From wunderkind to washed up, Benjamin Anastas lost almost everything
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In Money Matters, creative people discuss what they’re not supposed to: the intersection of entertainment and commerce, as well as moments in their lives and careers when they bottomed out financially and/or professionally.
The artist: Novelist and writer Benjamin Anastas’ recent memoir, Too Good To Be True, has won him good press and glowing reviews, but it’s safe to say Anastas hoped he’d never have to write it. The brutally honest book chronicles his fall from promising young novelist to a broke, overwhelmed, and desperate single father and divorcé. It’s uncomfortably intimate as it examines failure and financial duress as well as Anastas’ complicated, larger-than-life family, but even with its unflinching candor, Too Good To Be True is ultimately hopeful and even optimistic, especially as it extends to Anastas’ relationship with his son.
The A.V. Club: You grew up in Massachusetts and had an unconventional upbringing. What role did money play in your psyche growing up?
Benjamin Anastas: My father was kind of a counter-cultural hero. He really treated money as if it was lucre, or something filthy that you should never have too much of. He certainly never had any. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was being poor a point of pride for him?
BA: Very much a point of pride. He was a writer and a professor, but he had been on an academic track and gotten off of it. He felt like academia was the biggest sellout of all. Instead of having a very comfortable academic life, that he very easily could have, he decided to live hand to mouth, which is what he did the whole time I was growing up.
AVC: From the perspective of adulthood, does that strike you as selfish? Because when you’re a parent, you’re not just living for yourself—you’re also living for your family.
BA: I did have this counter example to my dad, which was my mother. The whole time I was growing up, she was going back to school. She kind of had to go back from the beginning and get her bachelor’s degree at night, then her master’s degree part-time, then she got her Ph. D. and she started working as a professor. So, I had the counter example of my mother, who was somehow raising three kids at the time and going back to school and working constantly in order to make sure we had what we needed. That did in a way compound a feeling that I had that my dad had made different choices, not all of which I agreed with.
AVC: A lot of people who grow up poor become uptight and, if anything, overly responsible and cautious in how they handle money.
BA: That’s happened to my brother and sister. My brother has become a champion capitalist. He has a ton of money. My sister’s always very careful. For some reason, I think I internalized a lot of my father’s battles, and I decided I would fight them for him or for myself.
AVC: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
BA: It was pretty early on. It was sometime when I was in high school when I started fantasizing about seeing my book on the shelf. I think it was my senior year when I ended up dropping Spanish, which I loved and was good at, so that I could do an independent study with one of the faculty members, working on the first short story I wrote. And from that point on, I was hooked. I started taking writing classes when I was a freshman in college. I went to the University of Rochester. There was a really good undergraduate writing program there. They even had workshops, so I started doing that as soon as I went to school.
AVC: At that time, did you think that being a professional writer would be something that could sustain you, or did it seem like a pipe dream?
BA: I knew it was a pipe dream, but I was so flushed with confidence. I would look at my teachers and think, “You poor bastard. You have to teach for a living, I’m just going to write.” It’s funny. I didn’t really have that same self-confidence in any other area of my life. I was just convinced that writing was the right thing for me, and I was convinced that I was going to make it in a big way.
AVC: Where do you think that confidence came from?
BA: I think it came from some of the feedback I got as a writer, which was always really positive from the start. When I was a sophomore in college, I won, not only first place for fiction, but the university-wide prize for the best piece of writing, whether it was fiction or non-fiction, or poetry, or academic writing. I won that for a short story, which came with a sizable check. I think they paid me $1,000 or something like that. So, I got positive feedback. For a very young writer, 18, 19 years old, I felt like I was on my way.
AVC: Did you always want to write novels? Was that how you always saw yourself?
BA: Yeah, primarily fiction. That’s always what I’ve loved doing.
AVC: How old were you when the process of writing and selling your first book began?
BA: It was published when I was 29, in 1998, but I think I started it as a short story, which I think I wrote when I was 26. The agent I had then showed it to a publisher who thought I should extend it into a novel, a short novel, so I spent a year doing that and then the book came out a year after that, I think.
AVC: Before your book, did you know anything about publishing? Was it something you experienced?
BA: I really learned a lot about it on my own, because when I was growing up I found out that my father was going through this long 19-year period when he had stopped writing fiction. But I did have this very vivid memory of this manuscript that he kept in the middle of his desk. He would send it off every year to get grants that he never received. He would send stories to journals, and they would come back. I always got the sense that he was very disgruntled by the fact that he was this outsider. He was this guy with a long beard who lived up in Massachusetts and worked as a social worker and wrote a newspaper column, but he had all these other things that he wanted to do because he had this idea of himself as a writer that wasn’t panning out. So when I was in college, I really set out to learn a lot about publishing and how it worked, and I actually got my first agent when I was in college. [Laughs.]
In a lot of ways I think it was a mistake because I learned about publishing too soon, and so by the time I was writing a lot, I was writing like a novel every year, something crazy like that. I would send it off to my agent, and my agent would send it off to publishers, and they would write these letters saying that this is a really talented young writer, but he’s not quite there yet. I felt like a total failure by the time I was 25 because I had been writing all this stuff that had been rejected all over town when I should have been feeling like I was just coming into my own. Instead, I felt like it was already over for me.
AVC: Was there part of you that wondered if maybe you were never meant to publish a book?
BA: Yeah, but I just had the urge to keep going, so I wrote through a lot of the discouragement and disillusionment and I just kept writing through it.
AVC: Can you talk a little bit about the experience of selling your book?
BA: I was working for the president of the New School. I started off as a temp, but they had liked me, so they hired me on full-time. We worked out this great deal where I didn’t have to get to work until 11 or 12, and then I would work until late, so I could also write in the mornings. I hated the job… When I found out that I was indeed going to get a publisher for my book, and we sold it for almost $30,000, I quit my job the next day, which, financially, was one of the stupidest things that I kept on doing. For my first two books, I had jobs, I got a book contract, and then I quit my job, which I’ll never do again.
AVC: Did $30,000 seem like an extraordinarily large amount of money at that age?
BA: Yeah, it seemed like a lot of money, although I knew it wouldn’t support me forever, but I was renting a room at an apartment in Williamsburg, which was $350 a month. Of course, pretty soon after I sold the book, I got my own apartment for $650 a month. But life was cheaper then, and I thought I would be able to stretch it out. There were other things: paperback rights, forum rights, movie rights. There were all these things that I felt like were on their way, so I felt I could make it go a bit.
AVC: What was the pinnacle of selling your first book?
BA: There used to be this great bookstore on Broadway. I remember the first time I walked in there and saw a stock of my books on the front table. It was a beautiful white cover. I used to spend all my time in bookstores back then. It was the idea that I could walk into a bookstore and see this nice, bright white stack of books that I had written, to me felt like it was everything I had ever tried or ever wanted. I felt that I had hit the jackpot, that I had made it. That’s really the biggest memory from the first book.
AVC: How did the experience measure up to what your expectations were? Were there moments throughout the process where reality brushed up hard against your hopes and expectations?
BA: There were so many! First of all, getting the books edited and through publication was really arduous. I had an editor who would just scream at me. I would have to fight really hard to keep the book the way I wanted it, so by the time it was ready to go out to bookstores, I was pretty well exhausted. I felt like I was fighting against all these outside forces who wanted to water the book down and turn it into something I wasn’t comfortable with and turn it more into a product—that I wasn’t ready for. So, by the time the book came out, I was kind of disillusioned by the whole thing, which is why moments like seeing that stack of books seemed so pure.
But there were a lot of things. They did send me on a tour—I think it was five cities—but of course for a first-time author, your book tour consisted of some strange person who would send you around and take you to one or all the Barnes And Nobles in Denver. You would walk into the massive sea of books, and the escort goes over to the manager and they try to find your book, and you realize that there are only two copies, somewhere on the third floor. You have these dreams of walking in and seeing 100 copies of your book on the front table, but if your publisher doesn’t pay for it, you’re not going to get that. It was the depressing reality of your book floating in the sea of product out there.
I remember there was a time I gave a reading at a Borders bookstore in Massachusetts, where I’m from. My father came and my grandmother came. She was suffering from dementia at that point, so she had no idea where she was. She was sort of perched on this chair. My dad was there, a couple other friends and relatives—maybe about seven people were there. So, I started giving my reading, and at the café they started making blended drinks. [Makes sound of blender.] It’s hard to read your book to seven people, including your grandmother with dementia, over the sound of a blender, so that was really a low point.
AVC: Going into the process, did you allow yourself the luxury of imagining that your book might be a bestseller and the launching pad to a huge career?
BA: I had dealt with so much rejection at that point, through the whole editorial process, and there were moments that I thought, “Maybe they’re not going to publish the book. Maybe they didn’t like the book enough.” I had dealt with enough of the realities of publishing a book, so I did not have great expectations for when it came out, but I was relieved when it did. One of the funny things was, I remember going through all the editorial stuff, and they finally had galleys, and I got a phone call from one of the junior editors and she said come on up and get a galley. So, I went up to Times Square and signed in at the security desk, rode my way up in the elevator to the editor’s corner office. I remember the view. You could watch the glass elevators going up and down in the other hotels. She said, “Oh you got your galleys,” and she handed me the galley. It was turned to the back and I saw my bio and it said, “Benjamin Anastas is a graduate from Brown University,” and my blood went cold, because I had not gone to Brown University. I had never told anyone I went to Brown University, and I was kind of baffled by the fact that they thought I went to Brown University. So I had the experience of inattention to detail. That was a moment that was a real rush, but it just brought me down.
AVC: That’s one of the weird things about publishing a book: The moment it’s published, it and its author become products to be marketed and sold.
BA: I think that’s absolutely true. I was still at that point more of a purist and had more illusions about how writing and publishing worked, more than I do now for sure.
AVC: You don’t generally hear about authors who struggle. You hear about the ones who’ve really made it.
BA: Particularly in New York. That’s why writers should never live in New York, because all you see are writers who are doing incredibly well. And all you’d hear about were all the huge advances people were getting, so you were constantly faced with what seems to be an unending stream of successful writers who spring up out of the fern one after another, and you think, “Why isn’t it me?”
AVC: How was the experience of publishing your second book, The Faithful Narrative Of A Pastor’s Disappearance, different than the first?
BA: Once again, that was another high point, as I described in the memoir. The fact that they wanted to publish the book just meant the world to me. I got to go into their office and talk about editing my book and talk with publicity people and plan this whole rollout, which didn’t really happen. Everything they did was review-driven. The book got reviewed in a lot of places, which was great, but it didn’t result in any great sales or anything. The book had been out for about two weeks, and the initial flurry of reviews had died down and I hadn’t done any radio or TV. I had a meeting with my agent and I was trying to strategize on how to get on Leonard Lopate. I remember we were eating, and I was spitting out all of these ideas. I thought maybe if I wrote Lopate directly and made a personal appeal and told him how much I loved the radio show. I kept thinking of all these things I could do to revive this book that was flailing. I remember my agent just sort of looked at me and said, “Ben, you need to let it go. It’s over.” I remember thinking, “The book’s been out for two weeks—how can it be over?” But at two weeks it was over. It was like opening-week syndrome. [Laughs.] If it doesn’t take off from the start, chances are it’s never going to take off, and so the publisher moved on, the publicist definitely moved on, and the world had moved on. The only person who hadn’t moved on was me because it was my book, and I wanted it to make an impact. That was very eye-opening.
AVC: At that point had you quit your job already?
BA: At that point I had quit my job, yeah. I think I actually had just quit my job, and I had planned to move to Italy with my ex-wife. We were going to leave in October of that year, and we ended up buying our tickets in July. I had quit my job, and we were planning this great escape to Europe.
AVC: That had to compound your panic.
BA: Exactly, that was it. It was also clear that with my first book, I sold movie rights pretty quickly, and I got a pretty good check that I got for the movie rights—it was more than the advance. It seemed that that wasn’t going to happen with the second book, and I was freaking out about that.
AVC: Was there a part of you that thought this was the end of the road, your career as an author was over after two books?
BA: [Laughs.] I wasn’t yet facing reality, that still took writing a third book [At The Foot Of The Mountain] and going through its failure for me to face reality. I was still operating under the delusion that the world cared about what I wrote, and that I didn’t have to meet its demands halfway or at least justify everything I did with utmost vigor.
AVC: The whole process of writing and selling books is somewhat manic-depressive in that you have to have this delusional faith in yourself to say, “Of all the manuscripts out there, my voice is the one that needs to be heard.”
BA: That’s what makes writers a lot like gambling addicts: You have to constantly work against incredible odds and think, “Wow, this book is worth writing, this article is worth pitching, this job is worth quitting so I can have time to write this book that’s going to change my life.” [Laughs.] I think it’s always the big score up ahead, even if it’s not a big financial score, it’s that “This book is going to change things for me.” It’s always the next project that is going to change things because the last one never did.
AVC: When did things start to go south, financially? At that point, did you still pretty much have matters under control?
BA: I wouldn’t say I had things in hand, no. Because, like I said, I would always quit a job once I got a book advance, which was really stupid, especially with the advances that I was getting—and I was not getting the advances you hear about in New York. At one point I used to go around telling people that I got a $.03 million advance, and for me it seemed like a lot of money just given to me for something I had written. I think things really started to get shaky when I moved to Europe with my ex-wife before we were married. I was basically living off of foreign sales and a little bit of reviewing I was doing, and a lot of living off my girlfriend’s book advance. We had enough to last us a year, and we stretched it to a year and a half. And that was when I was writing the third book that failed. Once again, the deeper I got into the book and the harder it got, the more discouraged I got. I thought, “If I could just finish it, then this is the one that’s really going to change my life. I’ll get an even higher advance for it, everyone will love it, and it will create all these opportunities that I don’t have now,” and of course none of that ended up happening.
When we ran out of money, we came back to New York, and I started working pretty much immediately while I finished [At The Foot Of The Mountain]. But we took out a lot of debt while we were there, credit card debt, and borrowing from people. When I finished the book, the only person who wanted to publish it was this boutique publisher in Austria. They were going to pay 1,500 euros for it, and I thought, “Oh my God, I spent years of my life working on it to get paid 1,500 euros for it.” After agency fees and stuff I think it ended up being about $1,500. It’s funny, there used to be this footnote in an early version of Too Good To Be True where I talk about how I worked out the math and I ended up getting paid 63 cents an hour for all the time I worked on that book. Actually, it was even less than that, it was 36 cents a day for all the time I worked on that book.
AVC: When did things start to get bad?
BA: You know, they got better again after I started teaching at a school called Washington College. It was a good job with a nice salary and benefits. I had been working at a non-profit before then while I was going through this whole book agony, and I had gotten things in control. The year I was living in Maryland, I sort of pared down my debt, so I had this master plan to have this job for five years and pay off all my debt, my school loans and everything, but that’s when my marriage started falling apart, and that’s when I left my job in Maryland a year into it, and came back to New York with nothing really. I was teaching at Columbia, which pays $6,000 a semester—I think it paid $5,000 a semester then. I was also doing some freelance magazine work, which paid pretty well, but it was freelance work. So, things sort of got tighter and tighter and worse and worse until the crash in 2008, and then I just sort of lost all of my income immediately, and that was tough.
AVC: How much of your mental energy and time did dealing with this economic crunch take up? You have to be creative to write and be inspired, but you had all these other balls you had to juggle. That has to be an enormous distraction.
BA: That’s part of reason I wrote a memoir, not a novel. I felt that life had become so hard that it became impossible for me to even write fiction, just because life was such a pressing need. I just thought about it all the time before I fell asleep, then I dreamed out it, and would wake up and think, “God, how do I turn this around?” I often spent all day trying to turn it around in sort of non-productive ways.
AVC: What unproductive ways?
BA: Just wasting a ridiculous amount of time on online job listings and stuff like that. Just applying for jobs that were just ridiculous and inappropriate. Since I’m a writer, I’d think I could apply to be a medical writer, technical writer, or a legal writer. I’d think, “Look at me, I was published in The New York Times Magazine!” But of course if someone’s looking for a technical writer, they’re not looking for a writer who didn’t make it. They’re looking for someone who has a track record for doing technical writing, not someone who can’t make a go at it at the kind of writing that they do. So, I wasted a ton of jobs applying for jobs that I was never going to get anyway. Finally, I smartened up and I started writing to my friends, and that’s how I got the job I have now.
AVC: How did Too Good To Be True come about?
BA: In the midst of all this, I moved in with a girlfriend, too fast, only six months after we had met. She was ready to move in with someone, and I was ready to move in with her, and that was sort of the moment when my income really dried up. We moved in together in July, and I had to borrow money from my family in order to just move in with her. Pretty soon after I moved in, I had nothing, and I had to ask her to pay the rent for the month, which is not a great thing to do when you’re in a new relationship. I’m a father too, which meant I had a child visiting us and if I didn’t have enough groceries, my girlfriend was the one who bought the groceries, and that’s a lot to ask of somebody who you are really still getting to know. So, I found myself at this point in this new relationship, which I really cared a lot about and wanted to work, and it seemed like she was going to leave. My son was in my life, but not as much as I wanted him to be, and I was trying desperately to find work, but nothing was happening, and everything that I had been writing, I either threw out or it just wasn’t working when I showed it to people.
One day, I found myself at a church and I asked for help. I never had been in that position before, and I remember I went to the library from there and I started writing about where I was in life, and pretty soon thereafter I started this ritual where I would wake up really early in the morning, 4:30 or 5:30, and I would go into my son’s room when he wasn’t there, with a notebook and pen and I would sit there and I would write about what was happening. I think because I had been writing fiction for so long, the incidents that I started writing about, pretty quickly formed themselves into scenes, and into sections, and into chapters. So, after a few months I realized that I might actually have a book on my hands. I wrote longhand for three or four months and then typed up what I had and showed it to my agent, who said, “This might actually work. Keep doing what you’re doing.” So I just kept the ritual going for a while.
AVC: Was it cathartic to write about the pain you were experiencing?
BA: It was cathartic in the sense that as soon as I wrote about it on paper, it was no longer just my life; it was also a story. I was no longer someone who was really broke and could no longer find out how to make it better; I was a protagonist in something that I was writing and something that could change. So, in a way, it made the whole situation seem less fated. It made it seem like there possibly was a way out. It wasn’t just the day I was writing, or the next week, or next month, but if I was a character on a page instead of just a person in an unlivable life, then maybe something could change.
AVC: We as a culture have very distinct ideas about how men should behave, especially fathers. Our notions of masculinity are often wrapped up in being able to provide financially for your family.
BA: It’s humbling. I would see one of these Brooklyn dads with his wife and kids, and he would pull out his credit card to pay for things, and I would think, “What a lucky bastard. How can I be that guy?” I just wanted to pay. I didn’t want anybody’s handout, I didn’t want anybody to pay for anything for me, I just wanted to be the guy who was paying.
AVC: Was getting out of debt always a big goal for you?
BA: I can’t say it was always a big goal of mine. When I was with my ex-wife, it was the first time I ever started thinking about starting a family, buying an apartment, worrying about my credit rating. In fact, I used to be a bit proud of my bad credit, the same way my father was always proud of being broke. I would think, “I’m a 580, ha ha.” It was sort of my way of thumbing my nose at the world. You may reduce me to this three-digit number, but guess what? I’m going to make mine as low as it can possibly be. But once I did start being involved in a serious relationship and started thinking about buying an apartment and having kids, it did become important.
AVC: When your books did not sell well, did that affect the way you saw them? Did you value them less because they weren’t as commercially successful?
BA: I don’t think I ever valued them less, but I would think about them, certainly my second book, I just thought of it as this great disappointment. I felt this sense of shame, like I couldn’t look people in the eye, because it had failed. It’s not that I thought it was a lesser book because it hadn’t made a huge impression, but I felt like it just made me cringe in a way. I honestly couldn’t even see what was inside it.
AVC: We have a tendency to link something’s value to how much it made and how successful it is financially, to measure everything by numbers.
BA: No, trust me, you can see the value staring you in the face when you see your book selling for a penny, used on Amazon. It’s hard not to take that to heart.
AVC: Is there a moment that stands out in your mind about the whole ordeal as a particular nadir, an absolute bottom?
BA: There were a bunch of moments, actually, a few of which made it into the book. First was realizing that I was broke in my son’s eyes too, even if he didn’t really understand what it meant yet. I’d been taking him to the bank to count my loose change and using Coinstar at the supermarket to shop with ridiculously small amounts of money—like $8—that barely bought us dinner. I’d disappointed him so many times by not being able to afford what he wanted—a big bag of Pirate’s Booty instead of a small one, a Hot Wheels gift-pack for $9.99—that I worried he would understand my being broke as one of the immutable conditions of life.
There was one afternoon, after I picked him up at pre-school, when I tried to get onto the subway to take him somewhere, and my MetroCard was empty—the dreaded “Insufficient Fare” message came up on the turnstile’s little screen. I knew the feeling all too well. Normally I kept close track of these things and knew how many rides I had left, but this time I had messed up. I was totally broke, holding my son in my arms, and I couldn’t even get on the subway. “Insufficient Fare” said it all. I remember putting him down and searching my pockets for pennies and nickels and dimes. I did have enough to get on the subway that day, but I had to bring my son over to the window and stand there with him while the MTA worker, looking tremendously pissed off, counted out my coins one by one. “Do we have enough, daddy?” my son asked. “I think so,” I told him. It made me realize, afterwards, how many times I had wondered the same thing when I was growing up—“Do we have enough, daddy?”—and I made a vow to myself that I would find a way to turn into the dad who had enough money.
AVC: Did writing this memoir help you understand your own life better? Did it help put things into perspective?
BA: Well, the publication in itself has been really gratifying. Only good things have happened from it, but at the same time, it has been a roller coaster because my ex-wife hates the book. I’m sure it makes her partner really uncomfortable, and I deal with them a lot with my son. The book has complicated my personal life in that way. My family has been great, they’ve been hugely supportive, but I also know they probably have more complicated feelings about it. It’s hard to see your life exposed to the light of day, and particularly since I write about my parents in 1972 when they were both at these incredibly low points. They’ve both gone on to be happy and do wonderful things, but in 1972 things were not so hot. [Laughs.] I write about them at their lowest, and I think that can’t be easy.
AVC: Did writing about your own life and the agonies that you experienced make you feel more vulnerable?
BA: I’m pretty good at denial. I’m not thinking about that too much. I’m just assuming that everybody is going to think of the protagonist in the book as if he was a different book. It is funny, every time I walk into a room for a reading, they have already read about my difficulties, whether they’re financial or personal, or they were about to. When people came up to me and told me they read the book, it is this immediate imbalance because they know all these things about me, and I don’t know a thing about them.
AVC: Have you gotten a lot of emails or Facebook messages from people who felt they were experiencing something similar?
BA: I have. It’s very easy for people to find your email address these days. The first month the book was out, I was getting a message or two a day from strangers who were writing to say that they have been through tough times too and they appreciate the fact that I wrote about it. Even people who were in the middle of hard times said the book helped them think there was a way out. Yeah, it has happened. It was a nice surprise. Not that I expected to hear from people, but you just don’t know. I think writing about a low point in a life, and a financial point in particular, has really resounded with people.