An Interview with David Biespiel

David Biespiel is the author of twelve books. I am excited to have the opportunity to interview him regarding his twelfth, The Book of Exodus, ahead of its September release. The book is currently available for pre-order.

Q: Can you sum up A Place of Exodus in 20 words or less?

The book is a memoir that tells the story of the rise and fall of a Jewish boyhood in Texas.

Q: What motivated you to write this book?

A Place of Exodus is my twelfth book. Like all my books, it explores questions of meaning: where we find it and what it offers us. The book also is something of a follow up (perhaps a prequel) to The Education of a Young Poet, which I published some years back, in which a couple of times I alluded to “a story for another day.” When I finished writing The Education of a Young Poet, as I have with all of my books, I began taking notes, pages and pages of notes, as a form of literary self-diagnoses in which I try to determine, what did I write and what didn’t I write? How had I included this and not included that? What had I left out, and why? I’m the sort of writer for whom the seed for the next piece of writing germinates in the negative spaces of what has come before, in the peculiarities of what was previously written, and not with abstraction, ideology, or philosophy. A book steers you, after awhile, after you’ve made dozens and dozens of decisions, toward a knowable horizon. The thing that surprised me, after writing The Education of a Young Poet, was, I’d written a book about how I became a writer but I didn’t write about the essential drama of my boyhood. You’d think if I was trying to answer the question — “How’d you’d become a writer? “— you’d write about your childhood. If I were Eudora Welty, I’d have written about Jackson, Mississippi, and the house on North Congress Street. I didn’t do that. And it troubled me. If the story of my childhood drama in Texas wasn’t part of the answer of how I became a writer, then what was it an answer to? To write about my childhood, I figured, I had to ask different questions. What would those questions be? I came to realize (after another experience, which I describe in the book, an unexpected reunion with childhood friends) that the questions I needed to ask about my situation in Texas, and leaving Texas, were something like: Why did you never come back? Why did you never come back to this place you’ve all but memorized, at least memorialized, in so much of your writing, in order to make yourself, at the very least, visible to yourself?

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Q: Did you find it challenging to write such a personal story?

Writing about anything is challenging. When you write autobiographically — which I think is the case for all of my books so far, at least — one of the special challenges is, you are cultivating facts into metaphor. That kind of focus asks a writer to pay attention and be mindful of the patterns of existence that we all share. Also: Memories include other people, such that all the various particulars that make up what you’re writing about come from a shared consciousness of language and experience, of history and time, of the unknown and the mysterious, of the known and the learned. I guess one of the big challenges for me was intensifying my devotion to being alert to the ways my psyche interacts with my memories (or, the version of events I tell myself about the past), and I hope readers will detect that devotion as a triumph. I have devoted myself, in the process of writing this book, to being alert to who I am when I speak (the narrator, you might say), being alert to what my identity was, is, and is becoming, and being alert to locating the beauty, mystery, and community of my materials and navigating their implications. It has meant probing my imagination to the source. In that sense, writing this book has been a journey involving a series of transformations — because to write a anything (a memoir, a poem) is, above all, to change your life. And, no less important, to change someone else’s life, a reader. So the challenge is knowing that this book, like any book, is an offering, because each book contains (one hopes) insight. All of it is a challenge! Right?! In the end, when you offer t a book to the world, you are saying to readers, “Hey, look over here, I have discovered something.”

Q: Was there anything you learned or took away from the experience of working on A Place of Exodus?

I learned that too often we lose sight of the fact that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are always in need of a fresh reckoning. 

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Q: What was your inspiration for the cover art?

The painting on the cover is my own. It’s a detail of a larger work. It’s not literary of the big sky and bayou landscape of southwest Houston where I grew up, but suggestive of it. 

Q: What kind of feedback are you receiving on the book so far?

Well the book officially comes out in September. So far, as I write this, there have been a half-dozen pre-publication reviews. All of them have been…well, ahem…glowing. Thankfully. Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal have given the book Starred Reviews. Jewish Week ran a big feature on it. I’m sitting down soon for an interview with Unorthodox, the podcast produced by Tablet magazine. I expect the other shoe to drop, mind you, and some reviewer will take exception. But, for now, I appreciate the enthusiastic, positive attention. And, I’m grateful for it.

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Q: What inspires you to write?

More of a compulsion than inspiration in my case. And, as I describe above, I draw new material from what I’ve already worked on. From asking questions: What is still percolating that interests me? What is that shard of a detail on the cutting room floor I can’t quite stop thinking about? Two poems I published recently in the New Yorker, here and here  came from that sort of methodology. Showing up at my desk with regularity and exploring what’s out there. As a writer you seek to blend your imagination with what you are both witnessing and imagining: As Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz says, the purpose of writing “is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.”

Q: What is on your current reading list?

I’m reading Marilyn Robinson’s novel, Home. But I think I need to re-read Gilead first to do so. I’m also reading Christian Wiman’s most recent book of poems, Survival Is a Style

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Q: What is your next writing project?

Good question. The pandemic has tired my brain — as it has for others. I’m grateful just to get through the day with accomplishing any work, and if I’m lucky some notes in a notebook. Most of the time I feel swamped with so many competing signals and information. I mean, this is my first global pandemic…so I’m without comparable experiences with which to orchestrate my thinking, and imagining, perhaps even dreaming. That’s draining, don’t you think? The world around us is experience so much chaos, so that’s no help either. The result is just raw intensity, and that makes focus come and go.

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Q: Can you provide your web address and links to your social media profiles for the audience?

Website: https://davidbiespiel.wixsite.com/david-biespiel

Twitter: @davidbiespiel

Facebook: davidbiespiel

Q: Any closing remarks?

I appreciate you. Thank you for asking the questions and reading the books. You’re doing the kind of work that makes communities stronger and makes the world a better place.

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