight in your mind, presenting it all from your very own perspective, maybe shifting a few events to the way you want them to have been. . . .
And I refer to Mr. Anthony (whose name is partially changed here, like everyone else) as a "character" in the book. I mostly learned about him through old microfilm.
That's interesting. Patricia Hampl talks about writing a memoir and in the process getting what was denied you. Your access to the details of your childhood is extraordinary. You seemed to have (still have?) an affinity with movie monsters when you were growing up. You write about it a bit in Black Cracker, and can you elaborate on why you identified with them? Were they part of the myth? Do you see kids now identifying to them in a similar way?
My childhood movie monsters were Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman. I still think they're fantastic films, and feel a quick rush of that childhood magic when I see a 1930's Universal horror film. Simply put, I related to the outcast/freak factor (don't millions of other folks?). But no, I don't actively identify with them now. . . .
I didn't artificially write in anything I was denied of in Black Cracker. Maybe just the point of view. I now take for granted what would now be considered abuse, as well as being denied certain kinds of friendship, acceptance. It was later, during the teenage/hippie years (a whole 'nother subject) when I truly felt adolescence denied. And if we can sell some Crackers — outside my immediate circle of peeps within Facebook, etc. — then I hope to get the chance to do that book. So far, the mainstream media won't touch Black Cracker.
Why do you think that is?
The race issue is too close to the bone for them. Most newspaper and magazine editors — and few run book reviews anymore — are so afraid of losing their jobs, they run for the hills when the subject of race is dealt with this strongly. And therein, I believe, lies the monolithic American race problem, which persists time immemorial, Black prez not withstanding. Blacks and whites are different, culturally and physiologically, but the same in many other ways, especially as Americans. There are still millions of whites terrified of Blacks, and millions of Blacks bent out of shape about whites. Until these differences are acknowledged, agreed upon and celebrated, the country still remains fucked up about race. I thought Chappelle's Show was one excellent remedy, or anybody who confronts the whole race issue head on.
You were obviously in the center of much of Tales of Times Square as an observer. Did you edit your "persona" at all in that collection? I assume, maybe wrongly, that some Josh ended on the cutting-room floor? Can you talk a bit about your relationship/attitude toward the subject matter of that book?
Well, Tales is not about me, it's about Times Square — which I thought of as an almost human character in itself. Another "bad" neighborhood, which I seem to always come back to. I was more comfortable documenting the old dukes who inhabited the Melody Burlesk. For the reprint editions, Feral House used my picture on the cover. And the movie poster (Paul Stone's movie remains unfinished).
But for some of the pieces in When Sex Was Dirty, I enter the picture. Rather than shine the light on myself, which may have been even lonelier and more pathetic than the old men. What was I doing there all those years throughout my twenties? Times Square helped keep me alive, I guess.