Eli Gottlieb wrote his first poem at nine—an autobiographical poem in which he describes himself as a flying cabinet. In high school he was infatuated with Sylvia Plath, and in college, he formed a fraternity of literary brothers—all poets, all of whom he is in touch with today. Among the roster of writers he returns to, many are poets—Whitman, Lowell, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Lawrence. Even though he abandoned poetry to write fiction, Eli tells me that he continues to receive sustenance from poetry, that his attentions as a writer to the qualities of the sentence have to do with his initial awe and immersion in old-fashioned poesy.
Eli was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Being the only sibling of an autistic brother, he says he was mostly ignored as a child, but encouraged by his mother to read widely, and to write. His first novel, The Boy Who Went Away, is an affecting coming-of-age story about a boy called Denny Graubert, whose older brother, Fad, is autistic. Spanning four turbulent months in 1967, against the political backdrop of America losing the Vietnam War, it takes us into the inner lives of the Graubert family, and their struggles to keep the state of New Jersey from condemning Fad to a mental institution.
“I tend to write from an autobiographical matrix,” Eli says. “Even for books that aren’t very autobiographical like my second and third novels (Now You See Him, and The Face Thief). “While he enjoys researching, and is meticulous in his process (certain readers of his last book assumed he had an MBA because of his fluency with finance terminology), his real work begins when the research stops.
All of Eli’s books are connected in some way to the city where he’s from—New York. It’s the place he has consistently returned to over the years. In between, he’s had stints in Massachusetts (for college), Padova (he met an Italian woman on a bus in New York and, after a passionate correspondence, went to go live with her), Boulder, Colorado (“one of the world’s Meccas for outdoor sports, hippie entrepreneurial energy and recreational drug use”), and Rome (he returned to Italy courtesy the Rome Prize). He now lives in Brooklyn, which he says “still has a residential soul” compared to the “clinically insane experiment in noise and velocity” that is Manhattan.
Eli tells me that he writes without a blueprint, with no idea of where he’s heading—in a “perpetual, steady-state of grateful surprise.” Beginnings, for Eli, are often stabs in the dark that eventually produce enough perforations for him to see something through the light coming in the holes. He is a tireless reviser, and revision is where most of his work takes place. The role of literature, he believes, is to serve as witness, to enlarge our sense of the moral and ethical dimensions of life. “Once upon a time,” Eli says, “art was used to present idealised portraits of humanity to itself. The artist these days is, in the words of Susan Sontag, ‘an athlete of the perverse.’ These are dark days, in addition to bright days, and some of that darkness has to be inhaled and introjected by anyone purporting to reflect humanity back to itself. Not a job for the faint-hearted!”
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist