Ever since grad school, Darin Strauss has adamantly opposed autobiographical writing. That’s why his first novel, Chang and Eng, about the famous conjoined twins, was as far removed from his life as possible. The next two novels were equally conjured, and all three were praised for their style and inventiveness. But in his mid-30s, he decided to write a memoir. Half a Life begins at the moment that a teenage girl swerved her bike in front of Strauss’s car, a month before he graduated from high school, and was killed. Authorities determined Strauss was not at fault, but he still lived most of the next two decades with a secret burden of guilt and shame. In stores now, the memoir is a spare, wrenching, and painfully generous account of how the accident changed him. He talked to us about the consequences of going public, as well as stray thoughts on Elizabeth Wurtzel, his editor and fellow awkward memoirist Dave Eggers, and obsessive writing partner Gary Oldman.
You write in Half a Life about the strange kabuki of having to reveal your “secret” to the women you dated. Now you’re revealing it to everyone.
But I’ve gained control over it, I’ve told it in the way that I wanted to tell it. I was very nervous about putting out this book for obvious reasons. But after NPR ran part of it, I got hundreds of e-mails, and people were grateful in a way that was strange to me. I’m always annoyed at people who make the argument that nonfiction is more powerful than fiction. But there is something immediate about it.
Still, talking about nonfiction, at least this must be a lot more uncomfortable.
It’s certainly different. I did a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, this sort of freaks and geeks panel: me and Kathryn Harrison and Elizabeth Wurtzel. So in an e-mail, Liz Wurtzel made a joke: “Yeah, we’re gonna have really fun panelists. Incest, vehicular manslaughter … ” And that really upset me, because it’s a felony that you go to jail for. So every time I think I’m fine with it, it turns out I’m not, because someone makes an offhanded comment.
Well, Wurtzel has made unfortunate “offhand comments” before, like when she called September 11 an “art project.”
She’s a nice person, though. She was very apologetic.
Speaking of which, you’ve written that the accident has made you overly concerned with being nice. Jonathan Franzen’s new book has been praised to the heavens, even by people who think he’s a crank. What do you think of the perception that a writer has to be a little bit mean to be any good?
A couple of months ago I was reading a Saul Bellow story, “What Kind of Day Did You Have,” about this great thinker not having to be nice because he’s such a great mind. Bellow himself was probably not a nice person. And so I thought, Is my concern with being a nice person holding me back from being the writer than I can be? It seems important to me to do the right thing and obviously I don’t do it — you can ask my wife. But I do feel that a lot of really good fiction is moral. Maybe people who are not nice in person save it for the page.
You wrote this book for McSweeney’s. Was it because Dave Eggers, whose own memoir was even more self-conscious than yours about avoiding exploitation, seemed like a kindred spirit?
I was supposed to do it with Dutton, my publisher, but they said, “It has to be at least 200 pages, so you have to pad it with stuff about your childhood and your life now.” And I didn’t want to write a memoir. So Dave said, “You can do it for however long it was.” He was very protective of me. Whenever we disagreed, it was him saying, “You’re revealing too much, you’re gonna get attacked for this.” And I appreciated that, but I think if I cut out [the unflattering] stuff, then there’s no reason to tell the story.
It seemed for ages that Chang and Eng was going to become a movie. What happened?
I was told by my movie agent, “I never say this to anyone, but it’s gonna happen, because the president of Disney films made it his pet project.” And then the Monday after that, the president of Disney was fired. What’s the quickest thing you want to get off the desk when your predecessor is fired? A historical epic about conjoined twins.
And then you tried to co-write the script with Gary Oldman. Is he as crazy as he seems in his movies?
He’s obsessive. He turned down lucrative acting jobs to write the script. It was just never good enough. Someone wanted to make the movie for $30 million, and he said, “Great, I think we’ll need 40 so I’ll get 10 million elsewhere,” and [the money man] said, “No, I want to be the only financier,” and so Gary pulled it. Another time he said, “The only one I want to send the script out to is [retired Apocalypse Now cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro. And [Storaro] said, “Yeah, I’d love to do it.” I said, “Great, let’s cut it down and go out with it,” and Gary said, “No, it’s no good, let’s start from scratch.”
Did you ever see Entourage? He sounds a bit like Billy Walsh.
I’ve never seen it, but other people have told me that about Gary. But I admire his integrity, and he’s a surprisingly sweet guy. When my twins were born, he had his 97-year-old mom knit matching caps for them. He was over my apartment [in Kensington, Brooklyn], and I could tell he was just straining to find something to compliment about it. He said, “I really like your, uh, uh,” and then he just trailed off.