Beckman, John 1967–
Beckman, John 1967–
ADDRESSES: Office—English Department, U.S. Naval Academy, 107 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD 21402-5044. E-mail—[email protected]
Also contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including McSweeney's Quarterly and Book magazine; contributor of short fiction to anthologies, including Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, edited by Boris Fishman, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: John Beckman's debut novel, The Winter Zoo, is set in Krakow, Poland, a city to which the novel's protagonist, Gurney, an American and recent college graduate, has fled. What Gurney is fleeing is responsibility in the form of a girlfriend and a new baby. Gurney travels to Poland to stay with his cousin Jane for a time, and over the course of the next three months has adventures both high and low with his cousin and a cast of other expatriate friends. Part of the driving force of the plot is Gurney's sexual attraction for his cousin, and she loses no time in initiating Gurney in all the pleasures Krakow might have to offer, including herself. Meanwhile, Gurney finds work in a casino to support his adventure.
Beckman's novel earned mostly positive reviews. For example, a Kirkus Reviews critic called the novel an "intense, unsettling debut," further noting that it is a "potent and deeply disturbing portrayal of innocence destroyed and corruption rampant." Although a reviewer for Publishers Weekly complained of a lack of structure in the book, a more positive assessment came from Time magazine contributor Lev Grossman, who wrote: "What makes the novel work is that Beck-man's Cracow has two faces, comic and tragic." Further praise came from Nation critic Eliot Boren-stein who felt it was a "testament to Beckman's tal-ent" that he could make the reader like and identify with Gurney, who has abandoned his newborn child and is having an incestuous affair with his cousin. Borenstein went on to note that Beckman's novel does "an admirable job of bringing together the aimlessness of the American characters with the jaded perspective of their Polish hosts, while continually calling into question the ethics of their interactions, both personal and economic."
Beckman told CA: "I started writing at about age eleven, when I told my father (a psychologist) that I wanted to become a writer. He responded by making it one of my summer jobs. I had to sit in my room for five hours a week and, well, ideally, write. The experience was shocking, as anyone who has ever had to write can imagine, but when I had eventually gotten over the loneliness, despair, helplessness, anger, self-pity—all the stages of death and dying that the empty page bounces back—characters, situations, and all of this hot lava began to pump forth in fits and starts. Eventually what I was writing reminded me, remotely, of all the stories I loved to read. For all my struggles I realized writing was the kind of work I really could enjoy. In my late teens it became a regular practice, and when I was still doing it regularly well into my thirties I knew it was something I would always do. The blank page can still look terrifying, of course, but at least I know it's a temporary condition. Most often I'm in the middle of some big stormy project and it's all I can do to batten down the hatches.
"I wake as early as I can (between five and six), and I write as long as my busy life permits. During the academic year, on the days when I teach, I write until the start of my first morning class; I also use two and a half free weekdays and Saturday and Sunday mornings exclusively to write. Summers I write daily, well into the afternoon, sometimes forgetting to eat until three. For the past four summers I've had the amazing good fortune of spending a month in a rustic cabin on an island of the coast of Maine. When I first arrived there and got situated in the woods, I was reminded of the terrors of my eleventh summer; the stillness was horrifying! I would practically run to the lodge at dinnertime to drink and converse with the other artists. Since then, however, I've come literally to crave it; the rest of year is hibernation season, July is my month-long feeding time. I envy writers who can write anywhere, anytime. I need my desk, a window, and quiet. I can work just fine with my fiancée behind me, writing on the bed, as she often does, so long as there's quiet and natural light.
"For me the big surprises come deeper in a book—occasionally into the second or third drafts. I can't out and say what the surprises are, since they come quite literally with every new sentence, but they're wonderful, addicting. Dumb as it may sound, writing's full of surprises, and for that reason the first draft enthralls me most. Writing the first draft for me is like falling madly in love—the terrain is so wild, your mind so barbaric. The subsequent drafts, though delightful as well, are more like nurturing a hard-won relationship or tending a frontier that you've charted and tamed. When the surprises stop coming, that's when I know the work's ready for bed.
"Regarding my own books, I can't pick favorites. I'm deep into the second draft of my second novel right now, and the experience of writing it is so exhilarating and naughty that I can imagine fibbing and saying this book is my favorite, but I know I felt the same thing when finishing The Winter Zoo. I can only hope that every book, at least while I'm writing it, will seduce me into thinking that it's my favorite.
"I don't want my writing to be too labor-intensive (Midwesterners like me avoid putting people out), but I want to inspire readers to read critically, delvingly. Still, I hope my writing rewards the reader with the pleasures of interpretation. I hope it inspires them to read beyond the page—to interpret themselves and their marvelous surroundings. Kafka's work does that. Most really serious writing does that, even when it's wild and uproariously funny. I hope my work does that."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2002, review of The Winter Zoo, p. 589.
Nation, February 3, 2002, Eliot Borenstein, "Was It Sexy, or Just Soviet?," review of The Winter Zoo, p. 33.
New York Times, July 21, 2002, Adam Goodheart, "Tourist Trap," review of The Winter Zoo.
Publishers Weekly, April 1, 2002, review of The Winter Zoo, p. 48.
Time, June 17, 2002, Lev Grossman, "Innocents Abroad," review of The Winter Zoo, p. 72.