Q&A: Joseph Dobrian, author of Ambitions


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Novelist, journalist, would-be politician, and Iowa native Joseph Dobrian will read from his new novel, Ambitions, at 7 p.m. Friday at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St. After graduating from the University of Iowa with a general-studies degree he describes as "worthless," Dobrian moved to New York City to be a freelance journalist — reporting on everything from retail to boxing — and political activist. The author ended up running for mayor of New York City in 2009 and eventually moved back to Iowa City. His previous works include his novel Willie Wilden and a best-selling collection of essays, Seldom Right But Never In Doubt. Dobrian showed up at Java House in a suit and fedora reminiscent of the 1930s to discuss his previous accomplishments and inspirations for his new novel.

Daily Iowan: What was your time living in New York City like? Why did you decide to move there, and why did you decide to move back to Iowa City?

Joseph Dobrian: I moved to New York City in the early 1980s because all I wanted to do is be a writer, and in those days, the only way you could do that was go to New York, where the publishers were. A friend of mine who had gone to UI and then moved back to New York City kept trying to persuade me to move there and get a job as an entry-level editor on a trade publication or something like that, something that would get me an entry into the writing world. So that's what I finally did, and by the mid-80s, I was working freelance and making a fairly decent income. I loved New York for a long time, but eventually it got to be less fun and more expensive. I decided on a lifestyle change. So in 2010, I moved back here because now my job is portable thanks to the Internet. I can do whatever I do from anywhere.

DI: So do you still work with companies in New York City?

Dobrian: I work with companies from all over the world. I've got clients in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and London. I've got clients I've never met all over the world.

DI: What made you want to run for mayor of New York? What was that process like?

Dobrian: It had been on my bucket list for a long time, and the Libertarian Party always likes to run candidates from public office in New York just for the exposure. We know we'll never win there. I was really amazed at all the hoops you had to jump through in order to run for office in New York. For one thing you have to collect an incredible number of petition signatures. It's one of the highest bars to entry in the country, I believe. I had to do that pretty much all myself because trying to organize libertarians is like trying to herd cats. We are libertarians because we're fiercely independent. 

DI: How do you think living in Iowa City has affected your writing?

Dobrian: Because of the slower pace of Iowa City, I think I have a little more time for creative writing. Being around other creative people has taught me more discipline. I don't hang out with other writers that much, but I do hang out with music students and faculty because I'm a big fan of classical music. Just being around them I think has made me a more disciplined person and get more done.

DI: Where do you find inspiration for your work, specifically for you new novel, Ambitions?

Dobrian: Ambitions is actually a parody of a better-known work, but you'll have to read my book to find out what I'm parodying. It was a well-known work about a family that was held up to us as a very admirable, decent, upstanding family. But when I read this work, I started saying to myself, by God, these are not admirable people at all. They've got really sick, screwed-up senses of values. They are a lot less functional than they appear at first glance. So I said to myself, how about I take a family like that and plunk it down in a town that looks like Iowa City and see what happens.

DI: That's a big part of writing isn't it, just seeing what happens?

Dobrian: That's it. If you are tuned in to your characters, they will end up writing your plot for you. They'll tell you what to do. A lot of writers make the mistake of having a definite plot in mind and forcing their characters into it. That can work with genre fiction, but if you're trying for literary fiction, it's not going to work that well.

DI: Are there any characters you feel you relate to?

Dobrian: Andy Palinkas is the character who narrates the story for the most part, and of course, he's got some of my attitudes. I identify with him quite a lot, but there are two other characters who sort of represent me at my worst. There's one fellow who is an aspiring novelist, and he's very earnest, stuck-up, pretentious, and takes himself way too seriously. I can get like that sometimes. Then there's another character named Connor. You actually like Connor at the beginning of the book, but your attitude toward him might change as you read on. He's a little bit of a manipulative son of a gun. He's got some of my evil qualities as well. 

DI: What's next for you? Any more readings in the area or new works in the making?

Dobrian: I have no other major events. My next book, which will come up about this time next year, will be a translation of a French true-crime book. Then in 2016, I plan to publish my next novel. That novel will revisit the narrator of this story, except it will take him back in time. It'll show him growing up as a teenager in the 1960s.

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