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This Father’s Words Getting Him in Trouble : Novelist Stung by Children’s Disdain

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Fatherhood and fiction don’t mix.

Ask novelist Richard Stern, who wrote a book about a father’s relationship with his children. He’s discovering that when art really imitates life, real people get hurt.

“I’ve had a little trouble, yeah,” Stern said the other day, discussing the impact on his three grown sons and one daughter of “A Father’s Words” (Arbor House: $14.95). “For a couple of difficult and agonizing weeks I was on the outs (with my family).” Stern, whose novel is being widely reviewed around the country this Father’s Day and was reviewed last month in The Times, declined to be specific about the family turmoil, noting during a telephone interview that just that morning there had been another eruption from one of his children, whose ages range from 24 to 35.

‘Should Be Analyzed’

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Stern, at 58 a grandfather as well as a father, added that even the approval of one son was barbed.

“He said he liked the book very much and he said he thought I should be analyzed,” he explained.

Personal troubles aside, however, Stern sees his novel in a larger social context.

Freely admitting he has never earned enough from his writing to “rent a rat hole,” Stern said he thinks “A Father’s Words” may find a wider audience than his dozen previous books because fatherhood is suddenly a hot topic. John Le Carre’s latest best seller, “A Perfect Spy,” is largely about the wounds inflicted by a father on a son, he noted, adding that comedian Bill Cosby and novelist Geoffrey Wolff, who gave “A Father’s Words” a favorable review in this newspaper, have also published books recently dealing with aspects of fatherhood.

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Fatherhood in Fashion

Beyond books, Stern, who has taught for three decades at the University of Chicago, said life in general is making fatherhood a subject for the 1980s.

“There are fashions in big subjects,” Stern said. “Death is big for a while and then we go along for 50 years and don’t consider it much. Anyway, fatherhood is big now. Fathers are living longer and are more active mentally and physically. They’re having relationships with their children that they didn’t have in the past. The father is a competitor, a brother, a friend in a way that didn’t exist for most of human history. . . . The old paternal-filial decorum is under a lot of pressure.”

Readers’ reactions are another indicator that the time is ripe for more open consideration of fathers, Stern said.

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“I’ve never had such reactions from men before--all men, not just fathers. They say, ‘It’s the most moving book you’ve ever done.’ ”

Stern believes reactions to his novel stem partly from society’s preoccupation with the family, a troubled institution that has sparked widespread nostalgia for the idealized nuclear family, and partly from darker emotions.

“Obviously, the family’s really been up for grabs in recent decades,” he said. “What’s happened in America is enormous, and we haven’t begun to calculate the reverberations of the destruction of this bit of social DNA. I’ve been very conscious the last 10 or 15 years of the child as a villain. Again and again, the child is the embodiment of the diabolic force, the threat.

“And then you pick up a newspaper report and it says the poor are children, the dispossessed are largely children. Children show up in books as naked and as offerings for sexual adventure. What’s going on? I think the word nuclear family works. The nucleus has been split, and a tremendous power has been unleashed. Is there some relation between that and the kind of general loss of standards, the kind of craziness which is rampant, or is this just the usual human grousing about conditions?”

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Back on the family front, Stern was concerned that his new novel might create a stir at home even before it was published this spring.

‘More Than I Usually Say’

“I’m worried about this book,” he said during a visit to Los Angeles. “I’ve tried to tell (my children), first of all, ‘Don’t read it.’ Secondly, ‘Remember what this is all about. This is an absolute object, it’s created out there. You get excited in the creation of something, you work in the direction of your excitement. You start from a fact which is a conjurer’s impression.’ ”

But even after he had delivered his lectures about the difference between reality and fiction to his family, Stern admitted that his worry stemmed from that fact that the book “says a little more than I usually say.” In fact, Stern said, he may have painted a stronger picture of himself through the book than he presents in the flesh.

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“A writer, at least one like myself, is a very limited personality,” he said. “I’m not introspective in a certain way. I don’t know what I am and don’t much give a damn, and I don’t think that even if I looked hard I’d find anything very interesting.

“So I guess I’m in the business of pushing myself into situations where I become something a little more interesting. And that is why I draw on feelings, some of which are not remembered but many of which are remembered. . . . You use yourself. . . . It’s kind of like an athlete using his body. He knows that his will is almost more important than his body.”

The Stern words that provoked familial ire are contained in a slim volume about the relationship of an intellectual father to his four children--two boys and two girls--and particularly a son who is a failure in his father’s eyes. It is also about the total misperceptions that can exist in families.

“My hero--who for most of his life has put out by himself a small science newsletter, that is, the kind of man who feels on top of exact information--is thrown into consideration of what is not exact, has never been really categorized with exactitude and cannot be,” he said.

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“He thinks he’s been a marvelous father. He’s quite surprised to find that two of his children are bookish and are writing books about the abuse of children, the long history of family tyranny. He’s terrifically shocked by it, he can’t understand it. So the book deals with the question, ‘What is it to be a father, beyond the biological half-second?’ ”

Stern left the rhetorical question unanswered, saying, “I’m not a philosopher.” His novel, he said, is an attempt to probe a different question--"What the hell is fatherdom?”

Although he didn’t come to “any big answers,” Stern sketched some of the areas he explored:

“If you’ve been a father a very long time, if your children are grown up, you have a knowledge of those people as people, which is unmatched by any other knowledge that you have. You’ve seen the formation of character. You’re implicated in that formation.

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“At a certain point you have to ask yourself how far you’re implicated. You’re tremendously involved, your emotions are not simply x, y or z. It’s as complicated an emotional situation as you can have. The thing is, there’s a very complicated movement of force and energy. To call it love or fraternal or paternal or filial affection or disaffection doesn’t cover it all. . . . It’s this business of watching something grow from a bulge in the belly, or even from a whiff of passion, which suddenly creates a long life, half of which you’ll see.”

Grandfather’s Perspective

This last observation was reinforced when Stern became a grandfather last year.

“I realized the enormous difference--which everybody does, of course--that that child’s life is one that I will see very little of, compared to my own children. That child will be walking around 70 years from now maybe, with a whole history of its own. It’s extraordinary that one feels some bit of one’s self walking around that way.”

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Stern, who is divorced from his first wife, married poet Alana Rollings two years ago after a long relationship. His love life, he said, has been “rather unsensational as far as Southern California standards go.”

By the neon standards of literary stardom, Stern has also had an unsensational career. He has been praised by critics and has won a number of prestigious awards, but has never found a wide audience for his work, dominated by fairly short novels about intellectuals dealing with the less high-minded sides of life.

‘Build From the Atom’

“Every act of creation that counts is built atomically,” he said. “It’s not built from the bloom up, in which you just reproduce the appearance of something. I kind of envy a great logistical general like James Michener who comes in and spots all the trends and reproduces what appears to be Texas (the title of Michener’s latest book) and will stand for Texas for many outsiders.

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“I work very small, and unfortunately I’m read very small. I build from the atom, from the particle, and cannot get much beyond the molecule.”

However, novelists have a part to play that belies their limited audience, he said.

“I give the language a bath, work on the language so that it is not cheapened and the currency goes bad. The currency is lousy. It’s inflated, and you get the mess you have in politics or imprecise Supreme Court decisions or international agreements and so on. You work on the ordinary language in an extraordinary way. . . . God doesn’t begin with a flower, he begins with the atom.

“If you’re going to build something, you’ve got to build from the word.”

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