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Interview with Erika Dreifus

Interview with Erika Dreifus

An Interview with Adam Berlin

I became acAdamBerlinquainted with Adam Berlin through his work (as co-editor with Jeffrey Heiman) of J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE, a publication on whose editorial advisory board I now serve. Both Adam and Jeffrey are superb (and superbly generous) editors, and I’m pleased and honored to have the opportunity to shift some of the spotlight back to their writing in this interview with Adam about his newest novel, THE NUMBER OF MISSING, a book set in the months following the 9/11 attacks. THE NUMBER OF MISSING is slated for November 2013 publication by Spuyten Duyvil.

Adam Berlin is also the author of the novels BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), BELMONDO STYLE (St. Martin’s Press) and HEADLOCK (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York in Manhattan, where he co-founded J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE.

Please welcome Adam Berlin.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): As much as I admire THE NUMBER OF MISSING, I can’t say that it was a pleasure to read. The experiences depicted within it are raw, and they’re painful, and I’m wondering if the experience of writing it was similarly difficult, emotionally. Or let’s put it this way: How did the experience of writing THE NUMBER OF MISSING differ from the experience of writing your other novels?

ADAM BERLIN (AB): I spent more time writing and revising this novel—12 years from start to finish. The first draft I completed literally one year after 9/11. New York City was still raw and that rawness was reflected in my writing and really in my first-person narrator’s voice. But it was less about the raw emotions of grief and loss and more about the raw emotion of anger, of wanting to lash out at something, even if that something was nebulous. With each draft, I tried to shift the rawness away from anger. The anger is still there in the novel, percolating throughout, and I think it’s honest anger; after all, the narrator loses his best friend in a violent, seemingly senseless way. But in the novel’s final version, much of anger, the rushes of anger that drove the early drafts, have calmed into moments of stillness and sadness that are more damaging. My characters are moving in circles—drinking, remembering, not really able to move forward. It’s this static quality, this sense of winding down to a still place, that increasingly took over the book’s texture with each draft. Most books are about moving forward. This book is about winding down, about entropy, about that place where everything seems to settle into nothing.

Emotionally, I felt more invested in this book than my past novels. My first novel, HEADLOCK, was autobiographical in many ways, but it’s an on-the-road story and the narrator is joined by a compelling companion. The highs in that novel are reckless highs, and there’s some joy in that recklessness. In THE NUMBER OF MISSING, my first-person narrator is very close to me, but in this novel the companion, the best friend, is dead. The memories of when the friend was alive may be vibrant, and many of these memories are joyful and reckless, but the narrator, David, is alone during much of this novel. And while David wants to fall, to give in to his grief completely, the only thing that saves him from falling is that he’s waiting for his dead friend’s wife to fall first. He wants to fall but he’s made a silent promise to his dead friend to catch her. It’s not a good place to be.

ED: At one point in the novel, another character tells David: “It’s your first. There have been many 9/11s. Yours is not so special.” Where did those lines come from?

AB: When I was writing the early drafts of the book I was living downtown on the corner of Bedford and Barrow Streets in a rooming-house room above a famous bar called Chumley’s. I also worked at Chumley’s and this guy named Mike, a neighborhood guy, a WW2 vet, used to come into the bar while I set up for my shift. When 9/11 happened, when the towers went down, he seemed almost unaffected. He said anyone who’d been to war, who had seen buildings bombed and buildings ablaze and buildings fall, wouldn’t be shocked or horrified. He said what had happened downtown was no different from what he’d seen as a soldier. At first, it seemed a crass, cold thing to say. But for him it made sense and I don’t think he was trying to be a tough guy about it.Unknown

And what happened that day was a war of sorts, a violent declaration against us. In the book I use a lot of war parallels, but for the narrator, and he’s aware of this, the parallels are too-easy. Whatever David knows about war comes from Hollywood, not from experience. And while he sees himself in the trenches, another image of being stuck, of not being able to move, he recognizes that his visions come from war scenes, movie-war scenes, not war. This old guy Mike who hung around Chumley’s, he’d witnessed real war—with real fire and real damage and real death and without any glamor, without a rousing musical score behind the violence. When the towers went down, it was new for most of us. It was shocking because our eyes had never seen anything like it. But for those who have lived war, and the character who says the line you refer to is a woman who grew up in war-torn Georgia, the Eastern European Georgia, 9/11 is not so shocking. And in the long view of history, there have been many 9/11s.

In my novel, the narrator has a hard time conceding this point—the loss he feels is still fresh and so unique to him. But as the novel progresses, and the anger subsides, and the emptiness takes over, he starts to recognize that his loss is not the only loss and that this tragedy is one in a never-ending list of men destroying men.

ED: What was your biggest hope for this novel as you were writing it? Your biggest anxiety?

AB: My hope for this novel was to do something different from other 9/11 novels I’d read. Instead of using the day as a symbol or as a catalyst for plot, I wanted to write about a very focused time during the months of the aftermath where two characters go on living but not really. It’s the “not really “I tried to get right. For anyone who lived in New York City at that time, at least anyone who lived below 14th Street, the city seemed dead. Or at least stopped. For months after, you’d come up out of the subway and expect to see the twin towers that had been part of our downtown horizon still standing tall. But what you’d see was an empty gap. It was that gap, the literal emptiness and the emotional emptiness, that I wanted in the novel at all times. I was thinking of post-war novels when I wrote THE NUMBER OF MISSING, and most specifically of Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, not the style, but the mood, where a character goes through the motions trying to live life but never forgets, not for a second, what has come before.

ED: And your biggest anxiety?

AB: My biggest anxiety was not about the novel. I worked hard to write the book I wanted to read. My biggest anxiety was placing a novel that is, as you said in your opening comments, not a pleasure to read. Each anniversary of 9/11 is difficult, but I felt there had to come a time when there would be enough distance to this devastatingly momentous event when writers and readers could face this specific tragedy head-on, which is what I tried to do in my novel—to face the results of that day head-on.

THE SUN ALSO RISES was published in 1926, eight years after the end of WW1. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD was published three quick years after the end of WW2. Perhaps each tragedy has its own time frame— it took 15 years [after the Holocaust] for Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT to come out in the United States. The question I kept asking myself, and it was an anxious question because my manuscript wasn’t moving, was about how much time needed to elapse before people would read a novel that is completely focused on 9/11’s aftermath. There were other 9/11 novels, many of them, but the ones I’d read didn’t stay in that empty, static place. And what was different about 9/11—why was the American public willing to read direct depictions about WW1 and WW2 relatively quickly? Is it because these wars were more decisive and ended in victory? Is it because these wars happened over there? Is it because our image of the falling towers, of people falling, is so nightmarish and so close no one wanted to revisit it? I didn’t know the answers. What I did know was that my book was getting rejected. Many of the rejection notes were very complimentary, but the uniform response was that the book was too bleak.

Perhaps with 12 years of distance between then and now, the time is right for this novel. My agent, the late Robert Lescher, was very high on the novel when he first saw it. He even hired an editor at a big house to read my early drafts and give me notes, which were very useful. But Bob knew this would be a tough sell. And it was. But in some ways it was fortuitous. As long as the book didn’t sell, I could keep going back to it, refining it, and so perhaps those 12 years of work were a blessing. I feel this version, the published version, is stripped down to where it needs to be and, as I said, with each revision it became less angry, more sad, and so more human. Perhaps I too needed distance from those dead months even as I tried to write about the immediacy of those dead months.

I warn my students at John Jay about happy endings in their stories where conflicts are resolved too neatly. But this writing story has a happy ending because the well-regarded Spuyten Duyvil, an independent press that’s held strong for 30 years, published the book. Now my biggest anxiety is whether or not the novel will have readers and get the play I hope it gets, which is probably every published writer’s anxiety.

ED: Although you didn’t tell me so, Adam, I’ve discovered that you actually have *two* new books being published this month: THE NUMBER OF MISSING and BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB, which won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize and is being published by Texas Review Press. What is it like to have two books–both works of fiction–being released within the same month?

AB: My first two books, HEADLOCK AND BELMONDO STYLE, were published by big houses—Algonquin Books and St. Martin’s. And BELMONDO STYLE won a pretty big award—The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley award, which is the same award Michael Cunningham won for THE HOURS and Josh Berendt won for MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. So I thought I was a made man. But I wasn’t. It’s been about eight years since I’ve had a novel published and the waiting was rough. After eight years of nothing—writing hundreds of pages over thousands of hours without a book sale—I no longer felt like a writer. It’s easy to watch movie writers write—those pages fly off the typewriter or out of the printer in super-fast motion that has nothing to do with a real writer’s struggle. On screen, writer’s block takes about three seconds, a writer’s overnight success a minute or two. But in real time, writing and revising and revising and revising, chunks of life are checked off. I’d checked off a lot of time and I hadn’t signed a single new contract and when I looked at myself in the mirror, my eyes bloodshot from looking too long at sentences, I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t sell a book. My agent got sick and let go many of his clients, including me, and he died shortly after. So I started from scratch.

I sent out THE NUMBER OF MISSING on my own while looking for an agent. And I started entering some writing competitions. I’d written a short boxing novel, which felt like the right form for a book about boxing, which is all about stripping down. The big houses rarely publish novellas so I sent my manuscript to a few university press competitions. It was great to get the call from Texas Review Press. After eight years of famine, it felt good to feast. I did a lot of self-marketing over the summer, first on THE NUMBER OF MISSING, then on BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB, which was easier because I write for a boxing website called and have some boxing connections thanks to my brother, who’s an attorney for many boxers and people in the boxing business. Anyway, it feels great to have two books coming out, it makes me feel like a real writer again, and it’s given me the adrenaline to keep putting in the hours.

ED: And you’re still co-editing J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE, the literary magazine that you founded with your colleague at John Jay College, Jeffrey Heiman. Anything special on the horizon for J JOURNAL that you want to share with THE PRACTICING WRITER’s readers?

AB: Jeff and I came up with the idea for a literary journal with a justice theme about six years ago, which was a natural outgrowth of John Jay College’s mission—we’re a criminal justice college but we’re also a liberal arts college. With each issue of J JOURNAL, I think we realize more and more that the journal’s best work is the most tangentially connected to justice. The stories and poems and creative non-fiction pieces we publish could be found in any good lit mag, but when the work is placed under the large banner of justice, the pieces seem to resonate, together and separately, in a distinct way. We’re still a fledgling journal, but we’ve been getting strong reviews and this has been reflected in many more quality submissions. Jeff’s a great friend and colleague and there’s a real joy to the work we do together on the journal. We work hard to provide detailed editorial feedback to our writers and hope they appreciate our hands-on approach. It’s been fascinating to see how many different ways our writers have approached justice. And it’s been rewarding to cultivate some new writers. A number of our contributors have recently sold their first novels or books of poetry and Jeff and I feel proud of them, and, in some small way, part of their success.

ED: Anything else you want to share with us, Adam?

AB: I dedicated THE NUMBER OF MISSING to John William Perry. John went to law school with my brother and while I didn’t know him well, I made a vow that if my novel were ever published I would dedicate it to him. John was also a police officer and was turning in his badge on the morning of 9/11 when the planes hit. He died helping people in the North Tower. And as I wrote in my acknowledgement page, the number of missing at John Jay College was sixty-eight.

To learn more about Adam Berlin, please visit his website.

Word Riot Interview with Adam Berlin

Word Riot Interview with Adam Berlin


August 15, 2014

An Interview With Adam Berlin by Sara Whitestone

Adam Berlin is the author of the novels The Number of Missing(Spuyten Duyvil), the boxing novel Both Members of the Club(Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits J Journal: New Writing on Justice. For more, please visit

An introduction by Adam Berlin

After an eight-year publishing drought, two novels came out in 2013 and my productivity doubled. Was I excited? That’s too strong a word. Was I relieved? Yes. Could I call myself a writer again without feeling like a fake? I could. But do I believe my writing life will get easier? That I’ll enter that elite circle of writers who never have to worry about rejection? That’s a tough one. Even a little success begets motivation—two new novels in one year infused me, and these days I pretend things will get easier. But just as I do in my fiction, I only pretend so much.

Whitestone: The theme for the writing class that I am teaching is fear, and we are talking about how we (even we professionals who do it all the time) have to face our fears when we write. I would enjoy having you talk a little about your writing process and any fears you might experience while exposing yourself in words.

Berlin: I’m happy to talk about fear (or fearlessness) in writing.

Whitestone: Do you think it’s easier (less scary) to write a piece of fiction than a personal essay? Can’t you just hide your truth in the fiction knowing that no one can decode which is which? But in creative nonfiction so much is laid bare, exposed, vulnerable.

Berlin: I try to write fiction that is raw and, because it’s raw, real. It’s a fine line because during the revision process, especially the later part of the revision process, I try to make the prose flow and think carefully about sentence rhythms and word choices. I work on the writing sentence by sentence. But I work hard to hold onto that raw quality that inspired my early drafts. And in many parts of my novels and short stories, it’s all me. The emotions in my characters aren’t fictional and much of what they do and say is from life. Of course in fiction you tweak reality a little more, but even in nonfiction there is tweaking, there are decisions that have to be made about what to present and what not to present. So in this way, both fiction and nonfiction have artifice attached. I never really care if people assume I’m the character or not. I’m fearless that way.

Whitestone: Many risks that I’ve taken have turned out worthwhile—like asking you to conduct this interview without knowing you well and then finding you as a friend on the other end of that risk. (Thank you.) But many writing gambles have stung me hard. How can I tell which is which? How do you know when to withdraw to safety or when to move forward in fearlessness?

Berlin: Risks are good as long as they don’t kill you—in real life I take some risks, maybe more and more lately, and I skirt danger sometimes. So far, I’ve avoided any serious stings, except the stings I give myself. With writing, risk-taking is important. It keeps you from writing the same old, same old homogenized, formulaic story. I try to push my characters to difficult places. And like in life, I listen to my gut. If the place is too risky for the character, or if it’s not written in a plausible way, I pull back.
You should probably do the same. In life, use your gut when it comes to risks. And you should probably do the same in your nonfiction. Trust your gut. And stay away from homogenized, easy moments. Write the hard moments. The gut usually knows how far to push. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Whitestone: In the past I have let people that were close to me cause me to second-guess myself, but now, my gut tells me it’s time to be more fearless. Of course this is why I chose the theme of fear for my English 101 course. We should write what we know but also teach what we are experiencing. That’s when our craft is both genuine and effective. What growth have you seen in your own writing? What experiences do you use from your own life?

Berlin: My first story ever published was a baseball story—simple premise, simple conflict, but a good simple, I hope. It’s a hit and pitch contest, a college baseball pitcher who’s in a fraternity and believes he’ll make the pros against a hitter who is fresh out of college and never made the pros. It’s a classic man-versus-man conflict.
Yes, I tell my students to write what they know, but to also keep it simple on the plot level, and then tweak it so that the drama (and ultimately the themes) come through without the reader seeing the writer pulling the strings. I think my stories became less plot-heavy as I grew as a writer. I have a lot of stories about men, stories that showcase men’s strength and weaknesses and their irresponsible behavior. I have a lot of stories about men picking up women in bars or looking for trouble or trying to prove their manhood. In many of these stories, men face their fears, but also recognize their fears and try to cope with them. In that way, fear is one of the obstacles in my work—not an obstacle to writing, but an obstacle that the character has to get around or go through, and these are fears that men have. I think my novels most show my growth as a writer.
My newly released 9/11 book, The Number of Missing, is my most difficult, and in some ways, most troubling novel—it’s about a man dealing with loss by drinking and going out all the time and being careless. Those ideas have been in my work forever, but in this novel, because it’s a larger canvas and because 9/11 was so momentous and brought out so much emotion, raw emotion, the carelessness and the recklessness are greater. My gut told me I could push these emotions, and I like to think this is my most raw and, because of this, my most honest novel. In many ways it’s my most autobiographical novel. This character spends a lot of time alone in bars and walking the city and so he reveals more.
My themes are often recurring but, and I like to think this is a byproduct of growing as a writer, I go to harder places with these themes. It’s like the adage—a writer writes the same story over and over. I’m hoping my stories are becoming better, more revealing, more honest, and that I’m better at writing the hard parts of the story, the part Hemingway often talked about, the part that’s hard to face as a writer but must get faced if you’re a real writer.

Whitestone: In your short story, “Romance of the Seas”, which is about a writer who is on a road trip to promote his latest book, the character uses a unique second person voice to write about his discontent:

You have no joy. You’ve heard that the hardest thing to write is joy, but that’s not something you would ever write about anyway. You are thinking that the hardest thing to feel is joy. You can’t remember the last time you were seriously joyful. You certainly have not found joy on the road. What joy is there in showing up in a city alone, looking at the buildings, passing the people, seeing the sights like a checklist with no one to share them with? Part of the romance of the road, of the true on-the-road experience, is to be on your own, but it’s also very depressing. It’s not the actual driving. The driving is fine. You have the feel of the car and the wheel in your hands and you have to concentrate. You can speed and pass and weave. You can play games with the other drivers, dare them to pass you, accelerate just enough as they’re going by that they have to accelerate even more, more than they want, more than they should, and sometimes a cop nails them just at that moment. You lift your hand, wave, let them know that the king of the road is sometimes the slower man. You drive and you get to your destination and you walk around and there’s nothing to do but drink, kill time, flirt with a stranger, wait until you have to show up at the bookstore so you can read a few pages to a few people and sign a few books and then, thank goodness, get in the car and drive.

Whitestone: Is the hardest thing to write or to feel really joy? The search for joy is one of my recurring themes, so I guess I am trying to answer that question myself . . .

Berlin: Yes, I think joy’s the hardest thing to write. At least for me. And I hate reading joy tinged with sentimentality. So true joy—in life and writing—is hard to attain. I hope I get down moments of joy in my work, but my taste (and moods) go to the flip side of joy. I’m much more comfortable in moodier, angrier places.

Whitestone: I think sometimes I have been guilty of writing with sentiment. But it is those works that get rejected by editors (as they should). Then I go back and write the essays better and am made a better writer each time. Once an editor told me that I didn’t have the right to even mention joy or grace or beauty until I had earned it through suffering. That rejection just made me fight harder to get my piece published elsewhere.

Berlin: Rejection as a catalyst to fight harder—that’s the right attitude. The best revenge is served cold and with publications. I don’t believe you have to suffer and be tormented to be a writer—or to earn the right to write joy. Maybe it helps, but if you can write and if you can feel, who gives a shit what your upbringing was. As for editors, de gustibus, as they say. Some editors are going to appreciate your work. Some editors are not. As long as you write what you want to read, you’re being true to yourself.

Whitestone: I don’t think it’s revenge that I look for in these rejection or acceptance situations. It’s validation. But even then, for me the validation is not what motivates. The passion to write is. I have to say that you have a great work ethic—lots of publications over many years to your credit. What keeps you wanting to do it?

Berlin: To say I need to write is a cliché, but I think I need to write. Not like I need to eat or sleep. A lot of writing is ego-driven. Any writer who doesn’t admit that is lying, I think. Unless you’re throwing your pages in the river after you write them, you write to be read. You write to have an audience. It may not be to show off, but you’re writing with the ultimate belief, after you write the story you want to read, that your work is worthy of readers. I can say this, unequivocally. Writing is the best part of me—I am careful and responsible and smarter and wiser when I write. I am also arrogant about my writing. And I am competitive—I want to win at this.
But not when I am writing. When I write, I want to write the great book, the one I want to read, the one I would finish and say, “That will stay with me.” And when I’m done writing, I want (and arrogantly expect) to get attention. I have had many fallow years, and I feel in so many ways I have not received my due—that also pushes me forward. But the writing is pure. And when I’m writing, I work hard at it. It’s why when people tell me they’re writers I don’t believe them. There are few writers and mostly amateurs. They don’t do the work. Even on the sentence level, they just fall into easy patterns—this is why it’s so hard for me to read and critique others’ work these days. I feel I can see right through everyone’s work and see if it’s true or bullshit.

Whitestone: How did you first decide to become a writer? What was the catalyst?

Berlin: I was acting and doing a little modeling in New York City, was in the unions, and I realized I was not a team player and hated being out of control, auditioning to just do the work. I was in shape as an actor when I finished college, but then it was all about making it in the business, and I didn’t care enough about craft. I stopped going to acting classes. I didn’t prepare for auditions like I’d once prepared. I had been writing all along. My personality—being in full control, working on my own—was better suited for writing. And I was better at it. I worked in a bar where a real writer worked, and I showed her some stories, asked her if I had potential. She said I should go for my MFA, and I did. In the MFA program I learned discipline. I learned about putting in the hours, about having to put in the hours. I stopped auditioning and started putting all my effort into writing.

Whitestone: I like what you say—when you write it is the best part of you. For me, I think I am most myself when I write. Pure is a good word for it. That’s why I think there is something deeper for those who really write or who do anything else in following their passions. It makes us feel alive. It makes us our best selves.

Berlin: Yes, the writing makes me feel alive. And calm. Usually. I write, and then I do the rest of my life. I’m pure when I teach, too—a better man when I teach.

Whitestone: Well, thank you for taking the time to teach me and my students about how you push yourself to write and your fearlessness in it. We have all been made better because of it.

About the reviewer:

Sara Whitestone is a writer, photographer, and teacher. In exchange for instruction in English, her students at John Jay College in NYC introduce her to the mysteries of the world. Whenever Whitestone leads a “Why You Need to Write” workshop, she is reminded of the metaphysical healing of words. Whitestone’s own words appear in The Portland Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Piedmont Virginian, Literary Traveler, and many others. Whitestone discovers writing through travel. Her current book-in-progress is a literary thriller set in Europe that is inspired by true events. To learn more about her inner and outer adventures, visit

KGB Bar Lit Interview with Adam Berlin

KGB Bar Lit Interview with Adam Berlin


The Number of Missing: Adam Berlin Interview


Adam Berlin is the literary equivalent of the boxer who relishes the craft, the pugilist who respects the “sweet science” to such a degree that he willingly pays his dues, is patient to wait his turn and hone his skills, until the moment comes when a championship bout is offered, and with it the opportunity to step into the ring and show the world what he is made of, and why it pays to be diligent, dedicated and determined.  I use boxing as an analogy because Berlin has written well and often about a sport that has captured the imagination of many famous writers. But despite his talent in depicting the ring on the page, it is Berlin’s upcoming novel, The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), which is answering the bell to enthusiastic reviews.

Thoughtful, empathic, and full of soul, The Number of Missing is set in New York City after the 9/11 attacks, the story anchored around two characters who are dealing with a common grief stemming from the tragedy.  Berlin taps into his own pain in the book (it is dedicated to a policeman friend who perished when the Twin Towers fell), but he is careful to weave this sadness into a riveting narrative that draws readers deep into the complexity of relationships, no matter if the people involved are alive or dead.  In this regard it resurrects themes from popular novels that rose from the ashes of World War I, where writers like Ford Maddox Ford and F. Scott Fitzgerald gave the reading world damaged characters that go on with the business of living, but not really.  It is this “not really” that Berlin explores masterfully in his novel.

Here’s more from this rising writer.

Q: Tell us about the idea behind The Number of Missing and the challenges you faced writing about such a difficult tragedy.  What do you think our society has learned and still needs to learn about 9/11?

I was living downtown when 9/11 happened, on the corner of Bedford and Barrow Streets.  I used to run to the World Trade Center and back to my apartment most mornings.  As with all New Yorkers, the day stuck with me for a long time.  For months after, I’d walk out of the subway and see the towers that weren’t there.  The city seemed dead or at least not real, as if everything had slowed or stopped, and I remember feeling that I’d wake up, that all of us would wake up, and realize the day had never happened.  But it had.

In a selfish way, the day gave me a subject, a giant subject.  I had always loved post-war novels—The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, The Good Soldier—because they contained so much brutal subtext that the action on the surface was always charged even when nothing much was happening.  That was the kind of novel I’d always wanted to write, but my history didn’t include a war or the equivalent of war.  When 9/11 happened, my history, our history, changed, and I had the framework for a post-war book.

In my novel not much happens; it’s about a man named David who loses his best friend Paul in the attack.  David befriends Paul’s new wife Mel, now a young widow, and together they drink and talk and walk the city and remember Paul.  But underneath this relatively flat plot line is this momentous subtext.  The hardest part about writing The Number of Missing was to keep out even the slightest hint of sentimentality.  I wanted the grief to be pure, never Hallmark grief.  I did more revisions on this novel, many more revisions, than any novel I’d written before because I had to keep paring it down, removing all excesses so the real emotions of anger and grief were raw and exposed.

As for what we learned from this event, I don’t think much.  And that’s part of the sadness too.  Life goes on.  Twelve years have passed and unless you were scarred badly, directly, 9/11 is starting to feel like a memory with blurred edges.  Soon the Freedom Tower in NYC will become an accepted part of Manhattan’s landscape, which will blur the memory of 9/11 even more.

Q: You also have a novel coming out at the end of the year, Both Members of the Club, which probes a great deal into the sport of boxing.  Why do you think boxers have been used so effectively as characters in fiction, thinking of two famous short stories – Hemingway’s Fifty Grand and Jack London’s A Piece of Steak?

Of all sports, boxing provides the best foundation for a novel or a story.  Boxing is about man vs. man on the purest level—aside from gloves that protect a fighter’s hands, boxing has no equipment, so it’s all about physical and mental strength, one man testing himself against another.  In a classic sense that’s what a story usually does.  It pits man against man.  A character has an obstacle and has to get through that obstacle.  A fighter steps into the ring and across from him is another fighter, a human obstacle.  How he gets through that obstacle defines the fighter and defines the fight.  Many writers feel a deep connection to boxing because they see parallels between the acts of writing and boxing.  Much of a boxer’s training, which is where the real work happens, is done in solitude.  There’s a great quote from Muhammad Ali, which goes, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” That’s what writers do.  Before a book comes out, before it’s under the lights—out in public, ready to be read—the writer is working behind the lines on his or her own.  So there’s a kinship of loneliness between writers and fighters.

As for why boxers make great characters, I think it’s because fighters have to visit uncomfortable places.  The great fighters adapt.  The less than great ones don’t—they can’t get through the hard parts of a fight just as some writers can’t get through the hard parts of the story as Hemingway would call them.  But just stepping through the ropes is an act of putting yourself in an uncomfortable place and that’s the place where good fiction resides.  So if they’re not depicted as stereotypical thugs, boxers can make for complex, layered characters.  Their presence in a story always has a hint of something violent or explosive.  That subtext, that lurking power, can make for dramatic scenes.  And of course, boxers make good characters because many of them represent the human condition.  They rise quickly and they usually fall quickly.  They’ve had their glory, some of them have been kings in the ring, champions, but with time they’re not what they were.  I think fighters recognize their mortality more than other athletes.  Boxers are damaged—from the scars you see to the more dangerous ones you don’t.  Damage is a great trait for a character.

Q:  You also teach creative writing at the collegiate level.  Describe your teaching style and what you most try to impart to young writers about the craft.

I conduct my fiction classes in a workshop format where students read and critique each other’s original work.  I’m a member of the group, but I guide the discussion, and often put in more than my two cents.  The more advanced the class, the less directing of traffic I need to do.  The thing I try to impart most on my students: I tell them to write what they know and to write what they care about.  That’s harder than it sounds.  Throughout their whole writing lives, at least their academic writing lives, students are taught to shield themselves.  I ask them to be more vulnerable, to use what they know and feel, and to bring themselves to what they write. Ultimately I want them to show their characters in the most unprotected light, which makes for resonant fiction.

Q:  You are a very eclectic writer, producing novels, stories and poetry.  What’s next for you in terms of a larger writing project?

I’m writing another boxing novel, one very different from the one that just came out.  Both Members of the Club won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, and in many ways boxing, which is all about stripping down, from making weight to channeling the primal pull, is the perfect subject for a shorter, stripped-down novel.  But now I’m at work on a full-length novel.  My brother, who is a criminal defense lawyer and who represents a number of fight people, has also managed some professional fighters.  Years ago he managed a fighter making a comeback, and I traveled with my brother and his fighter around the country as they tried to rebuild a stalled boxing career.  I’m using that experience as the foundation for a novel that looks at the fight business, the ugly part of the fight business.  The novel is really about disappointment—boxing, ideally, is the purest of sports, but in reality the most corrupt. And the novel is about rivalry—between brothers, between races, between men and women, and, of course, between fighters in the ring. The best boxing novels I’ve read are not about boxing but about life.  I want my book to be a novel first and a boxing novel second.

In addition to The Number of Missing ( and Both Members of the Club (, Adam Berlin is author of Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).  His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits the literary mag J Journal: New Writing on Justice.  For more, please visit