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Alum Profile: Peter Trachtenberg ’70

Author of the critically acclaimed The Book of Calamities, Peter Trachtenberg began writing seriously at BFS and never stopped.

Peter Trachtenberg ’70, an accomplished writer whose latest book debuted in August, entered BFS as a junior.  “I was one of the subway contingent,”  he said, referring to the fact that he lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  “I think I had the longest commute.”

He decided the subway ride was worth it. “BFS was the nicest group of kids I’d ever seen.  If there were cliques they were really mild. If you were a spaz like me you weren’t ridiculed.  I was a weird, chubby kid with long hair who wore outlandish clothes. They didn’t jeer at you and they didn’t imitate you. That’s unusual.”Peter had been expelled from another independent school for drug use in 1968, he unabashadly explained about how he had landed on BFS’ doorstep.  “I went for a semester to a public school on the Upper West Side and was skipped ahead because I was ahead of my grade level academically.”  He recalled the era as a time when independent schools were extremely opposed to admitting teens who had experimented with drugs.  “But BFS was a progressive school and they accepted me–on a probationary basis.”

His parents also liked the school because it was known to be academically very good.He wasn’t so sure about the concept of pacifism yet though.  “It impressed me even though at the time I was a radical teenager. I didn’t think we should be marching against the war, we should be overthrowing the state,” he said.  “But to refuse to accept the temptation of violence is a powerful spiritual and political ideal.”He also liked the challenging classes, he said.  “The teachers were engaged both with their subject matter and with their students, which is rare,” he said.  “They were like ambassadors for their subject matter, and if they found someone who was interested they formed a personal relationship with them.”  In particular he remembers his English and Film teacher Don Knies.  “He’s just wonderful. He was so excited by his subject matter and he was so good to us.” He also remembers the time he and Don had a joint party at the school because they share the same birthday.  Then there was Russian teacher Irwin Asch.  “He could be withering at times if you weren’t good at your subject. He could be quite sarcastic but I do feel that he genuinely enjoyed his students.”  Peter also has a soft spot for librarian Dorothy Kriendler.  “She read something of mine and was really encouraging.” He also found a lasting mentor in Martin Norregaard, “some of whose more cryptic utterances made increasing sense as I got older and began learning to steal from writers older and greater than Kerouac. It was like he was giving us time-capsules,” Trachtenberg recalled.

During his two years at BFS Peter was writing his first novel.  “Looking back it’s almost comically inept,” he said, “although the language isn’t bad.”  The unfinished novel, God Knows Cuz I Don’t, was about a glamorized version of himself, “a hippie character on the Lower East Side pursued by many different women.”  Peter also tried his hand at writing “lush romantic poetry.”After graduating BFS he went to Columbia University for one year, then to Sarah Lawrence where he earned his undergraduate degree in English and Theatre.

At City College he obtained his MFA in Creative Writing.  “I really didn’t know what I wanted to write,” he said.  “I was flailing around.”  He read medieval literature and studied literary theory, “which is mostly of academic interest but it does outline what has been done and the way people think about literature.”His first published work was an excerpt from a novel which appeared in the literary magazineBenzene.  The novel included an imagined libretto for an opera about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.  “I translated some Motown songs into Italian, then back into high flown, flowery English.”  In 1984 his short story “The End of Travel”, a semiautobiographical tale about himself and his father, won a $5000 Nelson Algren Award from Chicago Magazine.  “For me then it was an enormous chunk of money,” he said.

He continued to write fiction and found work as a journalist, editorial freelancer, and travel writer.  He also began trying his hand at storytelling in clubs. “I was really influenced by Spalding Gray,” he said.  His 30 to 40 minute yarns eventually became the memoir 7 Tattoos which was published in 1997 to great acclaim.  “It was motivated partly by the question: Why is my life story interesting at all?” he said, “because most people’s lives are not that interesting. So I structured it around the tattoos that I have.”  For example, writing about his spiritual life included explorations of the science fiction writing of Philip K. Dick and the Gnostic Gospels, and is centered around the tattoo on his ribcage that depicts one of Jesus’ wounds.

His newest book, a nonfiction exploration of suffering called The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning, debuted this August.  He was inspired by the death of a friend in the 1990s, a young woman struck down by cancer.  He had known others who’d died of drug overdoses or car crashes, but the cancer death stood out as an apparently natural cause with a blameless victim.  “I was shocked and outraged by it the way a child would be but I was in my 40s,” he recalled.  “I kept trying to find a way to write about her.”  He was also prompted by the American public’s reaction to 9/11, “the narcissistic element of ‘how can it happen to us?’ when there are places in the world where terrorism is a given for people every day. There was an element of it that seemed terrible and babyish,” he said.  “And the response to it seemed to arise from that shock and narcissism. I knew even then that it was bound to have terrible consequences.”

He said he was struck by the fact that many Americans assume we’re not supposed to suffer, that nothing is supposed to happen to us.  “It’s a fiction,” he said, and the sad corollary is that “we have a class of designated sufferers, those expected to suffer, this being people of color and poor whites.”He saw it happen again when Hurricane Katrina struck.  “Even with the appalled and sympathetic coverage there was an element in which people were blamed for what happened to them. It was acceptable for people to say why didn’t they just leave?”   He recalled in particular a photo in a newspaper showing young African Americans wading out of a shop with bags of food, the caption describing them as “looting” the store.  In the same newspaper a photo appeared of  white  couple in a similar situation wading out of a store, the caption describing them as having “found food.”  Peter was livid.  “In New Orleans the difference between black and white was the difference between looting and finding,” he observed.

The book includes not only his own ruminations but also visits texts which explore suffering such as the Book of Job, or the stories of early Christian martyrs and their similarities to and differences from the Buddhist idea of the Bodhisattva, who instead of dying sacrificially vows to go on living life after life until all sentient beings have been released from suffering.Did the spirituality of a Friends school and Quaker meeting have an impact on his work?  “It meant less to me then,” he said, “and I found meeting at first both boring and embarrassing, but during my last year I loved the idea that you could just blurt something out and it would be the spirit moving you.”  Today he is a self-described failed Buddhist and fairly serious yogi, and sees similarities between these and the stress on meditative silence in Quaker meeting.Meanwhile he’s hard at work on his next book tentatively entitled The Shark’s Reputation which he describes as “a crime novel with a metaphysical undercurrent.”

He’s also spending the year down south teaching creative writing at UNC Wilmington.   “I like the school and my kids, especially the grad students,” he said.  The avid cyclist lamented the fact that the biking’s a little tougher there than in his town of Red Hook, New York just north of Rhinebeck where he lives with his wife and three cats.  “It’s flat here but it’s a lot of six lane roads and strip malls.”His advice to the current generation of BFS students was perhaps partially inspired by his time as a travel writer.  “What you may get here is a compass, an academic or spiritual one that you will find yourself referring to as you get older,” he said, “when you discover what a cruel and arbitrary and mindless place the world can be.  Do what you can to perpetuate what you have here. Pass it on.”