Issue 65: A Conversation with Charles Baxter

issue65

Found in Willow Springs 65

April 18, 2009

Jonathan Frey, Samuel Ligon, and Melina Rutter

A CONVERSATION WITH CHARLES BAXTER

RV-AP588_BKRVau_J_20150212162218

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

There is a kind of consensus among professional and amateur reviewers that Charles Baxter is a writer’s writer. Everyone says so. Baxter, who has called himself a “former poet,” is the author of five novels and four collections, including Believers, which he described to us as probably his best work. His novel The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2000, and he has received National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation grants.

In an interview with the Atlantic, Baxter said, “I feel as if I’m in my family’s house when I’m writing short stories since I know where everything is. I know the logic of them so well.” But he didn’t publish a collection of stories until he was thirty-seven, in 1984. It was his first book of fiction and came on the heels of three failed attempts at novels. Baxter’s career is marked by this kind of persistence and flexibility and by a generosity that is evident in his teaching.

Unlike many writers employed at universities, Charles Baxter doesn’t complain about his day job. For many years he directed the MFA program at the University of Michigan, and he now teaches at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he was born. He treats his teaching and mentoring of young writers as a natural extension of his vocation, and in the past twelve years he has published two exceptional books of essays on the craft of fiction, Burning Down the House (1997) and The Art of Subtext (2007). So the cumulative impact of Baxter’s work is—like that of the literary giants he cites: Stein, Brecht, Barthelme—more than the work of a prolific writer. It is the work of an artist, teacher, and scholar. We met with him at the Spokane Club during Spokane’s annual Get Lit! literary festival.

 

Samuel Ligon

In your writing about fiction, you talk about postmodernism and about Barthelme and about being enamored of postmodernism’s ethic or ideal. But you’re not a postmodernist writer.

Charles Baxter

No, but I once wanted to be. I wanted to be one of the writers who flies way up there and looks down at people like little dots on the map. That’s power: to think of people as little objects moving around on a chess board. That’s what a lot of postmodern writers do, though it seems unfair to Barthelme to say so. The characters don’t come to life; they have a kind of symbolic importance, but you don’t view them completely as human beings. They’re placeholders for certain ideas that the writer’s moving around.

Jonathan Frey

How’s that different from Kafka? You mentioned at your reading last night that you think Kafka is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Baxter

In Kafka you don’t even know what the system is. The characters are trying to figure out what they’re enmeshed in, and there’s an overflow of feeling—mostly claustrophobia, but it can be mixed with other emotions too. Kafka is down here with us, looking around, trying. His characters are always asking, “Where are we? What is this that I’ve gotten myself into?”

When I was trying to get my PhD diploma at Buffalo, I kept going to the registrar to find out if I was going to get my degree, the one on paper. And, though it’s a trivial example, I thought: Kafka was right about this. Every time you go to an airport, it feels as if it’s the Franz Kafka International Airport. You’ve seen that video thing in the Onion? The Franz Kafka International Airport? It’s fantastically funny.

But that’s fundamentally it: Kafka is always down here with us, and I don’t get that feeling with some of Pynchon, and I don’t get it with Gaddis or some of the others. They’re snobs, saying, “I’m looking down at this, and I’m telling you how all this works. Oh, and by the way, it’s all chaos, or it’s a system beyond our knowing. Did I forget to mention that?”

Ligon

But you use some of the structural devices that came into prominence in the time of the postmodernists—what somebody might call metafictional elements. I’m thinking of the structural devices in The Soul Thief and The Feast of Love.

Baxter

Right, that’s true. But in The Feast of Love, it just disappears. It functions as a frame, but by the time you’re on page thirty, it’s gone. I thought somebody opening that book and starting to read and seeing that there were these voices coming at them would say, “Where are these voices coming from? Who’s listening to these voices?” In The Decameron you have a similar structure of people telling each other stories, hiding from the plague. In The Canterbury Tales, they’re all on their way to Canterbury, so they’re telling each other stories. And I thought, I can’t just have these voices coming from out of nowhere. I have to have a reason for it. So there’s a guy with insomnia, he can’t sleep, he goes out to a city park in the middle of the night. And there’s somebody else there who’s got love trouble and can’t sleep, so he says, “All right, I’ll tell you my story.” And the insomniac writes it down, and that’s where the voices come from.

Frey

And the fact that the insomniac’s name is Charlie Baxter is just play?

Baxter

Yeah, it’s play. But we’re all used to that now. Philip Roth did it. It’s something we can play around with. It’s something we can do, and most readers won’t be shocked by it. Naive readers won’t like it. But it’s not all that new, this device; it’s as old as the hills.

Part II of Don Quixote begins with the false Quixote coming in. The first part of Don Quixote was such a success that another writer wrote The Further Adventures of Don Quixote, and, of course, Cervantes was outraged. So the false Quixote runs into the true Quixote, and so, to some degree, metafictional devices are as old as the novel. Writers never quite get over the pleasure of reminding their readers that it’s made up. That there’s an author behind it.

Frey

Is that related to Brecht? Or is it different?

Baxter

Brecht’s idea was that we spend so much time in capitalism, being taken in by the systems of commerce—newspapers, commercials, political advertisements—that it’s one of the tasks of art, to wake us up. To remind us that people are trying to sell us things. All the time. So, the alienation technique—as it’s called in Brecht’s term—is to make you aware of the techniques people are using to get you to think or do something in a certain way. My novel does keep reminding you that this is a novel. You are going to fall asleep into it. You are going to dream. And then I’m going to wake you up.

I think that we’re all conscious of the fact that when we enter a novel, we are going into a kind of dream, like Alice at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland reading a book and then getting drowsy and then going down the rabbit hole. Reading is like going down the rabbit hole.

A French critic said to me, “You Americans fall asleep more easily into fiction than we do.” There’s more of a rationalist tradition in France, he was saying, and they have a harder time falling into the dream of fiction than Americans do. I think his argument was that Americans fall into a dream world fairly easily.

Ligon

I hear what you’re saying about the dream, but it’s not dream logic that governs a novel. So how is that different? What kind of a dream is it?

Baxter

It’s half-waking. When you’re reading a book, these characters are in the scene and they’re talking to each other, and you’re reading it, and reconstructing something in your head in a twilight way. And if I write, “She walked in wearing a blue blouse, and a white skirt, and she had a red pin in her hair. And she turned to the right…,” you’re reconstructing this. You’re imagining it. You are reimagining it, and it’s not a dream, but you’re participating in the story, aren’t you?

Jane Smiley and I had an argument about this a few years ago in Houston. I was reading a paper about how faces are represented in fiction, and she raised her hand and said, “I don’t think you see anything when you read a book.” And I said, “No, I’m sorry. I do.” You say, “A woman wearing a blue blouse and a white skirt, wearing running shoes, came into the room,” I’m going to see her with…a frown on her face. I’m going to reconstruct her.

Ligon

Unlike Barthelme’s metafiction—like “The School”—yours is character-driven. I don’t think “The School” is a character-driven story. Much of his fiction asks us to reconsider how fiction works. What does drive “The School”? What is “The School” interested in?

Baxter

What drives a lot of Barthelme’s stories is the way that we’re caught in a world of representations. Everywhere you’re surrounded by representations that are taking us over. It’s like product placement has entered our lives. So Barthelme’s characters are always asking, “What am I doing here? What am I doing in this school? What am I doing in this house?” Barthelme’s always asking, “How did I end up here? Why am I in this world? Why am I wearing this Campbell’s Soup can illustration on my necktie?” Why? Because the representation of the soup can is going on in this world, and I guess it’s on my necktie.

What drives Barthelme is ideas—ideas and existential unhappiness. That’s what motivates Barthelme’s characters. They’re ill suited to live in the world. Barthelme always felt as if he wasn’t suited to life in the world. Not this world. That particular sadness animates his stories.

Melina Rutter

If you’re not a postmodernist, where do ideas fit into the process? For instance, in First Light, you use the ideas of astrophysics, and I’m wondering if you made a conscious decision to have those ideas inform, in some ways, the structure of the novel. Or if that just arose.

Baxter

It arose. Because the character I first imagined was Dorsey; I saw her pasting stars—little adhesive stars—on the ceiling of her bedroom. And I thought, Oh, she’s going to grow up to be an astrophysicist. Then I thought, That’s too bad for me. I don’t know anything about astrophysics. I had to go into research mode to find out about that. And then because that was what she was doing and researching, it made narrative sense for the book to go backwards in time. I could get this whole historical, cultural level into the book having to do with the atom bomb. In an odd way, physics was the grounding of that book and took you into a realm that was somewhat away from the family structure of Hugh and Dorsey together. It opened it up for me.

Rutter

I felt oriented when I was reading it, but I would think that there’s a risk involved with including such content.

Baxter

Fiction readers want to find out about stuff. You tell them, as Philip Roth did, how gloves are made, leather gloves. People love to find those things out. If you tell them something about the nature of astrophysics or even certain kinds of fireworks, readers love that. The factual basis has always been part of the novel: how you do something, where something came from. Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, is full of this kind of material, and I wanted to give First Light a doubled kind of perspective.

But, at the same time, it’s a very emotional novel. The material facts, I hope, balance out the emotion, particularly Hugh’s idea of being lost in his own light. Dorsey has found her own light, but Hugh is married and has children. He’s one of these guys who was a jock in high school and was popular with girls, and then he marries and settles down, and he doesn’t know why this life hasn’t been as good for him as it was in high school. Once he becomes an adult, it’s a mystery. Dorsey had an unhappy life in high school. She’s one of those smart girls who frightens everybody, but she grows into her life, and she’s okay with it. For me, it’s very emotional. It’s soaked in feeling.

Frey

Why are so many of your books about love?

Baxter

For some people, it’s just not an important subject. It’s something that they take for granted, and it’s something that they can get past. It has not been something that I have ever been able to take for granted. My father died when I was a baby. My mother was unstable. I always knew where the next meal was coming from, but I developed what therapists call hypervigilance. The question of whom I would love and who would love me became almost a matter of life and death for me. Almost by necessity, given the nature of my early life, I got attuned, I got obsessed by it. When The Feast of Love came out, I made statements of this sort, and some readers said, “But this is not mature love in your novel.” Well, of course it isn’t. It’s not stable. The kind of love that’s portrayed in that book has to do with infatuation and instability, and that’s the reflection of somebody who has never found that landscape to be particularly stable.

Rutter

Brecht’s idea of the destruction of the fourth wall is theater theory. Can you talk about how theater has influenced the ways you think about writing and literary theory?

Baxter

One of the reasons theater has come into my thinking to such a degree is that I noticed that in the stories I was getting in my workshop, and actually, in some of the fiction written by contemporaries of mine, the stories are not particularly dramatic. As if drama were some kind of embarrassment. We can all talk about character; we can talk about setting; we can talk about dialogue; but if you begin to say, “Well this isn’t very dramatic,” it’s as if you farted, and you’ve said absolutely the wrong thing. But I think that we have to get back to the idea that, if people are going to read these books and stories, we have to consider the dramatic elements that underpin the great books. I noticed, some years ago, when my students at the University of Michigan were taking corollary classes, the ones who were taking acting classes often seemed to improve their writing by having gone through the techniques of learning characterization, and scene-building, and the structure of the play. So I began to read the work of my students and think, You know, this is under-staged. We don’t know where these bodies are in space. We don’t know whether they’re turning to or away from each other. Often it’s not even notated whether these people are listening to each other, whether they’re looking at each other, what they’re doing with their hands.

Now, it’s true you can overdirect. I know of one writer, a friend of mine who’s a very fastidious writer, but when you read her work, you’re getting too much of the line readings, and you’re getting too much of the tiny details. And you think, C’mon, get on with the story.

Focusing on that kind of minute detail only works when the psychological atmosphere gets really congested. If the couple is about to break up with each other and they’re meeting for coffee, everything they do becomes important. Like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” He’s trying to convince her to have an abortion, and she hates the way he’s doing that. So Hemingway pays attention to everything they do in that scene. I mean, you could put it right on stage. I don’t think that’s overdirected because the emotions are so thick. If they were just talking about whether they were going to get on the train or not, it’d be unbearable. There has to be something big in the scene, emotionally, for that kind of thing to work.

Ligon

The kind of dramatic action you’re talking about, that you see missing, is that plot?

Baxter

Yeah, it’s plot, and it’s getting a character out there performing an action that may result in bad outcomes. I don’t know about you, but I read fiction because I want to see bad stuff happening; I can’t get enough of it. I want to see people misbehaving and getting themselves into real trouble, serious trouble. That’s what I go to fiction for. That and the sentences and the sense that I’m learning something about people.

Rutter

Is the antagonist that you see missing always taking the form of a person, a villain?

Baxter

Oh, sure. You have an antagonist in you. I have one in me. We’re all self-divided. The antagonist within ourselves is that part of us that wants to indulge in an impulse of some kind that leads to various addictive behaviors. The antagonist can be located inside the self very nicely. I like it when it’s externalized, but it doesn’t have to be. When it’s externalized, it’s almost always easier to write because then the dramatic materials take over and you, the writer, don’t have to explain everything. And of course, an antagonist can be a force in the world.

Rutter

Like the capitalist system?

Baxter

Yeah, or fascism. Or militarism. Or environmentalism.

Greed is probably one of the most powerful emotions. I think it’s more powerful than lust, I really do. It makes lust look kind of innocent. They’re related, but lust dies and greed goes on until…forever it seems.

Ligon

In Burning Down the House, you say that you’re nostalgic, as a writer, for mindful villainy. What does that mean?

Baxter

In Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, there are two characters who are down on their luck and poor. Over here there’s a rich, beautiful young woman who’s dying, and the poor woman says to her boyfriend, “I know what you should do. You’re handsome; you should go over there, and you should woo her and get her money.” That’s mindful villainy. In a way it’s rational, and people are deliberately making choices that they know are not quite moral. Those sorts of situations have an overtone of melodrama to them, but they’re interesting because they reveal a lot about the way we behave.

In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, there’s a character who reads her stepdaughter’s diary, and thinks, I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but nothing’s going to stop me because I want to know what she’s thinking. Oh Jesus! Look what she’s thinking. Small things like that. You know, it’s often the small things: We violate somebody’s privacy. It’s really revelatory. You don’t have to run somebody over in the street to practice mindful villainy. It’s the small items that accumulate that are really interesting for the fiction writer.

We see less of it now, and I think there are two reasons. We have a form of self-righteousness that results in people thinking, Oh, I didn’t really do that. Or, The outcome was good, so I really didn’t do anything wrong. After all, if we tortured people and got information out of them to prevent more violence against us, it wasn’t really wrong, was it? And I think the other reason is that young people going through writing programs right now are largely decent people who are kind of bookish, and very observant. And so, we’re not used to action. We’re used to observing. It’s hard to get these mindful actors into our fiction because many of us are not like that.

This also goes to the question of plot. When you’re young, you don’t like the idea of plot because it seems to lead toward something that becomes inevitable after a while, and nobody likes the idea of inevitability when they’re young. You like the idea of everything being open to possibilities. It’s that progressive idea too: that things can always change. After a while you realize things can’t always change.

Frey

So, do we like inevitability more when we’re older?

Baxter

You come to accept it. You don’t like it. Trust me, you don’t like it.

Ligon

But we do like it in story. You’ve said that the sudden recognition of inevitability makes a piece beautiful.

Baxter

Yeah, but you don’t want the inevitability to be built into it and completely predictable. Sam Shepard said about his plays that what he really was striving for was a combination of surprise and inevitability, that the best plots bring you to that particular combination. You think, What a surprise! I should have seen it coming.

Ligon

O’Connor talked about that inevitability with “Good Country People.”

Baxter

Her stories are interesting in that way. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the story starts out when the grandmother says, “Look here in the paper. It says the Misfit has got himself loose.” Then the family gets in the car, and they’re headed out on the trip. And where are they? They’re near Toombsboro. They’re near Toombsboro! You can’t say you weren’t warned. Toombsboro, and the Misfit drives up in a hearse.

If you read all of Flannery O’Connor’s stories in a row, some of them can look as if….I mean, their plots are great. Somebody’s always being run over by a tractor, or having their legs stolen, or drowning in a river, or hanging themselves from a rafter in the attic. But after a while some of it does feel….

Ligon

Manipulated?

Baxter

I’m not saying.

Ligon

You wrote in Burning Down the House that the truth writers are after can be dramatic only if it has been forgotten first. That the story, in other words, pulls something contradictory and concealed out of its hiding place. How does forgetting or concealment create drama or drive fiction?

Baxter

Suppose Grandma is dying, and you have a scene in which she’s in bed and she’s dying. We have all read scenes like this. When she’s dying, certain events of a sort are happening to her, but it’s not dramatic until you bring up something important. So, in Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” Grandma is dying, but actually what’s happening as she dies is that these layers are being peeled back. Suddenly she’s four years old again, and it’s a four-year-old who’s lying in bed, dying. She never stopped being the four-year-old she once was. She never stopped being the sixteen-year-old she once was. Those things are still inside of her. We all forget that, and Katherine Anne Porter reminds us, so that scene becomes interesting and dramatic. We’re all, to some degree, writing about things that are familiar to our readers, and what you have to do is find the off-kilter detail that makes it come alive again, the part that nobody else had noticed.

Frey

This kind of critical approach—talking about antagonists and plot and drama like you do in Burning Down the House and The Art of Subtext—this isn’t the way we normally hear contemporary writers and critics talk about writing.

Baxter

What we’re talking about this morning are critical terms that academics are not especially interested in using. This is formalist criticism, and they would all say the discipline has gone past that.
In formalist criticism, you’re looking at a piece of fiction, and you’re asking what elements it has in it formally: how it’s shaped, how it’s put together, how that shaping—that form—contains the subject matter. So: form and subject matter and the way that they define each other. To a degree, as a writing teacher, I’m a formalist. I’ll ask, “How is this story shaped? To what degree is it made out of scenes, expository material, transitions? What seems to be its central trajectory? What are the subplots?” I mean, that’s all formalist.

Now, mostly, our cultural studies are in the wake of Foucault and French theory, but even that’s beginning to fade from the scene. The focus there—I can’t summarize Foucault—but the focus there is how literature is a form of cultural production that mirrors or duplicates power relationships, how literature is an arm of power that has been deployed in culture.

Frey

Where does formalist thinking fit into the writing process?

Baxter

You can’t think about these matters when you’re putting your draft together.

Ligon

You’ve said that, in the context of initial composition, the act of writing anything can be as much consent as creation. It sounds like you’re talking about mystery there. What does one consent to?

Baxter

The original act of writing, sitting down and trying to get a story or some characters on the page, is still to me a complete mystery. How it’s done. How I do it. How anybody else does it. The more I write, the more I think that everything you’ve done up to the point that you’re writing isn’t much help. You always start out in the dark. When you sit down and you start writing, you agree with yourself that you’re going to make mistakes, that you’re going to blunder your way through the damn thing, and you’re just going to give yourself a lot of permission to get it done any way you possibly can. The critical skills that you have, that all comes later.

When I’m writing I’m not thinking about anything. When I’m writing a first draft particularly, I’m not thinking anything but, Who are these people? What are they saying? What do they want? Where are they going? I don’t even ask, Why are they interesting to me? I just write them. I have a friend who read two of my recent stories and said, “Why are you writing about these unpleasant people?” And I said to him, “Because they interest me. I can’t help it who I’m interested in. If I’m interested in scumbags, those are the people I have to write about. I’m sorry if you don’t like it.”

Frey

It seems that young writers can become enamored of the initial creation, the mystery, that sort of unnamable aspect that you’re getting at. They’re enamored of that, and so they turn around and eschew formalism later in the process.

Baxter

When you’re a young writer and it’s going well in your first draft, it feels sacred; it feels holy; it feels like something that shouldn’t be interfered with. It’s hard to break through that and say, “Yes, I was in the zone, but I also made mistakes. So the first draft is not as effective, not as pointed, not as clear as it should be. I need to go back and fix it.” To the degree that young writers don’t like revision, it’s because that initial state feels so wonderful, as if nothing could possibly be wrong in the way it was coming out, given the way you felt about it. Which is why it’s a good idea to put it in the refrigerator, and then go back in a few days or weeks. You have to get away from the spell you cast over yourself.

You get some distance on it. Then if you go back and it’s still casting the same spell over you, that’s a good sign. You can start to muck around with it, but you have to pay attention to those moments where you think, You know, I’m a little bored. This scene is a little boring. I didn’t think it was boring when I first wrote it, but it seems boring now. That’s when it’s time to go to work.

Ligon

In Burning Down the House, you write that “When writers over-parent their characters, they understand them too quickly. Such characters aren’t contradictory or misfitted. The writer has decided what her story is about too early.” Why is it a problem to understand characters too quickly, to decide what a story is about too early?

Baxter

It makes the story over-determined and the character over- determined. Before very long, as a reader, you think, I know what this character’s going to do. It flattens the characters. You say, “Oh, Jaime, she’s the quiet one. She’s the one who always worries things.” So in the story all she does is sit in the corner and worry things. That’s understanding her too fast. It lessens the interest in the story. It’s not just over-parenting, it’s bad parenting, because it stereotypes your own children and turns them into flat characters.

Ligon

And what about understanding a story too early? Do you ever understand stories?

Baxter

We have undergraduates all the time who sit down and write stories, and they attempt to prove that this fraternity boy, Jake, is a cheap bastard who really doesn’t care about women. The story’s there to prove that point. Most writers go through a stage in which they write stories that are point-making. One of the best things to ever happen to me was that I gave one of my stories to a poet I know, and she drew an arrow to the opening paragraph, and said, “Too point-making.” Often you don’t see it when you’re doing it yourself.

Regarding my own stories, I don’t always understand them. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I think, Well, this is about that particular subject, that particular trouble. But I don’t think so until I’m halfway or three quarters through the story. Sometimes I’ll come to the end of the story and think, What the fuck is that about? I don’t mind that feeling.

Frey

If formalism is beneficial not in initial drafting but revision, is Foucault valuable to writers ever?

Baxter

I think so. Foucault was always asking, “Who has the power here? How did he or she get it? How is he or she using it? And what bigger things does that person tell us about power in the culture?” The easy way to summarize this is by saying, “Do you think George W. Bush just happened to be this guy who was elected president, or was George W. Bush a symptom of something?” If we say George W. Bush was a symptom of something, then that sort of sends you in the direction of Foucault, who will say, “Yes, of course he was a symptom of something, and we need to talk about what. What is he a symptom of?”

Ligon

What was he a symptom of?

Baxter

Oh, let’s not go there. [Laughs.] For me they were the years of nightmare, his presidency. I was in France when he was elected and somebody interviewed me and said, “Oh, it makes no difference who the president of your country is.” And I said, “No, you’re wrong. This is a catastrophe.”

Rutter

How do you reconcile the reality of an individual being caught in a power structure with your idea of a victim narrative, where characters never take responsibility for anything?

Baxter

It’s irreconcilable. You can’t. I’m saying two contradictory things at once. And both of them are true, I believe. We’re individuals; we have agency; we can change things. That’s a politically progressive idea: Everybody can do something. Barthelme said, “There are always paths, if you can find them, there is always something to do.” I love that. I believe it’s true. I also believe that we are inside a vast system, and the system has tremendous power over us.

I went to the Republican convention in St. Paul last summer, and if you’ve never seen the machinery of the state—and I don’t mean the state of Minnesota, I mean “The State”—guys in riot gear and tear gas canisters and trucks. Guys on horseback with revolvers. I’m not naive, but I’d never seen it. I’d never seen guys look at me like that. It’s a reminder that you’re a speck of dust to them, a dangerous speck of dust, and they want to put you in your place—the dustbin.

I think all of us feel both things at one time or the other. Sometimes we think, This whole thing is too fucking big for me. There’s nothing I can do about it. At other times, we think, I’m going out there. I mean, politically, I’m going to do this. I can do this; I can do that. I believe that I am able to shape my life.

Going back to the victim narrative, certain political or economic systems are more likely to breed that narrative. Totalitarian systems do it. The great fiction of the Soviet era is largely about people caught up in the Soviet system. To the degree that state power makes itself obviously felt or corporate power makes itself felt, the victim narrative becomes visible. Catch-22 is a great novel of being caught up in a military command structure during war. Heller’s next novel, also a great novel, Something Happened, is about being caught up in a corporate structure. People are paying a lot of attention to Bolaño right now because he seems to be interested in the kinds of political structures that were arising in South America.

Rutter

Do you view your writing as a political act?

Baxter

Sometimes. Shadow Play was a very political book. The novella Believers is political. There are parts of Saul and Patsy that I believe are political in the sense that the book, in its second half, is about the problem of who will take care of the kids who are under-parented, whom no one has taken care of. What’s going to happen to these kids? That book is also about the political nature of grieving, and how important it is to grieve and not just react with violence. I thought that one of the things that happened to this country after 9/11 was that we went into attack mode without grieving first. That made its way into Saul and Patsy. I think that my work is political, maybe by implication, if not directly.

Frey

Last night you mentioned that your first three attempted novels were conceptual—avant-garde, you said—and that that was the problem. You said that the experiments of the avant-garde were fine at the time but they’re over now. So is that whole movement dead, or is there space for that kind of experimentation?

Baxter

There’s a book by a critic named Paul Mann, called Theory-death of the Avant-garde. His argument is that the avant-garde has suffered a theory death, that every time people talk about experiments now, they’re basically talking about modernist revival. The kinds of experiments that they do are no longer experiments. These experiments have already been done. Some of them have succeeded, others haven’t. This isn’t to say that there isn’t something new that you can do with a novel. There is always something new you can do. But that particular idea of the avant-garde, stretching say, from 1900, before the first world war, to Samuel Beckett and the sort of allied experiments and abstractionism in painting, I think that’s over. I think we’re in a post-avant-garde era. I don’t think you can do something to a text conceptually that somebody hasn’t already done.

Frey

So experimentation is sort of like a closed system that happened for a while and now it’s….

Baxter

So you’re Gertrude Stein, and it’s around 1914 and you’re interested in what happens if you free sequence structures from narrative necessity and some of the words from their word-locks. You sit down and you write Tender Buttons. And people are shocked. Actually, you can go into an undergraduate class today with Tender Buttons and the kids will still be shocked. That’s kind of great. And you can take William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch into an undergraduate class, and they’ll get upset. You can take Lolita in, and they’ll be upset.

But for those of us who have sort of tried to keep track of what’s happened, somebody comes along and says, “I’m going to write something experimental,” and it looks like Gertrude Stein. I just think that’s like redecorating this room in the form of art deco and saying, “This is contemporary.” It’s not contemporary; it’s art deco. So, I just don’t think that the forces that gave the avant-garde its particular energy, aesthetically, are there. And it’s partly of the nature of capitalism to absorb everything you can think of and use it to its own purposes.

Ligon

What forces were driving the avant-garde?

Baxter

In the early part of the century it had everything to do with the freeing of words from sequence structures and what we took to be their obligations to meaning, in the same way that figurative painting gave way to non-figurative painting ideas of what the picture plane is. It also had to do with freeing narratives from actions and events.

The last section of Tender Buttons begins, “Act so that there is no use in a center.” And then it goes off into this giant coda. Stein concludes that with “all of this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.”

“To know to know to love her so. Four saints prepare for saints. It makes it well fish. Four saints, it makes it well fish. Four saints prepare for saints it makes it well well fish it makes it well fish prepare for saints. In narrative prepare for saints. Prepare for saints.” Which is from Four Saints in Three Acts. It’s great. It’s music, and it has nothing to do with
fish. Well, maybe it does.

Ligon

And it has nothing to do with rational meaning?

Baxter

No, it comes to you in some other way. The last time I taught Four Saints in Three Acts, I had two kids in the class who were in a relationship, and they were painting the apartment they lived in. Over the weekend, he would sit on the floor reading Four Saints in Three Acts to her while she was painting, and then she got tired and she would sit on the floor and read Four Saints to him. It’s like the radio going in the background. It’s really nice to have words used like that. It’s a release from “John came into the room pointing a gun at Maria.” You get tired of shit like that. You want to hear something like Gertrude Stein. “For a long time being one being living, he was trying to be certain whether he had been wrong in doing what he was doing. And when he couldn’t”—this is Matisse, “The Portrait of Matisse”—“and when he could not come to be certain that he was wrong in doing what he was doing, when he could not absolutely come to be certain that he was wrong in doing what he was doing, then he knew he was a great one. And he certainly was a great one.”

I love it. I just love it. But she did it. She did it and it’s kind of unreproduceable.

Ligon

Is she saying to release yourself from the rational coating of the language?

Baxter

Yes. Yes.

Ligon

And one can still do that….

Baxter

But it’s not an experiment anymore. We’ve got it. It’s ours. You can do anything with it that you want to. Gertrude Stein has started to be incorporated the way that all the other great writers of the past have been incorporated. I used a lot of Stein in The Soul Thief, and I used her in that story called “Winter Journey.” The ending is right out of Stein. I couldn’t go on my whole life writing like that. But I’m so glad she happened. She’s like this crazy aunt who gives you things.

Rutter

How do your teaching and writing inform each other?

Baxter

I think they feed into each other. I don’t think that I would teach books in the way that I do if I hadn’t also written them and thought about how they’re put together. I don’t think I would be able to go into a workshop and help my students critique each other’s manuscripts if I hadn’t also written and thought about the problems they’re up against. I don’t know that I could become a full-time writer anymore. I once thought that was all I wanted to do, but I like going into classes. I like talking about books. I like teaching workshops because I think they’re worthwhile. I know there’s a line of thought that says we’ve all crippled ourselves by doing all this teaching, that we should have written many more books than we have. But I don’t think productivity is a value in and of itself. I just don’t. In America, in capitalism, you often think, the more the better. I don’t think so. I never did.

Rutter

So, is this approach to the writing life an act of dissent? A response to the capitalist culture?

Baxter

It can be. But it’s not the solution.

It’s not a solution, but I’m not sure art can ever be a solution. It’s a place where you go for what you can’t get elsewhere. But I don’t think art will save us. Art will not save us from capitalism, or, really, from anything. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Issue 64: A Conversation with Mark Childress

issue64

Found in Willow Springs 64

February 23, 2008

Rachel Kartz and Neal Peters

A CONVERSATION WITH MARK CHILDRESS

Childress-220x300-e1491436326330

Photo Credit: alabamanewscenter.com

Born in Monroeville, Alabama, Mark Childress comes from a southern family and grew up in Ohio, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. Though he continues to move every four or five years, it is because he writes about the South, Childress says, that he is identified as a southern writer and often placed alongside Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, and Truman Capote. “On the one hand, it’s a kind of ghettoization,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s a really nice ghetto.”

Childress is the author of six novels, including Tender, a Literary Guild selection; Crazy in Alabama, published in eleven languages and named the [London] Spectator’s “Book of the Year” (1993); and his most recent, One Mississippi, of which Ann Lamott says, “Mark Childress is at the top of his form.” He has also written three children’s picture books, and his articles and reviews appear in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other national and international publications. His awards include the Thomas Wolfe Award, the University of Alabama’s Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Alabama Library Association’s Writer of the Year.

After graduating from the University of Alabama, Childress worked as a journalist for ten years, until he eventually decided to focus all of his time on his own writing. He currently calls New York City home, where he is working on his seventh novel. We talked with him over coffee at Café Dolce in Spokane.

 

Rachel Kartz

One Mississippi takes place in the South, in the seventies, and explores the heightened racial conflict caused by the desegregation of public schools. In an earlier interview, you said you were in the South at this time but weren’t old enough to participate. Were you worried, when writing One Mississippi or Crazy in Alabama, about getting it right or possibly offending somebody with your take on these things?

Mark Childress

No, because what I’m trying to write is fiction. So I felt like as long as I was true to the spirit of the time and what happened then, and as long as I was honest in the way that fiction is honest, it’d be fine. It’s hard to say that a pack of lies, which is what a novel is, can be honest. But I truly believe that, in a lot of ways, fiction is more true than nonfiction because you can get inside people’s heads and tell what they really think. You can’t do that in nonfiction.

As a journalist I used to be frustrated that I couldn’t get people to say what their motivation was for something, even when I knew what their motivation was. People protect themselves. Novelists go right through that, to the heart of what characters really think.

Certain people criticized Crazy in Alabama because there’s a theory in civil rights literature that white people have to be the hero, that black people should never be the hero of their own narrative. This is the self-justified southern white way of saying, “We were really the good people.” I could never consider for a moment that Peejoe was the hero of the book. In fact, there’s a point where Peejoe says, “I’m not the hero.” His telling on the stand that the sheriff killed the boy is the one heroic thing he does, but it happens very late in the book. So, I didn’t set him up as a hero. I wanted a character that white people would be sympathetic to, a character that approached the racial conflict—see, to my mind, the sheriff is a human too. And he’s dealing with the forces of history pushing in the direction that he had to go. And I wanted to present the racial question in all of its subtlety. It’s not black and white. It’s all shades of gray. Just like every question.

Kartz

How much research do you conduct when writing about historical facts or people?

Childress

It depends. Tender was very much a novel of Elvis Presley. So, before writing that book, before I wrote one word of it, I read every book ever written about him, listened to every piece of music he ever made, which is a lot. I went to Graceland and worked as a tour guide. I toured all the homes where he lived, tracked down the addresses just to see what the settings were like. Then I started writing the book and I threw some of that away, changed things as I wanted to, because I wrote it as a novel. So, for that book, the research was critical. But I haven’t done research like that for any other book.

With V for Victor, I did go back and do a little research. Usually, I’ll write a first draft and look at the history of it and see what I need to check. Then I go back and maybe do some research, and change it on a subsequent draft. I don’t tend to do that much. One Mississippi was a different set of circumstances and actions, but a setting very much like the high school that I attended. I knew exactly what that library looked like, what the hallways smelled like, and what the cafeteria looked like. That’s pretty much just lifted from my life—the setting—though all the events are fictional.

Neal Peters

When writing about politically volatile material, like Peejoe’s experience in Crazy in Alabama, do you have a message you’re trying to deliver?

Childress

I think it was Louis B. Mayer who said, “If you want to send a message, send a telegram.” I really don’t think of my books as having messages when I’m writing them. When I go back and look at a book, I can say, “Okay, I suppose you could draw the lesson of A or B.” But when I’m writing a book, I’m actually just in the act of figuring out what happens, what people are going to do, and what they say, and trying to make it as interesting and dramatic as I can. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stop and think if you’re sending the right message, but I think those reflections, like whether or not I was excusing white guilt, those are all things that arrive after you’ve published the book––those are critical reactions to the book. It’s not your concern when you’re writing it. You’re just trying to be true to the book’s internal rules.

Within Peejoe’s world, he doesn’t think of himself as a hero. The civil rights movement is set up as a story of villains and heroes. And there’s no room for gray areas—the media doesn’t describe gray areas—you’re either good or you’re bad. And so they chose which side he would be on. To me, one of the most interesting characters in that book is Uncle Dove. He’s much more like most people were in the South. He knows that racism and segregation are wrong, but he thinks it’s just too big for one man to change and it’s never going to change, so you have to kind of go with the flow and be kind to people as far as you can. And that explains what a lot of white southerners went through at the time.

The thing a lot of people miss, that I tried to explore in that book, is how close black and white people were before integration. Almost all white households had a black person working in the household. Even relatively poor families would have “help,” so the contact was a lot closer than it is now. In some ways, our society down there was more integrated than it is now. Not the public accommodations, not the pools and the restaurants and things like that, but everybody was in contact with everybody else. On a person-to-person basis, there wasn’t a lot of hatred. But there was a lot of interest on the white side of perpetuating the system that kept black people down.

Peters

Crazy in Alabama is written in varied points of view. Chapters alternate between Peejoe’s first-person point of view and Lucille’s third- person. Can you talk about the opportunities and limitations of using multiple points of view?

Childress

The thing I liked about opposing those points of view was that I wanted the story to have kind of a dark side and a light side and to go back and forth between the two. At times, Peejoe’s becomes the light story and Lucille’s becomes the dark story—they change places a few times. But I like a sense in the book that, Oh man, that was a heavy scene and Taylor’s dead, and that’s terrible, or, Okay we can relax because Lucille’s having a good time in Vegas. I like books that make you cry and laugh and that go back and forth between those extremes. I love John Irving’s books because he always does that. At the happiest moment in the book, you’re almost dreading what’s going to happen next, because you know it’s not all going to turn out to be so happy. And that’s so much more like real life than a story that’s all dark, or a story that’s all comedy. I kind of like that, giving the reader that sucker-punch, where it’s like I’m distracting the reader with something funny and then snap, something tragic happens. It happens that way in life. I like those contradictions and complexities.

As I get older my writing tends more toward linguistic simplicity, but more complexity of the narrative, if that makes sense. I think my style has become plainer on the page, and that’s been an intentional thing I’ve worked toward. A World Made of Fire is written in iambic pentameter—it’s extremely layered, there’s a lot of difficult dialect in it, and it’s a very challenging, “literary” kind of novel. At the time, I thought that was sort of the mark of art—to make something challenging and difficult and dense and layered and all that. I began to realize—and a lot of writers have written on this—that the harder thing to write is the simple sentence that expresses complexity. Or a story that’s accessible to a general reader yet has every layer of meaning of a literary novel. To me, that’s a bigger challenge, so it’s the kind of thing I like to take on because it’s the kind of book I like to read. You know, where the narrative grabs you and pulls you through. Dickens is somebody we study, but he’s also incredibly enjoyable to read. That’s the dividing line between the kind of books I like and the kind of books I don’t like—a book with a narrative that hooks me and drags me through it, and at the end, I go, Wow, I didn’t know that was going to happen. I love that effect in a book.

Kartz

What’s the difference between genre and literary fiction?

Childress

It keeps changing every year. When I was in college, it was the time of the metafictionalists and experimentalists, and Barth and Barthelme and Gass were the heroes of the teachers I had. Vonnegut. And these people were writing anti-novels and were all about subverting the form, changing the form, doing experiments and things like that. I didn’t respond to those kinds of writers. I read them and did my papers and discussed them, but I always preferred strong narrative. I was an addict for Dickens and books that have things that happen in them and things that change and people who are different by the end. It’s a strong narrative that draws me through.

That’s why I was so turned on by the Latin Americans. I discovered Marquez and Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes and all these great writers who were just as besotted with narrative as I was. Some of those books brought narrative back into fashion in North America. You can almost trace it. After One Hundred Years of Solitude, Mark Helprin wrote Winter’s Tale—which was a huge hit and was sort of a literary fabulist novel, a magic-realist novel set in New York—that sort of opened a lot of people’s eyes. They said, “Oh my God, we don’t have to write pinched little exercises in mental masturbation”—which is what some of that metafiction was to me. You can read every word of a Gass book and by the end of it, you may have learned something, but you haven’t felt anything. I like fiction that makes you feel.

That said though, the whole idea of genre, I mean, the idea of a “literary detective novel” didn’t exist twenty-five years ago. But even the great masters used to write them. Conrad wrote them. Twain wrote his. We got very uptight in the sixties and seventies about, you know, this is art, and this is commerce. And a book can’t be good if it’s popular. That’s as much crap as saying a book can’t be good if it’s unpopular. Popularity is no determinant of quality.

It also has a lot to do with shifting fashions. Narrative was not in style twenty-five years ago, and now it is. Now, oftentimes, you have books that have very strong narratives and are extremely popular. These two things used to be, could be, synonymous. But there was a kind of anti-commerce movement in the art. You know, Let’s throw out anyone who’s popular. And I’m glad to be part of the wave that’s brought it back the other way.

Peters

How do you think literary fashion will change in the near future?

Childress

I have no idea. Everyone in publishing has been predicting the end of publishing since I entered it twenty-five years ago, yet there are a lot more books being published and sold now than there were then. Everyone thought that the death of the independent bookstore would kill fiction and literature in America. The opposite has actually been true. I hate it as much as anybody––the death of the little independent bookstores in New York where I live. Now, all we have in our neighborhood is a Barnes & Noble. But on the other hand, in a typical small city in Alabama, there are now two Barnes & Noble stores with more books than that city had access to before. In a lot of small towns around the country, that’s replicated. In a Barnes & Noble, you have over five hundred thousand titles for sale. Before, maybe you had a mom and pop shop with six thousand titles. I’m sorry for ma and pa, but the people of that city now have an excellent bookstore. I kind of see it as a two-edged sword.

That said, the cell phone novel is coming from Japan. Have you heard of this? This is the rage now––they sell millions. They’re written to be read on cell phones. The modern generation––the ADD, caffeinated generation––will they have the attention span to read an eight hundred page novel? Seems to me enough of them will. Look at the list of bestselling literary fiction, fantastic books that are selling widely today. Everyone’s worried about the death of the physical book with these e-readers and Kindles from Amazon. I still say that until you can go to sleep on the thing, throw it across the room in a fit of rage, or tear a page out to write a grocery list, then regular books are going to survive. I still like to physically hold a book.

Peters

In your opinion, who is the best writer, or what is the best work of fiction, in the last twenty-five years?

Childress

Oh, wow, that’s an impossible question because literature is not a beauty contest. There’s not one person whose vision is better than everyone else’s. There’s a tendency, especially in America, to try to single out what’s the “best.” I have particular writers and particular genres that I go to over and over again. But I don’t rank them that way.

It’s very easy for me to say To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book because I was born in that town and it gives people something to talk about. But To Kill a Mockingbird was really my favorite book when I was thirteen or ten when I read it first. I haven’t read it in a long time so it’s not currently my favorite book. But, that said, I currently have a particular obsession with Latin American writers. I think Gabriel Garcia Marquez is probably one of the great writers of our time. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a seminal book for me that I go back to over and over again. You see Marquez’s footprints all over Gone for Good.

Usually, frankly, when I’m writing fiction, which is most of the time, I don’t read much fiction, because I tend to mimic what I read in my writing. I like to hear the way things sound. So if I’m reading a book by Jayne Anne Phillips, then the next page I write is somehow going to sound like Jayne Anne Phillips. Usually when I’m trying to write fiction, I read nonfiction or history or current events, then I save up novels. Then, when I’m in between writing, I’ll read a whole bunch of them at once.

Kartz

You were talking last night about Crazy in Alabama being a historical novel. What’s your definition of a historical novel?

Childress

A historical novel is a novel that takes place in the past, in which the fact that it takes place in the past is somehow central to it. I was telling the anecdote about the movie executive who said, “Yeah, I know it’s a civil rights story, but does it have to be period? Couldn’t we move it to today?” Because that would’ve cut the budget. And no, it couldn’t. Because the central concern of Crazy in Alabama is desegregation and the moment when desegregation actually happened in the little towns. When I wrote that book, I felt that there hadn’t been a novel that dealt specifically with that moment. Everyone thinks To Kill a Mockingbird is a civil rights novel, but it’s a novel about the thirties, way before the civil rights movement started, and at the end of the book, black people are no better off than they were at the beginning.

When I was a kid, that was that moment of demarcation. I remember very specifically coming back to the town where my grandmother’s house was. The year before we had swum all summer in the brand new swimming pool that had just been built. We came back the next year and they had filled it with blacktop. There was the diving board and the ladders that we used to get into the water and, one year after they built it, they had filled it with blacktop rather than let black people swim in it. I was seven years old that summer and that had a mighty big impression on me. It still doesn’t make any sense to me. That story was repeated all over the South that summer, because the public accommodations law was passed. Swimming pools were ruled public accommodations, so instead of letting black people swim, they just closed the pools. As a matter of fact, when we were scouting for the movie, we saw ten or fifteen pools that were still relics of that time. No one had ever swum in them again.

Peters

You move around a lot, never staying in one place for more than a few years, and yet, in some of your books—especially Crazy in Alabama—you explore social complexities against a backdrop of strong community ties. Do you, as a transient citizen, ever feel isolated from the communities you live in?

Childress

Absolutely. And I think in some way that may be why I move—to become a stranger again. That’s very much following the pattern that my family had when I grew up. My father had a job that transferred us every few years. It was like being in the army. We hated it as children, because we always had to leave our friends, and we were always the new guys in school, and just when things would be going good, you’d pick up and move and have to start all over again. But then, as adults, the three of us brothers have continued to move. Four or five years into a place and we say, “Well, I feel a little itchy now, it’s time to move on.” I think also that estrangement from the community is sort of what you seek as a writer. When you go to a place for the first time, you see things that people who have been living there for twenty years don’t see. It’s all new to you, the smells and the sounds and the kind of food and the way people talk. I still remember when I first moved to New York. It all seemed very powerful and exhausting and loud and busy and crowded. And now it’s just home. Trying to sleep without sirens going and garbage trucks at four in the morning, I’m like, I need some noise, it’s too quiet. When I start feeling too much at home in a place, then it’s time for me to leave. I think as I get older maybe that’s going to settle down. But, I don’t know, I haven’t seen much indication of that.

Kartz

Even though you keep moving, most of your books take place in the South. And you identify yourself as a southern writer—

Childress

I don’t identify myself as that, but everyone identifies me as that because most of the books I’ve written take place in the South. I come from a southern family. I’ve said being southern is like a virus––you carry it with you wherever you go. Just because you’re in Indiana doesn’t mean you’re not southern; it just means you go to the black side of town to find turnip greens. We carried our little southern household wherever we went, anywhere in the country. If I were from Kansas I’d probably be writing obsessively about Kansas. I wrote Gone for Good, which has nothing to do with the South, but its hero is a southerner, from Alabama and Louisiana. I just think of it as my country––my people—and that’s who I write about.

Actually, when I started, except for Truman Capote and Harper Lee, there really weren’t many fiction writers from Alabama. And now there are several really good younger writers coming up from there. I don’t think I had any effect on that, it’s just a generational thing. Living through the civil rights movement had a big impact not just on me but on the generation after me, the people who were younger than I was when it was going on. It continues to resonate. In the beginning, I felt like I was writing about a part of the country that no one else was writing about, because Truman Capote wasn’t writing about it anymore, and Harper Lee wasn’t. So I felt like it was my little territory. Now there are conferences on Alabama writing. That’s weird. That’s a new development in the last twenty-five years.

Peters

What does it mean to be a southern writer now?

Childress

A lot of times it means there’s a separate section in the bookstore, where they kind of ghettoize you—put you over to the side. African- American and gay and southern writing, these are ghettoized sometimes.

That’s the reason a lot of writers resist the label. If you come from the South, which is the most distinctive part of the country, you know you’re different. And the literature of the South is a different set of books than the literature of New York or California. But it’s kind of funny that nobody has conferences on midwestern writing and, in the South, there’s a conference every week on the question of, “Are we becoming too much like the rest of the country?” On the one hand, it’s a kind of ghettoization. On the other hand, it’s a really nice ghetto. Faulkner’s there, Harper Lee’s there, Flannery O’Connor’s there, Eudora Welty is there. Toni Morrison I count as a southern writer. Alice Walker’s there, Zora Neal Hurston. So, if you’re going to put me in a ghetto, I’ll take that ghetto. And I understand. Our culture’s all about subdividing us into little groups and trying to find which niche we fit in. Nobody ever considered Hemingway a Michigan writer, but if he were publishing now, he’d be considered some kind of provincial.

Kartz

You completed your undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama, but you didn’t pursue an MFA. Can you talk about the benefits and the drawbacks of not being in an MFA program?

Childress

The community I got into was journalism. I went to work for newspapers and magazines right out of school. For the next ten or twelve years, while I was writing my fiction at home, I was very much in a writing community—it was just a different kind of writing that we were doing. I feel like I wrote a million words for newspapers before I ever published a word of fiction. And I think each sentence I wrote—even if it was about a Gardendale city council meeting—was teaching me how to write. I do believe that writing is a combination of gift and craft, but I feel like practice makes you better. I think that I was a much better writer after ten years of working on deadlines and having to pump out whatever the editors told me to go cover that day. It took the ego out of the writing. You can’t have ego about your writing in a newspaper. You have a deadline. If you don’t turn the story in on time, you get fired. And that’s really motivating—to learn to sit in the chair and write.

I think sometimes in academia, inspiration is overplayed––that we have to find that moment for the muse to strike us. Well, bullshit. If you wait for the muse to strike you in the publishing business, you’re fired. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you don’t have a certain duty to do your work.

The one thing about MFA programs, and that I regret I didn’t do, is read a lot. I mean I was reading, of course, all the time, but not in the way you do for school. When not in school, you tend to read more of what you like and you don’t always take on things that challenge you or that you feel are good for you. I needed to pay the bills some way and I thought that being a working writer was probably going to help me as much as doing fiction workshops. I had done four years of them at Alabama and they were great, but I kind of felt I had gotten all the juice out of them.

Kartz

You said in an interview that often your characters are much more in control of the story than you are. Nabokov said, “That trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as quills. My characters are galley slaves.”

Childress

[Laughs.] Good for him.

Kartz

How do you reconcile these two statements?

Childress

Well, I didn’t make the Nabokov statement, so I don’t have to reconcile that. [Laughs.] He’s a hero of mine, and a brilliant writer, and I will guarantee you that when he started Lolita he didn’t know everything that was going to happen. Now, he would tell you that he made that happen and that he told those characters what to do. But I’d bet that, at some point, those characters became alive in his mind and were speaking dialogue to him––because that’s what they do.

When you really know a character, you know how he or she would say everything they might want to say. It’s kind of a semantic argument to say the characters did it. Of course, the characters are creations of your mind, so actually, your mind did it. I think it’s just a question of imagination. If you imagine the people to be real and you imagine them for long enough––an intense enough period of time––you come to know those imaginary people as real. And then they start doing things that you didn’t necessarily tell them to do. Now you have to give them permission to do those things. Maybe that’s what Nabokov was saying: they’re his galley slaves. If they took him in a direction he didn’t want to go, he would stop, go back and cut what he had just written and go off in another direction. So he’s definitely the captain of the ship, but I think those galley slaves sometimes grabbed hold of the rudder and steered him in a direction he didn’t think he was going.

Kartz

Regarding “Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor said that when the wooden leg was stolen, she hadn’t known the character was going to do that, but in the end it was inevitable. Do you align more with that statement?

Childress

In my experience of writing, yes. But of course, I’m not Nabokov, so I can’t know what was going on in his head and the psychological somersaults he flipped to achieve what he put onto the page. But that sensation of Flannery’s is, to me, the sensation that I want––that sensation when I come to a moment in the story where something happens that I didn’t expect… and it seems perfect. That, to me, is the unconscious working through fiction. Some part of you prepared for that moment, but to the conscious part of your mind, it was not what you thought was going to happen.

In One Mississippi, I was about 180 pages into the first draft when I realized what was going to happen at the end. I’d had no idea. But when I went back and looked at the beginning, all the clues were already there. From the very first time you meet Tim, there’s something unsettling about him, something dark. I don’t know why I put that in there, but when I realized what was going to happen I stopped for about a month and said, I don’t want to write a book that ends with a school shooting. That was not what I had started to write. But that was what the characters did.

I don’t know if Flannery’s right or if Vlad is right, I just know that at that point, as hard as I tried to steer the galley slaves in another direction, they wanted to go where they wanted to go and I followed them. It’s a glorious moment when you’re writing a book and you reach that point where you feel like it’s telling you what’s going to happen. The story begins to write itself. That’s the moment where the writing becomes fun—instead of gutting it out to see what the hell you’re trying to do, which is what most of it’s like.

Kartz

The only two homosexuals in the novel––Tim and Eddie––kill themselves. Are you worried about the commentary this is making on homosexuality or homosexuality in the ’70s?

Childress

There were a couple others in there but you never quite realized who they were. For instance, if you read very carefully, the note that Tim left––it turns out that the guy he was at the rest stop with was Red. And there are a couple of other closeted characters that you have to go back and find for yourself. I understand that Tim and Eddie both commit suicide, and, I guess, in a way that’s a commentary on just how “nonexistent” homosexuality was in Mississippi in the 1970s.

There’s a wonderful memoir by Kevin Sessums, called Mississippi Sissy. He grew up the sissiest kid in some little Mississippi town. He went and had this whole gay life in Jackson in the ’70s, in the period of One Mississippi. I lived in Jackson in the ’70s, and, A: I didn’t know I was gay, B: I didn’t know any gay people, and C: I didn’t know there was a gay bar in Jackson, and I lived there. It was so completely closeted that unless you took that step you had no idea those people existed. It was a really different society, and I’ve read statistics that say, to this day, 30 to 40 percent of teenage suicides are closet homosexuals who can’t admit that they’re gay. And that’s now––when it’s so open. I didn’t set out or plan for those boys to meet that fate, but I think it was… God, if I tried to be out, in high school, in Mississippi? I probably would be dead in some way. I’d have either gotten killed or I’d have killed myself if I wasn’t able to pass as a “straight kid.” Some kids were just too sissy they couldn’t pass. A lot of them killed themselves or moved away.

I’ve definitely chosen, as an adult, to live in places that are a lot friendlier than that. I moved out of Alabama in 1987, and I’ve never lived there since, because I like to live in a freer place.

Tim, in One Mississippi, probably didn’t even know he was gay. Until, at some point, he had to admit to himself that A: he was, and B: he wasn’t going to change. I think that’s when he decided he’d just rather die. I hate the choice he made for himself.

Everyone says you can’t connect the gay experience with feminism, with civil rights, but it’s all the same thing—it’s all oppression and repression. I mean, you can’t pretend not to be a black person. That’s the only difference––everyone knows you are.

Peters

Crazy in Alabama later became a movie, for which you also wrote the screenplay. When you write a screenplay, what do you give up and what do you gain?

Childress

It’s a whole different medium and it was hard to learn how to do it. The studio sent me a box of scripts and the books they were based on. I spent two months reading the books and then the scripts. Some of them were great movies and some of them were really pulpy. I mean, how do you turn a Tom Clancy novel into The Hunt for Red October? I realized that the main thing you lose is like two-thirds of the story. Because if a movie’s as long as a novel, it’s going to be ten hours long. The first thing you start to think about is what to get rid of, what to throw out. And this is the reason that the book is almost always better than the movie—because the book is usually simply more than the movie. It’s more detailed, with more incidents––more complex, more subtle. If you made One Mississippi into a movie that had every flip and turn of the story, the thing would be twelve hours long and nobody would watch it.

So the first thing you have to do is stop being a novelist and become a screenwriter, which means you start looking for what you’re going to throw away. I had too many characters and too many stories going off in different directions. Then I had to look for the action that could be told in pictures. At the same time, as you’re losing a whole lot of story and you’re losing a whole lot of words, you’re gaining pictures. And so you can tell the whole story in a series of pictures.

There’s this scene in Crazy in Alabama I was proud of because I wrote it on the set like two days before we shot it. We were trying to look for a way to do that police riot at the swimming pool. A riot, by its very nature, is scattered. Something’s happening over here, and something over there. What is a visual image that could take us throughout it? And I came on the idea of focusing on the little brother of Taylor. You see him first. He’s watching the riot, then he climbs into the swimming pool and stretches out––the riot’s going on all around him. He’s just lying there, like Jesus lying in the water looking up. It said so much about the nobility of the soul of the people who were doing the protesting, and the evil going on around them. If you tried to describe that in a novel, it wouldn’t work. The words would just be spattering all around it. It’s such a simple image, that, to me, was the best moment of the movie because it was a visual distillation with no dialogue that in the book is seven pages.

I don’t know if you’ve read many film scripts, but they seem flat and the dialogue is very short. That’s because the actors and the set and the music and all this other stuff is added in to make it rich and full. That’s the hardest thing––to try to keep all that richness off the page of the script because that just distracts the director; he doesn’t need to know all that. He needs to know where they stand and what they say, and he’ll figure out the rest of it.

They’re both intriguing forms. I prefer the novel, because I get to be the director and the producer and the casting director; I don’t have to consult with anybody, and nobody can come in and cut my novel without my permission, or buy my characters. In a movie contract, they buy the right to your characters from now until the end of time—it’s stated—in any medium now existing or yet to be invented throughout the universe. And so I called my agent, and said, “I want Saturn. They can have all the other eight planets, but I’m hanging onto the Saturn rights.” He said, “That’s a deal killer.” I said, “Okay then forget it.” It’s ridiculous. They own your characters. So if they wanted to turn around and do “Crazy in Alabama 2,” and have Lucille become a black woman who moves to Detroit and works with Diana Ross—they have the perfect legal right to do it. In the novel world they can’t do that. I’m the author and I control it absolutely.

Kartz

You said once that when you’re writing novels, it’s like you’re seeing a film in your head—

Childress

We’re all poisoned by movies and television; we’ve had them since birth. I do tend to see scenes visually, and to see things in my mind, and then describe what I’m seeing in the scene. You have to use language that suggests all the senses. Not just what you see and hear, which is all a movie can do. In the book you can talk about how things taste, and how they smell and how they felt, and the temperature and all those things that are not accessible to a moviemaker. In the book, you can look at Lucille, and you can have your own picture in your mind of who she is. In a movie, it’s Melanie Griffith. So if you don’t like Melanie Griffith, you don’t like the movie. A book is a more universal thing, because your mind takes the place of all those other people that work on the movie. It fills in those gaps for you. That’s why one of the most exciting things to me is when a high school kid comes up and says, “God, it’s just like you’re a spy in our high school. That’s just what it’s like at our high school.” And then a seventy-year-old woman says, “Wow, that’s just like what it was like for me when I was in high school.” And you realize their experiences were completely different, but they projected their experiences onto yours and that’s got meaning that works for them. That’s the thing about fiction. That’s what fiction can do. I love that part.

Issue 63: A Conversation with Thomas Lynch

issue63

Interview in Willow Springs 63

Works in Willow Springs 62

May 21, 2008

MARK CUILLA, MANDY IVERSON, AND AARON WEIDERT

A CONVERSATION WITH THOMAS LYNCH

lynch

Photo Credit: Poetry Foundation

 

Thomas Lynch is Milford, Michigan’s funeral director, a job he took over from his father in 1974. Through his examination of death and mortality, Lynch has found much inspiration for his writing. But to label his work as being about death would be an oversimplification. A 1998 Publishers Weekly review stated that “The combined perspectives of his two occupations—running a family mortuary and writing—enable Lynch to make unsentimental observations on the human condition.” Though Lynch often builds from themes of death and grief, his writing moves across the spectrum of life, offering flashes of humor and insight along the way.

He says of himself, “I write sonnets and I embalm, and I’m happy to take questions on any subject in between those two.”

In 1970, Lynch took his first of many trips to Ireland, reconnecting with family in West Clare. He has since inherited the ancestral cottage there, where he regularly spends time. His relationship with Ireland is documented in his most recent book of nonfiction, Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans.

Lynch is also the author of three books of poetry: Still Life in Milford, Skating with Heather Grace, and Grimalkin & Other Poems. Lynch has also authored two essay collections: The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, winner of the Heartland Prize for nonfiction, the American Book Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award; and Bodies in Motion and at Rest, winner of The Great Lakes Book Award. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, the Paris Review, Harper’s, Esquire, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Irish Times, and the Times of London. We spoke with him over lunch at Café Dolce in Spokane, Washington.

 

AARON WEIDERT

You associate a great amount of humor with death in your writing. Do you write with that juxtaposition in mind?

THOMAS LYNCH

I don’t set out to write anything “jokey.” But I do think that the way things organize themselves, the good laugh and the good cry are fairly close on that continuum. So the ridiculous and the sublime—they’re neighbors. I think that’s just the way it works. If you’re playing in the end of the pool where really bad shit can happen, then really funny shit can happen, too. And then there are times you just take on a voice, where you’re consciously thinking sort of in hyperbolic tones, and then, as long as you go with it, it’s fine.

MANDY IVERSON

Being an undertaker has obviously influenced your writing. How do you write multiple essays and books on the same subject?

LYNCH

I’m not conscious, starting, of where I’m going with it. I’ve said before, and I think it bears repeating, what Yeats said to Olivia Shakespeare—that the only subjects that should be compelling to a studious mind are sex and death. Those two, those are the bookends. And think of it, what else do we think of, what else is there besides that?

I write sonnets and I embalm, and I’m happy to take questions on any subject in between those two. I think most people are that way. I think most people drive around all day being vexed by images of mortality and vitality. All they’re wondering about is how they’re going to die and who they’re going to sleep with, or variations on that theme—what job they’re going to have, whether they’re tall enough or skinny enough or short enough or smart enough or fast enough or make enough money, and all of it plays into these two bookends.

If you’re writing about life, you’re writing about death. If you’re writing about life, you’re writing about love and grief and sex and all that stuff. Once I go outside those pales, I’m trafficking in what is, for me, not only the unknown, but also just not interesting.

IVERSON

Does a nonfiction writer need to have an interesting life?

LYNCH

My work as a funeral director is like most people’s work. Parts of it are routine and dull. Parts of it are hilarious. Parts of it are very, very compelling.

Alice Fulton is a poet I much admire and have been friends with for a long time. When she began teaching at Michigan, I said to her, “Alice, you might be better off waiting tables than teaching students, because you have such a huge voice and you don’t need any other voices interrupting you.” Teachers are constantly being interrupted by the voices of their best students. They have high volume, good students do. So I would think that if you find yourself waiting tables or doing brain surgery or professional wrestling, anything that leaves room for your own sort of imaginative leaps, you’re fine. You’re okay.

It’s handy to be a funeral director—because how we respond to this predicament of death is sort of baseline humanity. I’m very fond of sex, so that’s handy in the other subject that Yeats said was important. That works out well. But I can’t think of any work that you could disqualify from being just as interesting or just as much a metaphor for the human predicament.

WEIDERT

You talk about how your job has its dullness and routines and hilarity. Do you realize later that there’s something there to write about? If it’s not the dullness and not the monotony, at what point do you realize, This is something I could write about?

LYNCH

I’m a writer, so I don’t wait for something interesting. I write. Period. And if there’s nothing interesting, I’ll make it interesting.

My son’s a fly-fishing guide. There are days when the fishing isn’t good. But by God, no one ever goes with him who doesn’t get a good guide. Because he’ll take you down the river and show you things you never saw before. And you will feel the excitement of catching and releasing fish in the most unlikely ways and places. That’s a good guide. Not that you come home with a slab of dead fish, although there are people for whom that’s the deal. For me, writing means I use language about whatever. The world is open to me that way. So if I stopped being a funeral director, I wouldn’t stop writing or stop having things to write about.

For me, writing starts with a line, or some imagination, or some notion, and I just go with it as far as I can. And you know how this works, this idea that you sort of set yourself afloat on the language. And you think, I’ll see how far it can take me before this little raft I’ve cobbled together falls apart and everybody understands that I’m really just a fraud, or drowning—whichever comes first. But when it’s really working, the reader goes with you to the most unlikely places. They take big leaps with you. I think Frost said that “Every poem’s an adventure—you don’t know where you’re going with it.” But you go. And writing nonfiction, essaying, the personal essay, the familiar essay, is exactly the same as far as I’m concerned. This adventure where you are counting on language, you are trusting in the language to keep afloat whatever the notion or image or metaphor or intelligence or opinion or whatever it is you want to get across. The bridgings. And the nice part is that the times you sink, you don’t have to send them out there. Oops, you have to go back and revise it, tie the slats together in a different way, rope the little raft together and then send it out. And see how it goes.

WEIDERT

When the title essay in The Undertaking was first published in The Quarterly, it was titled “Burying.” They’re not quite the same—there are minor revisions throughout. Do you often continue to revise, even once work is published?

LYNCH

If you read The Quarterly, that would have been in 1988. It was later published in the London Review of Books—and Harper’s picked it up from there, and I probably made changes all along until it got into the book. I haven’t made changes since. Once it’s out in a book, you figure it’s done. Although, going back over, there are parts I remember in that Sweeney piece that I’d like to mess around with. I won’t be doing that soon.

WEIDERT

In “The Undertaking,” you write that people think you have “some irregular fascination with, special interest in, inside information about, even attachment to, the dead.” The implication seems to be that it isn’t true and yet so many of your essays deal explicitly with death. Do you see that as a contradiction?

LYNCH

In “The Undertaking,” I followed that up by saying something like, “A dentist is a dentist, but he has no particular fondness for root canals or bad gums.” That is sort of his office in brief, to take care of that, but what I wanted to point out is that it is not death—death as a subject is dull, mum, it says nothing—but all the meanings attached to the dead that are the basic stuff of human beings.

When anthropologists are trying to figure out the place at which that walking anthropoid crossed the human barrier, it is when the anthropoid began to notice its mortality. I mean, that is the signature event—that we do something about mortality. Other living, breathing, sexy things don’t. Cocker spaniels, rhododendrons—they don’t bother with that stuff. They don’t seem to care about others of their kind dying. We do. And that, to me, is the signature of the species. I could just as easily argue that all I’m writing about is human beings, humanity. And Humanity 101 is mortality. Humanity 102 is sex. Or maybe it’s the reverse. [Laughs.]

IVERSON

Quite a few of your essays deal with political issues: abortion, big business vs. small business, euthanasia. Do you think nonfiction writers have an obligation to engage with the outside world? Or even get political?

LYNCH

Both. We were talking earlier about the reason that poets aren’t read is because we don’t hang any of them anymore; we don’t take them seriously; we don’t think that poetry can really move people to do passionate things. But poets did. Poets could change cultures. Before there was so much contest for people’s attention, poets were the ones who literally brought the news from one place to another, walking from town to town, which is how we got everything to be iambic and memorable and rhymed and metered because the tradition was oral before it was literary. And I do think we are obliged. Maybe it’s not just to opine about the issues of the day, but I think we are obliged to step outside of our own work and consider other writers’ work.

Writers should review writers—to say, “This, you might like.” If we don’t have a go at the marketplace of ideas and writing and poetry and the rest of it, then how can we expect people to just take it up without any sort of guidance? That’s the great regret about the disappearance of the independent bookstore. You can buy a lot more books on Amazon, but you don’t know whether or not you’ll like them or why you should read them. Whereas you stumble into a proper bookstore, and someone on that staff has read the stuff you’re picking up and will tell you, “You won’t like that,” or “Yes, you will,” or “You should try that.”

I think writers, particularly poets, should be in the opinion pages and on the record about certain things. Now, some of that I come by only through experience; I remember the first time I got a call from someone at the New York Times—asking if I’d given any thought to the idea that we could find out who the Unknown Soldier was, from Vietnam, because they’d come up with the DNA technology. They had narrowed it down to two people, and they knew they had the DNA, and they knew if they disinterred the body from Arlington they could tell. And the question of the day was, Should we? They thought maybe I’d have an opinion about that. And I said, “Well, I’ve never thought about that, but now that you mention it, interesting thought. I’ll bet I would have something to say about it.”

And the editor said, “That’s nice. Can you give us eight hundred words by tomorrow at five?”

And I thought, Well, I’m an artist, and they don’t talk to poets like that. And I said, “Well, what’re you going to do for me?”

And he said, “Well, we’re going to give you a million and a half readers.”

And that’s like drugs.

And I said, “Fine, I’ll have it ready for you.” And I did. Course, whores that they are, they had sent out to several other writers—not so artistic, but faster—and they got what they wanted faster, and they booked it. But I did send the piece to the Washington Post and they took it. And I thought, Aha, this is how it works, to be ready for whatever’s there. I’ve been sort of fiddling with the advantageous ever since. I like the idea that eight hundred words could just [snaps fingers] tweak the world a little bit.

WEIDERT

Do you still do that?

LYNCH

Not all the time, but enough so that a year doesn’t often go by that I don’t have a couple pieces in. Because it’s a good exercise—then it’s just like targeting. I can remember thinking I wanted to say something about the wonders of the changes in Ireland, and I thought that St. Patrick’s Day would be the perfect day to get this published in the New York Times. Think of all the Irish-Americans who would read it. So I wrote this piece and I sent it to them the week before. I said, “Now, this is only good for one day.” And by God, they took it.

The nice thing is they title everything. You can come up with the best titles—they change them. But the title they gave it was the most brilliant one—“When Latvian Eyes are Smiling,” they called it, and I loved it, and they had the most beautiful graphic with it. It’s just like playing multidimensional chess with these people. Because they’re all smart young editors who care less who you are or what you do; they just want the best page they can get.

WEIDERT

I’ve read that you consider Dr. Jack Kevorkian a serial killer.

LYNCH

I do think of him as a serial killer, and so possessed of his own importance about his role. I’ve buried suicides, and I’m impressed by their resolve and it bothered me that something on the order of seventy percent of his “patients,” or victims, were women. It seemed like a bizarre and cruel kind of gender-norming. The known fact is that women attempt suicide by a factor of ten compared to men. And men, this is a funny word, “succeed” at suicide more than women. Kevorkian seemed to be like the helpful hand who would sort of level that playing field. But he was not killing terminal cases any more than nonterminal—except in the philosophical sense that we’re all dying—and so, for me, the slippery slope was not all that far between what he was doing and a clinic at the corner where my daughter would go if she didn’t get a prom date—and that’s a painful, painful experience. Why shouldn’t she be able to claim sufficient pain to get her assistance?

I mistrust judges and I mistrust lawyers and I mistrust politicos when it comes to life and death matters. I think they’ve made a mess of war. I think they’ve made a mess of capital punishment. I think they’ve made a mess of abortion. Not because I think there’s a right way or a wrong way to think about reproductive choices. Twenty-five years after Roe v. Wade we’re still carping about it—thirty years now. You have to say it’s not a great law if we’re still carping about it. Settle law when it’s settled, you know. Whatever the outcome, the way they got there was not right. Didn’t work. Hasn’t worked. I’m much more trustful of the woman who puts a pillow over her dying husband’s face to save him another round of chemotherapy. She’ll live with the moral implications, and she might even live with the legal implications, but I’d rather deal with those on a case-by-case basis than have this crackpot man in the van running around doing it.

The thing that was instructive to me was that the talk in the culture about it was so disembodied. It was all sort of like, Isn’t this a nice option; doesn’t this sound nice—“assisted suicide”—which is oxymoronic to begin with. I mean, take the words apart, and there’s no way you can do that. And it wasn’t until we showed it on TV, until we actually saw, that we went, Oh, that’s wrong. And then he went to jail. As soon as we saw it, we knew it was wrong. But for most of four or five years we were going around as if we were having a conversation about radial tires. So yes, I do think of him as a serial killer, and I think he got his proper comeuppance.

IVERSON

Do you have an agenda with your writing?

LYNCH

Well, there are times I do. Most times, the agenda is just to fill my office as a writer. I write. When I write a poem, I do it for the pure pleasure of having that poem on the page. They are to play with. But when it’s done, published, it’s like it has its own digs; you’ve done your part for it. But there are times when I’ve consciously set out to change the discussion on a particular topic. And I think Phillip Lopate is very instructive on this, when he talks about essayists being, among other things, great contrarians. I always look not for the “this or that,” but the “have you thought of it this way?” So that piece on abortion is not necessarily about abortion. It’s about reproductive choices, and the costs of them.

And I don’t know of anybody yet who has figured out exactly where I stand on abortion. I would think it a weakness of the piece if they could say, “Ah, he’s one of those.” Because the job of an essayist is not to be right, left, or center, this or that, but to make people think in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise thought—and to keep as many in the room as you can while you’re doing it. Barack Obama is doing the same thing in his campaign—he’s trying to keep people in the room.

I remember wanting to say something about the shame and sadness of this war and how to frame that. I was sitting over in Ireland in August one year, reading about the president going off to Crawford, Texas, and I thought, I’ll write something about the president and me, because he was on his ranch, I was on mine. So I did. And they took it, which was very nice, because it was another one of those pieces that was only good for three or four days, and they took it. I don’t think the president reads the New York Times, but people who work for him do, so at least it got to be part of the conversation.

WEIDERT

Have you ever had any backlash from that?

LYNCH

I wrote a piece about capital punishment, about Timothy McVeigh. It was the first federal execution in my generation. I’m from a state that doesn’t have the death penalty. So it was the first time that, clearly, I was one of those people they’re talking about: When “we the people” are killing McVeigh, I was one of them. This was my federal government killing this man.

I don’t know the answer to whether I’m for or against it; that answer is not available to me at the moment. But I do know that if it’s being done in my name, I should be there for it—or at least be allowed to watch it on TV. And the fact that they had prohibited that specifically was, to me, offensive. So I wrote about that.

Greta Van what’s-her-name, and Sean Hannity, they were all calling to see if I’d go on, and I said, “I don’t think so.” The letters to the editor were interesting, the ongoing conversation about it at the time. The same with the piece on reproductive choices—oftentimes, I’ll meet someone who has some vexation about that. And that’s good. I like that. I think we should vex each other. But I’ve never had a bad experience, I’ve never had an “I wish I hadn’t done that”—one of those moments.

With poems, I have. I once wrote a poem about a former spouse that was one of those poems that would have been better off tucked away and found among papers. That said, there was a therapy in it—in a very selfish way. But it was needlessly hurtful. I’d like to think I’ve evolved past that.

WEIDERT

Do you write poems that you know in advance will get tucked away?

LYNCH

I try to avoid those.

WEIDERT

You try to avoid writing them?

LYNCH

I try to write, period. And I think poetry is as good an axe as a pillow. You should be able to cut with it if you want to. But I do want to avoid hurting people inadvertently. I don’t mind hurting people I intend to hurt—but inadvertent damage is the thing I fear. And I think all writers are capable of it. You’re dealing with powerful tools, you know; words are powerful business. I’m not saying you should be guided by fear, but I think general kindness is still a better thing. It’s just evolution. We want to be better people.

MARK CUILLA

You deal with feminist themes in your poetry and nonfiction. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

LYNCH

I’d say humanist. I’ve read a fair amount of feminist literature, and I was a single parent for a long time, which I think, for men, makes them feminists.

One of the boxes you have to fill in on a death certificate is, “Usual occupation,” and the next one is, “Type of business or industry”—funeral director, mortuary, writer, that type of thing. For years, I would often have a son or daughter or a surviving husband say, “She was just a housewife.” And I can remember, after being the single custodial parent for years, thinking: You do it for a week and come back and tell me “just a.” Because the effort to minimize the hardest work I’ve ever done was offensive. I can only imagine what it would mean to a woman who had done it all her life.

All the women in my life have been powerful, powerful women with strong medicine—dangerous people. Every one of them. Some of them still are. My sisters are dangerous people. And my wife is a lovely, lovely person, but she’s a powerful person. I just don’t see them in any way, shape, or form as having ever traded on victim status. What’s irksome to me about so much of the third-wave feminism of the day is that it did seem to traffic in victim status. I remember being in Edinburgh one year for the book festival, and I was rooming near Andrea Dworkin in this beautiful hotel in Belgrave Circle. I’d read just enough of her to know I wanted to meet her and talk to her and have a little go-round with her, you know. I sent her a note asking for that. I put it in her mailbox and got no response. I then saw her in one of the tents in Charlotte Square, where they do the festival. I said, “Possibly you didn’t get my note, but I’d be very, very honored if I could take you for a cup of tea or coffee.”

“I won’t have time,” she said.

I came away from that exchange thinking, Well, go piss up a rope. I did feel bad when she died. She was a much misunderstood person. Like most of us, our own worst enemies.

CUILLA

Can you talk about the intersections between nonfiction and poetry?

LYNCH

I think that any kind of writing just depends on reading poetry. I can’t imagine ever wanting to write anything at all if I hadn’t first been completely smitten by poetry. I can’t exactly tell you what it was I was smitten by, or when, or what it was that I read. I keep having to pour the shit in because I can’t remember any of it, except bits and pieces. It’s really exciting when you come across a poem that just lights up the room. For me, it’s the thing without which nothing else would happen.

I think the poet—the fictionist, the nonfictionist—is trying to disappear in the words. I once commissioned a painting of the island off the coast of our house in Ireland. I said to my son, “I want a painting of Murray’s Island. Could you paint one to hang over the mantelpiece? I’ll give you enough money to make it worth your while.”

He set to work doing it and he’s out there, and he’s a perfectionist in all things and he was really getting agitated by this commission, you know. “What do you want?” he says.

And I said, “I want it to be unmistakably a Sean Lynch, and I want it to be unmistakably Murray’s Island.”

And he says, “Then I’ll have to disappear.”

And I said, “Well, you’ve got it. That’s exactly right.”

So it was one of those things where you would look at it and it’s unmistakably Murray’s Island, but it has his fingerprints all over it. And I think it’s the same with writing poems. Who it is that we’re writing, or what version of yourself you channel is sort of random, really. You can take on different voices. Nonfictionists do it, too, I think. Some days you come to play, some days you come to pray. It just comes to who shuffles in on the first sentence. And sometimes it shifts in the middle of it. What starts out as sort of basic expository writing becomes self-revelation. We don’t know how that happens but if done deftly it really does seem seamless.

It’s Montaigne who says that “In every man is the whole of man’s estate.” Just start concentrating on something. Write about your toilet habits, what you had for dinner. What’s that thing they always say when they’re testing you for a microphone? Tell us what you had for breakfast. I’d love to start an essay with what I had for breakfast and see where it went, just for the heck of it.

CUILLA

Much of your poetry clearly comes from the personal. Richard Hugo writes in The Triggering Town that “You owe reality nothing, and the truth about your feelings everything.” Does this hold true for your work?

LYNCH

Ah. Well, the way you frame the pairing, yeah. Things don’t have to be true in a—I mean, I’m not here to tell you all there is about how it was for me this morning, but there’s something truthful about my keeping a record of it. And then you recognize something in yourself or something that’s generally true of all of us.

When writing doesn’t work for me it’s because somebody sets out and they are too self-enamored. And I think this is where James Frey got in trouble. It’s not so much that he was lying; it’s that he was trying to puff himself up. He was telling us lies about his experience not for the sake of some other truth, but in the service of him—his own sort of heroic self.

And heroes are tiresome ideas today. They really are. Because a hero always knows the end. They’re going to win, or they’re going to save the day and save the world. Essayists don’t know the end. And poets don’t.

I think Hugo’s saying that the truth is, we’re muddling through. We’re going with the best of it. That’s the truth of it today; we don’t know the outcome of this. At least for poets and nonfictionists, this is the excitement, this is the “essaying” of it, this is the setting forth. Not that there isn’t some bravery, but there are no heroics. It does take faith that the language will do its part if you do your part. The word itself is good that way—all of the etymological roots of “essay” are really good there.

WEIDERT

You deal with religion and religious issues in your work, but your examination seems to change from The Undertaking, through Bodies in Motion, to Booking Passage, which deals much more explicitly with your own issues with religion. Could you talk about that evolution?

LYNCH

The longest piece in Booking Passage is an effort to make sense of religious experience as a part of faith experience. With that whole piece about the church, it was handy to have a priest in the family and to have his pilgrimage and his sense of calling to work with as sort of the anchor for that piece.

I think we are trying to find ourselves in relation to whatever the hell is out there. Maybe the relationship between myself and whomever is in charge here is changing as time goes on. The first essay in The Undertaking was written in 1987 because Gordon Lish said, “If you write this, I’ll publish it in a very important literary magazine that I edit,” by which he meant that there would be no pay. But it really was the first time my nonfiction was commissioned. And between 1987 and 2004, when I was writing the last of that book, one would hope that, as Muhammad Ali says, “We are different people.” If not, there’s something very wrong. And my relationship with religiosity is changing a little bit over time, too.

John McGahern, a fictionist I really admire, died in the spring of 2007. He had been sort of banned by the church in Ireland as a young writer. He had a brother or a cousin who was a priest, I think. Large Irish-Catholic family, orthodox upbringing. He had every reason to feel thrown out of the church and abandoned by the church, and his books were banned and censored, et cetera. Anyway, when he died, I was impressed by the fact that his instructions were to have them do the Requiem Mass and nothing more. He didn’t want any eulogies, or opinions, or any of the sort of post-Vatican II add-ons. He just wanted the old words. And that’s true—and maybe this returns to your question about poetry and essaying—that there is a ritual part of it. There is sort of an artifice to it all, sort of a structural beauty to it. I’m still trying to figure out how it works. I’m glad you noticed some change.

I was on a panel a couple of weeks ago at a synagogue, called, “The Same but Different.” They took the title from me. There were hospice people and social workers and clergy, and I was to give the keynote speech about funeral customs and bereavement and how we respond to death—that type of thing. The lunchtime panel was a rabbi, a priest, a pastor, and an imam. And one of the questions from the audience was, “Does religion ever get in the way of people?”

They all gave predictable answers until the imam said, “There is no trouble with Islam. Muslims, however, are troublesome.”

And I thought, Isn’t it just so? I haven’t any trouble with Catholicism or Christianity, but Catholics, myself included—and particularly the reverend clergy—can really put me through spasms of doubt and wonder. And here’s the difference: I have come to think of them as articles of faith, as something that the life of faith requires us to doubt and wonder and ask and mistrust and think it over and ask again. And to check into the book-making. We are people of the book, so we should check into all the acknowledgement pages, the tables of contents and all that stuff to see where they were first attributed. Because I think those boys got together and figured out a way to change some of the text.

And this is where I’m a feminist. The sooner they put women in charge, the better off we’d be. I mean really. I was four-square in favor of women in the military, but for the wrong reasons. I thought that it would reduce our appetite for war as soon as women started being killed. It hasn’t. And more’s the pity. When I was a much younger man, I said, “Instead of sending the young men out to do violence to each other for the sake of old men, which is how it’s always worked, send women out to do kindnesses—to old men.” [Laughs.] And there will be no war. Now, that’s probably not a feminist thought, but it could work no worse than what we’ve got going now.

IVERSON

In your essay, “Y2Kat,” you state repeatedly that writing is not therapy. However, in Bodies in Motion, you talk about writing in a way that makes it seem like a saving grace. Do you think writing is edifying?

LYNCH

Tell me about “edifying”—the word, “to edify.” Tell me what you make of that word.

IVERSON

Redemptive, maybe.

LYNCH

Yes. I love the idea of redemption from it. I do think—and here, I defer to Mr. Rogers—that if you can name the feeling, you can sort of keep track of it. What was Mr. Rogers always saying? “Name that feeling?” Hugo goes on to the same thing. Tell us the truth about that feeling, not the heroic stance, where it doesn’t bother me, but the stance that says, “That sucks and it hurts,” or, “That makes me want to strangle whatever.” Tell the truth about that. Yes, that can be redemptive.

And what’s more is that it brings around it a community of people who feel the same way or may someday be in the same predicament. That’s precisely why we read, isn’t it? To find out that we’re not crazy or are at least crazy in defensible ways, that other people have exactly these same responses. Hugo was right about that.

CUILLA

In Still Life in Milford, you quote, as an epigraph to the first section, an art exhibition guide that reads, “Subject matter is less important than personal vision, based at once on a physical intimacy with, and a metaphysical distance from the real world.” How does this relate to your work?

LYNCH

I stole that from the museum in London. They were having an exhibit with still life. The second epigraph contradicts it, doesn’t it? The first one says exactly what you’ve recorded, and I stole it from the Hayward Gallery in London, where I was at this exhibit. And the second one says, “It is difficult to make moral or intellectual claims from the arrangement of fruit or vegetables on a table”—which is what Still Life in Milford is. My point was, I was trying to make some moral and intellectual claims for just that. I don’t know about this first one. I can’t remember, now, what drew me to that—I’m sure it was the notions of physical intimacy with, and metaphysical distance from, the real world. I’m always drawn to the notion of the body in things—the corpus.

Part of my professional life has been marked by the disappearance of corpses in the funeral ceremony. Our culture is the first in a couple generations that attempts to have funerals with no bodies. We just disappear them. If you read the death notices in the paper today, you’ll notice that most of them are going to involve some type of memorial event, sans body, sans corpse. Also, most likely, without sort of the gloomy stuff that comes along with having a corpse in the room. But the way to deal with mortality is by dealing with the mortals. And you deal with death, the big notion, by dealing with the dead thing. And this you can try at home: Go kill a cat—see how you get through it.

Really, that story about the cat, “Y2Kat,” has it right, up to the part before the cat’s going to be dead. But after the cat died, the truth of it is that the way my son figured out how to deal with the cat’s death was by burying the cat.

We’re very good when it comes to cats and dogs. We just don’t have a clue when it comes to our people. We have them disappeared without any rubric or witnesses or anything like that. And then we plan these, “Celebrations of Life,” the operative words du jour. These celebrations are notable for the fact that everybody’s welcome but the dead guy. This, to me, is offensive and I think perilous for our species. So, in Still Life, one of the things I was trying to say is, Yeah, there is an intellectual—an artistic and moral—case that can be made for not only fruit and flowers in a bowl on a table, but also a dead body in a box.

CUILLA

There’s a series of sonnets in Still Life, and several sonnets in Skating with Heather Grace, and, at the end of Booking Passage, you write about your early work in forms. How much are forms still influencing your work?

LYNCH

They’re very handy for me. I love them, and form has changed a lot. I think one of the last poems in this new book is called “Refusing, at 52, to Write Sonnets.” I was younger then. It was a fifteen-line poem; I just miscounted. [Laughs.] Literally. And I’ve been writing sin-eater poems. Somehow, this guy turned up again. He’s been around since the first book of poems I wrote, and he’s always going to appear in twenty-four line apparitions because the first one was twenty-four lines, so having that form helps.

But form is such an open thing. There’s a poet, my dear friend Michael Heffernan. I probably would not write anything had I not met Michael Heffernan. Certainly, I wouldn’t have written books if I hadn’t met Michael Heffernan. Over the years of our correspondence, we’ve gotten to the point where we only correspond in poems; because we’re both old and cranky, we piss each other off, we’re both recovering alcoholics—you know, just land mines everywhere. We write poems back and forth and we seem to get along very, very well. So the form of the day is, I have to respond to what he says. He sends a poem called “Purple.” I send back one called “Red.” There’s the form. All it has to have is red in it. I write one called “Euclid goes to Breakfast with the Old Farts,” and he writes me back something Euclidian. So the form is very, very free flowing.

But having a task, which is the form itself—this is what I want to say about this, and I meant to say it when you asked about poetry: I think poets made up sonnets and sestinas and pantoums, and all those other epic forms because nobody was asking them to write poems. People could care less. So the poets thought, Look, I’ll give myself work to do. If I could jump through this hoop, surely they’ll be impressed. And they set off to write these different forms so people would say, “Oh, that’s very clever.” But they were making themselves do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

And this is the hard part about essaying and poetry—that you’re setting out to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do and you have no direction; it seems like chaos. And when you finally figure it out, and when you finally get it right, it’s just joyous when it’s done. That’s true of poetry and essaying. When you make that leap across a paragraph or over a stanza, and the reader goes with you and you really land it, then you think, Ah, I’ve done something that’s never been done before.

I always tell my students that it’s very much like crossing water. And it is. You’ve got to give readers some sort of standing stones to grab onto. But if you make it too easy, they’ll get bored and fall in and drown. If you don’t give them any stones, they’ll say, “No, I’m not going there with you.” But if you can space those stones just perfectly, so that they can leap with you, when they get to the end they’ll say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Sooner or later, they think they did think of that, and then they write something new. That’s how it works.

Issue 63: A Conversation with Lynn Emanuel

issue63

Found in Willow Springs 63

February 2, 2008

REBECCA MORTON AND SHIRA RICHMAN

A CONVERSATION WITH LYNN EMANUEL

lynniepoo

Photo Credit: Poets.org

Lynn Emanuel was born in Mt. Kisco, New York, and raised in a working-class neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. Surrounded by an extended family of artists, and raised by a businesswoman mother, Emanuel distills her early experiences into a potent cocktail, rewarding diligent readers with unpredictable, meticulously crafted, hyper-aware poetry. In typical Emanuel style, a poem about her dead father, “Halfway Through the Book I’m Writing,” moves in a startling direction: “‘What gives?’ / I ask him. ‘I’m alone and dead,’ he says, / and I say, ‘Father, there’s nothing I can do about / all that. Get your mind off it. Help me with the poem / about the train.’ ‘I hate the poem about the train,’ / he says.”

Of Emanuel’s most recent book, Then, Suddenly—, Gerald Stern says, “There is some Eliot here, some Stein. Emanuel carries self-consciousness to the shrieking edge—and almost falls in. Well, she does fall in. She is a master of the negative, but she doesn’t sigh in boredom; she yells in pain. Her vision is original; so is her language.”

In addition to Then, Suddenly—, Emanuel is the author of two other collections of poetry: Hotel Fiesta and The Dig. Her work has been featured in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Poetry, and The Oxford Book of American Poetry, among other anthologies. Her honors include the National Poetry Series Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Eric Matthieu King Award from the Academy of American Poets for Then, Suddenly—.

Emanuel earned an MA from City College and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She has taught at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Warren Wilson Program in Creative Writing, and the Vermont College Creative Writing Program. She currently directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. We met in her New York City hotel room during the rush of the Association of Writing Programs 2008 conference, where we discussed comic strips, “breaking up” with Italo Calvino, and the culture of getting by in America.

SHIRA RICHMAN

Could you take us on the adventure of writing a poem, any poem you can think of, from its inception to how it grew, shrank, and found its own skin?

LYNN EMANUEL

It’s often a long, rather uncomfortable process for me. Right now, I’m getting another book together, and as I was gathering my work, I found a poem I had published in long-line couplets. I also found an earlier, longer draft, and I thought, Oh no, this is a much better version. Which I often think—that I remove too much material. So I went back and put the more substantial, longer version into the manuscript, and I brought it with me to New York, thinking I could read some new work. Of course, I looked at the draft I brought and thought, God, this is awfully wordy and long. The cliché about poems not being finished, just being abandoned, is particularly true for me. I never feel that a poem actually does reach the right form; it just reaches the form where I cannot bear any longer to change it.

Often it’s a process of scraping a lot of material away. I never write short poems. Never. The one short poem that Poetry published started out being much longer. I showed it to a friend and she crossed out everything but the last eight lines and that was it. I sent it to Poetry with a group of other things and that was the one they took.

I’m someone who carves things out of a larger block and then I feel the discomfort of having done that. Maybe I cleaned it up too much. Or maybe I’ve taken too much out. Or maybe I’ve diminished things.

REBECCA MORTON

Are you comfortable carving out a small piece of something longer?

EMANUEL

Well, it worked that time because I was a) so pressed for time, b) so fed up with that particular draft, and c) when I looked at what my friend did, I said, “Oh, that’s brilliant!” That was an extreme example. I feel both comfortable and uncomfortable writing that way.

The poet Bill Matthews was a friend of mine, and I remember him saying at one point, “The trouble is that it never gets any easier.” I think that may be especially true of poetry. The longer I write, the more difficult I’m finding it. Each book is different. I arrive at a moment when I have a certain number of pages and think, Okay, how do I put this together? I should know this, I think, I’ve done this. But each book presents its own problems.

One of the troubles is that as you get older, the expectation you have of yourself—that you know how this is going to work and you know how to do it—is actually something you have to battle against. When you’re younger, it’s all sort of scary, but you realize your book is going to be kind of a provisional form: You’re not going to achieve nirvana when you put this book together. You know you have other books down the road and you’ll get it right then. By the time you get to your fourth book, you think, Oh no, it’s never going to be... right. It’s always going to be like starting from the beginning. And you feel resentful. I do. I’m fifty-eight. I don’t like not knowing.

After my first book, what interested me were the ways in which the form of the book itself could be expressive. If I were a fiction writer, I would write novels. Never short stories. Giacometti said at the end of his life, “The only thing I care about is the feeling that I have when I’m working.” Which is a marvelous and unnerving thing to say. It’s wonderful, but it’s also like, And that’s it. I don’t feel I’m a great artist; I don’t feel inspired. That feeling while working was all he cared about. All I seem to care about these days is the larger unit of the book itself, the drama of turning a page, how I’m going to feel at the end, the unfolding of ideas and, often, narrative. I’m less and less interested in the work of perfecting a single poem. And though I work like a dog on that, in an odd way it doesn’t interest me. What interests me is the joining of the parts into something else. But I’m exhausted by it. Enough already; I want to be Steve Dunn.

The story I tell about Steve Dunn is that I was at a writers’ colony—I think it was MacDowell—and as I was walking out of my little cabin in the woods one morning, he was on his way with suitcases, and I said, “Oh, you’re leaving today?” He said he was, and I asked what he was doing until his ride arrived. He said, “Well, I have an hour left and my book is due at my publisher, so I’m going to assemble the manuscript.” And I realized that if you are Steve Dunn you can do that. It’s something I envy but can’t seem to do.

RICHMAN

So you’re not working on individual poems, you’re working on a group?

EMANUEL

It seems that I am. Always. Even when I pretend I’m not. My poems aren’t interesting to me until they’re part of a larger form of articulation. I’m interested in contradiction. I’m interested in saying something and then unsaying it. Or saying something and then inventing a voice that says, “No, that’s not at all the case.” If you’re interested in binaries and contradictions and conflicted versions of yourself and anything else, then maybe you have to be interested in the larger unit.

RICHMAN

I know you described Then, Suddenly— as a group of rebellions, such as the characters against the author and the author against convention. How much do you see the writing of that book as a rebellion against yourself and your previous work?

EMANUEL

Honestly, at the time I was writing it, I didn’t see it as being very different from my earlier poems. It was only in retrospect that I became aware that it was. I wish I could say, “Oh, yes, I was rebelling against my earlier work or I was re-seeing it or undoing it.” At the time, though, I didn’t realize that.

My father’s death came in the middle of writing that book, which was so enormous an event it swept away everything else. I remember Molly Peacock saying there was a time in her life when she was so sad and spiritually miserable that the only thing she could do in a poem was to get from one syllable to the next. And that’s how she became a formalist, which I always thought was a magnificent account of why it is that one might make a certain kind of choice in one’s writing. I think in an odd way that Then, Suddenly— was like that for me. I was just drenched in sorrow. The book had started as an investigation of my interest in movies and film, and the difference between sitting down and experiencing something on a page and sitting down and being moved by a film. That was going to be the subject of my book.

And then my father died. Then the issue of what it meant to be moved and be moving became an incredible heartache. I wish I could say that, at the time, I understood that this book was different from my others, but I didn’t. I just tried to get from one syllable to the next. I just tried to deal with grief and finish a book. I didn’t know how different it was until afterward.

MORTON

Do you think your concept of the book you are currently writing is different now than it will be after it’s done?

EMANUEL

There are writers who are much more articulate about what they are doing at the time they are doing it, and I seem to be someone who needs to undergo a generous period of self-delusion and think I’m doing X when all the time I’m doing Y. So I don’t really know.

I’ve written a series of poems in the voice of a dog, and I’ve invented an idiom for this dog. It talks a little like a cartoon. I began the poems when I was teaching for one semester at the University of Alabama. I felt I was absolutely outside of the English language, because all around me it was being spoken in a way that made me feel like a Yankee foreigner. Also, it felt like daily speech was much more engaged in the sort of—I don’t know—eloquence and figurative possibility. Everyday speech seemed to accommodate figurative language in a way that, when I was teaching my students or getting groceries in Pittsburgh, didn’t happen. So I felt clumsy and awkward; every time I opened my mouth, I was The Other.

This dog started to talk to me and it was a companion in clumsiness and awkwardness. The dog also became a figure for a kind of class—an underdog—and a whole landscape grew up around this character, a world of diminishment and poverty. So I think that’s going to be part of the book, but I don’t know quite how.

RICHMAN

It seems you’re often interested in the relationship between language and class. What are the origins of that interest?

EMANUEL

I always felt that The Dig was really about class and work and impoverishment and how those things impinge on women. That continues to be something I’m interested in. It comes from my own background. When I was growing up, there was a time when my mother and I lived on our own; we had few resources and little money. That kind of hardship is very very moving to me—to live in this culture just barely above the line that says you are really poor. Just kind of making it moment to moment. A lot of people in America live that way, and I think they always have.

Frankly, it’s one of the things I love about Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems. They inhabit that landscape so fully; they’re about the culture of getting by, especially her early work. I think that’s what this dog is all about. I was reading the New York Times this morning and one of the articles was about the dogs they rescued from Michael Vick. It’s sort of unreal, the cruelty that was visited upon these animals. But it’s not about the Michael Vicks. It’s about a culture in which an animal, domesticated so that it is deeply part of our lives, has such cruelty visited upon it. Sometimes a dog is not just a dog. Sometimes it is a symbol for how we mete out cruelty to each other and about the abuse of things that don’t have power. Women, dogs, poor people.

It was incredible to me when, during a discussion regarding ways to recharge the economy, someone in Congress said, “Well, let’s give people more food stamps,” and someone else said, “Oh, no, let’s not do it that way. Let’s do it another way.” I thought, How can it be that someone can say, “Let’s give people who need food more food or a way to buy more food,” and then someone else says, “No, let’s not do that,” and that is considered merely part of daily conversation? It flabbergasted me, that kind of cruelty. In some way, this whole thing about the dog is part of that, although the backstory will never make it into the book.

MORTON

In an interview a few years back, you said that one of the reasons you’re drawn to film noir is for its obsessiveness, the same image coming up over and over again. What are your current literary obsessions?

EMANUEL

Comic strips. It’s weird. My imagination has to be obsessively faithful to some muse. First, it was the muse of film noir; now, it’s the muse of comic strips. I’m fascinated with how, in a way, each panel in the strip is like a single poem, maybe a sonnet. The panel is a little box and an image and some language; it’s an extremely tight, circumscribed form.

I’m particularly interested in one by George Herriman, called Krazy Kat, that lasted from the twenties into the forties or fifties. There were three main characters: a cat and a mouse and a policeman. Herriman listened to immigrant language, to the language of people who were learning English, so the language of the strip was saturated with this fabulous nontraditional English. The language is itself a kind of character and landscape, and that really interests me.

That’s my current obsession. Can I get away with this? Can I create a sort of comic strip character, and do I need graphics? How do I wed a graphic element to the text?

MORTON

The image of the dress comes up frequently in your work. What does the dress mean to you?

EMANUEL

Clothes have their own life. They are symbols and icons, and people don them. They put them on, and they are read in a certain way. R-e-d and r-e-a-d. I think that one privilege of writing out of a noir aesthetic is that icons of clothing in film noir are very clear. There’s the bad girl and the good girl and the gangster. There’s a way the gangster dresses and a way the good guy dresses, and what kind of hats he wears, and the way the police dress. There are only about four or five possibilities. The palette is very limited.

Also, it seems to me an underutilized possibility. Why aren’t more people writing about clothes? Why can’t a hat or a dress be a symbol like a rose? Why are pieces of clothing a less legitimate series of symbols than other things? Why is clothing less legitimate than trees? In India, walking down the street, you can read people’s castes from their clothing, and I think that’s also true in the U.S. I don’t think clothing is any less legitimate than the natural world as a source for metaphor.

The same is true of food. Sometimes even I’m surprised by how much I write about food. It fascinates me. And I think that these subjects—food and clothing—are seen as traditionally feminine. You can be a man and write movingly about trees and water and flowers because Wordsworth did—although he stole a lot of it from his sister—but writing about clothing is typically seen as a product of the feminine imagination or of the “feminized man.” I think that’s one reason food and clothing don’t have legitimacy as a source for images.

RICHMAN

You grew up surrounded by all kinds of artists: dancers, sculptors, choreographers, and painters. Did you feel there were other possibilities for your life, or did you feel you had to choose among artistic pursuits?

EMANUEL

I had about as much choice as someone who comes from a family of lawyers and has to go into law. To some degree, it was not a choice. It was so all around me that another way of being in the world didn’t seem an option, even though my mother was a businesswoman. But she was a real pioneer. She was singular. There were not a lot of women who were serious businesswomen in the 1950s. So, that felt like an anomaly. It was an anomaly.

RICHMAN

Do you wish you’d had a choice? What else might you have done?

EMANUEL

Now I wish I had. [Laughs.] I don’t know what I would’ve done. The older I get, the more I feel that now I want to do something that’s more directly helpful to people. I would like to be an advocate for children in courts. The older I get, the more I think about how much more time I have. It’s great to write poetry, but I want something that’s more direct.

MORTON

Your last book, Then, Suddenly—, is so funny. Do you see risks in incorporating humor into your work, or do you fear that incorporating humor will cause people to take you less seriously?

EMANUEL

I have never had that fear. I always feel that my humor emerges out of rage and sorrow. There are different ways of being funny in books and different forms of humor. When you are part of a disadvantaged group, you often use humor as a way of getting back at the dominant culture.

I have never felt that I would not be taken seriously because of humor. I know this is something people talk about and a concern that writers have. Maybe I should be concerned about that. But I’ve always felt that in any book I’ve written there’s been enough gravity that the reader doesn’t just yuk it up all the way through. In Then, Suddenly—, my dead father’s voice comes in and says, “God, I hate this poem,” or, in another poem, “Who are you dating?” Maybe I’m wrong about this, but if you’ve experienced the death of someone close to you, that kind of thing is both extremely funny and just horribly hurtful. People die, but they don’t go away. They are still there and they visit you. So when the father in “Halfway Through the Book I’m Writing,” says “I’m alone and dead,” I find that a horrible moment that sort of balances the humor.

RICHMAN

Are there influences in your life that helped you hone your sense of humor? People who you saw or studied or learned from, or ways in which you were forced to use humor?

EMANUEL

I don’t think so, but growing up, I did see a lot of people in my family use humor as a way of keeping themselves afloat. Humor is like the ability to sing well. It’s a kind of pleasure you can provide for yourself that doesn’t depend on anything or anyone. You are able to provide your own joy and you don’t need anybody else to do it. Since I couldn’t sing, I think humor became that.

And I will say, now as I think about it—I can’t remember how old I was—maybe I was in my middle twenties when I met William Matthews at Bread Loaf. He was the most extraordinary talker. You would want to sit for hours and listen to him. He was so eloquent and funny, and his humor was often extremely cutting. I remember once when we were in New York, I was saying something about the influence of a well-known poet and Bill said, “Oh, yes, So-and-So likes everything from M to N.” It was perfect. He was absolutely right. That was the other thing about Bill’s humor, it was not only wonderful, but it was surgical. And after that, I could never feel bad again about So-and-So, because I would look at him and think, Oh, yeah, he likes everything from M to N. Bill inspired me. I learned from him that humor could be complicated.

RICHMAN

Once, an interviewer asked you, “So did you quit reading Italo Calvino?” and you answered, “Yes, it was like quitting smoking.” Why?

EMANUEL

Because, at a certain point, reading Calvino was a kind of addiction. I felt, Why should I write? Here’s someone who’s written every book that I would ever want to write. I must be him. I am totally unhappy in the world unless I can be reincarnated as Calvino.

So I had to stop reading him because there was no reason to be myself. In order to just get a book written, I had to stop reading him because he was one of those authors who—for me—seems perfect. Then, luckily, I discovered that he wasn’t perfect. I think there’s a lack of tragic vision in Calvino. It was marvelous when I found that out. Aha! Here’s your fatal flaw! You bastard, you had me in your clutches all these years!

All of my homages are arguments with poets. Walt Whitman, get out of here! Who can be an American poet? Nobody can be an American poet—you’ve already been every poet in the world. Every permutation of American poetry that we could possibly imagine, you’ve already done it. You’ve ruined us.

And Gertrude Stein. I mean, I love Gertrude Stein. Sometimes, I think there were these writers who were beamed down to us from more advanced civilizations and I think Stein may have been one of them—I’m sure Emily Dickinson was one of them—but it’s also true that Stein is sometimes just a typewriter. I don’t think it’s interesting to be someone who just worships Gertrude Stein, so I had to have an argument.

I had to have an argument with Calvino, which meant at a certain point I just had to say, “Okay, I’m turning you off. I’m changing the channel. No more Calvino. We’re breaking up.”

Actually, I hope it works. I’m writing an homage now to Baudelaire, and, by the way, he is the poet of clothing. And whenever I wonder, Why do I think it’s legitimate to write about women’s dresses? I read him. Of course, he was French and I’m not, but nevertheless—I absolutely have to break up with him now. He doesn’t know it, but… [Laughs.]

MORTON

What elements of your work are influenced by Stein?

EMANUEL

Here’s the thing: stylistically, aside from that one homage, “inside Gertrude Stein,” I don’t think there’s much influence. It’s not talked about often enough that one can have a lot of influences as a poet that don’t show up stylistically. I was influenced by the idea of her. I was influenced by the way she makes nouns and verbs and syntaxes into characters—she was beyond the pale.

I taught a course on the avant-garde with a colleague of mine, and nobody we read was as radical as she. So I love the idea of her and I love some of her writing—I love the way she critiques syntax, critiques the sentence—but I don’t feel therefore obliged to deracinate sentences because of Gertrude Stein. There are poets who do feel that way, and I admire that, but I seem to be able to be completely and comfortably contrarian in my writing. It doesn’t bother me. I can use conventional syntax and love Gertrude Stein, love her critique of conventional syntax, believe that she’s absolutely right—and still use conventional syntax. I would have no trouble being a collaborator during a war, I’m afraid. It wouldn’t occur to me that I couldn’t play both sides. Or I could easily be a double agent, the spy who spies both ways.

RICHMAN

That’s partly what relates you to Gertrude Stein, because I think of that as a sort of Cubism. And one of the things in Then, Suddenly— that’s so interesting is that, as a reader, you can go from poem to poem and never know what your role is going to be. It seems as though you’re examining the roles of reader, writer, speaker, and character from all these different angles and points of view.

EMANUEL

That’s exactly what it was. [Laughs.] I knew that! That’s wonderful. Perhaps you’re right, although I don’t think I understood it until you said it. I think you’re right. You don’t feel you have to remain faithful to a certain point of view, nor do you have to resolve the contradictions, nor do you have to, at the end, think, Well, okay, here, we’ve arrived here. I felt it was enough to simply present this reader, that reader, this speaker, that speaker, this author, that author, and that was the composition. That’s exactly the reason I’m in love with Stein.

Issue 67: A Conversation with Lydia Millet

issue67

Interview in Willow Springs 67

Works in Willow Springs 60

May 14, 2010

Laura Ender, Samuel Ligon, and Melina Rutter

A CONVERSATION WITH LYDIA MILLET

lydia-millet-by-j-beal-2-e1494020782239

Photo Credit: J. Beall

Lydia Millet discovered that she loved the desert when she attended the University of Arizona’s MFA program. And though she didn’t stay in the program, she returned to live in the desert a decade later—a wild, expansive setting fitting for both her fiction and her environmental advocacy. Millet is the author of six novels and, most recently, a collection of short stories, Love in Infant Monkeys, which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, My Happy Life, won the 2003 PEN-USA award for fiction, and embodies her interest in what she calls an “agenda of empathy” through the perspective of a grudgeless woman who has experienced a life full of misfortune and abuse.

Born in Boston and raised in Toronto, Millet lived in both Los Angeles and New York City before settling outside of Tucson. Her fiction deals with subjects as diverse as extinction, the creation of the atomic bomb, and celebrity worship, and shares a commitment to cultural investigation that is by turns serious and satirical.

In an interview with Eclectica Magazine, Millet described the condition with which her characters grapple as follows: “It seems to me that adult lives are not chiefly lives of discovery but of calcification and sedimentation: we become more rigid and we become more passive, buried in the sand that blows over us… And rarely, punctuating these long plateaus of sameness and non-learning, there are moments of rapture. In such moments we feel how near we are to touching truth, but how far away truth is, and how always and forever it will hover there beyond our reach… Many of my characters are caught up in moments of rapture and recognition, indeed such moments pop up like jack-in- the-boxes, because what else is worth the price of admission, finally? Myself, I live for those moments.”

We met with Lydia Millet on a shady porch in Spokane last spring, where we discussed imagination, the unsaid, and “the tragedy and glory of our individual selves.”

 

Samuel Ligon

Do you see yourself as a cultural critic?

Lydia Millet

I think any writer of substance is a cultural critic by nature. Almost any. I think books should have an agenda, but I don’t think you should be able to deliver a one-liner about what that agenda is. It should be an agenda felt by the reader, sensed by the reader, but not fully known. In my work, often there’s a sort of agenda of empathy. Very simple. Empathy is something I’m interested in. But other people have other agendas, a nostalgic agenda, or an agenda that circles the idea of longing. It could be anything. I just want to feel that it’s there, pulsing behind the bones.

Melina Rutter

Is the empathy agenda the same thing you refer to as the macrosocial? You’ve described that as writing that deals with the self in relation to the larger mysteries of the world.

Millet

Not exactly the same. One of the things I react against in contemporary literary fiction is the preoccupation with the personal. Obviously, it’s hard to define “personal” against “individual” or “the self.” But so much literary fiction seems to dwell singularly in the domain of the personal, the doings of the person, the social life of the person, the personal life of the person. And I find it very limiting. I’m not interested, finally, in just the personal. I’m interested in the relationship of the individual self to society and the social self, and morality, in fact, to use an old-fashioned word. Those connections are what I’m interested in exploring. But macrosocial can also be in the same vein as macroeconomics versus microeconomics, meaning larger systems or structures of the social. Government, for instance.

Ligon

Should fiction be interested in those kinds of systems?

Millet

Absolutely. It can be very covert, that interest, but I think it needs to be there. We’re a culture that’s dooming itself to navel-gazing, and has for a long time, and I don’t think that’s done us any favors. That’s not to say that navel-gazing doesn’t exist elsewhere, but I do think that we, as Americans, are in this crevasse of our own making in terms of the way we’ve allowed the apotheosis of self to dominate our thinking about the world, and I think it’s always a job of art to make us look at ourselves critically. Whether we do so overtly or covertly.

I’m not interested in polemics. Polemics are horrible to read. Even if a piece is satirical, if it’s sheer polemic, it doesn’t work as art. It doesn’t allow any space for the reader. I wrote some polemics when I was young. I wrote this terrible book called Parts and Services, which was a feminist screed, basically, against men. Every chapter was a part of a woman’s body. It was dreadful. Luckily, there are no extant copies of this monstrosity. But I started writing from that youthful angst-ridden passion about the injustice of the world, and then I moved away from that when I learned how to create something I was actually interested in. I have to be interested in what I’m doing, and any kind of polemic just shuts me out, someone else’s polemic or my own. The polemic kills imagination, essentially. Because it’s foregone. It’s already decided. There’s nothing in there that we’re helping to decide; there’s nothing we’re making in a polemic.

Ligon

What prose interests you?

Millet

I was asked recently whether I considered my taste to be minimalist in prose, and I never thought of myself that way, but I do like a lot of space on the page. That is to say, not actual physical white space, but I like there to be space, as with, say, some Nabokov, where there’s a lot of metaphysical space that’s somehow created by the language. I don’t like to be overwhelmed with words. I don’t want someone to try to do some “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” with their verbiage. I want there to be room for the silence of the mind in the reading.

Ligon

How does that manifest itself?

Millet

I don’t know the answer to that. It’s a sort of magic. It’s not that I want sentences to be small. It might have to do with the way time passes, narrative time and reading time, and how they work together. Pacing has something to do with it, a certain economy of language, which would be aspired to by Carver-ites. I don’t want any flashy tricks. I want there to be contemplation in the world of the story. But as to how that’s achieved technically, I think there are myriad ways, untold numbers of ways. So it’s not that I’m looking for a certain technique or formula or anything in the work, or even a series of tropes.

Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian, is one of my favorite writers, and my favorite book of his is Woodcutters. All of his books are about some version of himself, and he’s very bitter, he hates the world, but also hates himself, and he has these long internal monologues of—because he wrote in German—these run-on sentences. It’s very interior, and very judgmental of culture. He hated Austrian culture with a vengeance, which was his own culture, the culture of Vienna. But it’s not without humor. Part of the space I’m talking about prose generating has to do with humor. There should be a lightness. A book that does this well is
J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. It’s perfectly spaced for the reader. It perfectly generates a world of thought and moment. I like books where the unutterable and the ineffable are lurking behind everything, where you approach the unsaid consistently in some way throughout the book. I like the unspeakable.

Ligon

You mentioned time. Is fiction always about time?

Millet

Always. But stories also help us to situate ourselves outside it, or to feel that we have. Obviously, there is no situating ourselves outside of time, but the illusion of being outside of time is exhilarating. It always seems like you could live your life in a movie, or in a book you love, a charismatic book. What if you had a score for everything you did? What if there was always music playing? What if there was always momentum, and always the shifting of landscapes, and you were that hero. It’s romantic, and I think all of us love the romantic, whether or not we admit it.

Ligon

But poetry isn’t always concerned with time as fiction seems to be.

Millet

There is a stop-time thing with poetry. But still, within a poem there has to be an expression of time. I think it’s a different relationship to time, but I’m not sure there’s not a concern with time in poetry. Because I think there always has to be time where careful language is concerned. There’s always time that we’re responding to and time we’re invoking in our sentences. I don’t think it’s a non-time with poems.

Rutter

Is music a non-time?

Millet

No. Music is all about time.

Rutter

You can take a piece of music out of context, like what you said about having a score to your life, or to a movie. You can take music out of context and impose it somewhere else.

Millet

Of all the arts, music is the best at allowing us access to the present, I think. And whether that has to do with neurology, neurolinguistics, whether it has to do with the way that blood cycles through our bodies, I don’t know, but the rhythm and the power of music is, I think, in allowing us to live in the present in this particular, unique way that is remarkable. If I could, I would be a great musician.

Rutter

I was reading your essay about the Mekons.

Millet

I love those damn Mekons.

Rutter

In an interview you talked about rapture. Is the moment you describe in the essay—at the Mekons show—how you would define rapture?

Millet

You know when you’re at a music event, and you’re dancing around, or maybe you’re not, maybe you’re just still, and you’re loving with this deep love that you can feel for music? I think at those times I’m more aware of myself in space and the rest of the world than at many other times. It’s extraordinary. Music has that great power to make you want to be nowhere but there, at that moment. I don’t think fiction works that way. You can love a book and be deeply immersed in a book, and want to remain with the book, and you should, if it’s a good book. But it’s not the same. It’s in this sort of past time of the book. You’re in the world of the book, this already completed world, into which you’re injecting yourself, of course, in a changeable, mutable way. But it’s not the same as listening to a piece of music.

Rutter

And it’s not collective. It seems like that might have something to do with the feeling of rapture.

Millet

Definitely. It’s an idea of communion. It’s like a religious sort of ecstasy, I think. Folks who are involved in those sorts of ecstatic religions, they’re involved also in going to a Mekons concert, or whatever the brew of choice is.

Rutter

In your book, My Happy Life, when the narrator experiences what I thought of as rapture, it seemed to come out of feeling connected to someone else, for better or worse.

Millet

I do think that’s where empathy lies, in this recognition of the self and its relation to the not-self, to the community, to the species, another species, to beingness. It’s the pain of being individual selves, of being isolate. And yet, of course, our greatest gifts live in that selfhood also. Our greatest capacity. The privacy of our minds is such a glorious thing. Yet we’re social beings always straining for communion. And for me, much of the tension of my fiction, or the project of it, lies around that subtragedy of our individual selves, which is also our glory.

Laura Ender

How does the “pain of being individual selves” play a role in your work? The narrator of My Happy Life, for example, seems to experience rapture when she’s in physical pain, usually at the hands of others.

Millet

Her gift in this book, the gift that I wanted to give her, was the gift of being fully expressed and in commerce with other souls, which is clearly a fictional conceit. When I sat down to write that book, I think I was just turning thirty, and I was moving away from judgment as a main practice that defined my artistic life and world. When I lived in New York in my twenties, it seemed that my friends and I were always going to parties, and this also applied to our reading, and our choosing of what art we liked. Our practice was to go to these parties and separate ourselves and look at all the things we didn’t like, and all the people we didn’t like, criticize people for what they weren’t, or what they were. This was the way we defined our taste. As I grew older, I became more interested in—well, I’m still highly judgmental, but I became more interested in defining myself by what I loved. And by love in general, by love of the world and its denizens rather than by criticism of it. So I wrote this book as a gesture for myself. Could I write a character who was unlike myself in this extreme fashion, in this fashion of living an un-judging life? And, also, what would the tragedy of that look like? What would the sadness of that look like? Because I believe we should, in many cases, be more judgmental, actually, as a culture. So it wasn’t that I was simply creating a utopian character. It was that I wanted to look at the practical reality of a self who fails to criticize the society in which he or she lives.

Ender

Is violence important to that point?

Millet

Yeah, and that’s why the events in that book had to be extreme, any of the various torture episodes. I didn’t wish to linger on them, and I don’t think I did linger. It’s not a graphic mayhem that’s occurring, because I had no interest in that. It’s a form of voyeurism, but I wanted to establish the parameters of her servitude in ways that were fairly extreme as a backdrop. You couldn’t play such a character off anything that was less than extreme. Or I couldn’t.

Ender

You use violence in George Bush, Dark Prince of Love and in Omnivores. Do you think violence is important to fiction?

Millet

I think of myself as tending away from reading violence, as being less interested. We get so much of it in other places that I never think of fiction as the locus of that. So I guess I’m more interested in references to violence than descriptions of violence. Most of my violent scenes, when you read them line to line, are not graphically violent. They just state that a violent event has occurred. For example, there’s a scene in George Bush, Dark Prince of Love where she’s sort of raped, you know, but you don’t actually see the details of that. You don’t see any physicality of it. We’re already deluged by so many images of violence that they’re sort of throwaways now, and they’re everywhere, in every procedural that comes on TV. They’re so everywhere that they’re formulaic, and so I think a reference is really all that’s required to invoke the feeling of that.

But I also don’t see much of a need for landscape descriptions in fiction. There’s a lot I don’t see a need for or am not interested in prosecuting in fiction. Most physical description I’m not interested in. I like it when other people do it well, as long as they don’t linger, but I’ve never been very… you’d be hard pressed to say where any one of my characters is situated on a given page. I mean, where are they in the world? It’s not clear. What does their world look like? That’s all for the reader to make. I’m just not interested in lengthy textual exploration of physicality in general, I guess.

Rutter

Do you think that human/animal relationships in literature have been romanticized?

Millet

That’s a broad question. What are your thoughts on it?

Rutter

There seems to be an archetype of the human/animal relationship in literature: the man going out in the wilderness to conquer the beast and show his dominion over nature.

Ender

Like The Old Man and the Sea.

Millet

Or Moby-Dick. There certainly is that sort of predator/prey dynamic in a lot of earlier American literature.

Rutter

And there’s something different going on in your work.

Millet

You should read Joy Williams’s essay collection, Ill Nature. The hunting piece, “The Killing Game,” is a polemic, but she’s someone who can do that in an essay better than anyone I know. It has this moral weight to it that’s just brilliant.

I guess what I find more in contemporary American fiction is a rejection of the world of the non-domesticated animal. Pets don’t really count. There are plenty of dog-obsessed people. I’m a dog-obsessed person. But there’s a rejection of the whole nonurban world, and even the urban nature world. At the same time, there is sometimes this fetishization of the animal, you know, obscure bits of natural history that people cling to, or just the symbolic weight of animal morphology, like the beauty of animals, that does make an appearance in much contemporary fiction, but is not to be dwelt upon. More in an almost nostalgic way, as though the animal is already gone. As though these things are not somehow relevant. The wild animal as pet, I think, appears in contemporary fiction, but it’s difficult to cite my references here.

I also think that animals are extraordinarily difficult to write about. And can be boring to read about. Because they are other. They don’t have dialogue. There’s contemporary fiction that does deal with animal subjectivity, for example Barbara Gowdy’s book, The White Bone, which is written from the point of view of the elephants. Or there’s that quasi- commercial pop fiction, the guy with the tiger on the raft. Life of Pi. So there are attempts. Gowdy’s a Canadian writer who’s not probably known enough in the U.S. Her book is strange—very ambitious and sort of a misfire, cringe-inducing at times. Because it’s really hard to write well from the point of view of an elephant, a difficult project. Few are more difficult, I think. So there are some things like that in contemporary fiction. But I think that the project of entering animal subjectivity is just immense and undoable.

What’s more interesting is the attempt to explore how animals aren’t us, and how different we are, you know, just the fact of embracing the unknowableness of the animal, and wanting that always to persist in culture, to be there. Even the most urban among us would feel impoverished in a world without animals and without trees. We may not be prone to hiking or whatever, but we live in the knowledge that somewhere in our land there is the wild. We don’t want to live in a world where that doesn’t exist. Yet we don’t talk about this very much. And it’s ceasing to exist more every day. There’s very little outcry about this. It’s problematic, for me. The intersection of environmental advocacy culture and literary culture has always been very—there almost is none, for one thing. And when it does happen, it’s odd, because I don’t typically love so-called nature writing. I don’t do a lot of reading in that area. I do like Barry Lopez, his nonfiction. But I’m bored by a lot of writing that is more pastoralist.

And the whole style and aesthetic of the environmental movement, in which I’m immersed to some degree—because I work in it and my husband is an environmentalist, and my graduate degree was in the field—but it’s not a culture where I feel at home at all, because I don’t like the aesthetics of it, and I don’t like the single-mindedness of it. There are two sides of it now in America. There’s the kind of granola-ey, more grassroots-y culture of it, and then there’s the national-environmental- group-super-corporate culture of it, which is full of lawyers. And I’ve worked in both. When I lived in New York, I worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council for three years, and wrote grants for them, so I’ve seen both of these arenas, and I don’t like either. The people in them don’t—and there are exceptions to this—but they don’t read literature at all. In many cases, the art that is gravitated toward by enviros is just not of the first order to me.

My husband is a rare exception to this, a voracious reader of poetry, with an almost-PhD in phenomenology, so he’s philosophical and he’s a theory head, more erudite than I am by far; and he also loves art. But he’s so rare. I mean, people in that world just aren’t interested in the books that I love and revere. On the other side, my literary friends have very limited interest in environmentalism, which is an awkward and uncharismatic word anyway, not one that sufficiently illuminates the nature of these matters—we’re talking about a range of things having to do with human life support, quality of life, and the ontological reality of the world, so I don’t like the term environment or environmentalism. But that said, most of my literary friends see a certain tediousness in the strivings of that subculture. I understand in a way, because the aesthetics of environmentalism are so limited and unfortunately passé, but the refusal of the U.S. intelligentsia to engage in these sorts of social issues, beyond just a passing acquaintance with them, is tragic. And it’s greatly exacerbated here, compared to say Latin America, where there’s a more well-rounded relationship to social problems and art, where these things are more interlinked.
I think we have a culture that refuses to confront itself in honest and powerful terms. It’s partly the ironic gesture, the supremacy of the ironic, which in the wake of 9/11 was dismissed by various idiotic critics. Irony certainly has not disappeared, nor should it, but I do think there’s a distance between the literary subculture and the subculture of advocacy that wants to say, quite rationally and urgently—because given what the science says about climate change, we don’t have much time at all—“Look. We have serious problems, and we need to pay attention to them if we want our grandchildren to live in a bearable world.”

Ligon

I wonder if there’s a rejection of the human in the environmental community—a focus on the fact that humans destroy—and what’s valued is the pristine, where humans aren’t. There seems to be a rejection of the human, which, as a fiction writer, is one of your primary concerns.

Millet

There is a reaction to anthropocentrism in that community that rejects the human and the human-preoccupied. But I don’t think it’s calculated. I think it’s more a sort of thoughtless rejection of maybe an urban sort of elite, a certain kind of materialism. I do believe there’s a better way to do that, that it’s possible and in fact necessary to reject the centrally human without rejecting the human. I’m interested in our foibles and our beauties as a species. This doesn’t make me any less interested in the rest of the world; indeed it makes me more interested in the rest of the world.

We’ve got all these false dichotomies in the culture, like the dichotomy between creationism and evolutionary biology—Darwinism and creationism. This whole idea that you can’t have God if you have evolution is so obviously specious. It’s just unreasoned and specious, and yet has become this leviathan in culture, that these things are at war with each other. It seems like category errors are made all over the place. I’d like to see a world where the literary folks were more interested in extra-literary concerns, and where activists—and not just environmental activists—were more interested in the arts. And also, if more scientists were interested in the arts… I read lots of stuff about popular science, but I don’t know a lot of scientists who read literature. There are some, don’t get me wrong, but it just seems like we so tragically undervalue art and literary art.

Ligon

Are we too specialized? Is that the problem?

Millet

I do think there’s extreme specialization, but there’s no intrinsic reason that the specialty has to close out the rest of the world.

Ligon

Was this less true fifty years ago, a hundred years ago?

Millet

Certainly a hundred years ago. What happened is just capitalism, I think. Extreme postindustrial capitalism. Competition is everything. Everything is a competition, and if you have to excel in a particular skill—like if you’re a shot-put thrower, you’re taught not to pay attention to the whole rest of the track and field world. We actually make a feast of this. It’s all that we do, this notion of excellence, wanting our children to excel, wanting ourselves to excel, which means focus on one thing to the detriment of the rest of existence or experience. A return to the Renaissance man would be great, and the Renaissance woman.

Ligon

Does your work ask us to reconsider the human relationship to animals or nature?

Millet

I hope it does. I almost always set my people in urban environments, in particular L.A. Generally, I’m not environment-specific, but L.A. looms large in my writing, because I think it’s sort of the ultra-America, an exaggeration of America. Or a perfection of American exaggeration. But also, I would find it boring to have my people constantly gamboling in nature. There’s no doubt that we’re urbanized and urbanizing more all the time. I think we should all go more to the woods, or the beach, more to the ocean, to the river, to the desert, but I’m not interested in situating my fiction there. Individual animals have always been more compelling to me; their charisma is more interesting as a subject of fiction. I think it’s difficult to write compellingly about trees. John Fowles did it, but I can’t.

Ligon

Did you have an experience that caused you to reevaluate your relationship to animals?

Millet

It wasn’t any particular moment, really. It was when I left Manhattan and moved to the desert outside Tucson. This was in January of 1999. I lived in an apartment in the West Village with my then boyfriend, but I had loved the desert since I first went there a decade earlier and briefly attended the University of Arizona—my brief foray into an MFA program. So I went back to live there part-time, like four months a year, and then a week after I got there, I bought the house I now live in. My boyfriend wasn’t too happy about that, because he didn’t want to live in the desert. But coming to that desert, I realized that the sky was so huge, and it was the only place I’d ever felt all right about dying in. I realized, here is where I can be comfortable with death, with the idea of my own mortality. Because here the world is so beautiful, that to be a part of it, even if I’m just dead, is all right with me. I’d always hated the idea of growing old in New York and hobbling along those cold sidewalks in my old age, even though I’d only lived in Manhattan for three years and still love going there. But I realized, this is actually the world. The world is not the places we have built on it. The world is this. And it’s the world that I want to live in, where I can see a million stars at night over my house and animals wander through the yard. So it wasn’t any sort of epiphany, but just going there and realizing I should be there.

Ligon

Recognizing something larger than yourself, or that you were part of?

Millet

No, I’ve always had awe. I had awe at great cities, too. I’ve always lived with awe, but it was actually that I wasn’t a part of it, that I didn’t have to be a part of it, that this world would exist after I did. It would go on and on and on without me, and that’s in My Happy Life. So it wasn’t that I was a part of it; it was that I was not a part of it and didn’t have to be.

Ligon

It seems like Europeans, but especially the British, have attitudes about human relationships to animals that are different than Americans’. For example, we see an animal rights movement in Britain more than in the United States.

Millet

I think that’s true. Of course, Europe has destroyed its own nature long since, for the most part, but I do think they have a more sophisticated relationship to animals in general. I think that has a lot to do with the philosophical underpinnings of our various societies. American pragmatism, materialism, the Methodist sort of John Wesley get rich and richer and richer, all that philosophy that was so crucial to the birth of our country—Puritanism—prepared us for a more objectified relationship to the natural world. Whereas in European philosophy, you know, your Derrida, your sort of continental philosophy, there’s a greater appreciation for and understanding of the nonhuman.

Ender

Are you addressing that in “Sexing the Pheasant” when the character is considering what’s American and what’s English?

Millet

I’ve done that a lot lately, you’re making me recognize, because in the book that is the sequel to How the Dead Dream, called Ghost Lights, and then the third one, called Magnificence—they’re not published yet, but they’re in existence—the protagonist of Ghost Lights is the father of Casey in How the Dead Dream, and he’s an IRS guy. He goes looking for T down in Costa Rica. After he discovers that his wife is cheating on him, he wants to get away, so he invents this expedition to find T, who has disappeared, as in the end of the first book. He meets these Germans there, and he objectifies these Germans, and at the same time adores them. It’s comic, but it’s like the Aryan ideal, and I’m thinking now that I do that a fair amount, just playing off the European.

Ender

Madonna is the main character in “Sexing the Pheasant,” and every story in Love in Infant Monkeys features some sort of celebrity or historical figure, alive or dead. Where does the celebrity end and the character begin?

Millet

Of course I have no idea what Madonna is like personally. I just had my version of an invented Madonna, although I suspect there are certain accurate parallels. I let myself write whatever I wanted to about these living and dead people. You can’t be constrained by fact.

Ligon

The way you used fact in that book reminded me of Don DeLillo with Libra, how you would take characters, and I’m thinking of Harlow, who you reveal as somewhat despicable, and then humanize them. How did fact play into the fiction, or how did you get away from fact?

Millet

I take what I like amongst the facts and play with it. I love despicable characters. I’m fascinated with them. When I read my book Everyone’s Pretty—when I’m forced to read a portion of it—I realize just how harsh that main character is, but I loved him at the time, his wickedness. I love the wicked and the dismissive, and the narcissistic in particular, probably because I find these things in myself, and in other people—but all those terrible parts of our selves exaggerated are just so much fun to play with. I’m very opportunistic, I think, when I write about historical personages or contemporary living individuals. I pick what I want out of the shimmering vision of them that’s ambient in culture, and play my own game with it, and please myself in rendering it in whatever form I see fit for the purpose of the story. I feel little obligation to verisimilitude. So that’s liberating, but I think that’s why I’m a poor candidate for nonfiction. Because it’s very difficult for me to—and I’ve written a few essays, probably enough for a collection now, but only a couple of them are good, I think, and that’s because I’m not very able to situate myself comfortably in a narrative eye that has to reflect my actual self in some genuine form. I have a couple of times, I think, succeeded in that, but it’s hard to reduce yourself. I envy good nonfiction writers that capacity. I think it’s exceptional. Very few do it to my satisfaction, actually. It’s hard to construct a narrative persona in nonfiction that is not repugnant in some way. Because how self-praising do you allow yourself to be, or how self-deprecating, and just what parts of yourself do you choose to represent in nonfiction? It’s such a difficult negotiation, and one I don’t
care to undertake very often.

Rutter

Part of what’s effective about Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is the juxtaposition between straight historical fact and the narrative that the reader is already involved in. How did that structure evolve?

Millet

I did something a little bit like that in George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, too, where I had quotes at the beginning of each chapter, often from George Bush himself. I did a lot of primary research for Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. I went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I went to the Nevada test sites, and Los Alamos, and the Trinity Site. I really wanted to ground it, and there was so much that was fascinating about the facts, as they pertained to this piece of history, that I didn’t want to lose them entirely, so I played my obviously fanciful narrative off of that. I think, perhaps, because I did so much research, I simply wanted to inject it into there. I read shelves of books about these men, all the biographical writing about them, and far more than I needed to know about nukes in general, and I think that it was a thing where, for me, the stakes were so high, in terms of what actually happened. And what actually happened had such terrible beauty of its own that I didn’t want to give it short shrift.

Well, the creation might not be beautiful, but the explosions of the bomb are beautiful, ridiculously so. The mushroom cloud is sublime, and I didn’t want my book to exist as a fancy completely divorced from this very heavyweight reality. Also, the nonfiction narrative parts served to anchor portions of the book for me. I don’t know if it completely worked, honestly, because those pieces take you out of the narrative, and are by nature didactic. I feel that of all my books, that is the least technically successful, although some people only like that book. But for me, artistically, it was a harder thing to pull off. Probably because it’s a long book, and I’m not really a long book person. It’s difficult for me to maintain tone over the course of such a long narrative, and those didactic segments also allowed me to release myself from the job of maintaining that tone. But between the hardback and the paperback, I cut 15,000 words. That was how dissatisfied I was.

Rutter

I thought the structure gave variance to the reading experience. I guess it was giving variance to the writing experience, too. The juxtaposition was where I found that metaphysical space you were talking about earlier.

Millet

I hope it does that; I’m not always confident in it. But a curious thing with the reception of that book was that several of the readings I gave attracted physicists from the Manhattan Project who were still alive. Several of them came up to me and told me that they felt my portrayals of the other physicists were not far off. Which was astonishing and perhaps not true, because I don’t think they were the intimates of those physicists, so it may have just been their social projections onto these figures that they had worked with. I don’t know. I don’t entirely believe it, but it was odd for me that they attributed any verisimilitude whatsoever. It remains for me the most realist of my books, and I think that’s why its fans are a discreet segment among my readers, who don’t tend to go as easily into the things that are less earnest.

Ender

Your book covers feature the color pink and babies and pink and more pink. But it seems like you’ve escaped the chick-lit ghetto more than most female writers. What are your thoughts on marketing of contemporary fiction by women?

Millet

For a long time I was angered by what I perceived to be real sexism in the publishing industry, and it absolutely still exists. Now I’m more likely to laugh at it, though the laugh is definitely not your light-hearted, dizzy- with-joy type laugh. It’s more like the laugh of a cackling inmate. But it is purely laughable, the way merely solid writing by men gets anointed as genius with a kind of methodical, institutional urgency. Literary writing by women isn’t pushed or touted as “genius” the way writing by men is. Men, and especially men who write long books, are touted as geniuses at the drop of a hat, frankly. But many women who write with equal or greater brilliance are lucky to get called by lesser names, are never viewed as powerhouses, and are often relegated to the margins. As to chick lit per se, there are so many categories: your urban power-outfit chick lit apparently for grownups, your teen-fiction specimens that groom young girls to be vapid, your middlebrow women’s fiction concerned chiefly with relationships and the home front… and then of course there are numerous serious writers with two X chromosomes who simply get overlooked or dismissed as minor.

Ligon

Alice Munro can write about “women’s” issues, and she doesn’t get pigeon-holed.

Millet

That’s true, but she has much greater austerity and more metaphysical space in her prose than so many writers of both sexes, even though I actually went on record sort of lambasting all of the Alice Munro fans in the world on the front page of The Globe and Mail’s book section. You can’t fault Munro for the work she does, in the sense that she’s technically brilliant and very intelligent and a great writer in some ways—she’s a serious writer, someone I respect—but I do think that domestic microscopy is problematic in literary culture. It’s just that she does it so well, it’s really hard to object to Alice Munro. But I wish there weren’t as many Alice Munro imitators. It’s sort of like Carver. I like Carver. But I wish there weren’t so many Carver-ites....

I once wrote a vicious review of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which would fall into a middle-aged, Hermès-scarf-wearing female-bonding category… I detest that kind of thing. I find it materialistic and status-quo promoting and “let’s all play bridge at the country club.” Or the uber-commercial chick-lit products like the Sex in the City franchise: Let’s all bond by wearing designer clothes. Sex in the City is the equivalent of setting up a huge line dance by lung cancer patients singing a glittering show tune about the fabulousness of their premium-brand cigarettes. Which would at least be funnier. What amazes me is that so many women, some of them actually smart, delude themselves that the Sex in the City line dance, with skinny chicks belting out the praises of their high-heeled shoes, is empowering. That kind of presentation of female bonding is vile to me. Although there’s nothing wrong with female bonding. I practice it in my own life, and I love women, but there’s not much to like in chick-lit culture. It’s a pathetic trivialization of femaleness.

Ender

There’s a lot of biology, zoology, and anthropology in your books.
Would you say writing is a kind of anthropology?

Millet

Anthropology has a way of objectifying the “other,” and fiction also objectifies. You can’t not. Humorous fiction especially is all about objectification; that’s how we’re funny. There’s a kind of distance required for humor, I think, and to achieve that distance, you need to objectify. It’s not always that you’re objectifying a character. You might be objectifying a trend, or an entire people. There are numerous forms of objectification. But it’s almost always in some form of it, I think, that the funniest funny occurs. I think that’s why I seem never able to write a book where there aren’t marginal characters who are severely objectified. In even my gentler books, there are throwaway objectified characters, lampooned caricatures. They’re types, archetypes or stereotypes. And anthropology has this, you know, “white man’s burden” kind of aspect to it, even when it tries to be postmodern, or post-structuralist, when it attempts to say that it’s not doing what it’s doing. It’s still always about this microscopy of the other. I always want, in what I do, to have both objectification and sympathetic identification; I want them to coexist. I think that the tension between those two is interesting in fiction and that some of the best fiction is highly aware of the play between the object and the subject. I think we automatically objectify everywhere we go, all our perceptions; we’re not just meaning-making machines, but specifically objectification-creating machines. We can’t help objectifying others, and to a degree, ourselves, by reducing, categorizing, labeling, naming. All the things that make us who we are, in a great way, also make us compulsive objectifiers.

Ligon

And when we objectify, it means we don’t see the person?

Millet

It means we can’t see without naming. There’s no complete vision of the self or of others, but the way we make sense of the world is to create objects. This book I just blurbed is a 30th anniversary reissue of a famous John Fowles essay called “The Tree.” It’s a beautiful essay about the way we relate to nature, and don’t, and the difference between those among us who are cultivators, and those who just like to look at trees, and what that difference is. At least briefly, he talks about this sort of “thingification” of nature. He doesn’t call it that. I guess reification, though he doesn’t call it that either. But it has to do with a way we can look at something like that ponderosa pine, and as soon as we turn away from it, or even in the looking at it, we have already made of it a thing. There’s a way in which it’s really hard for us to not make totality into things that we then see ourselves seeing as things, if that makes any sense. Let’s say you’re on a hike—and this could be in an urban environment equally, where the trees are the buildings—but you’re walking and you see something, a tree or a house. You’re there with it, but almost as soon as you turn away, it’s already not itself. It’s already something you are bracketing in your own experience as something you have experienced. It’s hard to parse, but I’m interested in that. It’s a form, obviously, of objectifying the world around us, that we seem unable not to perform. We can’t escape it.
But there’s nobility in the struggle to try, I think. Because otherwise, once every being is classified as a thing, we’ve experienced a great loss in understanding, even our attempt to understand ourselves as a part of the world. It’s the difference between art and nature he talks about. Art is something that already is what it is. It’s complete. It’s done. You read a book. It’s what it already was. But nature’s constantly changing, and we find it difficult to interact with, because we can’t rely on it the way we can the things that we’ve created, even if they’re beautiful. We can’t rely on it to remain the same. We can’t “thingify” it entirely. And by nature, I mean the entire world that we live in, that we inhabit, and I’m certainly not the first person to see this, but this sort of alienation that we feel from totalities, I think, has had a pernicious effect on us as a species. We’re dying as we speak. We’re changing, our cells are changing; we’re not art; we’re not made, but being. We’re nature, so we’re also things that can’t be relied upon to remain the same.

Ligon

Are we afraid of that? Is that part of our problem?

Millet

Of course, of course. Because we can never dwell successfully in the present, and that’s part of our tragedy. We’re always creatures of the future or the past. Both of them we feel we control to a greater degree than we do the present. We can’t get a grasp on this. What is this “us” sitting here? We don’t even know what we are because we’re changing as I say this. I already feel different from the way I felt five seconds ago.

I think there’s a great narrative beauty in anthropology, a great charisma in objectification in general. It’s beyond charming to make people into characters and events into stories. It’s compelling. It’s lovely. It’s our way of bringing color into our lives, to create these linear paths for ourselves. We don’t know any other way to exist than by making stories, and that applies to everyone, not just writers. All we can know is a story, and that has to do directly with the fact that we’re not creatures who can fathom the present. The making of things we don’t understand into stories, there always has to be reduction in that. It’s always an act of reduction. And that reduction is so fucking fun. It’s an adventure.

Issue 75: A Conversation with Cate Marvin

Willow Springs 75 Cover shows pink pressed flowers on rough paper.

Interview in Willow Springs 75

Works in Willow Springs 72

February 26, 2014

Kristin Gotch, Stephanie McCauley, Kate Peterson

A CONVERSATION WITH CATE MARVIN

cate-marvin

Photo Credit: Ploughshares blog

"How I would love to be the speaker of my poems!” declares Cate Marvin in an article published in the Los Angeles Times. “For then I should know such liberation.” This liberation is exactly what draws us into Marvin’s poems. Her speakers are free to love, to seek vengeance, to exert authority.

Marvin grew up in Washington, D.C., the only child of a military intelligence analyst. Although she admits she was often unhappy as a junior high and high school student, she found salvation in poetry. Marvin defines poetry as “sacred space.” Her poems are constructed with surprising images, insistent music, and textured language, as illustrated in the following lines from “Landscape with Hungry Girls:” “There is blood here. The skyline teethes the clouds / raw and rain’s course streams a million umbilical / cords down windows and walls. Everything gnaws…” The images are surreal, but the poem’s experience remains tangible, and each line break creates a raw, stunning musicality.

Marvin is the author of three books of poetry, including Oracle, forthcoming from Norton in 2015. Her debut collection, World’s Tallest Disaster, won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, and her poem “An Etiquette for Eyes,” which first appeared in Willow Springs 72, was chosen for Best American Poetry 2014. Critics often compare Marvin’s work to Sylvia Plath’s, but as Jay Robinson points out in his review of her second collection, “It’s difficult to classify the poems of Cate Marvin’s Fragment of the Head of a Queen. Of course, comparisons are handy, but inadequate, and claiming Marvin akin to Plath is off the mark. For one thing, Marvin’s poems are more narrative than Plath’s. And also, Marvin goes places not even Plath would dare.” Marvin’s poems are often bold, but her purpose is never solely to shock; rather, she aims to portray a complex range of human emotion.

Cate Marvin holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston, an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in English and comparative literature from the University of Cincinnati. She serves as Director of Operations for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and teaches English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. We met with her in her room at the Hotel Max in Seattle during last year’s AWP Conference, where we drank wine from coffee mugs and talked about motherhood, risking sentimentality, and “lying like the truth.”

 

KRISTIN GOTCH

One of my favorite poems from your first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, is “The Whistling Song from Snow White.” I love the speaker’s sense of confidence in lines such as “I command. Make yourself look like you want to get fucked / because in my land, nobody gets fucked over…”

CATE MARVIN

I wrote that when I was twenty-five, so it’s nineteen years old. I was writing pared-down poems at the University of Houston, and my instructor, an amazing poet, Adam Zagajewski, said to me, “Your poems are anemic.” That was part of a series of poems where I was letting myself swagger a bit. I remember writing that poem and knowing it was a moment of change for me.

That was a good summer for writing. I was working with a lack of self-consciousness and a better idea of who my reader might be, maybe someone like me. That poem is very much a statement of poetics; I was claiming my turf. Poetry has always been a sacred space for me. It saved me. I was a miserable high school student. I started writing when I was eleven, didn’t fit in, like most poets, and poetry was the thing— I realized when I was seventeen—that I was going to do. So when I went to a graduate program, I had a very high notion of the importance of poetry. In some ways, I had to reclaim what poetry meant for me. When you’re in that situation and you’re duking it out, you have to be strong. That whole change was like, I’ve got my own motherfucking country. This poem is my land and I make the rules.

I was talking to a friend of mine and asked if she recognized Free To Be You and Me as a reference in that poem, and she said, “I’ve heard of it.” But if you were born in the late sixties or early seventies, and you had progressive parents, you would have known that record, Free To Be You and Me, by Marlo Thomas. It’s like, we are all equal and everything’s cool. The notion of equality we know now is problematic. But at the time, you were raised to believe you could be anything, the American dream. The irony of that is thinking you can be president, and then realizing that, well, no. And then, there’s this assumption: Oh, well, I’ll get married. And that becomes your worth—someday someone will marry you! That’s why romantic comedies trigger such sentiment in us. Because they provide catharsis. We’re taught that this is what to hope for, and if we don’t get it, then we did something wrong as a woman.

KATE PETERSON

Are you going to let your daughter watch romantic comedies?

MARVIN

I’m going to let her watch anything. My parents let me read what I wanted. They were very open-minded. I was reading adult books, explicit books, at a young age, and I don’t think it messed me up. I don’t think we can prevent our children from seeing things today, with access to the internet. I don’t want my daughter to find porn sites online and I intend to figure that out as I go, but parenting is something I try to compartmentalize. I try not to worry too much about what’s going to happen five years down the road, because I have tomorrow to handle. My kid asks a lot of questions, and a lot of them are about death. We’re dealing with mortality now. A good friend of mine died last summer and several of my daughter’s fish died, so she’s curious. I get nervous when she’s crossing the street, because she’s like, “Oh, well, and then we’ll die.” Most parents will tell you their kids have predilections to certain things, often gendered. There’s not a lot you can do about that, and if your kid likes princess stuff, you’re going to let her dig princess stuff, because that’s what makes her happy. Of course, later on you can talk about the larger issues. My daughter’s not interested in princess stuff. She’s interested in dinosaurs and unicorns and animals. But she asks me every day if she looks pretty. A lot of that comes from people telling her she’s cute, and her girlfriends evaluating each other’s outfits every day. One day she came home from school—she was four—in a very bad mood because no one liked her outfit. This has been disconcerting for me. I was not a cute kid. I was skinny, with buck teeth because I sucked my thumb till I was eleven, and I had not the greatest haircut and was a total tomboy. My daughter is blonde—she’s not blonde anymore, but she was when she was a baby—and she has gray eyes, so it’s weird, because I have brown hair, brown eyes. I never thought I would have a kid that was fair. It was interesting to watch people dote over her when she was a little blonde girl. It felt like something that separated us.

STEPHANIE McCAULEY

In past interviews you’ve mentioned that earlier in your career you were too busy with school and writing to be in a successful relationship. But now you have a daughter and you’re finishing a third book—how do you manage everything? What’s changed?

MARVIN

I made the decision to have a kid when I was thirty-seven. I found out I was infertile, so I had to do IVF. I had to make a decision pretty much then and there whether or not I wanted to have a child. I wasn’t prepared to make that decision because I thought, like all of us think, that we can wait until we’re fifty to have a kid. That’s not really true. It’s actually quite difficult. And I still haven’t found a relationship that will work for me. I got frustrated thinking I would have to settle for a relationship in order to have a child. When I found out I had to start undergoing fertility treatments, I was told that most clinics would probably show me the door. I had to make a decision, and I decided that it would be for my work and my life. I had spent so much time by myself, smoking cigarettes and holed up reading books and writing poems, I felt like that could come to a very poor end in terms of my life—not the persona of my poems, but me. So I got pregnant. It took three tries.

Having a child changes everything and changes nothing. My life improved by having a kid. But you’re really much the same person. In some ways, you’re almost more who you are. But you have to kind of fall out of love with yourself. Narcissism has to go out the window. That’s painful, to break up with yourself. Juggling it all has definitely slowed my progress, but a couple of things have happened. First of all, I write differently now, and because I was writing so much for so long, I can work on a lot of stuff in my head. I also work on things over a very long time. I was working on a poem last night that I started in 2008, when I was pregnant. I’m finishing that up, and rewriting it again. The process is different now. You don’t actually get the time to sit and write, but you write differently, and if you’re a writer, you have to write and you end up writing things in spite of yourself.

So what happened to me is that I discovered I had a book. I didn’t think I had a book, but when I pulled together my poems I realized I had a manuscript. It was not the third book I’d planned to write, which was some dense, elegiac, almost philosophical thing. This book is more irreverent than my previous books, weirder in a lot of ways, because I had to do away with some filters in my life.

I recognized that having a daughter was ordinary, and before that I had lived comfortably with a sort of special woman’s status. I almost thought of myself as a guy in some ways, and you can’t think of yourself as a guy when you’re so obviously not. Then you have this kid with you and people are criticizing you or blessing you, and you’re pushing the stroller around and you can’t be at the house. When I found out I was going to have a daughter, it scared the shit out of me. I thought, Oh, my God, this person who I already love—it’s really weird when you get pregnant, you’re just like, I love this kid already; I don’t even know this kid. I was convinced I was having a boy. When it was a girl, I was like, Oh, my God. No.
Having a kid has made me figure out I have to say no to a lot of things. But it’s also forced me to take some downtime I might not have otherwise taken, because if your kid wants to go to the park and play, that’s all you’re doing. And it’s nice. I’ve met a lot of people as a result of having a kid. I used a sperm donor to get pregnant and I know a lesbian couple who used the same donor. They’re part of my extended family and our daughters know each other as sisters. As an only child coming from a small family—just me and my parents—it’s nice to have that extension and to sort of move in other parts of the world. My kid is like a living poem. She says stuff that blows me away. It’s wonderful to have that kind of love in your life. It puts everything into perspective. But I don’t worry about what my daughter is going to think about my poems. My writer’s office is separate from me running around day to day.

McCAULEY

You mentioned realizing you had a book. How does it compare to the first two?

MARVIN

I don’t know yet. Wallace Stevens has a great quote from the essay “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” and I’m just going to paraphrase it, here. He says: I don’t know what the poem is going to be, except it is what I want it to be once I make it.

The sense is that you have to accept the poem on its own terms. You have to feel it and dress it and allow it to create its own shape. It’s almost like I picture an invisible form I’m putting clothes on so people can see it. This new book came out of nowhere. In a lot of my projects, I’m interested in the post-confessional mode, taking it further. It’s a good rhetorical mode for talking about some things people aren’t necessarily ready to read—what I call stealth poems. I don’t know if I can speak to that yet. I also haven’t gotten to the point in the press kit and stuff where I get asked a bunch of questions and I look at my book and say this is what it’s about. Right now I can say that it’s about death in a big way and, in some ways, it ends on a rebirth. It’s full of elegies, and while I wouldn’t say it’s slapstick, there’s a lot of whacked-out humor in it.

PETERSON

Can you expand on what you mean by the stealth poem?

MARVIN

The stealth poem is something I was doing unconsciously when I was at the University of Houston, where they like you to have nice, neat, quatrain poems, a tight, shapely stanza. You can have chaotic and unseemly content in a poem, but visually, when it’s crafted really well, it impresses; you can imply any number of political opinions or agendas in this poem that are not necessarily picked up by the reader, because the reader is like, Oh, well, this is a very well-made poem. It’s what literature does all the time—makes the reader empathize with someone they may not have previously empathized with, whether they know it or not, because they can see themselves in the speaker. It’s a kind of code; women have been writing that way for a long time. As have queer people, as have people of color. It’s something I do a lot less of in my third book.

PETERSON

You mentioned that your daughter is talking a lot about death and that your third collection is about death. Do you think your daughter influenced your third collection?

MARVIN

No. My book was done before my friend died of liver failure. She was my age. It was very unexpected. A good friend died in 2005 and that was hard, because he represented to me the most awesome way to be in the world, a very funny, offbeat person who connected with a lot of people in a way that was contagious. He enjoyed life. One of the problems with our culture is there’s no proper way to grieve. Poetry can be one place to explore that.

GOTCH

I want to go back to what you said about “The Whistling Song from Snow White.” You said that up until that point your poems were “anemic…”

MARVIN

My undergrad poems—people would get appalled at what I wrote about. I’m tame compared to how I was then. I’ve learned over time to have a better understanding of how I’m coming across, how I might be affecting my audience. One of my flaws is that I can be oblivious. That’s a bit of a gift, because it means I’ll say things and not think too much about them and not realize people are taking me seriously and are like, What the hell is she saying? Maybe some of that comes from not being heard for a long time. When I was in junior high and high school I was unhappy, and that particular generation, the parents were like, Okay, you’re unhappy, deal with it; we’re going to work now. When I first asked to see a shrink, it was like, No, you can deal with your problems yourself. It was a typical suburban upbringing, but it was existential for me, the way I think it is for a lot of kids, and even more painful because you can’t put a finger on what’s wrong. Or it doesn’t seem legitimate to be in psychic pain. I went to college and was among people I had a lot in common with, but when I was in high school, I was a bad student. My self-esteem was for shit. I think some of that comes out of not actually thinking anyone will care.

McCAULEY

In your essay “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant,” you say you’re pleased to discover that you “tricked someone into believing the world of [your] poems is true.”

MARVIN

I don’t want to waste my reader’s time. We’re not on this planet for long, and I get frustrated with indulgent writers. I know I’ve been indulgent at times and I apologize for wasting anybody’s time, but I really do try, first of all, to be entertaining. I write a lot of poems no one ever sees that are boring, self-indulgent—no one wants to hear about my cats. But you want to write about everything. So anything that comes to fruition, the stakes have to be high, there has to be an emotional input on my part, I have to feel convinced in the poem. All of that has to do with language, with creating something unique with language, so that every line or phrase is something no one has encountered before, something actually changing someone’s experience of reading, something visually and viscerally communicating, giving someone a scene or an atmosphere or an experience. You want your poem to be interesting, you want to know that there’s trouble, great trouble, that something is going to happen. As far as tricking someone into believing the world of the poem is true, all the best writing is trickery. It’s lying like the truth.

McCAULEY

So, trickery is actually good for your readers?

MARVIN

Absolutely.

McCAULEY

It’s not manipulative?

MARVIN

Manipulative has a bad rap. Rhetoric is manipulative; all language is manipulative. When we use language we are moving to get something we want. We’re always making arguments for something, always trying to negotiate a space. If you know your way around words and are good at manipulating them, that’s good. On the other hand, if it’s a formula you’re using over and over to manipulate someone, that’s a lie. But if you’re writing something that you can’t even believe you wrote, and you yourself are convinced of the truth of it—I mean, sometimes I write something and the experience of the poem becomes that experience itself in some ways. I think it’s naive to think that any writer who’s good is not manipulative.

GOTCH

In that same essay, you mention how Sylvia Plath’s work was criticized based on facts from her personal life. People are still reading Plath and other poets that way. I had a professor tell me never to read Plath. He had reduced her poetry to a cry for help. Why do you think readers mistake intense emotion for autobiography or a cry for help?

MARVIN

It seems like a reductive way to approach a craft that is endlessly changing itself, endlessly complicated and fascinating. That view of Plath is conservative, old school, pretty much over. It was supposedly “uncool” to like Plath when I was an undergrad, but I loved her anyway—I wrote a seventy-page paper on her. I also think that to dismiss the personal in poetry—that kind of dismissal almost always takes place when it’s women’s poetry. People are sympathetic toward Lowell’s plights or John Berryman’s plights. In those cases, within the confessional mode, the transgression is to display weakness. For female confessional poets, the transgression is to display strength. Your professor said Plath’s work was a cry for help. This individual was probably not Plath’s intended reader, probably didn’t grasp the irony of her work. You have a poem like “Daddy” and it works on multiple levels. It employs the second person, it seems like a dialogue, but it’s not. It seems sincere, but it’s not. It’s mercilessly artificial. It winks at women with irony. Every woman loves a fascist. Plath knows every woman loves a fascist and, of course, in life, no woman loves a fascist—she’s working off of that fifties advertising jargon. There’s a lot packed into that. Also, one of the primary things you learn from Plath is craft. From her syntax to her punctuation, she’s a master. She keeps a poem moving.

PETERSON

In the conversation “Your Silence Will Not Protect You” between you and Erin Belieu, you mention that you have born the brunt of the “angry poet persona.” How do you feel about readers inventing a Cate Marvin from what’s on the page?

MARVIN

You’re probably doing your job pretty well if someone thinks they know you. I can’t take issue with that, but I would hope my poetry is challenging enough that people don’t come to it with a reductive interpretation that my life is on the page. I get frustrated with that because it’s silly, though it happens to pretty much every writer. People make assumptions. I make my students swear not to show their work to anyone outside the workshop for the semester because I don’t want a boyfriend, girlfriend, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, reading their work. They need to understand that their poems will be written for people they’ve never met and never will meet. Those are the people they’re going to move. If you’re really ambitious as a writer, those are the people you’re writing for. If you’re worried about someone reading you, you don’t experience the liberty of writing whatever you want and shapeshifting, being whoever you want to be. Poems that are fun to write are fun to read.

A student once said to me, “Aren’t you scared to put these things out there?” I don’t have a sense of people paying a whole lot of attention to me. I go through life pretty oblivious. I’m not especially paranoid, I’m not especially self-conscious. I spend a lot of time by myself and I am just like, you know, poetry is this other world, so I can’t really worry about it.

PETERSON

We listened to one of your poems on YouTube, “Yellow Rubber Gloves—”

MARVIN

I had no idea that had been unleashed onto the world. That’s fucked up. And that poem’s very Plathian. I was totally thinking of her. I hope you laughed.

PETERSON

It’s so powerful. I didn’t really laugh, I just felt like, Yeah, this is it.

MARVIN

The thing about the speaker in the third book…she’s getting old. She’s aware of herself in relationship to younger women. She’s not nice about other women. There’s a poem called “Poem for an Awful Girl” that’s about competition with other women and jealousy. It sucks to get old, to realize you’re not in the running anymore. With “Poem for an Awful Girl,” I’m plotting this woman’s demise. She has the guy I want. But then the speaker realizes that this woman she’s wishing horrible things upon isn’t even aware that the speaker’s alive. The speaker’s talking about needlepointing, and she’s at a needle point. It’s like this focus for women, that there’s this division in some ways which is funny, because I love my students and the age they are, and I hang out with them all the time and they’re my favorite people in the world to talk to, but I’m always registering the fact that I’m older than them and worried about that, freaked out that I even got this old. There’s also this thing like, Don’t be so carefree, don’t think it’s all so good because look at where I am now.

GOTCH

The speaker in “Yellow Rubber Gloves” seems to have a direct purpose when it comes to relationships—could you talk about the impulse behind that poem?

MARVIN

That poem has an autobiographical impulse. In fact, there are a lot of autobiographical impulses in my third book. It’s more personal in a lot of ways, more connected to my actual life. I’m not ashamed to say that, because the poems, I hope, completely transform that, and I don’t think anybody should be ashamed about the personal. I think women are often made to feel bad, that their writing is inferior because it is not “objective,” because they are writing inside their experience—but that attitude directly invalidates female experience, or anybody’s experience. It’s like, We don’t want to hear your complaints. You’re just whining. So in “Yellow Rubber Gloves,” I was married and always washing the dishes. I was the dishwasher and I used yellow rubber gloves because my hands would get fucked up if I didn’t use them. There’s a disaster to the situation, being in servitude and washing someone’s dishes all the time. I was a PhD student and writing. I decided I wanted to reclaim the term “confessional.” I was like, If you’re going to damn me as being confessional, then I will be confessional in a way that will scare the shit out of you. That’s been really fun, because I think it scares people who should be scared.

The poem started back in 2000. I started with the image of the centaur. But the mop and stuff, the whole idea was that the end would be like, Oh, my paramour—. But how do I confess this, how do you tell the new lover where you’ve been in a past relationship, that you’ve been denigrated? At the time, I had this new lover who’s mythologized in the poem as Pan. But how do you explain that you’ve been defiled and still seem whole to someone? I always wanted that poem to work. I’d show it to my friend, my main reader, and he was like, No, no, no, and I would rework it. And then I finally just finished it one day, not too long ago, one of the last poems to go in the book. I was doing this big run, writing poems all day and night to finish the book, and I just wrote it. It’s a general address to women. It’s also like this huge, you know—I’ve cashed it in. I’m ready, I’m done with it, I’m going be that old woman with cats.

It’s meant to be awful in that way. It names it, like, Yeah, I’m the fucking cunt who should have shut her hole long ago. I was laughing the whole time writing it. And I think you should use rubber gloves when you wash dishes, because I am a huge proponent of skin creams and lotions and I’m like, Use gloves!
So it’s supposed to be funny and awful, but the thing is—be careful out there, just be fucking careful. Because you could spend a lot of time negotiating relationships where your time to write is being taken away maybe by someone who is not a writer who thinks maybe, Oh, you’re not spending enough time with me, and if you live in New York or anyplace you can take public transportation, you know the ease with which men take up space on a subway. And there is a whole tumblr or tweeting thing of photographs of men taking up space. All women writers—it’s like we’re here, tucking into ourselves because we’re afraid. And that’s no way to live.

PETERSON

A lot of your poems go to uncomfortable places. Do you ever think to yourself, I shouldn’t write this?

MARVIN

No. I’m kind of compulsive and revealing. My father was a military intelligence analyst and his whole life was about keeping secrets. Whenever I feel like I shouldn’t say something, that means I’m about to blurt it out. For me, typos or coming across as sentimental are far more embarrassing than saying something unseemly. I’m working on a poem right now that has patches of sentimentality that I really need to work out of it. I’m rewriting it line by line, to wring that out.

GOTCH

What is sentimentality in poetry?

MARVIN

Well, with women it’s often a rhetorical device employed at a point when the reader’s not expecting it, and it gets them. It’s like in the movies, a technique. I guess we should look at the definition of sentiment; is sentiment less than love? What is it about sentiment that makes it bad? Is sentimental not beautiful? You know, hell, we’re all sentimental at some point, aren’t we? Because love leaks into sentiment. People are worried about sentiment, worried that people will be sappy or something and write love poems. I don’t know. I actually think sentimentality can be used as a rhetorical weapon in some ways. Like very ironic sentiment.

GOTCH

I think there are people who confuse sentimentality with love, like in a love poem—as if, just because it’s about love means it’s sentimental…

MARVIN

What would Pablo Neruda say about that? What would Garcia Lorca say? It’s easy to make someone feel bad about expressing a feeling when we pretty much go around feeling things all the time—that’s part of being human. I don’t like poetry that doesn’t have feeling in it. And you know who also didn’t write poetry that doesn’t have feeling in it? Robert Frost. A lot of people looked to him as the model for neo-formalism, but Frost was a tormented person, suffering a lot of the time. So it’s interesting to see what’s happening in his poems. He says, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” Okay, so let’s see. Sentiment. Exaggerated or self-indulgent feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia. Exaggerated or self-indulgent. I guess that’s the problem with sentiment, or that’s the criticism, but I think if you didn’t have some sentiment in a poem, you might not have the whole pallet of human emotion. I want to create an emotional atmosphere in my poems.

PETERSON

Jonathan Johnson says poets should risk sentimentality. Why does it have to be a risk?

MARVIN

Because it’s always a risk. It’s a risk when you’re in love with someone, a risk to reveal your feelings; it shouldn’t be but it is. In a poem, if you’re sentimental in the beginning, you’ve already given it away. It’s the writer’s job to seduce. You’re not just going to walk in buck naked and be like, Here I am. You have to lure them in from the title on.

McCAULEY

That goes along with T.S. Eliot and the New Critics and the idea that personality shouldn’t factor into reader response.

MARVIN

T.S. Eliot is always saying the opposite of what he means. When he says there’s an absence of personality, he means that in some ways you can be anything, but it’s clear that absence actually allows your real self to be present. The way he states these things, it’s always sort of wonderfully complicated, like the objective correlative, which is where he’s just making an argument that you should employ figurative language, that you should show, don’t tell. It’s Ezra Pound all over again. Eliot is interesting because you can mold him in a way to make many of his statements advocates for just reading a poem on its own terms, reading a poem by its own rules.

McCAULEY

So the self-sacrifice and the extinction of personality can actually allow for the personal?

MARVIN

Personality is, in some ways, almost a process, because what he’s talking about is like body odor. He’s talking about the state of personality. Where it’s like with poetry, you can’t be that person, you can’t be the daily person—in some ways it’s like getting rid of personality to allow a voice in.

PETERSON

On the back of your latest collection, Rodney Jones says that, “The work bristles with the intellectual and emotional contradictions that face single women of this time.”

MARVIN

I asked him to take out “single” and it didn’t end up getting taken out. I didn’t think it was fair. First of all, sometimes I’m single, sometimes I’m not. In fact, when a lot of that book was written, I had a serious boyfriend who helped me with a ton of those poems—Matthew Yeager, who is now a good friend, a brilliant poet, who totally understands my poetics and helped me get through this book. “Muckraker” is a poem he saved. I’d thrown my hands up and was done with it. It’s probably the best poem in the book. So, sure the speaker is not having such a great time with relationships, but she’s having a lot of relationships. She’s not single. She’s maybe kind of getting around a little bit.

McCAULEY

So a woman has to be either single or married.

MARVIN

I guess facebook gives us those options, right? I mean, what if you’re married to a fucking idea? You know, I’m married to poetry. It’s like what Adélia Prado, the Brazilian poet, says in her poem “With Poetic License.” She says, “I’m not so ugly I can’t get married.” She says, “When I was born, one of those svelte angels…/ proclaimed / this one will carry a flag.” She says, “It’s man’s curse to be lame in life, / woman’s to unfold. I do.” And that’s sort of like saying, “I’m married to poetry.” Rodney is one of my favorite people in this entire world and it was important to me that he blurbed the book, because he’s an exquisite poet and one of my mentors. I also wanted to show that someone who is a male, Southern poet gets it.

PETERSON

What are the emotional contradictions he was talking about?

MARVIN

Contradictions women face all the time regarding what they’re told by media, what they’re told they should and shouldn’t be. We’re told we’re on the brink of death every moment we leave the house at night; if we wear skimpy clothes, we’re probably not only going to be raped but probably deserve it. That’s what culture tells us, what media tells us. And women are adaptable, we kind of go along, we’re going to be friendly and kind and shit like that. But what we’re doing is accommodating a vocal and almost banal expression of violence toward us all the time. It’s not just women who see this—plenty of men see it and find it repugnant too.

GOTCH

In Fragment of the Head of a Queen, you have poems that seem to be written from a male perspective, such as “All My Wives” and “A Brief Attachment—”

MARVIN

That’s a female speaker in “A Brief Attachment,” a female speaker in a relationship with a woman. I tried to make that explicit. There’s something ironic about that poem, because the speaker is a poet, and has this attachment, this affair, with a younger poet who is really driving her crazy, but who is also someone to admire. There’s a lot of arrogance on behalf of the speaker. That’s what the poem is about. Both of the characters are problematic. That poem riffs off Thomas Wyatt’s “Noli Me Tangere.” Do not touch. It’s trying to work off of Wyatt, a sixteenth-century poet, but it has a lesbian spin, even though people expect the speaker of this book to be heterosexual. I thought that would be amusing. Twisted. That poem deals with a great unease regarding sexual ambiguity—bisexuality or homosexuality. With “All My Wives,” I was reading a Michael Burkard poem that had that line, “All my wives,” and it just clicked for me. That poem is strange. And ominous. There was a reading series in New York where actors read your poems, and this actress read that one and scared the fucking shit out of me. Basically, that speaker is the figure in “Muckraker,” a silly, arrogant man. But I also like him. You know how fiction writers say they like all their characters? When I read that poem, I am so him in that. But of course, he’s totally evil. He’s also pathetic, because he’s just this high-dictioned combination of two of my ex-boyfriends, someone I dated when I was twenty and then someone I was married to. I assumed that attitude. It’s kind of like, Oh, I see how he sees women. And the whole thing is like, Why would I desire to look in your eyes when I could pick up a book ? “It’s like buying a book I’d never want to read,” he says. But also, you see in the end, he’s scared because he knows there’s this animal sense, that there are women waiting for him and he’s talking about his inheritance as a man.

PETERSON

You dedicated your second collection to boys and their mothers. What boys in particular are you hoping to reach and why?

MARVIN

That’s a cynical dedication meant to operate as a technique in the book. And the book, there’s a lot of criticism in there inherently about gender norms and stuff like that. At the time, I was frustrated with mothers who hadn’t let their boys grow up, because there are a lot of boys out there who need to be men. But I’ll also say that that was a dedication to my ex-boyfriend, who I love still. He’s a brilliant poet, Matthew Yeager, and the book was originally dedicated to him, and I probably should have kept it dedicated to him, but I was bitter about our breakup and I was sad and lonely. I felt like his mom was overprotective and had sort of been the one that came between us, and I think that was probably a miscalculation on my part. I was talking to a colleague of mine, a guy, and I said “Maybe I’ll dedicate it to Catholic boys and their mothers,” and he said, “Why don’t you just dedicate it to boys and their mothers.” It was a last minute change that went through. I think it’s funny as hell.

McCAULEY

What’s the difference between boys and men, or a factor that makes boys men?

MARVIN

Basically, just taking responsibility for your actions, taking responsibility for yourself, something a lot of people quite far along in age don’t feel obligated to do. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to be like, Hey, maybe I didn’t do that right, maybe I wasn’t very nice to that person, maybe I need to actually step up and mentor someone, instead of criticize them. That’s something I’ve come to realize, especially since having a kid, but also just because now I’m in the middle of my life. I work with college students and I don’t want to fuck it up for them. I remember the people who helped me and the people who did not, and how much it meant to me. So, I take that role seriously, and while I’m certainly not, like, a noble person, I’m sure as shit going to try to be the best person I can be. I have a lot of good examples in my life, friends with exceptional character, who I’ve learned a lot from. I’ve met a lot of these people through VIDA. This is a long way of saying I think everybody should try to be their best selves. It’s hard. I mean, God knows, wisdom comes too late.

PETERSON

Regarding VIDA, in what ways are women still underrepresented?

MARVIN

It’s fascinating that underrepresentation can still be so blatant, especially in so many progressive magazines. It’s always been obvious, but people would get angry if anyone brought it up. I was very lucky to see Francine Prose read from her essay “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink” way back, maybe in 1998, when I was at Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I had read that article in Harper’s examining the question of whether or not women write a certain way. Does a woman have a certain voice? Can you tell it’s a woman writer? I have a lot of male friends, and I have a lot more female friends now that I am involved in VIDA. But a guy I was good friends with didn’t really see what she was getting at. He just dismissed it. That stuck in my craw.

I have a lot of dialogue with male poets. I’m interested in what it means to be a man in a poem or to express masculinity in any way, because the activity of literature is learning what it’s like to be someone else. So, at the time that VIDA came about, I saw the essay by Juliana Spahr called “Numbers Trouble” in which she looks at an avant-garde anthology and sees how skewed the representation is. And I thought, I am always counting the authors. I go down the table of contents and I count, and I’m like, Oh, look, there’s three women and seven men. I know other women do that, too. When I started VIDA I had a lot of conversations with a lot of female writers, and I was like, We should count everything, which struck me as funny because I’m bad at math, but we started what is now known at the VIDA count. There’s a disconnect between what some magazines produce and their readership. The majority of readers are women. Women can read men, women can read across the board, we’re trained to read both genders from a very early age, because we’re forced to read stuff that’s male focused. Then we read stuff on our own, books that are more about women. And we are the biggest consumers of literature. So it seems misguided. There’s a learning curve for these magazines to actually serve their readership; it’s important that they look at the numbers. It’s not a blame game. That’s too easy. We all have our biases. I’ve had to question a lot of my own since starting VIDA. Both Erin Belieu and I were schooled in the male canon. We have both had to look at what we’re teaching, look at our reading lists and ‘fess up. We can’t blame anyone but ourselves for the fact that we are not representing a diverse enough group of people in our classes. And that’s about growing, about not being reactionary and defensive, but saying, Okay, we’re all part of this. Why is it happening? There are going to be a million reasons. A lot of it’s shaped by capitalism and what
people want to sell.

GOTCH

We did an interview with Joyce Carol Oates in which the VIDA count came up. One of the interviewers mentioned that after the count in 2012, Tin House started digging into their own numbers and noticed an equal number of men and women submitting to the journal, but men being five times more likely than women to resubmit.

MARVIN

Women, for a myriad of reasons, are not willing to come back to the table right away. I can speak as a mother—maybe I don’t have time to submit like I used to. I used to submit like a man, but now I can’t be bothered. I think women need to put themselves out there more. We all have to, and it’s scary. But one of the great things about being a writer is that it’s kind of not you, except when you publish and people know who you are. When you’re starting out, though, no one knows who you are. You could be a ninety-two-year-old grandmother. That’s the liberty of poetry. I don’t have my body dragging along behind the poem. You know what it’s like to walk around being in a body—it’s what W. E. B. Du Bois calls Double Consciousness, being aware of having this identity, but also being aware of your identity as a person. That’s a conundrum.

GOTCH

Joyce Carol Oates mentioned a woman she’d published, the first submission this woman had sent in forty years. Because she’d gotten a rejection, she stopped writing. Joyce Carol Oates was like, You’re a really amazing writer. Where have you been all this time?

MARVIN

In our forums for VIDA we hope women of different generations will be conversant with one another. In the older generation there are a few very prominent women and a ton of women who are fine writers ushered into this invisible realm. They feel out of touch with younger female writers. And the fact is, we all are dealing with the same obstacles. Whatever genre we write in, whatever aesthetic group we call our camp, if we have a camp, we’re all facing that difficulty. Our work is not only not fairly represented, given that we’re half the population, the production of our art is being hindered by the fact that our work is not represented in these venues. Because the cold fact is that publications that are anointed are often gateways. If someone has a poem or short story or essay in something or they produce a play or publish a book with a good press, they’re going to sell books, a library is going to adopt that book, reading clubs might adopt that book. Maybe an award will give them a foot up to a better job. If they’re teachers, they might get a lighter teaching load. Maybe they’re applying for grants and the publication will provide a better chance of getting that grant. All of these things are going to give them more time to write. That’s why the VIDA count is important.

Everyone involved in VIDA has their own particular reason they’re involved. Mine is because I’m interested in women’s literature and not just the literature I produce. I don’t even know half of what’s out there because all these voices are being vetted for me as a reader. It makes it difficult to access people I could really enjoy. For me, reading fiction is a pleasure, like eating chocolate. I have much more access to poetry because I’m in that world. But some of these boundaries between genres and between aesthetics have harmed women writers. We’ve felt isolate and haven’t seen how connected we are to one another. We’re all disenfranchised, all struggling to find time to write, all struggling for validation. And the conversation is really going public now. I hope what VIDA can do on its website and when we have a conference (I hope in a few years), is create a space where you can learn about women’s literature. That seems to me like a totally intellectual undertaking, just wanting to know that stuff. Part of this is my education and educating my students. And also keeping literature alive.

VIDA focuses on literary arts. We can’t focus on everything. But there are a lot of organizations for women in different disciplines doing similar things. There’s a woman who writes about women in Hollywood. Women are forming organizations in every single discipline, and it’s not just women who are disenfranchised. I opened the Missouri Review the other day, because we received it as part of our count, and there were pictures of the authors on the front page. They were all white. Not a single writer of color in the whole issue. As we work to diversify VIDA, that’s something increasingly problematic.

PETERSON

I saw your Twitter conversation with Roxane Gay regarding that and was wondering how you might move forward to solve that problem.

MARVIN

I don’t know about the word “solve.” One person’s solution might not be another’s. “Solution” is actually sort of a scary word. But I think, first of all, we have to make space for the conversation and work practically. That’s what happens in a nonprofit—you think about what you can do. You start with ideas, with what you want to change, but then you have to think about action. You have to do it as a group, an incredibly collaborative project. I’ve never worked like this in my life. We’re having our first board of directors meeting on Friday—we have a larger board now—and a women of color initiative is going to be a big topic. We need to look at what it means to diversify the count. That’s difficult because the whole identification issue is tricky. What I would like to do is seek the assistance of like-minded organizations representing underrepresented people. It’s also an issue of class, which is the most invisible thing. Regarding solutions or strategies, you have to work with the help of so many people to get something that is really effective.

McCAULEY

When young writers look at the data, how should they use it? How do you consider it in your own writing?

MARVIN

As a poet, I don’t have to worry about this so much. I did the first count with a few people in the summer of 2010. I would use the public library and I didn’t have any daycare because I was too broke. I teach sometimes at Columbia, so I’d end up using their library or the New York Public Library, and it was hard work, in the trenches, and depressing when you’re doing it, because you find that some information can be presented in such a way graphically that you think there are more women being represented than there are. Then you look at the numbers, and you’re like, Oh. You’ll think, This is a really good issue, with a lot of women, but you look and there are only four. You start to realize that “a lot” of women to you is actually not a lot of women. It’s just what you’re used to. So what do young writers, what do old writers, what does any writer do with that data? Well, no one is going to look at those charts and feel good. But it also depends on what your aspirations are. You write because you have to write. And if you’re letting that tell you your writing is not important, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. It’s a long, tough, gratifying life, but you already have been doing something that nobody wants you to do, if you’re doing something interesting.

In some ways, women writers have an advantage because we write a “minor” literature, and so we’re not so much heard. In some ways, our literature is extremely provocative, is some of the most exciting literature being produced. It’s an advantage. Not having time to write, that sucks, but fighting for it and knowing it’s important, that’s good. And a lot of people will say, “Oh, you won’t have time to write. If you have this job, you’re not going to have time. If you have a kid, you’re not going to have time.” But if writing is a priority for you, you make time, whether it means you have to say no to a bunch of things or slack off in a bunch of things.

When I was trying to figure out whether or not I was going to have a kid, a friend of mine said to me, “I promise you this, you won’t ever write again.” So I decided I wasn’t going to have a kid. Then I started to think about it, and it’s one of those things where you’re doing that squirrely thinking at the back of your mind, mulling it over, and I thought about her photography and how she had not pursued it. No shame in that. That’s her business. But I would rather be dead than not write. If I couldn’t write, there’s no point in anything. So I thought about it and I was like, I’m conditioned to work really hard. Having a child is a lot of work—in some ways it’s not work, but it is work, too, you’re caring for your child. You love your kid. But it’s not like you’re going to some fucking horrible office where you don’t like the people and you have to make photocopies when you’d rather be doing something better with your time. You’re hanging out with a human being you love. So I was like, I think my friend’s version is not my version.

PETERSON

Some male characters in your poems come across as not so great, and some people ask, “What’s the deal with these men?” But are men ever asked this question regarding women in their work? Is it a double standard that people ask you about the men in your poems?

MARVIN

A reviewer of my second book said that he imagined several ex- boyfriends had nosebleeds as my book went to press, a very uncool thing to say. You know from that book that there are a ton of poems that aren’t about men. In fact, that assumption might have been more applicable to my first book, a book with a woman’s voice in the tradition of a love poem, in the tradition of the troubadours, of Petrarch, a book about unrequited love. It’s a young book, the viewpoint of a young woman. People will take those poems and use them as a mirror, and say, “Where are you in this?” But it’s not supposed to be a mirror. It’s not supposed to look back at the woman, though that’s what we’re accustomed to, because typically the woman is the muse or the object in a poem. The woman is not the object in those poems in my first book. That’s why she’s a little unnerving, because she’s strategizing. She has issues of control.

PETERSON

She’s thinking a lot, too, about her situation. There’s one poem, “Me and Men,” in which the speaker says, “I can’t blame them for owning what I wanted back when what I wanted was had only by men.”

MARVIN

What’s really funny about that poem is that whole play with language at the end, where she’s like, I would rather think about animals that I’ve had, the idea being that men are the animals she’s had. And what’s really funny—and this is how utterly guileless I can be as a writer—when I was writing that, I literally meant, I would rather think about my pets. And then I was like, Oh, genius! I trumped myself— language did its work for me. That poem deals with what we do when we’re thinking about marriage or being with someone. We see a pool of people—and I don’t care what you’re orientation is, you think, Okay, who am I going to be with, because I’m supposed to be with someone. Maybe this one or maybe that one will work. It’s such a fucked-up way to go about connecting with people. The speaker’s making a gross generalization. That poem is really about one person, though it shouldn’t be interesting, being only about one person. But one person in a relationship can represent a lot of people. We all know this, I think. We return to archetypes in our lives. It has a lot to do with the mythology we create within our poems if we’re writing personal poetry. It’s recognizing patterns.

You ask about the men in my poems. The thing is, I’m kind of obsessed with men. It’s always been a struggle for me. I’m heterosexual. I often wish I wasn’t, but I am interested in men, and interested in how I will get a man to see me. Maybe it’s a desire to be validated, but it’s also a desire to communicate. I’m also confused by betrayal and dishonesty, and in the landscape of relationships, that’s where a lot of that shit goes down.

PETERSON

When you say you’re confused by betrayal and dishonesty, do you mean you’re confused that it happens or confused about how to react?

MARVIN

I’m confused that it happens. I know that sounds naive. That mummy poem by Thomas James has a speaker who blacks out in her father’s garden and her body is being prepared to be mummified. She says out of the blue that she’s going to come back to her life, back to the garden; she’s going to meet her young groom. His eyes will be like black bruises. And she’s like, Why do people lie to each other? It’s a really good question. It’s something my poems work hard against.

Issue 72: A Conversation with Steve Almond

issue72

Found in Willow Springs 72

April 12, 2012

MICHAEL BELL, KATRINA STUBSON, ERICKA TAYLOR

A CONVERSATION WITH STEVE ALMOND

almond-1

Photo Credit: Sharona Jacobs Photography

The voice in a Steve Almond story or essay or blog post is unmistakable, shaped by a tone typically anchored in dry wit, and a sharp, hungry intelligence that seems capable of taking us anywhere. The world, as Almond observes it, is at once hilarious and pathetic, sad and intensely beautiful. And it’s his willingness to engage the world that demands our attention. We follow him as he navigates his or his characters’ movement through anger and passion, sex and song, confusion and clarity and political rage, sometimes as a call to action or a commentary on our culture, sometimes as a portrait of the individual in crisis or struggling with the risks and dangers of being alive, and often from a depth of obsession—about music or politics or candy or sex or whatever else engages his curiosity.

“What people are really reading for is some quality of obsession,” Almond says. “They have this instinctual sense that the person who’s writing can’t stop talking about this, is super into it—scarily into it. Because everybody has what they’re obsessed with, but you’re sort of taught not to get into it because it seems crazy and makes you weird, and you should be able to get past that and stop collecting Cabbage Patch Kids or whatever your obsession is… But we are all, inside, obsessed.”

Steve Almond is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, three of which he published himself. In 2004 his second book, Candyfreak, was a New York Times bestseller and won the American Library Association Alex Award. In 2005, it was named the Booksense Adult Nonfiction Book of The Year. His Story, “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” from his latest collection, God Bless America, was selected for Best American Short Stories 2010. He is a regular contributor to the New York Time’s Riff section and writes regularly for the literary website, The Rumpus. Two of his stories have been awarded the Pushcart Prize.

We met with Mr. Almond at the Brooklyn Deli in Spokane, where we discussed small publishers and big publishers, politics in fiction and nonfiction, obsession and more obsession, what makes a good editor, and how, “in the most emotional moments of a story, writers are trying to sing.”

KATRINA STUBSON

You’ve published books with different houses, and you’ve recently put out chapbooks yourself. What has your experience been like working with different publishers, large and small?

STEVE ALMOND

When you write something accomplished enough that somebody will buy it, that’s an important and amazing accomplishment. But in the euphoria of that—what I tended to overlook, anyway—is this unnatural arrangement, the artist in partnership with the corporation. It’s strange and unsettling for the weird, little freaky things that I have to say—whether in fiction or nonfiction or letters from people who hate me—to be turned into a commodity. What I want is just to reach people emotionally. I don’t want to feel that there’s a price tag on that, though I do charge for those DIY books I make, because they cost money to print and I’ve got a designer I want to pay and I also want to get a little bit for the energy and time I put into them.

I think it’s fair for artists to get paid. And I will say to people now—though I wouldn’t say it earlier in my career—I will not work for free. If you’re getting some money out of it, I’d like some money too. Doesn’t have to be a ton, but if you’re getting dough out of it—if it’s a nonprofit thing, a charity thing, okay. I’m thinking about this agent who sent me a note saying, “Would you be willing to contribute to this anthology?” And I was like, “Sure, just tell me who’s getting paid what and we can decide what seems fair for me.” And he just kept ducking the question. Turned out he was getting a fifty-thousand dollar advance. I was eventually like, “Yeah, I’m not cool with that. If you’re getting money, then all your contributors should be getting some money too.” I’m not naïve enough to be saying, “Oh, we’re just artists, everything should be free and open.” No. You work hard, you should get paid. We should have enough esteem for people who make art to acknowledge it’s worth paying for, worth supporting them in their endeavor. But working with a big company—I knew that they liked my art, but they were mainly trying to figure out a way to make money. They saw Candyfreak and thought, Oh, with our platform and marketing, maybe we can get this guy to write a bestseller. I understand that most editors are interested in good books. But most editors aren’t the ones who acquire books.

There’s a whole marketing team and committee and they have to decide if this thing’s going to make money or not. That’s a calculus that can start to infect your process if you think about it too much. You think, Well, maybe I should do this or that, and then you’re not really following your own preoccupations and obsessions. You’re worrying about what the market wants, what the marketing people want in a particular book.

In Candyfreak, the publisher begged me to take out a line at the beginning of the book that had the word “dick” in it: “You give a teenage boy a candy bar with a ruler on the back of it, he will measure his dick.” She was like, “Can’t we please take that out so we can broaden the audience of this book.” I understood what she was saying. That was a corporation speaking directly to the artist, saying that even though that’s the right word, and even though you want to write a book with a profane edge to it, we could really broaden our audience here. This could be a young adult book that could be marketed in a whole new way, be happily and safely given to kids, and so forth. I’m not blaming this woman for saying it—it’s just the voice of the corporation—but I had to say, “No. Sorry you’re pissed off at me.”

As far as those chapbooks go, I think if you’ve spent long enough making decisions at the keyboard, and if you feel like you have a book or books that you’re ready to move out into the world, books that don’t seem to need an editor—I mean, I had my friends edit those little books—then why not? The technology exists, the means of production for literary art has been democratized to the point that all of us can make a book tomorrow if we want to. Why bother to get a corporation involved when the project is a smaller, more idiosyncratic book? Why not put it out in a smaller, more organic, personal way? To the extent that your patience and talent allows, you can choose your publishing experience now.

I’m happy to have books published with big publishers. I’m happy to have anybody help me out with this stuff. I don’t like schlepping books around and having to do all that stuff. It’s sort of low-level humiliating and kind of a drag. I’d rather have somebody else do it all for me and I could just be the artist, with my little artist wings saying, Yes, I’ll sign your book. Now let me go off and write some more. But that’s not really how my career works. The culture doesn’t have that kind of passion for the work I do. But as long as the means of production exists and I have these little weird projects I want to do, why not try to do them in a way that feels more natural? It’s a smaller thing. I like the feeling of making a book with another artist, putting exactly what I want into it, sometimes in consultation with readers early in the process. There’s no marketing team, no publisher, no editor to mess with you about that—it’s liberating. And even though I charge money for the books, they feel more like an artifact that commemorates a particular night, a reading or some other interaction, rather than a commodity you could get anywhere, not that there’s anything wrong with buying books in stores. But I don’t think a lot of people walk into a bookstore and say, “What do you have by Steve Almond?” Nobody does. Or very few people. My mom does. I realized at a certain point that people find my stuff because I do a reading or give a class, and they think they might like more. You sort of have to recognize where you’re at, and for me, these DIY books make a lot of sense.

I’m delighted God Bless America came out with a small press. I’m glad I didn’t try to put that book out myself. It really only works economically when they’re little books. And Ben George at Lookout Books was a phenomenal editor, and helped make all the stories in God Bless America way better than they were before, even if they’d been published in the Pushcart or Best American. That’s the thing that matters—finding a great editor. Stephen Elliott says there’s no point in putting out twenty thousand copies of a mediocre book. You only have enough time in life to put out so many books, and you invest all this energy, so you’ve got to find the editor who’s going to help you make it the best book possible.

STUBSON

What makes a good editor?

ALMOND

A good editor pays attention. They get what you’re trying to do, they see the places where you’re falling short, and they can explain the problems in precise, concrete terms. Ben George would go through these stories and say, “You have this character shrugging here and I just don’t think it’s doing any work.” A good editor targets what’s inessential in your work, every moment you’ve raced through when you should have slowed down, every place where the narrative isn’t really grounded in the physical world and you’ve missed an opportunity. It’s a revelation to get that kind of editing, and it has everything to do with the quality of attention they’re paying to your work. It can be oppressive when it’s somebody like Ben, who’s so compulsive about it, though it’s also an incredible gift to have somebody who understands your intention so clearly that he can zero in on places where nobody else—great magazine editors, editors of anthologies—has said anything. He zips right in and says, “You don’t need this line. That word is a repetition. You need to show me the airport right now because I cannot see it.”

That hasn’t always happened for me. My editor at Algonquin was great, and my editors at Random House—I had two—did the best they could. But I think they were under certain constraints, and they weren’t line editors. They were essentially trying to figure out how to get a return for Random House on an investment they’d made. Their job wasn’t to make every essay shine and every line perfect and every word essential. I don’t think that makes them bad editors, in terms of how their jobs were defined, but it didn’t help me make the books better.

That’s not as true of Rock N Roll Will Save Your Life. My editor on that book was sharp about saying, “You cannot write ten thousand words about Ike Reilly. Nobody’s interested. You’re going to make the book worse and less accessible to the reader.” That’s a lot of what a good editor does—tells you when you might be confusing the reader, boring them, or writing in a way that isn’t compelling. Not because they want to sell tons of copies, but because they’re sensitive to the places where you haven’t made the arc matter enough to the reader.

ERICKA TAYLOR

How do you distinguish between being a political writer and a moral writer?

ALMOND

I do write about politics, and I get that people want to put whatever label on that, which is fine. I’m interested in cutting beneath the version of politics that’s happening on cable TV, though, and getting to the fact that it’s really all about policies and how people behave toward one another. In American politics, the big argument happening on cable has obscured the fact that we have elected representatives who decide how kind and compassionate and generous we’re going to be as a country or if it’s a moral duty for extraordinarily wealthy or even comfortable people to help out those who have less. There are moral implications to these decisions, and they’re almost entirely obscured in our political arena.

So when I’m writing political pieces, I’m trying to remind people that real moral decisions are being made about how your kids are going to be educated, or whether people in our culture are going to have the opportunity we say America offers. I want to remind people that we have great ideals in the abstract, but we almost never live up to them. America has the best ideals of any country on earth, and yet we’re the worst at living those values and enacting them. We’ve gotten completely distracted by this circus sideshow. But as I say that, I also recognize that I’m up on a soapbox, and that people don’t want to hear that. There are tons of people shouting from the soapbox, saying, “Here’s who you should be pissed off at, here’s what you should do.” You can become a kind of mirror version of what’s happening on talk radio. So I try to write in a way that forces people to realize that I’m talking about what it means to be a human rather than how they should behave morally. I don’t always succeed. I’m not sure my writing is always moral writing. Sometimes, when it’s not quite as good, it feels political and pedantic. I’m not sure that’s worthwhile.

MICHAEL BELL

How did you handle that in “How to Love a Republican” versus God Bless America?

ALMOND

“How to Love a Republican” started as a story based around the 2000 election and its aftermath. A liberal guy falls in love with a conservative. They’re both idealistic, political people working on campaigns, and when I originally wrote that story it was like 15,000 words, and 8,000 of them were me saying, “How can we have an election that’s so unfair?” and, “Dick Cheney’s such an asshole,” and, “The Supreme Court totally sold us out,” and blah blah blah. I had to look at those 15,000 words and see that they were a polemic, not a story. What’s more interesting is this human question: Can you love somebody when you don’t respect their basic sense of fairness and morality? How much do you have to agree with someone’s values in order to conduct an enduring romantic relationship? That’s the real question. And so the political polemical stuff got cut out of the story and what remained was this question of what you do when you love somebody and respect their ambition but run into this historical moment in which you can’t agree and you can’t let it go. Many relationships reach this point. It’s not necessarily about the 2000 election; it’s about some other thing—I cannot deal with the way you treat my family, or whatever it is. That to me is a much more universal idea to pursue.

The stories in God Bless America are reflective of the next ten years, the Bush years, and also since Obama’s been president. Our culture’s become meaner, more paranoid, angrier, more self-victimized. I think a lot of that comes out of how we processed 9/11. That was not a tragedy that caused us to do any reflecting. We just went into a crazy, bullying, narcissistic, jingoistic, proto-fascist psychosis. And of course 9/11 was a terrible thing. It’s not something I am going to try to appropriate—the grief of 9/11. That’s the crazy thing that happened on TV, because it’s a good story, and it became like every other story the media puts out: meant to press our buttons, not to really make us think about our duty as citizens or why we might have been attacked or what our empire’s up to. When I think about how we reacted to that, I feel like it’s cowboys and Indians. It’s this narrative of America as a heroic country that’s actually so empty inside that we have to regenerate ourselves through violence, make up a story about those nasty Indians attacking our forts we built on their land.

The stories in God Bless America are morally distressed stories, and they’re pretty depressing, and I feel bad about that because I like to write stories that have some humor— which is how I try to cut that moralizing I do. But that’s how I felt the last ten years. I walk around my house renting my garments and tearing my hair out, driving my wife crazy, saying, “What is this country doing? When are we going to grow up? It’s got to stop.” When I’m able to deal with that most effectively is when I’m able to imagine my way into a character contending with that world, a character who’s not me, who’s not an ideologue or a demagogue, but is just a person struggling with the first day back from war, having witnessed the kind of violence and chaos that young men are witness to in these wars, and coming back and somehow trying to deal with it. And he can’t. He’s broken and he’s going to take it out on someone.

The amount of that stuff going on—you don’t hear a lot about it. We’ve developed a narrative that the veterans are noble, wounded warriors. But when he comes back, we don’t listen to what he has to say. Maybe somebody’s paid to listen, but as a culture, we just clap in the air and say, “Thank you for your service,” and put a ribbon on our car and think we’re somehow dealing with somebody who got his legs blown off or had to kill someone or had his best friend killed or was shocked and freaked out by the kind of extreme violence he was exposed to. That strikes me as a fraudulent and immoral way to contend with that. So those stories with veterans in God Bless America are my effort to acknowledge that this is what happens. Like most people, I’m a civilian; I’m just trying to imagine my way into it. Maybe I’m doing a bad job, but I’m making an effort to ask what it would really be like to be nineteen or twenty and to be in that kind of moral chaos. To be in that violent chaos. What would it do to you? Who might it turn you into?

TAYLOR

We were talking earlier today about putting characters in danger. Since you were writing Candyfreak while you were depressed, were you conscious of the same M.O., and thinking, This book is manifesting me as a protagonist in danger?

ALMOND

It’s interesting that I was in the Idaho Candy Company factory and there’s Dave Wagers showing me around, and he’s such a nice guy, and I’m trying to distract myself. But then I have to go back to my hotel room and the reportage is over. If I were a journalist, I’d say, “The factory is so wonderful,” and it’s not really about me. It’s about how wonderful their chocolate pretzels are. And that’s fine for a piece of journalism. But with Candyfreak, part of my job was to turn the camera inward and be like, Also, I’m super depressed and fucked up, and that’s part of the story, too. It’s not the only part, but it’s a part. Maybe for some people it’s an indulgent or uninteresting part. But if I’m going to write about that experience, flying around to these places. I’m not going to ignore the fact that I was in a depression and doing everything I could to try to avoid it. To me, that’s what’s interesting.

And when I talk to the guy who makes Valomilks, of course I’m picking up on the fact that he’s this sort of desperate character who, on the one hand, has this story about how we’re bringing back old time candy and isn’t that awesome and wonderful? But it’s also a pitch he’s making, which he makes to all the journalists who talk to him. And that might be interesting as far as it goes, but it’s not literary. Literary is the sudden moment when a mirror is held up and somebody goes, “Oh, my god.” It’s the reason I left journalism, because the questions weren’t interesting. Who, what, where, when, why—not, Why did this guy fuck up his life? Why did this person have an affair? Why did this person make such bad decisions? What part of him got distorted into this particular evil? Those are the interesting questions, the literary questions.

With Candyfreak, my editor said to start right when we get to the factories. And she was pretty convincing and a good editor; she’s paying attention to the text. But I was like, I need people to know that I’m the person to write this book. And maybe what I was really saying was, “Maybe the book’s partly about me.” That sounded too indulgent to say directly, but I needed people to know that I have this especially pathological relationship to candy. And if they’re going to follow me on this, I want them to know they’re going to be following the craziest person about candy they’ve ever met. That happens to be the truth. I’m not some random reporter. With Candyfreak I wasn’t going to ignore the fact that it was me as a person who was obsessed with this one particular thing. The rock and roll book was the same way. I write out of my obsession. I think that’s the engine of literature. What people are really reading for is some quality of obsession. They have this instinctual sense that the person who’s writing can’t stop talking about this, is super into it—scarily into it. Because everybody has what they’re obsessed with, but you’re sort of taught not to get into it because it seems crazy and makes you weird, and you should be able to get past that and stop collecting Cabbage Patch Kids or whatever your obsession is. But kids are obsessive by nature, and they are the most voracious readers of all. They’ll read a book over and over again. They’re naturally obsessive, and we’re only trained out of it. But we are all, inside, obsessed. It’s just polite society that says, “Stop talking about that band so much. Stop talking about that TV show or website or painting or whatever it is.” I think most great books are obsessive either in their manner of composition or their plot, sometimes both.

STUBSON

We’re all obsessive by nature, but it’s okay because someone else is expressing it?

ALMOND

Right. People find stories or essays pleasing because they realize they’re not the only person who’s crazy, who’s that ruined or stuck in some way, or that joyful about something. I feel like everywhere outside of art, in the world of marketing and the day-to-day, nobody’s really telling the truth, nobody’s really going into any dark, deep, true shit. Everybody’s faking it. But a certain kind of person actually wants to get into that other stuff. It’s more painful to live with that kind of awareness, to be honest with yourself and other people, but I’d rather spend my time on earth that way, even though I’m now going to be poverty stricken and choked by doubt and all the rest of it. I think this is why so many people are getting MFAs and trying to do creative writing, or whatever art they’re trying to do. Because they’re deprived of the capacity to feel that deeply by the culture at large and, significantly, by their families of origin.

I grew up in a family where there was a lot of deep feeling and not much of it ever got expressed. It got expressed mostly through antagonism and neglect and a kind of avoidance of what was really happening. I think that stuff gets into the ground water of most writers. I write about it in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey. That’s where it comes from, that unrequited desire to say, “No, I’m gonna talk about this shit.” A lot of that is reaction to the fact that you come from a family where that stuff isn’t talked about. Your parents are like, “Are you depressed?” Their take is, Wow, it really would be easier and more efficient if you would just get a business card and a healthcare plan and have a more conventional lifestyle. I’m lucky that my folks are psychoanalysts, because they’re interested in the insides of people. But a lot of the people I encounter don’t have that advantage. And it’s not because their family is trying to silence them. Parents want their kids to have a happy life, and they see the life of an artist as an intense engagement with feelings—oftentimes painful feelings—and the struggle to make ends meet and to be heard in the world, and maybe a lot of disappointment along the way.

BELL

You talk about questions you’re interested in, for example the questions journalism asks as opposed to literary nonfiction. Are those nonfiction questions the same as the ones you approach in your stories, or are those central questions different?

ALMOND

Stories allow you to construct a world that’s completely aimed at exposing those questions. With nonfiction you have to choose your topic and root around through the past to find the moments that really mattered, and then you try to unpack them. But with fiction, my sense of plot is extraordinarily primitive: Find character. What is character afraid of? What does character want? Push character to scary cave or happy cave. When you know you have a character who’s a closet gambling addict and a shrink, then you know how the rest of the story has to go. Of course a famous gambler has to walk into his office, and of course they have to wind up across the poker table at the end of the story. As soon as you know what your character desires and fears, you have some sense of what you’re pushing your character toward—or I do. That’s my conception of plot.

With nonfiction, it’s much more a process of archeology and digging through and saying this moment is important, and so is this history. You can choose where to look around, but you can’t choose to make shit up like you can in a story. You’re engineering the world for maximum emotional impact in a short story. Whether you have the courage to do that or you get lost with all the possibilities is another question. When you have no constraints on reality, you can engineer any world you want, put your character in a room having sex with his secretary and in walks his wife, and boom—you just did it, it’s a dramatically dangerous situation. You can’t do that in nonfiction. You might write about your fantasies or wishes, but you have to write about stuff that actually happened and stuff that happens in your head. You can’t make stuff up to make it more dramatic. If you do, you have to call it what it is—fiction.

TAYLOR

Your flash fiction feels particularly lyrical. Do you approach very short work in a different way?

ALMOND

A lot of those started out as poems. But I realized they weren’t poems—they were little stories, little bursts of empathy. I read flash, and I always have a pleased feeling when a writer has somehow plugged into this exalted way of communicating. I feel like they’re singing to me. In those little stories, I’m just trying to capture moments where something devastating happens. I’m trying to capture five seconds in amber—like my great-aunt being walked across an icy street by this handsome young guy who calls back, “Can I have your number?” in front of his friends—a moment of gallantry and how beautiful that is. Nothing more than that. You don’t need to know her whole life. You don’t need to know where she grew up. This is the moment that matters. That’s what those flash pieces are about.

STUBSON

In Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life you write that songs taught you a lot about story.
Would you talk a bit about expression in song versus expression on the page?

ALMOND

Music allows you to reach feelings you can’t reach by other means. The best writing does that too, although it’s a lot more inconvenient because you have to sit there and pay attention, whereas if a great song comes on, boom, you’re in it. You have an immediate set of memories and associations and an emotional reaction. Reading is harder. In a certain way it’s more fulfilling, because with a piece of writing you have to do much more work than any other art form. You’re an active participant in the construction of these images and so forth. You’re making the movie in your head; I’m just giving you the perspective.

So that’s very exciting, but the reason I listen to a lot of music, and kind of always envied musicians, is that it just gets across much more quickly and intuitively through the primal and instinctual language of melody and rhythm. There’s no comparison. And you could ask almost any writer, at least any writer you’d want to spend time with, “Would you rather be a musician and go on tour and be able to do your crazy ecstatic thing of making music, or would you like to be a writer, sitting in your fucking garret going, Ughhh I hope, I hope, I hope?” That’s not to degrade writing. I think it’s great, I love it, blah, blah, blah. But the thing I learn from listening to songs and listening to albums—these guys want you to feel something and they’re not being coy about it. They’re not writing their little obedient, minimalist short story or earnest autobiographical essay. They’re singing; they’re trying to get across to you emotionally.

I think all young writers think, I have to be taken seriously; people have to know I’m a serious artist; let there be no confusion about that. And they’re more reluctant to get into the real reasons they’re working on a particular piece—to get their characters, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, into that real emotional trouble we talked about. With a good song, you’re in emotional trouble right from the first chord. It’s an ecstatic, immediately emotional experience.

In my writing. I want to construct a ramp to these important emotional moments, slowly drawing the reader in. But I also think that in the most emotional moments of a story, writers are trying to sing. That’s what James Joyce is doing at the end of “The Dead.” That last paragraph is like a beautiful song. That’s what Homer is doing, that’s what Shakespeare is doing, that’s what all great writers are doing—Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, Denis Johnson, whoever. They reach these ecstatic moments, and in order to describe the complex, contradictory feelings they’re experiencing, the language has to rise up and become more lyric and sensual and compressed in order to capture that kind of exalted moment, whether it’s grief or ecstasy or some complicated mix of emotions.

Listening to songs makes me wonder why I am not writing towards those moments where you just open your throat and sing. And if I’m not, then what am I doing? Of course, you can be sentimental and screw it up and I hate that kind of writing. It’s playing it safe. If the character isn’t at some point in real trouble, if the language doesn’t reach up into a sort of lyric register, what is the point? I’m not saying that’s how all writing should be, but that’s my feeling about it. If you’re not writing for those lyric moments, what are you writing for?

BELL

Are those germs for story? Do you know the moment, or do you start with the character and get there?

ALMOND

I usually start with characters and I have some sense of what they want or what they’re after, what they’re frightened of. And the rest of it, at least to the extent that you can, you’re trying to let your artistic unconscious steer. You might have broader sense of, Okay, Aus is a closet gambler and that’s got to be revealed somehow, and Sharp—I didn’t know who Sharp was—he walks in. I like that he’s got an attitude, I like that he’s sharp and jagged and well- defended, but I didn’t know he was going to start talking about his kid and reach this moment where his wife is on the brink of leaving. That’s just stuff—I don’t even know how to explain it. As you’re writing the character, suddenly that’s who he is, that’s what pops out. Undoubtedly it comes out of my own preoccupations and obsessions, but I’m not trying to figure that out as I’m writing. I’m just hoping my artistic unconscious is going to feed those moments where characters come apart against the truth of themselves.

You can engineer the plot to an extent, but the lines themselves and the journey that a particular character takes toward that moment should be a mystery to you. That’s the joy of writing fiction. There’s this mysterious thing that takes over. And to some extent, nonfiction as well. I didn’t know that Candyfreak would lead me in this, that, or the other direction. That’s part of the pleasure of writing. If you know it all already you start to feel self-conscious and predetermined. There should be lots of stuff you don’t know. That’s what allows you to surprise yourself and keep a preserved sense of mystery in your work. Your artistic unconscious has to deliver so much to you. It’s way more powerful than your conscious efforts to jury-rig things.

STUBSON

Can you consciously train your subconscious so that you can make those kinds of discoveries?

ALMOND

All you can do is be honest about the things that stick in your craw, without trying to psychoanalyze them or understand why. As a nonfiction writer, Susan Orlean becomes completely obsessed with orchids, and she just follows it. She doesn’t wonder, Why am I interested in this. What is it about? She just follows the trail. Can somebody teach you to be that way? No. You’ve got to find it within yourself. I tell my students to write about the stuff that matters the most deeply to them. In fiction, you don’t always know you’re doing that; you have to sneak up on it.

I wrote this story years ago called “Among the Ik.” It’s in My Life in Heavy Metal and it’s based on something that happened to me. I went to visit my friend Tom in Maine, whose mother had just died. Also, he’d just had his first child, a baby girl. I walked in the house and there was the baby and the baby’s mom and Tom’s brother-in-law and sister in front of the fire, and they were having tangerines. This beautiful tableau. But I walked into the kitchen first and there was Tom’s dad, and Tom introduced me to him, this grieving widower, and he’s nervous and for whatever reason, rather than allowing me to move into where the action is, where the new life is, he nervously cornered me and found out I was an adjunct. He was thinking, I guess, about when he was an adjunct, and he told me this story about having to identify the dead body of one of his students.

It was a weird story, but as a fiction writer you’re always on the lookout for that. It stuck in my craw. I don’t know why it did, it just did. I sensed that he was frightened to integrate with the rest of the family. So for whatever reason, this lonely guy telling me this story about a dead body gets in my craw and I start writing about it. I’m not investigating why. I just know it’s stuck in my craw and that usually is the signal to me that I need to write. So I write this story and I change a bunch of things—he’s a poet in real life, but I make him an anthropologist. My artistic unconscious feeds me this memory of when I was in second or third grade and we watched this film about a tribe somewhere called the Ik, and how the environment there is so unremittingly harsh that parents sometimes leave their children behind. It haunted me for years, rolling around my subconscious, and up it pops the moment I needed it in this story, when I’m writing about parents and kids and families and how they connect emotionally or are unable to connect emotionally.

I finish the story and when My Life in Heavy Metal comes out, my dad sends me a long note saying, “Oh, gee, Steve, your mother and I really like the stories; we’re very, very proud of you, and about that story ‘Among the Ik’—I just want to tell you that I never realized I was such a distant father.” And my immediate reaction was, What are you talking about, Dad? That story’s not...about...you. It’s about that episode that got stuck in my craw. When I wrote it, I didn’t sit at the keyboard and wonder why I’d been thinking about it so much. I just chased the story.

I don’t think you can train your mind. But you can spend time at the keyboard and you can try to be relaxed when you’re at the keyboard and write about the things that you’re preoccupied with and be as unselfconscious and as unremittingly honest as you can be. That’s about all you can do. I don’t know of any push-ups for your artistic unconscious. I just know that the best work I’m able to do is when I’m writing about stuff I’m obsessed with, especially with fiction, when I have no idea what I’m doing; my characters are acting on my behalf and my obsessions are disguised and I just sneak up on them.

Issue 72: A Conversation with Susan Orlean

issue72

Found in Willow Springs 72

April 12, 2012

CHRIS CULLEN, LEYNA KROW, JOE SLOCUM

A CONVERSATION WITH SUSAN ORLEAN

<> at Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre on June 5, 2012 in North Hollywood, California.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Susan Orlean’s profiles and features bubble with a kind of humor and empathy that seems effortless—as if Orlean has, time and again, simply stumbled upon someone living the most fascinating life, and she can’t wait to tell readers about it. She makes the extraordinary seem familiar, such as in the article “Lifelike,” when she visits the World Taxidermy Championships and finds the participants no different than any other community of likeminded enthusiasts. And she can make the familiar seem extraordinary, as in “The American Male at Age 10” in which she reveals the precocious oddity of even the most typical pre-teen boy. These are the kinds of stories Orlean seeks to share. As she notes in the introduction to her collection The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup:

What I wanted to write about were the people and places around me. I didn’t want to write about famous people simply because they were famous and I didn’t want to write about charming little things that were self-consciously charming and little; I wasn’t interested in documenting or predicting trends and I didn’t have polemics to air or sociological theories to spin out.

Rather, she wanted to write “stories that move at their own pace.” And that’s exactly what she’s done the last three decades. She’s made a career of telling small stories, slow stories, and strange stories in a way that makes them matter as all nonfiction should matter—in a human way.

Orlean is the author of The Orchid Thief, My Kind of Place, and Saturday Night, among other books, and, most recently, Rin Tin Tin. She’s been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1992 and her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, and numerous other publications. She says her desire to write is strongly connected to her “desire to know.” Curiosity leads her to her subject matter and propels her through each piece. This, she insists, is crucial for any writer. Her advice to those starting out: “If you’re not interested and you’re not inquisitive and you don’t think you’ll ever be inquisitive, don’t be a writer.” We met with Ms. Orlean during the 14th annual Get Lit! Festival in Spokane, where she talked about the benefits of being an outsider, the trick to being both funny and kind at the same time, and why nonfiction writers shouldn’t be afraid to let themselves get lost.

LEYNA KROW

In both The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin, I was impressed with your ability to go big. Rin Tin Tin is a story about a dog, but it’s also about World War I and early Hollywood and the evolution of dogs in the American family, providing insight into all these different things. Many contemporary nonfiction writers aren’t willing to stray so far from their topic. Why are you?

SUSAN ORLEAN

I’m really interested in specific stories—the minutia of a particular story. But I can’t help but see how a story radiates beyond its tiny particulars, especially with a book project. Rin Tin Tin is a particular story about a dog and a guy who owned that dog, but that guy was a product of his moment in history—the turn of the century—and of orphanages, of being a fatherless boy, of living through World War I. It’s all connective tissue. I think surgically removing a narrative from the tissue of what it’s part of makes you lose an awful lot. You don’t want to portray just the tissue because that’s not a good way for people to understand the story. For a reader, it’s much more engaging to connect with a particular individual and a particular narrative—an explicit journey.

I love the idea that you’re gently moving readers into those big stories. If you were to say, “By the way, I’d like to conjure for you an idea of what World War I might have been like for a young man as a soldier,” a lot of people would be like, Sure, it’s interesting, but it’s so abstract, so removed, as opposed to identifying with a single guy who could have lived in any point in time, a fatherless boy and the loneliness he might have felt. And then you put him in the context of this era and suddenly, for me, I began to think, Oh, that’s what World War I was like. It makes more sense to me, and the big picture becomes more vivid because I begin to imagine it more particularly.

I don’t know why people don’t make that leap more. I don’t know whether there’s a self-consciousness about thinking, Does this sound like I’m trying to be profound? Who am I to tell you that this is about the essential American conflict, or the character of World War I? I’m no expert on this. I think you have to take a deep breath and feel that confidence. It requires a kind of bold push beyond a particular story—not only in historical bigness, but also some of the emotional and conceptual bigness. And I wouldn’t want to write a story about a dog if I didn’t feel it meant more.

CHRIS CULLEN

How are you able to know when a story is about one thing but also bigger issues? When do you start to figure out those bigger issues?

ORLEAN

That’s a tricky thing. Ideally, you want to come to that realization in an authentic way. You don’t think, Oh, I’ll write about Rin Tin Tin because this is also about the theme of….” That’s where it begins to feel artificial, like you sort of pulled something off of the philosophy and spirituality shelf and slapped it into a story. I think it comes after you do the reporting on the story, but before you sit down to write, when you’re spending a lot of time thinking, What did I learn here? And why was this interesting? And organically, it seems, you sort of emerge into the realization that there’s more to it. Because, initially, it always is the little story. You think, Oh, Rin Tin Tin was a real dog? That’s so cool. What a crazy, great story. And I like dogs, so this is good. Rather than, At the same time, I can have this do double duty. That feels false to me. I think it really is a natural growth out of the time you spend thinking before you start writing, when you’re asking yourself: What really was interesting about this story?

KROW

Do you ever start writing about something, and think, This is the bigger thing I’m going to pull in. And then find out you’re wrong?

ORLEAN

Oh, yeah. You’re frequently wrong. In fact, being wrong is a part of it. I think it’s valuable to start off thinking a story is going to be one thing and then it becomes another, because that means you’re actually learning. If you think the story is about X and the story remains about X from beginning to end, it makes you wonder, Did I really learn anything? If you already knew what it was about, maybe it wasn’t that good of a story.

Maybe it wasn’t that interesting. That’s why the realization of the bigger story, if it comes early, makes me worry. Sometimes it’s not until the very end that you begin to realize something’s out of focus, slowly coming into focus. Suddenly, you see it.

I don’t think you’re really open to a story if you’ve decided what it’s about before you’ve learned it. If you think you know, you should probably consider whether the story is genuinely challenging. You should feel lost in a story. It’s a good part of the process. It doesn’t feel very good at the time, but it’s a useful part of it. Just to think, What on earth did I have in mind? Why did I do this? People don’t like that feeling, but I think it’s a sign that you’ve wandered into places you weren’t expecting to go.

JOE SLOCUM

Is there a specific project you can think of that didn’t work out so well? A place where you got too lost?

ORLEAN

That I actually ended up writing, or that I abandoned?

SLOCUM

Either.

ORLEAN

I’ve had a couple of stories that I’ve wanted to abandon. “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup” was one of them. I was ready to bail on that one, because the person I had been dealing with and who had guaranteed me an interview with Christina Sanchez turned out to be a fraud and didn’t represent her. I found myself in Spain and suddenly had no access to her. I was going to come home, but my editor said, “Just hang out for a day or two and see if you can figure something out.” I was very unhappy because I had thought this was a complete bust. I felt self-conscious too, because it was my first story for Outside magazine, and I thought, Oh, God, this is really embarrassing. I think that threw me back on my wits a lot more than dealing with an agent who was going to set it all up for me. I had to think, What is going on in this woman’s life right now that she has a guy posing as her agent? What is the nature of this fame and what does it mean?

Scrambling to find her and doing what I could to somehow connect with her pushed me more. That happens—where you end up somewhere and the people you thought were going to be really interesting and helpful aren’t. And it doesn’t always work out well. There are times when it’s like being on Outward Bound. You have a match and you have a compass and you think, Okay, let me figure this out.

SLOCUM

When it does work out, like in “Lifelike” where you’re at the World Taxidermy Championship, how do you pick the taxidermists to go have ribs with? How do you find the right people? Is it kind of a stumble?

ORLEAN

It is a stumble. That instance was one where I went in with no preparation; I just wanted to go. I think I might have talked to the organizers, but basically I just went. And again, that was a period of feeling a bit lost. In that case, it was a really wonderful and good stroke of luck that they were great, which is not to say that had I gone out to dinner with another set of taxidermists, they wouldn’t have been equally great. But I do feel like I have pretty good radar in that way.

I don’t know what it is—if it’s something I’m picking up on or some combination of data I’m processing. When I’m at the World Taxidermy Championships and tons of people are roaming around, I seem to have pretty good instinct for who to talk to. It may be that everyone at that event was interesting. I’ll never know. I don’t mean to be vain about it, but I feel like whether it’s that they were working on a mount I thought was cool, or they were nice, or they were funny and articulate, or they were weird—I couldn’t tell you what it is—but I connect with people who, fortunately, often turn out to be really interesting. Being a writer in this regard means that you have to be a quick learner. You don’t have a lot of time to sniff out a situation and figure out what’s going to be interesting.

KROW

That makes it sound like you have an innate sense for what you do, which makes me think this isn’t something someone can practice hard enough at or be diligent about and then become like Susan Orlean. Is this maybe a natural gift for gleaning information from people and places?

ORLEAN

I think it’s a combination. There is a lot to learn, but I think some of it’s just imbedded in who you are. If you’re somebody who’s not a good observer, you’re probably never going to learn it. You get better and better at it the more practice, but if you don’t have at least some instinct for that—walking into a room and sorting it out and figuring out what’s going to be interesting and what’s not—I don’t know how much you can learn. I think you can get a lot of good experience and I think you can improve by success and failure, but my guess is that at least something in there is just who you are. That sounds discouraging. I don’t mean that. There’s a lot of craft in writing, and there’s a lot of art. You can improve the craft and the art, but there’s an essential piece of it that is who you are. I’ve often said to my students, “If you’re a boring person, don’t be a writer.” If you’re super boring, you’re going to be a boring writer, and I’m sorry to break it to you, but that’s probably not going to change. If you’re not interested and you’re not inquisitive and you don’t think you’ll ever be inquisitive, don’t be a writer. There’s a great deal to learn, but there are certain things that you just come to the table with.

CULLEN

You have a tendency to go back and forth between being an insider and an outsider in your pieces. In “Animalish,” you write about what makes New England “New England,” and you’re not from New England. How does that process work?

ORLEAN

I feel like I’m at my best when I’m an outsider. The emotional challenge of being a stranger and an outsider seems to bring something out in me, and it’s that I’ve got to be a quick study. Nobody likes being the outsider, but being in that position seems to spur me. Also, I’m fascinated by the challenge of thinking, This isn’t my world, I don’t understand it, and in some cases I may not even think I like it, but can I penetrate it and can I find empathy for it?”

I’m so curious about that. I’m interested in things that other people bring lots of emotion and meaning to that I don’t understand. How does someone care about children’s beauty pageants, for example? It’s so alien. It’s like travel writing—the same reason we like reading about somebody going to a foreign country. That otherness is an essential piece of it to me. I’m traveling into subcultures, not necessarily just different physical places.

Then sometimes it’s a contrarian thing. I’ll be somewhere and think, What ends up drawing people here? It’s not the prove-to-me-why-this-is-valuable thing. It’s more me wondering if I can bring myself to understand something that feels so other.

KROW

Again, it feels like you have a natural ability in situations that are maybe weird or distasteful to call people out without being mean or cruel. That seems hard.

ORLEAN

I don’t have to worry about being mean, because it doesn’t come from that part of me. I can be very mean in my personal life. And it’s not that I think everything’s beautiful, and I love it. It’s that wanting to know and wanting to understand feels absolutely intact as a value in and of itself. I think this is something I don’t have to work at—it’s just wanting to know. It doesn’t mean I have to like it or want to do it; it doesn’t mean I’m promoting it, but isn’t it good to just know? Do I want to put my kid in a beauty pageant? God forbid! But I want to know why someone would do it and what it’s really like. What does it feel like to be there? Why do people care about it? Even something that’s horrible. If someone said to me, “I can get you into a Ku Klux Klan training camp,” I would say, “I want to know.” Not just that it’s a great story, because obviously it would be, but on a personal level. I’m sure there are a few things I would find so distasteful I couldn’t do them. But generally, and I hate sounding simplistic, but I just want to know. I think most of the ills of the world emerge from people not wanting to know, and making assumptions and forming opinions without knowing. Xenophobia and the fear of otherness, to me, is the most limiting, life-deflating emotion.

So I’m not saying we’re all one big happy family. Not at all. And it’s not that I don’t have opinions, because I definitely have opinions. A good example of that was with “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.” I used to think, Why would anyone go to a bullfight? It’s the most disgusting thing. But then I thought, I’ve never actually been to a bullfight. I still don’t wish to go, but I have a completely different feeling about it now. I don’t look at the people who like it with that same arrogance, like, You’re monsters because you go to a bullfight. I was able to put it into a context of understanding why a lot of people feel good about it.

I think that’s important, to separate any natural reaction I might have from the idea that you’re never harmed by knowing more about something. That’s what I want readers to do. In many cases, I want them to read about something about which they truly might have thought: I don’t want to know about this; I don’t understand why this would be interesting. I like the idea of coming to the subject resisting, and coming out the other side understanding. This is a strange and sometimes distasteful and sometimes just weird world. I’m not looking to change opinions. I just want to say, “You know what? It’s good to learn about it.”

SLOCUM

Does this wanting to learn help you overcome fear in certain situations? Because, as a reader, sometimes I think, Oh, no, Susan, don’t do that. Like in Saturday Night when you’re trying to follow the drug dealer around. Or when you’re hiking in the swamp with convicts with machetes in The Orchid Thief. Does wanting to have the experience help you overcome natural fear?

ORLEAN

Absolutely. There’s a lot of stuff I read afterward and think, Oh, my god! I actually think that’s why you see journalists being killed in combat situations. You feel— not protected by your desire to learn, but you drop away some of the fears that would normally be there. I remember going up to the south Bronx by myself at three in the morning to go to an African dance party. I was waiting for a cab and I had a moment of thinking, This is kind of crazy.

For me, the defining experience is realizing I definitely don’t want my mother to know this. That’s when I know I’m doing something I wouldn’t do in normal circumstances. I mean, I’m a cautious person—and I would normally think, I’m not going to the south Bronx at three in the morning. That’s crazy—foolhardy. But when I’m doing a story, I feel like, That’s great, you’re going to let me come? Terrific, I’ll go. And every now and again, I do have this little worry that I’ve lost some perspective. There have been times when I’ve thought back, when I’ve had circumstances where I was traveling alone for a story—and it is different for women. Someone knows you’re traveling alone and you should think, Wait a minute, this is a little weird. I really need to take care of myself. But when it’s happening, you’re thinking, This is really cool that I get to do this. This is really interesting for the story.

KROW

You yourself are a character in most of your pieces. How do you limit your presence on the page, and how do you know where you belong and where you don’t?

ORLEAN

Assuming that I actually do know where I belong—

KROW

It feels like you know.

ORLEAN

This is a question that comes up frequently. And I think for a number of reasons. First of all, for less experienced writers, it’s a leap that they find difficult to make. People are interested in how you know how much to insert yourself, and why you do it. I think there are two or three rules of thumb. Sometimes, it’s a mechanical solution. You need to move the reader from one place to another, or introduce someone. You can go around it in the most contorted way imaginable, or you can just very simply, by presenting yourself in the narrative, make this happen and have it be a seamless, un-distracting structural thing.

The first story in which I felt that solved a problem for me was the story I wrote about a supermarket in Queens. I was having problems structuring it, and then I just allowed myself to be there as the person hovering and taking you around. It wasn’t about me, and it didn’t need to be about me, but it seemed so natural to just present it as a person watching this world unfold. It solved all these structural problems.

The other thing is voice. The model I return to over and over again is, How would I tell this story to people out loud, informally, sitting at a table? I would tell them a story with as much factual information and historical information and description of other people as possible. But inevitably, and naturally, I would be there. You know I’m telling the story. It seems kind of phony to write it as if it dropped out of the sky onto the page. I’m writing it; I’m telling it to you. Some of it is going to be my thinking about what made the story interesting or meaningful, so it’s the voice of the person saying, “I want to tell you about this incredible story I learned.” And there are long stretches where I don’t tell you I’m there. But then, when I step back in, you won’t be shocked, because you’ve been reminded through tone that I’m the one telling you. There are lots of ways you can write a piece that make it clear you’re telling it without it being first person. And so when the first person appears, it’s not a jolt. It’s just a tweak of tone, I think.

CULLEN

Do you think about persona and what self you show on the page?

ORLEAN

Yes and no. I think the self you show in the long run is going to be true to who you are. If you read a lot of John McPhee, you can probably think, I have a feeling I know this is sort of what he’s like. And the fact is, you’re right. Joan Didion doesn’t say, “I’m this person, I’m that person.” But the persona that emerges is true to who she is. I don’t know how much you can actually create a totally artificial persona. I think you can try to emphasize what part of your personality is going to emerge, but a lot of it’s out of your control. It’s just going to happen.

I don’t have any idea what people think I’m like based on my writing. In the best sense, it becomes something you’re not controlling. It may be helpful as an exercise when you’re initially trying out the experience of writing yourself into stories to think of a persona, but ultimately it’s going to be who you are, unless you really create a very dramatic alter ego that is full of personality. But I don’t enjoy reading that kind of writing. Hunter Thompson really was as he presented himself. But when you read people doing fake Hunter Thompson, you think, That’s so annoying; shut up and tell the story.

There are a lot of different kinds of personalities in writing, and as you get more used to being the narrator of your stories, your readers are going to get to know you, and it should be, in certain ways, invisible to you.

SLOCUM

I want to go back to the grocery story piece, “All Mixed Up,” for a minute. You’re often very funny, but at the same time you balance humor with meaning. In that piece, you have a long section where we’re not even in the grocery store—you’re walking to your car and there’s a flyer that looks like a twenty dollar bill, and you take some time on the page to be really candid and clever and just you. How do you manage being funny without being funny just for the sake of being funny?

ORLEAN

I’m not somebody who likes to tell jokes, but I do find a lot of things hilarious. Like that particular instance—it was really funny, and partly at my own expense, which I found even more delightful. Even pieces that are serious can be an opportunity to make fun of yourself and to find the whole enterprise of the story and the circumstances funny. Sometimes, it’s my blunders that I find funny.

I feel like writing humor is important. Sometimes, it’s the stuff you would discard from the story, the goofs. It’s useful to begin training yourself to realize that sometimes those moments are funny and are a way of talking to the reader about your blundering efforts to do this serious story. Because that was a serious story. Serious is the wrong word, but I was trying to tell about this community and also this touching story about family businesses, and the way they turned inside out with upward mobility, and the marvelous harmony of a really diverse neighborhood. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think, I’m spending six weeks in a grocery store. I am so weird. I can’t believe this.

I think feeling loose is something that comes with experience and looseness is often where you get the humor that’s not just a joke. There’s almost never a story where there isn’t a certain amount of that. So much of what you gain in writing, the more you write, is confidence—feeling like you can make mistakes and admit to the reader doubts or make asides. You can ramble a little, and you can catch yourself and go back, or you can talk about being puzzled, or making a goof that’s a little embarrassing. This story about the supermarket—well, it’s a really amazing world, and I’m going to blunder along and I can tell you out of the corner of my mouth things that are embarrassing or funny.

It’s just nerves. And it takes experience to get to that. I’m not sure I would feel that comfortable with someone who’s just getting started who had that much nerve. Because I think you want to feel that you’ve earned it somehow.

When people say, “Why would you write that?” my answer is, “Because it’s interesting.” Because I really want to tell you and I think you might listen if I tell it to you in a compelling way. I don’t know if that really answers the question of humor. I think though it does go to this bigger issue of beginning to see yourself as a storyteller, and the reader as someone who is listening and saying, “Tell me a story.” And within that contract you make with the reader, you can go a lot of places.

Issue 71: A Conversation with Erin Belieu

issue71

Interview in Willow Springs 71

Works in Willow Springs 70 and 80

March 1, 2012

Tim Greenup, Kristina McDonald, Danielle Shutt

A CONVERSATION WITH ERIN BELIEU

vez2h

Photo Credit: stlouispoetrycenter.org

Erin Belieu’s poetry moves. Each line break holds the potential for a rapid expansion of the poem’s emotional and imaginative reach. The result is sometimes unsettling, sometimes relieving, sometimes hilarious, but always wonderfully consuming. To enter a Belieu poem is to surrender to the paradoxes of the heart and mind, and reading her work feels like an act of liberation. Her lines are often chiseled and muscular; they propel readers forward with purpose. A hard-earned, well-worn fearlessness permeates her work. Take her recent poem “Perfect”:

Your sadness gets a perfect score,
a 1600 on the GRE,

but if I had a gun,
I’d shoot your sadness through the knee. Then the head.
Or if I were a goddess,

I’d turn you to a tree with silver leaves or a flower with a center as yellow as sunlight, like they used to do when saving
the beautiful from themselves.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Erin Belieu is the author of three books of poems, all published by Copper Canyon Press, including Black Box (2006) and One Above & One Below (2000). Her first collection, Infanta (1995), was selected by Hayden Carruth for the National Poetry Series, about which she says, “I don’t know why Hayden selected me—maybe he had a cheese sandwich instead of a tuna sandwich that day, when he was looking at the finalists for the National Poetry Series.” We suspect more than chance was at play.

Her poems and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, from Ploughshares and Slate to The Atlantic and The New York Times. Belieu is a workhorse, on and off the page. She served as director of the creative writing program at Florida State University, and is currently the artistic director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. She also co-directs VIDA, an organization designed to “explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.”

We met with Ms. Belieu at a noisy bar in Chicago, during the 2012 AWP Conference, where she warned: “I’m a Libra, so every time I say one thing, I have to say the opposite.” We discussed her poetry, the importance of public service, the perils of technology, and growing up in the Midwest.

 

TIM GREENUP

Are you a Nebraska poet?

ERIN BELIEU

I am a one-woman chamber of commerce for Nebraska, which is the best of all states. I feel like that landscape is in me. There’s a way of being where I grew up, a kind of openness, a generosity. Maybe it’s because there aren’t enough of us to get on each other’s nerves. When you only have eleven citizens, it’s easy not to crowd each other. But my sense of enthusiasm and, hopefully, if I have a sense of generosity—it comes from that place.

But there’s also a kind of internal astringency Nebraskans have, a rub-some-dirt-in-it-and-stop-whining approach to life, and those things are part of me as well. In a lot of ways, I think Nebraska is where the West begins, and I think I have a Western mentality—as if that were one thing. Even though I’ve spent most of my adult life on the East Coast, I feel real affection and affinity for the West. I spend a lot of time in Port Townsend and Seattle because I’m the artistic director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, and my press is Copper Canyon, and in some ways, I think I translate a little bit better in that part of the world.

DANIELLE SHUTT

You translate to me—and I’m from rural southwest Virginia.

BELIEU

Maybe you’re making a good distinction; it’s not geographical; more, as Donny and Marie would say, I’m a little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll. I don’t feel the need to fuse those two together. I feel like that’s an interesting opposition. But, obviously, I have no real idea. I can sort of get hints through reviews, how people evaluate me, but you can’t think about that kind of stuff or you won’t write anything. You’ll spend all your time knotted up about how you’re being received. Let time sort that stuff out, and hope you’re lucky enough to have anybody reading your poems at all.

I don’t think I’ve ever fit neatly into anything. I’ve appeared in formalist magazines, I’ve been a fellow at Sewanee, but my poems have also appeared in magazines that focus on experimental and alternative forms. And maybe that’s been bad for my “career,” as if a poet could have a career; I don’t think Keats had a “career.” Poetry is a devotion, and it’s the closest thing I have to a spiritual practice.

I don’t mean to be cavalier. I have a great job. I’m able to feed my kid. I’m able to live in my house and buy groceries. For a poet, that’s a pretty big deal. I mean, I actually have health insurance. So I feel like I’ve been given this huge opportunity to be genuine and true in what I do. And I’ve also been given the gift to do things like VIDA, because I’ve got tenure, bitch! Academia doesn’t make you a bad poet, contrary to popular belief. But thinking of poetry as a career is definitely bad for your poems’ health.

SHUTT

Does tenure make people lazy?

BELIEU

It does sometimes, but that’s the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you brave. I feel that if you’ve been given the gift of a livelihood, then you have a responsibility to others who haven’t been as lucky. I very much believe that. That’s why I helped to found VIDA with Cate Marvin. And founding a national feminist literary organization—well, that can put you on the hot seat sometimes. But I thought to myself, What’s the point of having tenure if I don’t use it to do what I think is important and necessary? Tenure should allow us to never grow too comfortable.

My father was the head of special education and gifted programs for my public school system, and my parents were community-oriented. They were involved in grassroots Republican politics, back when the name Republican didn’t equal bigots like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. But my brother and I turned out to be hardcore Democrats. And once my brother came out, my parents became Democrats. They were like, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” I don’t think they ever voted Republican again. That made me really proud of them.

I come from a family where service was valued, so all my life I’ve had an urge to serve. I still have my First Class Girl Scout certificate signed by Ronald Reagan. I did something like 3,000 hours of community service. I was that girl. I was also on field staff for the Dukakis campaign, and dropped out of college for about a year and a half to organize all over the country. I’ve always believed in political activism. And that’s what I’m teaching my son to do, too. If you want your opinion counted, you have to step up. You better put your money where your mouth is.

SHUTT

Community is a dominant thread in your poems, too. Across your three collections, there are poems that engage people, whether it’s a poem dedicated to someone or talking directly to a historical figure. Could you talk a little about that?

BELIEU

My poetry is almost always written in response to someone, or it’s a portrait of someone. When I think of the fiction I most admire—and poems to a certain degree—it’s almost always novels that are social novels, like Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, and all of Jane Austen, where people are put in these social, moral, spiritual conundrums that reveal the essentials of human beings, what it means to be human. Robert Pinsky talks about how poets have a kind of monomania, an animating obsession, and I think I’m obsessed with understanding why people do what they do.

What does Mr. Bennet say in Pride and Prejudice? “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” I feel very much like Mr. Bennet sometimes, because people generally crack me up. But I have a lot of affection and sympathy for how ridiculous we are, all of us. The way we front and the way we lie, and our self-important posturing. AWP is such a weird little aquarium for that reason. Every variety of creature is on display. And I know I exist somewhere in the aquarium, too, but again, I don’t invest in thinking too much about how others perceive me.

My poems are frequently responses to some bit of argument I’ve encountered. I have a poem called “Your Character is Your Destiny,” which comes from Aristotle, and it talks about this idea of what it means to have a soul, and whether that sense of a soul is your destiny. Is it predetermined that we are going to move in the world in a certain way, and is that something we can escape? Are we stranded in a universe of hard determinism? I have just enough philosophy and theory to be dangerous. I’ll take a little bit of Aristotle or Slavoj Žižek or Lacan, and throw it out there, not yet necessarily totally understanding what they’re talking about. I just start with, Well, is my character my destiny? Really? I like to think out loud in poems, and find out what I think as I go along. Almost everything I’m interested in is dialectical; that’s where the tension in our lives is, where the tension in our art is. There’s all this absurdity around us, but there’s also the truly hideous. There are big and little tragedies. That’s why I love the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” where Auden points out: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

GREENUP

In One Above & One Below, the opening poem invokes the muse. Does the muse exist?

BELIEU

There are lots of ways to think about the muse. My background is in feminist and psychoanalytic theory, so when I talk about the muse, it’s my metaphor for those unconscious parts of ourselves, and wanting a fluid access to language and imagination. Being able to access these is the hard part. We’re surrounded by noise and advertising and technology, and it just gets more intense every year, so that voice, that inner muse, gets drowned out so easily. That’s one of the things the poem you’re referencing is about, the feeling that you don’t always have access to the thing that centers you, that part of you which, if you hold still and be quiet, will tell you something interesting.

There are many times in workshops that people automatically want to put poems in stanzas, because they’re overwhelmed by the idea of a three-page poem without stanza breaks. And I think, Wait a minute. Are we doing this because that’s what the poem needs? Or are we doing this because we’re now used to everything being in tidy graphs and sound bites?

Maybe that’s how forms change over time, because forms are just reflections of human beings and their preferences and what makes sense rhythmically and in rhyme at a given time. But I’m not sure how I feel about those things changing. We’ve turned into a collective ADHD society, in which a three-page poem without a stanza break seems overwhelming. We’ve become like flies that mentally zing from one thing to another, so we can’t settle too deeply into anything. I don’t mean to sound like a crabby old lady. You can see I’ve got my iPhone here that I check constantly. But I’m pretty sure I could go to one of these “back to the land” sort of things. I mean, I would complain a lot, but I could probably do that and ultimately be comfortable.

The technological world has created all kinds of wonderful opportunities, too, but—human beings as animals—I don’t know how we can keep up at this pace. We really have to struggle in a way that we didn’t use to in order to create a quiet space. Poetry is more often than not meditative—an interactive meditation between writer and reader— so that you have to have that still space to come together and discover one another. One of the things I love about poetry is that we have to be willing to hear each other. The reader has to be so active when reading a poem, which is why I’m grateful when anybody reads my poems.

SHUTT

You’re often compared to Sylvia Plath or Sharon Olds. What do you make of the critical impulse to construct genealogies for female poets from other women poets?

BELIEU

I think, sadly, there are so few reference points for women poets that it becomes really reductive. We don’t have this long, nuanced tradition to point to. It’s like, Oh, are you Elizabeth Bishop or are you Sylvia Plath? Like you’re choosing between Betty and Veronica in the Archie comics. There’s a lot in between, there are other options to make a comparison, but how many people have ever been able to actually name a good number of women poets? Happily, this is starting to change.

But so much of that kind of comparison just has to do with hype and publication, and that rarely has anything to do with what an artist is doing or why. I mean, seriously, I don’t sound very much like Plath. But some critics make lazy pronouncements and easy comparisons. And I guess they influence some people. But they don’t really know who’s going to be read fifty years from now; they don’t know who’s going to be read five hundred years from now, or how those writers will be received. Some people believe in heaven, and maybe they’ll look down and see their readership from there, but here and now, we don’t know. Which is why I think people who pretend, people who want to be kingmakers or tastemakers, I just find the whole thing tedious. You have your taste and you have what you believe in, and good for you. But to try to make that some sort of poetic law? You, my friend, are puny in the face of time. And that’s the way it should be.

I sort of play with that idea in a new poem, “Ars Poetica for the Future.” I imagine myself burying my poems in Ziploc baggies, because then I win. A thousand years from now someone will find my artifacts— assuming we don’t blow ourselves up—and I’ll be Sappho!

GREENUP

Where does that drive to become a tastemaker come from?

BELIEU

Probably insecurity—the urge to force everyone to believe what you think is truth, with a capital T. But there are poems I don’t love that I must respect. And there are poems that aren’t particularly of value to me that other people admire, and so I think, Well, maybe I need to think about this some more before I reject it. I’ve never been able to finish The Magic Mountain, no matter which translation I read, no matter how many smart people tell me to read it. And I’m pretty sure the problem’s not with it. I’m pretty sure the resistance is within me. But we grow into things when we’re ready for them. Usually the tastemakers are just fighting over power and turf. Which again, has nothing to do with literature itself.

Cate Marvin and I talk about this all the time. There are certain types who seem to think, Oh, there’s only one pie and I gotta get my slice before somebody else gets that slice, because the pie’s gonna be gone! And Cate and I both think, Why don’t we just bake another pie?

It strikes me as a profoundly anxious way of being in the world if you have to prove that you’re more by proving that somebody else is less. And that goes into that whole dustup with Rita Dove and Helen Vendler, when Rita had done an odd, inclusive anthology, which I found really revealing of her. It was a portrait of a reader, as if Rita were saying, “This is my expression of what I think is really right.” And she was willing to acknowledge her idiosyncratic way of thinking about things, and I thought that was honest. I was disappointed that Helen Vendler was so scathing, as if there were some objective truth she felt was under assault. And I think, But Helen, there are no objective truths about poetry. I know you have strong feelings about it and it’s your life’s work, and I have many good reasons to respect you, but we’re not talking about the nuclear codes here. Which is not to say I don’t believe in criticism, or that I won’t argue strongly for my point of view. I just keep in mind that more than one thing can be true at the same time. Sometimes even opposite things.

I don’t have any particular anxiety that poetry is going to hell and then the whole literary culture will die. Poetry is a lot bigger and badder than any of us. And what does Auden say? It’s a mouth, right? It is the mouth. “Poetry makes nothing happen” is a line people misunderstand frequently. He means poetry makes nothing happen directly. Not in the way of commerce and politics and scruffy immediate human intercourse. He’s saying something more profound: Poetry is essential in the way that a mouth and tongue are essential. It doesn’t go away. It’s not going to disappear if we don’t fight to the death about it. How about we try a little more humility in the face of the poetry mouth? Such ego, to think that poetry needs us to protect it.

There are the more immediate things like prizes and jobs that get people all wadded up, but beyond that, there’s the great fear that we devote our lives to this ephemeral thing and we don’t know if we’re right or wrong or how history is going to see it. It’s a total crapshoot. Think about all the writers who have fallen out of fashion, only to have people who were obscure come to the forefront. We don’t have any control over this. But I’m okay with that. I’m okay with being a minuscule dot in the universe. I’ve accepted that fact. I get to eat and drink and have sex and live in a body and I get to make poems and I get to love my son and I get to love my partner and I just feel like maybe that should be enough, and we should stop trying to control the future with our pronouncements.

I’ve never understood why people are so unnerved by the tininess of our human experience. It’s always made sense to me, ever since I was a little kid. We’re just biological blips in the wholeness of time. But what a lovely thing to be. What a gift. I just want to be recycled into a willow tree eventually.

SHUTT

There’s some anger in the poems in Black Box. In some criticism, I’ve read that anger—particularly in women’s poetry—is a limited emotion. Or if you’re a woman poet, writing about anger—it’s just anger that readers get out of your work. How do you feel about that view of anger in poems?

BELIEU

Women get smacked with that stick all the time, and I’m pretty— pardon me—fucking tired of listening to it. I feel like, All right, old man. I know you hate Sylvia Plath. Duly noted. Now move along. You’re boring me.

There was an unfortunate confusion about Black Box regarding the back matter. Black Box isn’t actually addressed to my ex-husband, of whom I’m very fond. We made a wonderful child. We’re still friends and raising a person together. I would not use a book to attack someone. Poems aren’t therapy and poems aren’t journals. Which, as a woman poet, it seems you’re often in the position of having to point out. I didn’t set out to write biography. I write poems, which are acts of imagination. It’s weird that I feel, as a woman, a need to explain that not everything I write is a transcription of my love life, my vagina, and my daddy issues. I actually make things up, and I care deeply about the form of the poems.

In Black Box, I was interested in the performance of grief, and grief as this multiple experience. Grief is so awkward in American culture— maybe it’s awkward in Vietnam and Canada too—but it seems to me a very American thing that you’ve got about two weeks to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. You have about two weeks of casseroles and people really focusing and saying, “How are you doing?” And then, understandably, as Auden talks about in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” people get back to their lives. But you’re still there with your grief. And a big part of grief, especially at the end of a love relationship, but also at the death of a loved one, is anger.

I’m interested in feminist issues and I’ve read a lot of feminist theory, and I was interested in this idea that in some ways female anger seems like our last great transgression culturally. I’ve always been fascinated by how anger is performed by women in literature. Or not performed—sometimes it seems to me it’s enacted through depression, through passive approaches. Eleanor Wilner, a poet I admire immensely, did a translation of Medea. And in her introduction, she deals with this idea of a woman whose grief is so angry, so epic, that it consumes her entire life and her children’s lives. She is vengeance incarnate—suicidal, homicidal, operatic, terrifying, and truly pathetic. I was really interested in trying to achieve and sustain that pitch as I was writing the poems in Black Box. Honestly, I wanted to see if I could write an exorcism. The exorcism as form. That was a fascinating challenge.

So, especially in the long poem “In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral,” the speaker keeps taking on different masks. At one point, she’s a Borscht Belt comedian. At one point, she’s the Bride of Frankenstein. At one point, she’s the voice of a Ouija board. She keeps trying on these costumes and putting them aside and taking on another costume to dramatically perform her sense of betrayal and loss.

I am very aware of anger—of female anger—as transgressive. And female anger is something that’s not spoken to often in poetry. Or anywhere, really. I think of women artists who’ve addressed this feeling directly and the backlash is usually intense. Very much a how-dare-you reaction. Which is absurd when you think of how surrounded we are by expressions of male anger in our culture. How venerated they are. Male rage is cool! But female rage is still disturbing, displacing, abject, unnatural. Except it’s not. It’s normal. And more than any other poem I’ve written, people come up to me and say, “Thank you for writing the Red Dress poems. They’ve meant a lot to me.” Which is about the nicest compliment anyone can ever give you. And I think parts of the “Red Dress” sequence are pretty funny. I meant them to be funny, because they’re so over-the-top. It’s worth noting that the poem’s title comes from a quote in the movie Moonstruck, which is a satire. Or like that scene in one of the Batman movies, when Michelle Pfeiffer plays Catwoman, and she’s standing in her latex suit looking totally vatic, and then she just says, “Meow,” and boom! It’s funny and intense and a little scary all at once. And I was like, I wonder if I could write a poem that can do that.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I’ve always been interested in this issue, and I wanted Black Box to perform that. Some reviewers got it, and some reviewers—which is typical of the way women are reviewed— focused on what they thought was biographical information. I wonder how it would have gone if that information hadn’t been there. I have a poem in my forthcoming book, Le Déluge, called “12-Step,” and it’s about lighthouses and taking an A.A. pledge not to write confessional poems. Obviously, another satire. Because I feel like there’s nothing safer, nothing less likely to get you in trouble, than writing about lighthouses. I can say, Oh, this isn’t about me; there’s nothing personal here. I’m just a wee poet writing about the landscape. Objectively.

KRISTINA MCDONALD

I believe you’re working on a memoir about your son. How’s that going?

BELIEU

The fun of working with nonfiction has been that it’s not poetry. It’s a different set of problems to solve, formally. And that’s been a huge pleasure. But then I got to a certain point where poems started to come again and I sort of put the nonfiction on hold.

It’s also a difficult subject. My son has a mild form of cerebral palsy. Jude appears as almost completely typical; if you saw him, you’d go, “Oh, cute kid.” But when he opens his mouth—his speech is deeply, deeply impacted because he was strangled by the birth cord when he was born. But the thing about a kid like Jude is—I mean, people say, “Oh, he’s a miracle!” and in a way, Jude really is a miracle, because the fact that he was impacted as little as he turned out to be is very unusual. He should have been dead. He should have been damaged beyond recognition. And he turned out to be this wonderful, smart, beautiful—freakishly beautiful—kid. One of his teachers referred to him as a radiating joy machine, and he does naturally exude joy. He’s one of those people whose smile comes from the inside.

But imagine what it’s like to be such a person and also to have 99% of the world unable to understand you when you speak. It’s been a journey—to have the gift of him, but also the responsibility of him, to try to help him figure out how he’s going to live in the world. His speech has gotten a lot better. If you were to listen to him now, he can make himself understood. But his journey is ongoing. He’s only eleven, and so part of me feels like I wrote to a certain point, but I don’t yet know the end of the story.

GREENUP

In an interview you did with Saw Palm, you described writing a poem as “like being a diamond cutter,” in that it “requires great powers of concentration.” How do you keep your concentration?

BELIEU

I don’t, honestly. I get distracted all the time and that’s my biggest challenge—to find the space for poetry. I’m a full-time mom. I have an academic job. I’m the artistic director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. And these are all things I enjoy. But my biggest challenge is finding the time to sit in a quiet space and make work.

I’m back to it again, but I still struggle to make time. Of course, I run around like a chicken with my head cut off. I mean, I walk in the house and I’ll think, Okay, I gotta go to a meeting, then I’m gonna pick up the dry cleaning, then I’m gonna go get Jude, then I’m gonna come back here to meet the washer repair guy, then I’m gonna meet a student, then I’ll go grocery shopping, and then I have to go to a reading.

I really want to have a commune, like a poetry commune where we all have a big island, and if you want to have kids, we help you raise your kids, we take turns, just a big family, and everybody has writing hours. I feel like this would be a very cool thing to do. Though, as we’ve seen, it’ll all go to hell. I mean, look at the Manson family.

But, you know, when your kid is young, it’s probably not your most productive time as a writer. And that’s okay, because I like Jude more than poetry. He’s my poem in progress. And the world is not going to freak out with, “I can’t go to bed because I haven’t had my next Erin Belieu poem!” They’ll be okay.

GREENUP

When you do get the time, is it something that you can access quickly, or is it something that takes some digging to get back to?

BELIEU

Sometimes it takes digging and sometimes it’s right there, and it really depends on the day and how mentally healthy I am. If I can brush off, in a Jay-Z-like fashion, the voices in my head about how, “She’s too this,” or, “She’s too angry,” I can get clean and write what I want to write.

The big difference between being a poet at twenty-five and being a poet at forty-five is that I’ve spent a lot of time considering what I believe about poems and polishing my formal chops. I have strategies. I’ve read a lot. I’ve learned a lot. It’s good for younger poets to know that time helps you. I mean, unless you’re a totally useless git, after a certain amount of time, things stick to you, and you don’t have to worry so much anymore.

What I do worry about is what’s worth saying. Do I need to write a Persephone poem? Does anyone need to hear that from me? Maybe not. I don’t feel this necessity to put anything out, and I don’t think students should ever feel that pressure. It’s not a career, it’s a devotion. Find other ways to live your life, find other ways to make money, because God knows there are better ways than poetry. Put your energy into finding a way to maximize the amount of time that you have to write.

Some poems I’ve had to work very hard for and considerably fewer have been gifts from my lesbian personal trainer muse, but it’s amazing how many of the ones that were free flowing are the ones that are often anthologized. And I’m like, “But I worked so hard on this other one!” and they’re like “No, no, we want the one that was really easy. We like that one best.” But it’s all part of the process, because that ease probably comes from the hard work of the ones you ground out.

A good example: When my first book came out, I was working at AGNI as managing editor and I got a call out of the blue at my office from The New York Times—not something I’d ever had happen to me— and they said, “Um, we like your book Infanta, and we want to feature one of your poems in The Times this week, and we’re doing a feature on the subject of Labor Day. We would really like it if you could give us all the poems you have on Labor Day.” They said, “You have poems about Labor Day, right?” And I was like, “Yes. Yes, of course I do. It’ll take me some time to go through those many poems I have on the great lyric subject of Labor Day and choose the right one for you.” And I hung up the phone and I was like, The New York Times! Labor Day! Okay, what do I do? Because I was not going to miss the chance to have a poem appear in a place that my parents had actually heard of. So I whipped off this poem called “On Being Fired Again,” which is now one of my most anthologized poems. I didn’t sweat for that poem at all. But for the majority of my poems, I have totally sweated and I feel stupidly wounded that certain ones haven’t gotten more attention. But that’s exactly why you have an audience. The audience wins, the audience decides. And you can’t argue with the audience. You just shut your mouth and say thank you.

Issue 58: A Conversation with Marilynne Robinson

issue58

Found in Willow Springs 58

April 24, 2006

Sarah Flynn, Thomas King, and Adam O’Connor Rodriguez

A CONVERSATION WITH MARILYNNE ROBINSON

robby-2

Photo Credit: YouTube

MARILYNNE ROBINSON WAS BORN and raised in Sandpoint, Idaho. After graduating from Brown University in 1966, she enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English at the University of Washington. While writing her dissertation, Robinson began work on her first novel, Housekeeping (1980), which received the PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Robinson’s essays and book reviews have appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Book Review, among other places. An essay published in Harper’s, titled “Bad News from Britain,” formed the basis of her controversial book, Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), a finalist for the National Book Award.

In 1998, Robinson published a critically acclaimed collection of essays called The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. The New York Times Book Review observed that “one of Robinson’s great merits as an essayist is her refusal to take her opinions secondhand. Her book is a goad to renewed curiosity.”

Her novel, Gilead, an epistolary tale of a dying Iowa preacher writing to his young son, earned her the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award.

To consider Robinson only a creative writer is a mistake. She is a serious thinker, demanding of herself and her audience. During this interview, Robinson commented on a wide range of issues, from Darwinism to current political issues. About fiction’s ability to capture any meaningful truth, Robinson said, “I feel there is a great deal of highly conventional thinking in almost every area of life that must be discarded in order for a writer to make something with integrity in terms of that writer’s understanding.”

Robinson was interviewed in front of an audience at Eastern Washington University in Spokane.

 

ADAM O’CONNOR RODRIGUEZ

During your talk at The Met the other night, you said that all your characters within a book are actually part of one character. Can you expand on that statement?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON

It seems that fiction rarely achieves a sense of anything approximating, anything suggesting, the actual complexity or dimensionality of the human being. That was a problem when I was writing Housekeeping. I felt inadequate. I felt flatness. So my solution was to create what felt like one personality arrayed across a range of possible expressions of that personality. It seemed true from my own observations that a great deal of anyone’s character, of the experience anyone is formed by, their interior, is made up of things chosen against, things that do not fade, things one is attracted to but does not pursue—hopes or expectations or fears that are never realized but are nevertheless an important part of the interior weather any human being lives with.

Behavior you see in other people is the lingua franca behavior through which, normally speaking, we can be adequately intelligible to one another. We cannot alarm or puzzle one another excessively. And this is something that you learn, sort of like manners or the shorthand language of please and thank you. It is not intended to be a revelation of one’s character; it’s intended to allow you to pass through the world without exposing yourself, without damaging other people in ways you don’t want to. There’s inevitable role-playing that is a huge part of anybody’s behavior in life. This is not a negative statement. This is just the way we create a sort of uniform currency to make ourselves understandable, to be able to be adequate in circumstances that are perhaps casual, perhaps formal, perhaps very brief, and so on. If that level of anyone’s personality or character is taken to be a sufficient description of them, then obviously you’ve missed the whole human mystery, as far as that person is concerned. Being accepted at that level of self-revelation trivializes people.

And though it’s rare to see behind conventionalized behavior, you know as a matter of simply being able to extrapolate from experiencing yourself, that in every individual case, there’s infinitely more in the experience of another person. So my solution for the problem was to array characters in ways to show the impulses that might be particularly powerful, for example, and therefore least visible. I used to think of quantum physics, the idea that all possibilities remain until one is observed. I think that established a principle for me I’ve always clung to, which is that apparent oppositions are always oversimplifications. And to set up conflict, especially conflict of values, is something that very much simplifies the actual way experience and value exist in the world. For example, in Gilead, John Ames is not Edward because he has chosen not to be Edward; but nevertheless, because he defines himself against that impulse, he in a certain sense gets suffused with the impulse. He knows all the arguments, he knows his brother’s mind and understands the impulse away from the life he has chosen. And no doubt, if one were to think of Edward, one would think exactly the same way, that he has chosen against John, but in the fact of knowing everything about John, there is self-denial in self-definition of that kind.

THOMAS KING

The opening chapter of Housekeeping is written in Ruth’s point of view, yet it covers events for which she was not present. Can you tell us about the challenges of using an omniscient first-person as an entry point for the novel?

ROBINSON

I always tell my students you can do anything you can get away with, that implausibility is a problem of style. If people bring issues of plausibility to bear on what you’re doing, you’re not doing it well enough. You have to circumvent plausibility sometimes, the normal ways people have of understanding or documenting things in a journalistic model that supposedly applies. I think—and this is relevant to my family and their settling in the Pacific Northwest—that a lot of what I knew and a lot of what seemed important in my early life were descriptions of things I had not seen that had a profound reality in my imagination, because they were told among people whose importance to me is mythic, in the way that grandparents and aunts and uncles are to children. So I think there’s a huge psychological latitude with the first-person because we have a much greater store of experience than what we actually witness. The sort of I-am-the-camera approach to point of view is not psychologically rich enough to be adequate in any circumstance. In any case, the description of things one has not seen is something most people are capable of, partly because their minds can’t help embroidering and enriching whatever they’ve been told to attach importance to.

SARAH FLYNN

In your essay, “Facing Reality,” you wrote that the art of writing fiction lies outside the collective fiction we call “reality.” How do you grapple with our society’s collective fiction in your novels?

ROBINSON

I don’t grapple when I can avoid it, but I do feel that there is a great deal of highly conventional thinking in almost every area of life that must be discarded in order for a writer to make something with integrity in terms of that writer’s understanding. We’re in a very special period of time now—I suppose we have been for the last fifty or one hundred years, maybe since the telegraph—where there’s an enormous amount of rapid-fire information. There are huge, groaning burdens of what looks like scholarship lying around. These are things that people typically don’t have time to be skeptical of. But the accumulation of misinformation addles the mind, restricts the imagination. It makes it terribly difficult to think with the necessary degree of rigor. I have spent a great part of my life going to the sources, reading the original material. I learned this in graduate school, when I found out the great and revered scholars did not do that. And it makes many things fall apart, as you realize that things you’ve been told are true are not true. I think people can feel the falseness in the narrative they’re being given, but they don’t know where to begin doubting. My advice is to begin wherever you find a loose thread. The more you pull, the more you will find to pull.

Inside a recent Harper’s magazine, there was an article in which the writer asked, Why do Americans talk about the mentality of the country, the spirit of the country, being anything other than capitalist? He claimed that it was never anything but capitalist. And that’s not true. Capitalism was a bad word in this country for a long time. Banks were illegal in Iowa because they caused accumulations of capital. This writer said that, you know, The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Well, yes it was, but the book by Adam Smith that influenced the founding fathers was actually another book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a series of ethical lectures that he delivered to classes of Presbyterian ministers in preparation. The Wealth of Nations is about corn laws and how it should not be possible to constrict the flow of products, which caused starvation in England and Ireland. This is the basis of his theory, that there has to be a human economic order that does not starve the working class. The man writing this article, who was being so blustering, so authoritative, in Harper’s, had all kinds of information wrong. He probably learned it when he was a sophomore in college and never checked it or thought about it. The fact that somebody publishes something in Scotland in 1776 doesn’t mean it has any influence on something written in America in 1776. Probably not.

KING

What can be done about the wealth of misinformation people ingest? How does this misinformation affect society at large?

ROBINSON

A lot of people would have to make an epic of criticism, by which I do not mean theory. I mean criticism. I’ve done a lot of difficult study; that’s probably not my best-kept secret. And there is so much junk scholarship around. In the airport, I picked up this little book by Karen Armstrong called A Short History of Myth. It’s a terrible book. The two sources she uses over and over are Mircea Eliade, who was a disaster, and Ibid., which is another name for Mircea Eliade. I pretend it’s one of those medieval Islamic scholars.

I don’t know if any of you know anything about how biblical scholarship is done, but if you take some introductory course, you will discover there’s J, P, E, and D. These are the names for the major traditions that contribute to the Old Testament, supposedly. Now, I gave a lecture at a symposium of biblical scholars—serious people, right? And I said this is a completely ridiculous idea—that you can break these traditions down into these streams. And I made my case. And of course it threatened everybody in the room. There was a kind of silence until one venerable man raised his hand and said, “What does it matter what we write? Nobody reads it anyway.”

It matters. It matters. It matters. It matters. Add the fact that this was what you would call a conservative theological setting; these people were not Karen Armstrong. How in the world can you toil your life away, saying, What does it matter? How can you do that? People trust each other. That’s the whole thing, the reason why people have engulfed themselves in false models of learning about all kinds of things; it’s because they trust. They think if this is in print and this person has an M.Div., this means something. The cynicism of saying, What does it matter? is just unbelievable to me, and I don’t think that this is by any means a problem isolated in theology departments. It’s everywhere.

Indifference has done nothing but drain content out of the collective experience. We have these huge libraries. There’s nothing in the world like the American library system, nothing to compare. You can go to a library or get on your computer and find amazing stuff. I’ve done research on English Renaissance writers, books that were printed in the 17th century, and I had to cut the pages, because no one had read them since the 17th century, in that library, at any rate. But there it was. I could find what I needed.

We have this huge brain sitting there, waiting to be used. The way out of the problem, for most people, is to head down the street, if it’s not in their laptops. The amount of early literature you can call up online from universities is astonishing. But in many, many instances, it might as well have uncut pages.

FLYNN

Why don’t people utilize those resources?

ROBINSON

The idea of individual learning has been subordinated to the idea of getting degrees. Most people are anxious about employment, and the culture continuously reinforces the fact that you go to college to get the diploma because that’s your ticket to economic life. The idea that built the universities, which is that simply knowing is wonderful, seems to have all but disappeared. I visited a university that particularly emphasized theory. The graduate students said, We take theory because we can’t get hired without taking theory because universities need people to teach theory. So there’s this perpetual motion machine. Whether or not you think this is a fruitful way to approach literature is put to one side, because it’s like a driver’s license—you simply have to have it. This is not the life of the mind. This is not what Thomas Jefferson hoped for.

FLYNN

At times, you express doubts about the likelihood that your essays will change public discourse in a significant way. What motivates you to write nonfiction?

ROBINSON

I would worry about myself if I had serious expectations of changing public discourse. That is a large and rather immobile thing: public discourse. Nevertheless, some things strike me as important in a way that makes me have to work through them myself. I have always found that people were interested in these essays. I’ve never had any trouble publishing them. I’ve never had any significant rebuttal to what I write. I got sued by Greenpeace once, but I don’t count that as a rebuttal. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine people will actually read what you write when you’re writing about the French Reformation or something. On the other hand, the impulse is certainly there, and there are people who read these things and to whom what I say is important. And God help us if everybody stopped trying to at least participate in public discourse. You have to try to say what you think is true.

KING

I’ve read that you believe society moves both forward and backward. What gains have we won in our nation’s or our planet’s history that are currently at risk?

ROBINSON

Well, there is the planet. There are obvious sorts of tradeoffs that I worry about. Many people in this country are quite scrupulous about environmental things. There are many laws and customs, national or local, that to some extent control what we do to our own immediate environment, but that has meant that what can’t be done within the limit of those norms here is done elsewhere, so that you get a relatively clean America and a completely poisoned China. I don’t consider that to be a desirable tradeoff. If your loyalty is to the human species, there are more Chinese than there are Americans, and on the most simple utilitarian basis, we have to worry about what happens to the Chinese and the Indians and so on.

The way the world economy has developed, every population has a certain percentage of bright, highly motivated people. The countries that have been slower in developing have huge, avid populations of people thrilled to be part of this cool, global economy, and at the same time, they have governments perfectly willing to make economic hay out of impoverished workers with low expectations. So we have children picking over dumps of discarded computers, pulling out both valuable and toxic things. If you read about China at the present time, they have riots in the countryside because of this hideous, no-holds-barred economic development they have gotten into, if economic development is the right word. There is, for example, a factory that makes a cancer treatment with byproducts so toxic that everybody around the plant for a good distance is sick. And, of course, the drugs are shipped to Europe and the United States.

This is one of those things where you can say, “Yes, we wouldn’t let that happen here,” but that only makes it worse where it does happen. There are tradeoffs as far as progress goes that are very vivid indeed. When people don’t have any control in a country like China or India because they are so poor that anything seems better than nothing, then the constraints that might make a moderate disaster of something that happened in Minnesota, make it an absolute disaster by their absence in China. It’s not something we want to talk or think about. A lot of the warfare in Africa is apparently about a mineral necessary for cell phones. We all have our nifty cell phones and we do not look into the economic consequences, which become warfare and starvation in another setting. I wish it were harder to come up with examples, but that’s just technology. And there’s also war.

One of the things most interesting to me about doing research into the history of the Middle West was learning about colleges created there before the Civil War, in the 1830s and 1840s. They were already racially integrated, gender-integrated. They created a system for making everybody at a college work, including the faculty, so there would be no economic barriers to education, and, they said, to make a more useful educated class. These are things I think we would consider very advanced. A lot of schools, like Mount Holyoke, Grinnell, Oberlin, Amherst, that are now elite institutions, were intended as places where no economic barrier to education existed, where it wouldn’t cost you anything to attend. There’s been a huge sort of turning over, like an iceberg. There has been not only the loss of the ideals that went into the creation of the colleges and the society they influence, but also a complete and absolute amnesia that these things were ever done or intended. And if it can happen once, it can happen again, which is something we must be aware of.

FLYNN

In “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion,” you wrote that, as a liberal, you were disappointed with liberalism as a movement. Have your views intensified or changed over recent years?

ROBINSON

I have certain vivid touch points. When major issues come up like whether we should invade Iraq, I’m very sympathetic to the side that says no, because that seems really smart, and it was smart before the whole enterprise ever began. If questions arise about whether resources should be spent on creating the kind of social equality that will prevent us from stigmatizing or disabling subsequent generations because their parents happen to have been poor, I’m very much in favor of people who support such an idea. Now, these kinds of convictions make me a completely committed liberal. At the same time, there is so much nonsense and flaccidity and uncritical thought on the side of liberalism that it is not a good servant of its own cause.

And my idea of patriotism, given the completely arbitrary nature of our national identity, is that patriotism matters. I consider myself patriotic because I don’t want American people to go hungry. I don’t want American people to spend their lives unemployed when they want to make a creative contribution to the culture. I don’t want women to be forced into abortion because they can’t possibly stop working, supporting their families on a minimum wage that is not adequate to support their family. As far as I’m concerned, patriotism is, first of all, an obligation to create humane circumstances within our country. I don’t think that should be a hard case to make, but I think that when people on the other side say, “We’re the patriotic people,” the impulse of liberals is to say, “Well, we don’t think patriotism is such a terrifically good idea.” They give up their vocabulary. They give up the concepts. They allow people to define patriotism as putting the army, without proper equipment or support, in a circumstance it should never have been in. This is supposedly patriotism. The surrender of the major categories, like family values: I think the minimum wage is probably the greatest family value anybody could articulate, because it allows people to provide for their families. What more, you know? So there are clear liberal issues being very badly articulated.

FLYNN

Why do you think we fail in those areas?

ROBINSON

I just cannot imagine. In my cynical moments, I think it’s because a lot of the leading members of the liberal population actually flourish under administrations like the present one, partially because a lot of them are highly educated people whose income is high enough that tax cuts benefit them. Some people are pretty glad that the government can recruit troops from an economically disadvantaged class disproportionately so as to not draft their children. I’m afraid it’s true, to a certain extent, that unacknowledged self-interest makes them hesitant to actually champion what ought to be their cause.

FLYNN

You’ve said that obsessions drive you and that those obsessions are not often fiction. What are some of your present obsessions, and do they develop into nonfiction more often than fiction?

ROBINSON

Well, my current obsession is with literature of the ancient Near East. I’ve been reading Hittites and Canaanites and Babylonians and Greeks and Egyptians. I’m going to be teaching a course in the fall on Greek tragedy, and I was thinking about the importance of scene and dialogue, then the next thing I knew, it was Euripides, Sophocles. But it seems to me that there’s a narrow view of what Greek tragedy was or what the settings of Greek ancient writing were, so I’m reading all this stuff that would have been culturally contiguous, that they probably would have had some acquaintance with. I want to have a fuller ancient sense of what I’m looking at when I look at these plays, which tend, today, to be read through Nietzsche or somebody. That’s also working its way into my nonfiction, but I don’t want to talk about that.

O’CONNOR RODRIGUEZ

Running through both your work and published interviews is a sense of your romance with the simplicity—and even adversity—of the past. How does that romance affect your view of contemporary life?

ROBINSON

I don’t know if I believe in a simplicity of the past. Actually, I don’t like the idea of nostalgia. I don’t like the idea that once everything made sense and now it doesn’t, and once everything was easy and now it isn’t. You know, Oh, to have lived before the age of the antibiotic! What are we talking about? But I think that prejudice against the modern period has actually created a lot of trouble in the modern world, the idea that somehow or another we’ve stepped off a cliff and it used to be better and we have to hack our way back to a more meaningful, primal life. That’s basically fascism, which I think we should avoid.

KING

You’ve also said that though your reading informs your writing, you almost never read for that specific purpose. What motivates your study, and how does it develop into a writing project?

ROBINSON

That is so mysterious. I get something on my mind or I pick up a book that seems to call my name, and I read something I didn’t know before or something that makes a better text, a better fabric of something I had known for some other reason. And it just feels good. It’s an enormous pleasure to me. If I could, I would just read and read and read. All kinds of strange things. Difficult things that make me feel that my perspective is richer than it was before. As far as writing goes, every once in a while I feel like I have to write something. I am the driven slave of these two impulses. It’s a nice life.

O’CONNOR RODRIGUEZ

Your laughing at your own work while reading aloud the other night fascinated me. Why did you laugh—do you see the worlds you create in your novels as real?

ROBINSON

It’s like remembering a dream; because when you write, you visualize, then when you read, the visualization returns. Also, I remembered what I was doing when I wrote that scene. I had modeled Gilead on a town in southwest Iowa called Tabor, which was founded by people from Oberlin College. They had founded a college, and they had a station on the Underground Railroad. There was a Congregational minister there who had 200 rifles in his cellar and a cannon in his barn. But, in any case, there were tunnels under the green in Tabor. Apparently, you can still see where they were. But I was thinking, If New Englanders were on the frontier of Iowa, how would they get in trouble? I wanted people to have some idea of what they were doing, but not to idealize them, not make them feel like stuffed wax museum figures or something. So I thought, Well, they would dig a tunnel. Tabor is in the sand hills; there’s nothing there but dunes, so even as you drive there’s sand blowing across the road. Obviously they would be delighted that it was so easy to dig in the soil. I started writing this scene and more and more kept happening. I remember thinking, Where did that come from? You create the occasion for your imagination, then all kinds of things come into play and surprise you. The best part of writing.

O’CONNOR RODRIGUEZ

The few negative reviews of Gilead imply that John Ames is a one-dimensional character, with faith being his only noticeable trait. How do you see John Ames?

ROBINSON

I get all my reviews from my publisher, and my publisher clearly censors them, so I’ve never heard that criticism. I have a very strong imagination of John Ames that was generated by the fact that I thought of him as a voice in my head. I was surprised to have a male narrator. I trusted this voice. I felt as if someone were speaking. I’ve been very kindly treated by the reviewers. I have no complaints, but there are hordes of millions of readers, and it’s just unbelievable to imagine you could please them all. And, especially at this particular moment in time, there are a lot of people that find a lot of religious thought, and so on, irritating, which only makes it clearer to me how kindly I have been treated, because that is not the most universally acceptable subject at the moment. But, in any case, whoever the reviewer was, bless his heart. I hope he finds books he likes better.

FLYNN

Do people make judgments about you because of how open you are about your religious beliefs?

ROBINSON

I’ve had people say, “Aren’t you afraid to be identified with religion?” and so on. If people said to me, “Marilynne, go home. We don’t want to hear from you anymore,” I would think, Whew! It’s not like I have a big stake in this, and if people reject what I say on the basis of its having a strong religious cast, that wouldn’t surprise me and it wouldn’t be an issue for me. I’m not writing for anyone. From what I see, from what I read, I wouldn’t be surprised if I encountered friction, but I can’t report any. So here I am.

FLYNN

In The Death of Adam, you said that belief in Darwinism is like belief in the existence of God, and that it’s based on faith. And you defined faith as “a loyalty to a vision of nature, of the nature of things despite its inaccessibility to demonstration.” Do you believe that all of science is ultimately based on faith?

ROBINSON

No. And, also in that essay, and in general, a sharp distinction needs to be drawn between evolution and Darwinism. Darwinism has its specific history, and a specific ethos; the idea behind Darwinism is that there is a continuous sort of attrition among the varieties of organisms that is the consequence of competition for survival. If you read the 19th century literature that surrounds the popularization of Darwinism, it leads directly to eugenics; it makes people regret that anyone ever invented the smallpox vaccination. And even before Darwin wrote, when it was Malthus and earlier people, Townsend and so on, who were writing in these terms, it rationalized the death by starvation of the lower classes of European civilization. So it was the you-have- to-be-cruel-to-be-kind thing where the human species became better and better by the fact of the deaths of people unworthy to survive.

This had enormous practical consequences in European and American society and history from before Darwin. “The survival of the fittest” was not his phrase. He got it from the British, Herbert Spencer, whose idea of this was of the progressive attrition of the unworthy or the unfit. And so with Malthus. It goes way, way back into British thought. But what Darwin did was interpret it into a scientific theory that explains, as it were, the origin of species, although he himself said he never did explain the origin of species. Because there are all sorts of things about the phenomenon of speciation that his theory couldn’t address. But, in any case, I believe that it is still true that Darwinism is contaminated with racial theory, eugenic theory, and all kinds of other things. It had a huge surge in Britain while I was living there under the reign of Mrs. Thatcher, who famously said, “God prefers the rich to the poor and nature proves it.”

People have known since antiquity that there were fossils of creatures that no longer existed, so the idea that life forms have changed over time is not a novel idea. If evolution means the change of life forms over time, then I think that it’s not difficult to affirm the plausibility of evolution, but if it means that the changes in life forms over time were the result of an inevitable competition in which the strong destroy the weak or whatever, this is something that is not describable, because we know that, for example, species go right along until they disappear. So if that were true, you would have the continuous modification of a species that would continuously enhance its survival virtues, but instead you have a much more disrupted evolutionary history. In other words, Darwinism ought to be considered as a moment in the scientific-social-military history of the West that does not conclusively, for all time, define the idea of evolution, and the defense of evolution as a theory ought to be disentangled from the defense of Darwin or the ideas attributed to Darwin.

If you read the literature around the First World War, there were all sorts of people in favor of it. If you read a book of Tolstoy’s written just at the turn of the century—The Kingdom of God Is Within You—you’ll notice that he was a pacifist, and he got letters from every significant person in Europe about why he shouldn’t be a pacifist, and many of them made arguments that war clears out the undesirables from society. It is genocide directed against one’s own population. I guess that’s not uncommon, but it’s absolutely horrendous, and it accounts for a great deal of what was horrible about the First World War, which is that nobody really seemed to want it to end. This is the kind of thing where you have to go back and read what people were saying about these things. If you just take it that Darwin is the force of light and William Jennings Bryan is the source of darkness, you have no idea what the issues are. Jennings Bryan himself was a pacifist when there was a huge issue of war addressed precisely in terms of its alleged Darwinist merit.

FLYNN

How do we disentangle abhorrent forms of faith from forms that have value to us as a culture?

ROBINSON

A lot of things can’t be dealt with on a cultural level. One thing interesting about being human is that you are responsible to a great degree for your own sanity, your own ethicalism, your own moral solvency, your own intellectual seriousness. It would be nice if these things could be dealt with at a social level, but whenever human behavior is controlled at a social level, even with the most benign intentions, it goes wrong. I think there is no point in history where people have not used valuable things for destructive purposes. Perhaps what we have to do is make people feel more deeply that they are responsible as individuals for their moral consequences. For example, I think a lot of religious excesses don’t come from religions themselves; they come from passionate identification, the eagerness to say I am X and not Y, and those Y people have always irritated me and it would be much better if the world were entirely X. We’ve gone through this little dance over and over. If we could think beyond those categories, it would be great, but that’s something people are individually responsible for doing.

FLYNN

In your essay on the family, you say that the attempt to impose definition on indeterminacy is about the straightest road to mischief that you know of, yet you define the word “family” in the next sentence—

ROBINSON

I think that my definition is very broad indeed. It has to do with loyalty and affection more than anything else. I think that you know who your family is, in that sense, because you know where your loyalties are and what your fondnesses are, or you probably are in the course of learning. That’s something that you know because it’s created out of your own circumstance, out of your own emotional life. So it’s accessible to definition in that sense, but whether that means there’s a sociological definition that could apply, I don’t think that’s true. I think what I’m saying is that we have to respect the fact that people’s lives constellate themselves in terms of loyalty and in terms of love and that this is something that other people should be sensitive to and acknowledge rather than trying to enforce a definition.

O’CONNOR RODRIGUEZ

You said at your reading that you wrote the sinking horse episode in Gilead in one sitting. That section works as a story. Do you often write short fiction?

ROBINSON

No, never. When I was in college, I tried, because I took two workshops, and it’s so nice to workshop a short story. So I would hack and hew at something that always had fifteen characters and three generations. I just cannot think at that scale. I wish I could, but I can’t.

KING

You work a great deal with young writers; are there any emerging voices that challenge your concept of what a poem, novel, or short story can be?

ROBINSON

I don’t know that I have particularly settled notions. I hope not. What you’re always trying to do is help somebody write in a way that is distinctive for their purposes. The idea of trying to conform anybody to pre-existing notions of what should happen—that would curtail their potential, which is not what we want to do. You always hope to be surprised. When I’m teaching a workshop, I ask people to name the best paragraphs in a story, and the degree of unanimity is impressive, which is something that helps break you out of the constraints of subjectivism. Because we all know some writing is better than other writing. Still, it’s hard to make people accept the legitimacy of the distinctions. The most important thing, as far as the teaching of writing is concerned, is to sensitize the writer to what he or she does well. There’s a certain sense of experience or concentration, something that goes into writing well that you learn how to return to. You begin to be a good reader of your own writing because you know what part of your consciousness it’s coming from.

KING

You’ve mentioned a thinness or flatness in contemporary fiction. What do you consider the root causes of that?

ROBINSON

I think there’s thinness in all literature that is not of the highest order of successfulness. I’m not saying there’s anything about this particular moment, or people writing now—I wouldn’t want to generalize by saying it’s more true now than it has been historically. If you go down the wrong row in a library, you find a lot of bad old novels. But I think it’s a major problem of the art, because it is about, as much as anything, human inwardness and how someone who has a profound experience of the self also interacts with other people. That’s where human complexity lies. That’s a hard thing to accomplish in fiction.

KING

Is that part of the reason your two novels are narrated in first-person?

ROBINSON

In both cases, I felt as if I knew a voice. I don’t know where the voice comes from. I don’t know why. I don’t know if I will ever write other than in first-person. But I feel like I’m being faithful to a voice that is not mine and that’s where the first-person comes in.

KING

How can a third-person narrator be handled successfully?

ROBINSON

The most successful third-person writers break all the rules. When you read Dickens, he just plunges in. You get these great panoramic scenes of London or something, and then, zoom, you’re so close in a consciousness. And if you read The Brothers Karamazov, you think, How did I get here? Chekhov does it all the time. The idea that there are these chaste, objective third-person narratives is really a cross that writers ought not to bear. Basically, you can do what you can get away with, and if you look at the great classic third-person narratives, they’re all over the place and they just make it so you don’t care.

KING

You have a lot of stories within stories, encapsulated episodes within your novels. Do you access your own life for that material or is most of it pure imagination?

ROBINSON

They are mostly imaginations. There are things in Housekeeping, because it was set in a very stylized version of the town I spent a lot of my childhood in, that reflect my own life, like the layout of the house with the bedroom that opens into an orchard—that was my grandparents’ house. All these crazy details like that. But when I wrote Housekeeping, I thought it would never be published. I knew my mother and my brother would read this book and would get all these little allusions, so that was part of the fun of it. But I was very struck by hearing stories in my family, little parables in a certain sense. And I think that way of putting a coherent sense of things together probably influenced the fact that I do receive imagined anecdotes for those purposes.

O’CONNOR RODRIGUEZ

Speaking of place, what you said the other night about how people love the place they live and think everywhere else is going to hell—do you think that statement is true globally as well as nationally?

ROBINSON

I think that’s fair to say. There are strange things, like that our press covers every crime and that sort of thing. I lived in France for a while, and they have a good handful of newspapers that don’t really cover crime or anything like that. If they do cover crime, it tends to be something that happened in California. And it’s strange, because whenever something bad happened locally, they’d say, “The Arabs.” Because all the sociopathic stuff that happened was passed around by word of mouth and that leaves no public reality for it ninety-nine percent of the time. So they have this really sinister attitude toward whoever are the disfavored people, typically the Arabs, and then they also get this stuff that comes from the American press, which looks incredibly weird and gothic if you’re not used to having that type of information about yourself. There’s a way in which, by virtue of our beloved and forever-to-be-revered First Amendment, we strike most of the world as being a completely crazy place.

When I was leaving France, a little delegation of my neighbors came over and said, “You do not have to go back.” And I said, “Well, actually, I’m happy to go back.” And they said, “It is her country, all the same.” So we’re the dumping grounds for the darker part of world opinion, in many cases, as a sort of accident of cultural history. At the same time, I think it is true that people typically love the place they are and fear the world they don’t know. And, especially at this moment in this country, when there’s such regional polarization, people have categorical hostilities against people because of the color their state turned on election day, and that really fuels this very unhappy habit we have of imagining that if we step outside our own county or our own state, we are in some wasteland.

O’CONNOR RODRIGUEZ

What value do you think writing or art has in transcending that regionalism?

ROBINSON

I think anything that transcends it has value by virtue of transcending it. I’m very glad that dear old Gilead has been warmly received in disparate places, and I’m traveling around partly because I think it would be nice if we were all talking to each other. I wrote an essay that got printed in The American Scholar, and it’s actually kind of an attack on religious fundamentalism from the perspective of a religious liberal, and I startled certain of my fans, who thought I was a different person. They say things like, “It’s so nice of you to write something that puts a fundamentalist minister in a positive light.” And then I say, “He’s not a fundamentalist.” And they say, “Well, he quotes the Bible.” But, in any case, I certainly wish we could all talk to each other. The country needs to have a deliberating population at this time and not just a lot of line drawing.

KING

What gives you hope, if you believe hope is possible?

ROBINSON

I have hope. That’s part of the reason I sometimes think I do a lot more traveling than I ought to. You know, you come to Spokane, which I happen to know from my childhood, but most of the country has no conception of Spokane—and believe me, they do not even pronounce the name right. And I come here. People are happy to be here. They have this beautiful park. They have a nice literary series. There’s a great deal in the city that obviously has been assigned an appropriate value, restored, enjoyed. I went to North Dakota in March for a literary festival and, from an outsider’s point of view, North Dakota in March is a pretty forbidding landscape, but the people there love it and they think, How can I possibly eke out a livelihood that will allow me to stay in North Dakota? Otherwise I might end up in South Dakota! But they have their literature, they have their painters, they have folklore that goes with the Native American population there, and so on. Even though I’d have to train my eye for a while to see what they loved so much about that environment, there is no question that they do and that in the fact of loving it, they are creating value in and around it all the time. And, again, this is not just North Dakota. It’s a phenomenon you find over and over again.