2007.03.07: March 7, 2007: Headlines: COS - Ivory Coast: Writing - Ivory Coast: Pine Magazine: An Interview with Tony D'Souza: How has your life changed in the past few years, since your time with the Peace Corps, and in your rise among the ranks of writers?

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An Interview with Tony D'Souza: How has your life changed in the past few years, since your time with the Peace Corps, and in your rise among the ranks of writers?

An Interview with Tony D'Souza: How has your life changed in the past few years, since your time with the Peace Corps, and in your rise among the ranks of writers?

"Specifically in Whiteman, I avoided any mention of the Peace Corps because it taints the story with everyone’s prejudices about the organization. I wrote the things I wanted to write about, even when it made me cringe to think what people would think of me. I mean all the sex in the book. My favorite parts are still all of Jack’s love affairs and sexual escapades. I have two basic rules that apply to all my writing: something’s got to happen, and be readable. "

An Interview with Tony D'Souza: How has your life changed in the past few years, since your time with the Peace Corps, and in your rise among the ranks of writers?

An Interview With Writer Tony D'Souza
The prolific, young writer talks of beginnings, books and why Cormac McCarthy should get the Nobel

By Holly Lang
Posted: 03/07/2007

The first time I read anything by writer Tony D'Souza was a short story called "The Man Who Married a Tree," in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Issue No. 20. It is easily one of the more lovely stories I've read in some time, a sentiment many of the friends who later received a Xerox copy via the postal service. Soon I hunted him down, wanting more. And more I found.

Turns out Mr. D'Souza is a prolific man, with a well-received book, Whiteman, having garnered praise from some of the stiffer critics. The book is also winning awards all over the place, including the Los Angeles Times' Art Seidenbaum Award. D'Souza has also authored several essays and articles, and will release his second book, The Konkans, later this year. He's currently living in Nicaragua, where he is working on his third book as well as doing some freelance. D'Souza was generous enough to answer a few questions in what is one of the more candid and thorough interviews we've had yet in Pine. You'll find it below a snippet from the story that brought us to him in the first place. We hope you read all of it, the interview and the story, which you can find in its entirety here.


HL: How has your life changed in the past few years, since your time with the Peace Corps, and in your rise among the ranks of writers?

TDS: My life changed in a very specific way the first week of December 2005. Two years ago. My agent, Liz Darhansoff, managed to get a number of publishers interested in Whiteman. I talked with a bunch of editors, they told me their ideas about editing the book. Basically, Tina at Harcourt said the right things, we went with Harcourt. I was leaning their way anyway because they publish Jose Saramago and he along with Cormac McCarthy and JM Coetzee are our best living writers. I said it tangentially in the New York Times Book Review, I say it to everybody: McCarthy deserves the Nobel.

In any case, Harcourt has Saramago, and so that’s where I wanted to be.

I was teaching composition at a California Community College and dealing with culture shock after three years in Africa, anyway, I knew Whiteman was good and would sell, but that week of negotiating was sleepless and giddy and everything it was supposed to be. Because though I was young (30) or so they tell me because it felt old to me, I was not new to writing and wanting to be a full time writer. I had been publishing stories and poems in the journals since I was 22, then I had my sojourn in Africa where I lost three years of writing during the war, and then I was back and teaching comp and basically Whiteman was going to be it for me, I put everything I had into it and if it hadn’t sold I simply would not have understood that. I wouldn’t have jumped off a bridge, but I just wouldn’t have understood and it would have broken me. So somehow I am very lucky that my book was noticed and that I was not broken, but in fact the opposite is true now, I don’t think I can be broken because of the satisfaction I feel at coming out of the despair I was in to write Whiteman, and I’ve gotten past Second Novel Syndrome, and the dream of writing that I had as a young man has come true even more than I dreamed it.

So Liz sells Whiteman and at first we were talking about $50,000, and then she calls me back in the morning and she says, $25,000. Well, both were less than I imagined because I thought that you wrote a good novel and got a million bucks. But I didn’t understand books then and what it means to be a first novelist, and even if you are the next great thing to yourself, you are a first novelist to the publishing world and so you get a small advance. In the end, I got $30,000 for Whiteman, less 15 percent agent fees and 15 percent taxes, you can do the math. But it was enough to buy me a year of writing full time, and I wanted that more than anything, and I quit the day job. I had to teach out the spring semester of my contract. I should probably give some of that money back because I dialed it in so bad, though the students didn’t mind.

Somehow things just worked out. I got the NEA a few months later, then the magazines started picking me up. In one year, my by-line went from The Black Warrior Review, The Literary Review, Stand, Iron Horse, etc. to The New Yorker, Playboy, Salon, Esquire, McSweeney’s, Tin House, the O. Henry Award, etc. Was I really that much better all of the sudden? No. But I had an excellent agent.

That one year of full time writing has turned into two, and I’ve budgeted so that I am looking at about three ahead of me even if no more money comes in and baring bad luck or an act of God. The advance on The Konkans was better, I have a Japan-Friendship NEA that sends me over there for five months, the folks at the Lannan Foundation are going to put me up for awhile at their place in Texas, right now I’m living cheap in Nicaragua. I think I will always think of money as only financing my writing. Lots of people told me it was foolish to leave a tenure track teaching job. But it wasn’t. Nobody ever really believed in me but me. That’s what I feel. I don’t have a Lear complex…it’s simply that after Whiteman and all the hoopla started, my best friend told me, ‘I knew you liked to write, but I didn’t really imagine this.’ My mother told me that same thing. If your best friend and mother say things like that, god. And girlfriends? Twice I was dumped by girls who specifically mentioned the writing. When I was 23 and 29. It rings in my head still, the specific moments they said it: “I don’t want to live on faculty row,” and “You’re not a real writer.” I’ll remember those things forever. But it’s not like I’m some good guy. I treated the people close to me pretty awfully when I was writing Whiteman, and was pretty despicable again to someone while writing The Konkans.

The biggest changes are in the amount of time I get to devote to my writing. There is barely enough time for it as it is. That anyone ever writes a book while working a day job… that will stay with me, too, teaching all day and writing Whiteman all night. I’m proud of that. No one will fully know how difficult that was but me. I get a lot of, and love answering, fanmail. I like interviews and talking about books and writing.

HL: One comment about your writing is that you managed to sidestep certain traps of the "first book," such as self-indulgent details, etc. How did you approach writing Whiteman, and how do you feel you were able to relay your experiences in a fictional manner?

TDS: I wrote with a very strict discipline from the age of 22, when my father died suddenly, and what had been for me a hobby and something I was lazy about, became the rigorous focus of my life’s energy. Because my father’s death was both tragic and liberating for me. Tragic because I loved him and had a lot of difficult racial issues that revolved around him and me and him being a Konkan and me being able to pass for white when I wanted. And liberating because if he had lived I would have not been able to pursue writing with everything I had in me because I would not have been able to turn 27, 28, 29 and not have made a real penny off of something I spent five hours a day doing, I would have gone to law school and lived my life for my father. Instead, my father died and now all of my possessions can easily fit in the cab of my truck with me, and I am not like happy all the time or anything close, but I know what my calling is in life without question, and I feel very lucky and blessed. And then it becomes a responsibility, too, to really do it.

Now as far as avoiding first novel mistakes in Whiteman, I avoided them because Whiteman wasn’t my first novel. I wrote a really wretched novel when I was 19 about two guys smuggling a truckload of pot to Chicago from Mexico, then I wrote a goofy, conceptual novel when I was 23 called The Day of the Dead, then I wrote a really bad adventure novel set in Scotland called A Long Walk when I was 29, which should have been called A Long Read, as well as a much better political novel that same year called Andalusia, which I sent to my agent, and which she rejected. Liz Darhansoff and I first met in New York through a mutual friend six years ago. She’s rejected a book of poems, a collection of stories, and Andalusia before she picked up Whiteman. And she was mostly right too and I’m glad I moved on from them.

Specifically in Whiteman, I avoided any mention of the Peace Corps because it taints the story with everyone’s prejudices about the organization. I wrote the things I wanted to write about, even when it made me cringe to think what people would think of me. I mean all the sex in the book. My favorite parts are still all of Jack’s love affairs and sexual escapades. I have two basic rules that apply to all my writing: something’s got to happen, and be readable.

Writing takes a long time to develop. Much more than I imagined. I found my voice early on, at 22 I’d written a story where I had a voice that wasn’t copying anyone, was just mine. But, I still feel like I am learning, I still feel nervous everyday that I’ll ever write anything good again. I am a voracious reader, and have been since a child. That as much as developing a discipline got me ready.


When I was looking for blurbs for Whiteman, I went to the AWP conference in Vancouver and basically staked out those authors I admired who I wanted to ask. Bob Shacochis was one. I went up to him after his panel, introduced myself, invited him to a drink. Since we were both Peace Corps alums and Bob is interested in war stories, he took me up on the invite right away. He did write a blurb, and through him I got in contact with Norman Rush, who also cheerfully obliged. I did that same thing to Kim Addonizio there and she blurbed me, too. But people like Paul Theroux, Mary Gaitskill, Ha Jin, Tim O’Brien, they said ‘no’. I approached them through e-mail. They did wish me luck, though. Well, not O’Brien, I wrote him a snail letter. I mean, I’m a guy with one book. There are a million guys with one book. That said, I’m eternally grateful to the people who blurbed me. Someone told me that I didn’t have any integrity for doing things like that, that if I had such a bigtime publisher, then they should do all of that for me. Well I think that’s defeatist, that there is nothing wrong with approaching an author you admire, telling them so, and asking them once, and politely, if they’d look at galleys and maybe blurb it. My publisher appreciated it a lot, too.

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