Today I’m speaking with the very sophic, Nathan Lund Eastman, author of Poet’s Memorial Hospital Fund. PHMF is a compelling book about redefined beliefs and the metamorphosis of friendship.
M: How did you come up with the title, Poet’s Memorial Hospital Fund? In the book, it’s just a bookcase with empty beer and wine bottles. Is that the case, or is there more of a backstory to it?
N: First off, I just want to say thanks for taking the time to do this. You’re the first person who has ever interviewed me, and I appreciate your interest in my work. As to the title, well, that’s actually a novel in itself. The title I had for ages was, The Whole Sad Monstrous Scheme, which I like as a title, but it didn’t fit the book. So, I scrapped that and started calling it, The Romantics, because the two main characters are very romantic in their ideas about life, which get crushed in a hurry. There were two problems with the title. One, was that it was a 2010 film starring Katie Holmes and John Duhamel, which was a hard pill to swallow. The other problem, was that I started playing up the ‘romantic’ sections of the novel, with loaded language meant to point the reader to the overall ‘meaning,’ which reeks of contrivance. So, I looked back through the book for a phrase and found, Poet’s Memorial Hospital Fund. There is more to it than just a bookcase full of bottles, because it comes up again at the end, when the contexts of the characters’ lives have been radically altered. So, the title has a double meaning, a lighthearted meaning, and a more tired meaning.
M: How long did it take for you to write the novel? Were you on a schedule with certain writing goals, or was it more random?
N: Writing has never been a back burner activity for me. I’ve done it daily in some capacity for years, and more so in recent years, as time has begun to creep up on me. I write seven days a week, two to five hours a day. This book took… eight years, maybe nine, which is obscene. I thought it would be easy to write, because it’s based in large part on actual life experiences of myself and a very good friend, but I’d read way too much David Foster Wallace and Jon Franzen and tried to emulate that maximalist style. It blew up in my face like pinata full of C-4. If memory serves, there were at least ten different beginnings and five distinct drafts, and they were drastically different from the first. I had friends, who helped me along the way, most notably a poet named, Courtney Queeney, who told me it read like therapy in too many places. She was right, so I cut all that. That was probably the fourth revision. The the last revision, was just me being absolutely ruthless and cutting everything that didn’t serve the story, and as a result, much of the dialogue went out the window. This scared me, because it’s a story about two friends, and that friendship in real life is based in large part on a dialogue, that’s been running for almost two decades now. So, I found ways to suggest that the characters were talking all the time, and then wove those tidbits into the narrative in such a way, that the story felt like an extension of that ongoing conversation. That was the hope, anyway.
M: Your novel centers around two friends, Paul Strickland and Chris King. I love reading about friendships, whether real, like Thomas Becket and King Henry II, or fictitious like, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, because friendship is a different kind of bond between two people. Have you had/have the type of friendship that Chris and Paul have in your life?
N: Yes, totally. Real friendship. Let me clarify something, I’m very much a loner. I went through much of my life socially alone, except for girlfriends, but there came a time, where I needed someone to help me navigate a very difficult passage of life. I couldn’t trust my instincts anymore, because my instincts are what got me into that mess. My friend helped guide me through. The decisions I made as result of his counsel, turned out to be good ones, and I am forever indebted to him. If I hadn’t had that support, my troubles would likely have been multiplied exponentially. That’s part of what the book is about. The other part, is a wide angle look at two characters confronting adulthood (parenthood and divorce for Paul, cancer and addiction for King).
M: Chris King is an interesting character and reminds me very much of Dean Moriarty from, On the Road, and the first part of the novel is very Kerouacian, with all the traveling and discovery. Was, On the Road and influence at all for you when writing this story?
N: Strangely, I didn’t realize it was an influence, until I happened to reread, The Great Gatsby and thought about books that had a first-person narrator embedded in the narrative (which Poet’s does). On The Road is the same, although the narrator, Sal Paradise, has a much more significant role than Nick Carraway does in Gatsby. Now, the funny part about both those books, is they’re about relatively young people in flux, who have yet to commit their lives to anything substantial. (Sal Paradise is divorced, but feels young.) That’s what we want so often as an audience, the sexy years. Sexy times. I also think that because that’s what we want, not enough has been written about the unsexy years, the years when you run out of road and you’re changing diapers and the woman you love gets cancer. A lot of stuff that is written in that vein, tends to be on the comedic-side, in the sense that things come together in the end, Hollywood-style. I wanted to be more true to life’s inescapable tragedies, and the fact that, so often stuff just falls apart. I wanted to write something that maps that transition, from the wanderlust phase to the embattled phase, without dwelling so much on the latter, that it becomes unpalatable. Because it does become unpalatable. As much as the purists will tell you entertainment doesn’t matter, it does. One final note on this thread: I also balance the narrator/ subject dynamic to where it’s almost exactly 50/50. You get the narrator’s life, and the subject’s, and can compare for yourself, look for commonalities and divergences, etc. That’s the part that makes me the most proud. True to American adulthood, the friends live on different coasts and the friendship not only survives that geographic chasm, but matures into a lifelong bond and that, as they say, is the shit.
M: Your novel has some wonderful visual imagery, such as, “the dance floor swayed like a Hydra.” When you’re writing, do you feel like you’re telling a story in terms of the images or vignettes that you imagine for these characters’ lives, or is it more dialogue driven?
N: I kind of addressed this above, with what I said about dialogue. I love dialogue, but I think it’s dangerous. I think it used to be less so, when the culture was less image driven, but now we are driven by images to such an extent, that if writing doesn’t show the ways in which it can add a significant dimension to the visual world, it risks becoming esoteric in the way philosophy and theological writing were esoteric to previous generations. (Looking back over this sentence, it reads as mildly ridiculous, but it’s actually something I think about a lot and believe there is some truth to, however much it sounds like horse puckey.) In short: yes, visual writing matters. The compressed, succinct image has never been more relevant. I feel the central conversation should be between the writer and the reader, not the characters. That’s my personal rule of thumb, and if I break it, it’s intentional. That’s not to say dialogue should only be minimal, but it has to be artfully integrated into the narrative stream. Which, incidentally, was my guiding mental image for this final edit: a clear stream running over rocks. Transparent, fluid.
M: Both the characters as young men, are anti-institutional and have a very definitive way at looking at life. As the characters get older, they are faced with marriage, children, illness and careers they would have previously had contempt for doing. Does that in anyway mirror your own life; have you had to take a job, you would have never thought of doing when you were younger?
N: Yes to all that. I’ve been at the same job for 13 years and prior to that, I’d never stayed 13 years anywhere, my entire life. I’m a restless man, and I’m like 78% hermit. My job is okay, it pays the bills and allows me to care for my daughter. That’s all I can say about it really, though; I’m indifferent. I don’t have a career; I make books and music. That’s what I set out to do in my early twenties, and it has simply become my life, and will remain my life, regardless of whether I am able to cobble together some sort of artistic existence that allows me to work less for someone else and more for myself.
M: The characters do not come from very supportive families and they are determined to not make the same choices as their parents did. Do you feel like they had more empathy and understanding of their parents’ flaws, when faced with similar experiences?
N: Yes, that is certainly a storyline that develops in the book. It goes back to the idea of being a romantic. I’ve observed that people with a romantic temperament tend to come from unstable/unsupportive homes, and this causes them to embark on a somewhat desperate search for instant warmth, or perhaps a better word is electricity, a sense of positive connection with life, which many people get from family. If you don’t get that connection, it can result in a bit of mad quest for the basics. I think that’s in the book, on many levels, as is the way these emotional progressions, which are perceived to be completely individual and idiosyncratic by the romantic mind, are actually echoes within a larger family system. That’s a far less romantic way of seeing it, because autonomy is called into question, and autonomy–the ability the dream and create your life–is at the core of the romantic mind. More succinctly: it’s profoundly unsexy to repeat your parents’ mistakes.
M: Which books have you read, that really had a profound effect on you? Who are some of your favorite authors?
N: There are so many, that I’ll neglect to mention some of them. The first writer to really grab me and hit me over the head was Vonnegut, with Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. Carson McCullers’, The Heart is A Lonely Hunter was massive for me, as were Samuel Beckett’s, Molloy and Bukowski’s, Women. Richard Brautigan was also a revelation. Watermelon Sugar and The Abortion are some favorites. A love of these books, eventually led me to other great books from that period, most importantly Gravity’s Rainbow and One Hundred Years of Solitude, which for me is one of the most complete novels ever written. There have been others with its scope, obviously, but few are as accessible or imaginative, or as playful and fun, while still tackling life’s seriousness.
M: Your next book is a thriller. What is the title and can you give a synopsis of the book?
N: It’s called, The Promethean Fallacy. It’s about this young guy, who discovers he has a twin. They were separated at birth and have been studied their entire lives, and the people behind it are bad news, corporate monsters basically. The main character finds out other children like him have been killed, and goes on a revenge mission to take out the head honcho. Along the way, he falls in love, which complicates things, and makes him reconsider, but by then of course it’s too late. His crimes catch up to him, and he has to pay the price. After doing Poet’s Memorial, which is more character driven, I needed to do something plot-driven, and I’m pleased with the results.
M: Tell everyone where they can find your amazing novel, Poet’s Memorial Hospital Fund.
You can find it on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XFGG584. The thriller is in the final editing stages and should be done by mid-July, so if anyone’s interested in that they can just DM me on Twitter (@distracted_monk) and I’ll send out a reminder when it hits the proverbial stands. Again, thanks so much.