Brent Robins, the author of The Perfect Culture
1. Tell us about yourself.
I’ve traveled to six continents. I love exploring other cultures. I love learning about their histories, and I’ve always loved satire. These three interests came together with the novel. Other interests are reading, singing, exercise, and movies. I see things differently than most people. In life, this has advantages and disadvantages, but it is helpful for a creative endeavor, such as fiction writing.
2. Give a brief description of your book, The Perfect Culture.
It’s an in-depth look at three very unique cultures in different areas of the world. It attempts to show how varied cultures are in terms of food, customs, etc.
3. Why did you write The Perfect Culture?
I wanted to share my experiences with more people, and I feel too constricted by a memoir style. I try to keep it entertaining with satire, and fiction makes that easier. If it’s fiction, I can think of hypothetical humorous situations, based on my knowledge of the culture. If it’s memoir, it has to be something that actually happened. I also wrote it because I wanted to show what extreme opposites Japan and Israel are, in my view. I thought that a third country would add a nice touch. I studied French in school, and they are quite unique as well. Their cuisine is very enjoyable to write about, and it’s not as familiar to people as Italian food, for example.
4. What is it about travel that fascinates you?
Cultural differences fascinate me, even if they’re little things. For example, in England, they often say “cheers” to mean thank you. Or I love the expression “blimey”; we don’t say that in my country. In Uzbekistan, I found it incredible how friendly young children were. They would walk right up to us and say “hello” with a huge smile on their face. Every cultural experience forces me to examine who I am. Do I fit into their culture? Why or why not?
5. How would you describe your writing style?
My writing style is very much upmarket fiction. I try to get deep, but keep it accessible. I also don’t go crazy with descriptions of settings and people. I never mentioned my protagonist’s hair color, for example. In my mind, it’s pretty trivial. I love P.D. James overall, but her lengthy descriptions sometimes are too much for me. I like to think that I’m closer to literary fiction than commercial fiction though. A lot of my novel takes place in the protagonist’s head; I’d say this aspect is more literary than commercial.
6. Why did you select France, Japan and Israel as your settings for your novel?
They are very unique places, and in different areas of the world. As I mentioned earlier, Israel and Japan are opposite extremes. My background is Jewish, so it was very meaningful for me to write about Israel. No doubt, the novel has a Semitic bias; the protagonist likes the culture in Israel quite a bit. I used the minor character “Saul” in Japan to throw in some of my views about Judaism and Israel. I tried to present a balanced view of the conflict with the Palestinians. I would like to see a two-state solution.
7. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
I started off with too much philosophy in the book. I like philosophy quite a bit, but my editors said that it was too distracting from the story. The novel has a lot of satire, and there are always questions of what is too offensive, what goes over the line, etc. Generally speaking, you have to like satire to like my book. If you’re a very serious person or you find satire to be too offensive, then most likely, my book isn’t right for you.
8. What other books have inspired you?
I love Catcher in the Rye. I see a lot of myself in Holden. He’s not a sunny optimist, and neither am I. Terry Pratchett’s satire is very inspiring to me. It’s hard to read him in public because I start laughing too much. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s descriptions of scenes are very appealing to me; I like how he mentions a few physical “facts” to set the mood. For example, he’ll say that there were newspapers on the floor of the NYC subway to help us understand the mood. Susan Cain’s nonfiction book about introverts was very inspiring as well. I realized after reading it that introverts have nothing to be ashamed of.
9. What is your favorite passage in the book and why?
I have two. The first is the conversation between Ron and Thomas in the bookstore in Paris. I’ve had so many offbeat conversations like that with travelers, and it’s very common to ask travelers about other countries that you’re thinking of going to. I think the panda joke is hilarious, if I do say so myself. The second is the description of Jerusalem’s weather and how it seems to be a good backdrop for serious Judaism. I think that it’s a good observation, and I like a lot of the language in that part: “dark apocalypse”, “uber-Semitic New Jersey”, etc.
10. What aspects of your own life helped inspire this book?
Most of the book connects to my life experiences. I grew up in a small town, and at my middle school, you were ridiculed if you had an interest in school. My high school and college experiences were much better than Thomas’s, though. I studied French in school, and certainly was in awe of Paris. I did teach English in Japan, and I absolutely loved Tel Aviv when I went to Israel. The karaoke scene in Japan is highly autobiographical. I never knew before that I could sing, and the other teachers were impressed by my attempt at “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I hope that the comments about Journey don’t come across as too cruel, but I am really tired of hearing “Don’t Stop Believin’” at karaoke. The song doesn’t fit my musical tastes. I love the gritty nature of English rock; it seemed logical to say the same thing about Thomas.