'Who Is Rich?' He's A Hard Man To Like But He Makes You Laugh

Jul 1, 2017
Originally published on July 1, 2017 8:18 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rich is a hard man to like, but he makes you laugh. In Matthew Klam's novel "Who Is Rich?", he's a middle-aged cartoonist whose art, marriage and life seemed stuck in middle gear. He runs a workshop each summer at a scenic retreat for artists and writers and those who would be unknown nobodies and one-hit has-beens, says Rich, mid-list somebodies and legitimate stars.

Matthew Klam, a Guggenheim fellow who's written for The New Yorker, Esquire and GQ - he's taught creative writing a Johns Hopkins, St. Albans and other spots on the globe - joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATTHEW KLAM: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Sounds like you've spent a lot of time at writers and artists conferences.

KLAM: I went to one of these summer arts conferences as a student and then have gone a bunch of times as a faculty member. And what I've seen of these places and what I tried to make work in the book was that it's a kind of summer camp for grown-ups. And so mortgage, job, marriage, parenting - all that stuff, you get to push to the side. And for a couple days, the people who teach there and the people who come to take these classes can just focus on that one thing - I just want to get up on stage and read my poem; I just want to work on my seascape painting - and indulge in that kind of alter ego that's not part of the polished, you know, persona. And in the case of the sort of two main characters, they want to indulge in something else, too, which is embrace their romantic self.

SIMON: I was going to say have an affair. But I guess, yeah, I'll go with your wording, too. But wait.

KLAM: Yes.

SIMON: Having an affair is with someone else. You say, embrace their romantic self.

KLAM: Well, because I think that is sort of the point - it was something that was always really important to me in this book, was to convey the idea that marriage - and to a greater extent, parenthood - is something we enter into completely unprepared. And despite the warnings we get from our friends and loved ones and the self-help books, it's an unexpected disruption in our lives. And we get lost inside them.

And I think both of these people have sort of entered into that maze of being a spouse and a parent. And as anybody knows who's in that, you don't walk backwards. And you get lost inside the maze sometimes. You make some progress, but the two of them are kind of lost, and they've kind of bonded over that. And the sex is sort of secondary. They've been sending these sexy notes and texts back and forth all year since they met the summer before. You know, so yeah, it's a kind of midlife crisis thing. They're struggling. And I think in some ways they are not to blame, although they're exercising their, you know, erotic alter ego as well.

SIMON: Rich has acid remarks to make about just about everybody. Does that mean he's mostly disappointed in himself?

KLAM: Yeah. If you don't approve of yourself, it's hard for you to approve of others. That's probably a good general rule to note when you do feel that you're in the shadow of someone who is kind of dyspeptic. He seems to me to be someone who has extremely sort of strong feelings and is having these sort of powerful experiences about all kinds of stuff throughout the book I mean, he feels the beauty of the surroundings. He's on the beach in the summer in one of those places where the breeze feels like champagne bubbles. He has a romantic heart. He falls madly and completely in love for a couple of days. He also has intense guilt about his children and the things he's failing at. And he ends up, not once but twice, trying to commit suicide by wrapping a belt around his neck and jumping off a step, and he fails at that, too (laughter). But he (laughter) is someone who I think is full of strong feelings and not just for others but for himself, too.

SIMON: Was Rich hard for you to spend time with?

KLAM: There were so many things about the book that were a relief for me. I have a young daughter, and I do some of the grocery shopping and cooking and cleaning and picking my daughter up or taking her to school and stuff like that. It was great to leave that world and just indulge in these fantasies and not just the fantasy of some wild affair but just the fantasy of being, you know, half a madman for a few days. I mean...

SIMON: (Laughter).

KLAM: ...I - it took me, you know, the better part of six years to write this book. But I never got sick of going back to this place that wasn't my life. But in order to sort of make one sentence follow the next, I did need to have him be kind of amped up in this very anxious way that was, at times, exhausting (laughter). I do look forward to a kind of writing in the future where maybe I don't need that level of hysteria.

SIMON: Another line I wanted to ask you about, there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.

KLAM: Yeah. Well, so...

SIMON: You believe that?

KLAM: There is no such thing as a reliable narrator. I mean, we're looking at now in this, our political climate, you know, these two sides that can't believe the other one thinks what's true is true. But, you know, for any of us, even if you wanted to create a character who was exactly like Winston Churchill, you know, it's just not like - it's not paint by numbers.

SIMON: You mean you can make a fat guy with a cigar, but he's not necessarily Winston Churchill.

KLAM: Right, yeah. I mean, it's the same thing in journalism. It even happens on the front page of The New York Times. As soon as a writer begins to make choices, they're highlighting certain things. They're leaving out others, you know. Ask anyone who's ever been written about, you know...

SIMON: Yeah.

KLAM: ...Even pieces that are supposedly entirely complimentary. You know yourself that it's a pale version of the real thing.

SIMON: You've taught writing at a lot of different places. Not to talk you out of anything in the future, but can you teach writing?

KLAM: Well, one of the things you do with young writers is just sit there and be a writer, and they look at you. And most of them didn't come from an artsy-fartsy family, and they haven't seen one before. And you are staring...

SIMON: (Laughter).

KLAM: ...At them with a straight face. And you're saying, I get up in the morning, and I think about a short story. And that empowers them. But then there's also, you know - it's the fact that in any given classroom - and certainly at Johns Hopkins - the undergrads are so talented. There's two or three, you know, in the room who get it. And it doesn't matter what their grade point average is. They get it. And it's very exciting to say to them, you've got a big fish on the line here, you know. And now you're going to reel it in slowly, and I'm going to help you do that. That's really fun to do, and it's thrilling.

SIMON: Yeah. Matthew Klam - his novel, "Who Is Rich?". Thanks so much for being with us.

KLAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.