Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we talked to Jon Sebastian Shifrin about his latest novel, Why Liv?, a literary tale of a young man’s self-exploratory journey.
Jon Sebastian Shifrin is a writer whose political commentary and short stories have appeared in various newspapers and literary journals. He also is the founder of The Daily Dissident, a popular current events web magazine.
He lives in Washington, DC.
What made you want to write this book?
Growing up as the son of two artists—a painter and sculptor—burdened me with high expectations. Like a faith or creed, art has the ability to connect those who create it to an ancient artistic tradition, as well as endow a form of immortality via an artistic legacy. But, most significantly, art gives its most ardent devotees a sense of purpose. I wanted the same from my chosen profession. However, this was not to be.
The jobs I held over the years, while impressive on paper, provided no meaning whatsoever. In fact, they seemed utterly pointless; nobody, I suspected, would care or even notice if they disappeared. Naturally, I fell into a deep funk. Only by discovering my own creative outlet, writing, did I climb out of the morass and begin to experience the sort of spiritual satisfaction I long sought.
The theme of finding meaning is central to Why Liv?—hence the title. Like me, Livingston, the protagonist, has achieved success by societal standards. He has gone to the right schools and holds down a prestigious job. Yet, he feels empty inside. I believe that his angst, like my own, is commonplace and therefore speaks to many struggling to find meaning in their lives, professional and otherwise.
Why did you choose to have your main character struggle with how his profession affected his personal identity?
Personal identities are closely tied to our chosen professions, since we spend a significant portion of our waking hours at work. This is why one of the first questions we ask new acquaintances is what they do for a living. The response to it reveals critical information about a person’s essence in ways that few, if any, other questions can. While the centrality of work to personal identity varies to some degree by culture, an underlying truism holds regardless: we are what we do. Livingston, Why Liv?’s protagonist, identifies with his job, but also knows that it is meaningless; thus, he feels meaningless himself. At first, he feels guilty for being miserable, since he knows that, as a corporate high-flyer, he has got it better than most. A close friend ridicules him for having “white man’s problems.” But he cannot shake the sense that something is dramatically wrong in his life.
Liv’s struggles are universal. Occupational angst is endemic. One recent national survey found that almost a third of Americans view their jobs simply as a means to “get by,” while fully 40 percent of respondents to another study in the Netherlands said their jobs had no reason to exist whatsoever. Many of us, regrettably, are on the same sinking boat. The key is to find a way off.
Your book deals mostly with an affluent society – why did you choose that setting and are the themes relatable beyond that sphere?
Why Liv? takes places in a new Gilded Age—contemporary America. The main characters hail from the glittering class whose members seamlessly glide at day’s end from their high-pressure/highly compensated corporate jobs to exclusive places in a capital of capitalism, New York City. They are society’s winners, the “meritocracy’s” most meritorious. They are the people many of us seek to be. And yet they are overworked and unhappy, lost. The most self-aware among them, including the protagonist, knows that the rat race is folly, and he wants out. There has to be better way, he thinks, and he is right.
The promise of affluence undergirds our society. Most millennials, in fact, believe they will be millionaires someday. The zealous pursuit of riches is a goal that, even if achieved, likely will yield a miserable life featuring endless hours at a soulless job that has no intrinsic value. Such is the paradox of our modern consumer-driven existence. The cheese at the end of the maze is moldy. Thus, Why Liv?, though focused at the outset on an exclusive niche—the one-percenters—is broadly applicable, as the novel indicts a system to which 100 percent of us are subject.
What is your writing process like?
Dorothy Parker, the eminent critic and satirist, once said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” I think most writers, myself included, identify with such sentiments, as the process of putting words on a blank page is tough, even excruciating at times. I require regular breaks while writing, like a football player dashing off to the sidelines for “breathers.” The constant stoppages do not always work; oftentimes, I spend hours gazing in vain at my computer screen, having conjured only a line or two. Here a certain faith in one’s artistic ability is necessary to persevere, which itself is the key to success in any endeavor worth pursuing, creative or otherwise. Eventually, I clumsily cobble together a first draft of a book’s chapter or short story full of narrative flights of fancy and inconsistencies. But the hardest part is behind me. I then revise and revise, applying one layer on top of another, ironing out wrinkles and adding richness and depth—the sort of ornamentation that gives a story added punch. A relatively polished draft takes shape. Further revisions follow once I receive editorial feedback and, eventually, the particular piece is “done,” or completed to the point where returns on effort have sufficiently diminished that my efforts turn elsewhere. Then and only then, do I truly love having written.
What books and authors influenced your writing?
W. Somerset Maugham and Franz Kafka, among my favorite writers, have influenced my writing greatly. Maugham, for one, is a master storyteller. His lurid descriptions of places and personalities are totally transporting. Much the same can be said of Kafka, though his style, of course, is very different. The commonality that links the two—and a feature that, I think, unites all great writing—is strong moral conviction. That is, both Maugham and Kafka have something to say. Maugham’s stories typically feature flawed characters that redeem or do not redeem themselves, such as a supremely gifted artist in a Moon and Sixpence who is also an unprincipled brute, while Kafka’s characters almost always are victimized by some absurd circumstance. But both share insights into the way we live and act, and the societal forces that shape our behavior. Attention must be paid.
I also aspire to challenge the reader in similar ways by casting into relief some of the issues that, I believe, confront my generation: demanding yet meaningless jobs, rising political intolerance, and so on. I want the reader, once finished with Why Liv?, to question some very basic precepts about the times in which we live and to feel uncomfortable yet also moved as one does when putting down a work by Maugham or Kafka. That is my goal. It is for the reader to decide whether I achieve it.
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