Such Good Work

A Novel

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About The Book

From Johannes Lichtman comes a wisely comic debut novel about a teacher whose efforts to stay sober land him in Sweden, but the refugee crisis forces a very different kind of reckoning.

You don’t have to be perfect to do good...

Jonas Anderson wants a fresh start.

He’s made plenty of bad decisions in his life, and at age twenty-eight he’s been fired from yet another teaching position after assigning homework like, Attend a stranger’s funeral and write about it. But, he’s sure a move to Sweden, the country of his mother’s birth, will be just the thing to kick-start a new and improved—and newly sober—Jonas.

When he arrives in Malmo in 2015, the city is struggling with the influx of tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees. Driven by an existential need to “do good,” Jonas begins volunteering with an organization that teaches Swedish to young migrants. The connections he makes there, and one student in particular, might send him down the right path toward fulfillment—if he could just get out of his own way.

Such Good Work is, indeed, a bit Jonas-like: it’s wary of affectation or grandstanding; it works small, as if from a sense of modesty, a reluctance to presume; it cuts sincerity with the driest of humor” (The New Yorker). In his debut, Lichtman, “a remarkable thinker and social satirist” (The New York Times Book Review), spins a darkly comic story, brought to life with wry observations and searing questions about our modern world, and told with equal measures of grace and wit.

Excerpt

Such Good Work
MY STUDENTS TURNED IN DRAWINGS of animals with extraordinary life spans.

I learned that there were species of tube worm that lived for up to one hundred and seventy years.

Arctic whales more than two hundred years old.

Clams with a life expectancy of four hundred.

Sponges that had been alive for more than a millennium.

A kind of jellyfish—the immortal jellyfish—that, after reaching sexual maturity, could revert to infancy again and again, maybe forever.

“Really?” I said, holding up Lucy’s drawing.

Lucy nodded proudly. She was a sophomore psych major. Her jellyfish wore a cape. A dialogue bubble above its head stated: I am immortal and a jellyfish.

I hung Lucy’s picture on the whiteboard next to Ravi’s arctic whale, which had a horn and a side-profile smile. Ricky’s tube worm was a bright red plume with the caption The tube worm is a vagina-like creature that can grow to be up to six feet tall. It is a deep-sea invertebrate whose only predators are accidental ones—mainly large mammals trying to have sex with it.

Kayla’s drawing was not a drawing but rather a full page of double-spaced text explaining why there shouldn’t be drawing assignments in a college creative-writing class. (Drawing animals is not creative writing any more than pottery is accounting.) She sat in the front row and glared at me. She had the posture of someone who spent her childhood balancing books on her head. She was almost certainly the treasurer of a sorority. I hung her essay next to all the animal pictures.

* * *

My department chair, Norman, invited me to his office. Norman was a squirrelly man who always appeared to be bracing for a punch. He was from a leafy college town in the Northeast and looked out of place in Wilmington, a waterfront tourist strip that happened to have a university. He had hired me the previous summer after a string of maternity and rehab leaves of absence had left the department in need of temporary faculty who could be trusted to stay childless and sober. I wasn’t sure why, out of the pack of graduating MFA teaching assistants, he had picked me, but maybe one of my professors had gotten the wrong idea about me and put in a good word.

“Look, Jonas, I’m not trying to be the administrator here,” Norman said. “But a student complained.”

This student had felt uncomfortable with last week’s homework assignment: attend a stranger’s funeral.

“Frankly,” Norman said, “I don’t know if I can blame her.”

This student was Kayla.

Norman waited for me to say something, but my mind was too foggy to find a good explanation.

“No more funerals,” I agreed.

Back in my office, I typed up a more traditional assignment: Write a story.

* * *

My mind was always foggy lately. At age twenty-seven, it was my first semester sober, and without four doses of oxycodone a day, a couple tramadol in the mornings, a few methadone now and then, and a weekend bump of heroin to take the edge off, I’d been having trouble finding my words. Sometimes when I was standing in front of the class and one of the kids asked a good question, my brain would start firing off ideas, and it was like I was alive again. I’d explain the relationship between dialogue and narration in fiction, do an impromptu performance of how a scene from a popular movie would sound if a narrator were commenting on each piece of dialogue, and feeling my energy rising with the sound of their laughter, I’d circle back to answer the original question by describing the moment in their assigned reading when . . . when . . . when . . . but the words would scurry into the fog again and I’d be left um-ing and uh-ing like an idiot.

* * *

Monday morning the students slumped through the door. They’d spent almost every Monday since they were five years old in a room like this. It took its toll—so often being somewhere other than where you wanted to be. When I used to get high, places were interchangeable. Everywhere was the best place ever—and then the worst. But now place mattered very much. There were few places I liked more than this classroom, with the cheap blinds over the windows, the long fluorescent light tubes overhead, and the students who, even though I often told them what to do, didn’t seem to hate me.

Except for Kayla. Her dislike troubled me.

I stood at the front of the class. I was wearing jeans and a navy cardigan that had been a gift from my ex. I had been growing my hair long since a methadone nightmare the year before had given me a fear of balding. The hair now reached down past my ears. It was strong and brown and shiny and probably the best thing I had going for me.

I held up a stack of student stories. “This was concerning.” I paused. “You killed all your protagonists.”

The students laughed nervously. Kayla maintained eye contact from her spot in the front row.

“I’ll admit that this may be my fault. I probably shouldn’t have sent you to the funeral. That’s on me. I was trying something new.” I paused. “But here’s the thing: Life is long and usually ends in death. Stories are short and usually don’t. Characters can have problems without having cancer, and suicide doesn’t always have to be the solution.” I looked out at the students, hoping to see a reaction, which was a stupid thing to do, since, even when the students were in the middle of life-changing moments—when they realized that all experience was subjective or that they didn’t have to major in business administration—they almost never visibly reacted. But today, seeing no reaction, I panicked. I took a sip of water and gathered myself. “Please stop killing your characters. It’s bumming me out.”

* * *

After class, I asked Kayla to stay behind for a second. I was nervous. I knew from student evaluations that one-on-one interaction was not my strong suit. In class, Professor Anderson was hilarious and super sarcastic, but in office hours he was random.

“How’s the semester treating you, Kayla?” I said, making casual eye contact.

“It’s busy.” She clutched her binder to her chest.

“Are you enjoying your other classes?”

“I am.”

“You’re an econ major, right?”

“Psychology.”

“Psychology: the econ of the liberal arts.”

“What?”

“I get the feeling that you don’t like this class.”

She mulled the question over. “I don’t not like it.” A pause. “I had planned on liking it.”

“You have an A, you know.”

She sighed. “I feel like you’re not teaching us what you should be teaching us.”

“What do you think I should be teaching you?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you want to learn?”

She opened her mouth but stopped.

“It would help if you told me,” I said. “Maybe what you want to learn is what other students want to learn, too.”

“You’re the teacher,” she finally said.

* * *

That evening, I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Technically, I should have been going to Narcotics Anonymous. But I found that the average age at AA was much higher, which meant that the sharers had better stories and that I was less likely to meet people who looked and sounded like me. After the meeting, I saw Spanish Richard waiting for me in the parking lot. Spanish Richard was a middle-aged three-hundred-pound recovering alcoholic who wore Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts and cried every time he shared.

“My man,” he said, shaking my hand and pulling me into a half hug. “You out on the streets again?”

“I am not. I just haven’t been keeping up on meetings.” I didn’t tell him that I had never been “out on the streets”—I had used drugs in my apartment. “I have to get better about that.”

“How long have you been clean now?”

“About two months.” I refused to say, Seventy days.

“So you’re not an expert yet?”

“You are correct.”

“Have you started the steps?”

“I’m getting there.” I had no intention of doing the steps. AA was like religion—you could take the parts that worked for you and leave the rest.

“My man, at some point you have to ask yourself: How much more am I willing to lose?”

I nodded.

“You already lost a girlfriend. How about your job? How about your home? How about your car?”

I used to find it strange how the men at these meetings put cars on the same level as wives, jobs, and homes on the list of things they lost to drugs and alcohol. Not until I heard a twelve-stepper describing his two hours on the bus each day as “reflecting time” did it occur to me how much more a car could mean to someone who’s at the mercy of public transit and a parole officer. In the parking lot, Spanish Richard told me the story of his fall, again, and I found, again, that hearing about all-night drinking, lying, cheating, and car crashing, told with the same emphasis and pauses as the last five times, wasn’t boring at all. Just the opposite—it was comforting, like hearing a favorite bedtime story. Spanish Richard said that he now got more real joy from making his bed every morning than he ever did from alcohol. He talked about God as if God were a hotline I could call. He also mentioned a hotline I could call.

“It’s twenty-four hours.”

Then he put his hand on my shoulder. “You can handle it.”

I swallowed. “How do you know?”

Spanish Richard shrugged. “Because I can handle it.”

* * *

Three weeks after our first meeting, I got another summons from the department chair. Norman didn’t want to micromanage my process, but he was concerned.

“Maybe you want to use some course syllabi or exercises from the department file.” Norman cleared his throat. “Or maybe you would feel more comfortable handing over the courses to someone else.”

“I would love to use some course syllabi and exercises from the department file. I’ve been struggling for direction and I think that could be just what I need. How can I access them?”

“I’ll send you the link.”

I could feel that there was a but coming, so I preempted it. “I realize that I haven’t been on top of my game lately. There have just been a lot of changes.” I paused. “It’s hard to lose someone you care about. I didn’t think it would affect my work so much, but it has.”

Norman nodded sympathetically. He didn’t ask whom I had lost, which was lucky. The implication of sadness from losing a loved one sounded better than sadness from losing the version of yourself who got to be high all the time.

Back in my office, still employed, I ate a multivitamin and wished it were oxycodone.

* * *

That evening, I was walking down Front Street, passing by the bars where I used to drink, on my way to the corner store to buy an unsatisfying soda, when I ran into a group of MFA students two years behind me.

“Jonas! Where have you been?” they said, drunk and happy. “We never see you anymore!”

They didn’t know about the drugs or the sobriety, so there was no way to quickly explain why I could no longer be found at Lula’s or the Blue Post, where I used to spend five or six nights a week.

“They kept me on for a second semester, if you can believe it,” I said. “All it took was for Daniel to realize he’s an alcoholic.”

“How did he only just realize that now?” said Stephanie. “I realized it when he yelled ‘poetry forever!’ in the middle of my first-year reading.”

“That wasn’t part of the poem?” I said. “I like that poem less now.”

“Daniel likes epiphanies,” said Audrey. “A character can’t just know that he’s an alcoholic at the beginning of the story. He has to realize it.”

“Come drink with us!” Bobby said. “We are drinking!”

“Christ, Bobby, stop yelling,” Audrey said, and yanked him by the shirt.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m a real teacher now. If they catch me at a bar, they might ship me off with Daniel.”

We shared hugs and they bumbled down the street toward Lula’s. By the time they were out of sight I was shaking so badly I could barely stand.

* * *

The next day, I biked to work, inspiring two separate pickup-truck drivers to yell their guess at my sexual orientation. In my office I found a story slid under the door. It was from Kayla. A revision. The first draft of her story had been about a young marine whose plane was shot down on his way home from Afghanistan to marry his sweetheart. In this revised version, the marine’s plane still crashed into the sea, but this time he was resuscitated by an immortal jellyfish. The jellyfish gave up his immortality to save the marine, but there was a catch: the marine could never again leave the ocean. So the marine swam across the Atlantic to the coast of North Carolina, where he watched his lost love walking along the beach alone, day after day. Every evening, as she passed, he longed to reach out and pull her into the water. But he loved her too much, so he just floated in the waves, pining. One day he saw a man walking by her side, holding her hand. That night, the marine swam away without anger or bitterness—only sadness that this part of his life had ended.

* * *

On the last day of the semester, I ordered pizzas for the class. Ricky provided a “vegan pizza,” which was simply a loaf of sourdough bread. Lucy brought homemade cookies so perfect they looked photoshopped. We ate and laughed and played YouTube videos on the projector.

I gave a short speech that ended with “Now get out of here before I get emotional,” a line that I had planned the night before, but which, as I said it in front of the class, inspired actual welling in my throat.

On their way out, the students dropped their final assignments on my desk. Ravi shook my hand and thanked me for the class. Ricky waited for the others to leave, then looked me in the eyes and told me that this was the least boring class she’d had in a long time.

She closed the door after leaving; I was alone.

I looked at the empty desks. I slammed a pizza box over my knee. I hurled it across the room. I picked up another box and raised it over my knee.

“I can take care of that,” Kayla said, suddenly appearing in the doorway.

“Oh. I didn’t see you there.” I put the box down on the desk and made casual eye contact. “How is the end of the semester treating you?”

Kayla took the box from my desk, opened it, threw away the garlic-crumbed wax paper and the little plastic tripod, folded in the sides, and flattened the cardboard. She packed up the other boxes the same way, then tucked the flattened boxes under her arm.

“I’ll just run these out to the recycling bins,” she said.

I stood there waiting for her to return and wondering what parting words I should leave her with. It was nonsexual affection, but I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea. I just wanted her to know that she shouldn’t take my failure as indicative of what life would offer.

I waited. The clock read five past. Students from the next class queued up in the hall. One peeked in to see if I’d left yet. I glanced out the window, but of course she wasn’t coming back.

* * *

At home, I thought about calling my mom, a spiritual coach who was now living at a retreat in Sedona with no internet access. We had, over the years since I left home, settled into a rhythm where I called on her birthday and she called on mine, and we mailed each other handwritten letters on Christmas. It was a fragile stasis, and an unexpected request for comfort might shatter the whole thing. The more we talked, the greater the likelihood that someone would mention the past, and neither of us wanted to feel that kind of anger toward the other.

I opened my laptop and tried to write a story about immortal jellyfish and the longness of life. I had barely written a word since quitting drugs, aside from a journal in which, for the past 116 days, I had recorded thoughts like The days are really long and I miss drugs. Given that I had written every day since high school, it was strange to be without it.

When I was a grad student, under the tutelage of an eccentric professor who took a liking to me based on an orientation-day conversation we had about basketball and who I came to suspect was the one who had recommended me to Norman, I had written an unpublishable novel—a long book that managed to say little. Today I wanted to write something small that felt big. But already in the first paragraph, I found myself unable to describe the way a jellyfish swam. That was why my novel had been bad—it took me so long to describe anything. By the time I got to the end of an analogy, the reader had forgotten what thing I was describing in the first place. I wanted a half-sentence description of a jellyfish, fleet and deft and hinting at metaphoric meaning—the kind of thing that people would underline when they read it. But it took me five lines to describe the inflating/deflating plastic-bagness of the jellyfish. I opened a browser window and typed jellyfish swimming into the search bar. I clicked on a video from a nature program, in which a British voice narrated the jellyfish’s swimming perfectly. The voice spoke with such calculated eloquence that no word was wasted. I shut the computer.

* * *

I biked out to the beach. It was a twelve-mile ride, but the late-spring heat had not yet turned vindictive, and even if it had, I wouldn’t have felt it. My wallet was stuffed with $300 in twenties, money with which I was going to buy pills from Kit when he got off work at the Applebee’s he assistant-managed. It was early evening by the time I reached the coast, the sun hanging low in the sky, and the only people still out were crew-cut marines from Camp Lejeune, drinking bottled beer with their young wives. They’d be sent to Afghanistan, or back to Afghanistan, shortly. If the soldiers on the beach survived the war, they might show up in my classroom one day, straight-backed and polite and quietly desperate to make up for lost time. And what could I teach them?

I laid my bike on the sand, rolled up my jeans, and waded shin-deep into the surf. The water that pooled around my ankles had been part of the ocean before I was born and would be part of that same ocean after I was dead. I wasn’t sure what to do with this information.

“Professor Anderson?”

I turned and saw Kayla, walking hand in hand with a broad-shouldered and crew-cut man. He had brown forearms and a white chest that looked like parts from two separate action figures. Kayla wore a bathing-suit top and jean shorts and looked like she was trying to reconcile what she was seeing in front of her with what she knew. I couldn’t tell whether her surprise came from catching me wading in the ocean by myself or from seeing me outside the classroom.

“It’s a little tradition of mine.” I trudged out of the water. “After I turn in final grades, I go for a dip. You got an A.”

She smiled. “Professor Anderson, this is my fiancé, Hank.”

“Nice to meet you, sir,” Hank said.

I braced for an alpha-male handshake, but Hank’s grip was gentle. Up close, I saw that he had the face of a boy. It dawned on me that I was the adult in the situation.

“Have you two made any plans for after graduation?”

“I have another year left,” Kayla said. “But I’m going to be a flight attendant.”

“She’s going to see the world,” Hank said.

“How exciting. Any particular part of the world?”

“All of it, hopefully,” Kayla said.

“And when’s the wedding?”

“Next month—right before I ship out.” Hank looked over at Kayla with his big young eyes. “I can hardly wait.”

Kayla ran her fingers over her ring, which looked more like an earring than an engagement ring—a skinny band with a tiny diamond.

I took the $300 from my wallet, folded the fifteen bills over once, and held them out to Hank. “Happy wedding.”

Hank froze.

“Please. I insist. You make a lovely couple.”

Kayla took the money from my hand. “Thank you, Professor Anderson.”

Hank stared at his feet.

“It’s our first wedding present, babe,” Kayla said, handing him the bills.

Hank lit up as if he had just realized she was going to marry him. He put the twenties in the pocket of his shorts and shook my hand again, harder this time. “Thank you, sir. That’s extremely generous of you.”

“Maybe you can buy a dog,” I said.

Kayla hugged me. I gave her a quick one-handed pat on the back—my hand stuck to her skin for a moment—and wished them both good luck.

They walked along the water’s edge, and I watched their footprints disappear in the wet sand until their bodies had disappeared, too. Out past the breakers, a jellyfish bobbed along with the tide, with nothing to do but live forever.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Such Good Work includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Johannes Lichtman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Jonas Anderson wants a fresh start.

He’s made plenty of bad decisions in his life, and at age twenty-eight he’s been fired from yet another teaching position after assigning homework like Visit a stranger’s funeral and write about it. But he’s sure a move to Sweden, the country of his mother’s birth, will be just the thing to kick-start a new and improved—and newly sober—Jonas.

When he arrives in Malmö in 2015, the city is struggling with the influx of tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees. Driven by an existential need to “do good,” Jonas begins volunteering with an organization that teaches Swedish to young immigrants. The connections he makes there, with one student in particular, might send him down the right path toward fulfillment—if he could just get out of his own way.

Such Good Work is a darkly comic novel, brought to life with funny, wry observations and searing questions about our modern world, told with equal measures of grace and wit.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Such Good Work plays with the idea of things or behaviors that are good for you, or things that are good for others. Do you think those things are subjective? Or is there a list of “good” things that every person should be working toward?

2. Addiction is a prominent theme in Such Good Work, both explicitly and implicitly. Aside from Jonas’s drug use, what are some other addictions, vices, or compulsions that you notice throughout the novel, on levels big and small?

3. Sweden is a country that is underexplored and underexposed in fiction as a setting. What did you know about Sweden when you came to Such Good Work, and what did you learn about it as you read? What was it like reading about an American living abroad?

4. There are a few women in Jonas’s life—Anja, Alexandra, Katja, Stella. How are these relationships similar and different to one another, and what role do they play for him and for the larger story?

5. Jonas isn’t necessarily an unlikeable character, but he is absolutely—and self-admittedly—flawed. Does that make him more accessible? More human? What did you like about Jonas as a protagonist and narrator?

6. At different points in the novel, Jonas questions whether addiction benefits creativity, citing Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and other writers who have battled demons in the midst of producing great work. Do you think there’s validity to the theory that genius stems from dysfunction?

7. When Jonas is teaching in the US, one of his students is writing a paper on race relations, and throughout his time in Sweden, the people around him compare the responses both countries have to refugees, race, and the political implications of both. How are they similar and different? What does Jonas learn and how does he engage with each?

8. Jonas engages with some dark themes and topics throughout the novel, but there are also some moments of lightness and humor. What were some of your favorites? Do you think that incorporating them made for a better reading experience?

9. As he spends more time in Sweden, how does Jonas’s view of the world and the ways his new and old home countries respond to crises change and evolve?

10. In the opening pages of Such Good Work, Jonas says, “When I used to get high, places were interchangeable. Everywhere was the best place ever—and then the worst. But now place mattered very much.” What role does place play in this novel, in Jonas’s life, and in your life?

11. Two characters who we hear a lot about but rarely see are Stella and Zach, Jonas’s friends from home, but they are still really important to him. What role do they play in Jonas’s life, and what do they represent in the larger story?

12. Throughout Such Good Work, Jonas thinks about the ways in which people—including himself—perform outrage at certain injustices but then do little to actually prevent them from happening again. Have you noticed a similar phenomenon in our world and daily lives? In the novel, Jonas “mentally rewrote each of these memories into scenes in which I’d done something”? Have you ever done this?

13. What is a world or media event that has impacted you in the same way that Jonas is impacted by reading about Alan Kurdi and other refugees in crisis? In many ways, Jonas becomes much more affected by these issues when he meets Aziz and the other boys. Do you think that we need a personal connection and human face to truly feel motivated to act and pitch in?

14. Toward the end of the novel, Jonas says he wants to correct the world. There is also another scene in which a person is criticized for doing more harm than good for dropping everything and going to volunteer with the Red Cross. After seeing the complexities of “such good work” in the novel, do you think that it’s possible for one person—or a group of people—to solve the world’s problems?

15. Thinking about the title of the novel, the story, the characters, and the themes, what does it mean to do “such good work” or be a good person? Has your definition or perspective changed as you’ve read and discussed Lichtman’s novel? Do we do “such good work” for others, or for ourselves?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. As a group, choose a cause you all believe in and find organizations that support the cause. Discuss how your group can fundraise for the cause in your community.

2. Find a recipe for Swedish meatballs or other Swedish foods and serve them at your next book club meeting!

A Conversation with Johannes Lichtman

Okay, so, first question. What initially inspired you to write Such Good Work?

Well, I started writing what eventually became the first chapter of Such Good Work as a short story called “You Really Have to Stop the Killing” in 2013. The short story I wrote was very different from what ended up being the first chapter. There was a teacher who was trying to hold it together and there were facts about animals that lived a really long time, and that was about it.

But there was something about the narrator, about the voice, that I liked, so I worked on that story for maybe two years. I also wrote two other short stories from the narrator’s perspective, so by the time I published “You Really Have to Stop the Killing,” I had a good chunk of material from this narrator’s perspective.

I thought about doing a collection of linked stories, but eventually I decided to try to write between the stories and build it as a novel instead, partly because there’s something really freeing about writing a work in which the chapters don’t have to be able to stand on their own and can just function as parts of the whole (in short story collections, each story, of course, has to work on its own). There were a bunch of other reasons that I chose to swerve into writing it as a novel, too, and now I’m realizing, about two minutes into my answer, that I’m answering the question “How did you write the novel?” rather than the question you asked, which was: “Why did you write the novel?” I think the how is easier to explain. It took me about three hundred pages to answer the why when I was writing the book, so who knows how long it would’ve taken me to answer it here.

On the surface, it seems like you and Jonas have a couple of things in common. Your names are similar, you both have familial ties to Sweden, hold dual citizenship, have lived in California, and you’ve both been teachers. That leads us to wonder: How much of the novel is autobiographical, or taken from life?

How dare you ask me that?

Just kidding. This is, understandably, a question that comes up a lot. Which I get. When I read books by Jenny Offill or Ben Lerner or Rachel Cusk or whoever, I wonder how much is autobiographical. I don’t think it affects my understanding or experience of the texts much—but I’m still curious.

The short answer is that some of my novel is autobiographical but definitely not all of it. I could never have published this as a memoir—not even close. I was actually asked by friends and some publishing people if I had considered making it a memoir instead, since I guess readers just assumed it was pretty much an autobiography. But there was way too much made up, and the stuff that is taken from my life is so exaggerated, condensed, combined, or altered that even the autobiographical portions couldn’t be published as nonfiction.

That said, by giving the character a similar name as me and giving us similar biographies—not trying to make him a fifty-something Danish history teacher or whatever—it was a nod to the reader to sort of say, “Yes, this is based on my life. It’s also a novel. Do with that what you will.”

I am, at least at this point in my life, not terribly interested in making up new worlds, wholly imagined characters, complicated fictional family trees, etc. I often like reading books that do these things well—it’s just not something that I want to do in my own writing right now. I’m more interested in taking places and situations that I’m familiar with and exploring what would have happened if something were different—if the conversation had taken a different turn, if a different person had shown up, if a different decision (usually a worse decision) had been made.

Both Jonas and I are Swedish-American (though I was born in Sweden and he was born in the States) and both of us went to grad school in North Carolina and Sweden and are writers who teach or have taught. So there’s definitely a lot of me in there. But, to take just one little example, I’ve never been fired from a job. I taught, part-time, for the same university in North Carolina, for almost ten years. Jonas and I have a bunch of the same biography and share some headspace; but I think I tend to make better decisions than he does. He also has longer hair.

Often in novels about addiction, there is a plot point incorporated to “explain” why the lead character struggles with their particular vice, but in Jonas’s case it just seems to be a fact of his life. We have an idea of why he uses, but there’s no singular traumatic event, really, that leads him down that path. Was that a specific choice, to focus a novel on a character whose problems can’t necessarily be traced back to one defining thing?

What a great question. Of course, I always think it’s a great question when someone notices something I’ve done that I think is important and puts it in the form of a question (“How did you come to write such a remarkable book?”). But all the same, this is a decision that I spent a lot of time thinking about and one that matters greatly to me, so I’m glad you brought it up.

There’s often a lot of narrative psychology at work when we talk about addiction—both from addicts and from people trying to understand addicts—and while I get why that is, I also find it a little aggravating. I really wanted to go in the opposite direction. Sure, people often start using a substance at least partly because of pain, trauma, or a lack of ability to cope with whatever they’re trying to cope with. But eventually most addicts get to a point where they are using drugs solely because they’re addicted to drugs. Their bodies have started needing the substance the way it needs food or water. There’s very little narrative about it anymore—it’s biological. And while it’s easier and sexier to go with the tragic past narrative—certainly much easier for addicts, who often tell themselves they have a tragic past, whether or not that’s true—I think that’s a very incomplete way of talking about it.

With Jonas, there are of course personal reasons that make drugs tempting to him. But I wanted to get away from the “this event caused my addiction” narrative.

Such Good Work is set in the very recent present and features ripped-from-the-headlines names and events instead of recognizable fictionalizations—which ultimately makes the novel seem that much more real and urgent, and also brings the story of this Swedish city back into the larger world. How did you choose which real-life moments and people to bring in, and the parts of the novel in which you would do so?

I really like that you called it “ripped from the headlines.” It sounds so dramatic and Law & Order–y. I think I’ve watched like two hundred episodes of Law & Order—original, not SVU. There’s something wonderfully comforting in a script that knows where it’s going and knows how to get there.

But back to your question. The one event that I had to bring in if I was going to write about the refugee surge was the picture of Alan Kurdi. I wasn’t living in the US at the time, so I only saw the American reaction via social media, but in Sweden, it was devastating. And it was everywhere. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that that photograph set in a motion a singular autumn in modern European history.

The reaction to the photo of Alan Kurdi also exposed the best and worst sides of Western charitable impulses. The intense desire to do something but also the intensely temporary and conditional nature of that desire. Lidia Yuknavitch writes about this in really interesting fashion in The Small Backs of Children (or, not “this,” since I believe she wrote her book before the photograph, but about the phenomenon more generally).

The Paris terrorist attack also kind of had to be there, because that marked a turning point in the attitudes of centrists in Western Europe, many of whom had been unusually pro–open borders up until that point.

Such Good Work is a book about a lot of things, but one theme that continues to pop up, however implicitly or explicitly, is writing and storytelling—more specifically, who has the right to tell a story. Was that inner conflict Jonas feels over whether he can properly convey a story about other people something you experienced while writing?

Yes! It’s something I still feel intensely conflicted about! But I don’t think it’s something I can really explain better here than I tried to do in the book.

Adding to the question above: How much research did you do about the refugee crises around the world for the novel, and how much did you already know? Was there something that surprised or shocked you that you ended up including?

In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking of it as research—I just kind of got wrapped up on a personal level. Like Jonas, I volunteered to help out a little, and though our experiences were different on that front, I also spent a lot of time thinking about and reading about the situation. (In ways that I suspect were not particularly helpful to anyone but myself.)

When you start reading about it and talking to people, the whole thing is shocking. Maybe not to refugees, the children of refugees, or people who grew up close to refugees. But I was born in Sweden and grew up in the US, which means I possess passports to two of the richest countries in the world, and if one of them were to find itself in a dangerous conflict on its soil, I could just go to the other. So I was lucky enough to be born about as far from being a refugee as possible. This was one of the many reasons that I never wanted to try to write from the perspective of a refugee. I am not arrogant enough to believe that my imagination is that powerful.

I think the parts of the refugee stories that stuck with me most—and I am a little frightened to think what this says about me—were the parts that I had at least some modicum of frame of reference from which to consider. So, for example, I don’t have that type of frame of reference from which to consider murder, rape, and torture. For which I’m very thankful. When I read about those types of horrific experiences, they made me very sad. And then they disappeared from my consciousness. Again, that’s a little frightening to notice.

But the thing that never disappeared from my consciousness was the thought of all the waiting the asylum seeker must do. I obviously don’t know what it’s like to wait to be granted asylum or to be released from a refugee camp. I do know what it’s like to wait, generally, though, and that shared experience, however different and comparatively luxurious my waiting has been, made the things I read and heard about the experiences of waiting stick with me.

The average time for a refugee spent in migration before returning to their home country is seventeen years. That part was shocking to me. And trying to imagine what it was like to be stuck in a place and not know how long the wait was going to be—obviously you don’t arrive in a refugee camp and get a ticket that says “In two years you will be allowed to move to Germany.” That’s now how it works. You’re often waiting with no idea how long the wait will be and no one who can tell you. So the length of waiting and the level of uncertainty stayed with me.

You often don’t get to go to school in a refugee camp. Even young people I met who had grown up outside of their home country in various states of limbo outside of refugee camps often had limited access to school. So getting acquainted with teenagers who had never gotten to go to school—that was . . . I don’t know if “shocking” is the right word. But it stayed with me.

For that reason, I try to support organizations that provide opportunities for school for young refugees during transitional times, since, for many young people, their whole adolescence can be a transitional time.

Save the Children is aiming to provide educational opportunities for young refugees—there’s information about that in the back pages of this book.

On a grassroots level, the Maya School is a wonderful project—a small school for children living in a Turkish refugee camp. You can learn more about that here: http://centerforfiction.org/donate-to-the-maya-school/

Jonas also refers to a bunch of different writers and books throughout the novel. Are those writers some of your favorites? Which books or authors have influenced you as a reader and as a writer?

No, I hate all those writers. I read exclusively Dutch erotica.

I mean, yeah, many of the books I mentioned are ones that were at least important to me at some point in my life. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son in particular is a book that’s had a profound influence on me (not always good—though it’s a remarkable work).

As for which books or authors have influenced me—how much time do you have?

In no particular order: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, pretty much all of Milan Kundera, Ben Lerner’s novels, Sarah Manguso’s essays, James Baldwin’s essays, Janet Malcolm (who I think is America’s greatest living nonfiction writer), Stig Dagerman, Kurt Vonnegut, Orwell’s nonfiction, Geoff Dyer (particularly Out of Sheer Rage and the essays), Rachel Cusk (particularly the Outline triology), Omar El Akkad (journalism and fiction but also this great talk I saw him give on migration).

Laila Lalami, Karl Ove Knausgård, Zadie Smith, The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim, Aleksandar Hemon, Percival Everett, W. G. Sebald (especially The Emigrants and On the Natural History of Destruction), Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks, Teju Cole, The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, Ablutions by Patrick deWitt, Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors.

The essays of Leslie Jamison, essays of Eula Biss, essays of Natalia Ginzburg, Journal of an Ordinary Grief by Mahmoud Darwish, Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, HHhH by Laurent Binet, Elif Batuman, J. M. Coetzee, Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, Faulkner, Hemingway, Michael Chabon, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and, for this book in particular, a Swedish work called Andrum by Viktor Banke. Lots of other people, too.

The writer who first inspired me to write was David Sedaris. I had loved other writers before him, but I had never read a book and thought, “I could do this.” Then when I was eighteen I had a composition class with a great teacher named Courtney Brogno who introduced me to David Sedaris, and I thought to myself, “This guy is just writing funny stories about his family—I could do that!” Of course I was both wrong and stupid (conditions I have struggled with for much of my life). The great thing about David Sedaris is that he creates the illusion that what he’s doing is easy. But it was enough to lure me in.

There are, of course, some dark themes and topics that you cover in this novel. Yet Jonas tells them with a surprising edge of subtle humor. How did you know when to incorporate that without making it seem like you were joking about such serious issues?

I have always liked reading things that are both sad and funny. I like texture in a book. Whenever you have too much of something—whether it’s suffering or laughs—I feel like the reader becomes numb to that. Balancing both brings out the flavor in each. In my experience, people often respond to pain with humor. I do think that a natural reaction to tragedy is to laugh. Your own tragedy, that is—it’s probably not too good to laugh at others’ tragedies.

Which brings up a kind of difficult point: I felt much more comfortable mixing the funny with the dark in the sections that were almost solely about Jonas’s life than I did in the sections about the young men coming to Sweden. But hopefully I found a good balance in both. I don’t know, though. It’s tricky.

This is a question featured in the Topics & Questions for Discussion, but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on it as well: Do you think we do “such good work” for others, or primarily for ourselves? Did you have the same answer before writing this book?

That is a very difficult question, which may be impossible to answer in such a general way. The answer is almost always: It depends. Often a bit of both. It’s complicated, I guess.

Hopefully the reading groups handle it better than I did.

Such Good Work is your first novel. What did you learn from writing it about yourself, or about the kind of work you want to do in the future? Are you working on anything else?

Such Good Work is, in fact, my first published novel. It’s not the first novel I wrote, though—it’s the fifth. The first four will be published only upon my death, as my final revenge on humanity for not saving my life.

As for what I learned from writing it, the answer to that is pretty long and boring. But it was a great experience and I’m happy with how it turned out. Or at least as happy as I can be with anything that’s shipped into the world with my name on it.

As for what I’m working on now, I’m just finishing up a nonfiction book about the great enigma of twentieth-century Swedish literature, Stig Dagerman, and about the ethics of literature. Who gets to tell what story? How does the writer use their life to build their fiction and what are the consequences? I was over in Sweden this past fall doing research and I’ve been really enjoying the project. I think it’s funny and sad and deals with issues that I’m fascinated by—but who knows.

I am about to start work on another novel, which I can see in my head, vaguely, like a picture of the future that isn’t in focus but is happy. But I will say no more than that, as I firmly believe that the literary gods punish writers who discuss unwritten works.

About The Author

Katalina Berbari

Johannes Lichtman was born in Stockholm and raised in California. He holds an MFA in fiction from UNC Wilmington and an MA in literature, culture, and media from Lund University. His work has appeared in The Sun, Tin HouseLos Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, and elsewhere. He lives in Portland. Such Good Work is his first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 3, 2020)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501195662

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