Author Q&A:
Benjamin Markovits

Christmas in Austin
(Faber £16.99 hardback, £7.99 ebook)

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The second novel in the Essinger family saga, Christmas in Austin finds the family unpacking months worth of news and years worth of resentments under the Christmas tree. Markovits, a lecturer in creative writing at Royal Holloway in London and one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, paints a realist portrait of a family with deep divisions and great distances between them, but even deeper bonds and a will to come together at least once a year. 

You grew up in Texas, London, Oxford and Berlin. Was it important to you to write a novel that took in all those places and why?
They are places I know well enough to set my characters’ lives in, so partly I’m just working with what I know. But the German-American mix was at the heart of my idea for the book. I’m half-German, too, my father is Jewish and American, and when my parents married they cut themselves off a little from their old families – because of distance, as much as anything else. I wanted to write a novel about the way family life can become a kind of island, with its own rules and tensions and pleasures, in the middle of much bigger histories.

The Essingers featured in your last book, A Weekend In New York. Why did you feel the need to return to them again so soon?
My plan from the beginning was to write a series of books – I was halfway through a draft of Christmas in Austin when A Weekend in New York came out. I realised I wanted to write a family novel that moved between different points of view, but also tried to show how packed with small incidents and feelings even an ordinary day is. To keep the book from spreading out endlessly, I used tight timeframes (a weekend, a Christmas holiday), and chose periods in their lives when events of larger significance were unfolding. For example, in the first book Paul is on the verge of retiring from tennis; in the second one, he’s trying to get back together with the mother of his child. Christmas seemed like a good setting for a novel: people bring months’ worth of news to these reunions, and feeling is heightened, and everything that happens seems to have deep roots.

The Essingers’ family home is full of character and years of accumulated life but is imperfect in its design and ability to host everyone. Meanwhile Paul is building a utopian commune that no one appears to want to live in. What were you exploring about the way we live and what makes a home?
That’s a good question. Paul really wants to return to childhood, because he was happier then – he felt more sure of himself. In some ways, he wants to go back to that old family home, which did the job it was supposed to do and gave him that happy childhood. But his parents are older, nobody else lives there and all of his siblings these days come with extra people, partners and kids, so he has an idea of spending some of the money he’s made on a place where they could all live together again, in isolation from everything else. But, as you say, nobody wants to join him.

I’ve got a couple of kids myself now, and as they get older you realise how much effort goes into making a childhood for them, which includes the home they grow up in. At the same time, every decision you make as a parent turns out to be short term. Kids go through phases, but parents go through phases too, so you have this strange sort of tension, between the urge to make a home that seems permanent in some way and the speed at which people’s lives keep changing and which you have to adapt to.

The Essingers go to great lengths to come together for Xmas while Paul’s own family unit is fractured for reasons even they are unclear about. Is there something to be said for traditional family values?
There’s much to be said for traditional family values. My mother likes to say there’s a shortage of people in the world who love you unconditionally, so you may as well make as many as you can. She had five kids.

Paul is coping with the loss of his tennis career. How much of our identities are tied up in our careers and do you contemplate how different your life would have been had you pursued basketball instead of writing?
You spend a lot of time on a job, even if you don’t much like it, and it’s hard to avoid identifying with what you do, especially if you end up doing something you also wanted to do as a kid, like Paul. One of the conflicts of family life might be, for some people, that they feel good at their jobs, respected by colleagues, competent and professional. Then they get home and feel like, everything I do is wrong or inadequate, because the problems of family life are usually harder to solve than the problems at work. At one point in Weekend in New York, Paul says something like, I’m a mediocre tennis player, but I’m much better at tennis than I am at anything else, including being a father. It seems to him the wrong way around.

On the other hand, I was a very bad professional basketball player. There was really no moment when I thought I could make a career of it. I felt lucky to get as far as I did. Lucky and unhappy; my time playing basketball was probably the most miserable period of my life, partly because I just wasn’t good enough to have fun.

“People living in the middle of history are in a tunnel they can’t see out of,” you write, as Liesel contemplates her own complicated family history in Germany. People often say we should learn lessons from the past but so much of what’s happening in the world suggests we don’t. Do you think it’s possible – perhaps within families if not in society as a whole?
I think Liesel would say that we do learn something. The world she grew up in was very different from the world she raised her kids in, which is different from the world of her grand kids. And in Liesel’s case, in most measurable ways, it’s a better world. Her father was caught up in the Second World War, building ships for the Nazis. He was separated from his wife and children for over a year; Liesel as a kid had very basic food and no luxuries. And now she lives in a big house in Texas and spends her days writing books. But every solution comes with new problems, and she might also worry that the relatively easy lives of her children make it harder for them to pay attention to what matters.

Do you have plans for a big family Christmas, and do you have any tips on how to navigate them?
I’m spending Christmas… in Austin. It’s gotten to the stage that my immediate family has become almost unmanageably large. There are usually more than 20 of us spending part of the holidays in the house I grew up in. I don’t know that I have any tips. Should we all try to do everything together? Should we separate into little factions? But then how do you choose who to hang out with? Everything you do has side-effects and downsides. But a little friction also seems part of the point. It’s like when you get married, and have a big party, and afterwards it’s a relief to be on your own again.

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