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Behind the Scenes

A conversation with Michael Lowenthal about Avoidance

Your first novel, The Same Embrace, dealt with Orthodox Judaism. Avoidance explores the Amish faith. What draws you to write about religion?

I'm fascinated by orthodoxy of all kinds. I was even a religion major in college. I guess I'm compelled by those who choose to live strictly religious lives because they give the appearance of having "solved" the conflicts that in my own life I find so un-solvable: between individual desire and group responsibility, between loyalty to self and loyalty to a higher purpose, between the yearning for freedom and the yearning to belong.

Religious orthodoxy, with all of its rigidity and "right" answers, strikes me as so contrary to everything I perceive life to be: unknowable, uncertain, ever-changing. Religious people force me to ask: Have I gotten everything backwards, or have they? Or do our views curve so far in opposite directions that they somehow meet at the same exact place?

What drew you specifically to the Amish?

In America, the Amish are probably the group best known for their choice to live at one extreme of the spectrum. They famously emphasize the group over the individual. And so I've always been intrigued by them. During college I arranged to live with an Amish family for a few months and to work with them on their farm. Very few "English" people, as they call non-Amish, have done this, and I considered it a huge privilege. They remain dear friends of mine.

I found so much to love about their way of life—the sense of security and support, the astounding closeness of family and friends. But I also knew that I personally couldn't live that way forever; I had my "real" life to escape to. And so I wondered what life would be like if you didn't have that escape mechanism—or if making the choice to leave meant that you would lose everything: your family, your friends, your dialect.

The main melody of Avoidance is about a summer camp counselor's difficult decisions regarding his affection for a boy. I decided to write about the Amish (and ex-Amish) as well, as a kind of counterpoint to this melody, because while their situation could hardly be more different, the questions they raise are similar: What happens when our most intense personal wants are directly opposed to the good of the community through which we've chosen to make meaning of the world? Is it possible to achieve greater happiness through self-denial than through self-fulfillment? Is life apart from others a life worth living?

So, you've lived with the Amish, as has your novel's narrator. You've also dedicated Avoidance, in part, to "the camp counselors who raised me." Is the book autobiographical?

That question is one that usually dogs debut novelists, and I know I found it irksome when my first book came out. But this time around, in a certain way, I wanted to provoke it—I even gave the narrator, Jeremy, a physical scar that I actually have, so that people at readings would see it and be forced to wonder. I did this hoping that it might open up a discussion about the "normalcy" of deviance—let me try to explain. In the novel, Jeremy expresses certain thoughts and longings that are usually taboo in our culture. I sort of want readers to think, "Wait—if this author is willing to stand up in public and have people assume that the character's longings might be his longings, then are they truly that unspeakable?"

I have the privilege of being what, in our society, is considered pretty "normal": I'm well-brought-up, clean-cut looking, I'm fairly accomplished at what I do, I'm a teacher at a fancy college . . . and so I want to make use of that privileged position. I want people to look at me, and equate me with Jeremy, and then wonder if the kind of person with Jeremy's taboo desires might actually be much more normal than they had thought. It's not important if Jeremy's experiences or feelings are also actually mine; what's important is that I don't really care if readers assume that they are.

For the record, I did attend a summer camp in Vermont, and during college I worked there as a counselor. But nobody specific from that camp is depicted in Avoidance. Nor are the Amish characters in the novel based on the ones I lived with.

Avoidance is about desire between men and boys. Is it a "gay novel"?

I'm never sure what that term is supposed to mean; in fact, I'm not convinced it has any essential literary meaning. "Gay fiction" seems to me not much more than a marketing (or book-shelving) category, encompassing any book that any publisher thinks it might be able to convince gay people to buy.

Avoidance is narrated by a man who does not—and would never—identify as gay. He has no gay friends and no connection with gay culture. On the other hand, Jeremy (and other characters) are intensely driven by their attractions (paternal, fraternal, erotic) to people of their own gender. So gay readers might find the story particularly of interest.

But the novel isn't about "gay attraction," it's about attraction, full stop. It's about love and choice and responsibility and community and other things that affect every human, and I tried to write it with the widest possible audience in mind.

I recently read The Giant's House, a wonderful novel by Elizabeth McCracken about the love between a librarian and the world's tallest man. I have no experience myself in loving a giant, but in no way did that inexperience prevent me from feeling every bit of these characters' emotions, intensely and personally. Likewise, I don't see why readers, even if they haven't felt desire for someone of their own gender, should have any difficulty connecting with Avoidance.

And yet the world thrives on categorization. Do you consider yourself first and foremost a gay writer? A Jewish writer? A literary writer?

On the rare days when I have the gumption to consider myself anything other than a literary gate-crasher, I try to think of myself as a writer, plain and simple. Other people can feel free to think of me in any way that they see fit, but that's all external, after the fact, unrelated to the act or the intention of my own writing. I was raised Jewish; I am what is generally thought of as gay; while I would never hide these personal characteristics, and while I am certain that they, along with many other traits, influence everything I think and do and write, it's not such a simple equation. My first novel was thick with Jewish themes and terms; Avoidance has not a Jewish word in it, and instead focuses on the Amish. Likewise, I've published ten or so short stories in the past few years; half of them are about "gayness" (loosely defined) and the others not at all. I recently published a long story in the Southern Review about a Catholic priest who has a crisis of vocation when he runs into an old college girlfriend. Is that story the work of a "Jewish, gay" writer? Well, yes, it's my work.

I also find the term "literary writer" problematic. If "literary" is a category separate from what we think of as "trashy" or "genre" fiction, then sure, I'm "literary." But the term seems to presuppose that a writer who takes care with subtleties of language and character can't also be a commercial success or reach a wide audience. Why not? Elizabeth Graver, a "literary" novelist whom I greatly respect, read Avoidance and was kind enough to write an endorsement of it, which thrilled me. But I was thrilled as much—or more—by the fact that Elizabeth's babysitter, a woman who didn't complete college, found the manuscript on the table and read it in two sittings and said she couldn't put it down.

If you had to place Avoidance in a genre, then, where would you put it?

Much of my favorite fiction falls under the category of what I'd call "moral mysteries" or "emotional thrillers"—not mysteries or thrillers in the conventional sense, which are about turning the pages to find out what will happen, but rather books that compel you to turn their pages to find out why what happens, happens. Books like Rosellen Brown's Before and After and Frederick Busch's The Girls have convinced me that characters' emotions can be the basis for a page-turner just as much as their actions. Characters don't have to hang from literal cliffs to make a novel exciting; in a well-crafted "emotional mystery," a character's decision whether or not to tell a secret, or whether or not to kiss the object of his desire, can be a cliff-hanger.

Graywolf's publisher, Fiona McCrae, says that she loves "difficult books." Is "Avoidance" difficult? How so?

I think it's difficult only in the ways that serious novels should aspire to be. ("Easy" is best left for throwaway, read-it-on-an-airplane books.) Avoidance is maybe difficult because raises more questions than it answers. It asks the reader to make connections between seemingly disparate themes and story lines.

In terms of subject matter, the novel is difficult because of its attention to the complex desires between a man and a teenage boy—desires about which our culture tends to squelch any honest discussion. Plus, it asks the reader to feel empathy for a narrator whom they might, if they read about his situation in a newspaper, find repugnant. If readers end up (perhaps in spite of themselves) identifying with Jeremy, then they may be forced to reevaluate their prejudgments of him and to question their own desires. This might make them uncomfortable. I surely hope it does.