George Salis: You worked closely with Robert O’Leary on the first draft of The Wolf Who Swallowed The Sun: A Jungian Fable of Family and Finance Across the Twentieth Century. What was that process like, to write alongside a friend like that, a friend with a “background in undercover work for the CIA”?
Donald Newlove: Unfortunately, I don’t remember writing with him. I usually write alone. As I recall, he told me the background and I made the story up. He would come over; we’d talk and then I’d write.
GS: Your 600-page novel Sweet Adversity is filled with humor, featuring as it does jazz-playing, alcoholic Siamese twins. It’s often said that humor can heighten tragedy. Do you believe this is true? And do you think a humorless novel is automatically a failure?
DN: Well, I am thinking of Shakespeare and there is no amusement in Shakespeare’s tragedies—though I do not doubt that there are tragedies with humor in them. Overall, I cannot remember a tragedy heightened by humor. I do not believe a humorless novel is automatically a failure.
GS: This is a guest question from Rick Schober: “One of my favorite characters that you created was Cynara Rosewine, who appears in both Sweet Adversity and Eternal Life: An Astral Love Story. What can you tell us about the real person this character was based on?”
DN: Well, she shot and killed herself in the woods in California at 26. She was my great love. She was beautiful and graduated at the top of her high school class. She lived a block away from me.
GS: In your introduction to Sweet Adversity, you mention the possibility of a third installment of the Siamese twins’ adventure, titled The Higher Power. Did you ever begin work on this? If not, what ideas were you mulling over, what possibilities?
DN: I never began work on The Higher Power. I decided that because my Siamese twins would remain joined there was not much more to say. Also, I moved on to writing my life’s study Those Drinking Days- Myself and Other Writers.
GS: Can you explain your obsession with twins, Siamese or otherwise?
DN: Well, these twins were two sides of me. One heavy-handed, the other sobering up and joining AA while his brother kept drinking despite their blood being joined at the hip.
I was not obsessed with twins; I was expressing two sides of my own character.
GS: When it comes to fighting addiction, what is the single most effective aspect that can lead to successful recovery?
DN: First, it depends on what you’re addicted to. Successfully fighting addiction varies based on what your addiction is, and you need a desire to overcome it. Also, it helps a lot when you know someone who has risen above his or her addiction – and to whom you can lend your heart.
GS: You claim that you didn’t write very well when you were drinking. However, it seems that people get the impression, perhaps from famous alcoholic writers of the past, that drinking or even doing drugs is synonymous with ‘uninhibited’ creativity. What are your thoughts on this?
DN: I think that may have been true of some very famous writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald whose later works I admire tremendously, however he couldn’t have been consistently drinking when he wrote The Last Tycoon because the writing is so finished. I wrote richly dumb books as a drinker. They are all in my trunk unpublished…quite a few of them. I do not subscribe to the idea that drinking makes your writing better. However, it is true that some famous writers drank and still managed to write well. Can it lend you uninhibited creativity? Some creativity should be inhibited.
GS: You mentioned in an article that, at the age of 50, agents were all of a sudden not interested in your work. Why do you think that is? Was there a shift in the zeitgeist of literature?
DN: Well, I do not know. I do not remember now. But sober Don was published after age 50. I joined AA at age 34. There was a zeitgeist, which I will not try to spell out. Good question. My best work until then had been about fighting alcohol.
GS: You also said that, afterward, you began writing for yourself. What do you mean by that exactly and how does it contribute to you being “prolific in your obscurity”? Were you hyperaware of an audience in the past, were you only writing what you think agents/publishers would be interested in?
DN: I was not driven by the interests of agents or publishers. My big subject in the beginning was alcohol. I also wrote three books on how to write. Those nonfiction works were created with an audience in mind but I always wrote for myself and thought that whatever I was writing at the time was publishable. That turned out not to be the case but I always wanted my work to get out there.
GS: What are you currently working on?
DN: I am not writing anymore. Right now I am working on reading Arthur Miller’s biography Time Bends. I tried to read Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, but its overwritten style ran on for 1306 pages and I lost interest. And the story of the novel was about not being able to follow the story, so I gave up.
GS: You’ve written several books on craft, beginning with First Paragraphs: Inspired Openings for Writers and Readers. In Borges fashion, could you write the first sentence of a forever-unfinished novel, or a whole first paragraph if you feel so inspired?
DN: Here is your sentence: Who knows what heartbreak the wind will bring?
GS: What are some books you think deserve more readers?
DN: Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, which is an unfinished masterpiece. I re-read it recently and it knocked me out. Also, Wallace Stagner’s Angle Of Repose and Eugenides’ Middlesex.
GS: 92 is an impressive age. What are some of your fondest memories looking back? And is it true that one has to be old to be wise?
DN: You can be wise at any age. My fondest memory is of the face of my late wife, Nancy, who died three years ago.
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Donald Newlove was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1928, and currently lives in New York City’s Greenwich Village. As a reporter, book reviewer, and short story writer, his work appeared in Esquire, New York Magazine, Evergreen Review, and The Saturday Review. His first novel, The Painter Gabriel (1970), was hailed by Time Magazine as “one of the best fictional studies of madness, descent, and purification that any American has written since Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Newlove is the author of several other novels, a series of books on the art of writing, and the critically-acclaimed memoir, Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers (1981).
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.