Saturday, June 28, 2008

Charles Baxter Q&A

Here is an interview I did with Charles Baxter for The ASJA Monthly, which I edit.

BDB: You began as a poet. Do you think this was because you grew up in a literary family (with Brenda Ueland as a friend of the family--how lucky!)? Or did you just have a thing for language early on?

CB: I saw Brenda often, and she bullied me, as a strong aunt might, and in a pleasing way. She told me that I should do what I wanted to do in life. It was radical advice. My family wasn’t especially literary, though my parents had known some novelists, such
as Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren, in their day. I began as a poet—as most poets do—because I had an intense inner life exacerbated by solitude, and because I fell in love with poetry at the age of seventeen, when I first read the work of James Wright.

BDB: When did you turn to fiction, and why?

CB: I dabbled in it until I was in my thirties, when I began to dedicate my life to it. I noticed that my poems were all narratives, and I found that I was particularly interested in characters, and in sequences: what people do when they’re under pressure, how they get themselves into interesting trouble. That’s the interest of a fiction writer.

BDB: I read a funny story in a Ploughshares profile about you that you had
an agent who asked you why she hated your first novel. Care to elaborate?

CB: It was unpleasant. I’d sent this agent (not my current agent, of course) a novel manuscript, and she said over the phone that she hated it; then she asked me why she hated it. I told her that I didn’t know. She insisted that I answer her. She was very cruel, of course; she had a mean streak.

BDB: And then you gave up writing fiction, deciding you would teach and write criticism?

CB: Yes. Well, I didn’t give up writing it. I resolved to give it up, but I couldn’t, quite.

BDB: But then you didn't quit--you merged three novels into one....

CB: No. What I did was to write a story, “Harmony of the World,” about a failed artist, which is what I thought I was. In the story, he’s a musician, not a writer. With the irony of which life is so fond, the story was published and anthologized and lifted my spirits a bit, so that I thought maybe I could live in the world as a writer after all. You never know who or what will give you permission to be the person you want to be. Brenda Ueland had, but few others had, in my case.

BDB: Since then, you've published four novels, the lastest being The Soul
. What inspired this book?

CB: It began in an odd way, with something that happened to me years ago, when there was, briefly, an imposter Charles Baxter. Also, I have a friend who, when she was a freshman at Duke University, found that her roommate was stealing her clothes and beginning to imitate her, unconsciously. And lately I’ve been thinking about MySpace and Facebook, and how virtual identities can be concocted in our time. It’s a very strange feature of our age, this trading-off of identities.

BDB: One of your books, Feast of Love, was turned into a movie. How satisfying was this experience?

CB: I was pleased that they wanted to make a movie of the book, which I knew would be very difficult to adapt. Many talented people worked on that movie.

BDB: How do you generally begin: theme, character, image?

CB: I never know. It changes from project to project. Sometimes I begin with a dramatic image, of someone-doing-something. I don’t have any rules about where I should begin. Out with the rules!

BDB: As well as novels, you've published nonfiction, which I always recommend to my students because of your non-generic slant. Talk about your collection, Burning Down the House, and how this came about, as well as the controversy at least one of these essays inspired.

CB: I’ve been associated for years with the Warren Wilson College MFA program for writers, and I’ve given many lectures there. I revised them for that book. It was never my intention to give how-to lectures. If you give how-to advice, you’re involved in the how-to-write-literature racket. Instead, I tried to isolate certain features of cultural life (how we gossip, for example) and compare those features to how we tell, write, and read stories. Two essays in that book (Burning Down the House) got me into some controveries: the essay “Against Epiphanies”—which some readers mis-read as an attack on insight—and the “Dysfunctional Narratives essay, which was interpreted as an attack on our mealy-mouthed Chief Executives, who had disavowed responsibilty for bad outcomes. That’s just what it was.

BDB: How do you merge all of the various forms you write and publish in--short stories, novels, nonfiction? How do you decide what you're going to spend the next however long on a particular project?

CB: It’s whatever I also want to do next. I follow my impulses.

BDB: You're also an instructor! You must be highly organized, to be so prolific and to teach as well.

CB: No. I feel that I’m completely disorganized. It’s a wonder that I get anything done at all.

BDB: By the way, how do you teach writing? I've read that you"eschew how-to
tutorials on fiction writing."

CB: I try to read the work as closely as I can, and then describe it to the writer. After that, if the form and content seem to be at cross-purposes, I’ll try to say why.

BDB: In The Soul Thief, there is some of the best description about Los Angeles, as if you've never been here. Yet, you say you've traveled here often. Talk about writing landscape.

CB: You sometimes have to write about a place as if you’re a stranger to it. The description of LA in that book is a stranger’s description of it, in which details that residents take for granted are made strange again—odd, and worthy of attention. I never get used to LA, much as I sometimes like it.

BDB: Do you ever concern yourself with the marketplace? Seems the marketplace hangs over so many writers' heads.

CB: No, not any more. If you think too much about the marketplace, you turn into a hack. Of course you think about readers, but you can’t be too concerned with sales.

BDB: What are your reading right now?

CB: I just finished Richard Price’s Lush Life and Scott Spencer’s Willing. I’m also re-reading War and Peace, in sections, and I have Imre Kertesz’s Detective Story nearby.

BDB: Any words of wisdom for our [ASJA] members?

CB: No. I probably need words of wisdom more than they do.

1 comment:

Allison Johnson said...

I LOVE Charles Baxter! He is so right on with this insights about writing. Simple yet helpful advice. Great interview.