Greg Bellow: Believe me, there was plenty of fighting and screaming, plenty of friction and grief

Greg Bellow, son of Saul Bellow and author of Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir, on family, psychotherapy and writing.

Saul Bellow in 1992.
Greg Bellow's father, Saul, in 1992. Photograph: Goran Mikic.

One of the things that distinguishes your book, Saul Bellow’s Heart: a Son’s Memoir, from previous portraits of your father is that he doesn’t emerge as a hero or a villain – it’s more nuanced. Was this your conscious intention?
Yes, I wanted it to be different. Saul was all about nuance. You couldn’t generalise about him. He wanted to get to the bottom of everything – and I wanted to show how complicated he was. I can’t say whether he would have wanted an honest portrait or not. I suspect not. But I thought it was necessary.

Do you think your father knew that writing about friends and family members would cause those people pain? Or did he really hold to an artist’s credo that made it OK?
Saul subscribed to that credo – no doubt about it. I’ve spoken to Janna Malamud Smith and she says that her father [Bernard Malamud] also subscribed to it. Saul believed in the sanctity of art; he had himself convinced. But if you waterboarded him and asked him if he really believed it, I don’t know what he would have said.

One of the book’s main subjects is family ties.
Saul’s relationship to his family was just primordial. I am sure that the loss of his mother at 17 was just earth-shattering for him. Those bonds were very tight and they lasted until his death. His tie to his three sons was nigh-on the same. It was unbreakable – and believe me, there was plenty of pushing and pulling and fighting and screaming, plenty of friction and grief, probably with me more than anyone, because I was the oldest and I was the stubbornest.

By profession, you are a psychotherapist but you make a decision not to try to explain your father.
I didn’t want to answer those kinds of questions, very consciously, and I don’t like that kind of determinism. I don’t subscribe to it professionally and it’s not a good idea if you’re trying to write a book about a complicated person to say that A is caused by B. I’ve been in a psychobiography group for a number of years and I’ve read a lot of books by people who did that. You’re putting a big bullseye on your chest and saying, “Shoot here.”

Did the book change your attitude to your father as an artist or public figure? You express disapproval, for example, with his often-quoted question: “Who is the Proust of the Papuans?”
The answer while I was writing the book was no. Now that I’ve finished it, my answer is different. I don’t know whether it was a block or an impairment or a blind spot or a form of self-preservation but it wasn’t until he died that I could even think of it. I just didn’t pay attention because I couldn’t afford to psychologically. I have more cognisance of him now as a literary hero and a lot more respect for him as a writer – but do I think he should have said that thing about the Papuans or those things about blacks and women? No. I’ve still got a way to go with that.

Was it a painful book to write?
Yes, some bits more painful than others, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The hardest part was probably getting my writing under control. I taught myself to write over the last five years.

What was the process?
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. As my themes became clearer, it was easier for me to say what did and didn’t belong and to leave out stuff. But I didn’t leave out the contradictions. People would ask me, “Why did your father, who was so logical, spend ten years studying Rudolf Steiner?” My answer is, he wasn’t just logical. He was also a man very preoccupied with his own death and he was willing to put his logic on the back burner if this stuff could show him something that Plato or Hegel couldn’t. I left in what was important, to the best of my ability. It came from my gut. And believe me, you wouldn’t want to go through the drafts.

Greg Bellow’s “Saul Bellow’s Heart: a Son’s Memoir” is published by Bloomsbury (£20)