Please welcome Dave Fromm to the blog! His new book, The Duration, just came out and chatted about it, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about The Duration and what inspired you to write it?
Sure. First, thanks for having me! I really appreciate it.
The Duration is a tragic bromance set in the haunted hills of Western Massachusetts, primarily in an area called The Berkshires. There’s a rhino involved. It’s my first novel – I wrote a nonfiction book that came out in 2008 – and I’m in a constant state of low-grade anxiety about how it will be received, particularly by my family and childhood friends, who make up around 90% of my likely readership.
I was inspired to write The Duration by a few things. One of them is pretty cool – a local Berkshire legend about a circus elephant named Columbus who, in 1851, came to the Berkshires as part of a traveling act, got injured and subsequently died in the woods in my small New England hometown. They left him where he lay, and the woods eventually swallowed him up. His body’s never been found, although some folks are sure they know where it is. That idea, of a buried beast, an old, exotic secret in this otherwise Rockwellian place, always struck me as a pretty great hook on which to hang a story. In the book, I subbed a rhino in for the elephant and changed a bunch of other stuff, but the theme remains.
The other inspiration was my own return to Western Massachusetts from California, where my wife and I lived for seven years. Coming home opened up all sorts of heavy feelings about growing up, transitions, deep friendships and memories from childhood. I’m solidly midlife, but my characters are still in their late 20s when most of the action takes place, an age at which they’re supposed to be laying the foundation for their adult lives if not already fully living them. A couple of them are, and a couple aren’t yet.
What makes Pete and Chickie compelling characters?
I don’t know. It’s weird, for me Chickie is the hardest character to get my arms around. But that’s true in the story for Pete as well, i.e. it’s hard for Pete to get his arms around Chickie. I wound up identifying with Pete much more, with his efforts to be responsible and his frustrations at how fruitless those efforts were. Pete’s right there, trying so hard to become his own man, to step into the light, as it were. But he feels a deep kinship, and even love, for his struggling childhood best bud – their relationship is a big part of Pete’s own identity. He’s determined to pull Chick up with him, and you know how that goes.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
Not a whole lot of traditional research. I grew up in the town of Lenox, where the novel is set, and we lived on a street that backed up to one of the crumbling Gilded Age mansions that became a health spa called Canyon Ranch. In college, I worked at Canyon Ranch briefly and drew some of the details of the novel’s health spa from my memories. I read up on the legend of Columbus, which was featured in our local newspaper back on the early 2000s. I have a friend who is working on a documentary about that legend, and he and I compared notes. But that’s it, really. Most of the stuff in the novel I stole or made up or based on unsuspecting victims who deserve better.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and that progression?
Yeah, I suppose so, but I think when I was younger my ideas of “being a writer” were very abstract and romantic and unrealistic. I thought I’d just need to sit around and smoke and act tortured, rather than to actually write anything. I had (and still have!) significant doubts about the quality of my work, so I relegated writing to the status of hobby, but a hobby I talked about more than worked on. After college I had one ambition – to go have an adventure and write about it – and I wound up playing basketball in Central Europe. The journal of that year became the manuscript for my first book, which came out more than ten years after I came home. In between, I went to law school and worked as a civil litigator in Boston and California. When that work became a grind, I started writing again, privately, for the fun of it, and with the considerable help of the Zoetrope Online Writers Workshop, which was full of talented and generous people who taught me what real writing was like. Eventually, my basketball book came out, we moved from Los Angeles to Massachusetts, started a family, and I started writing more and more.
I still don’t really feel like a writer, though. As an identity, it seems risky.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
A poem for my sixth-grade English class about Per Hansa, the patriarch in Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. (I just looked that up.) I was screwing around in class and wrote this pretty awful rhyme that started “My name is Per Hansa and I am a Swede. I have trouble riting and can’t even read.” I put it in my teacher’s mailbox because I was kind of a kiss-ass, and she was so happy that someone was even remotely engaged that she photocopied it and passed it out to the class.
That’s when I knew. (Hah!)
What authors have influenced you the most, in your writing, and in life?
I carried around Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch for most of 1994. It was a book that reminded me how fun and engaging a voice could be, and how a writer could write his way out of a box. Michael Chabon’s novels have sentences I’ll read over and over again, as do David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction pieces. Those two are my go-to’s for ambition and generosity in writing. I also loved the Czech author Josef Skvorecky, who wrote a bunch of wonderful books, including The Miracle Game and The Swell Season, which hit me at the right time in my life, and which I’d read again in a heartbeat. My favorite recent book is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which is a masterwork about the American Dream and, as far as I’m concerned, a worthy successor to The Great Gatsby.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Jeez, that’s a great question. I guess one answer is my own book, not because it’s going to light the world on fire or anything, but just because it would be nice to experience it without second-guessing every revision or non-revision or choice in it. But that’s obviously not what you mean, and I wouldn’t really want to waste the opportunity. And what if I didn’t like it? That’d be a disaster. It’s a hard question because so many of the books that have resonated with me resonated in part because they appeared at the right times, so to speak. Would those books feel different if experienced at different life stages? Of course, I guess. The Swell Season hit when I was young and in Europe and girl-crazy. Netherland came along when I became a father. All the fantasy stuff I read when I was little and got totally, utterly lost in and it would be nice to be able to get lost like that again.
I’m gonna say Netherland. I love that book. I feel like I’m still in the right place for it.
Have you read any good books lately? Anything you’d recommend?
I have! Jim Ruland’s Forest of Fortune is wonderful. It’s about a haunted casino in the desert southeast of Los Angeles. It’s funny and slightly spooky and smart. Michael FitzGerald’s novel Radiant Days, about an expat cohort in Budapest in the 1990s, is super smart. That came out a while ago but I recently dipped back into it.
What are you currently reading?
I’m working my way through the Knausgaard saga and when it gets too frustrating I read some of Rebecca Schiff’s stories from her recent collection The Bed Moved, which is great. I’m excited to read my friend Pamela Erens’s new novel Eleven Hours.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Back to living the dream. Red carpets, soirees. I wrote a YA-ish novel for my daughter (she’s only 5 so we have a while) about a teenage girl who discovers her grandfather was a pirate and sets out to return all the priceless artifacts he plundered. We’re shopping that to publisher now – fingers crossed. I have two other things I’m working on – one is a revision of an older novel about horseshoe crabs and the other is tbd but there will probably be some CrossFit in it, just because the jargon is outstanding. So, like, a story about a middle-aged guy who starts going to CrossFit to ward off the spectre of Death, learns some outstanding jargon and then in his second week loses all feeling below his waist. It’s fiction.
Thank you so so much!
About The Duration:
It’s been 100 years since tragedy struck the rolling woods around Fleur-de-Lys, one of dozens of Gilded Age estates dotting the western Massachusetts town of Gable. In Gable, they both begrudge and venerate their past, and even now that health spas and corporate yoga retreats have replaced the mansions of a bygone era, the ghosts of yesteryear linger. Growing up there means navigating those ghosts, and the even more pernicious pitfalls of adolescence, until you’re lucky enough to find your footing. Unless you’re not.
In The Duration, Boston attorney Pete Johansson finds himself reuniting in Gable with his troubled childhood pal Chickie, who has returned to the wintry town of their youth determined to solve past mysteries and right the wrongs he can’t seem to shake. Despite–or because of–his best intentions, Pete is drawn reluctantly into Chick’s reckless orbit, straining a bedrock friendship and putting them both at risk.