From Easy Reader News
May 14, 2015
By Bondo Wyszpolski
BOOK REVIEW: Rich Man, Poor Man
Talking dollars and sense with writer Ivan Goldman
Ivan Goldman has a new novel, and here’s how it begins: “When they brought out the sidewalk chicken costume, Liz hoped they were pulling her leg, but every passing moment chipped away more of this hope. It was a one-piece outfit–bright yellow with red highlights and a gap-toothed smile sewn permanently into the chicken face.” And a page or two later: “Only one thing to do in an outfit like this–dance!”
“The Debtor Class” is Goldman’s fifth novel (he’s also authored two nonfiction titles). He resides in
and the other day we sat in the
quieter corner of a shopping center while his dog, Daisy, napped in the bushes
nearby. Goldman has been a local resident for quite some time, and “The Debtor
Class” takes place largely in the Rancho Palos Verdes . Which is where the girl in the
chicken costume comes in. South Bay
Some years ago, and on a couple of occasions, Goldman noticed a young woman near the corner of 190th/Herondo and
Pacific Coast Highway as he drove by. She was holding a
sign–condominiums for sale, something like that. However, “She was always
dancing; I’d never seen that before,” Goldman says. One guesses she had a Sony
Walkman or other musical device. In case you’re wondering, no, she wasn’t
dressed like a rooster or a hen: “That’s what I like about fiction; you can
Sometimes a chance occurrence or just an image can stick in the memory of an artist, and then later on it nudges up to the surface (“Make way, look out, coming through!”). That’s what happened here, and along the way there were other recollections that came to the fore as Goldman was plotting and writing his latest book.
ON THE MONEY
“The Debtor Class” is an intriguing story that follows several characters (I’d call them marginal characters in that on the margin is how most of them live) who work for a collection agency run by the curiously named Philyaw, which is located in a ratty warehouse in downtown El Segundo. There are lots of plotlines that–like eels in a basket–wiggle back and forth. It’s a bit like Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” but more comprehensible. As the inner flap of the book jacket warns us, “All bought the American dream but couldn’t pay the price.”
“It didn’t start with the young woman dancing,” Goldman explains. “The idea for it came from many years ago when I was a reporter on the Washington Post. I did a series on a collection agency. It was a good series, and I made the front page with it.
“I remember I was very surprised,” he says. “It was my idea: let’s go to a collection agency and see what they do. I didn’t know what I was going to find, but I think like most of us I expected to find some pretty negative stuff–I didn’t expect to find nice people.
“The two guys running it were brothers. They were Korean War vets, educated, college grads, intelligent, a sense of humor. They weren’t cruel, bloodsucking scumbags. They were pretty nice guys. And the whole office was like that; they weren’t putting on a show. So it mixed me up; it surprised me. That’s not what I expected, and so it was very interesting. And over the years I remembered it.”
As he remembered the girl dancing on PCH in
Well, and that’s another thing, our perhaps very selective memories.
“That collection agency,” Goldman says, “I remember whole conversations. At some point, after I became a novelist, I realized there’s a reason why you remember this. It’s because it’s interesting.” He laughs. “And that was the springboard for the book.”
Okay. But why is that important?
“Because a collection agency gives you kind of a front row seat to the American opera. As we all know, money isn’t just about money, and it’s not just about possessions. It’s about experiences, it’s about vacations to Disney World or whatever else you’re buying with that money.
“So, money is currency,” Goldman continues; “but it’s the currency of a lot of things, not just material things. And people don’t talk about money, really. I don’t ask you, What’s your salary? That would be a vicious thing — it’s like asking someone, Tell me the personal details of your sexual life. You don’t do that, and you don’t ask people’s salary. So money is very, very personal.
“So what they’re discussing ostensibly in this collection agency is money that’s owed to them. But how did it get owed to them? Who are those people who owe them money, and who are these people who are collecting the money? I felt very strongly that the people collecting the money, the ones I met, weren’t very different than the people they were collecting the money from, and maybe were themselves done by collectors in the past.”
NUTS AND BOLTS, OR, HOW IT’S DONE
Every book requires some kind of foundation that monitors length and pacing and whatnot. Did Goldman meticulously outline the 41 chapters of “The Debtor Class” before he began writing? And does this apply to all of his novels?
“I have a semi-outline,” he replies. “I have an idea how it will end, but in this particular case I really didn’t, and that’s why it was so important to create good characters because if you create really good characters it’s like a parent sending off their children into the world. I try to create these good characters and it’s as though they decide what happens.”
It sounds a little like winding up a clock or some other device that in turn sets the wheels in motion. “The book is quite character-driven,” Goldman says, “and the characters pretty much created the plot.”
“The Debtor Class” took maybe two years to write, “but probably only six months of those two years were full time. Ideas would come to me gradually and I’d write them down — ideas about characters, about events. I’d think about them in the back of my mind and try to tie them all together.”
Are there numerous rewrites or revisions?
“I revise as I go along,” Goldman explains. “You have these people who do first draft, second draft, third draft. I do that to some extent, but mostly I revise as I write. Sometimes if the ideas are flowing I’ll just keep writing” — meaning that he’ll plow through any rough patches, all the while knowing he’ll “go back and fix that later. I know there’s something wrong with it, but I’m riding this train and I don’t want to jump off.”
Goldman, who was a Fulbright Scholar, has had a distinguished career as a journalist — writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Utne Reader, The Nation, National Review, Rolling Stone, The Ring, The New York Times, and the aforementioned Washington Post — and he seems to have ended up in a place that suits him well.
“Life is just a crapshoot,” he says, “and you don’t know where the dice are gonna come up. I’m not a famous novelist but I really am quite content with that. I’m very happy to be doing what I like to do and to actually get it published. And somebody reads it.”
But books have a lot of competition from the entertainment industry and other art forms.
“People will pay $200 for their sunglasses,” Goldman says, exaggerating a little although not by much. “They’ll pay $100 to see a crappy fight on TV, and they’ll pay $12 to see a terrible film — but they don’t want to put out $25 for a book.”
Writers write, most of them because of an inner compulsion, but sometimes to impress friends, families, or colleagues, and yet probably without knowing who their wider audience will be. So who else might Goldman be writing for?
“Maybe a million years from now creatures will land on Earth and dig through the shards of our civilization,” he says. “They’ll find my work and get a big kick out of it. I’m writing for them too.”
In the meantime, we humans can get a headstart.
“THE DEBTOR CLASS,” by Ivan G. Goldman, is new from The Permanent Press (well, it better be “permanent” if aliens are going to find it in a million years!). The publisher’s website is thepermanentpress.com.