July 04, 2007
Roger Rosenblatt Tries His Hand at Fiction
After writing 10 non fiction books Quogue's Roger Rosenblatt thought it was time to do what he'd always dreamed of; write fiction.
Rosenblatt, a Fulbright scholar with five honorary doctorates, earned a PhD from Harvard, where he taught writing and modern literature from 1968 – 1973. He was, at age 29, the youngest House Master in Harvard's history.
More than three decades later Rosenblatt finally grabbed his pen back from essays and at 62 wrote his first novel, Lapham Rising [Harper Collins], which went to paperback in June and is based on the novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, by late 19th century author William Dean Howells. Set in the Hamptons, Lapham Rising is about the day in a life of an aging writer, Harry March, with only his talking terrier, Hector, as companion. Harry becomes crazed as he watches a McMansion rise next to his own property.
Lapham, the self-aggrandizing, ostentatious multimillionaire who made his fortune on asparagus tongs, commences construction of a 36,000-square-foot house (complete with a cutting edge air conditioner that cools his entire eight acre property). Lapham's monstrosity is a symbol of American progress. But to Harry, Lapham represents everything that is ruining modern civilization. So he sends daily notes to his nemesis by way of a remote control toy motorboat, which reads, "Mr. Lapham, tear down that house!" When his efforts fail, a war ensues.
Rosenblatt, a writer of many mediums, loved writing Lapham Rising the most "because it was what I always wanted to do – write a novel. There was nothing more fun than waking up every morning and knowing I can lie through my teeth all day," he jested. "It should never be easy. You're creating an entire universe of activity and it should be difficult. Because you're starting with new stories, people and places."
He's pleased his first novel has been well received. "I love the work. It's fun to be treated as someone important once in a while, but none of it stacks up – it's minor happiness compared to the work itself," he conceded.
Rosenblatt started off his writing career wanting to do poetry.
"I was good enough at it to get into a seminar at Harvard with Robert Lowell, at the time the greatest poet in America . . . but I lacked two things: talent and the patience to become a good poet. I didn't have the discipline," Rosenblatt admitted. "Because I wanted to become a writer quickly . . . and poets can take decades before they're good."
Now that he's at the age he thought he should be to write "good poetry," he's lost the urge. "I've written off Broadway plays and now novels – there's nothing else I long to write. So I'm happy as an old jerk should be," he said.
And ultimately, fate had its own agenda as it pushed Rosenblatt's career into a direction he wasn't interested in: journalism and essays. The reluctant journalist found himself as the senior writer for two major national news magazines, TIME and U.S. News and World Report. He became a columnist and editor for the New Republic and Washington Post, and would go on to win a Peabody, an Emmy and two George Polk Awards for his essays in Time Magazine.
Still, Rosenblatt has observed changes in the journalism industry he finds distasteful, noting journalists have begun putting more of themselves in their stories.
"If you want to write your opinions . . . write fiction," he said. "As a journalist it's healthier to ask oneself, 'what's happening?' instead of 'what do I think about what's happening?'" This author of 11 books has also noticed a change in the publishing industry. "It's very hard to find a good editor, although I have, since most editors are into acquiring the author and not editing the book. It's all about money now. In the past money wasn't the only thing they [publishers] thought about," he said.
As a writing teacher Rosenblatt watches new writers, learning the craft, make several mistakes, such as "Throat clearing at the beginning of the piece, by telling you what they're going to write, setting things up hesitantly instead of jumping in with the lead paragraph," he said. "So I try to appeal to their senses rather than their intellect. Once they feel something they write more vividly and quickly. I tell the students to ask themselves, 'what is this story about?' And once you're able to answer that clearly in one sentence, then you'll be OK and won't stray from it."
When asked if the old adage is true that you can teach writing but you can't teach talent, Rosenblatt replied, "Pretty much. You can teach writing and you can teach someone with a little talent how to write better. All I want for my students is to write a little better." Out of a class of 20 students there's usually about two with talent, he said.
Last June, after 23 years, Rosenblatt retired from "NewsHour with Jim Lehr" to dedicate his time to writing novels. In January 2008, his second novel, Beet, a satire on colleges and universities, will be released by Echo (Harper Collins). His third book is a work in progress. He is also keeping busy as a professor teaching writing at Stony Brook Southampton.
On Thursday, July 19 at 7:30 p.m. Rosenblatt will read from Lapham Rising at the annual Writers Conference at Stony Brook Southampton.