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The Nervous Breakdown: An Interview with the Author

Date: Jun 7 2012

Seth Greenland is the author of the novels The Bones and Shining City and was a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love. His play, Jungle Rot, was the winner of the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund for New American Plays Award and the American Theatre Critics Association Award. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, and the journal Black Clock.

Greenland’s latest novel, The Angry Buddhist, is a scathing satire of American family, marriage, and politics, situated at the intersection of the Old Testament, Penthouse Forum, and Elmore Leonard. I love Larry David’s blurb:

 “The Angry Buddhist is a great novel. It’s satirical, it’s political, it’s sexual. All things I love dearly. Finally, something to come home to.”

At the heart of the story is Jimmy (the angry Buddhist), his brother Dale, a wheelchair bound criminal, and Randall, a congressman in a tough re-election fight with Mary Swain, a sexy purveyor of patriotic tropes and vague promises in fuck me pumps, who has the uniformed support of Police Chief “Hard” Marvin, who seems to have wandered off the page of a Carl Hiassen novel. Randall is balancing potential scandal—his wife’s admission of a lesbian affair with a recent murder victim—while hosting a father-daughter “Purity Ball” and trying not to scare off the gay vote. Documenting the high hypocrisy of all this is an anonymous blogger, “Desert Machiavelli,” who could blow the lid on everything. Jimmy’s a former cop, a fuck up with a flash temper and one hope—that his “on the fly” homemade Buddhism will hold up long enough to keep him from killing someone before he solves the crime at the heart of the novel.

A searing dark comedy which nevertheless succeeds in raising fundamental questions about religion and politics, The Angry Buddhist is the perfect summer-before-an-election-book-to-take-to-the-beach.

Seth Greenland lives in Los Angeles with his wife Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child, and their two children.

We met at a coffee shop in Beverly Hills, and continued the conversation via e-mail for this interview.

Seth Greenland, welcome to The Nervous Breakdown.

As a man with three brothers (one of them dead), I’m always interested in stories about brothers, even famous brothers I don’t know (Rahm Emmanuel comes to mind). Of course, the Hebrew scriptures are filled with hair raising tales about brothers—Cain & Abel, Jacob & Esau, not to mention Joseph and his brothers, which gave Thomas Mann something to write about. In “real life” you have brothers, right? To what extent did this help (or hinder) your writing of this novel?

I have one brother. He spent the last ten years working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital teaching yoga to cancer patients so he and I, like the brothers in The Angry Buddhist, have led pretty different lives. On the other hand, neither of us is a criminal so we have that in common. Brothers are at the heart of all of my novels. In Shining City, a man inherits a business from his dead brother and their relationship haunts the novel. The Bones is about the toxic relationship between a comedian and a comedy writer who might as well be brothers. I haven’t consciously written about my relationship with my own brother in any of my books probably because we have a pretty good one. I’m attracted to fraternal relationships that have broken down. Maybe it’s a holdover from when I studied the Bible in Sunday school and kept hearing stories like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and, of course, Joseph and his brothers. There’s something remarkably primal about dysfunctional brothers, and because of that it’s an eternally fecund area for a writer to explore.

Okay, let’s talk names. Harding “Hard” Marvin and Nadine Never are among the best I’ve seen outside of the comic Miami beat of Carl Hiaasen or the fertile imagination of Elmore Leonard. Where do your characters come from?

Where the names come from and where the characters come from are two different questions, so I’ll take them one at a time. When I can, I like to give characters names that suggest something about them because I hope it will enrich the reader’s experience of them.  In the case of Nadine Never, she had another last name originally. But when I read a newspaper article that mentioned someone who had the last name Never, I thought, you know, that has a noir-ish ring and would go nicely with Nadine. In the case of Hard Marvin, he’s a tough guy police chief who I called Hard (his real name is Harding) because it sounds like he eats nails for breakfast.

As for where these characters come from, they’re all out there for the taking. Although some of my characters do extreme things, all of them engage in recognizable human behavior. It might not be the way people you know behave, but if you keep up with the news, particularly the local variety, you will see there is a documentary quality to all of the novels I write. I’m holding up a mirror and just tweaking it slightly.

As funny as this novel is, it nevertheless raises disturbing questions about American politics. Mary Gaitskill once told me that to really write a satire, you have to care about your subject, perhaps more than you can let on. George Saunders comes to mind as an American satirist whose bleak dystopian vision of an addled America is nevertheless tempered with compassion, even mercy. How do you keep satire from descending into unreconstructed cynicism?

I agree with Mary Gaitskill. If I didn’t care about this stuff, I wouldn’t write about it. It takes a couple of years to write a novel (at least that’s what it takes me), so I have to care. In writing the book I’m trying to get other people to care. Satirists are often called cynical but caring is not a cynical act. If I were a cynic I’d write like James Patterson. To be fair to James Patterson, I haven’t read a word he’s written, but his huge success and the availability of his work in supermarkets provide good clues as to what his oeuvre is like. For me, writing about the kinds of things he writes about would be cynical because I don’t care about it. If I wrote about those subjects, I’d probably sell more books. My accountant will read this and tell me I should be more cynical.

This is probably a good place to point out that I don’t consider myself a satirist. Because my books are funny, they’re often labeled satire, but what I’m trying to do is reflect society as it actually is. In a world where the media grants Donald Trump a political platform, where someone like Al Sharpton is given a television show, where a family like the Kardashians builds a thriving business empire from the fallout of a sex tape, perhaps we need a new definition of satire. Dr. Strangelove is a satire. No one in my books is wearing a cowboy hat and riding a missile toward its target. The characters I write about are confronted with difficult choices and often make bad decisions. The books might be manuals for what not to do, but I think they’re fundamentally real.

Mary Swain is a thinly disguised Sarah Palin. Michelle Bachman recently made a bid for the Republican nomination. Many Americans find these women “sexy.” From the way you draw Mary Swain, particularly her sartorial style, it would appear you agree. Where are the fault lines when writing about sex and politics, and how do you deal with the double standards? (During her presidential run, Hillary Clinton was criticized for showing her cleavage.)

There is no doubt that a double standard still exists. The media seems happier to pick on female politicians who commit style crimes, and Hillary was certainly a victim of that tendency. But it works both ways in that they’re equally happy to exalt female politicians who are physically attractive, Palin being Exhibit A. There is no doubt that her looks played a big role in her blindingly quick rise and her time as a media darling before she began to put her foot in her mouth seemingly every day. She was the governor of an electorally insignificant state with a negligible record of accomplishment. But she’s sexy (and a mom and a Christian, the Republican trifecta). Let’s nominate her! If there is another plausible explanation, I’ve yet to hear it. On the other hand, the fault line is blurring. Scott Brown, the handsome Senator from Massachusetts, certainly had his looks remarked upon when he was running for office the first time. For a lot of people, politics is entertainment and voters like good-looking candidates. How else to explain Dan Quayle? That it’s sad doesn’t make it less true. It also doesn’t mean male politicians who don’t look like Barbie’s consort Ken can’t get elected. But given a choice voters prefer candidates who look like they play candidates on television.

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote a brilliant book on Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—whom he called “masters of suspicion”—in which he introduced the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that seems to characterize postmodern life. Every virtue, said Nietzsche, is but a glittering vice. I thought of Ricoeur as I read The Angry Buddhist, because of its send-up of a clearly politicized version of Christianity, where religion is used in an instrumental way to disguise blatant self-interest. Americans seem to be divided on the role of religion in political life–suspicious of any politician who mentions or uses religious beliefs, and yet, ironically, expecting them to adhere to some religion, however tenuously.

I think Americans are divided in this area but the two groups into which they’re divided are A) the ones who think religion should play a role in public life and B) the ones who think it shouldn’t. I don’t think most Americans are suspicious of politicians who profess religious beliefs. On the contrary, in the parts of the country where this matters, a politician’s fealty to God is expected and taken for granted. Of course, some of these people don’t believe that Obama is a sincere Christian, but these are the same people who think he was born in Kenya, secretly prays to Mecca and hates America. I wish more Americans were suspicious of religious politicians. It would make for a healthier republic. But for all the scandals Americans have seen, we remain a pretty trusting population. 

What is your own experience with Buddhism?

Nearly two decades ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. The disease was advanced when they found it and I was in a deeply unnerving, life-threatening situation. One of the things I did to cope with the fear and stress was to learn how to meditate. I was living in New York City at the time and my wife Susan and I went to the Zen Center there and received instruction. Susan, who was then working as a lawyer, took to it in a serious way. She ultimately gave up her legal career, studied Buddhism deeply, and devised a way to teach children to meditate. She wrote a book about it called The Mindful Child (Free Press, 2010), now in it’s 9th printing, and she lectures and teaches around the world. Most of what I know about Buddhism, I learned from her. While I don’t sit on a meditation cushion every morning, I consistently use the Buddhist techniques I’ve learned in my day-to-day life. Oh, and I’ve been cancer-free since 1994, but I don’t think Buddhism has anything to do with that.

How do I get Larry David to blurb my new novel?

First, build a time machine that takes you back to 1985. Then, develop a friendship with Larry before he becomes a comedy megastar. Then the years pass and the two of you stay friends. You write a book, you ask him to blurb it, and as a favor to an old friend, he agrees. The time machine is the key.

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