When he was three, in the early 1970s, Benjamin Anastas found himself in his mother’s fringe-therapy group in Massachusetts, a sign around his neck: Too Good to Be True. The phrase haunted him through his life, even as he found the literary acclaim he sought after his 1999 novel, An Underachiever’s Diary, had made the smart set take notice. Too Good to Be True is his deeply moving memoir of fathers and sons, crushing debt and infidelity—and the first, cautious steps taken toward piecing a life back together.
“It took a long time for me to admit I had failed,” Anastas begins. Broke, his promising literary career evaporated, he’s hounded by debt collectors as he tries to repair a life ripped apart by the spectacular implosion of his marriage, which ended when his pregnant wife left him for another man. Had it all been too good to be true? Anastas’s fierce love for his young son forces him to confront his own childhood, fraught with mental illness and divorce. His father’s disdain for money might have been in line with the ’70s zeitgeist—but what does it mean when you’re dumping change into a Coinstar machine, trying to scrounge enough to buy your son a meal? Charged with rage and despair, humor and hope, this unforgettable book is about losing one’s way and finding it again, and the redemptive power of art.
Susan Choi is the author of three acclaimed novels, The Foreign Student (winner of an Asian American Literary Award), American Woman (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) and A Person of Interest (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award). She recently won a 2012 James Beard Foundation Award for her food writing.
Susan Choi: What made you want to write this book?
Ben Anastas: I’m not sure that I ever really wanted to write Too Good to Be True. The motivation behind the book ran much deeper than that. The word “want” implies a choice, and when I started writing the book’s first pages, having the freedom to choose what to do with my life—even calling myself a writer—felt like a privilege I had lost.
I was 41 and my literary career was flat lining. I hadn’t published a book in the U.S. in almost ten years, and the magazines I’d been writing for had either disappeared or stopped answering my emails I’d lost my marriage in a mind-bending divorce drama. I was scrambling to keep it all together and telling myself that rescue was just around the corner and everything would be fine—but when the book starts, in the fall of 2010, my financial life was about to hit rock bottom.
Nothing I tried was working. So I started over again, from the beginning. I took an empty notebook and a couple of pens and I started going into my son’s room when he wasn’t there and writing about what was happening, what getting lost in too much life really felt like.
SC: This book is so startling, and funny, and disturbing, and gut-wrenchingly honest. Were there people in your life you particularly hoped would or wouldn’t read it?
BA: If you’re startled as a reader or moved to laughter and/or tears, then I must have done my job, right?
You never know what episodes from your private life will end up making it into a novel. I knew my parents would have to read Too Good to Be True eventually, but I did put it off until I felt confident about what I was doing. The title comes from some very bad therapy that my brother, my sister and me all had during the summer of 1972—a lifetime ago—while our mother was being treated for depression. Their marriage was ending, it was a low-point in their lives, and we were bystanders in a drama that we didn’t understand. I feel very protective of my parents so I was worried from the start about how they would react to those sections of the book. I just had to gulp and hand the manuscript over.
SC: How did fatherhood affect the writing of this book, if at all? How has it affected your writing in general?
BA: My son, who’s five now and too young to read the book—another sigh of relief—is the driving force behind Too Good to Be True, even when he’s not present, and the final chapter is a kind of letter to him explaining what I’ve been up to. So, in a very real sense, the book wouldn’t exist without him. You really do need a reason to go on when you find yourself broke at forty-one and hiding collection notices in your underwear drawer, and he was a very big reason why I managed to go on.
When a child’s room is empty, you really know it. There’s no clamor inside, no calls for “Daddy,” no astonishing new mess to clean up. As a part-time father, it’s a quiet that I’ve had to learn to get used to. There was something very satisfying about the ritual of going into his room and trying to find my way on paper. His bed was made and empty, his stuffed animals were heaped at my side, his clothes were stacked on the dresser and there I was with my notebook, trying to untangle the mystery of my origins so he wouldn’t have to.
SC: What comes next?
BA: There’s a novel brewing. Definitely fiction. I’ve had my fill of reality experiments!