Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Special Feature: Interview with Author Chandler Burr

Last Tuesday I reviewed Chandler Burr's challenging new novel, You or Someone Like You, about a marriage that falls apart when the husband, movie exec Howard Rosenbaum, decides to embrace Orthodox Judaism and leave his Christian wife, Anne.

You can read my full review here, and click here to buy the book via

Mr. Burr was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.

1. What inspired you to pen a novel on the topic of religion, instead of, say, an essay or a nonfiction journalism piece? Was there something you thought you could say better through fictional characters, truths you felt could better be expressed through fiction?

It’s interesting. I’ve been asked this numerous times, and my
perception is that the people who ask this question are those most interested in the intellectual problems the novel raises. The people who don’t ask this question talk to me exclusively about the characters, their feeling about them— the ideas are merely a component inside the greater fictional work. I just got a fan email from a woman— Jewish— who wrote, “I love Anne! I KNOW her! It amazed me.” She also said she agreed with my view on all the issues— that one cannot simultaneously claim to believe in Judaism, a theology of separatism, tribalism, and racialism created as a logical adaptive protective device in the ancient world, and also claim to oppose racialism, tribalism, and separatism for everyone but Jews in the modern world (she added, “And I consider myself extremely Jewish!”)—but she only talked to me about the characters. She’s an example of a reader who responded to the story. And that’s my answer: To me there was never a question but that I’d write this as fiction. You can write non-fiction, and it’s fine for laying out your truths in one way. But fiction communicates those truths in an utterly different way. Infinitely more complexity, subtlety. I felt, and feel, that these truth can be much better expressed through fiction because they are so deeply, irrationally, utterly human.

2. What kind of challenge are you posing to your readers? Religion plays a large role in American life- are you trying to get the reader to reconsider the role religion might play in their lives?

Absolutely. The role of every organized religion: Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam. To be very blunt: Only the truly fanatic and fundamentalist are not hypocrites. Reform and even Conservative and Orthodox Jews say to me, “Oh, how terrible that that Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem expelled you from that yeshiva!” And they’re simply hypocrites. They identify as Jews. Yet they don’t keep the 613 rules. They eat trefe. They work on the Sabbath, etc etc. And most
importantly, many believe that non-Jews are not morally inferior. Remember in the novel the person who says-- and this is a direct quote from author Regina Schwartz-- that “we Jews are chosen, yes, but it’s not that the Jews are better than other people, just that we answer to a higher moral standard." This is laugh out loud absurd. If you claim to believe in an organized religion, then put your money where your mouth is. If you’re truly a Christian or a Jew, you need to act on Leviticus and put gay people to death. Either take it seriously... or begin the often very difficult process of accepting that you are not Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Muslim. You are, instead, human. Which in my view is much better.

The Orthodox Jews take Judaism seriously. The Muslim fanatics take Islam seriously. The Christian fundamentalists take Christianity seriously. Of course, they are all—all of them— completely insane and thoroughly evil people, and I loathe them. But they are intellectually and theologically coherent. And anyone who claims a religious identity, then dilutes its theology to parts per million—“Oh, I’m Christian, but I don’t believe in hell”; sorry, Jesus explicitly talks about burning in the fires of Hell—is simply silly. Claim a religious identity without adhering to the religion, and you’re a hypocrite. An example: I have an American friend whose parents are Indian immigrants. They don’t practice Hinduism except for a few cultural things. They couldn’t care less. But my friend has stopped eating beef. Ask him why, he gives a fuzzy, incoherent response involving “valuing my identity” and so on. Yet it’s not his identity; he doesn’t know the first thing about Hinduism, he supports gay rights, religious intermarriage, and doesn’t believe in Shiva, Ganesh, or any of the gods. And more importantly, as a good liberal he totally opposes one of the fundamental aspects of Hinduism’s codified systemic racism, that there is a group of human beings so theologically and morally polluted they are Untouchable. Gandhi didn’t believe it either. Gandhi was not a Hindu. Neither is my friend. He simply plays at it, and we have to order chicken for him at Chinese restaurants. It’s just a small roll-your-eyes pain in the ass, a self-delusion that an adult should have gotten over by now. He needs to grow up. Many, many of us need to simply grow up.

3. You must be aware of how sensitive the topic is that you've chosen. What made you decide to go at it as aggressively as you have?

I loathe dishonesty. I loathe incoherence and hypocrisy and superficial thinking and the corruption they axiomatically create. And the reason is that if we are not rigorous in our thinking— we being you and I, Marie, and all people like us, we who believe that the value of a human being has nothing to do with their race or gender or sexual orientation or wealth but with whether they try to be good to each other, help those who need it, treat the earth well, believe in freedom of thought and scientific research— if we are not rigorous in our thinking, then corruption starts to spread through us like gangrene. Argue something incoherent on just one point, and ultimately you can become thoroughly corrupt.

I had a colleague named Jennifer, a young woman, who was a vegetarian. Her stated reasons: she hated killing animals (a legitimate moral stand), vegetarianism creates hugely less biological pollution and its cultivation burns less petroleum (true), it damages the earth less (true), it takes 10 lbs of wheat to raise 1 lb of beef, so we have to use the earth’s nutrients as well as pollute the air with methane and the soil with blood and feces (true). And then she stated another reason: Homo sapiens sapiens didn’t evolve to eat meat. This is a lie, and it is anti-science. Our dental structure and our digestive systems’ enzymes clearly show we evolved as omnivores. We have the close frontally-placed eyes for the greater depth perception of hunter species. She replied to me (after a bit of a struggle), “Well, OK, but the end justifies the means.” Not in this case. The Christian fundamentalists want to do away with science entirely. We would be insane to help them. Insane.

Ancient, outmoded, archaic religious identity threatens the existence of the world, as Bill Maher noted in “Religulous.” If we do have a nuclear war, it will most probably be started by religious people.

Maybe the more sensitive a topic is, the more aggressively you have to fight for the truth at its center.

4. What challenges did you face as you wrote the book, either internally or externally?

Um...none externally, I guess. Well, I was worried about my agent’s reaction. He’s Jewish and married a Gentile woman (I don’t know if Gentile is capitalized or not), and his kids are the wrong half like me, and it turned out he agrees with every word of my novel. Internally: I think just the usual novelist’s struggles.

5. I have a hard time visualizing the ideal reader for this book; who did you write the book for? Is it for people who agree with your point of view, or for those who don't?

Both. Very much both. Or rather for people who agree and then for people who think they disagree with parts of it, which is the category I think you’re in. And I will bet you anything that in the very, very end, you agree with me. I explicitly did not write it for fundamentalists, who don’t start from the same moral premises that I, and I assume you, do. If you truly start from the premise that, to take Islam as an example, a person is either a Muslim or he is to be converted or killed, then what I have to say is irrelevant to you. Of course so is almost everything else. My novel is not for you.

6. What kinds of responses have you had from readers and critics? How do you feel about those reactions?

I’ve gotten called anti-Semitic in some reviews, for example by Shelley Salamensky and Mandell Ganchrow, which is simply a substance-less reaction. I’m completely opposed to Judaism as a
religion and as an “identity” in whatever weird, inchoate way that’s defined—just as I am to Christian, Hindu, and Muslim theology and “identity”—but I’m not at all opposed to Judaism is a culture nor to Jews in any racial or ethnic way.

Mendy Ganchrow, incidentally, wrote, “Mr. Burr has fashioned a well-written, literate novel that any student of English literature would love.” So I owe him. The problem is that his argument against my noting the absurdity of Judaism’s primitive mythology that sees the Jews as occupying a singular position for the Creator of the Universe—all primitive origin myths do this (in Japanese origin mythology, the goddess Amaterasu Omikami created Japan as the world’s
origin; in Norse mythology, the gods are Norwegian; the Greek myths, etc. etc.)—was to say that I hadn’t taken account of the 7 Noahide Laws “which govern and define how a gentile is viewed by Jewish Law.” These 7 laws are nice—no idolatry, no incest and murder, you can’t eat
living animals and so forth—but seriously, folks: Jews are held to 613, and my African-American friend Barbra and my Chinese-American friend Jason are held to 7? And God sees Jews and gentiles equally? That’s hilarious.

And then there are reviewers who love the characters, love the plot, find it “compulsively readable”—obviously I love those guys. Pretty normal.

7. Why did you decide to set it amongst the Hollywood elite instead of, say, the East Coast publishing world?

Because I needed Anne to be in as completely a Jewish world as possible, and yes, publishing is pretty close, but people in publishing read. People in Hollywood don’t. You couldn’t do the book
club plot here in NY. And also I love L.A. and it’s my fantasy to live in the Hollywood Hills on Macapa Drive in a house I actually went into because it was for sale and I went in and made like I was interested in buying it—which I am, completely, but I don’t have anywhere near enough money yet—and so there you are.

8. The experiences of the gentile in the Jewish world is not a topic that one finds often in literature. What made you decide to write from Anne's point of view instead of Howard's?

The experience of a gentile in a Jewish world is indeed not a theme you read often, if ever, in literature—it’s virtually always the reverse even though practically speaking this is absurd; as you pointed out, East Coast publishing is a Jewish world, the Hamptons, Florida, etc.—and if you’re going to write that story, it seems to me evident that you write it from Anne's point of view, not Howard's. Because Jewish culture is so astonishing at producing, in numbers hugely disproportionate to its size, people who become great writers and novelists, and because Jewish culture ferociously inculcates in Jews an obsession with “what is Jewishness,” literature by Jews is, also hugely disproportionately, about Jews from the points of view of Jews. Obviously this is true of the literature of most cultures—Junot Diaz writes books about Dominicans in the U.S., Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Bengali-Americans and so on—but pile Mailer on Roth on Bellow on
Doctorow on Myla Goldberg and on and on, and there’s an insanely large amount of Jewish point of view about both the gentile and Jewish worlds. Which, again, is why it would be sort of insane for me not to write on Judaism and the Jewish world from, for once, a gentile’s point of view.

9. As a young man you found yourself in a position very similar to that of Sam when he went to Israel. How did that experience shape you and affect how you feel about Judaism and organized religion in general. How has writing the book impacted your own sense of identity?

For the record, what happened to me in Israel wasn’t similar to what happened to Sam in the novel; it was exactly identical excepting a few details I changed of how Sam arrives there. Otherwise: 100% what happened.

What’s funny is that yes, getting kicked out of the yeshiva for being racially impure was a pretty freaky experience, but remember that I grew up as a homosexual in the 1970s and 80s. I’m completely used to being hated by all organized religions, and well before I went to Israel I had already put on my X list Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism because I was raised in the U.S. (there goes Christianity), had traveled in the Muslim world and in India (nix those). Judaism was actually the last to prove itself X-worthy. It didn’t deepen my dislike of organized religion as much as it simply broadened the reasons for disliking it. Just more examples of

10. Although this is your first novel, you've written several books of nonfiction as well. Could you tell my readers about your other work?

Absolutely. I wrote a cover story, "Homosexuality and Biology", for The Atlantic, and it became my first book, A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation, about the biology of sexual orientation in humans. Conclusion: Sexual orientation is almost exactly analogous to handedness, the great majority right-handed, a small minority born with left-handedness, and a tiny number of the ambidextrous. It was boycotted by the Southern Baptists incidentally.

My second book was The Emperor of Scent about a French-Italian scientist who created a theory of how the sense of smell functions, which is a serious scientific mystery. Third was The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris & New York, about the year I spent with Hermès perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena in Paris as he created an Hermès scent and with Sarah Jessica Parker in New York City as she created her’s.

Mr. Burr, thank you very much for your illuminating responses. I hope more readers get the chance to read your thought-provoking novel, and best wishes in the future.

You can visit his website at