Alex Gilvarry launched his novel Eastman Was Here last month at McNally Jackson Books. He was previously nominated for the 5 Under 35 for The Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, and was joined at McNally Jackson for a conversation with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh.
Eastman Was Here is the story of once successful, now down on his luck man offered a second chance as a war correspondent in Vietnam. The character, and the novel, is inspired by Norman Mailer. Gilvarry has previously been a Norman Mailer Fellow and visiting scholar.
Gilvarry explains he had been reading a biography of Mailer when he first got hooked on the idea of a character based around Mailer’s life. For a time, Mailer had been working on a deal to sell a series of dispatches from Vietnam around the end of the war, but the deal fell apart. For Gilvarry, the idea of a character like Mailer writing about the war stuck with him. “Your subjects pick you,” he explains.
Gilvarry has read all of Mailer’s novels, though it is the nonfiction he likes most. Mailer has written more than thirty books.
Eastman, Gilvarry’s character, is not quite Norman Mailer. He has fewer children and not quite as many ex-wives. He is also a coward who feels overwhelmed by anxiety. The thing driving Eastman is a desire to leave his mark on the world. He wants to go out with a big flame–and for much of the book, Gilvarry hopes, the reader is pulling for Eastman.
For Gilvarry, he’s writing about a time prior to his birth, but he did visit Saigon. He also visited the Mailer archive in Texas and researched letters Mailer wrote reading the correspondence and developing a character.
Sound is important to Gilvarry’s writing. He believes the rhythm for his writing comes from the sounds of Yiddish and the writers he grew up reading–Jews from New York. He adds that it’s a hard thing to describe how you write.
Writers of Gilvarry’s generation don’t write about sex in the same way Twentieth-century novelists did, he observes. But for Eastman, sex was an important part of the character and Gilvarry thought it necessary to write such scenes. Sex can be ugly sometimes, he notes.
Even though Gilvarry was born after the war, father was a veteran and so it has been part of his life. He also grew up with films portraying the era, like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which he saw at the age of seven: “I was scared straight.”
“As you pointed out, I did inhale some Mailer, and it did make it on the page,” Gilvarry says, but eventually Eastman became his own character with his own faults.
“I always need to be reading something.”
You might also be interested in Alex Gilvarry’s conversation with his wife, Alexandra Kleeman, from the launch of her story collection Intimations, at McNally Jackson last September.