Planet New York Interview
Striking a voice tinged with both humor and pathos and a perspective perhaps only a foreign-born author could posses, Tudor Alexander has infused his latest novel with a substantial amount of his own history, and to great effect: "Planet New York" is a winner. Tudor spent some time with us recently to answer some of the questions we just had to ask.
1.Could you tell us a bit about the background behind the events of your emigration as a political refugee from Communist Romania in 1977?
The words "political refugee" often suggest a tumultuous, dangerous, even glamorous past. In my case, the past is an accumulation of dreary daily things, coupled with a desire to live freely, and with being in love.
I met the girl who would become my wife on the last day of High School. She was beautiful. Her name, Viorica, is the name of a flower. In 1970, she left with her family for Israel. It was common in those days for Jewish families to leave for Israel. It was common for German families from Transylvania to leave for Germany. All those who could, got out. In 1974, Viorica, then an Israeli citizen, returned to marry me and live with me in Romania. We had written to each other every day while we were apart. A few months later, a law was passed. To remain in the country, every foreign citizen had to exchange ten US dollars a day. For Viorica, this was simply impossible. We worried she would be asked to leave. She was three months pregnant and miscarried. At that point I decided to leave the country, no matter how difficult it was for me. I knew my decision would affect my ability to write. I had already published about a dozen short stories in literary magazines. I knew I would be leaving my family behind. The process of having the emigration papers reviewed and approved by the Communist government could be long and annoying, even dangerous. In many cases those who applied were persecuted. I did not see our desire to get out as a political statement, but more as a personal pursuit. It took over a year to get the exit visa.
From Israel, we decided to go to the United States. As I describe in my book, we became part of a program for people from the Communist bloc. We traveled to Greece, under the protection of the Geneva Convention for human rights, and lived there for half a year in a refugee camp. We were told we had to apply for political asylum. That meant we had to go the Police, surrender our national passports, and sign a document stating we opposed the Communist regime in Romania. I was afraid such a gesture would cause trouble for my family at home, but I did not have a choice. Soon, we were admitted, along with many other Eastern Europeans into the United States, automatically qualifying as political refugees.
2.How much of Planet New York is your own story? Are Lydia and Nicki a blend of you and your wife, Vio?
My immigration to the United States has been challenging and rewarding. "Planet New York" is a tribute to those people who made it that way. While inspired from real life, it is, like any work of fiction, embellished and modified. I wrote it as a personal account to give it as much authenticity as I could. On my second draft, I changed the chronology around and brought in the Romanian background through flashbacks. I exaggerated the fear the young couple felt when the sponsor didn't show up at the airport. I enhanced the dramatic tension that existed naturally in the story, due to the disagreement between the heroes' expectations and the reality of New York City, by alluding to a possible conflict between the two protagonists. Lydia was portrayed as more insecure, especially in the beginning of the story, and Nicki a little bullish and egotistical. For the sake of contrast, their two friends fail in their relationships. In my third draft, I explored Nicki's doubts on the subject of fatherhood.
3.We've noticed you've dedicated "Planet New York" to Vio. Do you care to share some of the sentiments behind this dedication?
Vio is my wife. She is also my friend of over thirty years. To say that I love her, would be limiting. In writing this book, like with all my other books, she was my first reader, my most sincere critic, and my supporter. She brought me coffee when I was tired, and closed the doors to our children's rooms when I wrote. In one way or another, all my writing is dedicated to her.
4.We found your use of humor in your book to be absolutely delightful. How did having such a refined sense of humor affect your life before you made your move to America?
In Romania, humor was much appreciated. Some say, it was a way to survive. Looking back, I find the Romanian humor less guarded and a tad more abrasive than the American humor, where, at least on the surface, everything has to be "politically correct." When I first arrived to the States, I tried my brand of imported humor on people without much success. It took years to realize that humor is difficult. It ties into one's value system, education and background. In a way, it is like the children's lullabies: you need to grow up with them in order to appreciate them.
Many times I watch the late night comics on TV. It took me over a decade before I started to laugh.
5.Were your parents equally as blessed with humor?
My parents were loving and protective. They were humorous too, but in a different way. Don't ask me to illustrate, I wouldn't know how. I believe that my humor, if I have any, is not hereditary, but a product of my generation.
6.When and why did you decide to become a writer?
It happened at age seventeen. I wrote a short story one afternoon about a young boy in love who commits suicide. It was a romantic story, ridiculously melodramatic. It was winter, and when I finished it, I went skating with my friends. I remember the desire to read my story to them, and the anticipation I felt folding the several pages covered in longhand and placing them in the pocket of my winter jacket. Nobody had the time for me at the skating ring. When I came home, my parents had company. An older doctor was there, an associate of my father's, and his wife and his daughter of about twenty-five. We burned wood for heat in those days, and all of them were gathered near the stove in the dining room. I must have said something, because the doctor invited me to read the story to them. He didn't have to ask me twice. When I finished, I tried to interpret the expressions on their faces, and I feared they were not too impressed. Yet the doctor said it was beautiful. He praised me, and used words such as "jewel," and "small masterpiece." Even then I knew the good doctor was being nice to me. And his supportive words gave me such a feeling of accomplishment that I decided on the spot I would become a writer and never abandoned that conviction.
7.You've published stories in Romanian and English. When did you learn to read and write in English, and is the creative process different for one language or the other?
I started learning English in Middle School. I continued in High School and College. The fact that my wife graduated with a degree in English and French Literature helped as well. By the time I went to Israel, I spoke English well enough to function without any Hebrew. In the States, in the very beginning, I had difficulties only on the phone, especially talking to people from the South. That didn't last long. But it took almost fifteen years to have the confidence to write creatively in English.
I wouldn't say that the creative process is different in itself for one language or the other. Of course, there are words, and expressions that cannot be translated, and often I find the proper word in one language, but not in the other. English is more succinct and to the point than Romanian. Then again, there are many things I know better in Romanian than English. Because many of my characters have a Romanian background, I often use Romanian words in the English version, for local flavor. I learned to introduce explanations by weaving them into the story, and avoid footnotes. Obviously, when I translate that work into Romanian, I have to change things around a bit. Most often, I write first in English, then translate into Romanian. I do it because I want to force myself to write in English in order to get better at it, and also because English has become more immediate to me. In terms of style, the Romanian writing is more flamboyant and contorted, with longer sentences, in the German and French tradition. I enjoy translating the very economical English writing and surprising my Romanian readership with it.
The largest benefit I see in writing in two languages is that I translate my own work. The translation process is important because in reading my own translation, I gain a new perspective on the original work. Everybody knows that writing is about changing and changing and changing again, to a point that you get completely fed up. So when I can't stand it anymore, when I know the text by heart, and I lose my objectivity, I can translate it. It is the same, yet it is new. And then, I am able to give it one more, and perhaps final, critical review.
8.Do you have any plans for future books?
I am writing a new novel, tentatively called "Georgia." It is a mystery coupled with a love story between a very young and beautiful Romanian woman and a Jewish man from New York City. The location is small town Georgia, USA. I have had the opportunity to spend a few years working in Georgia and found the local atmosphere unique and worth exploring.
I am also finishing a collection of short stories. I have several older ones and a few new ones, and I hope to have the collection ready soon.
9. How do you hope your books will affect the American readers?
Without being presumptuous, my ambition is to become a writer of quality literature. In that sense, I have many examples in the American tradition that inspire me. I would like the American reader to enjoy my work as much as they enjoyed reading Hemingway, Updike, Below, Irving, Nabokov, Carver, and many more. Yet, I want my own voice, distinct and strong, reflecting an American perspective that only an immigrant can have.