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Benjamin Markovits to talk at a London Celebration of North American Literature
Benjamin Markovits is author of A Weekend in New York and will be speaking at Festival America on 25th September. For tickets visit: festivalamerica.co.uk
Where in the States are you from?
I was born in California, just outside San Francisco. My dad was teaching at Stanford but then both my parents got jobs in Austin when I was four, and that's mostly where I grew up. My mom, who is German, hated California - she loves Texas.
How did you find yourself moving to the UK?
Lots of reasons. I spent time in England as a kid - we flew over every summer, because it gets hot in Texas, and often when my parents took sabbaticals we ended up in London for the year. My wife is English, too, and when she was my girlfriend, we had the offer of her parents' basement flat in London to live in for free. I was in New York at the time, teaching high school, but I quit and moved over to write The Syme Papers, my first novel. It helped that I had a German passport from my mother.
You'll be participating in Festival America, in London on September 25. Your talk involves fellow North American writer Patrick DeWitt and Canadian-born Lisa Appignanesi. Do your Transatlantic links influence your writing?
Often the people I write about are the sort of people who feel comfortable in both England and America - academic types, who have connections in both. And the truth is, these are also the people I know. The narrator of The Syme Papers teaches in Texas but spends the first part of the book on a fellowship in London. The Essingers, the subject of my latest novel, are a family of Texan Jews whose background overlaps with mine - they lived and studied in England at various times, and one of the kids works in London.
I grew up speaking German and English at home, mishmash we called it, but there's another kind of mishmash I'm probably guilty of ... using English and American slang simultaneously. Pavement and sidewalk and queue and cot etc. It's hardest for me to get the baby stuff right, because all my kids were born here. I hope my accent has stayed American, though I never sounded particularly Texan. My dad's from New York.
As part of your talk, you'll be discussing your latest book A Weekend in New York. Although the book is about an American tennis star preparing for the US Open, it's also very much about family. Is 'The American Family' still an important trope for literature?
I think families generally are important in books, and hard to do justice to - because families are incredibly complex in ways that aren't always that obviously dramatic. They're good at playing cards together, getting on each other's nerves for stupid stuff, and wasting time. But it's also true that every interaction has deep roots, which is useful for a novelist.
I loved being inside a family as a kid - it took me a while to get adjusted to my twenties, where most of the interactions are with people your own age. For a lot of us, family life is as close as we get to the experience of living inside a novel, where there's this shared world view and style that shapes all the action.
Like A Weekend in New York, your first book, Playing Days, had a sporting theme - and you yourself once played basketball. Has sport been a big influence on your life and work?
Yes. I spent a couple of hours every day after school shooting hoops, with friends and on my own. Talking about sports, watching sports, reading about sports - that was half my childhood. I skipped my senior prom because the Bulls were in the Finals. As a novelist, you need stuff you know about to flesh out the world, and sports itself offers a kind of vivid mechanism for measuring people, which is what the novel is supposed to do as well. But the truth is, I probably still get too much pleasure from watching basketball. I mean, too much for a reasonable grown-up to indulge in.
As an American in the UK, is there anything you miss about the USA?
Sure, a lot. Texas barbecue, Sunday afternoon NFL, Barton Springs (an outdoor swimming pool in Austin), Eggo waffles. A hoop in the driveway - that would change my life. But by this point I've lived longer in London than I've lived anywhere else. If I went back home, I'd miss England, too.
Given various world events, are events like Festival America an important reminder of the need to safeguard the cultural links between nations?
Yes. There's the old joke about two countries being separated by a common language. I've lived here a long time, and it seems to me the British have a complicated relationship with America - they admire it for some things, resent it in other ways, envy it, look down on it, sometimes all at once. But the ties seem strong to me, too. I went to a dozen different schools as a kid, in Texas, London, Oxford and Berlin ... I've always felt at home in Germany, read the language when I can, feel a probably delusional bond with anyone who speaks it, but I remember thinking there was a kind of common ground between the way American kids and English kids organized themselves into groups, made jokes, reacted to authority ... and that Germany functioned slightly differently. But these are just vague impressions, and some of them are decades old. It's good to keep raising these questions.
Benjamin will be speaking on September 25 at Canada House, Trafalgar Square, as part of Festival America. For tickets and details on all events, go to festivalamerica.co.uk.